Sweet and Spicy Fried Catfish

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I’m going to be honest here: this dish isn’t healthy. Sorry, y’all. This is a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth fish that’s shallow fried and drizzled with a spicy sauce that has, you know, sugar.

But it’s delicious. And while it’s important to eat healthily, what is life if not occasionally indulgent? So in the wise words of Tom Haverford and Donna Meagle, go ahead and treat yo’self. Serve it with rice and vinegared vegetables to tone down the guilt factor.

Sweet and spicy fried catfish

Ingredients:

1/4 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons chili garlic sauce
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced ginger plus 4 quarter-sized slices peeled ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 1/2 pounds catfish fillets
1 egg
1 cup cornstarch, dry, plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 teaspons water
vegetable oil for shallow frying
1 green onion, thinly sliced

1. Prepare the sauce: mix the chicken broth, soy sauce, sugar, chili garlic sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, minced ginger, salt, and pepper together in a bowl and set aside.

2. Remove bones and skin from the catfish and cut into 4 pieces. Pat dry.

3. Beat the egg in a shallow bowl. Spread the cup of cornstarch in another shallow bowl. Dust each piece of the fish with the cornstarch and then dip in the beaten egg to coat the fish. Return the fish to the cornstarch and coat evenly. Set on a separate plate or rack.

4. Place a wide deep pan over medium heat and pour in oil to a depth of 1/4 inch. When the oil shimmers, add the ginger slices and cook until fragrant, about 20 seconds. Slide the fish into the oil and fry, turning once, until golden, about 4 minutes per side. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

5. Remove all but 1 tablespoon of the oil from the pan. Place the pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, pour in the sauce and bring to a boil. Stir in the dissolved cornstarch and cook, stirring, until the sauce boils and thickens, about 30 seconds.

6. Spoon the sauce over the fish, scatter with the green onion, and serve.

Fish Cutlets

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The first time I tried fish cutlets I thought I’d accidentally set my mouth on fire. I hadn’t yet acclimated to Sri Lankan levels of spiciness (read: extremely spicy) and I was expecting cutlets similar to, you know, Iranian kotlet. The next thing I knew I was downing ice water in a futile attempt to revive my taste buds.

Fast forward a few years and I can pop these cutlets like no one’s business. They’re delicious, and lucky for you, dear reader, you can adjust the chile level according to your own preference. Fish cutlets are easy to make and are perfect as an appetizer. I like to serve them alongside Iranian yogurt with cucumbers and mint (mast-o-khiar) as a cooling dip.

Sri Lankan fish cutlets

Ingredients:

1 potato, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil plus additional for frying
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 inch piece ginger, minced
2 green chiles, chopped
1 sprig curry leaves
1 can tuna
1 teaspoon cayenne powder
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1/2 tablespoon ground fennel
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
salt to taste
1 lime, juiced
1 egg, beaten
2 cups breadcrumbs

1. Boil potato in water until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain.

2. Heat two tablespoons oil in a pan. Saute onions until translucent. Add garlic, ginger, green chiles, and curry leaves and saute for 5 minutes, until lightly browned.

3. Add tuna, potatoes, cayenne pepper, coriander, cumin, fennel, turmeric, black pepper, and salt. Mash potato with the back of a wooden spoon while tossing ingredients in pan. Add lime juice, saute for 3 minutes, and set aside to cool.

4. Using your hands, form filling into 2 inch-size balls. Beat egg in a bowl and dip balls into mixture. Spread out breadcrumbs in a shallow bowl and coat cutlets with breadcrumbs.

5. Heat oil in a deep pan to 350 degrees. Oil should be deep enough to shallow fry the cutlets. Fry cutlets until golden brown, turning occasionally to evenly brown. Remove cutlets with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Serve warm or room temperature.

Chilled Mussels with Saffron Aioli

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I’ve been hanging on to the same precious tin of Iranian saffron since 2013. I bought it at Jean-Talon Market in Montreal, where sanctions aren’t as restrictive and food imports from Iran are attainable. I know we Iranians like to lay claim to nearly everything under the sun, but it’s true that our saffron is among the best in the world. I dipped into this precious stash for this easy, elegant mussel appetizer.

This recipe makes more aioli than you’ll need, but you can use the leftovers as a sandwich spread, or simply make an extra batch of mussels.

Chilled mussels with saffron aioli

2 1/2 pounds mussels
1 cup white wine
1/2 onion, chopped
1 generous pinch saffron threads
1 garlic clove, chopped
1/3 cup drained jarred roasted red pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Zest of 1/2 lemon
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

1. Scrub mussels, cleaning shells, and discard any mussels that aren’t tightly closed. In a large pot bring wine and onion to a boil over high heat. Add mussels; cook, covered, until they open, about 2 to 3 minutes. Uncover and let stand until cool enough to handle. Discard any closed mussels.

2. Separate mussels from shells Set each mussel on a reserved half-shell and place on a baking sheet. Cover and chill.

3. Grind saffron in a mortar and pestle and set aside.

4. In a blender, blend garlic, roasted pepper, saffron, cayenne, and lemon zest and juice until smooth. Add mayonnaise and blend. Scrape into a bowl.

5. Set mussels on a serving platter. Dollop aioli on each mussel and top with a parsley leaf.

Black Pepper Crab

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Dungeness crab is a Bay Area holiday tradition, and for my family, that means every year I make saucy, spicy, and deliciously messy Singaporean chili crab. Crab season should have begun a month ago in the Bay Area, but this year, our Dungeness crab are munching on neurotoxins and are off limits. If I were to be getting my hands on some crab, though, I’d be cooking this black pepper crab. It’s also Singaporean and has become my other go-to crab dish during Bay Area crab season. This one is deep-fried in the shell and it’s also saucy, spicy, and deliciously messy.

Honestly, I have a hard time choosing my favorite between the two. All I know is that both renditions elicit smiles on everyone’s face.

Black pepper crab

Ingredients:

1 Dungeness crab
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
cooking oil for deep-frying
cornstarch for dusting
1 tablespoon butter
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 slices ginger, each quarter sized, minced
2 red jalapeno chiles, seeded and minced
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 green onion, minced

1. In a pot of boiling water, parboil crab for 2 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. Remove and discard the gills and spongy parts under the shell. Twist off the claws and legs and crack them open with a mallet. Cut body into 4 pieces.

2. In a small bowl, combine oyster sauce, soy sauce, and sugar.

3. In a wok, heat oil for shallow deep frying to 365 degrees. Dust crab pieces with cornstarch. Deep-fry crab until shells change color and cornstarch crust is slightly golden, about 3 minutes. Lift out crab and drain. Remove all but 1 tablespoon of oil from wok.

4. Add butter to oil in wok and place over medium heat. Add garlic, ginger, and chiles. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add pepper and oyster sauce mixture; mix well. Add crab and stir to coat. Simmer over low heat until crab is cooked, 6 to 7 minutes. (If crab was already cooked through when deep-fried, then crab needs to simmer for only 4 minutes.)

5. Arrange crab and sauce on a serving platter and garnish with green onion.

Linguine with Squid and Shellfish

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There is a little restaurant in an alleyway in Trastavere, Rome’s bohemian neighborhood near the Tiber River. My sister and I spent a week here a few years ago during a cold, frigid spell in December. The weather meant that the quintessential Roman markets filled with fresh produce were sparse. No tomatoes, no artichokes, no squash blossoms waiting to be turned into something delicious.

But oh, the pasta. December is just as fine a time for pasta as any other, and I had one of my favorite renditions in Trastavere. The name of the restaurant escapes me now, but the pasta hasn’t. Brimming with seafood and flecked with chilis, I’ve recreated this dish at home. This version calls for pickled hot cherry peppers, but if you can get your hands on some oil packed Calabrian chiles, all the better.

Linguine with squid and shellfish

Ingredients:

1/4 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
salt
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/2 pound cleaned small squid, bodies cut into 1/4-inch rings
1 pound linguine pasta
2 pounds clams, scrubbed
2 pounds mussels, scrubbed
1/2 pound bay scallops
4 pickled hot cherry peppers, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon lemon juice

1. In a larger saucepan, heat the olive oil. Add the garlic and cook over low heat, stirring, until it just starts to brown, 2 minutes. Add 1 cup of the parsley, the crushed red pepper and a pinch of salt and cook until fragrant. Add the wine and bring to a boil. Stir in the squid, cover and braise over low heat, stirring, until tender, 30 minutes.

2. In a large saucepan of salted boiling water, cook the pasta until al dente; drain.

3. While the pasta cooks, add the clams, mussels and scallops to the squid. Cover and cook over high heat until the clams and mussels just start to open, 3 minutes. Uncover and cook until the clams and mussels open fully and the broth is slightly reduced, 4 minutes. Add the pasta, pickled peppers, lemon juice and the remaining 1/4 cup of parsley and cook over moderate heat, tossing, until the pasta is hot and coated in a light sauce, 3 minutes. Transfer the pasta to shallow bowls and serve warm.