Monday, April 28, 2014

Calling these jewels just 'cod croquettes' is an injustice...

Salt cod does not seem like your average Chinese ingredient — and you’re right, it definitely is not — but in the capable hands of Macanese chefs it becomes sublime. 

Pretty much a riff on Portugal’s ethereal bacalau (salt cod) croquettes, one taste of this dish shows how much it has been filtered through Macau’s Chinese sensibilities. 

As the former Portuguese colony at the mouth of the Pearl River shows in so many of its dishes, it’s all about balance.

Salt cod
On the one hand we have the Portuguese contribution of black olives, salt cod, butter, cream, and potatoes, and on the other we have Chinese cilantro, green onions, ginger, and garlic. I have played around with this a bit, using coconut cream instead of whipping cream, as this gives a very gentle tropical undercurrent to the flavors.

Tapenade was another delightful substitution I discovered, as the combination of various oil-cured olives with capers and seasonings gives this dish the zing it so desperately needs. Most traditional bacalau recipes I have seen also call for subdued amounts of aromatics, but I have thrown caution to the wind here. After all, this is mashed potatoes and cod, and something has to do the gustatory heavy lifting.

 Already smelling delish
Texture, too, was obviously given lots of consideration by Macau's great chefs. First, the cod and potatoes are turned into a moist mash. These are then turned into little croquettes that are double-bound and finally coated with dried breadcrumbs that supply a lovely crunch. What I have done here, though, is use potato starch here as the first layer of the coating, as it provides a nice, chewy edge to each bite in contrast with the soft center and crispy breadcrumbs.

To balance the croquettes a bit further, I have also supplied a small dressed green salad. This is completely nontraditional, but I have found it absolutely necessary to round out the dish and provide even more contrast between bites of the hot bacalau.

Count on making this in the spring, when salt cod is freshest and most available in Italian and Portuguese delicatessens during the Lenten season. And by the way, if you have never had salt cod before and are afraid that it is going to be something fishy and salty, you are in for a lovely surprise because it soaks up into a very fresh-flavored and -textured bit of fish.

Have this as an appetizer, as a lunch entree, or even as a brunch dish. A glass of vinho verde would be perfect.

Macanese bacalau
Zhá mǎjièxīu qíu 炸馬介休球
Makes around 30 (1 x 2 inch) croquettes and serves at least 6 as an appetizer, lunch, or brunch entree

8 ounces salt cod (bacalau)
Cool tap water, as needed
1 large Russet (baking) potato (about 10 to 12 ounces)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 green onions, trimmed and finely minced
2 large or 3 small cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
2 teaspoons ginger juice
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Lots of freshly ground black pepper  
6 tablespoons tapenade, or pitted and chopped oil-cured black olives
 Wheat starch & panko
½ cup finely chopped very fresh cilantro
½ cup canned coconut cream, or chilled whipping cream

About 1 cup potato starch or cornstarch
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups Japanese panko (dried breadcrumbs), or more as needed
Fresh peanut or vegetable oil   

4 loosely packed cups of baby greens (mizuna, arugula, spinach, lettuce, etc.) or spring mix, chilled
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon sea salt
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Toasted sesame seeds for garnish
 Soaked & flaking apart

1. Start this recipe at least 2 days before you wish to serve it. First, soak the salt cod in cool tap water to cover, changing the water at least once a day. Rinse the fish, pat it dry, and run your fingers over it carefully. Use tweezers to remove any bones. Then, pull off any silver skin you find. Flake the fish, tearing apart any tough sections; if a piece is too difficult to tear easily with your fingers, discard it. Coarsely chop the fish. You should have about 2 cups flaked fish.  

2. Peel the potatoes and cut them into ½-inch dice. Place them in a saucepan, cover with tap water, and bring to a full boil. Reduce the boil to a simmer and cook them until the potatoes are soft. Drain the potatoes and return them to the stove so that most of the water steams off. Remove from the stove and use a potato masher to mash them along with the butter.  (Do not use a food processor, as this will make the potatoes gummy.)
 Mash potatoes by hand

3. Scoop the mashed potatoes into a medium work bowl along with the flaked fish, green onions, garlic, ginger juice, soy sauce, egg, pepper, olives, and cilantro. Lightly mix these together and then fold in the coconut or whipping cream. If you have the time, cover the mixture and chill it for an hour or two to make it easier to handle. Otherwise, proceed with the recipe.

4. Next prepare the bound coating, which consists of three layers: a dry flour, beaten egg, and finally breadcrumbs. Place the wheat starch in one work bowl, the eggs in another, and the breadcrumbs in a third. Put two spoons in both the wheat starch and the breadcrumbs, and both a fork and a spoon in the eggs. (I like to use the plastic spoons from my local yogurt shop, as they are round and smooth. Keep the utensils for each bowl separate so that they do not become heavily coated with the fish, starch, eggs, and breadcrumbs.)

Bound coating layers
5. Now coat the croquettes: First, use the spoons from the wheat starch bowl to scoop up about 2 tablespoons of the cod mixture. Use the spoons to form this into a rough ball and drop it into the starch. Toss the ball around to coat it, and then shape it into a croquette (a long oval) between the palms of your hands. Lower this into the beaten eggs and gently roll it around in there to coat it completely. Lift it up with the fork so that most of the egg dribbles back into the bowl, and then place the croquette in the breadcrumbs. Use the two spoons in that bowl to gently roll the croquette around to cover it completely. Shape it once again between the palms of your hands, place it on a baking sheet, and you are done. Repeat with the rest of the mixture and coatings until you are finished. The croquettes can either be refrigerated or frozen at this point, if you wish; they do not have to be defrosted before they are fried.

6. To fry the croquettes, heat a large frying pan over medium heat until the edges are hot. Pour about ¼-inch fresh oil into the pan. Sprinkle a couple of the breadcrumbs in the oil, and if they bubble immediately, the oil is ready. Reduce the heat to medium-low and gently slide in as many of the croquettes as you wish to fry, or as many as will fit without touching. While the croquettes are slowly frying, heat an oven to 250°F and line a clean baking sheet with some paper towels. Fry the croquettes until they are a deep golden brown — but not dark brown — on the bottom. Use a spatula to carefully turn each croquette over and fry the other side; each one will take about 5 minutes total frying time. Remove them as they are done and place on the lined baking sheet. Keep them hot in the oven while you prepare the salad.
Excellent finds for this

7. Rinse the salad greens and spin them dry. Mix together the dressing in a large work bowl and toss the greens well in it; taste and adjust the seasoning. Distribute the salad among as many serving plates as you need, piling it up in the center. Just before serving, arrange an equal amount of the croquettes around the salad. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Serve immediately. These may be eaten with chopsticks or a knife and fork.