I found butterfish in my local fish market, Jess’s Market in Rockland, Maine—a fine source for fresh seafood as well as solid information about where it comes from and how to cook it. The butterfish were too cheap to resist–$2.99 a pound and, as you can see from their bright glistening eyes in the photo, impeccably fresh and small enough that each one could make a single serving.
“Should I throw them on the grill?” I asked.
“I put ‘em in the oven,” Katie said. “They’re great because they cook fast and they don’t have any scales. Kind of like mackerel that way.”
So what are butterfish? According to Oceana.org, a website I consult for up-to-date seafood and fisheries information, Atlantic butterfish has some identity problems. First off, it has nothing to do with West Coast and Hawaiian butterfish, which is another name for either black cod or sable. Secondly, and much more important, it has nothing to do with escolar, a deep water species that, because of indigestible waxy esters in its flesh, can cause grievous intestinal problems. (Escolar, I’m told, sometimes appears on restaurant menus as butterfish—be careful what you order.)
Are you confused? Join the crowd. Fish labeling is one of the most mysterious areas of food production.
True Atlantic butterfish is another and better story. According to NOAA, they’re abundant along the East Coast from Cape Hatteras north, and not over fished. Sometimes called porgies (pogies here on the coast of Maine), they’re considered trash fish by those, fishermen and consumers alike, who don’t know what they’re talking about. These little treasures, thin and round like a child’s idealized image of a fish, have fine white meat, high in fat (that’s the good fat—Omega 3 fatty acids we’re talking about), with limited bones and a skeleton that’s easy to lift right out. Plus, given their small size, they cook up fast in a very hot oven.
Which is how I prepared them. You don’t need a recipe for this one, and it is easily adapted to other kinds of fish, including a big piece of salmon or halibut. Just increase the cooking time to account for size.
Count on a single fish per serving plus a few more for greedy customers. I made six fish for a dinner for four and that was plenty.
Set your oven on 425ºF.
Spread a smear of olive oil over the bottom of an oven dish that’s just large enough to accommodate all the fish, slightly overlapping. Layer the fish in the dish, sprinkle with sea salt and black pepper, and then spoon another generous dollop of oil over the fish.
Combine in a small bowl about 1/3 cup of dry unseasoned bread crumbs with a couple of tablespoons of minced flat-leaf parsley, a garlic clove, minced fine, and the grated zest of a lemon (organic please). Add, if you wish, a good pinch of red pepper–piment d’Espelette is good here but any kind of aromatic but not fiercely hot chili will be fine. Moisten with another spoonful of extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle the flavored breadcrumbs all over the fish. Squeeze the juice of the lemon over and transfer to the hot oven.
These little butterfish will be cooked through and the crumb topping will be slightly brown and crunchy in about 8 or 10 minutes, no more. But if you were to try this with, for instance, a salmon or halibut fillet, weighing about 2 ½ pounds, count on 15 minutes or so for thoroughly done fish.
In any case, it’s a quick, easy way to put a healthful (and cheap!) meal on the table, and if you add a big green summer salad and perhaps some sliced tomatoes fresh from the garden sprinkled with sea salt and more of that good extra-virgin olive oil, you’ll ask yourself why you don’t eat like this every day.