Here it is, the recipe everyone has been waiting for from season three. Catfish is such a humble fish, a bottom-feeder that can taste muddy if not cooked properly. Christine Ha didn't try to gussy it up with a four-star presentation. Instead, she gently brought out the best in it.
She dressed it with some potent Asian flavors — garlic, fish sauce, scallions, and cilantro — and, the magic touch, a little dark caramel that she poured over the fish before braising it in its modest clay pot. This classic technique in Vietnamese cooking brings out the best in a meaty slab of catfish. (If your fishmonger doesn’t have these thicker catfish "steaks," ask for fillets instead.) And her presentation, on a fragrant heap of jasmine rice, with a mound of tangy quick-pickled vegetables, hit all the right notes.
Toss the carrots, cucumbers, vinegar, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and garlic and sauté just until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the cayenne. Add the catfish and cook until they are golden brown on both sides but still raw in the center.
Transfer the catfish to a clay pot. Be sure your clay pot is approved for stovetop cooking. Pour off the oil from the pan and spoon the shallots and garlic over the fish in the pot.
Stir the sugar and 2 tablespoons of the water in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat until the sugar dissolves. Brush down the sides of the pan with a very wet pastry brush to remove any sugar granules. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook, swirling the pan constantly but not stirring the sugar mixture, until the sugar dissolves and becomes golden brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in the remaining water.
Pour the caramel sauce over the fish in the pot. Add the fish sauce and put the pot over very low heat. Simmer, uncovered, until reduced by about ½, about 15 minutes.
Mound the steamed rice in 4 wide bowls. Set the catfish steaks on top of the rice and spoon the sauce over the fish. Set the bowls on a large plate. Mound the pickled carrots and cucumbers on the plate. Sprinkle the scallions over the fish and pickles, and garnish with the cilantro, to taste. Serve immediately with lemon wedges.