Saturday, June 16, 2018

BEFORE THERE WERE TOMATOES—

Córdoba, capital of the 10th century Moorish caliphate, is known for the dish of salmorejo, a thick tomato-based gazpacho cream. Once a meal for field hands working in the olive groves, wheat fields and vineyards of Andalusia, salmorejo today is served in tapa bars and restaurants with garnishes such as exquisite ibérico ham or chunks of tuna. 


The origins of salmorejo are Moorish. But, hang on. There weren’t any tomatoes back then. Tomatoes, “discovered” in the New World after Columbus, did not become widely cultivated in Spain until the 18th century. Indeed, the original salmorejo contained no tomatoes. It was probably first a simple gruel made by Roman legionnaires, of bread crushed with olive oil and garlic. The Moors, who introduced almond trees to the Iberian peninsula, added ground almonds to the bread, creating a dish far more appetizing and nourishing.

Mazamorra is a savory almond cream, chilled and garnished with ham, egg and olives.
Known as mazamorra, this white almond cream is to salmorejo as the white cold soup with almonds, ajo blanco (“white garlic”), is to tomato gazpacho—its precursor.

Green almonds, before the fibrous shells have hardened. The nut kernel can be used in place of shelled almonds.

Mazamorra was originally made in a wooden bowl by pounding the almonds with a mallet or pestle (the maza). Nowadays it is easily confected in a blender or food processor. It can be made with “green” almonds where available. Or, in place of almonds, pine nuts, dried fava beans, carob, lupin beans or vetch. Originally poor folks’ food, mazamorra was made with whatever was available in season.

Because it is a Cordoban dish, I recommend that you use extra virgin olive oil from Córdoba. The Picual variety has a fresh, fruity flavor with just a little bite. By the same reasoning, vinegar from the Córdoba wine region of Montilla-Moriles would be the preferred choice, although Sherry or other wine vinegar can be used. Unlike ajo blanco, which has “garlic” right in its name, mazamorra has a very gentle hint of garlic. The bread should be a dense crumb country loaf. How much water is needed to convert the bread and almonds to a thick cream depends on the bread and the power of your blender. The consistency of the mixture should be a thick cream or stiff mayonnaise.

Serve the mazamorra in shallow bowls or ramekins.
Variations on the garnish, clockwise from the top, sliced apple, vegetable crisps, and diced ham and melon balls.

Serve the almond cream as a party dip with vegetable dippers.

Vegetable crisps (carrot, kale, beet) add crunch to the smooth cream.

Use the mazamorra as a sauce or salad dressing. Delicious on this salad of diced chicken, nectarines, toasted almonds, chives and salad greens.


Serve mazamorra very cold as a starter in small bowls garnished with chopped ham, hard-cooked eggs and olives. Like ajo blanco which is served garnished with Málaga muscatel grapes, mazamorra also goes nicely with sweet fruits. Try melon, mango or ripe figs. Or turn it into a dip accompanied by vegetable dippers. Or, use it as a sauce or salad dressing.

Cold Almond Cream, Córdoba Style
Mazamorra Cordobesa

Serves 6 as a starter.

Almonds, garlic, bread and oil.
4 cups (8 ounces) fresh bread crumbs
1 ½ cups cold water plus additional as needed
1 cup blanched and skinned almonds (see below)
1 large clove garlic
1 ½ tablespoons Sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup extra virgin olive oil plus additional to finish
Garnishes: chopped serrano ham, hard-boiled egg and black olives


Place the bread crumbs in a bowl and add the water. Stir to moisten the bread and let it set 10 minutes to soften. Add the almonds, garlic, vinegar and salt. Process in a blender or food processor until almonds are ground and the mixture is a thick paste. Blend in the oil. Add additional water, a spoonful at a time, to make a thick cream. Refrigerate the cream.

Serve the almond cream in shallow bowls or ramekins garnished with chopped ham, egg and olives. Drizzle with additional olive oil.

Two ways to blanch and skin almonds: Soak the shelled almonds in water to cover overnight OR drop them in boiling water for 1 minute. Pinch off the brown skins leaving the white almonds.





Green almonds in June. Earlier in the spring the whole almond is edible--outer pod, immature shell and gelatinous kernel. I used a handful of the kernels with regular shelled almonds to make the mazamorra.

Related recipes for salmorejo, porra and ajo blanco:

Saturday, June 9, 2018

FRY SOME MORE!

Last week when I posted about Málaga mixed fish fry, I touted olive oil as the best medium for frying foods. Yep, forget the old wives’ tale about “low smoking point.” The truth is olive oil is remarkably stable at frying temperatures.


I also made the point that olive oil, unlike other vegetable oils, can be strained and safely reused.  The result is that I’ve got about six cups of once-used, slightly fish-flavored, olive oil to use up.

Laboratory studies have shown that foods fried in olive oil absorb less oil than those fried in other oils. That means the oil lasts longer and the food is less greasy. (The test used potatoes, weighed before and after frying in olive oil, sunflower oil and soy oil.)

Extra virgin olive when heated does lose some of the organoleptic qualities, such as fruitiness, for which it is so valued. For that reason, don’t use your most delicate and expensive oils for frying. They are best saved for using raw. Best for frying is a very stable Picual variety olive oil from Andalusia.

I’m using some of my leftover oil for pan-frying. And, not just for fish—potatoes, eggs, breaded chicken cutlets are all fine. But this is definitely a good excuse to fry some more! How about some gambas rebozadas, batter-fried shrimp?

Batter-fried shrimp are crunchy on the outside, moist on the inside.


Gambas rebozadas is a tapa I learned to make in local (Andalusian) tapa bars. The batter usually includes chopped parsley, saffron or yellow coloring and, often, minced garlic too. Cleverly, the shrimp are speared on toothpicks and dunked into the batter, picks and all.  

The Madrid version, called gambas en gabardinas, or shrimp in “raincoats,” is a little different. Instead of toothpicks, the tails are left on the peeled shrimp and no garlic or yellow coloring is added to the batter.

The simple egg-flour batter has a little baking powder or baking soda to make it puffier. The batter can be prepared in advance, but, if possible, dip and fry the shrimp immediately before serving. The shrimp are best served right after frying, as the coating loses its crispness as it cools. If necessary, reheat them in a skillet lightly coated with oil or in a medium oven.

While Málaga mixed fish fry is served with only lemon, the batter-fried shrimp are often served with a dipping sauce. Alioli, garlic mayonnaise, and salsa rosa, “pink” cocktail sauce, are the most usual, but plenty other sauces will complement the shrimp (see below for some suggestions).

Batter-fried shrimp are a favorite Spanish tapa.



Many dipping sauces for the shrimp. This is alioli, garlic mayonnaise with finely chopped parsley.

Batter-Fried Shrimp
Gambas Rebozadas

The same batter can be used for vegetables such as cooked cauliflower, mushrooms, artichoke hearts.

It is usual to devein shrimp before battering. The vein, a black thread that runs the length of the shrimp, is edible, but not pretty.

Serves 6 as a tapa.

1 ¼  pounds large shrimp (about 30 shrimp)
1 egg
½ teaspoon vinegar
½ tablespoon finely chopped parsley
Pinch of saffron threads, crushed
Minced garlic (opitional)
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ cup flour
1/3 cup water
Olive oil for frying
Dipping sauce, to serve

Shrimp on the left have been peeled and stuck on toothpicks. The ones on the right have tails intact. Either picks or tails are useful for picking up the shrimp.
Remove vein with knife tip.

Peel and devein the shrimp, leaving tails intact, if desired. Or, peel the tails and spear the shrimp on toothpicks.

Beat the egg in a bowl. Stir in the vinegar, parsley, saffron, garlic, if using, salt and baking powder. Stir in the flour. Add the water and mix to make a smooth batter. The batter should be the consistency of heavy cream so that it coats the shrimp. Add additional water if necessary. Let the batter stand 1 hour.

Place oil to a depth of 1 inch in a skillet and heat to 360ºF. At that temperature, a cube of bread should brown in 25 seconds.

Using tails or picks to pick up the shrimp. Dip them in batter and fry until golden on one side. Use tongs to carefully turn the shrimp to brown on reverse side. They need only 2-4 minutes.

Fry shrimp until golden, turning them once.

Drain shrimp on paper towels to absorb excess oil.

Skim out the shrimp and place on paper towels to drain briefly. Serve hot accompanied by dipping sauce.


Use the same batter to coat vegetables. These are quartered (raw) mushrooms dropped into the batter and added to the hot oil by spoonfuls.

Sauces to accompany batter-fried shrimp:

And, another recipe for batter-fried seafood:

Saturday, June 2, 2018

FISH FRY, MÁLAGA STYLE

To eat fried fish at a chiringuito, a  beach-side restaurant, on Málaga’s Mediterranean coast is to experience a profound sense of place. Here, close enough to the sea to get your toes wet, where the fishing boats are pulled up on the sand, the fish are fresh. Where olive groves still cover the hills (admittedly, fewer, as resort developments have sprung up), olive oil is on its home turf. This is fried fish at its best.



Pescaíto frito, Málaga style mixed fish fry.


The fish used for a mixed fish fry are small ones--four-inch fresh anchovies; sole that measure only six inches; baby hake, called pescadilla; tiny red mullet, arguably the tastiest of Mediterranean fish; rings of squid. All are dusted with flour, fried golden in bubbling olive oil and served piping hot, heaped on a platter with nothing more elaborate than lemon to accompany them.

. Some of the fish typical of a Málaga fish fry, clockwise from the left are pieces of pescadilla (small hake), salmonetes (red mullet), calamares (rings of squid), langostinos (large shrimp) and boquerones (fresh anchovies). Pictured are fish to serve two.

How to translate this Mediterranean fish fry to other shores?. You will need three or four different whole small fish. Some fish I found in American markets that could be used include small flounder, sand dab, Boston whiting (very much like pescadilla), herring, tiny mackerel, smelt, butterstar, small white snapper. Fish on the bone hold together better than fillets, though certainly fillets or crosswise slices of fish could be substituted for whole ones.

Fish should be gutted and the heads removed. Sole or flounder are usually skinned. Slice any fish that are more than 8 inches long into 2-inch segments. Squid should be cleaned and cut in rings. After cleaning, leave the fish in a colander so it doesn’t sit in leaked liquid.

Dredge fish in flour.

Use a sieve to shake off excess flour.

Have a large bowl or tray of flour ready. Dredge several small fish or a handful of squid rings in flour, then transfer them to a sieve and shake off excess flour. Spanish cooks use a flat-bottomed coarse sieve with a wooden frame. Removing excess flour prevents it from falling to the bottom of the pan and burning.

The oil is important. Olive oil is best and traditional. It’s why fried fish is so popular in Andalusia. But, truth be told, most of those chiringuitos and fry shops don’t use real olive oil, because it’s expensive. Cheaper vegetable oils such as sunflower are used instead.

But, if you use extra virgin olive oil, the results will be astonishingly good. Forget any old wives’ tales about olive oil and low smoking point. Olive oil is very stable at high temperatures. Foods absorb less of the oil in frying compared to those fried in other oils. In any case, you don't need to heat it beyond 360ºF.

Fish frying in bubbling olive oil.

A deep-fryer is handy because it allows you to fry a larger quantity of fish at one time than you can in a frying pan. The frying basket makes it easy to submerge the fish and then remove it. Plus, electric fryers have thermostatic controls so you can regulate the temperature.

However, you can prepare great fried fish without any special equipment. You will need a deep skillet or heavy sauté pan with sloping sides. A flat-bottomed wok would work too.

The oil needs to be only deep enough to completely cover the largest pieces of fish. In the case of this fish fry, a depth of 1 ½  inches is probably sufficient. Depending on the size of the frying pan, you will need 4-6 cups of oil. Don’t fill the pan more than one-third full.

Use a deep-frying thermometer if you have one. Heat olive oil to 350-360º.  At this temperature, it takes a cube of bread about 25 seconds to brown. Olive oil is not heated to temperatures as high as other cooking oils (usually 375º). For this reason, combining two kinds of oil is not recommended. The coating of flour on the fish immediately forms a crust, so the oil doesn’t penetrate. The food will fry to a nice gold, not dark brown.

Fry each type or size of fish separately. Fry the larger and thicker ones first. Use a long-handled skimmer or spatula to carefully place the floured fish in the hot oil. Add fish in one layer, without crowding. Sometimes moisture escapes from the fish and causes the oil to splutter, so stand well back.

Drain fish briefly on paper toweling to absorb excess oil.

Let the fish fry until golden. Timing is everything and this takes experience. Small pieces of fish will be cooked in the time it take them to turn golden, 2-4 minutes. Use the skimmer to remove the fish. Place it on a tray lined with paper towels. Salt it lightly.

When all the fish is fried, serve immediately.

The oil can be cooled, strained and stored in a dark place to be used one or two more times.

Serve the mixed fish fry with any fresh salad—greens, roasted red peppers, a chopped salad such as pipirrana or tangy gazpacho. Traditionally, the fried fish is accompanied by only lemon. No sauce is needed.

Fresh salad is the best side with fried fish. This is pipirrana (link to the recipe is below).

Fish fried in olive oil is golden and crisp.


Mixed Fish Fry
Pescaíto Frito

In Spain you can buy special flour for frying, harina para freir. Some brands are just coarse wheat flour. Others are a combination of wheat flour and chickpea flour or wheat flour, cornstarch and cornmeal. Some cooks like to add fine bread crumbs or fine semolina to the flour to give the coating a little extra crunch. But plain, all-purpose flour is fine.

¾ -1 pound cleaned small fish and squid per person
Flour for dredging
Olive oil for frying
Salt
Lemon wedges for serving   

Pour oil to a depth of 1 ½ inches in a deep skillet. Heat it to 360ºF.

Dredge fish in flour, shake off excess and fry in hot oil, a few pieces at a time, until they are golden. Remove and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt.

Serve the fish hot with lemon wedges.

Provide plates for bones and tails. Fried fresh anchovies can be eaten, bones and all, discarding only the tail.

Salads to serve alongside fried fish:
More recipes with fresh anchovies (boquerones):