Thursday, December 13, 2012

vietnamese caramelized catfish

I heard about this recipe listening to The Splendid Table on NPR a couple of Sundays ago. The original is here.  I made it tonight for a neighborhood dinner and put it on a sweet potato biscuit with wilted arugula.

First, make the caramel sauce.

3/4 cup water
1 cup sugar  
In a small, heavy saucepan with a long handle put one quarter cup of the water and all the sugar in the saucepan and place over medium-low heat. To ensure that the sugar melts evenly, stir with a metal spoon. After about two minutes, when the sugar is relatively smooth and opaque, stop stirring and let the mixture cook undisturbed. Small bubbles will form at the edge of the pan and gradually grow larger and move toward the center. A good seven minutes into cooking, bubbles will cover the entire surface and the mixture will be at a vigorous simmer. As the sugar melts, the mixture will go from opaque to clear. While you're waiting, fill a bowl or a roasting pan with cold water deep enough to come up halfway on the side of the saucepan.

If a little sugar crystallizes on the sides of the pan, don’t worry. After about fifteen minutes, the sugar will begin to caramelize and deepen in color. You will see a progression from champagne yellow to light tea to dark tea. When smoke starts rising, around the twenty-minute mark, remove the pan from the heat and slowly swirl it. Watch the sugar closely as it will turn darker by the second; a reddish cast will set in (think the color of a big, bold red wine) as the bubbles become a lovely burnt orange. Pay attention to the color of the caramel underneath the bubbles. When the caramel is the color of black coffee or molasses, place the pan in the bowl of cold water to stop the cooking. The hot pan bottom will sizzle on contact. Add the remaining one half cup water; don’t worry, the sugar will seize up but later dissolve. After the dramatic bubble reaction ceases, return the pan to the stove over medium heat.

Heat the caramel, stirring until it dissolves into the water. Remove from the heat and let cool for 10 minutes before pouring into a small heatproof glass jar. Set aside to cool completely. The result will seem slightly viscous, while the flavor will be bittersweet. Cover and store the sauce indefinitely in your kitchen cupboard.

Now on to the catfish.
4 catfish fillets cut in half
2 teaspoons light brown sugar, tightly packed
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons caramel sauce
1-1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 large cloves garlic, sliced
On a dinner plate or in a bowl large enough to hold the fish, stir together the brown sugar, pepper, salt, caramel sauce, and fish sauce. Add the catfish and coat with the mixture, turning the steaks to make sure that all surfaces are evenly exposed to the seasonings. Set aside for fifteen minutes to marinate.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in the pan and add the garlic. When the garlic is fragrant, add the catfish and all the sauce from the plate to the pan. There may be some intense bubbling. Adjust the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for ten minutes to develop the flavors; during this initial period, the fish will more or less cook in the steam trapped in the pan. Expect the liquid to bubble vigorously. A little bit of steam may shoot from under the lid.

Uncover, add water to almost cover the fish, and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover and cook for about thrity minutes, or until the liquid has reduced by half and has thickened slightly, forming a sauce. Taste the sauce and adjust the flavor with a pinch of brown sugar to remove any harsh edges, or a sprinkling of fish sauce for more savory depth.

Slice the sweet potato biscuits in half. Put a piece of the catfish on each biscuit, drizzle with the pan sauce and top with wilted arugula (that's arugula you threw in a hot pan with a little bit of oil) and serve.