Clay-pot striped bass: A dream dish from an L.A. culinary rebel
When I first tasted clay-pot caramelized catfish, everything changed—“the rules, my mind, the world, my palate,” said Nguyen Tran in Adventures in Starry Kitchen (HarperOne). For 18 years while growing up in Dallas, I had avoided Vietnamese food and survived on hot dogs and queso and chips. But that ca kho to my aunts served us when we finally visited Vietnam? “This was the food of my people and I was proud.”
The version below, made with a different fish, is what my wife and I serve at Starry Kitchen in Los Angeles, and it remains my “death-row dish”—my favorite dish in the world. Thi and I make it with pancetta instead of the traditional pork belly, but the key is the caramel sauce. Serve it with rice or fried rice.
Recipe of the week
Clay-pot caramelized striped bass
1½ lbs fresh striped bass, scaled, cut into 1½-inch steaks
6 tbsp fish sauce
4½ tbsp firmly packed brown sugar
4 tbsp minced shallots
3 tbsp minced garlic
Coarsely ground black pepper
6 large (¾-inch) pancetta cubes
A neutral cooking oil (preferably cottonseed)
1 tbsp caramel sauce (recipe below)
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 Thai chile, sliced
1½ cups young coconut juice
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 tbsp chopped scallion
2 stalks cilantro, hand torn
6 slices Fresno chile
Preheat oven to 450. Clean fish, rinse well, pat dry. Combine fish sauce, brown sugar, 3 tbsp shallots, garlic, and 1 tsp pepper in bowl. Mix until sugar dissolves. Coat fish with this mix; marinate 30 minutes on each side—not longer. Remove from marinade; shake off excess. Set aside.
Sauté and brown pancetta in pan with a little cooking oil over high heat. Set aside. In same pan, sear fish in oil over mediumhigh heat until it turns golden. Transfer to a clay pot, cast-iron skillet, or oven-safe pan. Add pancetta. Dribble caramel sauce evenly over fish; let sit.
In the pan used to sear the fish, add ginger, remaining shallots, and Thai chile; sauté over medium-high heat 10 to 15 seconds, until brown. Add coconut juice and pinch of salt while deglazing over high heat, scraping and stirring. When sauce boils, immediately pour over fish. Cover clay pot, place on middle rack in oven, and bake 7 to 8 minutes.
Remove from oven, sprinkle with a pinch of pepper and garnish with scallion, cilantro, and Fresno chile. Serves 2 to 4.
Heat 1 cup sugar and ¼ cup water in saucepan over medium-low heat, 12 to 15 minutes. Let sugar melt. Do not stir. While waiting, fill large bowl with enough hot water to dip bottom of pan into. When mixture is the color and consistency of dark molasses, dip pan in bowl to stop cooking. (Watch out for steam.) Add ½ cup water to pan. Be careful: It will sizzle. Return pan to stove, stirring over medium heat until caramel dissolves. Flavor should be bittersweet.