Friday, April 27, 2012

Thai-Style Whole Fried Red Snapper

We ordered a whole fried red snapper at a favorite local Thai restaurant when my parents were visiting us from California several months ago.  As always, the snapper was super crisp, nicely browned, and complemented by the three-flavor sauce which accompanied it.  But something must have happened to the fish during the frying process because it seemed to be missing substantial chunks of meat. 

In retrospect, I probably should have mentioned it to the server—after all, the whole snapper is usually the most expensive dish in Thai restaurants (in Chicago, where excellent Thai restaurants abound offering $7 dishes).  Will doesn’t like to “make a fuss,” and my parents have the immigrant sensibility that one shouldn’t complain when they cannot make themselves understood clearly with their imperfect English.  Perhaps the expectation was that I should have said something, but I too tried to pretend that there was nothing unusual, mostly so that my parents could enjoy the whole meal. 

The snapper dish really was excellent—what there was of it—and it occurred to me later that a sure-fire way of insuring a whole and FAT fish was to prepare it myself.  So I set about experimenting with frying a whole snapper.  In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I am more enamored of frying foods than a healthy diet would recommend.  Surely (I thought) I can take experiential knowledge of cooking along with taste-bud memories of the dish to recreate at home. 

The following are some steps that we found note-worthy for other home-cooks wanting to try this dish:

1) Getting a fresh whole red snapper:

We are lucky to live near several stores that supply gads of varieties of fresh fish.  My second choice is H-Mart, but the most convenient (and thus my go-to) place is Fresh Farms, with several Chicago-land locations.  Especially if you go on a weekend day, the place is buzzing with shoppers—with more accents and ethnicities than you can imagine.  And the fish!  They have rows and rows and bins and bins and small and large separate islands of fish.  What you see pictured below is only about a quarter of their fish selection!

After they weigh the fish you pick (mine was about 1½ pounds), you can ask them to prepare it in so many different ways.  For the whole snapper, I asked for “Number 1,” which is to clean, scale, gut the fish, and cut the fins.  They also asked if I wanted my fish head on or off.  I usually opt for the head to remain since whole fish is what I want.  Of course, you can ask for filet or steaks or chunks or whatever.

2) Prepping the fish:

Once you get your fish home and are ready to start cooking, wash the fish again, pat dry, and make diagonal slashes on the flesh of each side every 1½ inches apart.  Then you salt (we use kosher salt) the fish and sprinkle some acidic juice (we use lime, but you can also use lemon juice) and let it sit for another 10 minutes or so.  Then make sure you do pat dry again since you don’t want extra moisture remaining when you are ready to fry.

Get the widest shallow frying pan you have, and fill with about ¾ inch of oil (peanut oil is always nice for frying, but a mild-flavored oil like canola is also nice) and let it come to 350 degrees.  While the oil is heating up, combine equal parts flour and corn starch to dredge the fish with, making sure that you pat the inside of the fish where it was gutted and also within the slashes.   Dust off remaining flour mixture that might not have stuck onto the fish and let sit another few minutes to settle, just until the oil is hot enough.

3) Frying the fish:

Take two of your widest and sturdiest spatulas to maneuver the coated fish into the hot oil very carefully.  You want to just slip it in there.  Hopefully, your wide pan will allow you to fit the whole fish almost fully in the oil.  If not, you’ll have to juggle moving the fish a bit occasionally so that the head and the tail also get cooked (and adjust cooking time accordingly).  After about 4 minutes, turn the fish, again using two spatulas to maneuver, and repeat the process of making sure that the entire length of the fish gets immersed in oil somehow. 

You will want to turn the fish probably one more time to make sure that the fish is nicely browned and crisp, with total cooking time about 10-12 minutes.  We pulled ours out after 10 minutes when it seemed nicely browned, but I almost wish we’d left it on for another couple of minutes since the initial crispness yielded to softer bits in fleshier parts of the fish while thinner portions of the fish remained crisp.  So, do make sure that the fish is very crisp when you take it out of the hot oil, and then let it sit on paper towels to soak up excess oil and to crisp up.

4) Setting out sauces and accompaniments for the fish:

At restaurants, I expect that they will make some lovely in-house “three flavor” sauce for the fish.  At home, I don’t mind cheating by using store-bought sauce.  For this fish dish, I recommend a Thai sweet chili sauce.  Especially if you like your food spicy, other sauces you might want in your refrigerator and pantry include Sriracha hot chili sauce and a chili-garlic sauce.  Both are quite spicy, much more so than the Thai sweet chili sauce, so you want to be sparing in their use.

As for accompaniments, other than steamed jasmine rice (which is a must), we went with a Korean spicy cucumber salad—sort of like a cucumber kimchi—which added just enough soy and vinegar and spice and garlic to complement the fried fish and the sweet chili sauce.

It was our first time trying this particular method, but we were reasonably happy with the result that we’ll make it this way the next time my parents visit rather than relying on the caprices of a restaurant fryer.

Friday, April 20, 2012

When Only Beef Will Satisfy

Most meals in our household can be classified as vegetarian or pescatarian.  In a typical week’s worth of dinners, we might have four vegetarian meals, two seafood meals, and meat (white or red) typically only once, at most twice, a week—and usually on a Sunday when we cook up a special supper.

But, there are those times when beef is intensely satisfying—even with all these recent associations red meat has with an unhealthy diet.  As Will says, going vegetarian is fine...until you smell your next door neighbor grilling up some steaks.  Then the inner caveman arises and does battle with the 21st century health-conscious palate.

To enjoy our meat more wisely, we have decided to emulate Italians in their beef-eating ways: eat meat rarely but use top-notch ingredients when you do indulge.  Many chefs are quoted saying now that they would rather eat one (expensive) dinner of free-range organic meat than to eat a whole week's worth of (cheaper) ground burgers and hotdogs.  The rest of the time, I’d happily consume well-prepared fish, pasta or grain dish—or even an especially unique main course salad.

So, when only beef will satisfy our appetite, we have some go-to recipes and preparations:

Beefsteak Florentine with Garlic and Herbs:

Essentially, you salt and pepper a really stellar hunk of meat, let it come to room temperature before chargrilling it medium rare, and then douse it with Extra Virgin olive oil, crushed or slivered garlic and your choice of herbs (rosemary is usually a must with us).  Here is a simple Food & Wine recipe (click here: or you can click here for Steven Raichlen’s grilled porterhouse recipe (click here for recipe:

We grilled a 2-inch thick bone-in ribeye in the picture above, though we probably got the best results when we used a dry-aged cowboy cut ribeye that we got from Gene’s Sausage, a butcher shop in Lincoln Squre.  We use the herbs suggested by Steven Raichlen, but we increase the amount a bit since we like to dip pieces of steak in the olive oil swimming with garlic and herbs (and meat juices).

Oven-Roasted Filet Mignon with Roquefort-Chive Cream Sauce:

For well-marbled and great fatty flavor, we like ribeyes the best.  For tenderness and an easy way to impress guests, filet mignons do not disappoint.   Ina Garten (of the Barefoot Contessa fame) has a can’t-miss recipe (click here:  There are over 250 reviews for this recipe on the Food Network website so far, and the “average” rating is a solid 5 starts (out of 5).  How can one miss when using some of the most expensive ingredients possible?: filet mignon, Roquefort cheese, cream, etc. 

Basically, you pan-sear your steaks for a few minutes so that all sides are browned, then slip the pan in a 400 degree oven until the steaks are cooked to your taste.  For the sauce, you can definitely substitute another blue cheese you have around (Gorgonzola, Danish Blue, or even Stilton), but I would stick with tenderloins for the steak itself.  I don’t find that steak cuts like ribeyes, porterhouses, T-bones, or New York strip necessarily complement a creamy sauce as well.  Many will also say that steaks do not need any sauce whatsoever.

And, yes, I would definitely serve some mashed potatoes on the side to sop up additional cream sauce.  The other side dish pictured (at top) is oyster mushrooms sautéed with butter, olive oil, and garlic, then finished with a little white wine, soy sauce, and minced rosemary and chopped parsley for garnish.  It’s a favorite mushroom preparation in our household.

Friday, April 13, 2012

New York, New York, It's A Wonderful Town for Food

But has anyone mentioned that it’s very expensive too?  Yes, of course…

We were in the city killing two birds with one (very expensive) trip: Will and I had already been toying with the idea of a weekend in New York City when my sister told me that my nephew and his middle school orchestra would be performing in a competition at Carnegie Hall.  So, we were able to combine a trip to the big city with seeing my niece and nephews as well!

All of us staying at the Park Central Hotel in midtown made meeting up with each other quite convenient.  The hotel’s excellent location—between the south border of Central Park and Time Square, across the street from Carnegie Hall—and a generous full buffet breakfast almost made up for the exorbitant prices, and taxes, and the ubiquitous construction.  Almost.

When we first got together, we compared stories of our eye-poppingly large food bills.  Will and I live in Chicago, and my sister’s family lives near Los Angeles.   We’re hardly country bumpkins on our first outing in a metropolis, but there was a shudder of shared horror at our tales of culinary sticker-shock.  My brother-in-law was still gasping over their dinner of 2 slices of pizza (not whole pizzas, mind you), a plate of plain buttered noodles, and an order of chicken wings, which amounted to $48.  We then returned with our tale of a half of a plain corned-beef sandwich (no fries, potato salad, or cole slaw) and a bowl of kreplach soup setting us back $25.  We do have to admit though that the sandwich and soup we got at the Stage Deli (an “institution” which boasts pictures of Bill Clinton with the staff) really were excellent and were just what we needed while recovering from the last vestiges of a minor cold.  Since the deli was half a block from the hotel, it was a fairly restful experience altogether (notwithstanding the bill).

For dinner, we ate together at a brasserie called Maison—conveniently located right around the corner from our hotel.  Here too, prices were inflated, but luckily only very slightly.  My sister and I both had the Moules Frites (she had it Vin Blanc style while I had the Provence style—mine is pictured above).  The moules and the frites were both excellent.  My 10-year old niece let us all try her crème brulee, but she took charge after we got our initial tastings.  As you can see, she did a nice job of polishing off the dessert.

Since we had our New York deli experience for Friday’s lunch, we needed to have our New York pizza experience on Saturday.  Bella Vita on 58th St. and 7th Ave. was a little hole-in-the-wall (I think literally) pizzeria that had about 4 tables and sold pizza by the slice.  We found it interesting that they used slices of cheese (Provolone? Mozzarella?) instead of shredded cheese.  We ordered a slice of plain cheese pizza and a slice of pepperoni (to go, since there was not a seat to be had) and were rewarded with our smallest NYC food bill: $6 for the two slices.  (For the record, my brother-in-law was pretty incredulous, and slightly envious, when we told him later.)  Sure, the pizza slices were a little greasy, but the crust was authentically thin and folding the pizza in half made me feel like I was one slice closer to being a New Yorker at heart.

It’s a good thing that we didn’t spend much on lunch, because Saturday dinner was astronomically expensive.  We found the atmosphere at Adour (an Alain Ducasse restaurant situated within the St. Regis Hotel on 55th and 5th) a little too hushed and funereal when we first got there for our 8:00pm reservation.  A little too “Would Madame like us to hang up her coat?”  (No, Madame is still cold and will hang on to her coat for now.)  As families and a gregarious threesome arrived, the noise level rose enough to allow us not to have to whisper throughout our dinner.

In retrospect, I wish we had reserved for 7:00pm so that we could have had more energy for the prix fixe menu: a 5-course option that is from “Nature” (read: vegetarian and pescatarian) and a 6-course regular “Tasting Menu” that included meats.  While we were interested in all the dishes and the prices were certainly the “better deal” than a la carte items, we were both too tired by then, after a full day of sight-seeing, to start a meal that could take 3 hours.  Sadly, we decided to go with 2 appetizers, 2 main courses, and a shared dessert instead.  Seeing that Will’s Langoustine appetizer alone was $34, the meal was definitely not inexpensive.  In the end, the time we saved by not opting for the tasting menu was given over to waiting for the Almond Soufflé with Yuzu Sorbet (which was excellent). 

Tip: Given how expensive the restaurant was, we were pleasantly surprised when our dessert was accompanied by 6 meringue sandwich cookies and 4 pieces of house-made chocolates.  If you are debating about whether you want dessert or to make the next cable TV payment, it’s nice to know that you can skip ordering a dessert and still get some complimentary sweets.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Lamb Chops and Minted Peas: Classic Easter Dinner

Knowing that we were going to be away in New York City for Easter weekend, we decided to prepare Easter dinner a week earlier.  We celebrate most religious holidays somehow, essentially considering holidays nice occasions for cooking up something extra special.  We treat secular occasions in similar ways—like not really paying attention to the Super Bowl playing in the background but still feeling the need to fry up some buffalo chicken wings.  It looks like we’re equal opportunity food enthusiasts.

In any case, we wanted to have our New York weekend and our Easter Dinner, so we got to work developing our menu early.  We found fresh shelled English peas, so we definitely wanted to make minted peas (which were so successful at Thanksgiving).  Despite bone-in maple-glazed ham having been our go-to Easter meal for several years, we decided to continue the path we started down last year by roasting a rack of lamb.  

When I asked Will what other vegetable he’d like for accompaniment, he asked for mashed potatoes (again).  I decided, against his protests, that we could skip mashed potatoes for just one dinner and settled on creamy polenta instead.  Oddly enough, the polenta this time ended up looking just like mashed potatoes.  Maybe that’s telling us something about the way we cook… 

The Food & Wine Easter issue from last year featured a super easy rack of lamb recipe.  We had tried it before and liked it, so we decided to stick with this proven recipe.  (Click here for the recipe:  You could even bypass the recipe entirely since this dish is so easy to prepare: The rack of lamb gets salted and peppered then rubbed with a paste made of garlic, rosemary, and olive oil.  It sits at room temperature for an hour to marinate, then goes into a 450 degree oven for 15 minutes fat side up first and then another 10 minutes with the fat side down.  Let it rest for 10 minutes before carving. 

The only really tricky part is when you remove the rack from the fat side down position.  Some of the lovely crusty bits of the garlic rub can get stuck to the bottom of the pan.  Those crusty bits would have possibly fallen off anyway when you carve between the chops, so it’s not too devastating.  In any case, I recommend scraping up bits and pieces and then scattering them on top of the carved chops.  They are tasty and provide a nice crunch.

The peas are even simpler.  I got the recipe from Cooking with Jamie (by Jamie Oliver), and you can access the simple directions by clicking here:  I love seeing the fresh peas under a sprig of mint--something so springy about the sight.  You pour boiling water over the peas (above) and then turn on the heat to cook for no more than just a few minutes.  You drain the peas, then season with salt, pepper, lemon juice and lots of extra virgin olive oil.  Because this dish is served room temperature, with the flavors melding more by letting the finished dish sit for at least half an hour, you don’t have to fuss about timing everything perfectly.  You can prepare the peas while the rack of lamb is marinating under the rub.  This step allows you to make last minute preparations while the lamb roasts and then rests.

One more piece of advice: Make extra garlic-rosemary rub (or just withhold a teaspoon of the paste), and then add some olive oil, salt, and pepper to make a dipping oil.  That way, you can dip crusty warmed pieces of French bread in the garlic-herb dipping oil.  You can also use that extra flavoring if you find your lamb chops didn’t retain enough garlic-rosemary crust.  Pour yourself a jammy Merlot or a Pinot Noir, and you’re all set for Easter Dinner.