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Old World meets the New in dinner fit for Columbus Day

CookingColumbus Day

It is to be hoped that the little dears are learning more in school than that Columbus Day is all about appliance and mattress sales. Indeed, he is credited with "discovering" America, which was, you might agree, a rather momentous achievement, albeit unintentional. Oh sure, the Vikings are purported to have gotten here first, but they didn't stay. And another Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, got to have his name emblazoned on our dollar bills. But it is Christopher Columbus who "found" these shores and decided to colonize them, for good or ill.

And while the wily Genovese dared to traverse uncharted waters in search of a cash crop, it was King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, rulers of Castile, Spain, who provided the financial backing for the venture. And even though their logos weren't emblazoned on the Nina, Pinta, or Santa Maria (a la M&T Bank Stadium), they deserve credit for their farsightedness.

Ergo, in their honor, as well as that of Signore Columbus, we whip up a dinner of Spanish origins, planned to feed eight of our closest compadres. It features ingredients from the Old World and the New. Our menu is fairly simple, although a couple of the recipes are a bit complex, namely because they have a number of ingredients.

We begin with Salt Cod Fritters that you'll accompany with store-bought dunks, such as tartar sauce, seafood sauce, and/or perhaps an artichoke dip. Of course, you'll be serving Spanish wines – red, white, even sangria, throughout.

Our main course is a perennial favorite of mine — Paella. This upscale version of Arroz con pollo, is begun on top of the stove, then finished in the oven. To go with, we suggest you toss together a mixed-green salad, topped with mild goat cheese and toasted almond slivers, then drizzled with a homemade tarragon vinaigrette.

Our dessert — Coconut Crème Brulee — is a take on the classic flan. Cinnamon spiced coffee and some almond cookies can accompany.

Bon appetite.

Salt cod fritters

We use yeast for our batter, here, making our fritters akin to beignets. Other ingredients you might not have on hand include whole milk, evaporated milk and cake flour. And salt cod, of course, which was in wide use (no refrigeration) in Mediterranean countries during Columbus's time.

You should be able to find salt cod at an Italian or Latino specialty store. If not, head for a deli and pick out six or seven of the plumpest smoked whitefish you can find. If using these for the fritters, skin and bone them after poaching.

Note: You can soak the salt out of the cod the night before, then put together the fritter batter the morning of and refrigerate. Be sure to bring the batter to room temperature for 1 hour before frying.

Fish

1 cup finely cubed dried salt cod or 7 or 8 plump smoked whitefish

8 cups water

1 3/4 cup whole milk

2 large garlic cloves, peeled, crushed

1 bay leaf

2 teaspoons olive oil

1/2 cup finely minced Vidalia onion

Batter

1/4 cup evaporated milk

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast

1 large egg, beaten

1 tablespoon melted unsalted butter

1 3/4 cups cake flour

Addenda

2 tablespoons minced chives

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed

1/8 teaspoon each, black pepper and cayenne pepper

Light olive oil and/or vegetable oil, for frying

For the fish: If using salt cod, in a large pot, cover cod with the 8 cups water, cover pot and let stand overnight. If using smoked fish, skip this step.

Drain cod, rinse well, drain again. Transfer to a medium saucepan over medium heat. (Or place smoked whitefish in pan.) Add whole milk, garlic and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low and poach fish for 20 minutes. Drain, reserving poaching liquid. Discard bay leaf. Place cod and garlic on a plate and use a fork to finely mash them together. If using whitefish, remove skin and any bones first, then mash fish together with garlic. Set aside.

In a small skillet, heat the olive oil and sauté onion in it for about 5 minutes, until translucent. Set aside.

For the batter: in a small saucepan, heat 1/2 cup of the fish poaching liquid, the evaporated milk and sugar to 105 degrees. Transfer to a medium bowl. Sprinkle yeast over top. Let stand 15 minutes, until "spongy." Stir in beaten egg and melted butter.

In a large bowl, whisk together the cake flour, minced chives, lemon peel, salt, fennel seed and black and cayenne peppers. Stir in yeast mixture. Stir in cod/fish mixture, then onion. Stir 1 minute longer.

Butter (or use shortening) a medium bowl. Transfer batter to bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour. Or refrigerate, then bring to room temperature 1 hour before frying.

To finish: Heat oven to 300 degrees. Line a baking sheet with paper towels.

In a large, heavy saucepan, over medium-high, begin heating enough oil to measure a depth of 1 and one-half inches. Add a deep-fry thermometer. The oil is ready when it reaches 115 to 125 degrees. Work in batches, using about 1 tablespoon batter for each fritter. Fry fritters until golden, turning occasionally, about 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove first batch of fritters to prepared baking sheet and place it in the oven to keep warm. Continue frying until all batter is used up. (You'll be making about 32 fritters.)

When ready to serve, remove to an attractive platter, garnish with some fresh chives and offer suggested dunks on the side.

Paella

Pronounced "pie-AY-ya," this is as nice a one-pot dinner as you can find anywhere. A paelleria (pan) is ideal for this dish; mine is red inside and black outside. But you can use a large, deep, oven-proof skillet as this dish is plenty colorful as it is. Don't forget salad (suggested above). If you must have bread, a lovely, fresh baguette will work well.

Addenda

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 large red bell peppers, in 1/4 inch strips

3/4 pound haricots verts, trimmed, steamed al dente, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 (10-ounce) packages frozen artichoke hearts, thawed, quartered

The rice

2 dozen little neck clams, scrubbed

2 dozen small mussels, scrubbed, de-bearded if necessary

2/3 cup dry white wine

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken "fingers," trimmed

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large Spanish onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons Spanish paprika

1 1/2 teaspoons saffron threads softened in one-fourth cup warm water

2 1/2 cups medium-grain rice

About 1 1/2 cans (14.5 -ounces each) diced tomatoes, drained (save liquid)

2 1/4 cups reduced fat/sodium chicken broth

For the addenda: in a large, non-tick skillet, over medium, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add red peppers and sauté until crisp-tender, about 4 minutes. Add al dente green beans and artichoke hearts and sauté another 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Cover loosely with foil to keep warm.

In a large saucepan, over medium-high, cook clams and mussels in wine for about 10 minutes, removing them to a bowl as they open. After 12 minutes of cooking, discard any shellfish that haven't opened. Drain cooking liquid through a cheesecloth-lined sieve set over a bowl. Pour cooking liquid into a glass measuring cup. Add enough water to make 2 cups. Keep handy.

In paella pan or large, oven-proof skillet, over medium-high, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil. Season chicken fingers with pepper (and salt, if you must). Sauté chicken in batches, until golden brown, turning several times. Transfer chicken to a plate.

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Add onion and garlic to paella pan and sauté over medium heat for about 6 minutes, until softened. Add paprika and softened saffron threads and cook 2 minutes. Add rice and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Stir in tomatoes. Add seafood cooking liquid, chicken broth, the chicken fingers (with accumulated juices) and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to simmer and cook gently, stirring, and rotating pan, until rice has absorbed most of the liquid and spoon leaves a path exposing bottom of pan when pulled through rice, about 15 minutes. (After this, try not to stir the rice again.)

Remove pan from heat and tuck the clams and mussels into the rice. Bake rice, uncovered, until a crust forms around the edge of the pan and liquid is absorbed, about 10 more minutes.

Remove from oven and tuck the (warm) red peppers, green beans and artichoke hearts in among the seafood and chicken. Cover loosely with foil and let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Coconut crème brulee

Yes, this is an artery clogger. You can make this ahead and keep chilled 'til serving time. Room temperature's the best way to enjoy this dessert.

If you have a kitchen blowtorch to finish this, good for you. Otherwise, use your broiler.

4 cups heavy cream

2 (9-ounce) cans coconut milk

4 cups turbinado sugar (aka "Sugar in the Raw"), divided

1 teaspoon each vanilla and almond extracts

24 egg yolks, preferably at room temperature

2 cups unsweetened shredded coconut, toasted (gently in a 325 degree oven; watch carefully)

Fresh raspberries and mint leaves, garnish

In a medium-large saucepan, over medium heat, combine cream, coconut milk, 2 cups of the sugar and extracts and cook just until a slight boil begins. In a large bowl, whisk together egg yolks until thoroughly blended. Using a ladle, slowly transfer 4 cups of the hot cream mixture into bowl with egg yolks, mix thoroughly, then return cream/egg yolk mixture to saucepan. (This helps prevent yolks from curdling.) Remove from heat. Pour mixture into 8 (6-ounce) ramekins (e.g. little Pyrex glass bowls).

Heat oven to 300 degrees. Set ramekins in a casserole dish (or two) and fill casserole(s) with warm water halfway up the sides of ramekins. Cover loosely with foil and bake until custards are set, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from oven, cool slightly, then cover and refrigerate until cool.

To finish: In a blender, pulse remaining 2 cups turbinado sugar until fine. Sprinkle sugar on top of custards, use a torch (or the broiler) to caramelize the top coating of sugar. While sugar is still bubbling, divide toasted coconut among ramekins. Just before serving, garnish with fresh raspberries and mint leaves.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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