Monday, June 20, 2016

Fish with three heads of garlic

In its original form, this is a classic Shanghainese dish. But I’ve gone it a couple times better by tweaking it in various ways. This ends up showing off the sterling quality of an excellent piece of fish while pleasing the nose and the palate with a rich sauce.

Plus, I like to terrify people with the idea that there are three whole heads of garlic in there. They expect this to be absolutely noxious from a mountain of the stinking rose, and then are bowled over by the buttery delicacy of those ivory little petals, for the subtle aroma and flavor of the garlic merely hints at their raw nature.

Most traditional recipes merely ask that you brown a non-startling number of cloves and a sensible amount of ginger and green onions in lard before adding a whole yellow croaker. The fish is browned, the seasonings are added, and the dish is ready when the fish is done. This is simply red-cooked fish with some garlic swimming around. What’s the fun in that?

For my inspiration, I took a page from the old French recipe for chicken with forty cloves of garlic. The first time I made that chicken recipe, I was expecting to be knocked over by the garlic, but instead fell in love with the incredible creaminess of the garlic and the perfume of the sauce. That was filed away in my memory banks until I started to muse about ways to make standard garlic fish into something stunning. (Let that be a lesson to you: read lots and lots and lots of cookbooks. Some of them are the equals of great literature – I’m thinking of M.F.K. Fisher, Roy de Groot, Elizabeth David – plus they tell you how to make food in ways that turn out to be universal.)

And so, after you slog through peeling three heads of garlic (that is the only onerous part of this recipe, by the way), you slowly fry them with the ginger and green onions in a bit of oil until they are golden, lavishly scented, and soft as a lamb’s ear. These are set to one side while you brown the fish, and then the fish gets a chance to relax while you make the sauce.

Now, the second secret of the sauce is that you cook it down separately from the fish. This is really important because you never, ever want overcooked fish. You also never, ever want watery sauce. But, if you make a standard red-cooked fish, you run the risk of either overcooking the fish in order to get flavor in the sauce, or vice versa. So, boil the sauce down rapidly while the fish rests, dunk the fish in the sauce for a few minutes, and then remove the fish to your serving dish. Quickly reduce the sauce a final time until it is thick, bubbly, and looks like dark honey. The flavors will then be jammed in there just waiting to leap on the simple background of the fish, and life will become very good indeed.

Finally, in addition to the insane number of garlic cloves in here, you also have plumped-up mushrooms. Most traditional recipes want you to cut these in half or quarters, but that makes them firm little islands in an ocean of soft textures. So, slice the mushroom caps thinly on the diagonal so that they too can relax in the sauce and turn into supple ribbons. You also get the soaking liquid in the sauce, which really amplifies the xianwei to what are, scientifically speaking, stratospheric levels.
Start peeling those cloves...

And so, in spite of there being three whole heads of garlic in here, I’d strongly suggest that you consider this for an evening when you want to romance someone. It serves four, but you can have the leftovers over a hot bowl of noodles for brunch the next day.

Braised Fish with Three Heads of Garlic
Dàsuàn yú jiā sānbèi 大蒜魚加三倍
Serves 4
4 black mushrooms
1 cup / 240ml boiling water
1 to 1½ pounds / 450 to 600g firm-fleshed fish, like Pacific halibut or big skate (see Tips)
7 tablespoons regular soy sauce, divided into 1 and 6 tablespoons
3 heads garlic
½ cup / 120ml fresh peanut or vegetable oil
20 (or so) thin slices ginger
9 green onions, trimmed
1 to 2 tablespoons rock sugar

1. Rinse the mushrooms, place them in a heatproof bowl, and cover with the boiling water. Place a plate on top of the bowl and let the mushrooms plump up while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. (Or, if you are really organized, cover the dried mushrooms with cool water the night before and let them slowly revive, which makes them even better.) When the mushrooms are fat and soft, remove the stems and save them for something else, and then slice the caps on the diagonal into long, thin strips. Reserve the soaking water. Rinse the fish, wipe it dry, place it in another work bowl, and toss it with 1 tablespoon soy sauce. Let the fish marinate for at least 20 minutes, and then discard any liquid in the bowl.

2. Separate the garlic into cloves, cut off the hard ends of each clove, and the lightly smack the cloves before peeling them. Place your wok over medium heat, and add the oil when it is hot. Toss in the garlic and the ginger. Lightly smack the white halves of the green onions and then cut the onions into 2 inch/5 cm lengths before adding them to the wok. Slowly fry these aromatics over medium heat (adjusting the heat as needed) so that they gradually soften and brown; this should take at least 20 minutes. You don’t want them to burn at any point, but rather surrender their flavor to the oil. The garlic will lose all its bite and turn soft and creamy. Remove the aromatics to a small work bowl.
Browned and luscious

3. Raise the heat under the wok to medium-high and add the fish, skin side down. Cook the fish without moving it until it browns, which will allow the soy sauce on the skin to caramelize. Use a wok spatula to loosen the fish and turn it over. Reduce the heat to medium. When the bottom is lightly browned, remove the fish to a plate.

4. Raise the heat under the wok to high, and then add the aromatics, mushrooms, and rice wine to it along with the rest of the soy sauce, about 1 teaspoon rock sugar, and the strained mushroom soaking liquid. Bring this to a full boil. After about a minute, taste the sauce and add more sugar if needed. Quickly cook this down until about half of the sauce remains. Gently slide the fish and any juices into the wok and simmer the fish in the sauce so that they get to know each other. After about 5 minutes, pierce the thickest part with a chopstick – if it goes through the fish as if it were made of butter, the fish is done. Carefully remove the fish to a rimmed deep serving dish, boil the sauce down until it is syrupy, and scrape it over the fish. Serve with hot rice.


The traditional fish for this recipe is yellow croaker. However, any good, sustainable fish like Pacific halibut or the wing of a big skate will be, in my humble opinion, even better.

If you get something from a giant fish like halibut, aim for the flat section just behind the cavity. This is relatively boneless and has lots of skin, which you want to keep attached to the flesh, for it ends up supplying all sorts of delicious fats and flavors to your dish, plus it helps keep the fish from falling apart. Moreover, the flat shape of this cut of a halibut – like a skate wing – allows it to cook quickly, and yet gives each morsel the chance to be bathed in the sumptuous sauce.

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