I have not yet started writing stories about my recent trip to Albania, but one of my surprising discoveries there was definitely the food. Albanian cuisine reflects the country’s geographical variety (from sea to mountain) and the cultural influences of its neighbors (Greece, former Yugoslavia, and Italy, just across the Straight of Otranto).
Today’s recipe is inspired by a dinner I had in Gjirokastra, at the restaurant Kujtimi. Although Gjirokastra is situated in a valley between the Gjerë mountains and the Drino River in southern Albania, it’s only an hour away from the sea line, and the menu at Kujtimi offers grilled meats, as well as fried mussels, trout, and frogs’ legs. There are also a few local specialties, such as qifqi, rice balls with egg and herbs. Since most of these dishes are prepared very simply and served without garnish, I chose to combine several of them on a single plate, with a few personal additions.
Although my last ice-fishing trip brought back 100 yellow perch, some of them were smaller than others, to put it mildly. Once the heads, tails, skin, and bones were removed, I often ended up with fillets the size of my pinky. Lots of them. So just as when I made fish cutlets in a recent post, I decided to call my blender to the rescue once again, and make a fish mousse.
Since this is a Russian food blog, I had a good idea of the flavors I wanted to pair with the fish:
- Buckwheat. I must say I’m very happy with this buckwheat puff pastry. I’m sure I didn’t invent it (a quick Googling shows a handful of matches), but it really tastes quite good.
- Eggplant and parsley. You might recall a previous eggplant caviar recipe of mine, but this one is different, as the vegetables are 100% eggplant and I use gelatine to hold it together before sprinkling it with chopped parsley.
- Dill. In Russia, the dish would probably have called for an entire bunch of dill. Here I’m just adding a little bit in my whipped cream rosettes. You could also try skipping the dill cream and adding the dill directly to the terrine instead.
On the heels of yet another recent trip to Pulaski, I went fishing with Captain Troy and came back home with two walleye. Walleye is the North American cousin of European pike-perch, a species found throughout Eastern Europe in places such as the basins of the Danube, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Sea. And so, my catch begged for an Eastern European recipe, such as… fritto misto.
So spring is here (sort of — it was still 35 F in upstate New York yesterday). While I still have dozens of yellow perch from a recent ice fishing trip, I’m starting to see spring vegetables here and there. As the freezer must be emptied and the vegetables consumed in the name of seasonality, I wanted to create a dish to celebrate the transition from winter to spring.
When I posted about my recent yellow perch frenzy on Lake Ontario, I forgot to mention one important fact that connects my ice fishing endeavors to the theme of this blog: yellow perch is closely related to the European perch, which is very popular with anglers in Eastern Europe.
In kitchens back in Mother Russia, perch is often smoked, fried, baked, or boiled, and served with all kinds of vegetables and mushrooms. It’s often the fish of choice for making ukha, a Russian fish soup that’s almost as thin as a broth.
My ice-fishing track record has been pretty disappointing this year. Disappointing as in not a single fish caught all season. Same as last year, come to think of it. I do feel like I know better what I’m doing: I read books, I talk to the locals, I sort of know where to look, I drill a lot of holes, I keep track of lake depth and structure. Sometimes I even see blips that look like fish on my sonar.
But all winter long, the fish didn’t bite. At least not my lines. Three times I’ve been to Saratoga Lake, reputed to one of the best fishing lakes in New York State — and got nothing. I spent a day on Lake George, dragging my sled though a foot of snow, struggling against incessant gusts of wind to prevent my gear from getting buried and my holes from freezing over — still nothing. Meanwhile, Outdoorsman Bill was parading on his web site with his daily bucketloads of perch and Putin-worthy pike.
I needed help. I wanted my own bucket of perch. So I made the five-hour drive to see Bill last weekend.
A few months back, I reported my giant catch of delicious, bright-orange-fleshed lake trout from Lake Ontario. Although I usually avoid freezing fish, that time I had no choice. This gave me plenty of trout to use, to try and perfect this ballotine recipe.
There are many sources of inspiration for this recipe…
About two years ago, I posted a recipe for vodka-cured lake trout. Since I once again find myself with a profusion of trout — this time from Lake Ontario — I wanted to try a different kind of alcohol cure. (Incidentally, it’s quite interesting to compare the bright orange color of the Ontario fish to the pale pink-beige shade of the trout from Keuka Lake.)
Unlike the vodka cure, Hungarian Tokaji wine brings some subtle fruity notes to the fish. I’m not using just any Tokaji table wine, but an Aszú 4 puttonyos to get the right amount of sugar. However, I highly doubt that anyone would taste the result and exclaim, “Wow, this trout really tastes like Tokaji!” So to make this more than a gimmick, I serve it with small cubes of Tokaji jelly — and wow, these cubes really taste like Tokaji!
It’s not easy, preparing elaborate recipes with fish you catch yourself. Sometimes, you come home empty-handed and anything you’ve thought of making has to wait until next time — this has happened a lot to me recently. But at other times, you land 40 lb of fish, and then you have to act fast — like two weeks ago, after a day on Lake Ontario with Captain Troy.
I recently adapted a recipe for Jarred Salmon In Olive Oil from a Russian cookbook titled Pro Okhotu I Rybalku [Of hunting and fishing]. Here’s another idea I yanked from this book: adding pork fat to fish to make burger patties. Although I’m using salmon today, you could choose almost any fish you like.
The rest of the recipe is my own invention: baked tomato halves for additional juiciness, a kind of bean ketchup (with a lot of olive oil to balance the beans’ dry mouthfeel), and potato buns. There will be a recipe coming for my homemade potato buns very soon, but in the meantime you’ll have to cope with the store-bought ones that don’t taste like potato (because they contain nearly as much food coloring as potato flour) and are pre-cut in a less than optimal fashion (see my picture above). On the side, whole fingerling potatoes are deep-fried exactly as for the perfect fries, and topped with fried parsley. The result isn’t quite as crispy as real fries because of the lower starch content of the fingerlings, but is still rather excellent.
ETA: The potato bun recipe is here!