How to Get from Broiled Fish to Sweet & Sour Tofu by Way of Tom Yom Soup

Returning once again to “cooking without a net” and “how to make great food out of what is around the house”, over the last few weeks a series of meals happened which, at least for me, illustrated this wonderfully.

I recently discovered that my not-so-premium local super market has a far better (and cheaper) fish monger than any of the Whole Foods or the HEB Central Market. They frequently have gorgeous, not chemical soaked, sea scallops for less than $15 a pound. They often have 21-25 count shrimp for under $10 a pound. They have the best looking salmon I’ve seen anywhere in Houston. They even have cod loin for what my spoiled New England years thinks of as a reasonable price. They’re also located basically across the street from my church, where I find myself several times a week.

What this means is that I’ve begun to stop in almost every occasion just to see what they have, and even if I don’t need it right away, I buy it. Which means my freezer is now frequently full of fish and shell fish.

Many moons ago, my go-to wow the crowd dish for dinner parties was a poached cod loin served with a mango habanero sauce — which I’d make my simmering fruit and peppers until they dissolved. With the move out of New England in ’07, my access to cheap, high quality cod dried up, and I never found another plump, mild fish that fit into this dish as nicely as the cod.

Then a month ago, I discovered barramundi. Which, if you’ve never had, you should find.

The other week, I also found ripe mangos and some epic Hungarian wax peppers (the latter at the local farmer’s market). This fish is a bit thinner, without being what I’d call a “flat fish”, so rather than poaching I broiled it. I broiled it with the fruit and peppers on top and all around. Once it was all cooked, the oils, fruit and peppers went into the food processor to become a sauce.

There was lots of left over sauce.

A week or so later, I boiled a pound of fresh water 21-25 count shrimp, in their shells, with a little fish sauce. I retained that boiled water, removed the shrimp to an ice water bath and shelled them. The left over sauce went into that broth and got reduced significantly. It was then served with fresh cilantro, rice wine vinegar, the shrimp and glass noodles. It made for an excellent tom yom soup.

After all the shrimp and glass noodles were eaten, there was left over broth.

Two nights ago I put a bag of Trader Joe’s “stir fry veggies” onto a silpat under a 375 degree broiler until they were thawed and dry. I also cubed a block of spongy tofu from CostCo (seriously, this is the best non-silken tofu I’ve ever worked with and you can get three packs very cheaply) and turned it golden in a wide sauté pan of canola and toasted sesame oil. Once golden, the veggies went in and got a little color.

Then the broth went in and the whole thing got dusted with sifted flour and simmered until thickened. This was also served over glass noodles.

Sadly, this is where the left overs gravy train reached its final stop.

Tenser’s Vegan Disks

Yes, I know that I have made this joke before. I don’t care, it’s funny anyway. Novelty as a benchmark is the primary rhetorical fallacy of the 20th Century.

Besides, we’re going to use pita, not tortilla, this time.

At a loss for what to do with left over, stale pita bread? Tired of making pita chips to choke down with hummus? Me too.

Here’s a quick, easy solution to the problem.

The quickest, easiest way is to cheat and do the following things:

  • Go to Trader Joe’s and get a container of these:
    • Bruschetta (in the chill case in a white plastic tub)
    • Artichoke antipasto (glass jar)
    • Olive tapenade (either glass jar or clear plastic tub in chill case)
  • Acquire jar of simple vinaigrette salad dressing
  • Combine the three items from Trader Joe’s with just enough dressing to make the result easily spreadable

If you’re a bit more committed than this, get tomato, onion, garlic, fresh herbs like cilantro, parsley and basil, artichoke hearts [1], olives (mostly black and/or kalamata), olive oil, dressing vinegar (not white), and basic seasonings, and chop everything up finely (either by hand or in a food processor) and combine to recreate something similar to what is described above.

Variations on this topping can be made by including roasted red pepper spread (either including or removing the artichokes) and/or capers.

Spread the result of either approach onto old pita bread which are arranged on a baking sheet and slide into a 250 degree oven. Yes, that’s very low heat. The goal here is to drive moisture out of the bread and the topping without scorching the bread.

When the bread is nearly, but not quite, completely stiff, slide them back out of the oven, and top each disc with either a spring mix salad or simply baby spinach, change the oven into a broiler, and return the tray for just a couple of moments to wilt the greens.

I find it easier to slice the discs prior to cooking, rather than after, either in half or fourths. but you could just as easily serve the discs intact and let your adventurers sort it out for themselves.

What you end up with is something very much like a “fully loaded” veggie pizza, without any cheese. However, the oily texture and umami of the preserved vegetables ensure you won’t miss it.

 

If you’re interested in a dish which is not vegan, but is Lenten, you can add chopped, pre-cooked, crab or shrimp between the vegetable spread and the salad greens just before going under the broiler. 

 

[1] I don’t recommend buying fresh artichokes, steaming them and breaking them down yourself, it is an enormous amount of work and the results are rarely as good as what you can get in a jar (or can).

Sour and Spicy Sea Bug Soup

Strictly speaking, the Lenten fast is not “vegan”. Vegan is a contemporary term and does not really correlate directly to what is and is not proscribed during this season. For example, honey is always permitted during this time. Also, aquatic animals which have neither spine nor fins (shellfish, basically) can be consumed. This seems to be a quirk of culture. “Oil” is specifically off limits, because in the ancient Byzantine Empire, fine oils were eaten more or less alone as a feasting food, while shellfish were essentially viewed as “bait”. So yes, in today’s world, during Lent, you can have a $30 lobster, but not a $0.50 hot dog, and still be “fasting”. In the Gamer Geek world we call that “rules lawyering” and it isn’t seen in any better light in the faith than it is at the gaming table.

Why am I talking about this? Because today’s recipe involves shrimp, and I didn’t want to confuse anyone. My wife is out of town for a few days, which means I can cook seafood in the house without her complaining about the smell or running around casting “scented candle” spells everywhere (which make me sneeze).

One concession I made to the Lenten season was that I bought a bag of block frozen shrimp (better quality than individually frozen, actually, just more frustrating to get thawed out for use) rather than fresh, to keep the expense down. For this recipe, though, you want shell on, raw shrimp. Ideally you would make this recipe with fresh, whole shrimp. Whole as in heads and legs intact. Shrimp shells and brains contain an enormous amount of flavor which is ideally suited for sauces and broths. However, I’m unaware of a way to get frozen shrimp with the heads still on, so I had to settle for shells intact but headless.

Shellfish should get cooked one of two ways: as hot, fast and brief as possible, or as slow and low as possible. Given that I was starting with something frozen, I had to opt for the latter. I used a stainless skillet for this, and the glass lid with the vent hole from my pasta pot just happens to fit onto this skillet. So, I put the shrimp into the pan with the lid on over very low heat, and turned them over from time to time. This cooking is going to create a lot of water in the pan. Keep this. Hence the lid. Once the shrimp are cooked through, put the shrimp into a bowl in the freezer and transfer the resulting liquid into a large sauce pan.

In a food processor or blender combine stewed tomatoes, roasted garlic, lots of lemon juice (lots), a couple tablespoons of white vinegar, heavy coconut milk, fresh cilantro, a generous amount of “rooster sauce” (or similar sriracha type hot sauce) or a combination of hot peppers and honey/sugar, and kimchee if you have some (I make my own approximation of this as a source of probiotics).

Once the shrimp have cooled, shell them. Put the meat aside, and put all the shells into the sauce pan where your retained liquid is. Add a carton of vegetable broth. Bring to a simmer and allow to simmer for a long time. Strain, and dispose of the now thoroughly depleted shells. Add the blended items and bring back to a simmer. Make adjustments with lemon, vinegar, honey and heat to create your desired level of “ouch”. If you have access to kaffir leaves, add them during this simmer stage. Be sure to remove them before serving.

Put shrimp meat into a bowl and pour hot broth over them. This will warm them through without making them over cooked and tight. I recommend serving this with either glass noodles or rice noodles. Prepare them separately and add them to the bowl with the shrimp, and then pour over the broth.

Just don’t forget to cast an immunity to fire spell on yourself before digging in. And to have a breath mint after.