August 21, 2012
I don’t require much to be happy. A new book by my favorite author, this awesome lamp from IKEA, and—above all—an elegant meal for one made my weekend nearly perfect. This is why I think everyone should take up cooking as a hobby. There’s nothing more satisfying than using your imagination, culinary knowledge, and artistic skill to create something that pleases all of your senses. Learning to cook is practical, healthful, and a great conversation starter—who doesn’t like to talk about food?
But I imagine I’m preaching to the choir writing about the joys of cooking on a food blog. I also can’t imagine that everyone would be able to enjoy grocery shopping—the prerequisite to cooking—as much as I do.
Last week was stressful and emotionally exhausting, so on Saturday I braved the heat and walked to a nearby Korean market to peruse the fish counter and let my imagination run wild. After an hour of exploration to the soundtrack of this song on repeat, I left the store with a whole red snapper, a bag of fresh mandarin oranges, a bunch of watercress, two pounds of sea salt, a few perilla leaves, some taro root, radish sprouts, and a significantly better a state of mind (except for a slight headache from that horrible Korean pop song).
I immediately set to work in the kitchen on a taro-coconut pudding with strawberries; it turned out to be too sweet, but I think the flavors of taro, coconut, and strawberries would make an excellent bread pudding. The idea is scrawled in one of my many cooking notebooks.
From there, I surveyed my remaining ingredients. I knew I wanted to bake the fish in a salt crust—a technique I’d read about in several sources—and I also knew the tart mandarins would balance and brighten the briny fish. After rummaging around in the vegetable drawer, I settled on a mandarin-fennel salad as my side dish. Crisp raw fennel would be a nice textural contrast to the soft snapper. I sliced the fennel paper-thin and tossed it in a bowl with the mandarin segments and juice—so far so good. A handful of watercress and a sprinkling of radish sprouts added some peppery spiciness, and a perilla chiffonade gave every other bite of the salad an unusual burst of minty apple flavor.
I took my fish out of the oven with bated breath—if I broke the salt crust and the fish was underdone, it would dry out when I put it back in the oven. Using the back of a spatula, I cracked the crust and peeled back the skin. It was perfectly cooked. The flesh was so tender it fell apart as I transferred it to the plate. I arranged my salad on the other half of the plate and spooned some of the leftover mandarin dressing over the fish. After the first mouthful I was already in heaven, but the complexity of the salad made each bite intriguingly different from the last. I washed down my meal with a cold glass of Pinot Grigio. Serendipitously, the apple notes of the wine paired wonderfully with the perilla-spiked salad.
A note about perilla: Perilla leaves are used primarily in Korean and Japanese cooking; in Japanese they’re called “shiso.” According to Wikipedia, Pepsi Japan created a shiso-flavored Pepsi that I imagine would be pretty tasty! In the U.S., your best bet at finding perilla leaves would be an Asian grocery store. The Japanese and Korean varieties apparently differ in flavor, but the ones I bought tasted strongly of apple and subtly of mint (I’m guessing they were the Korean kind since I bought them at a Korean market). I’ve been contemplating how to use the rest of my perilla leaves, and so far I think they’d be great in a fruit salad or sorbet.
I will definitely be making this Salt Crust Snapper with Mandarin-Fennel Salad again, and maybe next time I’ll buy a larger fish to share with friends. Or maybe I’ll buy a larger fish and eat the whole thing myself!
Salt Crust Snapper with Mandarin-Fennel Salad
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
For the fish: Mix the salt and water together—it will resemble the texture of wet sand. Spread some of the salt mixture on the bottom of a heavy baking pan and lay the fish on top of it. Stuff the fish cavity with a few lemon and ginger slices. Drizzle a little olive oil over the top of the fish and rub it around to make sure the flesh is coated. Spread the remaining salt mixture over the fish and mold with your hands to ensure the fish is entirely encased in salt. Bake the fish for about 20 minutes. (If using a 2 lb fish, cook it for about 30 minutes).
For the salad: Slice the fennel as thin as possible. Transfer it to a bowl and segment the mandarin oranges over the bowl. To segment an orange, cut the peel and pith away with a sharp knife being careful not to take too much of the fruit off with it. Then, holding the orange over the bowl, cut slits between the membrane and segments. Slide the segments in to the bowl as you cut. Squeeze the juice of what’s left of the orange into the bowl. Add the remaining salad ingredients and toss to coat.
To serve: Crack the salt crust all over with the back of a spoon or spatula. It will come off in large pieces. Peel back the skin of the fish and transfer the top half of the flesh to a plate. Pull the carcass away (it should peel off easily, leaving the rest of the fish flesh in the pan) and remove any bones that clung to the bottom half of the fish. Transfer the remaining flesh to the plate and remove the skin. Spoon the excess salad dressing over the fish and serve alongside the salad.