Caramel Catfish Claypot

March 29, 2010

It still surprises me that nobody else sells live fish except for the Asians.  You would think, with fine dining's obsession with freshness, they would invest in a little air pump and some pebbles.  In Chinese restaurants, fresh fish is the standard.  If it's not alive before you order it, you'll soon find yourself between a patron's disdainful finger and a cowering waiter.

The same sentiment goes for buying fish at the market.  In Hong Kong, I watched the price of a small fish decrease 3-fold when it sputtered its last breath.  Freshness comes at a premium, but it's worth it.

Last week, I found myself amidst mung beans and assertive Asians as I gathered ingredients for a Vietnamese banquet.  The centerpiece was to be a catfish claypot.  But when my eyes met the festering display of dead catfish, I almost had to rethink my entire menu.   Luckily, four heroic tanks of live catfish saved me from a rather questionable vegan goulash.  For $4/lb, I secured myself a three pound swimmer, slain and fileted.  Here is the head to prove it.  Marvelous.

What I did with the catfish was even more marvelous.  A caramel claypot, from Bobby Chinn's book, Wild Wild East: Recipes and Stories from Vietnam (Barron's, 2007).  I have tried other recipes, including one from Saveur, but this one is far superior.   The flavors that come out in Chinn's version are complex and irresistible.  Galangal root, a flavor that I have never been able to put my finger on, plays first violin.  It is supported by the smokiness of caramel and charred eggplant and the sweetness of sake and honey.  It's flavor is so inescapable that I made it six days in a row.  On the seventh day, I rested.

Catfish Simmered in Caramel Sauce Adapted from Bobby Chinn
Serves 8, Total Time 1.5 hrs

This dish is rather simple to prepare, but there is a bit of waiting as the catfish will need to braise for an hour.

INGREDIENTS
- 2 Chinese/Japanese eggplants
- 1 c brown sugar
- 2 + 3/4 c boiling water, seperated
- 2 1/4 lb catfish filets (~3lb whole fish), cut into 5 inch pieces
- 4 red chiles, deseeded and finely chopped
- 1.5 inches ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 T black peppercorns
- 7 oz (roughly 7 inches) galangal, peeled, thinly sliced
- 1/2 c sake
- 4 T good fish sauce, phu quoc or Thai
- 2 T hoey
- 1 t salt
ground pepper, julienned ginger for garnish
serve with white rice

1. Charr eggplant on your gas stovetop or under the broiler.  Make sure the skin turn black, but the inside is still soft.  Place in a paper bag and set aside for 10 minutes.  Peel (the skin will slide off easily) and pull apart into rough chunks.

2. Meanwhile, make the caramel by heating the brown sugar in a 4 quart claypot on medium.  The sugar will start to melt.  Stir so that the sugar evenly.  After a couple minutes sugar will started to become dark brown.  Be prepared to add 3/4 c boiling water as soon as you smell a caramelized (some simpletons say "burnt") perfume waft from the sugar.  Add the water and stir furiously.  If the sugar crystalizes, continue to heat until the sugar dissolves.

3. In a saute pan, heat oil on high and sear the catfish on both sides.

4. Add to claypot the seared catfish, ginger, peppercorns, galangar, sake, fish sauce, honey, salt, and 2 c boiling water.  Bring to boil, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes.
5. Uncover the claypot and tuck the peeled eggplant around the catfish.  Submerge in braised liquid. Continue to simmer uncovered for 15 more minutes.

6. Spoon over white rice and plenty of sauce. Garnish with ginger.  Bask in the flavors.

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