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Shabbat Meals: Cooking Vietnamese Lemongrass Cod for my Parents

I had already been living in New Haven for close to five months when my parents came to visit for the first time. Whenever I cooked in the enormous, sunflower-yellow Le Creuset Dutch oven they sent as a housewarming gift or wondered where to hang a piece of art, their absence from my new home was palpable. It wasn’t that they weren’t eager to come or that I didn’t want them to — quite the opposite. But the six-hour drive from Washington suddenly felt like a much more daunting distance than the four hours it had taken to visit me at college in New York.

The fact that they were so far away heightened my sense that this move was for real. I had moved to a new city where I hardly knew anyone. For a job. With my boyfriend. I bought my first car. I shopped at our local farmers market and threw dinner parties on our deck. I paid my first gas bill. It all seemed very adult.

Nevertheless, my transition into true adulthood didn’t feel complete until I’d shared it with my parents. The roles were now reversed. It was my turn to make them feel at home and I wanted it to be perfect.

Once we had finally planned their first visit, I immediately began obsessing over what to serve for Shabbat dinner. After cooking family dinners once a week since the fourth grade, I missed being able to wow them with my creations, a not so subtle way of showing them how much I loved and appreciated them. And the fact that our first meal together in my new home would be on a Friday night only lent it more significance. We were never especially religious, but Fridays were always the time to come together, reflect on the week, and enjoy each other’s company over a special dinner.

Knowing that my dad would consider our usual quasi-vegetarian fare insubstantial, and not celebratory enough for my taste, I turned to a tried and true favorite, the dish I make when I want to impress but still have time to enjoy my guests’ company: Vietnamese Lemongrass Fish. With a rich caramel sauce that contrasts its bright lemongrass and sharp garlic, it had the advantage of being sophisticated and delicious while — especially for a fish dish — being pretty hard to ruin. While I usually follow my mom’s example and try new recipes for company, this dinner felt too important to risk it.

When my parents arrived, tired from their drive, I wasn’t stuck behind the stove; everything was ready. I’d found and set out my Bat Mitzvah candlesticks. The kitchen was lightly perfumed with lemongrass. The kale chips were baked, the whole-wheat couscous was fluffed, and the fish was perfect — silky and not too cloying or sharp but well balanced. My mom, a very adventurous cook herself, asked me to recount exactly what gave the sauce its sweetness and bite. My dad marveled at how moist the fish had turned out. I reveled in the fact that we four were gathered around my trusty Craigslist table, celebrating Shabbat together for the first time since my move. I may have entered a new phase in my life that evening, but I never felt more like my parents’ daughter.

Sweet Black Pepper Halibut or Other Fish Steaks, Vietnamese Style

From Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World

Cook’s Note: You can find fresh lemongrass in the produce section of most well stocked grocery stores and nam pla will be in the Asian aisle. If there’s a good Asian market nearby, check that out first. Also, if you like your food on the spicier side, add one seeded and chopped jalapeño or ¼ teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes along with the lemongrass, garlic, and black pepper.

Makes 4 servings
Time 30 minutes

¼ cup sugar ¼ cup nam pla (fish sauce popular in Southeast Asia, made from fermenting anchovies in salt water, adds wonderful savory-ness, try a splash in your next vinaigrette)
¼ cup minced lemongrass
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
4 scallions, trimmed and roughly chopped
1 ½-2 pounds halibut or other fish steaks or sturdy fillets (I used cod fillets)
salt to taste
chopped fresh cilantro leaves for garnish

1) Combine the sugar, nam pla and ¼ cup of water in a skillet just large enough to hold the fish. Place over medium heat, stirring infrequently, until the sugar melts and the mixture bubbles, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the lemongrass, garlic, and black pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes more.

2) Add the scallions, fish, and another ¼ cup water. Cook over medium-high heat, turning the fish occasionally (if you’re using fillets, turn it less often so that it doesn’t break up), until the sauce is very thick and the fish cooked through, about 10 minutes, taste, add salt if necessary, then garnish and serve.

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