Sunday, August 1, 2010

Hot Braised Fish and Sad Lemons

When I cook whole fish at home, I opt for simple. The fish is either steamed, baked, or grilled, and I serve it with a simple treatment of salt and pepper and perhaps some aromatics like cilantro and ginger. However, when I go out to a Sichuan restaurant, a hot braised fish always makes its way to my table. Chopstick wars ensue as everyone at the table forgets the other dishes on the table and attacks the fish.

Hot braised fish, at its best, has crispy skin, sweet flesh, and a pungent, spicy chili sauce adorned with flecks of ginger, garlic, and green onions. No wonder it makes people crazy.

Armed with Land of Plenty, I decided to make my own hot braised fish so I wouldn't have to share it with anyone but the boy. (I bought two trout so we had one each - no fighting.)

The secret in the sauce turns out to be, no big surprise, the chili paste. I spent 20 minutes reading all the chili paste labels in Ranch 99 before finding the secret sauce: Pixian doubanjiang, a chili sauce made with fermented fava beans instead of soybeans. The only ingredients should be chili, broad beans (fava beans), and salt. The brand I bought, wrapped in paper and tied together with twine, has "Sichuan Pixiandouban Co. Ltd."on the label. There was also wheat flour in the ingredients list, but I couldn't find any other brand at Ranch 99 that contained fava beans sans flour.

My first attempt at this recipe turned out delicious, but I would do a few tweaks next time, like dredging the fish in tapioca flour or rice flour before I fry it, and adding less light soy sauce - the chili sauce was pretty salty by itself, so the soy sauce made it over the top with salt. Exacerbating the saltiness of the meal was the homemade cabbage kimchi I served as a side dish.

My next Sichuan ingredient scavenger hunt item is "facing-heaven" chiles. I spent another 5 minutes at Ranch 99 in the dried chili section trying to find them, but my desire to drink a taro root flavored tapioca tea trumped my desire to find these particular chiles. Next time I'll take a longer look.

Sadly, there will be no meyer lemons for me this year. This is what my lemon tree currently looks like.

I even watered, fertilized, and lovingly talked to the darn thing, but something got to it. Until today, I blamed the local deer. They seemed like the obvious culprit, although nothing else in the front yard has been touched by a deer.

Today, after doing much yard work (this weekend, the boy and I were weekend chore-iors), the boy had theory that snails ate my lemon tree. I think he's right. There is a disgusting amount of morning glory and ivy creeping from a nearby wall onto my tree. I have to periodically chop back the morning glory, or else it will choke my plant. You know what else lives in that disgusting morning glory? Snails. Tons of snails. I chopped the morning glory back today and found at least 10 of them in less than 1 square foot. Blech. Where's a duck when you need one? I'm hoping that cutting back the morning glory means that the snails won't have freeway access to my plant anymore. Fingers crossed.

Damn snails.


  1. Sorry about your lemon tree and ew with the snails.

  2. I had some tiny green worms on my lemon tree that did similar damage. They were extremely hard to spot - they looked like tiny green stems. After spending a year pulling them off by hand and trying homemade concoctions, I finally sprayed the hell out of it and it came back full of leaves. So check for worms.

    The fish looks good.



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