Monday, March 4, 2013

Pining for fish

I've been really lucky in meeting great food people. And someone who has turned out to be especially delicious in every way has been the great Chinese cookbook author Florence Lin. Now her early nineties and still vivacious and funny, she is as much of an inspiration in person as she is on the page.

That is why, when I want some good ideas, I call her up and pick her brain. This happened again a couple of weeks ago, and she mentioned a dish she's come to enjoy a whole lot: Jiangsu's Stir-fried Fish with Pine Nuts. She briefly described it, and I went to work.

I have to admit, I am an unrepentant sucker when it comes to nuts in just about any kind of dish, and the generous proportion of nuts to fish here makes me particularly happy. But the lovely little cubes of cod are nothing to sniff at, as they are crispy on the outside, their crunchy but light coating contrasting perfectly with the delicate white meat. 

You can dress this up with fresh or dried chilies, if you like, or green onions or ginger or whatever you’re hungry for that evening. This really is a classic black dress of a dish that can be made as fancy or as simple as you like. What I prefer in this case is the gentle aroma of finely minced garlic hovering in the background as an unobtrusive bolster for the vibrantly toasty pine nuts.

Stir-fried fish with pine nuts  
Sōngzĭ chǎo yúdīng 松子炒魚丁
Serves 4 

1 cup shelled raw pine nuts (see Tips)
Start the nuts in cold oil
6 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 pound fresh cod, skinned and boned (see Tips)
¼ cup potato starch or cornstarch (see Tips)
½ teaspoon sea salt
4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
6 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine

1. Put the pine nuts and the oil in a cold wok and slowly heat the nuts over medium heat (see Tips), stirring as needed, until the nuts are toasty and golden. Use a slotted spoon to remove them from the wok to a small work bowl, and leave the oil in the wok. Let them cool to room temperature while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Rinse the cod and pat it dry with a paper towel. Cut the cod into ½-inch squares and place it in a medium work bowl. Toss the cod with the potato starch so that each piece is completely coated.

3. Heat the oil over high heat until it shimmers and swirl in the salt so that it dissolves. Add the cod in batches to keep the fish cubes from sticking to each other; toss the cod in the hot oil, and as soon as the cubes are nice and golden, remove them to a clean work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the cod until all are cooked, adding more oil, if necessary.

4. Drain off all but 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the minced garlic to the hot oil and stir it around quickly to release its fragrance, but don’t let it brown. Toss in the fried fish cubes and the rice wine and stir-fry them all quickly until most of the wine has evaporated. Toss in the pine nuts, adjust the seasoning, and serve hot.

Perfectly toasted

Get really fresh pine nuts for this dish, as musty ones will just ruin it. Store them in the freezer if you don’t use pine nuts that often; they don’t need to be defrosted before using.

The same goes for the fish; frozen cod is fine, but defrost it completely and squeeze it gently once it has defrosted, as this fish tends to get waterlogged. Pat it very dry with paper towels before tossing it with the potato starch.

Potato starch is very nice here, as it provides the fish with a very craggy, crunchy crust, but cornstarch will do just fine if you don’t have it. I use a Taiwanese brand of potato starch with a smiling sweet potato and a yellow label.

Frying nuts over low heat and starting with cold oil is the secret to having crispy nuts that aren't either burned or still raw in the center. 

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