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In the Kitchen With: Ratha and Ben’s Peppercorn Catfish

by Kristina Gill

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Catfish: people either love it or hate it. As a southerner who grew up eating primarily catfish, except for my uncle’s deep-sea catches, I love it — especially on a sandwich, deep-fried and with a lot of hot sauce. This week we have an alternative way of making catfish, which also works fantastically well on a sandwich. Num Pang is a New York sandwich shop making Cambodian-inspired sandwiches (num pangs) and sides which pair the flavors from founder Ratha Chaupoly’s childhood with the culinary techniques of his fellow founder, Ben Daitz. On Tuesday, their new book, Num Pang: Bold Recipes from New York City’s Favorite Sandwich Shop, will be released, and it’s full of key recipes from their shop. Peppercorn Catfish is the core of one of its most popular num pangs. Please note that there are three recipes included here so that you can make the above Peppercorn Catfish Num Pang — you will need cilantro, cucumbers, Holy Pickled Carrots and the Most Important Chili Mayo. —Kristina

Why Ben loves this recipe: The sweet and spicy combo in this recipe here is a major crowd-pleaser. This recipe works really well on its own with some seasonal vegetables and rice or, of course, in a num pang. It’s easy, versatile, and packed with flavor — definitely one of my personal go-to recipes for dinner parties.

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Photography by Evan Sung

Peppercorn Catfish
Serves 4

Inspired by a sweet-and-spicy clay-pot catfish dish that Ratha’s mom makes, the peppercorn catfish num pang has surprisingly become one of Num Pang’s most popular sandwiches. Our version is pan-seared, then finished with a peppery soy-honey glaze. The catfish takes on a killer sweet-and-spicy taste that is amazing in a sandwich or simply served alongside steamed white rice with some kind of pickle to offset the sharpness of the sauce. You might have some of the peppercorn sauce leftover — it’s great drizzled over pan-seared chicken or tossed into fried rice or a stir-fry.

Peppercorn Glaze

– 1 cup soy sauce
– 1/2 cup honey
– 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
– 2 tablespoons kosher salt
– 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
– 3 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
– 1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced into matchsticks

Catfish

– 4 (8-ounce) catfish fillets
– 1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
– 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
– 1 tablespoon canola oil
– 5 scallions, white and light green parts only, finely chopped

Make the peppercorn glaze: In a medium saucepan, combine the soy sauce, honey, vinegar, salt, and sugar. Stir to combine, then bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the mixture has reduced by about half, 10 to 12 minutes. Stir in the pepper and ginger, cook for 30 seconds, then turn off the heat. Once it cools, it will be about the consistency of maple syrup.

Make the catfish: Season both sides of the catfish fillets with 1 1/2 teaspoons of the pepper and the salt. In a large nonstick skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Place the catfish fillets in the skillet and cook until browned, 4 to 5 minutes. Gently turn the fillets over and cook on the other side for 2 minutes, then add 1/2 cup of the glaze.

Continue to cook, basting the fish with the glaze often, until the thickest part of the fillet feels firm to gentle pressure and the glaze is bubbling, 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle with some or all of the remaining 1 tablespoon pepper, if desired.

Transfer each fillet to a plate and serve with sauce drizzled over the top and sprinkled with the scallions.

Heads-up: A coffee grinder makes quick work of finely pulverizing the peppercorns. If, after tasting the sauce, you find it is too peppery and intense (lightweight!), strain out the peppercorns (the sauce will still have plenty of heat).

Chili-Mayo-(c)-Evan-Sung

Most Important Chili Mayo
Makes 1 cup

Every great sandwich includes some kind of spread, and we’ll say with authority that the tastiest one is mayonnaise. Add some sambal oelek (see The Num Pang Pantry, page 29), a spicy, garlicky chili sauce, and you have a mayo that is so good, it has near-addictive qualities — which is why it is a component of every single Num Pang sandwich. Whether the sambal is mixed with mayo or with vegan mayo or yogurt, the spicy, rich, and creamy dimension it adds to the sandwich helps balance the sweet tang of the pickles, the freshness of the cucumbers, and the robustness of the protein or vegetables. You can find sambal in the Asian foods aisle of most big supermarkets — and if you can’t, a squirt of Sriracha is a fine substitute.

– 1 cup mayonnaise
– 2 tablespoons sambal oelek (see The Num Pang Pantry, page 29), plus more as needed; or a squirt of Sriracha
– 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
– 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
– 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, sambal, sugar, salt, and pepper. Taste and add more sambal if you want it spicier. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Holy Pickled Carrots
Makes 1 quart

We go through thousands of pounds of carrots every week. To say that pickled carrots are important to our sandwiches would be an understatement — they are key (see The Holy Trinity, page 39). A pickled component tops every Num Pang sandwich and, more often than not, that pickle is shredded and pickled carrots. Our carrots lean more to the sour side than to sweet or salty, and the kind of apple cider vinegar you use can greatly impact their flavor. Generally speaking, we’ve found that cheaper, harsher apple cider vinegar needs a little extra water, sugar, and sometimes a little extra salt mixed in to the pickle to soften its flavor. Higher-end apple cider vinegar often has a rounder and less abrasive flavor.

– 1 1/2 cups sugar, plus more as needed
– 1 1/4 cups apple cider vinegar
– 1 cup distilled white vinegar
– 2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more as needed
– 4 large carrots, grated (about 4 cups)

1. In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, vinegars, and salt until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Add the carrots and stir to combine.

2. Let the carrots sit in the vinegar brine for at least 20 minutes before using. Taste them — they should be balanced, not very salty, and slightly more sour than sweet. If the flavor needs to be adjusted, add a little more sugar, salt, or a splash of water to lessen the intensity of the vinegar. Transfer the carrots and brine to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

Heads-up: Sub in rice vinegar for the apple cider vinegar for an even subtler taste.

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Text excerpted from NUM PANG, © 2016 by Ratha Chaupoly and Ben Daitz. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

About Ratha Chaupoly and Ben Daitz: Ben and Ratha first met in college, but they each carved their own path into the culinary world. Ben worked in some of the finest kitchens in the country, from staging at Bouley, Daniel, and Le Cirque to joining Floyd Cardoz at Tabla just six months after opening. Ratha spent time in Maine exporting sea urchin to Japan and working closely with restaurant owners and chefs, before landing positions at restaurants like The Elephant Walk, Blue Water Grill, and Fleur de Sel. They reconnected right as Ratha was getting ready to open his own restaurant, where the menu would reflect the food of his native Cambodia. Ratha opened Kampuchea in New York City’s Lower East Side, where the Cambodian sandwiches were a hit. With their eye on the customer craze for sandwiches and deep and complementary industry knowledge, the pair decided to open the first Num Pang in 2009. They now have six locations throughout New York City!

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