Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Bumbler & The Beast - Norwegian Wolffish

From my perspective, it was a matter of beauty and the beast, although the beast part was not readily apparent from its packaging and beauty is always subjective and sometimes fleeting.  From my sous chef’s perspective, it was a matter of the bumbler and the beast.

While rummaging for swordfish in the frozen foods section of Trader Joe’s, I came across one of those “special” TJ foods that often pique my curiosity.  You know the kind:  something totally unknown or, at best, vaguely familiar, but marketed by TJ to sound intriguing, adventuresome, and edible, if not delicious. 

Does anyone know a good dentist?
 Alas, TJ had no swordfish (which I could not believe since I normally wade through piles of it when looking for other fish), but it did have spotted Norwegian Wolffish (Anarchichas Minor) that, according to a TJ stockman serving that moment as an enlightened fishmonger, would be a good substitute.  The package he handed me had an appealing label that showed the Wolffish in profile (clearly its best viewpoint as the photos demonstrate) and identified it as having meat that was white and firm and a taste redolent of lobster, crab, and shellfish.  Plus it can be cooked in a number of ways:   baked, fried, grilled, poached, steamed or sautéed.  It all sounded good to me, so Norwegian Wolffish would stand-in for swordfish in this week’s “French Fridays with Dorie” cooking experience.       

Julia handled Monkfish much better than I do Wolffish

Not your average lap pet

According to TJ and other online sources, the Norwegian Wolffish is a sharp toothed, cold water fish whose flavor derives from its diet of shellfish, such as mussels, scallops, sea urchins, and crabs.  Norwegian Wolffish is known to reach lengths of up to 7 feet and weigh up to 40 pounds.  Their fang-like teeth are part of a rather stout head and large mouth, all the better to dislodge mollusks and crustaceans from their familial homes on the rocky bottoms of near freezing deep waters like the Barents Sea above Norway or to dismember the fingers of careless fisherman.  Despite its dental and facial shortcomings, the Anarchichas Minor variety is quite fashionable with leopard-like spots on its scale-less, silky-smooth skin.  Armed with two fillets of this beast, I strode from TJ’s determined to make a dish worthy of Dorie’s praise.

This week’s recipe from Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan is very simple:  sautéed or grilled swordfish served with an herb salad tossed with a splendid Dijon vinaigrette.  This is something that can easily be whipped up after a long day at the office and gives the impression that you are eating light and healthy.  And for those who used swordfish or did not suffer a culinary brain cramp, it probably was all those things Dorie intended.

Looks can be deceiving 
Out of necessity, inquisitiveness, or downright contrariness, I often substitute ingredients, usually with good results.  But my experience with Norwegian Wolffish reminds that there are a number of universal cooking guidelines that should always be observed.  First, make sure that what you substitute does not compromise the integrity of the recipe.    Second, check cooking times and methods for the substitute since they may not be the same as for the original.  Third, when defrosting frozen fish, follow the instructions on the package.  If there are none, at least take it out of its original packaging, pat dry, place on a plate, cover with plastic wrap, and leave it in the refrigerator overnight.  Defrosting in the original packaging causes the fish to absorb lots of unwanted and likely unpleasant liquid.  Fourth, when you want fish to have a crispy skin, dry the skin first, cook in a hot pan, add the fish to the pan skin side down and, using a flexible spatula, press on the flesh until the fillet flattens out (this makes sure all the skin is in contact with the pan), and don’t flip back and forth, just let it cook on the skin side until the last couple of minutes when you can finish on the flesh side.   

Rafa is looking for a better recipe and instructions
I most certainly violated guidelines two, three and four.  Guideline Two:  Dorie’s recipe calls for a seven minute sauté whereas TJ’s recipe calls for twenty minutes baking in the oven.  I sautéed for seven minutes and it was not enough.  Guideline Three:  I defrosted overnight in the airtight packaging and the fish was swimming in liquid the next day.  Guideline Four:  I cooked the fish flesh side down for the most part.  The result was a tough, slimy, unpleasant looking skin, an undercooked fish with areas that looked and felt gelatinous, and none of the succulent flavors of lobster or other shellfish that I was craving.  Lesson learned and I will give the Norwegian Wolffish another try.  At least the salad was excellent.  


  1. Sigh - direction following does not seem to be a particular talent of mine either... I think it keeps like interesting.

    I am sorry that your fish did not redeem itself in the end - at least you enjoyed your salad :-)

  2. I found the wolf fish disgusting! I even complained to TJ manager. I love all kinds of seafood including all sushi with the exception of raw oysters. It seems we are literally scraping the bottom of the ocean to find sustainable fish. I'm sticking to Barramundi and some other much better tasting exotic fish.

  3. I am thinking of complaining to the TJ manager where I shop, too. This was one of the nastiest specimens of fish I've ever cooked. Plus, it exuded a volume of unpleasant white liquid in the roasting pan. Never again.

  4. I actually went shopping at TJ and got this same fish out of curiosity. I was looking up recipes and found this site. I think I will will just season and put in oven. Wish me luck!

  5. Had it for dinner this evening; grilled with a coating of butter and garlic; squeezed lemon on it.

    This by far was the worst fish I have ever had!

    We threw it out and made burgers.

  6. I purchased this fish, seasoned with salt and pepper and sautéed it off in a nonstick pan like I would a nice salmon--It came out excellent. Moist and very flavorful unlike most frozen fish. If you get really thick slices, start them flesh side down over medium to high heat. Cover the pan a little to get them to cook through. After they are opaque white 1/3rd through, flip and cook skin side down until the skin is crisp. It won't be crisp like salmon skin, but it is quite tasty.

    For those complainers, learn to cook the ingredients you have--and enjoy the process. I'd hate to see this wonderful fish leave shelves because a bunch of food snobs can't spend 10 minutes learning something new. Cheers.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I agree, I am eating it right now and am loving it!

  7. Oh. I had planned on making this tonight, but now.... I'm not so sure. I let the fish thaw, in its packaging, in the fridge so I guess that is Strike 1 already. My husband wasn't thrilled with my purchase to begin with, so if this isn't wonderful I'll have some ''splainin' to do.

  8. Oh. I had planned on making this tonight, but now.... I'm not so sure. I let the fish thaw, in its packaging, in the fridge so I guess that is Strike 1 already. My husband wasn't thrilled with my purchase to begin with, so if this isn't wonderful I'll have some ''splainin' to do.

  9. I enjoyed the Wolf fish to a point. I think a few minutes of prep much needed with any FROZEN fish and making sure the moisture is out and fish is not soggy is important. I have had problems with TJs fish in the past with a lot of moisture making the fish unpalatable and mushy.
    I cooked in parchment paperwith a sundried tomato paste topping. Better to have used a bit of butter, and dry seasoning maybe a spicy one.

    Will try again use sea bass recipe and bake on high heat.


    Did not like the skin, but my dogs thought it was fabulous. Also cheaper than sea bass which is so costly.

  10. I wish I'd read this yesterday before I defrosted in the exact same manner you did. Now I don't want to even try this fillet.

  11. I also didn't read thawing instructions and mine was unpalatable. I will try it again - but will follow instructions!

  12. Christy, thank you for this blog. I was at TJs today and picked up some frozen wolffish. Your recommendations are spot-on. Take it out of the package to thaw it. Simple preparation only - I sauteed it in butter, salt and pepper. I used relatively high heat, which evaporated the liquid that came out from the cooking process. Browned the skin exactly the way you recommended. That's important, because most of that beautiful, sweet shellfish flavor you are looking for is in the skin. If you don't eat fish skin, then this isn't the fish for you. But it's really delicious when done right. Good luck!

  13. We just had this gelatinous goo tonight as well. Bought at TJ's out of curiosity. Thawed it wrong ..... now I know. I was suspicious of it before I cooked it so I broiled it in a 450 oven, skin side down, covered in a generous amount of spicy seasoning. It was so spicy hot I couldn't taste the goo too much. We decided the layer between the flesh and the skin was inedible, and that it was surely the source of the coupon card/credit card boogers that affix the cards to the letters that periodically arrive in the mail (those may taste better though).

    My husband encouraged me to NOT look up what a wolf fish looks like until after dinner. I nearly barfed when I google imaged the thing!

    Thanks TJs for the nasty fish!

    On an end note, though, I have eaten worse tasting fish......

  14. Just had this - in the oven at 350-375 wrapped in foil - about one or so tablespoons of olive oil per piece - more than a few dashes of sea salt and a few dashes (or more than a few) of Olde Thompson Fish and Seafood Seasoning. Tasted great, fluffy, but yes leave off the skin. I'm going to try some more tomorrow in stoneware in the oven - about 375 seems right for 20-25 minutes depending on how much fish your cooking.I'm going to throw some lemon in as well and see how that does - this was very tasty indeed no BS.

  15. Add me to the list of people who defrosted it wrong. I just squeezed all the liquid out of it with paper towels and I think I'll pan fry it with olive oil, butter, lemon and spices at a fairly high heat. We'll see what happens. Maybe they should put a big warning on the label: WARNING, TAKE IT OUT OF THE PACKAGE BEFORE YOU DEFROST IT...THAT MEANS YOU!

  16. I defrosted it properly (out of the package), patted off all moisture, seasoned it with lemon pepper and sauteed it in butter & garlic over high heat, skin side down for 4 minutes, flipped it over and sauteed a couple more minutes. We took the skin off, FISH WAS GREAT!!!!!

  17. I live in Norway, we regularly eat this fish (its actually kind of expensive here) but it's never sold with the skin on. I usually gently poach it, or pan fry it after dredging it in flour. It's a delicious fish, so maybe some of the bad experiences are due to eating the skin?

  18. I had this fish at a restaurant about 20 years ago and it was by far, and still is, the best fish I've ever had. I had been liking for it ever since. Why? It was prepared correctly. Nice sear on the skin, then gently poach finished in a buttery miso broth . It was buttery, flaky and definitely exuded the subtle flavors of shellfish. If it's gelatinous, you cooked it wrong. Ever eaten undercooked lobster or monk fish? You wouldn't, so don't undercook this either. But I'm happy to see the majority of comments are negative. My hope is just enough people mess it up or dislike it to keep demand just high enough for Trader Joe's to continue carrying it but not enough that it gets overfished like Patagonian Toothfish (aka Sea Bass) which nobody should consume anymore because it's about to go extinct.

    Btw, I did not eat the skin. It peeled away from the meat with zero effort.


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