Monday, April 27, 2009

When Local Just Won't Do #1: Salted Anchovies

Generally speaking, I am a strong proponent of a locally-based diet. However, this poses some significant challenges considering my interest in the cuisines of other cultures. Spanish cuisine is especially problematic. Numerous Spanish specialties rely on unique products from specific regions. For example, an Asturian fabada requires special white beans (fabes de la Granja), cured pork shoulder (lacón), blood sausage (morcilla), and chorizo. While it IS possible to obtain these ingredients in America, they are often prohibitively expensive (e.g. $35 for a kilogram of fabes from La Tienda!!!!!) or of mediocre quality (e.g. Palacios chorizo is the only commonly available Spanish chorizo in the U.S.). What's worse, all these ingredients have to be imported from Spain with all that entails in the way of fossil fuels. Needless to say, I try to find domestic alternatives whenever long as they are of sufficient quality.
Sometimes the realities of living in Central Ohio override such concerns. In some cases, domestic alternatives simply do not exist. Anchovies are a great example...As far as I know, there is no significant domestic source for the tasty little fish. Luckily, imported anchovies are an "efficient" imported product, with a 2.2 pound can providing a supply for months (or weeks if you're like me). Even better, this kilo of animal protein costs HALF of what the somewhat pretentious fabes de la granja do.
Many foodwriters rave about the superiority of salt-packed anchovies over their jarred or tinned oil-packed bretheren. I finally summoned up the drive to give them a try to see if the hype was justified. My order arrived today and I dove right in!
Salted anchovies require a bit of work to reach edibility as they are packed in a giant block of salt. Take a look (not so appetizing at first sight):

To make them useful, you must carefully pry out the fish, layer-by-layer. Use a thin bladed knife or fork if you are worried:

Next, you must rinse off the excess salt. Use cold water and a GENTLE stream of water. Otherwise you rip the delicate flesh in two or lose it down the garbage disposal. Depending on the intended use, you can actually soak the anchovies for up to 15 minutes. If they are going in a cooked dish, don't bother soaking but be aware of the salt you are bringing to the party. Check out the rinsed fish:

Finally, you must carefully pry the two fillets from the backbone and scrape off any remaining scales or fins. Your fingers are perfect for this job! The first few might be a bit tricky but you'll get the hang of it faster than I could possibly explain it. Don't be afraid of a few stray ribs or can actually bread and fry the little skeletons for a delicious and crunchy snack. Here are some fully cleaned fillets:

Once filleted, you can use immediately or refrigerate in a non-reactive airtight container covered in olive oil.
As for the hype, it is well-justified. The cleaned fillets have a meatiness and depth of flavor that most oil-packed anchovies do not match. I suspect this has more to do with the fact that most anchovies are pre-cleaned than the particular merits of salt vs. oil-packing. Keeping seafood intact always enhances the flavor and these anchovies are no exception. The above fillets were so delicious that they went right into a Caesar Salad and were consumed before I even thought to take a picture! Hopefully, we'll be seeing more uses for my 2.2 pound block of salted fish before long...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A la Catalana: Spinach with Raisins and Pine Nuts

Catalans are inordinately fond of pine nuts and raisins. They pair them with everything. Often they find their way into the segundo plato...Chicken, pork, or even fish, adorned with fruit and nuts. However, they often show up in the primero plato, along with greens. Whether locally harvested specialties or typical grocery store spinach, this is definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The crunch of the nuts contrasts perfectly with the tenderness of the greens, while the sweetness of the raisins balances their earthiness.
On another note, this is as good a time as any to mention a major difference between Spanish eating habits and American: the Spanish eat their biggest meal of the day at lunch. When dining out, one is often confronted with a daily 3-course menu. Generally, one chooses a (supposedly) light course, often a vegetable, soup, or rice dish. Next, you select a second heavier course that might be fish, chicken, meatballs, or some kind of stew. This might sound like a lot of food already, but don't forget the bread and dessert! Many Americans might feel strange chomping down on a giant plate full of green beans with no "main course" protein to accompany it. Fear not, because that giant plate of first course vegetables is more often than not topped with chopped jamon!

Espinacas a la Catalana (Catalan-style Spinach)
Serves: 2 as a Spanish-style primero plato or 4 as an American-style side dish
Cost: $2.74

1 small handful raisins
1 small handful pine nuts
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (I used leftovers from my tortilla)
1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lb. spinach, thoroughly washed and torn into bite-sized pieces
salt & pepper, to taste

1) Heat a small skillet over medium-low heat. Add the pine nuts and toast, stirring gently, until golden brown. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over the raisins in a bowl and let soak for 10 minutes. Drain and reserve.

2) Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a 12" skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 8-10 minutes, until fully translucent but not browned. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more.

3) Next, add the spinach. It will look like it doesn't fit but keep stirring. You'll be amazed how much a pound of spinach reduces after a few minutes on the heat. Cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Be especially careful to scoop up the onion and garlic to ensure an even mix.

4) Add the toasted pine nuts and reserved raisins. Continue cooking and stirring for about 2 more minutes or until most of the liquid is evaporated. Salt and pepper to taste.

Serving: Espinacas a la Catalana works well as either a Spanish-style first course or a side. In fact, if you are careful to cook off all the liquid, it makes a great filling for empanadas. Or untraditionally, leave the spinach saucy and toss with a chunky pasta (like penne or corkscrews) along with an extra 2 tablespoons of fresh extra virgin olive oil. In my case, I had tons of leftover tortilla along with some Palacios Hot Chorizo and Vella Cheese Company Toma. Along with the spinach, this made a nice meal of small plates.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Putting Hair On My Chest: Stir-fried Bitter Melon with Lamb and Black Beans

Although Spanish cooking is my greatest interest, I love to cook dishes from all of the world's great cuisines. I am especially drawn to Asian (especially Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese) cooking because of its astonishing array of ingredients, textures, and flavors. As an added bonus, Asian cooking has three practical advantages for me: 1) it helps me increase my intake of vegetables 2) it allows me to use up any leftovers easily and 3) it allows me to experiment with all sorts of "exotic" ingredients.

Last night, my wife and I ate at Barcelona. Barcelona is a great example of the upscale faux-Spanish restaurants that are common across America. Now don't get me wrong, my braised Colorado lamb shank with cheesy risotto was delicious. Memorable even. It just doesn't remind me of anything remotely resembling Spanish cuisine, traditional or nueva. Simply put, it is the type of dish any trendy American restaurant might serve.

Diatribe against American attempts to replicate Spanish food aside, my leftover lamb shank inspired me to try a classic Hunanese dish I've been thinking about for awhile. For months, I've spotted the gnarled and wrinkly bitter melon at the Asian grocery. After reading an old post from Kian at Red Cook, I finally decided to give it a shot.

Bitter melon is, well, bitter. Fiercely bitter. Will-put-hair-on-your-chest bitter. This is not for the squeamish. For some reason, bitterness is the one flavor that will cause otherwise adventerous American eaters to balk. Exactly the sort of challenge I love. The key to succeeding with bitter melon is to pair it with something equally bold. The gamy Colorado-raised lamb was the perfect ticket. Cooks in Hunan province often pair bitter melon with fermented black beans. The complex sweetness of the beans goes a long way to balance the bitterness of the melon. Surely the lamb and beans together would be enough for my first foray into bitter melon cooking...

WARNING: This dish is incredibly bitter. Bitter melon is not a joke or euphemism. If you serve this dish to a child, expect an immediate visit from Child Services!

Stir-Fried Bitter Melon with Lamb and Black Beans
Inspired by and adapted from
Serves 2 (or 4 as part of a traditional multicourse Chinese meal)
Cost: Tough to say...let's estimate $10 since leftover lamb shank is hardly commonplace

1 tbsp. fermented black beans, roughly chopped
2 tbsp. Shaoxing rice wine
2 tbsp. neutral oil (I used corn)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. ginger, minced
1-2 dried Thai red chiles (optional)
1 bitter melon, sliced lengthwise seeded and cut into bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 cups leftover lamb (or other full flavored red meat!)
1 1/2 tsp. Chinese light soy sauce
1/4 ground pepper (white is traditional but all I had was black)

1) Soak the black beans in the rice wine

2) Heat the oil in a 12" non-stick skillet or wok over high heat. When the oil is getting hot (but not yet smoking), add the garlic, ginger, and chiles. Cook, stirring, until fragrant. Add the bitter melon and cook for an additional 1 minute.

3) Add the water, black beans, and wine to the skillet. Cover and reduce heat to medium-high. Cook, shaking occasionally, for 2 minutes.

4) Uncover and add lamb. Cook for 2 more minutes until heated through. Add the soy sauce and pepper, toss, and transfer to a bowl. Serve with white rice.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Tortilla Española: Understanding a greatly misunderstood dish - Part 1

Very few Spanish dishes are subject to the same degree of hyperbolic gushing from American food writers as the tortilla española. In her excellent overview The Foods and Wines of Spain, Penelope Casas describes the tortilla as "a way of life" and waxes eloquent about Spain's "love affair" with the dish. Virtually all American-authored Spanish cookbooks worth their salt contain requisite stories detailing enthusiastic families and inquisitive tourists all experiencing the beauty of Spain, tortillas in hand. These romanticized tales have obscured the purpose and station of what is in reality a humble potato omelet.

It is certainly true that you can find Spaniards serving tortillas all over the country. During my 2-month stay in summer 2008, I rarely entered a cafe, restaurant, bar, or tavern without seeing one. Strangely (considering all I had read from Casas etc...), I did not witness the excitement and enthusiasm that I had been prepared for. First of all, the foreign tourists I encountered seemed perplexed..."This is bland. Why isn't there any ketchup?" was an all-too-common comment. Secondly, Spaniards themselves seemed virtually indifferent to the much-hyped dish. Sure, they would eat a small nibble IF it was given free as a tapa. However, virtually no one ever ordered it specifically and often the free nibble remained uneaten. What was going on here?

I've come to realize that the tortilla occupies a position in Spanish food culture somewhat analogous to tuna salad in America. Sure, most Americans will slap some between two slices of bread for a quick sandwich. Others might occasionally take a more refined approach and dress it up on some greens in a composed salad. Still others might raid the fridge, spoon in hand, for a quick snack. Despite these numerous gastronomic functions, it would sound quite silly to read about an American "love affair" with tuna salad. The tortilla needs to be understood in the same light: it's an easy, flexible, and filling foodstuff for all kinds of unremarkable daily situations.

With only 4 required ingredients (and 1 optional), it is simple to throw together in the American kitchen. You only have a few decisions to make: 1) potatoes diced or thinly sliced 2) thinly sliced onion or not and 3) hot & runny or room temperature & fully set. It is vastly more common in Spain with sliced potatoes, no onion, and served room temperature. Bartenders will cut it into small squares as a free tapa with drinks, cafes will serve thick wedges as a light meal, and moms will slide a slice between baguette slices for their kids' lunches.

In the coming weeks, I hope to explore this misunderstood dish in many of its forms. Spanish tortillas are open to all sorts of improvisation and adaptation. However, it makes sense to start with the basic and ubiquitous potato version:

Tortilla Española
Ingredients - Total Cost: $6.42
2 lbs. russet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (I set my Benriner slicer just under 1/4") into circles
1 cup extra virgin olive oil (do NOT try to economize here...much of the oil can be salvaged for other delicious purposes. Sadly, many Spaniards have resorted to sunflower seed oil)
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
6 large eggs (obviously the fresher and higher quality the a simple dish you get what you pay for)
3/4 tsp. Morton kosher salt, or to taste

1) Heat the oil in a large dutch oven over medium heat. Most recipes direct you to use the same skillet you will cook the finished tortilla in but I've found that to be an invitation to mess. Since you have to clean the skillet anyway, you aren't really saving any work. Add the sliced potatoes and onions and cook slowly for about 25 minutes. Do your best to periodically stir and separate all the layers of potato for even cooking. When the potatoes are ready, they'll be completely tender. Go ahead and taste the olive oily goodness!

2) Meanwhile, beat the eggs in a large bowl with the salt.

3) When the potatoes are fully tender, drain them in a colander with something underneath to catch the delicious oil. Let them drain for about 1 minute and then pour them into the eggs. Stir the mixture thoroughly and then let it sit for AT LEAST 15 minutes. Do NOT attempt to save time or cut corners on this step of the final flavor and texture of your tortilla will suffer.

4) Heat 2 tbsp. of the reserved oil in a 9-10" non-stick skillet over high heat. When the oil is almost (but not quite!) smoking, pour in the potato-egg mix and quickly smooth it down. Immediately, turn the heat down to medium and cook for about 4-5 minutes.

5) Now the "tricky" part...Place a large plate over the skillet. Holding it in place with a properly pot-holdered hand, FLIP the whole thing over onto the plate. Don't be alarmed if oil and runny egg ooze out onto the plate. This is perfectly normal. Use a spatula to carefully side the tortilla back into the skillet, runny side down. Pour any accumulated eggy juices on and around the tortilla and tuck in any unsightly edges.

6) Cook for 5-6 more minutes or until the eggs reach your desired stage of doneness (some Spanish chefs love a slightly underdone tortilla and use the excess egg as a "sauce"). Flip the tortilla 2 more times to ensure even doneness and shape. Slide the finished tortilla onto a plate and serve hot or cool to room temperature for other uses.

Notes and Serving: Be sure to save the extra potato oil. It is great for frying eggs, vinaigrette, and sauteed vegetables. Eat the tortilla in wedges as a light main course or cut into small squares as a snack. Although it may sound strange (think about the idea of putting American-style potato salad on bread), try a slice between a section of baguette, sliced lengthwise.