For dinner last night, I decided to cook fish – something I don’t usually do, because I’m not a huge fan of the smell. I love the taste of fish, but I don’t like having my kitchen smell like a fisherman’s boat when I’m done cooking.
I planned on getting salmon fillets and poaching or steaming them, but when I got to the market, there was only one tiny salmon fillet left. Actually, I’m beginning to lose patience with my local grocer, because of all the changes done to the store – each time I go in, it’s like going inside a different store, what with all the shelves being moved. I can’t find anything, either and while the moves are being done, the shelves aren’t always stocked with essentials – like, for example Häagen-Dazs white chocolate raspberry truffle ice cream.
So, in the fish counter, I found two good-sized fillets of catfish, otherwise known as the bottomfeeders of the water. The only kind of catfish I ever had was Southern fried catfish, but hoping to be a bit healthier (task failed, btw), I got it, intending to cook it Chinese style. I have Martin Yan’s Martin Yan’s Chinatown Cooking: 200 Traditional Recipes from 11 Chinatowns Around the World, which I bought a little while ago, thinking I’ll use it sometimes, but not terribly often, but it’s becoming a bit of a go-to.
I found a catfish recipe, and surprisingly enough, I had most the ingredients for cooking it, so I was happy to try it out – it was for fried catfish, and the recipe calls for cornstarch to dredge the fish. I’ve only used cornstarch before to thicken sauces, so I’ve never actually touched cornstarch, so I didn’t know what it felt like – it doesn’t feel like flour at all – actually, it’s unpleasant to touch cornstarch because it coats everything in a thin film even if you so much as look at it, and also when you handle it, it squeaks between your fingers (I hate, hate, hate that feeling). It got so bad that I couldn’t take it anymore, and had to dredge the fish using a pair of tongs.
Other than that, though this recipe’s absurdly easy to make – I added some of my own touches, because I had some leftover stuff in the fridge I wanted to get rid of. Now, normally, I’d serve this with some kind of rice or noodle, but because I had a caprese salad I made last night, I served the fish with that – I know Italian meets Chinese – I’d call it fusion, but I had that term…
Even though I followed Yan’s recipe, I changed some of the ingredients and measurements, so my dish probably tasted differently than Yan’s – you should consult his cookbook if you want the original recipe.
2 fillets of catfish – about 3/4 of a pound – cut into four equal pieces. On America’s Test Kitchen, I learned that to get the best even cooking, you should trim the edges that are very thin. I never do because I forget.
1/4 cup of chicken broth – though I used water because the sauce is already pretty rich.
2 tbl of rice wine vinegar
1 tbl of chili sauce
2 tbl of soy sauce
1 tbl of shredded ginger, plus 3, 4 quarter-sized slices
2 tbl of sugar
1 tbl of hot Chinese mustard (this wasn’t in Yan’s recipe, but I love hot Chinese mustard and put it on anything – even hot dogs)
1 tbl of minced garlic
1/4 cup of cornstarch, plus 1 tsp, that you’ll mix with 2 tsp of water to make a slurry
3 green onions (Yan originally had leeks, but I didn’t have leeks, so green onions…), chopped finely
Shiitake mushrooms (Yan’s recipe didn’t have mushrooms, but I included it because I had some left in my fridge
Salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten
So, what I first do is prepare my mise en place – using cornstarch, what I’d love to do is drop a tarp on everything, but usually what I do is grab a sheet of aluminum foil and spread it out and curl the edges, to create a lip or a ledge, so that the starch won’t make a mess – though even opening the canister releases a tiny white puff of corn cloud. Also have a cooling rack over a sheet of foil at the ready for the fish.
First make the sauce. Mix together the broth, vinegar, chili sauce, soy sauce, the shredded ginger, the sugar, mustard and garlic in a bowl and incorporate the ingredients – make sure the sugar is dissolved. Set aside. In another tiny bowl, mix together the 1 tsp of cornstarch with 2 tsp of water – set aside.
Beat an egg in a shallow bowl. Dump the rest of your cornstarch (carefully) onto your foil. Take your fillets and pat them dry and cut each in half so that you have four equal pieces. Dredge in the cornstarch, pat off any excess and dip in the egg. Let any excess egg drip off and then put back in the cornstarch and dredge again. Then set it on the drying rack. Repeat for all the fish until you’re done. I like to let the coating sit on the fish for a little bit, let it dry and become gluey.
While that’s all happening heat over medium-high heat enough vegetable oil to have about 1/2 an inch of oil in your skillet (non-stick – very important). When the oil starts to shimmer, throw in the thinly sliced ginger and cook for about 30 seconds – I fish them out (though it doesn’t say to do that in Yan’s recipe – I just wouldn’t like burned ginger). Then carefully put in the fish fillets into the hot oil. Cook for about 3 minutes on each side, until each side is golden brown, and then remove and put on paper towels to drain.
Get rid of the oil, except for about 1 tbl. Then add the mushrooms and cook quickly over the high heat until they start to caramalize. Lower the heat to medium and add the sauce and stir continuously and let it boil and reduce. Add half the chopped scallions and half the cilantro and continue to stirring until the sauce is thick and reduced to about half.
Serve the fish on a platter – two pieces per person. Spoon the sauce over each piece and sprinkle some more green onions and cilantro. Oh, and enjoy.