V’ne’hapchu—A Fish Story
If ‘v’ne’hapchu’’—sudden dramatic turnarounds—is the essence of Purim, then many of us here in Israel live in Purim all year long. There are two things one soon learns here; ‘there are no sure things’, and ‘nothing is impossible’.
proverbial tale of entering a government office armed with every possible piece of paper needed to get something done (you even called them to confirm it—twice) only to be told after an hour’s wait that the one and only clerk that can help you has one day off a month…today, is all too resonant with reality, but so too is the subsequent scene of the same sullen supplicant trying to find his or her way out of the building, asking a nondescript janitorial looking man where’s the exit, only to have him (who you later discover is the department head’s uncle…or the department head himself) whisk you through the Yam Suf of red tape so fast that your mission is complete before you realize it’s begun.
We’re not in control
But it’s not about bureaucracies, it’s about hashgacha and coming to realize we’re not in control, but rather the One above, which, after all, is what Purim is all about.
Cooking also has its v’ne’hapechu moments. That point where you discover that your culinary creation is on the verge of flopping (or has flopped already) and you now have to decide if and how you can possibly pull a turnaround and cull something edible (or even delicious) from its wake.
I actually relish flops—I see them as a challenge to my ‘v’ne’hapechu’ skills of creativity. This is out of character for me, because in many other areas I’m super self-conscious and liable to beat myself up for days over the slightest faux pas or mistake.
This dichotomy has led me to conclude that in areas where a person feels competent and confident, their baseline self-esteem (i.e. sense of self worth unattached to external successes and failures) is much higher than in areas where they don’t.
For example someone who knows he’s a good cook (or businessman, orator, musician, etc.) isn’t afraid to experiment in that area—push the limits—and even if he falls flat on his face once in a while, he’ll shrug, dust himself off chalk it up to a learning experience. Whereas in areas of (real or perceived) weakness, the same fellow will meekly shuffle along in conservative, halting, baby steps, head turned back over his shoulder all the while.
The food flop made good
That being said, I can proudly announce that I had a food flop recently. I was preparing a simple tuna-mayo salad for Shabbos third meal. Now in my circles, where nearly everyone lives on a ‘kollel budget’ (whether they’re in kollel or not), stretching food is the name of the game.
In that spirit, I told my self that sprinkling some oatmeal flakes into the mix would help the relatively pricy tuna go so much further. (I mean, it was even the same color and I’d done similar successful stretchings in the past with oats, white breadcrumbs, or instant potato flakes.)
But as we know, when you try to stretch something too far it will snap, and that’s exactly what happened when after one or three sprinklings too many, I realized that not a forkful of this now gooey, white paste would ever pass itself through any of my forgiving yet discriminating family’s lips. Now what? Not only had I failed to stretch the tuna, I’d (shudder) wasted it. Then…suddenly… v’ne’hapechu.
I realized that while it was true that there was no way this albino batter would ever pass for tuna salad, it would in fact make a wonderful base for oven-baked…tuna patties! I added even more filler breadcrumbs, a couple of eggs, a grated onion—no oil was needed, since it was already full of mayo—some baking powder, and paprika (to give it the ‘fried’ golden brown color when it baked).
I quickly ‘patty-caked’ shaped an oven tray full of patties, and what can I tell you? They were asking for more. V’ne’hapechu—victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.
An army of cooks at the Mir
Since I just told you one ‘fish story’, let me share another (it is Adar, after all). As I’ve mentioned before, I was once amongst the army of cooks in the Mir Yeshiva mega-kitchen. And while perhaps I wasn’t exactly a ‘private’ in this army, I was certainly no ‘officer’ either.
Grating and mixing potato kugel (that I’d neither proportioned nor spiced) was about as exciting as it ever got for me back then. But one time, I don’t remember exactly how it happened, I’d offhandedly mentioned to one of my ‘commanding officers’ about a festive, sweet-and-sour fish dish that I’d made in the past.
I suppose that since it was right before Purim, and he was planning his menu, the idea struck his fancy. He asked me what we’d need and then he told me that I was ‘in charge’ of making it happen for the yeshiva’s Purim meal. To make a long story short, a day or two later I was, v’ne’hapechu, standing at the ‘captain’s perch’ ordering around my erstwhile co-worker and even bosses; running them through the gauntlet of mammoth mixing troughs, pots and fry-o-lators, until a Purim feast for the masses was packed and ready to go.
I guess my fishy offering ‘made some waves’, because a short while later I was being interviewed for head cook. And while in the end they didn’t ‘take the bait’ and it ended up being the ‘one that got away’, that v’ne’hapechu (l’havdil, Cinderella) story still makes my head ‘reel’.
Here’s a ‘scaled’ down, simpler version of that dish, featuring ‘meaty’ fresh tuna, which led one of the bochurim at my current cooking venue to pithily name it:
CHINESE CHICKEN FISH
(Feeds up to twenty hungry Purim revelers)
3 kilo fresh or frozen sliced tuna filets.
1 large (3 kilo) can of pineapple chunks.
1, 3k can of red pepper strips in vinegar (pickled peppers, if you will).
1, 3k can of sliced mushrooms.
1k sugar, or to taste (hey, it’s Purim).
1 cup onion soup mix (ditto).
2 cups soy sauce.
1k potato starch.
1k corn flour.
½k coconut flakes (optional).
3 ½ cups canola oil.
1/3 cup garlic powder.
1/3 cup powdered ginger.
Defrost tuna (if frozen). Remove skin, any sinewy, stringy or black, grainy sections and discard. Cut fish into approx. 1”x2” chunks. Bathe the pieces in cold water spiked with lemon juice (to rinse and freshen), drain. Place the drained chunks into a large, strong garbage bag (don’t worry, you’re not throwing it out).
Add 3c. oil, ½ of the soup mix, 2T salt, 1T Paprika. Give the bag a good shake (as in, ‘shake and bake’) to coat the fish with the oil-spice mixture. Next, dump in the potato starch and ½ the cornstarch (you could use all cornstarch, or even regular flour for this, but potato starch will give it a unique chewy, meaty texture), and the coconut (if used) and give it all another good series of shakes.
Ideally the pieces should now be evenly coated with a thickish oily-floury batter, but even if you open the bag to find a gooey lump, or conversely some powdery unabsorbed flour, don’t panic, it’s still going to be fine. Spread the coated chunks evenly on one or (likely) more baking pans, leaving at least minimal airspace between them, and bake at 200 degrees Celsius until the batter crisps up (no need turn over)—approx. 40 min.
Don’t worry about over baking, (unlike the perennial softer fish no-no), here crispness is what’s wanted and even if the fish toughens, it will only add to the ‘meat illusion’ and play very well in the sauce. Set aside the fish to cool completely.
Now for the sauce:
Meanwhile empty the not-drained contents of the canned pineapple, peppers, and mushrooms into a large pot. Add soy sauce, ginger, garlic, remaining oil, sugar, and soup mix. Bring to a boil for ten minutes.
Dissolve the remaining (1/2 kilo) of cornstarch (here, potato starch is not recommended—unless of course, you like the dish so much you decided to repeat it during Pesach) in about a liter of water (by stirring well, making sure to dredge up the flour from the bottom). Stir the dissolved starch evenly into the boiling sauce mixture.
Allow the now quite thick sauce to bubble for one minute and remove from heat and let stand for about 15 minutes (to let the flavors blend).
Gently spatula-lift the cooled fish chunks (which should come up very easily from the baking pan). Now you have a choice. Either ladle the sauce over the fish chunks, covering completely (in which case you’ll likely have extra sauce you can serve on the side—great with rice)—or—gently lower the chunks (breaking up any pieces that may have stuck together) into the pot of sauce, gently stirring periodically to submerge one ‘level’, before adding more.