Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Do-overs, deep thoughts and the last hours of vacation

OK! FINALLY! I got new monkfish and made that Rick Stein dish I'd hoped to make for The First Dinner of 2012: Vietnamese fried fish with turmeric and lemongrass. The fish is marinated for an hour in tamarind, lemongrass, fish sauce, tossed in turmeric powder and rice flour, then deep fried with scallions until everything is golden. The marinade has that spiky smell of lemon, but because lemongrass has none of the bitterness of lemon, the flavor is complex, salty-sweet, with just a flash of bright citrus.
My favorite thing about this dish is that it's a choose-your-own-adventure kind of meal. The fish is served on top of thin rice vermicelli, and then you decide what else to add on top: fresh herbs, roasted peanuts, hot peppers, lime. Eating that way, even if it's by yourself, turns dinner into such a festive meal. If someone else is there too, all the better.
I've been thinking a lot lately about why there has been such an explosion of American interest in food and food writing within the last few years; it goes way beyond The Frugal Gourmet and The Silver Palate and all of the other famous chefs and food writers and culinary thinkers whose cookbooks were in the kitchen of my 1980s childhood. Now, there's a whole TV network devoted to food and a new word to describe people who like to cook or eat or both: Foodie.
One of my professors even commented several weeks ago that an aspect of Occupy Wall Street that struck her as particularly Of The Times was the fact that many of the protesters were eating very well, because there was an area set up for caterers, chefs and restaurants to make donations of delicious-looking food. Some people associate the interest we have in food with fall-of-Rome-type predictors, as if we are too gluttonous for our own good. And certainly, as Mark Bittman points out, we Americans have a lot of room to eat more healthfully, thoughtfully and ethically.
But at the same time, I find it heartening that many of my contemporaries, people in their 20s and 30s, as well as those younger and older, are more interested in cooking and eating and thinking about ways to enjoy good food and good company than they are in, say, shopping. It makes me hopeful that in this small way, some of us are rebelling against the focus on the warped reality of reality TV and the false sense of connection given by Facebook, choosing instead an activity and experience that's real. With that, on to fried fish!
Vietnamese Fried Fish for Two
Adapted from Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey
2 tablespoons of tamarind pulp, soaked in 1/4 cup of hot water for about 15 minutes
2-inch piece of fresh turmeric, peeled and roughly chopped
2 large lemongrass stalks, stripped of the tough outer leaves and finely chopped
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 pound monkfish or john dory, cut into bite-sized cubes
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/3 cup rice flour
Vegetable oil
4 scallions, cleaned and sliced lengthwise into thin ribbons
1 packet dried rice vermicelli, cooked, shocked in cold water and drained
1/4 cup toasted peanuts, chopped 
Handful of lettuce leaves, ripped into small pieces, washed and dried
Several sprigs of mint, cilantro and Thai basil, washed and dried
Half a lime, quartered
Vietnamese dipping sauce (the recipe is below)

1. Squeeze the tamarind pulp with your fingers, helping the meat dissolve in the water. Strain out the pulp and retain 3 tablespoons of the liquid. 

2. Place the tamarind liquid with the next four ingredients in a small food processor with a tablespoon of water, and blend. Place the fish in a shallow dish and cover with the tamarind/turmeric/lemongrass slurry, turning the pieces so they're covered on all sides. Put in the fridge for at least an hour. 

3.  Whisk together rice flour and turmeric powder in a dish. Toss the fish cubes into the flour so they are coated on all sides. 

4. Using a frying pan that's large enough to accommodate all the fish cubes without crowding, pour the vegetable oil so it's about an inch deep, then heat over a high flame. Test one cube to see if it's hot enough; if it sizzles in a strong, satisfying kind of way, it's ready. Fry the cubes until they're toasty on all sides and cooked through, about four minutes. Halfway through, add the scallions and allow them to wilt and get crispy here and there. Use a slotted spoon to take everything out. Drain on paper towels. 

5. Divide the noodles onto two plates, then place half the fish and scallions on top of each mound. Serve with all the accompaniments in their own bowls, and have at! 

Dipping sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/2 tablespoon sugar
Minced ginger and garlic to taste; I used about a teaspoon each
One hot Thai pepper, sliced thinly

1. Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl and serve with the other accompaniments. 
In other news, it's freezing cold out after 60 degree days and someone has dressed the trees on 13th Street in little knitted sweaters. I love them. But will they get saggy when it rains tomorrow? Maybe the tree clothier has little tree rain slickers at the ready. We shall see. 
And...it's the last few moments of my lovely long vacation. Oh time, there is never enough of you.


  1. I like these sweaters.

  2. Hi Whit! My dad just wrote a little bit on the same question of why folks are so into food these days. It's on Mindport's blog in the bread post. Tia Maria