Monday, December 13, 2010

Fish, synchronicity, Laurie Colwin & laughing at your food

As I enthusiastically pursued my lengthy love affair with Jiangsu cuisine, I started thinking long and deeply about fish. Musing over my favorite taste memories, I recalled that some of the best seafood and freshwater fish I'd ever tasted were from Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Shanghai restaurants. 

And each one was different. A good number of these had truly inspired sauces over barely poached fish (like West Lake Vinegar Fish, which is served in a slightly tangy and very gingery pool), others are zingy with ketchup and touches of chili and even more ginger (as in that Bombs over Tokyo I mentioned earlier), and still others are so subtle that I tend to eat them in reverent silence. And that last one is what I want to talk about today.

This is an introduction to one of the gentlest of dishes, a delicately seasoned fish that is steamed with Chinese ham, shiitake mushrooms, thin slices of ginger, and spoonfuls of Shaoxing rice wine. This simple array of ingredients somehow results a meditation on the art of fish cookery. Unlike some of the other dishes I've written about here - you know, the ones that set off fireworks in your mouth and do the mambo on your tongue - this is nothing less than subtle.

The mysterious image on Colwin's book*
But first a word about synchronicity, which according to Wikipedia is "the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated occurring together in a meaningful manner." I was struck by nothing less than synchronicity itself when I picked up my new copy of the late food writer Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (1988), a book I hadn't even thought about in ages but recently came across again in a bookstore, flipped open the book to page 68, and read :

"About a million years ago I was taken out to dinner by a professor of Chinese studies. He took me to a real Chinese restaurant (as opposed to one of those places full of plastic dragons and chow mein) in Chinatown and proceeded to order one of the most fabulous dinners I had ever eaten. The food was news to me.... [T]he centerpiece of the meal was a striped bass, steamed with black mushrooms, strips of ginger, scallion and Smithfield ham. At the first taste of that fish, I began to laugh. My companion gave me a worried look... But it was the food that made me laugh. It was so wonderful and unexpected, so totally new I hardly knew how else to respond."

Isn't that the perfect description of what happens when you're young and are given a taste of something new and unexpected? She was only in her early twenties at the time, and her senses probably were overwhelmed. So she laughed. 


And she probably would have laughed over its very unhelpful name: qingzheng xianyu, or steamed fresh fish. Nothing in that title even hints at the delicate flavors that are woven together here. But this is Jiangsu cuisine, after all, so Chinese ham and fresh shiitake mushrooms and Shaoxing wine practically are givens. To this simple dish I've added fresh bamboo shoots, since they're in season now and add a bit of crunch. Finally, if you happen to have a piece of caul fat lying around the freezer, this is a good place to use it wrapped around the fish instead of adding plain old oil, as the fat melts into the fish and sauce, turning it into something truly worth smiling about.



The "sandwich"
Steamed fish Jiangsu style 
Qingzheng xianyu 清蒸鮮魚 
Jiangsu
Serves 4 as part of a multicourse meal

1 fresh, mild-flavored fish, about one pound
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 large (or 2 small) fresh shiitake mushroom
1/2 fresh or frozen bamboo shoot, optional
8 thin slices of Chinese ham, about 1" by 2"
1 inch fresh ginger, thinly sliced
2 green onions, trimmed and shredded
3 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
2 tablespoons fresh vegetable or peanut oil
Black pepper
1. Clean and scale the fish, pat dry with a paper towel, and either filet both sides or butterfly it by splitting it down the belly and flattening the whole fish. Cut 4 deeply diagonal slashes into each filet or side of the fish. Sprinkle the salt inside and outside the fish and rub it gently into the flesh.

2. Remove the stem from the cleaned mushroom and slice the mushroom into 8 long pieces. If you're using the bamboo shoot, slice it thinly and boil it in salted water until tender (about 10 minutes for fresh and 2 minutes for frozen), and then drain the shoots.  

3. Make a little sandwich of a slice of mushroom, optional bamboo shoot, and ham, and then stuff it into one of the slashes in the fish. Repeat with the rest of the mushroom, bamboo shoot, and ham until the slashes on both sides of the fish are filled. Lay the filets or whole fish on a heatproof plate that easily fits into your steamer. Sprinkle any leftover bamboo shoots on top, as well as the ginger, green onions, wine, and oil, and then dust it with a few grinds of black pepper. 

4. Bring the water in your steamer to a full boil and place the platter with the fish in the steamer. Steam the fish until done, which will be 10 to 20 minutes depending upon the fish and how hot your steamer is. As soon as the fish is done, serve it immediately.

( * This image is a detail of the painting Masterchef, 2005, by Lincoln Seligman/Bridgeman Art Library, that illustrates the cover of Vintage Books 2010 edition of Home Cooking.)

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