Oh, where to begin. Last week chef Chikara Sono of Kyo Ya restaurant led a remarkable workshop at the Saveur magazine test kitchen. In the kitchen: a Tasmanian sea trout, a wild black cod, a live striped bass and thirty curious participants. On the agenda: all fish, all the time. Here's some of what we learned:
We kicked off the workshop with a demonstration of the traditional Japanese killing technique for fish, called ikejime. I'll be posting a video of this soon. Ikejime is a technique that developed in the Edo Period (that is, 200-400 years ago) to instantly cut the brain signal of the fish. This way, the brain can't tell the rest of the body it's been killed, so the flesh still thinks it's alive and retains its peak flavor. Incredible. We watched Sono-san drive his heavy deba knife into the back of a fish's head (the striped bass I brought with me in a taxi cab -- I wonder what the driver was thinking when he heard the fish sloshing around audibly inside its styrofoam box -- but then again, he's a New York City cab driver, so he's probably seen it all, live fish included). Sono-san then cut an incision at the tail and rinsed the fish under running water to drain the blood. Then things got interesting. Sono-san picked up a long metal skewer and shoved it through the fish's spine, crushing the spinal cord. The fish had met its maker, but the body still had life in it. Like I said, incredible.
After Sono-san filleted the bass, he demonstrated a number of incredibly useful cooking techniques. My favorite was curing black cod in miso. What happens here is the fish sits in miso for a couple of days, during which the live bacteria and enzymes in the miso cure the fish to infuse it with sublime flavor and transform its texture. The method is straightforward: salt 4 black cod fillets and set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes. Combine 12 ounces of miso, 2 tablespoons of sake and 4 tablespoons of mirin. If you're using a very savory miso, add some sugar to balance it (Sono-san used Saikyo miso, which is a delicately sweet miso that hails from Kyoto, so no sugar added). Set aside. When the 30 minutes have elapsed, remove the salt from the fish with a mixture of water and sake (sake diminishes fishiness). Now pack the fish in the miso mixture and stick in the refrigerator for at least 3 days. When the time is up, remove the fish from the miso mixture, wipe away any excess miso and broil for 5 minutes or until it's done. That's it. You'll be blown away. This technique also works perfectly with other fish like cod and Spanish mackerel, as well as with chicken and beef. Hail to the power of fermentation!
Here now some photos from the workshop, courtesy of my buddy Jesse Alexander of En Japanese Brasserie (En's chef Hiroki Abe made a cameo appearance at the workshop to pitch in with dishwashing - thanks Abe-san!). Thanks to all our participants, Sono-san and his team, Julie, Sosena, Henry Sidel, the president of Joto Sake who led an excellent tasting, and the fantastic gang at Saveur.