Saturday, May 14, 2022

COOKING THE WILD ASPARAGUS

Springtime in the Andalusian countryside. (Photo by Ben Searl.)

 
Stalker of the wild asparagus. (Photo by Ben Searl)


Ben returned from a hike with a bunch of wild asparagus, foraged from hillsides abloom with wildflowers. 


Wild asparagus—sometimes called esparragos trigueros, because it often grows on the verges of wheat fields—makes spindly stalks that pop up in the spring in sunny spaces, often beside irrigation ditches or near stream beds. Hidden amongst taller weeds, the stalks can sometimes be spotted by the yellowing, ferny foliage from the previous year. 

Wild asparagus can be tender or fibrous, sweet or bitter. It seems to depend on how mature the stalks are—as the tips begin to open, the stalks become more fibrous; how cool and damp the weather is, and the length of time from cutting to eating. Since any bunch of foraged asparagus is likely to range from one extreme to the other, I usually blanch all the spears before proceeding to cook them.

In Andalusia, the favorite way to prepare wild asparagus is in a tortilla or revuelto, scrambled with eggs, sometimes with the addition of a little chopped serrano ham. The asparagus also is cooked in a sauce made with a maja’o, or majado, a “mash” of bread, garlic and spices crushed in the mortar. The recipe, called “esparragado,” or “asparagussed,” is used for other vegetables, such as chard, wild thistle stems (tagarninas), cardoons, or wild silene leaves (collejas). It often is finished with eggs—fried or poached—on top of the vegetables. While usually vegetarian, the dish can be embellished with bits of ham or chorizo. 

My Esparragado includes wild and cultivated asparagus, small artichokes and sugar snaps from my garden, shelled peas and potatoes. With eggs cooked in the cazuela, it becomes a main dish. 

Asparagus and other vegetables are sautéed first, then cooked in a sauce. Eggs poached in the casserole finish the dish.


With an egg on top, the vegetables make a main dish. Croutons of fried bread add crunch.

I've used both skinny wild and thicker cultivated asparagus in this dish.


Asparagus Casserole with Spring Vegetables 
Cazuela de Esparragos Esparragados

For the cooking liquid, use chicken or vegetable stock or simply water. Use either smoked or regular pimentón (paprika). Chopped serrano ham, panceta or bacon is a nice addition. Omit it for a vegetarian version. 

You can finish the casserole with one egg per person or use fewer eggs and mix them into the vegetables before serving. Croutons of fried bread add crunch to the vegetable melange.



I’ve got a few small (tiny) artichokes from the garden, so I’m cooking them whole. If using medium or large artichokes, cut them into quarters or smaller segments. Snap off several layers of outer leaves, scoop out the fuzzy chokes and drop the artichokes right into the oil in the cazuela. No need to put them in lemon water.


20 ounces asparagus (3 cups cut up)
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 slices bread, crusts removed
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup chopped onion 
2 ounces chopped pancetta, ham or bacon (optional)
1 teaspoon pimentón (paprika)
½ teaspoon cumin
1-2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 medium artichokes, quartered
2 medium potatoes
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups stock or water
1 cup shelled peas, sugar snap peas or fava beans
4 eggs
Chopped parsley


Wild asparagus.

Snap off and discard the butt-ends of the asparagus. Cut the stalks into 1-inch pieces. If using wild asparagus, which sometimes is fairly bitter, blanch it in boiling salted water for 2 minutes and drain.

Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a cazuela or deep skillet. Fry the slices of bread and garlic until they are golden. Remove them and reserve. 

Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan. Sauté the onions and pancetta, if using, until onion is softened, 5 minutes. Stir in the cut-up asparagus and fry for 2 minutes. Stir in the pimentón and cumin. Add the vinegar and cook 1 minute. Add the artichokes and potatoes, peeled and cut into small pieces. Season with salt and pepper. Add 1 ½ cups of the stock or water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and cook, covered, until asparagus is tender, 15 minutes.

Break up one slice of fried bread into a blender with the fried garlic. Add the remaining ½ cup of the stock or water and blend to make a smooth paste. Stir the paste into the pan with the vegetables. Add the peas. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook, covered, stirring frequently, until sauce is thickened and vegetables are cooked.

Break eggs into a small bowl, one by one, and slide them into the pan. Cover and simmer until whites are set but yolks still runny.

Croutons of fried bread.
Cut the remaining slice of fried bread into cubes. Scatter them on top of the vegetables or serve alongside. Garnish the cazuela with chopped parsley.


More about asparagus:





Sunday, May 8, 2022

FOUR WAYS WITH FISH FILLETS

 A local fish vendor, in a good marketing move, started offering fish en filetes, filleted and ready to cook. Up until then, I had to buy a whole fish, then ask him/her to fillet it for me. Sometimes, if I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cook the fish whole, I wound up doing the job myself. 


Now I could avail myself of fillets of mackerel, sea bass and gallineta, a particularly tasty rock fish. Here are some of the ways I found to cook fillets—pan fried, steamed, broiled and poached.

Pan Fried

Fillets cut from the tail of a whole hake are lightly breaded and pan fried. Served on a bed of pisto, a vegetable mélange that serves as side and sauce.

Steamed

Lomo is the center cut of the hake. It is steamed on a layer of three kinds of seaweed with some sugar snap peas from the garden. Warmed olive oil with a touch of chile, garlic, pimentón and sesame sauces the fish. 

Broiled
Fillets of sea bass broiled on a sheet pan with asparagus.

Poached

Delicate sole fillets are wrapped around thinly sliced ham and poached in simmering fish stock, served with a creamy sauce with mushrooms and shrimp. 



Pan-Fried Hake Fillets with Pisto
Merluza Rebozada con Pisto

Pisto—not to be confused with pesto—is a vegetable melange that serves as both side dish and sauce for the fish. 

I bought a whole hake and had the fish vendor fillet it. I used the tail fillets for this fried fish and saved the lomo, or center section, for the steamed fish recipe. This method of breading the fish—dipping it first in flour and then in beaten egg—is especially good for delicate fish such as hake. It works well with cod or sole too. It’s good, too, for firm-fleshed fish, such as pargo and urta, two kinds of bream, that are first fried, then finish cooking in a sauce. The egg coating protects the fish so that it doesn't fall apart. Season the flour with any dried herb—oregano, thyme, garlic powder. Flour the fish and dip it in egg immediately before frying.

For the pisto
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green pepper
½ cup chopped red and yellow bell pepper
1 ½ cups diced zucchini
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 cup peeled and diced tomato
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Oregano
Red pepper flakes (optional)
Black olives to garnish

Heat oil in a skillet and add the onion and peppers. Sauté, stirring, until onions are softened, 5 minutes. Add the zucchini, garlic and tomatoes. Season with salt, pepper, oregano and red pepper flakes, if using. Cook until tomatoes release their juices and zucchini is just tender, 5 minutes. Serve the pisto garnished with black olives. 

To pan-fry the fish
Fish fillets, 5-6 ounces each
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper 
Flour 
Seasoning for flour, as desired
Beaten eggs(s)
Olive oil for frying
Pisto, to serve

Pat fillets dry with paper towels. Season them with salt and pepper. Place flour, seasoned, if desired, in a shallow bowl. Place beaten egg in another shallow bowl.

Dredge fish fillets first in flour, then dip in beaten egg before frying in olive oil.



Place oil in a skillet to a depth of ½ inch and place on moderately high heat. Dredge fillets first in flour, covering them thoroughly. Pat off excess flour. Dip the floured fillets in the egg, coating them completely. Fry them in hot oil until golden. Turn and fry the reverse side. 

Drain the fish on paper towels.


Serve the fillets on a bed of pisto.


Hake Steamed with Seaweed
Merluza al Vapor con Alga

Steaming is such a good way to cook delicate fish such as hake. This recipe, which uses several kinds of seaweed (alga) to flavor the fish, is adapted from Cocina con Algas, published by Portomuiños, producers of seaweed products in Galicia (northwest Spain). I´ve added garlic and pimentón to the finished dish.  The recipe called for four kinds of seaweed—kombu (sugar kelp), wakame, sea spaghetti and musgo de Irlanda, Irish moss, which I did not have. (More about cooking with algae here.)  

Use a bamboo steamer or a vegetable steamer basket, if you have one. If not, improvise. A Moroccan cous cous steamer. Heatproof metal colander. Metal cake rack. An inverted pie pan with a heatproof plate on top. The steamer needs to fit inside a deep skillet or wok with a lid. Add enough water to the skillet to reach just below the level of the steamer rack. 

Arrange the fish on top of the seaweed in a single layer. If you have more servings than will fit, do a second steaming. Vegetables such as asparagus tips or sugar snap peas can be steamed with the fish.  

Wakame, sea spaghetti and kombu.
Serves 2.

4 (3-ounce) pieces of hake fillet with skin
Salt
2 to 4 kinds of dried seaweed, such as kombu, wakame, sea spaghetti and Irish moss (about 1 ounce total)
3-inch piece of leek
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 dried chile
1 clove garlic, crushed
½ teaspoon sesame seeds
¼ teaspoon pimentón de la Vera (smoked paprika)
Asparagus tips or sugar snap peas

Salt the pieces of fish and let them come to room temperature.

Rehydrate each of the kinds of seaweed by soaking them in cold water for 10 minutes. Drain well. Cut large pieces into strips. Separate strands of sea spaghetti. Place all of the seaweed in the steamer. Cut the piece of leek into lengthwise strands and mix them with the seaweed. 

Steam fish on a layer of seaweed.


Heat the oil in a small skillet with the chile and garlic until garlic begins to turn golden. Remove from heat and add the sesame seeds. (Cover the pan to prevent the sesame from popping out.) Remove cover and stir in the pimentón and ¼ teaspoon of salt. Remove chile and garlic. Keep sauce warm.

Arrange the pieces of fish, skin-side up, on top of the layer of seaweed. Tuck asparagus or peas around the fish. Bring the water in the steamer pan or skillet to a boil. Place the steamer over the water, reduce heat so the water boils gently and cover the pan tightly. Steam the fish until it just flakes when prodded with a skewer, about 5 minutes for the 3-ounce pieces.

Steamed fish is moist. 


Broiled Fillets of Sea Bass
Filetes de Lubina al Grill (Gratinador)

A topping of seasoned mayonnaise keeps the fillets moist under the broiler heat. The crumbs give a final crispness. You’ll only need about a teaspoon of the mayo for each fillet. Use the rest to serve alongside as a sauce. 

I used fillets of sea bass (lubina), but gilthead (dorada), scorpionfish (gallineta) or other firm-fleshed white fish would work well. Thicker salmon fillets can be broiled using the same method. The fish is done when browned on top. Timing depends on the thickness of the fillets. Thin sea bass fillets needed only about 4 minutes (6 inches from the heat source). For thick fillets, increase the distance between the pan and the heating element. (The British and Spanish call a broiler a “grill.”)
 
Fish fillets, 5-6 ounces each
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper 
Olive oil 
¼ cup mayonnaise
1 clove garlic, crushed
Chopped parsley
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
¼ cup fine dry bread crumbs
½ teaspoon pimentón de la Vera (smoked paprika)

Sprinkle fillets with salt and pepper. In a small bowl whisk the mayonnaise with the garlic, parsley and lemon juice.

Spread fish with mayonnaise and crumbs before broiling.




Preheat broiler to maximum. Arrange the fillets on a broiler pan or sheet pan that has been lightly brushed with olive oil. Spread about 1 teaspoon of mayonnaise on top of each fillet. Combine the bread crumbs and pimenton. Sprinkle 1-2 teaspoons of crumbs on top of each fillet.

Place the pan about 6 inches under the heating element. Broil until the top of the fish is browned. 


Broil asparagus and par-boiled potatoes on a sheet pan alongside the fish.



Fillets of Sole with Ham and Mushroom Sauce
Filetes de Lenguado con Jamón y Salsa de Champiñones

The sole fillets are folded around thinly sliced ham, then poached in fish stock. Make the sauce separately and reheat it once the fish is ready to serve. This recipe would be equally good made with other flat fish such as turbot (rodaballo), flounder (gallo) or John Dory (pez de san pedro). Depending on how the fish is filleted, you may have two or four fillets from one fish. 

Use store-bought fish stock for the poaching and sauce. Or make a quick stock by cooking head, bones and trimmings in water with leek, kombu (seaweed), lemon and salt. (You can also cook potatoes or rice in the stock to serve with the fish.)

Serves 2.

8 (1 ½-ounce) fillets of sole (from 2 fish)
Salt
1 ½ ounces thinly sliced ibérico or serrano ham
Fish stock for poaching the fish

For the sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
½ cup finely chopped mushrooms
¼ cup dry white wine
½ cup fish stock
1/3 cup cream
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup chopped cooked shrimp
Finely chopped parsley

Fold fillets around sliced ham.
Spread the fillets out flat. Sprinkle them with salt. Top each fillet with strips of ham. Fold the fillets over the ham into thirds. Cut strips of foil 2 inches wide. Wrap the bands like a belt around the center of the folded fillets. Pinch the ends of the foil together to prevent the fillets from unrolling. 

Choose a pan or skillet just large enough to hold the fish in one layer. Add stock to a depth to cover the rolled fillets. Bring it to a boil, reduce heat and carefully place the fish in the poaching liquid. Simmer, covered, until the fish just flakes, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the fish with a slotted spoon to a heated platter. 

For the mushroom sauce:
Heat the oil in a saucepan or small skillet and sauté the shallots and mushrooms until softened, but not browned, 5 minutes. Add the wine and cook off the alcohol, 2 minutes. Add the fish stock and cook 10 minutes. Add the cream and cook until the sauce is reduced and beginning to thicken, 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the chopped shrimp and heat. 

Serve the sauce with the fish. Sprinkle with parsley. 



More recipes for fish fillets:






Saturday, April 30, 2022

THE PASTEL CONUNDRUM

Is pastel a cake or a pie, a tart or, simply, “pastry”? This spinach pie—or is it a tart?—is called “pastel.” I was reminded of pastel de espinacas a couple weeks ago when I made a Sephardic dish, called mina, for a vegetarian Passover meal. It consists of spinach with egg-cheese custard layered with matzo. That recipe is Turkish-Sephardic, but it probably came originally from Spain. So I went searching for the Spanish original that doesn’t require matzo to make.


“Pastel” is usually a custardy mixture, often with vegetables, baked in a crust, open-faced, like a tart, or completely encased. But it can also be baked with no crust in a loaf pan, thus, more of a terrine (also called cuajado). Versatile and delicious, the pastel can be served either hot or cold. Add a grain salad for a vegetarian lunch. Pair it with smoked salmon for brunch. Pack the pastel on a picnic. 

 
This spinach tart has a flaky pastry crust, a cheesy-spinach layer, a custard layer and cheese-crumb topping.





Serve the tart with a grain salad for a vegetarian lunch.


Or, pair the tart with smoked salmon for brunch.




Spinach Tart
Pastel de Espinacas

The spinach tart is vegetarian, but it can be embellished with diced bacon or ham, if desired. 

You could use store-bought prepared pie dough. I made a simple pasta quebrada, flaky pastry crust with olive oil. Bake the open-faced tart in a round, square or rectangular pan. 

 Any soft or crumbly cheese, such as well-drained cottage cheese, ricotta or crumbled feta cheese, is suitable for the tart. I used queso fresco de cabra, a soft, fresh white goat’s milk cheese. Part of the cheese-egg-milk mixture gets mixed with the spinach; the rest goes on top of the spinach to form a custard.

I used two bags of fresh spinach, weighing about 1 ¼ pounds. Once cooked and drained, the spinach weighed 12 ounces, making about 1 ¾ cups. Frozen spinach can be substituted for fresh. After thawing, be sure to squeeze out as much moisture as possible.

For the olive oil crust (pasta quebrada) :
1 ¼ cups flour + additional for rolling out dough
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1 egg, separated 
3 tablespoons olive oil + additional for the tart pan
4-5 tablespoons water

Combine the flour, salt and baking powder in a mixing bowl. Place the egg yolk in a small bowl. (Reserve the egg white to add to the spinach pie batter.) Whisk the oil and 4 tablespoons of water with the yolk.

Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the yolk-oil-water mixture. Gradually stir the flour into the liquid ingredients to make a soft dough. Add additional water if necessary. Turn the dough out on a lightly floured board and gently knead just to combine the ingredients well. Gather the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl. Cover with a clean cloth. Leave at room temperature to rest at least 1 hour. (The dough can be prepared a day in advance, wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated. Bring it to room temperature before rolling out.) 

Line baking pan with dough.

When ready to bake the tart, roll the dough out on a lightly floured board into a rectangle. Fold it in thirds and roll it out again. Repeat, folding and rolling two more times. 

Oil a (9X12-inch) baking pan. Roll the dough into a rectangle to fit the baking pan. Roll the dough onto the rolling pin and lift it onto the baking pan. Line the bottom and part way up the sides of the pan with the dough. 






Soft goat's cheese with spinach for the filling.
For the spinach tart:
1 ¼ pounds fresh spinach
3 tablespoons olive oil
2-3 leeks and/or spring onions, chopped (2 cups)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 ounce diced bacon (optional)
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of ground cloves
4 eggs (or 3 eggs + 1 reserved egg white)
16 ounces queso fresco or equivalent cheese
1 cup evaporated milk
Grated nutmeg
Tart pan lined with pastry dough (recipe above)
2 ounces grated cheese (1 cup)
1 ounce fine dry bread crumbs (¼ cup)
1 teaspoon pimentón de la Vera (smoked paprika)

Cook, drain and chop the spinach.
Wash the spinach if necessary. Place in a pot with a little water. Cover and cook until the leaves are wilted. Drain well. When cool, pick up handfuls of the spinach and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Place the cooked spinach on a cutting board and chop it coarsely.  

Heat the oil in a skillet on moderate heat. Add the chopped leeks or onions, garlic and bacon, if using. Sauté until leeks are softened, but not browned, 10 minutes. Add the chopped spinach to the skillet. Season with ½ teaspoon salt, pepper and cloves. Remove from heat and let cool.

Preheat oven to 400ºF.

Combine the eggs, cheese and evaporated milk in a deep mixing bowl. Use an immersion blender to beat the ingredients until smooth. Season with salt (½ teaspoon or to taste—depending on how salty the cheese is) and nutmeg. 

Spread spinach on crust.
Mix 1 ½ cups of the egg-cheese-milk mixture into the spinach. Spread the spinach evenly in the dough-lined pan. Pour the remaining egg-cheese-milk mixture evenly on top of the spinach.

In a small bowl, combine the grated cheese, bread crumbs and pimentón. Sprinkle the cheese-crumb mixture on top of the tart.

Bake 10 minutes. Lower temperature to 375ºF. Bake until a skewer comes out clean, 25 minutes more. Let the tart rest 10 minutes before slicing. Serve it hot, warm, room temperature or chilled.

Grain salad to accompany the spinach tart.

The grain salad served with the spinach tart is made with wheat berries, a product called trigo tierno that only needs 10 minutes cooking time. Farro or barley would be a good substitute. The grains are mixed with chopped radishes, scallions, celery, cucumber, cherry tomatoes and pistachios. The dressing is extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and chopped mint plus salt and pepper.






This is a slice of mina, the spinach-cheese-matzo Passover pie that I made a couple weeks ago. Obviously related to pastel! 


More versions of pastel, tart, terrine, pie and timbale: