Carefree Cha Ca

We took a long break from cooking together because of Alec’s business trip and then our holiday, but it was fun getting back into it over the long weekend. I’d been considering making cha ca (Vietnamese style fish with dill and turmeric) for a while as a good way to trim our ridiculously verdant dill plant, but all the recipes I came across online seemed rather troublesome and I am a lazy cook.

But then I came across this simplified cha ca recipe in a library book (can’t remember the name, will check on my next visit and update this post accordingly), and although it may not satisfy a purist, it’s damn tasty.

Vietnamese Dill Fish (closeup)

1. Marinate 1 pound firm-fleshed fish fillets (the book suggested tilapia or catfish, Alec brought home lovely fresh red snapper from the wet market, so we used that), cut into 2-3 inch chunks, up to 1 day in advance, in:

  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce (if you have Knife brand like us, consider going a bit easier on this or leaving out the salt below – we found the dish slightly too salty at the end)
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

2. Okay, mealtime! The fish will cook really fast, so make the indispensable nuoc cham first. Put into grinding device (we only have an old school pestle and mortar, but presumably there are more new-fangled thingies to do this with):

  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon chilli / chilli garlic sauce or 1 teaspoon chilli flakes

Bump and grind it like R Kelly at the junior prom. When it’s a paste, stir in:

  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice

3. Get these last few things in place before starting on the fish, because once you tip that out of the pan you’ll want to shove piping hot, fragrant chunks of it into your gaping maw, instantly.

  • Get some rice noodles cooking
  • Chop up 5 spring onions
  • Gather 2 cups coarsely chopped dill (checking first, if home-grown, for MOTHERFUCKING MEALYBUGS, RAAAARRRRGH!)
  • Gather 1 cup mint, coriander or Thai basil leaves

4. Right, we’re finally at the fish, but another reason I dawdled in getting here is because I don’t know anything about this bit – I generally leave Alec to handle any sweating over hot stoves. Anyway, the book said to heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet on medium-high heat “until a piece of dill sizzles at once”. Put in fish for 2 minutes, turn, and give it another minute.

5. Chuck in dill and spring onions, another minute.

Vietnamese Dill Fish with dipping sauce and mint

6. Devour noodles, fish and herbs with nuoc cham, in delicious messy frenzy.

7. Realize several hours later that there’s a turmeric-stained noodle in your hair.

8. Pretend you meant for that to happen.


Occasional Foodiness

We do a fair bit of cooking but I haven’t bothered to write much about it here since cooking is hardly a novelty to either of us. For the same reason, I have hardly any photos of the stuff we’ve cooked so far, because taking a photograph of my food before eating it would just never occur to me. But since my sister was crouching over our baked fish, snapping away like the keen food photographer she’s become, I thought I’d try my hand at it too, and am quite happy with the result.

It’s fish baked Greek style with dill, tomatoes and potatoes, from a Nigel Slater recipe. We used kurau (threadfin) steaks, and the dill is from our makeshift balcony herb garden. It’s a pretty great recipe because you hardly have to do anything – you chuck potatoes, onions and garlic in a baking tray with olive oil, bake for 10 minutes (180C), add the fish on top and surround it with tomatoes, season with herbs, lemon juice, salt and pepper, bake for 35 minutes more and it comes out perfect.

Apart from that, we also made chicken piccata and roasted aubergine, tomato and chickpea soup, and much credit for the delicious success of those dishes goes to the reliability of Elise’s recipes. My mum made braised cabbage with wholegrain mustard, which went very well with everything else, and I whipped up apple, pear and banana smoothies for dessert. It was probably the easiest, cheapest, least stressful, most universally successful dinner party we’ve ever done. And contrary to Alec’s yuppie parody, I can assure you that all ingredients (except the chickpeas, weirdly, we needed Cold Storage for those) can be purchased in NTUC Marine Parade.