Three Recipes from Zarela

January 19, 2018

If that seafood frittata that Zarela Martinez made the other day sounded delicious to you (and it is!), she just sent me the recipe. Definitely worth making.

Torta de Mariscos from Zarela

Seafood Frittata

This would have to be close to the top of any list of classic, peerless, sensational Veracruzan dishes.  You find different versions everywhere, but it belongs mostly to the central southern coasts and waterways  of Sotavento.

I call it a “frittata” but that’s a rough fit at best.  Tortas and tortillas are essential “round cakes,” dishes that have certain recognizable shapes no matter what’s in them.  The Veracruzan torta de mariscos consists of seafood and egg combined and cooked in a round frying pan.  There are three-inch versions, and others the size of large pies.  There are ones with a little seafood suspended in a lot of egg, and ones that are nearly all seafood just barely bound together with an egg or two.  The kind I like best is somewhere between a thick, tender pancake and a fluffy, moist flat omelet cooked golden on all sides. It is best if the egg whites are beaten separately and then combined with the yolks, but I’ve had good versions where they weren’t..

Possibly the best torta de mariscos I ever tasted was at La Viuda restaurant in the fishing town of Alvarado.  The quality of the fresh seafood was exquisite, and it was used so generously that the omelet was practically falling apart with shrimp, crabmeat, and tiny baby squid.  The recipe is not an exact rendition of that lovely torta, but I’ve adopted a few of its special touches, like the combination of fresh herbs and the delicate binding of fine crumbs.

I have to point out that at La Viuda the crumbs were pan rallado –- “grated bread,” or fine bread crumbs rasped from a stale loaf using a grater.  But I’m reluctant to suggest bread crumbs in the recipe. Because the flabby kind packaged in supermarket containers are guaranteed to ruin anything they come in contact with.  Use finely crushed soda cracker crumbs –- unless you take good breadcrumbs seriously.

Like many Veracruzan seafood dishes, this one depends on a versatile mishmash of very fine seafood cut up quite fine.  People automatically make up a relleno or salpicón from the best ingredients on hand or the ones they feel like sampling at the moment.  They might add tiny sweet oysters, hashed fish, or cooked diced conch or octopus.  Play with the mixture as you like, but remember that it shouldn’t be watery and that you want a total of 2 –  2 1/2 pounds.  You can start with cooked seafood instead of cooking it specifically for the torta as I do, but it must be very fresh and not overcooked.

Plan ahead for flipping the torta to brown on the second side.  I use a 10-inch Calphalon omelet pan.  It’s easy to slide out the omelet onto a plate when the first side is done, then slide it back into the pan on the other side.  You can use any brand of non-stick or well-seasoned skillet of this size but it should have rounded sides like an omelet pan.

Makes 8 servings

1 small white onion unpeeled

2 garlic cloves, unpeeled

5 bay leaves

1 1/2 – 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

1 pound shrimp (any preferred size), in the shell

1/2 pound cleaned squid (bodies only; reserve tentacles for another use), cut into 1/4-inch dice to make about 1 cup

1 pound lump crabmeat, picked over to remove bits of shell and cartilage

1 medium-sized white onion, peeled

2 large or 4 – 5 medium-sized ripe tomatoes (about 1 pound), peeled and seeded

2 jalapeño chiles, seeded

1/2 small bunch Italian parsley

1/2 bunch cilantro

1/2 small bunch of mint (leaves only)

1/2 small bunch Mediterranean oregano (leaves only)

1/4 cup finely crushed soda cracker crumbs or best-quality fine-dry bread crumbs from good French of Italian bread (no substitutes)

4 eggs, separated

1 tablespoon olive oil

Place the unpeeled onion and garlic, bay leaves, and about 1 teaspoon of the salt in a large saucepan or medium-sized stockpot with 2 quarts of water, Bring to a boil over high heat; reduce the heat to maintain a low rolling boil and cook for 5 minutes.  Add the shrimp and cook another 2 – 3 minutes (depending on their size), skimming off any froth that rises to the top.  Quickly lift out the shrimp with a mesh skimmer or slotted spoon, letting them drain well.  Place in a bowl and set aside to cool.  Remove the onion and garlic from the simmering stock; discard.  Add the squid and cook for 3 minutes.  Lift out with a skimmer, letting them drain well, and set aside.  Reserve the stock for another purpose (it will make a delicious fish soup).

Peel and de-vein the cooked shrimp; chop fine and place in a large mixing bowl with the squid and crab meat.  Chop the peeled onion, tomatoes, jalapeños, and fresh herbs very fine and add to the bowl of seafood.  Toss to distribute the ingredients evenly.  Sprinkle the cracker crumbs and another 1/2 – 1 teaspoon salt over the mixture and toss very thoroughly.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until they form glossy, not-quite-stiff peaks.  Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition to incorporate thoroughly. With a rubber spatula, gently fold the beaten eggs into the seafood mixture.

In a heavy-bottomed, medium-sized (about 10-inch) omelet pan or skillet (see above), heat the oil over medium-high heat until fragrant but not quite rippling.  Reduce the heat to low.  Pour or spoon the seafood mixture into the pan, smoothing it firmly with a spatula to spread it evenly without air pockets on the bottom.  Cook, uncovered, for 8 minutes.  Flip the cake by sliding it back into the pan. (If necessary, loosen it with a spatula, but I’ve never had a problem.)  Cook for another 3 minutes, until golden, on the underside.  Transfer to a platter or large plate and serve hot, cut into wedges.

Zarela’s Salsa a la Veracruzana

Veracruzan-Style Sauce

Food-lovers who know nothing else about Veracruzan cuisine probably have heard of this sauce through a dish served in restaurants from Mexico to Manhattan:  huachinango a la veracruzana, or red snapper topped with a medley of onion, tomatoes, garlic, capers, pickled chiles, pimiento-stuffed green olives, and some combination of herbs, all gloriously redolent of olive oil.  Actually a wide range of things can be called a la veracruzana when blanketed with the sauce during or after cooking.  People in Veracruz don’t stop at red snapper; they use any suitable firm-fleshed fish steaks or whole fish and call the dish pescado a la veracruzana.  The sauce (sometimes also enriched with potatoes) is equally popular served with chicken, and I’ve encountered it with poached beef tongue.  At my restaurant in New York I’ve experimented still further, using it as a sauce with fried squid.  We also use it as a pasta sauce for staff meals

There are versions of salsa a la veracruzana ranging from thin to thick, fussy to minimalist.  Some people puree the tomatoes and let everything else simmer in them; others chop all the ingredients rather coarse or very fine and let them cook down to a juicy mixture or a dense paste.  For me, the only essential thing is very good tomatoes.  If the fresh ones in your market look dismal, use good canned plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzanos from Italy).  The following salsa a la veracruzana comes from La Sopa Restaurant in Xalapa, known not just for good food but for cultural activities (it’s also an art gallery) and good works (at the time of the pre-Christmas procession-pageants called posadas, La Sopa feeds homeless children).  Lunchtime always finds people lined up around the block waiting to eat the inexpensive comida corrida (set menu).  Owner/chef Pepe Ochoa has been known to serve his salsa a la veracruzana with canned tuna in empanadas.

Makes about 3 to 3 1/2 cups

1/4 cup olive oil

5 garlic cloves (3 whole, 2 minced)

1 medium-sized white onion, chopped fine

4 – 5 large ripe tomatoes (about 2 pounds), chopped fine, or one 28-ounce can of Italian plum tomatoes with juice, coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon capers (about 12 – 15 large or 24 – 30 small ones)

12 small pimiento-stuffed green olives

2 – 3 pickled jalapeño chiles, stemmed, seeded, and cut lengthwise into thin strips

2 bay leaves

1/4 cup parsley leaves

2 sprigs of fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon crumbled dried thyme

2 sprigs of fresh marjoram or 1/4 teaspoon crumbled dried marjoram

2 sprigs of fresh Mexican oregano or 1/4 teaspoon crumbled dried Mexican oregano

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon ground canela (see page 000)

1/2 cup dry white wine

In a heavy-bottomed medium-sized saucepan with a well-fitting lid, heat the olive oil to rippling over medium-high heat.  Add the 3 whole garlic cloves and cook, stirring, until deep golden (but not browned) on all sides; remove and discard.  Add the 2 minced garlic cloves and the chopped onion.  Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally for 15 minutes or until slightly concentrated.  Add all the remaining ingredients and cook, covered, for another 15 – 20 minutes, until the flavors are richly melded and it is as thick as you like.  Taste for salt and add another pinch or two if desired (the capers and olives will contribute some).  If using whole fresh herbs, fish them out of the sauce and discard before serving.

And I’m still thinking about this wonderful pineapple salad.  One of the most refreshing things you’ll ever eat.

Zarela’s Ensalada de Pina

Spicy Pineapple Salad

Mexicans do beautiful things with pineapple. Years ago I encountered a colorful and flavorful salad of ripe pineapple with green and red bell peppers that I still love. But I’m an incurable experimenter. A few years ago I decided to vary the idea by substituting jalapenos for the bell peppers and adding a little red onion. I think the flavors are much more vivid than the original.

If you can’t find red jalapenos, use all green ones.

1 large ripe pineapple, peeled and cored

1 small red onion, or half of a larger onion

1 or 2 green jalapenos

1 or 2 red jalapenos

Juice of 1 large lime ( about 2 1/2 tablespoons)

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 – 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

A handful of cilantro leaves

Cut the peeled and cored pineapple lengthwise into quarters; cut each quarter crosswise into 1/4-inch slices. Cut the onion crosswise into paper-thin slices. Deseed and devein the jalapenos and cut into thin slivers.  Toss the pineapple, onion, and chiles together in a salad bowl.

Whisk together the lime juice, olive oil, and salt (starting with 1/2 teaspoon and adding more to taste). Pour the dressing over the pineapple mixture and toss to combine well. Serve at once, garnished with cilantro.

Serves 4 – 6 people.

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