My apologies for not getting some fresh drivel out into the blogosphere last week, I was traveling in a part of the world where I was cut off from access to the Internet, and I have to say it was refreshing to completely detach. There wasn’t even phone service, and while I guess I could have pulled the satellite phone out of the crew case easily enough, I enjoyed the being disconnected too much to make the effort. What I do not like is the anxiety rush that I get upon re-entry, playing catchup with about a thousand messages and getting primed for the swan song of the holiday season in what will have to be record time. Once again, I missed Channukah completely.
Anyway, Cambodia and Thailand send their best to all of you. Every time I come home from NYC, I get steamed about the lack of quality deli sandwiches in this town and every time I come home from Thailand I usually complain about the lack of good Thai food in the Twin Cities, but not this time. First off, as my pal Jay Rayner likes to say, “just because its honest and authentic doesn’t mean its good,” and while I had some amazing food in Bangkok, I had so much bad food on this trip that I became truly unnerved in the third week of the journey. Cambodian food is simple, and we had some great skewered snacks on “meat street” in Phnom Penh and a superb dinner at Raffles Hotel. Chef Luu Meng operates several restaurants that are insanely good, and his flagship restaurant Malis is single-handedly reviving traditional Khmer cuisine. His steamed fermented fish in coconut milk should be offered to anyone who tells you that fresh fish is the only kind of fish that rates. Roaming the countryside eating tree-ripened fruit, chowing down on grilled river fish and roasted tamarind- glazed chicken made for a great Cambodian sojourn. In Bangkok, I hit all my fave haunts, but Jok’s Kitchen in Chinatown and Bo-Lan were the two that impressed me the most. Jok serves some of the best Chinese food I have ever tasted, his wok-tossed salt and pepper prawns with chilies, dried scallops, and spring onion was breathtaking. His steamed snowfish filet with sweet fermented bean glaze was one of those dishes that, until the chef told me how he created it, had me completely puzzled as to how he steamed a fish and still kept it crunchy. With only two tables in the restaurant, the joint is essentially impossible to get into. I got very lucky. Bo-Lan is just 11 months old and these two young vets (Bo Songvisaya and Dylan Jones) of David Thompson’s London restaurant are killing it with a menu comprised of what they refer to as “historically correct grandmother food.” Think of sour rice steeped in fresh coconut milk with shrimp head jam and vegetables for dipping. But lest you think that all was wine and roses, for the last week of the trip I was in Udon Thani, the only place I have ever been in Thailand where 99 percent of the food I ate was horrifically bad—poorly cooked, crappy ingredient quality, no passion. Sure there was the amazing grilled pork and chicken liver satays in the night market, but aside from that the food was un-Godly awful. Which is a long drawn-out way of saying that the Thai food in the Twin Cities is better than the Thai food in Udon Thani. Not by much though.
So I just got back today and I am trying to figure out what to cook for Christmas, and I am so sick of lemongrass and lime leaves and fish sauce that all I am thinking about is roasted turkey, baked ham, and pickled fish. Yes, I said pickled fish. Growing up we celebrated all the holidays, and after the latke fest came Christmas and smoked salmon and buttered black bread was always on the side board. Plus there was pickled herring, pickled lox, gravlax, kippers, whitefish salad—the whole shebang. And it’s all I have been thinking about for days. So I am heading over to Coastal, buying some fresh herrings, or mackerel, or some other little fatty fish, filet the little devils, and get them ready for Christmas morning.
Salmon belly and mackerel both work great with this recipe if herring is not available.
1 lb. herring filets
2 ounces kosher salt
2 ounces sugar
2 cups plus 3T white wine vinegar
1t black peppercorns
1t pink peppercorns
1t mustard seeds
1t anise seeds, lightly crushed
1 fresh hot chili (I use one small red one)
1T fresh thyme leaves
1 white onion, thinly sliced
2 fresh bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh dill
Mix the salt with 2 cups of cold water until dissolved. Rinse herring filets and pat dry. Place filets in the brine in a nonreactive pan and place in fridge for 5 hours. Combine the vinegar, peppercorns, mustard, anise, dill, bay, chili, thyme, and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a strong simmer. Let simmer for 2 minutes and cool. Take a small pyrex brownie pan and pour some of the cooled vinegar mix in the bottom. Add a layer of herring, some sliced onion on top of that, and keep repeating. Finish by pouring liquid to cover, seal tray with plastic wrap, and place in fridge for 2 days, preferably three. Serve herring with black bread, sour cream, and the onions from the herring brine.