By Kim Severson for Garden & Gun
Photographs by Johnny Autry
Susan Spicer, who has been cooking in New Orleans for more than thirty years, had a father with a sense of humor. He was from Waycross, Georgia, and Spicer was his last daughter. He wanted to name her Sugar Ann.
Good sense intervened, but Spicer, who owns Bayona in the French Quarter, jokes that if he had prevailed, her career would have blossomed a block away on Bourbon Street. Even without a built-in stripper name, she still has one she thinks would be perfect for a chef. “If I didn’t go on out on Bourbon Street as Sugar Ann Spicer, I would go as Cha Ca La Vong,” she says.
Cha Ca La Vong is actually a fried fish dish as well as the name of the century-old Hanoi restaurant where it originated. It’s a Vietnamese classic that has made a home in the United States, and like a lot of chefs in New Orleans, Spicer takes inspiration from the area’s robust Vietnamese population. The similarities in the two food cultures run deep. Both are influenced by the French, and both make the most out of shrimp and other seafood. Spicer discovered that the recipe was a terrific way to play with the abundance of Gulf frying fish such as red drum, flounder, and speckled trout, as well as less popular varieties like sheepshead. “Every fish is different,” she says, “but I find that most Gulf fish fry pretty well.”
In place of a traditional batter, she uses rice flour with a touch of turmeric. She had already been using rice flour to fry quail—a trick she picked up from Wolfgang Puck—and found that it produces a crisp, thin, nearly clear coating that matches the delicate nature of the fish. The turmeric blends in easily, offering a subtle bite of mustard and a lovely deep yellow color. Top it off with a quick sweet-and-sour sauce, fresh herbs and cucumber, and a hit of salty peanuts, and you have a stunning and delicious interpretation of a fried-and-true Gulf staple.
Fried Gulf Fish with Herbs and Peanuts
1 cup rice flour
2 tsp. ground turmeric
1 lb. whitefish fillets, such as sheepshead, tripletail, or cod, skinned and cut into bite-size chunks
Vegetable oil, for frying
1 bunch each dill, basil (or Thai basil), and cilantro, stalks removed, leaves rough-chopped
1 bunch scallions, cut into ½-inch lengths (green and white parts)
½ cup salted roasted peanuts, rough-chopped
1 lime, quartered
Cucumber, peeled and chunked
Nuoc Cham sauce (recipe below)
Mix flour with turmeric; toss in fish to coat well.
Heat oil in a wok or heavy pan to about 350 degrees, and fry fish in batches until crisp and golden. Drain on paper towels.
Scatter some dill fronds on a serving dish, top with fried fish, and keep warm.
Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the hot oil. Add remaining dill, basil, cilantro, and scallions to the pan. Toss in peanuts, and stir-fry no more than 30 seconds. Spoon herb mixture over the fish, and garnish with lime wedges and cucumber. Drizzle with sauce and serve.
Nuoc Cham Sauce
1 cup fresh pineapple chunks
2 tbsp. sugar
½ cup fish sauce
1 fresh Thai chile or ½ tsp. sambal oelek
Juice of 2 limes
Place all ingredients in blender and puree.
Meet the Chef: Susan Spicer
Current restaurants: Bayona and Mondo, New Orleans, LA
Hometown: New Orleans
Dream vacation this year: The Ozarks. “I want to disappear for a week.”
Sunday night ritual: “I cook at home, and my husband and I chill out.” Advice for culinary students: Take your time and learn technique. “When you have that foundation, it gives you the confidence to be creative.”
More from Garden & Gun: