Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Vietnamese-Style Fish "Grilled" w/Aromatics, Southeast Asian Green Salad, White Rice

I have never been to southeast Asia, but the flavors of Thailand, Malaysia and Viet Nam are my favorites. I've learned to cook them by seeking out the best Asian restaurants in the Twin Cities (and wherever I travel), reading cookbooks, and talking with the Vietnamese, Thai and Malay travelers and immigrants I meet.

Our dinner Sunday night was a super-simple, quick meal evocative of the flavors of Viet Nam. You can make this meal in about 25-30 minutes.

By the way, the Chez Charles survey is still open - please take a minute to give me some feedback! For those who already have, thank you!

Tilapia in Aromatics, Lime Juice and Fish Sauce, Cooked over the Grill
Green Salad w/Pickled Cucumbers and Onions
Jasmine Rice

Tilapia in Aromatics, Lime Juice and Fish Sauce, Cooked over the Grill
(serves 2)
12-16 oz. mild fish - Tilapia, Red Snapper, and Walleye all work well - cut into 4" pieces
1/2 medium vidalia or other sweet onion, sliced thin against the grain, then halved (into 90-degree arcs)
1/2 c. rough-chopped fresh cilantro
1" cube of fresh ginger, sliced very thinly
1/2 lime
1-2 tsp soy sauce
fish sauce to taste (about 2 T)
drizzle of light olive oil

Preheat the grill. If you have a has grill with an upper shelf, set the heat to high. If you have a gas grill without an upper shelf, set it to medium-low heat. If using coals (preferred), get them started, then push them into a ring at the edges of the grill so there's no direct heat under the center of the grill.

Make a tray for the fish using foil (or buy a small foil pan). I used two sheets of foil about 2' long, folded them in half (to make 4 layers), then folded up the sides to a height of about 1 inch or a bit more and crimped them at the edges to hold them in place. Sprinkle a little of the ginger and onion on the bottom, add a layer of fish, sprinkle on more ginger and onion and half of the cilantro, add remaining fish, and top with remaining ginger, onion and cilantro. Drizzle one T of water over the fish. Squeeze the juice from the lime all over the fish. Spoon the soy sauce and fish sauce all over the fish. Drizzle lightly all over with the olive oil.

Carefully transfer the foil tray to the grill, taking care not to spill any juices. Depending on your grill configuration, cooking time will vary. The grill needs to be covered because you are essentially baking the fish, but you'll need to check periodically for doneness, and also to make sure it's not getting too hot. If the contents of the tray begin to scorch on the bottom, add a little more water. Cook until the fish is flaky and cooked through, but still moist.

Carefully remove the pan from the grill, reserving the precious juices. Pour fish and juice into a serving bowl. Gently turn pieces once or twice to coat, but try to keep the pieces whole. Keep warm until serving.

Green Salad w/Pickled Cucumbers and Onions
(serves 2)
3-4 leaves of green leaf lettuce, trimmed, rinsed and dried with a towel or paper towel
1 smallish cucumber, peeled (but not too deeply - leave the pale-green flesh next to the skin), halved lengthwise, seeded (scrape out seeds with a soup spoon) and cut into 1/8" slices
1/2 vidalia or other sweet onion, sliced thinly against the grain, then cut in half lengthwise to form 90-degree arcs
1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced in to thin discs
~1/4 c. seasoned rice vinegar
sugar to taste - 2 tsp. or more
crushed dried hot chilies, preferably Thai

Place the cucumber slices, onion and rice vinegar in a medium-sized bowl. Add 2-3 T water. Toss until well-coated. Add sugar and toss again. Taste - it should be slightly sweet-sour. Add sugar or vinegar if needed. Allow to marinate for 30 minutes, tossing every 10 minutes. The cucumber slices will release liquid, diluting the vinegar mixture. Taste again just before serving and adjust vinegar and sugar as needed. The salt in the seasoned vinegar adds enough salt...you shouldn't need more, but trust your judgment and add a bit of salt if you think it's needed.

Lay the lettuce leaves in a stack, roll them up, and slice thinly to make ribbons. Make a pile of ribbons on each of two plates. Spoon cucumber and onion slices over the lettuce, plus a generous amount of the sauce. Sprinkle with carrot slices and hot chili flakes (if desired). Serve.

Jasmine Rice
(serves 2-3)
3/4 c. high-quality jasmine rice
water for cooking

Cooking rice perfectly is the easiest thing on Earth, if you have the restraint not to mess with it, and the gumption to shop for good rice. Go to an Asian grocer's...they'll inevitably have a dozen varieties of jasmine rice. Ask the proprietor which is best, and buy it. (Do the same with fish sauce, by the way.)

Place the rice in a medium saucepan. Pour in cold water until the pan is 3/4 full, swirl the rice around with your hand until cloudy (this is loose starch being rinsed free of the rice), and carefully pour off the water without pouring out any rice. Repeat 4-6 times until the water is mostly clear after rinsing. Add cold water to cover the rice by about 1". Place over medium heat, covered, and bring to a boil. Immediately turn the heat to low (if you have electric burners, move the pan to a separate burner set to low) and cook for 15 minutes, covered. Remove from heat and let sit for 10 minutes more. Fluff with a large spoon, let sit for a couple more minutes, then serve.

You should never stir the rice throughout this entire process. You'll get perfectly-done, delicious white rice.

Serve with the fish and salad, drizzling a little of the juices from the fish over the rice.

This is a quick meal. Take the fish out of the fridge to warm up a bit. Start the grill/coals. Then start the rice - it takes the longest to cook. Get the cucumber marinating, then add the onion. Since each dish calls for 1/2 an onion, and the pieces are the same size, cut up the whole onion at once to save time. Once the cuke and onion are marinating, make the foil tray for the fish and assemble the fish dish. Check the grill, and re-arrange the coals if cooking with them. Get the fish on the grill. Finish the salad prep and chill plates. When the fish is done, pour it into its serving bowl. The rice should be done. Assemble the salads and serve.

This fish recipe is adapted from a similar one that calls for steaming the fish, which results in a lot more liquid. I prefer grilling, which intensifies flavors and adds smokiness to the aromatics. I have no actual experience to validate this, but my instinct tells me this would be cooked over coals or wood quite often in Viet Nam.

You have to watch this dish carefully during cooking (though without losing too much of the cooking heat) and add water if it's drying out. Having some residual sauce with the fish is critical to the cooking and eating. This is a fabulously delicious and healthy way to make fish. The only fats are the natural oils in the fish plus light olive oil - both help raise "good" cholesterol levels.

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