Anniversaries! Birthdays! End of summer! Engagements! Weddings! Babies! Girls night! Double date night! Family visiting! Friends in Town!
I see nothing wrong with enjoying the finer things in life, but sometimes when I’ve had a little bit too much of, well, everything, I crave a meal that is light and cleansing. So tonight, rather than hitting the town, I’m bringing you a second blog post for this week with not one, but TWO recipes.
Southeast Asian flavors are an immediate go-to when I want to eat something that’s light but still super flavorful. I thought fish would be a nice change of pace from all the pork belly and pasta I’ve been eating, so I headed over to Randall’s, my favorite local fish market, to see what looked good. The snapper was calling out my name.
Grill me whole and slather me with a sweet salty spicy tangy herbaceous sauce!
Ok snapper! If you insist.
I wanted to make a nice refreshing salad to go along with the fish, so I hit up our local Asian market for inspiration. As soon as I saw the green papayas, I knew exactly what I wanted to make: a Thai green papaya salad, one of my all time favorites.
The beautiful thing about making both of these dishes together is that the flavors are very similar, and therefore many of the ingredients overlap. Plus, you can put them both on the same plate without having to worry about the flavors melding together in a funky way. Its win-win.
Palm sugar is traditional in Thai cooking, but I’ve found brown sugar works well too. Palm sugar often comes in these hard discs or balls, and can be difficult to measure, so I often go for the brown. That being said, I get pretty peeved when recipes don’t specify light brown or dark brown sugar, because it can make a pretty significant difference in the outcome. When substituting for palm sugar, I always go with the light stuff.
Next up is fish sauce. Years ago I was working for a local chef, when she needed me to run to the Asian market to pick up fish sauce. It was my first time at the “Asia Supermarket” and it was completely overwhelming. Our market here is huge and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Since then I’ve come to adore the Asian market and I’ve spent a great deal of time getting to know the isles and where to find what. I am constantly discovering new things. There are about 20 different brands of fish sauce to choose from, but chef Lisa told me to get “the one with the baby on it”. Sure enough, there was a bottle with a baby on it (and the words Golden Boy Brand in teensy tiny letters). Ever since, it’s been my brand of choice. I am not a fish sauce connoisseur by any stretch, but I like its flavor better than others I’ve tried.
Fresh red Thai bird chilies would be good in either of these recipes as a substitution for the flakes or the chili paste. Sambal oelek is a Southeast Asian chili paste that can be found in every Asian market and some grocery stores as well. For chili flakes, the regular crushed red pepper you put on your pizza will work here. Ginger, galangal, and garlic also add a nice layer of pungent spice.
Lime juice. Not a whole lot talk about here, just be sure to use fresh limes (not the bottled stuff, please).
This is nothing more than an unripe papaya. But don’t go thinking it’s going to taste anything like the papaya we all know and love. Actually, I don’t really love papaya in its more familiar ripe state. But unripe papaya is completely different in texture, color, and flavor making it seem like an entirely different fruit. It actually tastes like a vegetable, and I love it. At my market, the green papayas are stationed next to the squashes and cucumbers, while the ripe red papayas are over with the fruit. Notice its albino interior.
Fresh herbs like cilantro, mint, and Thai basil are very popular in Southeast Asian cuisine. Shallots and scallions are common as well.
Peanuts also show up a lot- they add nice crunch and uniquely peanutty taste. Toasted sesame oil is another unique flavor and a little goes a long way. Be sure your sesame oil is indeed the toasted variety, otherwise you’ll miss out on that rich toasty flavor.
I used snapper for this recipe, but any small whole fish you can get your hands on would work just fine. When buying a whole fish the first thing I always look at is the eye. It should be crystal clear, and look (almost) alive. If the eye is cloudy or murky, then you’ll know that fish has been out of water for more than a few days.
The next thing is to give it a whiff. It shouldn’t really smell fishy, it should smell like a fresh ocean breeze.
The guys over at Randall’s will gladly filet it for you, but fish, just like any meat, is more flavorful when cooked on the bone. That, and it just looks cool.
Do, however, have your fish monger scale and gut it for you. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Now if you are like my formal self, you might be afraid of cooking a fish in its whole state. It’s one of those show stopping dishes that makes everyone at the table go “Wow! You made that?!” But it’s actually a lot easier than it looks.
You literally just throw the fish on the grill, turn it once, top it with a simple no-cook sauce, and serve.
See, wasn’t that easy?
So face your fear and give it a try. You might just impress someone… even if its only yourself.
Thai Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam)
5 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons packed palm sugar or light brown sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce
3 garlic cloves, minced
½ tsp crushed red chili flakes, more or less to taste
1 1-1½ pound green papaya, peeled, halved and seeded
1 carrot, peeled
1 big handful of green beans, about a dozen, ends snapped off
1 large tomato, cut into large chunks, or about 1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
1 medium shallot, thinly sliced
1 cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
1 cup Thai basil, roughly chopped
¼ cup coarsely chopped salted peanuts
Combine the first 5 ingredients in a bowl and set aside. Use a julienne tool to create long thin strands of the papaya and carrot. If you don’t have a julienne tool, use a box grater. The texture will be slightly different, but it will get the job done. Combine the papaya and carrots with the remaining vegetables and herbs, and toss with the dressing. Arrange on a platter and sprinkle with chopped peanuts. Garnish with more herbs if desired.
Grilled Snapper with Thai Herb Sauce
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp light brown sugar
3 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 clove garlic, minced or grated
1 tsp minced ginger
1 tbsp sambal chili paste or 2 red thai chilies minced
A drop of sesame oil
1 whole red snapper, scaled and gutted
¼ cup packed mint leaves, chopped
¼ cup packed cilantro leaves, chopped
2 scallions, chopped
Combine the first 7 ingredients in a bowl and set aside until you are ready to cook the fish. Sauce can be made up to 3 days ahead, covered and chilled. Add the herbs right before cooking the fish.
Preheat a grill to medium and brush the snapper with vegetable oil on both sides. Carefully place the fish directly on the grates and grill for about 4-5 minutes on each side, or until the flesh is opaque throughout. Remove the fish to a platter and spoon the sauce over top. Garnish with more herbs and slices of lime. To serve, use two forks to lift the meat from the bones, then lift the bone to remove the meat from the other side. Use your fingers to pick out the rest. Don’t be shy, you won’t want any going to waste.