Not-so-Foodie Tuesday: Traumatic experience with a butterfish.

So far it's butterfish: 2 and Stephanie: 0.

UPDATE: So yeah, the butterfish had gone bad.  According to this article, you have to cook the fish within one day of  buying it.  Also, if you are suffering from rotten-fish smell on your fingers, rub a wedge of lemon all over them, especially under the fingernails.  The lemon juice/oils works wonders on the stink.


I first had butterfish (which is not actually a butterfish, according to this article, nor is it actually a cod, though it is called black cod...the correct name for it appears to be sablefish) at Google.  I can't remember if it was at No Name Cafe or Oasis.  Either way, it was glazed in miso sauce, baked, and the most delicious fish I'd ever tasted.  Unbelievably delicate and tender.  Flaky.  And oh-so-flavorful.

Okay that's not true.  Now that I think of it, I must have first had this fish, under the name of "black cod," at A.O.C. Wine Bar in LA, as part of a small plate.  It was delicious then, too.  But Google is what really brought this fish to the forefront of my consciousness.

Failure Number 1

A couple months ago, since I left Google (and since they probably stopped serving this magical but pretty expensive fish in the cafes), Garry and I got it in our heads that we would attempt to cook a butterfish fillet.  We hadn't the faintest idea where to buy one, except at Whole Foods for like $17/lb.  But we were walking down Clement St. one day and stopped into one of those smelly fishmongeries and lo and behold, there was the butterfish on a bed of ice.  Against our better judgement, we bought one and took it home.

We looked up a number of recipes for how to prepare the butterfish, most calling for (amazingly!) frying it in butter with some other stuff.  So we tried it, but it was a disaster.  Adding butter to the oiliest fish alive resulted in something that was sickeningly oily, with that slimy aftertaste you get sometimes from eating fish.  Plus, I don't think it was the freshest when we bought it at the smelly fishmonger. Garry swore off butterfish forever, and couldn't even enjoy it at my friend Karin's wedding (though I enjoyed it thoroughly, as it was prepared with miso and baked to perfection).

Failure Number 2

So it came to pass that I was at Costco and saw the guy standing there at the station with all the fancy seafood and saw trays of whole butterfish lying there at $6.99/lb.  I couldn't believe it.  I hemmed and hawed for about two minutes before I found myself selecting a modestly sized tray.  A two-pounder.  Never mind that I have never filleted a fish in my life and had no idea what I was in for.  As I clutched the tray and headed to the checkout stand, I started to get a little creeped out by the sort-of wriggly, slimy body under my fingers.

As such, I was very busy with work, weddings and packing for my move, so I left the fish in there (only I can find a way to procrastinate on preparing food!) for three, maybe three and a half, days.  Bad idea!  When I cut into the package, the stench immediately rushed out and filled the air in my kitchen.  I wasn't sure if it was supposed to smell like that, or if it was just plain rotten.  My mom told me to test the fish by poking it to see if the meat was mushy, but it looked okay.  

The first thing I did, because the thing was so big and black and creepy, was cut it in half to make it look less like a living creature. I should have used gloves, because I would be smelling the fish on my fingers (a disgustingly acrid smell) for a full two days afterwards.  The skin of the thing was so bizarre, thick and tough and covered with what felt like tiny spines, much like the skin of a shark or ray.  As I got down to the part where the guts should have been I thought to myself, "Dear lord, please tell me they gutted this fish for me!"  Mercifully, they had.

The bone structure was unlike any I had encountered before in a fish.  Most fish I've dealt with have a spine, with one fan of bones going up and another one going down, with the meat on either side.  Very straightforward.  This thing, however, had what seemed like three or four sets of bones radiating out from the spine, so that when I tried to fillet the meat from one side, my knife kept going through bones.  I started to just hack away at the thing, grimacing the whole time, and finally came away with maybe 6-8 three-inch portions of fish.  I covered it in miso (that's a whole other story) and set it in my fridge overnight.

The next day, it looked okay.  I took the fish, rinsed off the miso and set it in a baking pan to bake for 15 min. at 350 degrees.  It didn't take on that browny edge that I always see at restaurants, but the fish was cooking through and it was leaking a good lot of liquid.  I pulled it out and tried searing the fillets on a very hot pan, which gave it a brownish edge but did nothing to improve the taste.  

I very cautiously put a flake or two in my mouth and immediately wanted to spit it out.  It was, after all, not good--or maybe it was just all the psychological confusion of smelling the raw fish and battling it for so many hours.  At any rate, I was done with it and just wanted to be rid of the whole experience.  (In case you haven't guessed, it takes a LOT for me to give up and throw away food.)  I ended up throwing the whole thing away and frying an egg for dinner--something simple, something I was comfortably familiar with.

That night I typed desperately to my coworkers into my blackberry as I was falling asleep:

Hey ladies, I'm trying to recover from an awful experience attempting to fillet and cook a butterfish.  It did not end well and I need something to restore my faith in food (and my appetite).  Any interest in taco truck for lunch?
18 responses
i love butterfish too, but will never, ever, ever attempt to cook it myself. thanks for letting us all learn from your bravery.
hmmmm... you should as j.xu for a recipe. he was really into miso-glazed black cod a few years ago and managed to find a pretty good recipe for it. it may have been from morimoto's cookbook. he said it wasn't hard.. it's just that you needed a lot of various ingredients and the patience for the long marination.
I almost threw up while reading this story -- seriously, I am traumatized by butterfish.
You need to try "fish on the cob". When I went trout fishing last I did this. Here's how you prepare it:

1. Catch fish
2. Cut fish head off.
3. Cut from fish anus to where the head use to be along the belly.
4. Remove guts.
5. Peel skin from the belly cut towards the spine.
6. Eat flesh off bones.

Throw some soy sauce on this to make it extra tasty. Also, as a bonus, look for orange trout roe when you're cleaning the guts out of the fish.

wait Brad, do you not COOK the fish at some point?
delicious ! :D
wow, kudos for at least trying! i would have immediately backed away upon seeing that slimy looking creature.
Omg! Seeing the above picture of the butterfish just made my stomach lurch. You are a brave brave woman to try cooking/eating that thing on your own TWICE!

I like to east fish but I require it sliced for me. No way am I filleting the thing in my house. My family used to catch salmon in Lake Ontario (when it was safe to eat in the 1980s) and I remember seeing my dad scale and gut it. Ick!

the image looks more like a fish from prehistoric times
@dana oh my, that's such an accurate description! I think that is what creeped me out the most - it was unlike any other normal fish I'd encountered. I could hardly believe it was edible. I felt like I was eating something out of this world. Like a snake or a deep-sea eel or someting.

@kimberly and @maggie thanks for the support, m'dears =)

omg steph, that was such a funny post. i looove butterfish, we get it all the time in hawaii, but I have never tried to make it myself. guess i will just have to wait for when i get home and mommy makes it! Haha!
omg jean, I had no idea you were from hawaii!  I guess I know what I will be binge-ing on whenever I get myself back there =)  That, and spam musubiiiiiiiiii!!!
you should as j.xu for a recipe. he was really into miso-glazed black cod a few years ago and managed to find a pretty good recipe for it. it may have been from morimoto's cookbook. he said it wasn't hard.. it's just that you needed a lot of various ingredients and the patience for the long marination.

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