Poached fish with soy, sesame and ginger (and ginger)

IMG_5846There are people who like ginger, and there are those who don’t. Both are within the bounds of normalcy. But then there are people who like ginger beyond all reason and sense. My husband is one of them. He is not satisfied with a ginger-flavor suffusing the food; it must have that, and also ginger sticks in addition, so he can actually taste it.

It’s pathological, as Donald Trump might say.

So if there is anyone in your life with a similar addiction, here is a recipe to finally satisfy them. And stop them complaining! That alone is worth the price of a good piece of fish.

To everyone’s astonishment (and relief), this meal actually has more to it than just ginger. The base is a poached fish: it could be halibut, or cod, or other white fish. Most people recommend very subtle accoutrements for poached fish in order to not drown out its mild flavor; but that is not what I did. As is my wont, it is often the seasoning that is the highlight of a meal, and the poached fish performs the function here of a nice inoffensive background.

Now for the seasoning. For this dish, I used two dressings, layered one on top of each other. Both use elements from the sort of Pan-Asian cuisine that is popular here in California, with flavors of sesame and soy.

IMG_5834Both dressings use the same trio of scallions, chilies and ginger. The first dressing, which is simmered in soy, has these items minced fine (on the left). While the second dressing, which is fried in sesame oil, has the chilies whole and the ginger in long sticks (on the right).

The poached fish, with both dressings layered on, makes a wonderful side for rice.

The fish, as it poaches:

Here is what the soy dressing looks like, as it cooks:

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Frying ginger and red chilies

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Served with rice and a side of greens

Poached fish with sesame-soy-ginger dressing

Ingredients:
  • 1 lb fish fillet (halibut, cod, snapper, etc.)
  • Half a cup of water
  • Quarter teaspoon salt
  • Dressing 1 (soy-based):
    • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
    • 2 tablespoons white wine
    • 1 teaspoon sugar
    • white part of about 3 scallions, sliced thin
    • 2 small red chilies, minced
    • Half inch piece of ginger, minced
  • Dressing 2 (sesame oil based):
    • 1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil or plain sesame oil
    • 2-3 red chilies, whole
    • Half inch piece of ginger, cut into long sticks
  • Garnish:
    • Green part of about 3 scallions, sliced thin
Method:

Heat water with salt added to about 160ºF (a simmer, less than a boil). Place the fish in it and poach for about ten minutes.

Meanwhile prepare the soy dressing. In a small pot, combine the ingredients and bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and let it reduce by about half.

Once the fish is done, place it in the serving platter. Pour the soy dressing over to cover it everywhere.

Heat the sesame oil until it shimmers. Fry the ginger sticks and red chilies until the chilies darken and the ginger sticks shrivel a bit. Pour the hot sesame oil over the fish evenly all over it. Cover with the green scallion garnish. Serve with rice on the side.

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Malvani gravy with Salmon and a creepily Moving Finger

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

— Omar Khayyam

I call bullshit on that. We are in the interwebs, people, and the Moving Finger can do what it damn well pleases. So it did. I used my Malvani spice paste to make a nicely-flavored gravy in which I floated some salmon; but I also used the opportunity to tighten up my ingredients list for the spice paste itself. So a post from months ago has been updated with more precise amounts and, ahem, better formatting. Check it out. Take that, Omar.

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I also made another discovery — this spice paste that we had used at home forever, taught by our Malvani cook, is actually none other than the famous Goan Xacuti masala; which in turn is none other than the Portguese Chacuti — but apparently not the Portuguese from Portugal, but the Portuguese from Goa when it was colonized. Learn something everyday. Also enables me to correctly tag this post.

Malvani gravy with Salmon (Goan Salmon Xacuti)

Now anything can be put into this gravy; usually some kind of flesh; but I don’t see why vegetables or paneer or tofu might not belong either. I used salmon and this made enough for a dinner for two along with white rice.

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 pound salmon (steak or fillet)
  • 3 tablespoons Malvani masala
  • 1 small onion
  • 2 medium tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt

Method:

Slice the onions thinly and fry in the oil until somewhat browned. Read this for the proper method. Put in the Malvani masala at this point and stir and cook it on medium heat for a few minutes. Dice the tomatoes and put those in. Let them cook to the point they liquefy and dry up.

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Now this base must ‘lose its raw smell’ as my mother said; which means, must be boiled with about 3/4 cup water added in. Boil it on a simmer for about 5 to 7 minutes.

Now the salmon makes its entry. Sprinkle the salt over and cover with the gravy. Keep the gravy at a low simmer, cover and cook for about ten minutes.

Any greens might work for garnish but I used basil.

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Salmon in a package

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I admit that nothing sounds less appetizing than salmon cooked in a package. It arouses images of cardboard boxes bound with duct tape, spiders crawling all over it while it is left on the doorstep. Perhaps I should name this recipe Salmon a la Amazon?

But I assure you, no other process is as frugal with flavors as this method. If it makes you feel better think of it the French way:  ‘salmon en papillote’ is what they call it. Whether or not the French make better food, they have certainly cornered the market on making it sound better.

In this method, the salmon or the thing being cooked is wrapped in a package made of foil or parchment paper. Here’s the thing about it:

One, since it is paper, one can wrap the thing being cooked rather tight, and the thing can be very snug indeed. Most vessels are going to have a rather large air space around the thing being cooked — which means, the aromas emanating from it, which one ideally wants to conserve as much as possible of — have a large air space in which to escape to. In contrast when you cook it in a package the aromas stay close to your food, deep inside the package, forming a sort of aroma bomb, waiting to explode when the package is unwrapped at the table. A good sort of bomb, that is.

Two — these are the type of stiff papers than one can crimp into a rough air seal. So not only are the aromas staying close by your food, they aren’t leaking out either. The evidence of that? Most of the time when you have salmon or something baking in the oven, your kitchen gets quite suffused with the smells. Normally one swoons over this, but, as the ‘package’ method of cooking sternly reprimands us — the more suffusing into your kitchen that is going on, the less the aromas are sticking around where they belong — right by your food.

Three — it is not just the aromas, it is the natural steam that leaves the food as it cooks. Normally this creeps out into the aforementioned large air space, drying out the food stuff; but if you cook in a package, the steam is imprisoned inside, and perforce has to suffuse the food, which then remains moist.

Sorry about the analysis but it is nice to know why one does what one does. Or, we could just say ‘en papillote’ and consider the point made.

Cross-section of salmon cooking in a package

Salmon en papillote

In this recipe, I allow the flavors of onion, garlic and basil to combine with that of salmon. These items are tightly wrapped together so they have nowhere to go except into each others’ arms. This recipe makes enough for a dinner for two.

Ingredients:

  • 2 salmon fillets — total about 3/4 lb.
  • half a teaspoon of salt
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced or minced, your preference
  • A few large leaves basil, rolled up and sliced to chiffonade
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Method:

Lay out a piece of aluminium foil 18 inches wide and at least twice that long. Spread a teaspoon of oil on it, then place the fish fillets on, side by side. Spread the rest of the oil on the fillets evenly, then salt them both evenly. Now spread the onion, garlic and basil on the fillets evenly; and then the lemon juice.

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Now make your pouch. I apologize I forgot to take pictures of this process but you basically fold the edges in, then take the long overhang of the foil over, to cover the salmon completely and fold it under to make a sealed package.

Put it in a 400 F oven. In 20 minutes the fish should be done to medium-rare, translucent inside but cooked to a safe 140 F. If you like it cooked more, leave it in for at most 5 more minutes. At this point the fish should be opaque through and through but still flaky.

You will know what I mean by ‘aroma bomb’ when you unwrap the package at the table. Here is our dinner with a side of wild rice and broccoli.

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Pallid halibut. Pallibutt.

It has taken me a long time to get used to American food. And I don’t mean those paragons of American cultural invasion — the pizzas and the hamburgers. I mean the food that actual, real-life Americans eat in their homes; the food that mothers, and increasingly, fathers, cook to feed their families. You know, the protein, vegetable and starch trifecta that graces dinner plates across the nation at 6:30pm, with a basket of rolls by the side. The meal that is etched in my mind in a multiplicity of images: a little sandy-haired boy wearing shorts, leaning over the dining table with his elbows, pushing peas around with his fork. The bright, skirted wife/mother carrying a big roasted bird on a tray. The suit-wearing father with his pipe, wearing a frilly apron as a joke, handing rolls around the table.

An American family at the dinner table

An American family at the dinner table

I don’t know where these images come from (probably from America’s giant lifestyle industry), but you catch my drift.

It has taken me a long time to get used to this type of meal. Being Indian, I could not understand how meat could be eaten without a lot of spices, or how starch could be eaten just by itself — without mixing in a lot of spicy gravy. And what kind of a way is it to cook vegetables anyway — just steaming? Meat cooked in a plain way is the most challenging — after a few bites, it feels like rubber. This, for example, is what I was used to for the first 24 years of my life:

Indian food image from Wikimedia Commons

Indian food image from Wikimedia Commons

Yes, I have had my challenges with the American meal. But since I married an American he has learned about my cuisine and I have learned about his. Now I can appreciate how the simplest of ingredients, unadorned, can please.

Hence this.

Halibut, cooked with a simple poaching. In milk. Turning it paler than pale. Pleasing my American husband immensely. And — can I admit it? Me too.

Pallid Halibut

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 pound halibut fillet
  • 1 cup milk
  • half an onion, minced
  • 4 green cardamom pods
  • 10 or so whole black pepper
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt to taste

Method:

Collect the whole spices and minced onion in a pan. Pour milk over and bring to a simmer. Sprinkle salt over the fish and lay into the simmering milk; salt some of the surrounding milk as well. Keep ladling some of the milk over the fish along with the spices and onion once in a while. In about 15 to 20 minutes, while you keep the milk at a simmer, it should be done.

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So — about done-ness. This is a concept that was new to me from Western cooking. The simplest way to check is to use a Thermapen thermometer to check the internal temperature of the fish — it should reach around 140 F. Another method is just to use a fork to see if the fish flakes easily and is opaque all the way in. Of course, some people like it more translucent.

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Here is my pallid hallibut, the center of our very American meal that evening.

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Interestingly encrusted salmon

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Salmon crusted with cracked black pepper is IN. Open a fancy restaurant, add that dish to your menu, and watch your cash register spin. But what is a few cracked peppers? I pooh-pooh it. Wait, I must catch a breath from laughing. I give you — salmon encrusted with the most interesting crust in the world.

Black pepper does make an appearance. Coriander seeds do as well. And also — that paragon of savoriness — urad dal (Vigna mungo), the platinum-blond lentils that turn red when roasted. Throw in some lemon juice and you have a meal. The fame of this recipe has spread far and wide throughout my home since I came up with it.

The most interestingly encrusted salmon in the world

Ingredients for the spice powder:

  • Half a tablespoon whole black pepper
  • One tablespoon whole coriander seeds
  • One tablespoon skinned and split urad dal

Ingredients for the meal:

  • 3/4 lb salmon steak or fillet
  • salt to taste
  • One tablespoon olive oil
  • Juice of half a lemon or to taste

Method:

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To make the spice powder we need to first roast the seeds. Heat a small thick-bottomed pan on medium heat. Put in the black pepper and coriander seed in one batch. Stir occasionally. In a couple minutes a few will start to pop (stand back). Empty the seeds into a small bowl.

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Next, in the same pan, in goes the lentil. Stir once in a while to ensure even roasting. These will take longer but in a few minutes will redden. Take them off the heat into the same bowl.

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Wait a few minutes for the spices to cool, then grind them up in a clean coffee grinder. The salmon crusting spices are ready. You can save the excess in a clean spice jar, nicely labeled and dated. You will thank yourself later.

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Next let’s prepare the fish. For us, dinner for two consists of a three-quarter-pound fillet or steak of salmon, but feel free to use as much fish as you need. Start the oven at 425 F to preheat.

Place the fish in an oven-safe tray. Make a few deep cuts with a sharp knife. Sprinkle salt to taste. Now spread olive oil over the fish, then lemon juice, taking care to drive some of the salty, oily, lemony mixture into the deep cuts you just made (now you don’t need to wonder why you made them).

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Next comes the spice powder. I use it liberally to coat the fist. Perhaps a tablespoon and a half for a piece this size? The point is really to cover the flesh.

Goes into the oven next. I give it 20 minutes in a 425 F oven, and it comes out medium-well. Your mileage may vary.

This goes very well with patty-pan squash mashed (squashed?) but the recipe for that will come later.

Malvan’s famous fish: part two, fried fish

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Malvani fried fish

(Part one is here.)

Quick — name two differences and two similarities between these two kinds of fish: Indian Mackarel (bangda) and Pacific Sand dab.

First the differences:

Mackarel

Mackarel

1. Indian Mackarel swims around in the warm coastal waters around the Arabian Sea off the coast of India. While the Pacific Sand dab inhabits a different coastline altogether — the Pacific, around California, Oregon and Washington.

sanddab

sanddab

2. Another thing — while the mackarel has your basic fish shape, the sand dab is a bottom-hugging, sand-dabbing flat fish. Which means, its one eye migrated creepily over to the same side of its head as the other eye.

Now the similarities, which (to give away the point of this exercise) are far more interesting to me right now.

1. They are similar in size (8 – 9 inches), and found on grocery shelves prepared in a similar way — not as fillets or as a steak, but with the head and tail fins removed, skin on. So they both come with the central ribs intact. That is key.

2. And, because of the above similarity in form factor, both Indian Mackarel and Pacific Sand dab can be used to make the Malvani fried fish recipe!

Ah, what a long-winded way to arrive at the point that I couldn’t find bangda fish, so I substituted with sand dab! Readers of this blog: I have never promised brevity.

On to the main business, if I haven’t lost you already.

Malvan’s famous fried fish, using sand dab instead of mackarel:

Two sand dabs will make a single dinner portion. For two sand dabs, use 3-4 tablespoons of the Malvani fish paste. Also have at hand: some salt, some turmeric powder, and some farina (rava/sooji/cream of wheat).

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Lay each down flat. Carefully cut open at the line of the central ribs bone, as though you are trying to fillet the fish. Open the fish like a book, but do not cut through. You can leave the bone in. Once it is cooked, it will be much easier to pry it out, I promise. Sprinkle salt and turmeric powder on the flesh.

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Now spread a thin layer of the spice paste on both open surfaces of the fish. One of the surfaces will have the bone on it, this is fine, just apply the paste over.

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Close the fish book. Spread paste on both outer surfaces. Now dip both sides in the farina to coat. If you are having trouble keeping the fish book closed, you can tie it closed with some kitchen twine.

Now heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a nonstick pan on high-ish heat. When it shimmers, lay the fish down on one side. Let it shallow-fry for 5 minutes or so, then flip it carefully, still closed, to cook for three minutes or so on the other side. Both sides should be browned when done.

One thing to note about Indian preparations of fish — by Western standards, one would consider them overdone. When fried on both sides, the flesh is quite dry, but it is kept succulent by the moisture in the spice paste. One wants to dry it out a little, because otherwise the spice paste will remain mushy, and one does not want that.

Have it as a side with rice and dal or rotis.

Malvan’s famous fish: part one, the spice paste

Malvan

Malvan

Malvan is a little town on the west coast of India. I have never been to it, nor do I know too much about it; but I can tell you that growing up, our nanny/cook (Bai) was Malvani, and she made the most amazing fish. It still haunts my dreams. The fame of her fried bangda (mackarel) spread among relatives and friends. People who worked two floors away from my mom who saw her once a month in the office canteen would phone her to be reminded of the ingredients.

This was not a quirk of our cook or our family. Malvani fish with its red spice paste is renowned all over the Internet. Don’t believe me? Go ahead, google ‘Malvani’ and come back and tell me what you find. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Satisfied? When I left for foreign lands one of the heirlooms I carried with me is a scribbled version of this recipe. In this post I will describe the method of making the paste. In two following posts, I will describe how to use it in a couple different fish recipes.

A warning note: family recipes in India are handed around with amounts like a fistful of this, a little bit of that. It is all andaaz se, as it is known. So the amounts here are not handed down from Mount Olympus, but just the proportions that I used for a successful rendition.

Malvani fish masala (spice paste)

This makes about 3/4 cup of the paste which will last in the fridge in an airtight container for some months. The vinegar has a preservative action.

Ingredients (dry spices):

  • 2 large not-hot dry red chilies (Kashmiri, Ancho, Pasilla, or other such)
  • 5 small hot dry red chilies (cayenne)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cinnamon stick or few small
  • 10 cloves
  • 2 big black cardamom
  • 1 tablespoon white poppy seeds
  • 2 teaspoons fennel
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper seeds

Ingredients (wet spices):

  • 3 large garlic cloves
  • 1 inch piece ginger, peeled
  • 1/4 cup coconut
  • half teaspoon tamarind paste
  • 1/3 cup white vinegar
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Dry spices for Malvani fish masala

The dry spices are to be roasted on a griddle until an aroma starts to arise…but do be careful not to burn them. I did this in stages so I don’t mix the seeds that roast faster with the bigger, slower ones…so do the fennel seeds and the poppy seeds in one batch (they won’t take long) and the rest in the second batch.

Note about why spices are roasted before grinding them: I believe it dries them out a little, makes their skin papery, and easier to grind into a fine powder.

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Roasted dry spices for Malvani fish masala

Once the dry spices are roasted, wait a few minutes for them to cool and then grind them in a clean coffee grinder.

Now collect the wet spices in a small blender. In goes some ginger, some garlic, half a teaspoon of tamarind paste, a handful of grated coconut. Put in the dry spice powder. To lubricate the blades, add some white vinegar.

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Wet masala for Malvani fish masala

By the way, Do Not Add Any Water. Malvani Masala not like the H2O. A note about the usage of vinegar: this is not traditional in Indian cooking, but came in by way of the strong Portuguese influence in that region (Goa was colonized by the Portuguese right up until 1960).

Grind it up to a paste, and your red Malvani masala for fish is ready.

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