One night last December, tucked into a caramel-colored wood booth with a view of the wood-burning oven, I ate my first meal at Chez Panisse. Not only was it memorable for being my first taste of the farm-to-table restaurant that has influenced much of what I cook, it was also my first time eating with a very special group of people: six of my fellow writers for The Kitchn, most of whom I had never met in person before.
The meal had many highlights, not all of them easy to reproduce. How do you write a recipe for a perfect Fuyu persimmon served whole with a knife in a small footed copper bowl? But one stand-out dish — an unassuming plate of battered and fried rockfish with a side of gingery cabbage — I knew I could try at home.
For my first attempt at this dish, I was able to find fillets of Pacific rockfish, a lean, mild fish that is juicy and flavorful after baking. Since then, availability in my area has been hit or miss. If rockfish is not available, cod is a fine substitute — in fact, the photos for this recipe are actually of cod — but it is worth buying rockfish if you can find it.
Deep-frying is a rare activity in my kitchen, so I chose to approximate the golden crust of fried fish by covering the fillets in panko and baking them in an oiled cast iron skillet in the oven, which renders the exterior evenly crunchy and browned.
The cabbage is salted for 30 minutes to an hour before being tossed with a simple dressing of fresh ginger, rice wine vinegar and sesame oil. Salting draws moisture from the vegetables and gives them a deeper flavor, while the brightness of the dressing makes them a great match for the fish.
The hot, crunchy fish with the crisp, gingery cabbage is a combination I might never have thought of on my own, but it works so well. Even without the impeccable produce and beautifully rustic Heath plates found at Chez Panisse, this rendition matches my memory of the original dish. Add a fiery wood-burning oven, a fleeting glimpse of Alice Waters and six lovely dining companions to share your giddiness over the aforementioned sighting, and you just might come close to recreating that special night in December.
Inspired by Chez Panisse
Makes 4 servings
For the cabbage
1 small head napa cabbage (about 12-16 leaves)
2 small carrots
2 green onions
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar
For the fish
1-1/2 pounds rockfish or cod fillets
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup panko
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2-4 tablespoons vegetable oil
Cut up the cabbage leaves, slicing the thick bottom portions into 1/2-inch ribbons and chopping the leafy tops into bite-size pieces. Peel the carrots and cut into matchsticks. Thinly slice the green onions, including the dark-green tops. Place the cabbage, carrots and green onions in a colander in the sink. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and massage the salt into the vegetables. Let sit 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Meanwhile, prep the fish. Preheat the oven to 450°F and put a large oven-safe skillet on the middle rack while the oven heats. Cut the fillets into serving-size pieces. Using a spoon or brush, rub or brush a small amount of soy sauce over both sides of each piece. Set aside in the refrigerator.
Grate the ginger into the bottom of a large mixing bowl. Add the vinegar, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar and whisk together. Set aside.
Lay out 3 plates or shallow bowls for the flour, egg and panko. Season the panko with a big pinch of salt. One at a time, dredge the fish pieces in flour, shaking off the excess. Dip them in the egg, and coat with the panko crumbs. Pull the pan from the oven and coat the bottom with 2 tablespoon of oil. Arrange the fish pieces in a single layer. (You may have to cook the fish in 2 batches, depending on the size of the pan.) Bake until just cooked through, flipping halfway through, about 4 minutes per side for thick pieces, 2 to 3 minutes for thinner ones.
While the fish is baking, lightly squeeze the excess moisture from the cabbage mixture and add it to the bowl of dressing. Toss the cabbage and dressing together and serve with the hot fish.
• The longer the vegetables sit after being salted, the more deeply seasoned they will become, so it is worth giving them the extra time if you have it.
• Rockfish may also be labeled as rock cod, Pacific snapper, red snapper or Pacific Ocean perch. As long as it is not trawl-caught, it is a sustainable seafood choice.
(Images: Anjali Prasertong)