Since this is the first recipe I am posting under the “Cooking With Ter” name, I want to provide a little background. I decided to start this blog, vlog, Facebook page, website, YouTube channel thingy so that I could promote cooking at home. I believe there are huge benefits to making your kitchen your happy place. I am pretty sure you and your loved ones cannot enjoy robust health without home cooking. I also believe that making food for each other is an act of love that is good for all parties. Cooking brings me so much joy that I want to share that joy with you in the hope you will share it with others.
I have a belief that comfort and enjoyment in the kitchen comes from mastery of three things:
Tools, Techniques and Ingredients. Notice what is missing here. There is no mention of recipes. I think it is very easy to become “recipe bound”. I believe that if you know your tools, techniques and ingredients you can be free to create. I am not against recipes. I have read hundreds of cookbooks and I have searched the internet to read thousands of recipes there, too. I will provide recipes that I create because they are a useful tool for learning about new ingredients and the tools and techniques used to prepare them. The crispy fish recipe that follows is an original recipe I created last night that is a variation on an old Burmese recipe I read in a cookbook about 35 years ago. I will warn you that I did not measure anything I used in the recipe. The written recipe below is my best guess.
The recipe started with a request from my better half for a crispy whole fish. We had our first fish this way in a Chinese restaurant on the lower Chesapeake Bay and have loved fish prepared this way ever since. We were in a nearby town with a world class fishmonger so I looked over the fresh whole fish offerings and selected a red snapper. The fish was larger than I wanted but it was too perfect to pass up. The next stop was the Asian grocery where a tray of perfect shiitake mushrooms was on display along with fresh mung bean sprouts, Thai or holy basil and green leafy vegetables I was unable to identify but they looked so good I bought some. While there I picked up a big hunk of fresh ginger, a jar of pickled ginger and a jar of fermented black bean and garlic paste. I knew I had rice, peppers, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, fish sauce, rice vinegar and some other Asian goodies in the pantry so we were good to go.
Every cuisine has a set of signature flavors created by a set of standard ingredients. A lot of Pacific rim cuisine uses garlic, ginger, sesame oil, green onions, citrus, soy sauce and fish sauce. The perfect balance of sweet, salty, spicy, bitter, sour and umami thus created is like a musical chord.
Back home I laid out all the ingredients on the kitchen counter both those purchased and those foraged from the pantry and fridge.
When I formulate a plan of attack for a meal, I consider what can be cooked ahead and held and what must be cooked right before serving. I also consider all the ways I can be “mise en place”. Mise en place is a French term for having everything organized and ready to go. Being mise en place is a great stress reducer. If you have all ingredients prepped and at hand, all utensils and equipment sorted out and ready, things go much more smoothly than looking for the hot pads when you are trying to get a screaming hot pan out of the oven. I often begin by getting out the knives I will be using and giving them a couple of swipes on the sharpener and then getting out a cutting board, a small waste bowl and a salad spinner.
I began prep by chopping the greens and rinsing and soaking them in the salad spinner. I then sliced the peppers and green onions and peeled and chopped the garlic and ginger. I cleaned, destemmed and sliced the mushrooms and I chopped the pickled ginger coarsely. Each veg thus prepared was placed in a container of some kind, so it was ready to go. I often use thin flexible cutting boards so I can leave the vegetable on the board, set it aside and get another board. The flexible boards can be bent into a funnel to transfer the veg to the pan.
I next mixed cornstarch with water. I had no idea how much would be needed to thicken my sauce, but I knew having it mixed would allow me to add a little at a time when needed until I attained the thickness I wanted. I also prepared a pan with rice and cooking water so it could be turned on about 25 minutes before serving.
With prep complete I decided the sauce for the fish was next since when it was finished it could hold a long time without a problem. I knew the mushrooms would have to give up a lot of moisture to attain the texture I wanted so I put the sliced mushrooms in a wok with some sesame oil to get them started. I added a little water and placed a lid on the wok so steam would cook the mushrooms and then I used high heat with the lid off to reduce the liquid to almost nothing. At this point I added the pickled ginger and a few ounces of the liquid in the jar the pickled ginger was packed in. To this I added some lite soy sauce and a splash of rice wine. I thickened this mixture with the cornstarch mixture and then adjusted liquid and spices. I did not add sugar of any kind. The pickled ginger liquid tasted sweet enough for me but a little brown sugar would work if desired. When I had the thickness and taste I wanted I added a lot of holy basil leaves. They wilt down but add a lot of great flavor. If I were making this again today, I would also add some chili paste.
I planned to fry the fish and then finish it in the oven. The vegetables I knew would stir fry quickly, so I planned to cook them while the fish was in the oven.
To prep the fish, I rubbed it with salt inside and out and then rinsed it thoroughly. This cleansing process takes away any fishiness in fresh, properly handled fish. I keep plastic cafeteria trays handy in the kitchen (I bought them at a restaurant supply store). The fish was patted dry on one of these trays and then the flesh was scored deeply in a decorative pattern. I then dusted the fish with a mixture of salt, pepper and Wondra flour. Wondra does not clump or cake and it forms a nice very thin coating. I had to use a roasting pan to fry the fish. The pan spanned two burners and the frying took quite a lot of oil because of the size of the pan. Fish cooking times vary with the thickness of the fish. A good rule of thumb is 10 minutes for each inch of thickness at the thickest point. After browning the fish on both sides, about six minutes per side, I transferred the fish to a rack in a sheet pan in a preheated 400-degree oven. I set a time for ten minutes and placed my digital meat thermometer at the ready.
Back on the stovetop I heated the wok with a splash of sesame oil and a splash of peanut oil and quickly stir-fried garlic, ginger and peppers until the garlic was tan in color. I added the greens to the wok along with a splash of fish sauce. The moisture in the greens kept the garlic and ginger from burning when the greens wilted, I added green onions and bean sprouts. The sprouts were thoroughly rinsed and spun in a salad spinner. Two tablespoons of black bean paste were stirred in along with a bit of the cornstarch water mix. After a quick taste I performed final adjustments with soy and fish sauce.
The stir-fried veggies were placed around the perimeter of a serving platter with the crispy fish from the oven in the center. The sauce with the mushrooms, pickled ginger and basil went over the fish along with strips of the tops of green onions. Uncooked bean sprouts added a little crunch to the veggies. Some shredded carrot and chopped peanuts would be a good accent to add if desired.
Plating included cooked basmati rice, a big scoop of the veggies and large hunks of fish that lifted easily off the bones. I reserved most of the ginger, basil, mushroom sauce to serve at the table. The textures and flavors were fab. The sensory musical chord played brilliantly.
1 Cup basmati rice
1 Red snapper about three pounds, gutted and scaled.
1 Pound fresh shitake mushrooms
1 bunch holy basil (Thai basil)
1 large bunch Asian greens
1 pound fresh mung bean sprouts
1 Large pepper
1 bunch green onions
5 tablespoons pickled ginger
6 cloves garlic
1 two-inch piece of fresh ginger
2 Tablespoons black bean and garlic sauce
Peanut oil for frying
Sesame oil for stir frying