Monday, November 3, 2008
Rellenong Bangus My Way
A lot of people, including some of my friends, were surprised to learn that I make rellenong bangus. I told them that I have been making this Filipino dish since I was a teenager. Many cooks have the mistaken notion that preparing rellenong bangus is something akin to rocket science. But I am going to demystify those notions right now with Rellenong Bangus My Way. When I was living in the Philippines, my mother used to make the ultimate rellenong bangus, and that meant that she made them sans the stitches to make the skin whole again. That was the hard way. You went to the market, chose your bangus, and asked the tindera to basically do all the cleaning and preparation work for you.
Those bangus dealers in the public markets of yore literally removed the meat and bones from the bangus in one fell swoop, without damaging the skin of the fish. They used a long, flexible and flat baton made from a carabao's horn to literally pick the flesh off the bangus, leaving the cook with little to do except cook the meat with the ingredients, and then patiently pick all the bones -- big and small -- after the meat had been sauteed with the rest of the ingredients. With that free service at the fish stall, you've eliminated at least 30 minutes off your preparation time.
But that convenient service, sadly, is not available in Los Angeles fish markets. The fish guys in our huge Asian supermarkets never even heard of the baton that I was talking about earlier. So to go around that, I ask the fish guys to butterfly the milkfish (bangus) after taking the scales out as if I was preparing the fish to be made into daing na bangus (milkfish marinated in vinegar with garlic and black pepper). At which request, the fish guy takes all the innards, including the gills, bile sac, liver, intestines, etc. and everything a modern housewife would find too abhorrent to take out herself. I do not myself enjoy doing that dirty job, but if I was left to my own devices, I would gladly clean a milkfish so that I could have my rellenong bangus.
Yesterday, while I was stuffing my second rellenong bangus in as many weeks, a very good friend of mine called, and I told him that I was making rellenong bangus for dinner. He congratulated me profusely for my patience. In return, I blurted out that I would gift him with a rellenong bangus for Christmas.
My reinvigorated interest in rellenong bangus was ignited by a friend of mine who is also an avid cook. A self-confessed foodie and a school-trained pastry chef, she had requested me to teach her how to make not only rellenong bangus but a host of other Filipino classics, like morcon, kare-kare, caldereta, pochero, etc. I promised that I would demonstrate to her the cooking of those Filipino entrees when I visit with her next autumn, and even though that is still a year away, I am readying myself for the challenge. First with the rellenong bangus, and later on, with the morcon, a perennial favorite on the Filipinos' dining table especially during traditional Christmas and New Year's dinners.
Anyway, let's get back to the task at hand, which is to make rellenong bangus the easy way. Last month, when I cooked my first relleno after a hiatus of so many moons, the task came as easy and familiar as when I last made them in great numbers during a short stint at catering in-between jobs about three years ago. My greatest fear when it comes to making this delicious dish is the frying part, which is the riskiest of the procedure, especially if you are preparing rellenos for sale or for catering. However, recently, my rellenos, at least the last two that I fried recently, came out almost perfect. With the first one, I broke part of the tail, and the one that I fried last night, had a skin break about three inches from the head. No, the stuffing did not spill about helter-skelter and transformed into burnt, unidentifiable bits of fish meat, red bell pepper and green peas. However, if my intent was to sell it, it would not make the cut.
So I think I am getting there. I abandoned my old practice of wrapping the stuffed fish in aluminum foil or banana leaves to go around the problem of oil spattering all over the stove top. My solution, which I arrived at after a serendipitous experiment, was to carefully lay the stuffed fish into my frying pan of choice - a 20-inch diameter, Chinese-manufactured iron ore kawa (oversized wok) that is coated with a secret substance that I am quite sure is not teflon-- before the oil reached its hottest recommended temperature. But the thing works as the fish does not stick to its surface, making it easier to turn the fish on its other side in a minimum amount of time. No sweat.
So here goes. My ingredients of choice starting with the fish:
1 large milkfish (at least 12 to 15-inch long), scales removed, gutted,cleaned and butterflied
1 medium size red bell pepper
1 cup frozen or canned green peas
1 small box of raisins
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 medium size onion, sliced in fine cubes
1/3 cup soy sauce
3 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tbsp flour
2 tbsp gated Parmesan cheese or any variety of your choice; cheddar is good too
2 tbsp cooking oil for sauteing the stuffing
half gallon of cooking oil for frying the stuffed fish
A. Stuffing preparation
Remove the meat and the bones off the butterflied fish by cutting the major bones at the tail end and those close to the head with kitchen shears. Then slowly pull away at the flesh, making sure that the skin is not damaged or cut. Remove as much of the meat and fat off the skin, scraping the inside of the skin until as little of the meat is left on it. Place the meat with the bones in a large bowl and marinate in soy sauce, lemon juice, and ground black pepper. Saute garlic, onion, and fish meat until it is almost totally cooked and flaky. Add the green peas, bell pepper and raisins. Remove from heat after five minutes.
Begin separating the fish meat from the large bones, and pick all the small bones until they are all gone. With a large fork, pick the meat off the bones, crushing the meat into smaller pieces. Fold in one whole egg and and add the flour to keep the stuffing together; add the Parmesan cheese and mix all the ingredients together. With a three-inch long needle threaded with enough thread, begin sewing back the fish skin back together, beginning at the tail end, all the way to about three inches from the head. that would leave you enough opening to spoon the stuffing into the sewn part of the skin. Continue stuffing the fish until it is three-fourths full. Meantime, continue stitching the remaining portion of the fish skin all the way to the head, leaving just an opening large enough for you to fill the whole fish and the head cavity with the remaining stuffing. After the fish is completely stuffed, continue sewing up the head until the entire backside of the fish is sealed. Drizzle a little amount of flour on the skin to minimize the possibility of sticking in the frying pan.
B. The Frying Procedure
Pour about one-half gallon of cooking oil in your frying pan of choice, making sure that when you drop your fish, it will be completely covered by it. Heat the oil until is it warm enough, but not too hot that it causes a major upheaval when the fish touches the oil. I found out that there was relatively little spattering or none all when it is done this way. Cook each side at about ten minutes, for a total of 20 minutes. The turning is the trickiest maneuver here, and a combination of two large spatulas, a thong, and three hands usually does the trick.
My pastry chef friend has a myriad of ideas on how to prettify the presentation of the rellenong bangus, and yours truly being not a classically-trained culinary artist, would leave the presentation to her when the time comes.
Making rellenong bangus takes a lot of patience, practice and determination. But the rewards are well worth the effort when you begin slicing the relleno with a really sharp knife and the flavors of the bangus, bell pepper, lemon and the crispy skin of the fish waft into your nostrils. I could eat it all day.
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