Cá Kho Tộ – Vietnamese Claypot Fish

 

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Bee, from Rasa Malaysia made a lovely dish recently that got me thinking about one of my favorites – Cá Kho Tộ, Vietnamese Claypot Fish. If you’ve ever been invited to dinner with a family from South Viet Nam, this is something you are likely to be served as it is utterly simple to make and you guessed it —- delicious.

My mother comes from the city of Đà Lạt, in southern Viet Nam. This is a dish that is made all over that region and it’s one that we grew up eating very often. Whenever we’d see that familiar beige pot atop our stove, we knew what was for dinner. Everyone in our home enjoys eating this dish. The tender fish is coated with an unctuous, brown caramel sauce that, combined with fish sauce, is an umami high. Holla!

It’s sometimes called Catfish Simmered in Caramel Sauce, which I feel can be misleading. It’s not like the sugary caramel you have with flan, for example. It’s used as a savory sauce that starts out with sugar that is transformed into a deep, dark, almost burnt caramel (thus, no longer sweet or cloying). Called Nước Màu in Vietnamese, it’s like our funky version of demi-glace* — in the way that it is often added to stews, braises and even stir-fries, to add color and dimension. It’s a simple and necessary item in my Vietnamese pantry.

 

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To balance the flavors in this dish, it’s served with crunchy, sweet-sour, pickled bean sprouts – Dưa Giá. Fresh, crisp cucumber slices are also nice. When you serve the fish, you can also nestle a few fresh, red-hot chilis between the fish steaks, if you’re in that sort of mood. No, a claypot is not necessary to cook the fish, but I honestly can’t imagine this dish any other way.

 *Note: classic demi-glace is a reduction of veal stock and sauce espagnole.

 

CÁ KHO TỘ

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INGREDIENTS: (4 servings, as part of a larger meal)

  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 small-med. shallots, thinly sliced
  • 1 lb. catfish, cut into 3/4 inch slices/steaks [with skin and bone attached] —boneless, skinless fillets will not work in this dish
  • 4 Tbl. fish sauce
  • 3 Tbl. raw sugar
  • 2 tsp. vegetable oil
  • 4 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
  • 3-4 scallions, cut into 2- inch segments [+ 1 Tbl. oil, for garnish]
  • small piece (approx. 5 oz) of pork fat (fatback), cut into thin slices or bâtons
  • 3 Tbl. Caramel Sauce (Nước Màu) – recipe below

STEPS:

  • In a bowl, gently toss the fish with black pepper, shallots, fish sauce and sugar. Allow to marinate for 15 min. – up to 30 minutes.
  • In a separate skillet set to med. heat, add the oil and cook the pork fat until it has rendered most of it’s fat.
  • Next, add the garlic and cook for about 2-3 minutes. Be sure not to brown or burn the garlic. Set aside.
  • Set your claypot on the stove and gently begin heating it on med.-low.
  • Add the pork fat, garlic and any pan drippings into the claypot.
  • Add the marinated fish. Pour and gently mix the caramel sauce with the fish. Turn the heat to medium.
  • As soon as the pot begins to bubble, turn down the heat to low, cover and gently simmer for about 30 minute. (Check the pot at the halfway point – if it looks dry, add one or two Tbl. of water and cover again).
  • At this point, the fish should be tender but still hold its shape.
  • Taste the sauce and add fish sauce or sugar, if needed.
  • Before serving, quickly sauté the scallions with oil and add them to the claypot.

 

NƯỚC MÀU – VIETNAMESE CARAMEL SAUCE

makes approx. 1 cup

If you’re familiar with making caramel sauce for flan – this will be a cinch.

In a dry saucepan set on med. high heat, add 1 cup of plain, granulated sugar and 1/2 cup + 2 Tbl. of water. As the mixture begins to turn amber, stir with a wooden spoon until it turns to a dark mahogany. At this point, remove the pan from the heat and add another 1/2 cup of water to the pan. (The caramel will seize but will eventually liquefy). Heat the pan on high and cook for about 7-10 minutes until it is thick and smooth. Carefully add a couple teaspoons of lemon or lime juice and remove from heat. Give it a good stir and transfer it to a mason jar or other glass container. The sauce will resemble dark molasses and will keep indefinitely in your cupboard.

Bon appétit!

 

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Rillettes de Tours

 

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Rillettes is due for a comeback. This I know. After so much time spent in the dugout while the soul-less, calorie and fat-conscious players took over, it’s back in the game. With a vengeance. Okay, maybe not with a vengeance. More like a whisper. The kind of whisper that tells you this is God’s food; food that really nourishes the heart and soul. It’s the real deal — know what I mean? It’s not the crap-ola that aims to cleanse or detox.

Lest you think I’m about to launch into a diatribe against the Hippie Fat Police, be not ye afraid.

A dish of rillettes, according to Anthony Bourdain, “gets right to the heart of what’s good: pork, pork fat, salt, and pepper….Rillettes is something you serve friends – and people you already know you like.” *

My sentiments exactly. If you’ve never tried it, rillettes is something like a rough, meatier country pâté. Its origins are shared by several regions of France, namely Le Mans, Tours (and Angers), and Orléans. In Le Mans, goose meat is often added to the pork while in Orléans, wild rabbit is often added to make their rillettes, which they serve with fresh walnuts in the fall. In the rillettes of Tours, an all-pork version is made.

Eating this brings me back to the college semester I studied in Angers, located less than an hour’s drive west of Tours. Our midday lunch at school was the one of the highlights that I looked forward to each day. Unlike the cafeterias or dining halls here in the States, where students line up to slop dubious food onto trays, there, we sat family-style in long tables and passed homey platters of rillettes, salades, and fromage around the table.

The last time we were in France, we made sure to bring back some fresh rillettes du Mans – from where Pierre’s grandmother was raised and where his great-aunt had lived most of her life. When that precious stuff was finished, we still had some tins of rillettes that we’d purchased at what I call the French Costco – Carrefour.

Now that all our porky provisions have been depleted, Pierre’s been wondering when he’ll get to eat rillettes again. Well, wonder no more, Mon petit chou! This recipe is from a book I received as a gift from my good friend Zarena. I love this book because its recipes are old-school and just really good and reliable. The photographs aren’t the modern, high contrast, blown-out shots that you often find nowadays. They depict rustic scenes, naturally lit and sometimes underexposed.

As for the recipe, it’s alarmingly simple: Brown meat. Slowly cook meat for a long time. Add seasoning. Shred meat. Enjoy.

And, never wanting to miss an opportunity to add some American lazy to a time-honored French classic, I decided to make this using a slow cooker. And instead of using the French quatre épices, I used my homemade five-spice powder. I’m happy to report that it turned out beautifully.

In case my flip recipe above does not suffice, below is a more detailed version:

 *Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook

 

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RILLETTES DE TOURS

INGREDIENTS: at least 6 servings

  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 4 med-large shallots, quartered
  • 2 sprigs of fresh thyme, crumbled
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 2 lbs. pork belly, cut into 2-inch cubes
  • 1 lb. pork fat (fatback)
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 2 tsp. sea salt
  • pinch of black pepper
  • 1 tsp. five spice powder
  • additional bay leaves (for decoration) optional

STEPS:

  • Flatten the garlic cloves with the side of the hand. Wrap garlic, shallots, thyme, bay leaves and cloves in a square of cheesecloth and tie with kitchen thread.
  • Remove rind (and bones) from the pork belly; cut the meat into 2 inch cubes.
  • Melt the pork fat in a heavy 4qt. saucepan over med-low heat. Add the pieces of pork belly and brown them, turning constantly. Remove the browned meat with a slotted spoon and strain the fat through a sieve into a small bowl. Set aside.
  • Place the browned meat into a slow cooker. Add the cheesecloth bag and the water, cover – leaving a little space for air to escape.
  • Cook on the lowest setting for 5 hours, stirring from time to time, adding a little more water (by the Tablespoon) if the mixture seems too dry. The meat needs to cook low and slow – never to be boiled.
  • At this point, the meat should be tender but not mushy. Remove the bag of seasoning. Stir in the salt and five-spice powder and cook for another 30 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and let cool to lukewarm, then remove meat from the pan and shred using two forks. (The shredded meat will resemble American pulled-pork). Add the reserved fat and mix well.
  • Turn the spread into one large container, or divide it among several smaller ones, top with bay leaves and cover. Store in the refrigerator and serve after two days. The rillettes will keep for about two weeks.

Bon appétit!

 

Les Petits Pois à la Versailles – Green Peas from Versailles

 

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For whatever reason, the French have a bad rap for being rude. Whenever someone asks me if this is true, I have to find it in me to not take them by the shoulders and remind them that there are rude people everywhere, not just in France. Some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met were French. With that said, I want to talk about our visit to Ligny-le-Chatel, a village in Burgundy where we stopped on the way to Auxerre, the town where Pierre’s family once lived.

The purpose of our visit was to meet some close friends of Pierre’s late grandparents. A quaint village with a population of just over 1200, it had an impressive church and a peaceful, somewhat rural setting.

We arrive at the country farmhouse of Françoise and Jean Dapremont. Françoise comes out to greet us and I immediately feel welcomed by her affable and cordial demeanor. She is probably in her mid-late 60’s and like women of her generation, her hair is perfectly coifed and her language is pleasant and polite. She introduces her husband Jean and their little grandson Roland, who is staying for the weekend.

Their home is full of the charm that only a country house can give. There are worn windows, rustic furnishings and a friendly cat or two(?). We sit down for aperitifs while we chat about our plans – which, at that time, included our pending nuptials 🙂

As we sip our brandy and chat, I can smell the aroma of roasting meat and yummy goodness wafting through the air. Always aware that I’m the only non-French in the group, I have to harness my American tendency to act like an over-eager child when something excites me. So, when Françoise announces that dinner is ready, I quietly remind myself not to jump out of my seat and run to the table.

At the table, we begin our meal with a smooth and luscious terrine of coquilles St. Jacques (scallops), dotted with carrots and red bell pepper. Our main dish is a plate of roasted local saucisses. They are accompanied by petit pois that she served in a beautiful casserole. Les petits pois à la Versailles, she says proudly, handing me the dish. She explains that she got the recipe from a friend who once tended the gardens at the castle of Versailles.

Well, this ought to be good, I thought. And it is. One bite reveals tender peas, savory bacon pieces, and of all things, sweet and slightly wilted lettuce; a simple yet brilliant dish that I’ve adapted and present to you here.

 

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Les Petits Pois à la Versailles

INGREDIENTS: (4 servings)

  • 1 lb. Pasta (shells, macaroni, penne, etc.)
  • 6-8 oz. bacon, cut into batons, or 1/4 inch slivers
  • 1 (16 oz) bag of frozen peas
  • 2 cups of romaine or iceberg lettuce, shredded
  • 1/2 cup grated gruyère or parmigiano reggiano
  • fresh mint

STEPS:

  • Boil the pasta in salted water until al dente (about 8-10 minutes) and drain in a colander.
  • Using the same pan, set the heat to medium and cook the bacon until the edges are slightly crispy.
  • Next, toss the frozen peas and lettuce in with the bacon until the peas are heated through and the lettuce is slightly wilted.
  • Add the cooked pasta to the pot and stir to combine.
  • Add salt and pepper to taste.
  • Serve with freshly grated gruyère or parmigiano reggiano and mint.

Bon appétit!

Tarte aux quetsches – French plum tart

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Yesterday, I went to the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market in downtown and found some tasty plums. Pierre requested a tarte aux quetsches – a lovely plum tart that I once ate during my semester abroad in Angers, France many summers ago. I remember walking down the streets of the town and passing by all the quaint boulangeries and patisseries. During July and August, quetsches – these small, oval shaped and dark-skinned plums are in season and the patisseries would tempt passerbys with their rustic and delicious tarte aux quetsches. There were small, dainty ones . There were large, celebration-size ones. Sometimes, there’d be tarts where the plums were beautifully fanned in consecutive circles. Other times, they’d simply be placed, cut-side down with a golden custard around them. No matter what, I had to have a taste every time. It’s a simple tart and one that really lets the flavor of plums come out with a delicate flourish.

Tart crust:

1 1/2 cups of unbleached flour

1 stick (8 Tbl) unsalted butter (frozen, cut into small cubes)

1/4 tsp salt

2 Tbl. sugar

1 egg yolk

1 Tbl. ice cold water

egg wash (1 egg mixed with 2 tsp. milk)

Tart filling:

1.5 lbs. small plums, halved and pitted

2 Tbl. cassonade (raw sugar)

egg custard (2 egg yolks + 1 whole egg +1/4 cup sugar —- tempered with 2/3 cup of hot milk)

Directions for tart crust:

Using a pasty cutter, such as this one

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Cut (blend) the dry ingredients with the butter until you have pea-sized globs (that’s the technical term). Add the egg yolk and cold water. Stir and combine. Add enough cold water until the mixture clumps in your hand.

Next, place the dough onto some plastic wrap and form a flat disk. Wrap and refrigerate for about 1/2 an hour.

Roll the dough to about 1/8 in. thick and gently place it on your tart pan. Using your fingers, gently mold the dough to fit the tart pan and crimp the edges. Put the whole thing back in the fridge for about 15 min. or so.

Then, in an oven preheated to 350F, blind bake the tart shell for 15 minutes.

Next, arrange the plums on the tart in whatever way you feel – I like concentric circles 🙂

Bake the tart for 15 minutes – the plums will begin to soften.

Take the tart out of the oven and pour the custard into the tart, making sure it surrounds all the plums. Sprinkle the tart with cassonade.

Brush the outer crust with a little egg wash. Lower the oven to 325F and bake for another 30 minutes or so. Bon appetit!

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