Friday, January 25, 2013

Prince Henry the Navigator Fish and Lentils

The Iberian Peninsula and India have been swapping ingredients since the start of the 15th Century.  Vasco de Gama washed up on the Malabar coast (near Calcutta) in 1498, and the Portuguese put down stakes for the next 450 years.

Yes, Prince Henry was dead by then (1394-1460) and likely never did more in a boat than splash about in an ornamental pond, but he gets the credit because he set up the navigational school that jump-started the Portuguese age of exploration, and the Iberian dominance of the seas - until the Brits got all good at it.

One legacy of that is Portuguese sausage versions all over the world*, and intriguing Indian whispers in Iberian cuisine.  So when lentils, green cardamom and dill pollen showed up in my box of surprises, I had a good idea.

Global mashup - savory and warming rather but not hot.  (But this would be an easy one to spice up if you wanted to.  Drop a dried chili or two into lentils while they simmer; Cascabel - for a hotter smoky flavor; or Japones - for a medium, cleaner, more Asian type spice)

The middle of January means limited truly fresh fish (though the industry is much better at frozen), almost no local fresh veg, and a ongoing desire for warm hearty food.  This fills all those bills.  I can get lovely sustainable farmed steelhead (a sort of large flavorful trout) from the Columbia river.  And all the rest of the ingredients are made to be stored and pack a bunch of flavor.

So this is how it went down:


chopping stuff
saucepan w/ lid
skillet (non-stick optional)
paper towels
tea towels or heavy/freezer paper
splatter screen for frying fish (optional, but handy)
chop sticks or small tongs or a fork


1 Tbs Butter

1 Tbs Olive Oil

2 Tbs Linguiça/Chorizo (or other dry smoked pork-paprika-garlic sausage) - this means a piece about as long as you thumb.

8 Green Cardamom Pods

1 Cinnamon Stick
2 Bay Leaves

1/2 Purple onion

1.5 C Green Easton Lentils
1/2 a regular size potato (or 1 small) - what you have
Water to cover and up to the top of your 1st pinkie joint.

2Tbs tomato paste

1 Tbs (or so) sherry vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

1 lb steelhead fillet (or salmon, arctic char or a trout)

neutral oil to thoroughly coat your skillet

Dill Pollen

Learn a new skill (I did tonight!) Scale your fish.  (this is a "soft" scaled fish, so you need not get every scale off, or even skip the step...)
Hold the end,

scrape your knife against the grain
of the scales - 
so the knife is picking up the edges of
the scales,
and they end up on your knife.

Yes, I am still trying to figure out
how I feel about ceramic knives.
They are very nice for fish.
They CAN be odd and sticky with some veg.

Wipe off the knife, quickly rinse the fish and PAT IT thoroughly DRY!

Place it flesh side down on paper towels (skin side up) in the fridge.  The dry cold air will dry the skin more.  The skin cannot be too dry for the crisping step (only too wet).

Slice the sausage into small, skinny pieces.
Dice the purple onion.
Peel the potato and roughly chop it.

(A)  Place the sauce pan over medium high heat, and put in the fats.

Add in the 2Tbs-ish sliced chorizo/linguiça.
Fry it down to savoy crispy bits.  Spoon these out and drain them on a paper towel. (Save!)

(B) To this flavored oil, add the Cardamom Pods, Cinnamon Stick and Bay Leaves.  Watch them as they fry.  When the pods swell up to resemble little light green blimps, turn the heat down to medium and add in the onion.

Stir, and when the onion starts to get a bit brown around the edges, add the lentils and tomato paste.  Stir them into the ingredients.
Add the water up to about your 1st pinkie joint depth. (That's a measurement!)
Bring the water to a boil, turn down to a simmer, cover all or partway with the lid.
These lentils took over 30 min to cook (definitely worth it, they have a bite that turns creamy).  At 30 minutes, use a fork to mash the potato to begin to make a creamy sauce.
Check a small spoonful every 5 minutes until you hit "creamy done," the lentils are whole, not bursting, but have a creamy texture when you bite them.  Add a little water if the lentils are starting to look a little gummy or dry.

When the lentils are approaching done, use the chopsticks (tongs/fork) to pull out the whole spices.**

Stir in the salt, pepper and sherry vinegar.  TASTE.  Adjust the salt, pepper and vinegar gently to get to an amazing flavor.

When the lentils are done, cover them, shove them to the back of the stove.

(C) While the lentils are cooking, get your fish out, and trim off the thinner edges (belly flap and the like - keep for test cooking, or cook at the end and make into fish salad tomorrow).  
Cut them into rectangles that are 2-ish inches long - or a size so each one has a pretty uniform thickness.  Add a scant layer of high-temp, neutral tasting oil to your skillet.  Sprinkle a tiny amount of salt and a pinch of dill pollen on the drying skin.

Turn on the heat to medium high under the oil.  Put a tiny piece of fish in.  When it starts sizzling and frying vigorously, the oil is ready.  Place the fish rectangles in skin side down.  (Not all of them - NO crowding!)  The fish will sizzle, use the splatter guard to lessen the mess if you have one.

The flesh around the edges will become opaque, but wait 1.5 - 2 minutes before moving anything to make sure your fish skin renders and releases itself from the pan†, and gets crispy.  Flip the fish over, you can just kiss the other side with the hot oil (for medium rare fish), or get a little sear (for medium - medium well... know your eater).  Place it skin side up on a paper towel.

Spoon some perfectly seasoned lentils onto your plate, pop a couple of fish pieces onto the lentils, sprinkle with a little more dill pollen and the fried linguiça/chorizo bits.

This was for a diner who wanted fish on the less cooked side.

Give thanks for the seafaring adventurers who created a global fusion cuisine from long storing ingredients before they even knew it was a thing.

Happy Winter Feasting!

*Those Portuguese sailors left memories of Linguiça everywhere!

The traditional smoked pork-paprika-garlic version is found in Portugal, the Azores and Brazil, along with similar versions all along the coastal areas of South America.  It's offspring are found in and around Goa, India where it is hotter, and has a greater variety of spice, in the Philippines where it is a sweet sausage, known as "longanizza," as well as a Japanese version, and a Hawaiian version where the smoke is provided by banana leaves.

** You can leave the whole spices in, but there's always the chance of biting into a whole cooked cardamom pod or cinnamon stick, or playing "bay leaf bingo."  It can be interesting, just know your crowd.

† Why fish skin sticks... and then unsticks:  The proteins in the fish skin - what makes it elastic and waterproof initially sticks to the hot pan - much like the meaty parts of bacon.  However, as the fat under the skin heats up and liquifies, it infiltrates the proteins and fries them, driving even more water out and heating the protein molecules above the boiling point of the water they were harboring.  Both of these things cause the proteins to take up yet newer formations - ones that aren't sticky - and the fish skin unsticks.

The lesson - make sure your fish skin is dry, and be patient - let it release, don't try to scrape it off the pan too soon.

If you skin fish is too wet, the protein matrix of the skin will be flabby and weak.  The initial contact with the pan causes microscopic uneven heating, causing the fish skin to pull and flex in all sorts of directions.  Fish skin that is too wet isn't springy enough to hold together, and will tear itself apart.  This can allow parts of the skin to stick to the pan and pull away too much from the fatty layer under the skin.  And what should be a beautiful interaction gets all Foobarred.

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