Vadouvan-Crusted Ahi in Under 30 Minutes
Vadouvan is a French culinary homage to the Asian spices and flavors found in curries, and it’s one of my favorite things to have in a jar in my kitchen. Vadouvan is spicy because it’s made with a lot of spices, but it’s not the sort of spicy denoted on menus by small red chilies that tend to scare away a certain sort of Minnesotan – many of whom I know and like.
If you’re a link-clicker you’ll note that my recipe for vadouvan makes a generous batch. You’ll definitely end up with more than you can use to season a single recipe. In fact, you’ll be able to perk up soups, vegetables, and sauces for weeks. But there are reasons to make a big batch. 1) It’s hard to go smaller and keep the spices properly proportioned, 2) it’s a gentle spice, and you’ll need a deceptively large-at-first-glance tablespoon or more per portion in most recipes, and 3) it makes a great in-jar gift …
When it comes to Ahi, and fish in general, I prefer to buy a large fillet and cut it into smaller steaks at home. The larger pieces tend to be uniformly thick, which means my portion-cut steaks are equally hefty. With an inch-thick steak I can get a crisp sear on the outside and still have a juicy rare or medium rare center. The photo above shows how I cut a 2-pound triangular fillet into 4 smaller pieces of close to the same size. It’s an example of how the geometry we learned in grade school really was important.
My vadouvan is made of mostly crispy-dried onions, shallots, and sometimes leeks. It’s cooked slowly so it mellows as it caramelizes, and it’s gently seasoned. The curry tastes like a good Indian restaurant smells. When it comes out of the oven it’s dry and stuck together in chunks. When it’s cool I pulse it in a food processor and transfer it to jars. For the Ahi’s crust I grind the vadouvan further with a mortar and pestle, the use of which provide a sort of primal use-of-tools enjoyment, at least for me.
If the prospect of making homemade vadouvan activates your fight or flight stress response you can find it as a pre-made spice blend in some grocery stores. You’ll need to combine the pre-made blend with some finely ground breadcrumbs (or panko).
I start my recipe for Vadouvan Crusted Ahi by patting the fish dry with paper towels and then brushing it with a little olive oil. Place the vadouvan on a plate and lightly dredge the top and bottom of each piece of fish. Use your hands to press the vadouvan onto the ahi.
Preheat a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium high heat. I use a non-stick griddle, but any large pan will work. When it’s very hot evenly distribute the fish. Don’t put oil in the pan. In order to get a crisp, almost blackened crust you need a dry pan. Note that blackened really means dark brown. If the crust is truly black it will taste like charcoal, because that’s what it is. Dark brown, on the other hand means that the crust has caramelized, but not really burned to a crisp.
When the bottom of the ahi has thin layer that’s changed from red to a whitish sort of cooked color (which you can see when you look at the side of the fish) turn it over. Cook the second side until the cooked layer is the same thickness as the first. If the fish is an inch thick a layer on each side that’s 1/8-inch thick is rare, 1/4-inch is medium rare. Feel free to cook your ahi until it’s well done; just don’t tell anyone it’s my recipe.
Remove the ahi from the skillet and cut it on the bias so you’ll have wide, visually appealing slices. I served the ahi in the photo above with a side of Plum and Endive Salad, which adds crunch and a little sweetness to the meal. It’s as if the salad is paying homage to the crispy, curried, meaty ahi. Viva la Vadouvan!