Swordfish: How to make it shine

January 22, 2013

I’m just as susceptible as the next guy to the January onslaught of media hype scolding us to untie the holiday feed bag and replace bad fats, sweets and red meat with whole grains, good carbs and fish.

So I’m cutting down on beef steaks and ramping up on fish steaks, hopefully staying on that regimen well beyond the point where I fall prey to ads for Valentine’s Day chocolate.

I figured I’d start with swordfish, among the meatiest of all seafood. Its nutritional profile isn’t all that different from that of sirloin, except it has something beef doesn’t: more than a gram per serving of treasured, heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. And thanks to smart fishery management, the stock of Atlantic swordfish that was so decimated in the 1990s has been rebuilt, to the point where it is considered an environmentally friendly dining choice.

But it’s not cheap. The fish that local wholesaler Tim Sughrue of Congressional Seafood buys are long-line caught 40 miles east of Virginia Beach, where the Continental Shelf meets the warm Gulf Stream waters that attract swordfish. They’re only three days out of the water when he gets them, so fresh their bloodlines are still fire-engine red, which is why they command a premium, he told me.

I’ll say. I bought the swordfish for my experiments at Black Salt in the Palisades section of Washington for a stunning $26.99 a pound, so I resolved to use every bit of it I could.

The 12-pound chunk I purchased was as breathtaking as the price. A cross-section revealed bright, white whorls of flesh in two loins on either side of the bloodline, which I removed and discarded because I don’t care for its appearance and strong taste.

Swordfish’s meaty texture and, without that bloodline, its mild, lightly sweet qualities lend themselves to basic preparations, such as simply grilling steaks and dressing them with olive oil, lemon, herbs and perhaps a touch of garlic. To that end, I found myself drawn to regional styles of cooking that lack affectation: Basque, Japanese, Italian and Provencal. Those styles were born where seafood is a staple, and the quality of the catch is so superlative, cooks understand not to muck about with it.

Given what I paid for it, though, I wanted to take it to another level, but I had to learn the hard way to resist the urge to add ingredients superfluously. Example: An attempt at a Japanese preparation, poaching the fish in chili oil, failed because I was thinking too much about the garnish of shisito peppers (which didn’t contribute much flavor) and not enough about the fish (which turned out greasy).

I stayed with the Japanese approach on my second try. As I butchered more fish, I had to cut deep into a piece to remove the bloodline. That created a flap that, when bent back, made the steak look like a rib chop, which I marinated in chili oil, ginger, mirin and tamari. Before searing, I sprinkled it with sugar (for extra caramelization) and finished the “chop” in a very low oven (220 degrees Fahrenheit) instead of a high one, as I had been trained. The low-and-slow fish method results in a moister fish, a concept I learned from chef Michel Richard.

Yellow strips of omelet (tamago in Japanese) went under the fish, which I topped with a tamari, mirin and pickled ginger dressing with a touch of serrano heat. Shisito peppers were out; shiso leaves were in. Their intriguing taste, a combination of cilantro, basil and lemon, harmonizes perfectly with swordfish.

At first glance, cooking a dense fish such as swordfish is not as tricky a process as it is for more delicate fish, but it still requires attention.

Overcooking is deadly for any fish, but for swordfish it’s particularly heinous. With the leached moisture goes any hint of flavor, and the texture becomes pasty. Undercooked, it is rubbery. Unlike, say, salmon, which doesn’t dry out as much as it cooks, swordfish needs to be served medium well, to the point where it is just cooked through but still juicy.


In Panko-Stuffed Swordfish Roast, a center cut of skin-on swordfish is sliced and stuffed. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

To guard against overcooking, you have to cut steaks 3 / 4 to 1 inch thick; any thinner and they would be past the point of no return in the blink of an eye. Insert a remote thermometer into a steak and set it at 120 to 125 degrees. That takes out the guesswork. Poking a piece of swordfish to test for doneness doesn’t work; it feels just as hard at medium and medium well as at well done. A thick piece of swordfish is also hard to finish on the stove: It gets too hard on the outside before it is done on the inside. Searing on one side only, then turning the fish over and finishing in the oven (the unseared side doesn’t get presented) avoids the risk of overcooking.

I finished seared steaks in the oven with my piperade of softly cooked onions, bell peppers and garlic, finishing the dish with drizzles of excellent olive oil. Again, the fish took center stage — and again I had to pull back, replacing the distracting heat of cayenne pepper with mild Basque Espelette pepper and smoked paprika for depth.

Slowly baking a swordfish roast with olive oil, capers and thinly sliced lemons turned out dreadfully. The oil was acrid from the lemon rinds, and when I tried to carve the roast into the lovely slices I envisioned, the flesh disintegrated into a shredded mess.

The solution: I cut the roast into slices before baking, pressing in between them a rustic Italian breadcrumb stuffing. I tied the roast and baked it at 350 degrees. The stuffing browned on top, heated all the way through and buffered the slices from the oven’s dry heat. The result was a stunning presentation piece of lemony, herbal, easily sliceable and moist swordfish — plus a built-in side dish.

As much as I love it, swordfish does come with caveats. Like mackerel, shark and tilefish, it contains relatively high levels of mercury, so the FDA recommends consumption in moderation for most eaters and warns pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children to skip it.

Eyeing leftover scraps of this expensive fish, I abandoned the idea for a carpaccio treatment in favor of using up those odd bits. Originally, I had envisioned a version of vitello tonnato, thin slices of veal set on a tuna sauce. Instead, I cut the leftover scraps into cubes, sauteed them and turned them into a Provence-worthy salad, using them to top red leaf lettuce dressed with parsley-orange vinaigrette, then drizzling with tonnato sauce and finishing with rosy segments of Cara Cara orange.

Come mid-February, this might be the makings of a meal that ends in chocolate. Won’t I deserve it by then?

This is Hagedorn’s last Process column, but he will continue to write regular feature stories for Food. He’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

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