Lighting candles, whipping up croquettes

December 8th, 2010

Festival of Lights

While this uniformly gray December day draws toward dusk, the vagabond lights an Advent candle and begins to stir up a batch of croquettes.  My many friends of the Jewish faith are probably doing the same in observance of their last night of Hanukkah.  It is almost sundown on the eighth night of Hanukkah, and within half an hour, the last Menorah candle will be lighted in Jewish homes around the world.  A puffy or crispy fried food is always on the menu, with Latkes, crunchy galettes of shredded potatoes, the most common.  Interpretations of “fried” have expanded to include all sorts of savory fritters, croquettes and beignets to commemorate Hebrew history when the Macabees’ miraculous eight days of oil was supplied from a small flask that would normally last just one day.  In Portuguese Jewish homes, salt cod croquetas might be served, while on Italian Hanukkah tables a diamond shaped sweet Frittelle di Hanukkah will be studded with raisins and anise seeds.  My fascination with food traditions of many faiths led me to stir up a variation on croquettes, but rather than deep fried, I found that a moist vegetable croquette was better lightly browned in oil (to qualify on a Hanukkah menu), then baked to finish. This variation on sweet potatoes might suit your Holiday of Lights as a side dish – or even as a nibble with apéros.

Crispy sweet potato croquettes

This recipe for Croquettes de patate douce was tested with baked rather than boiled sweet potatoes, and the baked potato needed a tablespoon or two of boiling water to be mashed, as they dried slightly while baking. They can be made several hours ahead, then finish the baking & crisping before serving. But it is a very moist interior – the baking step is necessary. Shaped with two tablespoons they make an oval, relatively uniform shape and will serve four as a vegetable or beside the starter, while lots of small round ones will be enough to serve eight with cocktails.

3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled, rinsed and cut up (300ml/1 1/3 cup mashed)

100 g/3/4 cup + 1Tablespoons plain flour; 1/4 tsp salt, white pepper , nutmeg

50 g/1/2 cup +2 Tablespoons ground almonds

50 g/1/2 cup + 3 Tablespoons freshly grated parmesan or grana pradano cheese

1 egg

flaked almonds, toasted as a finishing garnish + sea salt

oil for frying

Cook the sweet potatoes for 20 minutes in boiling water, drain and mash them or put into a food processor.  Stir in the egg and mix well, then the flour, seasonings, ground almonds & cheese. Mix all together (if you like the odd chunk of sweet potato , don’t blend it too smooth). Set the oven at 180°c/350°f; line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Heat the oil to cover the bottom of a cast iron skillet or deep fry pan. Have a plate lined with absorbent paper towels for the fried croquettes, with a skimmer or slotted spoon ready. Using 2 tablespoons, shape the croquettes and plunge them (no more than 5 or 6 at a time) into the hot oil, turning with a spoon or tongs as each side browns – which will be quickly; they burn easily. Turn gently til all are browned and ready to bake.  Transfer the hot croquettes to the baking sheet and bake for ten to twenty minutes (depending on size), shift them into a basket for appetizers or onto a platter with your main dish….lovely with duck or brisket of beef.

Versatile croquettes - with duck breast and seared peppers

Whether your candles are lit for Hanukkah, for Advent or for the Winter Solstice, the vagabond wishes you warm and wonderful holidays!

Pomegranate molasses

December 4th, 2010

Begin with a bowlful of juicy arils

A marvelous seasoning – a magic ingredient – hasn’t turned up on the vagabond’s usual shopping circuit, so I set out to make pomegranate molasses chez nous. But why get into the loop of juicing and simmering this ruby fruit: why bother?  Is this just one of those esoteric culinary trends that come around in cycles?  Everyone has their motives when ingredients are involved, and for this cook in the Périgord, it relates to duck – lots of duck and all other feathered fowl so plentiful in our region.  Not only for duck, but the sweet tang of pomegranate molasses lends a complex dimension to many rich meats, a “secret ingredient” in the lamb and poultry tagines of the Middle East.  When I opened Crazy Water Pickled Lemons*, Diana Henry’s delicious romp across the cuisines of the eastern Mediterranean, to “Breast of Duck with pomegranate and walnut sauce”, my pursuit of pomegranate molasses began in earnest.  The recipe only asked for two tablespoons, so why not stir it up at home?  Concocting my own pomegranate molasses was not difficult – it simply takes a little time, a “Saturday afternoon with no rush” sort of project.  Winter sunlight slanted through the kitchen door windows as I whacked, peeled back the rind to pop out the arils (shiny red seeds) and juiced two mid-season pomegranates.  Our bio-grocery displays Valencia fruit from Spain’s east coast (possibly from the region of Elche), and once cut in half to top a salad, I noted the density of seeds in these pale-skinned pomegranates.

Dense with arils, the membrane releases easily

First, the seeds needed some encouragement to release from the skins, so I whacked them with a small rolling pin before scoring each fruit in quarters.

A few taps to loosen the arils

Then over a large bowl, I held the rinds and peeled them back to release the glistening arils.  A little juice was released, while the seeds were plump and easily separated from their veil of membranes.  Caution: cover yourself, as this juice stains cloth….in fact it is used as a dye for Turkish carpet wool.

Pull away any clinging bitter membrane

Curious about how much would be needed, I let the seeds accumulate to fill a two cup pyrex measure.  That was from one and a half pomegranates.  After tapping and peeling, juicing the “jewel of winter” is the second step in the process.  My blender has a juicing column attachment, so I filled the filtered column with rosy seeds and pulsed the juice out in short order.  It needs to be scooped and scraped once or twice to allow top layer seeds to fall closer to the central blades.

Pour the juice out through a small sieve into a saucepan, turn the heat on low and let it simmer for 20 to 30 minutes to reduce by half.  Watch carefully that it doesn’t burn.  Have a sterile jar and lid ready, or a small lidded cup to keep your pomegranate molasses ready for use.

Depending on variety and country, it can be a pearly pink or ruby red

And what about the other half a pomegranate, bursting with scarlet arils?  Ah, they are preserved in good gin – just a small jar full – to top a festive New Year’s sorbet or….perhaps to enhance a duckling as we welcome 2011.

* Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons by Diana Henry, published in 2002  by Mitchell Beazley, takes a fresh look at multitudes of traditional dishes across Turkey, Spain, North Africa, Greece and southern Italy.

Next up: a little beignet for the holidays