My folks headed out on a Caribbean trip a little while back, which gave me the perfect excuse to make the only two Martinique items on my French 44 list. The dessert post should be up pretty quickly.
Martinique and Guadeloupe certainly aren’t the first regions we think about when France comes into conversation, their culture still being heavily Caribbean in nature, though French customs do come into play. But it remains that Rum is the productive drink of choice as opposed to wine, with bananas and other uniquely Caribbean food products serving as the base of their economy, truly anything even resembling French ingredients needing to be shipped overseas. “Martiniquan Creole” is the main language, a heavy conflagration of French, Carib, African, English, Portuguese and Spanish, and something traditional French people refuse to try and understand due to its intense differences. Though I hear its syntax and other such things are slowly transverting closer to Standard French.
Both of these islands were originally acquired in 1635, after Columbus’ discovery and passing on (Spain wasn’t too interested in this either place). The French Company of American Islands told two of their men, Jean and Charles (their last names are too long for me to want to bother… though not as long as this little sideswipe, huh), to colonize any of the isles of Guadeloupe, Martinique, or Dominica. They chose the first, apparently due to “Martinique’s inhospitable nature,” yet oddly enough a Mr. Belain d’Esnambuc landed in the same year and claimed Martinique for the French King. Then again, he was driven off his own island of St. Kitts by the British, so he probably didn’t have much choice.
And from there, both islands swapped back and forth between the French and British due to various wars and whatnot. The two were finally traded back and settled as French owned at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War (though they lost Canada… darn), and here we are. Okay, some more stuff probably happened before and after that, but I’m getting bored of history, food now!
I would have very much enjoyed writing something on the history of Salt Cod or the Fritters known as Accras, or Acra, or Akra, or… whatever, it’s got lots of name that all sound like the same damn thing. But for the life of me I couldn’t find ANYTHING in my books, online, my searches yielded nothing but recipes on the matter. Maybe it’s hard to quantify the proper path that fried batter dough has taken through various cultures, either that or most inland French people are too snooty to ever consider this Caribbean dish important enough to ever affect them enough or be apart of any interesting cultural event/situation.
Which is a shame, no matter the reason, for they are awesome and delicious and crispy and oh god I want to make more right now. But I have lawn work to do soon, so I should finish this up and get to it. Let’s start with the Fish!
A Word On…
Salt Cod:Heavily salted, air dried, this ingredient has held itself as one of the most important in history, at least for Europe, for its ability to keep over winter (and probably year round too) and over travel. I’ve been wanting to play with it for quite a while, but had yet to find the excuse to go to one of the good seafood/meat markets to grab the frozen pine wood box of goodness (frozen too, really? There must really be almost no one buying it if most places that have it need to freeze this as well… I mean I’ve seen videos of it sitting in open-air markets with no problem). Obviously I need to make more sopa verde.
Luckily it’s not that difficult to find outside of the most basic stores and markets (though no luck in Whole Foods or certain Co-ops either, depending). It’s preparing it that comes the trouble. There’s a reason it’s called Salt Cod… it tastes like salt. It practically is salt, with a bit of fish to hold it in. But when you get it out… one has a bundle of firm, nicely chewy cod fish that’s great for cooking in whatever. The task to turning it into this stage is simple, but long, taking at LEAST 24 hours to soak in cold water, which should be changed multiple times. After 24 hours, it should be ready for fritters, since we’ll be cooking it in a separate liquid bath before using, though if using for soups I would suggest lending it out another full day.
As a Minnesotan, I can’t help but be reminded of Lutefisk… only more of a firm texture instead of fish jelly.
What it is:Unlike other fritters, I’ve found the more traditional recipes for this in fact do NOT revolve around just mixing every ingredient together in a large bowl. Instead, a simple batter of flour and liquid (maybe eggs) is made on the side, mixed into the fillings, and then one folds in some heavily beaten egg whites, sorta like making a mousse or soufflé.
Now, there seems to be no real consensus on the use of other fillings; I’ve seen a simplified fritter of purely cod and green onion, and ones loaded with herbs, spices and strong aromatic veggies. I like using the cultural flavors to flesh it out, but I didn’t want to get bogged down in excess, so the question became what do we keep?
The few ingredients I keep seeing used in most fritter and Caribbean recipes are green onions, some scotch bonnets, a big thing of parsley, shallot or garlic, and of course limes. Spices vary, but the main flavor I’ve found in use is Coriander, aka dried Cilantro seeds. It’s so popular some recipes switch out the Parsley for the herb version instead, which I debated doing… but I stuck with both spice and parsley. As always, those making this should make it however they want, but I think the mix I got is pretty darn close to traditional flavors and balance.
Scotch Bonnets:Basically, Habaneros. One of THE staple ingredients in Caribbean cooking, you can find them used in many a recipe. As such I found that, if I were to mix various greens and aromatics and such into the fritters as I did, some habanero was a must; it gives an interesting fruity tart spice that I love with the green onions and other things. I definitely suggest playing with it in some form, at least in the side sauce.
The main note when doing so, though, is to be sparing and handle it carefully. If you haven’t heard the lecture about hot peppers yet, wear a damn pair of gloves. Or, if you can’t find any (I swear I had some, but… disappeared…) do everything possible to avoid touching the peppers directly; some plastic wrap or other item to hold the habanero while you carefully de-seed (some may argue the flavor loss with other peppers, but you really don’t wanna risk it with habanero and hotter level peppers) and slice. Oh, and don’t bite into it directly… ask Alton Brown, this is not a lollipop!
Milk and Water: One of my weirdest quandaries in figuring out the recipe I was to use for my fritters was the debate in using milk or water, for both poaching the fish and as the liquid in the batter. On the one hand, using the fatty milk does seem like quite the French go-to, but then again my main French book reference details a light poaching in a water steeped with bay leaf and other aromatics, also a pretty typical cultural technique and great expression of gentle cookery. Similarly with the batter, I couldn’t quite figure if a French milk enrichment or water purety was the better for structure.
Whatever decision you make is up to you, I guess on any old day I’d just stick with milk and maybe some cream too. But for this I decided to compromise; a typical stock-reminiscent water bath and some creamy milk batter.
Sauce:Well they’re little fried balls of fish dough, can’t eat it without lubrication! From what I can tell, there’s nothing particularly typical so long as it suits the Caribbean theme. Mojos, Jerk Sauce, Papaya coulis-thingy, a bottle of tasty hot sauce, whatever; though I’d say anything that’s nicely tart, a bit spicy, and not really “heavy” would work best. I decided to stick with the sauce recipe attached to the French 44’s Acras link, “Dog Sauce.” The ingredients and flavors matched the ones in my fritter, so it worked.
½ lb Salt Cod
2 Bay leaves
3 Garlic Cloves
Salt and Pepper
½ or 1 small Habanero
3 Green Onions
2 Tb Parsley or Cilantro
Juice and Zest of 1 Lime
1 tsp Coriander Spice
1 cup Flour
¼-3/4 cup milk
- Soak Salt Cod in Cold Water at least 24 hours in advance, changing it a minimum 2-3 times throughout.
- Drain and lightly simmer in water bath with Bay Leaves, crushed Garlic, Salt and Peppercorns until fully cooked, about 10 minutes.
- Remove, shred with fork and/or fingers.
- Finely chop Shallots, Habanero, Green Onion, and Parsley, mixing with cooked cod alongside the Lime (juice+zest), Coriander, and seasonings.
- Separate the Egg Yolks from the Whites, reserving both. Mix two of the yolks with Flour and enough milk to make a THICK Batter.
- Heat oil for frying up to 375F, or 385-390F if using a smaller pot (it’ll drop fast anyways).
- While heating, mix the cod in with the batter.
- Beat all the egg whites, electric works easiest, to soft peaks. Fold into the fritter batter.
- Drop a few large spoonfuls of batter into the oil at a time, cooking until deep brown and crispy, 5-10 minutes depending. Turn halfway through cooking.
- Move to paper towels to drain oil, transfer to serving platter and serve alongside Dog Sauce (recipe follows) or other tart and/or spicy condiment.
- Finely chop Onions, Garlic, Habinero, and Parsley, mixing with the Lime Zest.
- Boil water, pour over the veggies, mixing around and letting steep for 5 minutes.
- Add Lime Juice, Oil, and seasoning. Mix and serve, or chill overnight.
Surprisingly eggy, but in a good way; it wasn’t like the rubbery or other overcooked/otherwise too much egg flavor. It was noted, but small, adding a different flavor and texture than I normally think about with fried foods; a French flavor. It’s weird to say, but it’s actually my favorite aspect of the whole thing.
Though it’s a close 1st place, with the gloriously strong and complex Caribbean flavors of onion, scotch bonnet, and cilantro accompanying the tender and firm cod fish. It was glorious, and once again another dish to come in and make me debate it as my favorite so far. Then you add the tart and poignant “sauce” and we go to happy land.
The only downside is that I was unable to get that perfect crispy texture on all of them, or all over the ones I did for that matter. Always one of the issues when having to fry in a small pot while conserving oil… and trying to change batches quickly to cook them all (was serving them for a party, so had to make a whole platter of the fritters). Wasn’t able to hit the high oil temperature all the time sadly. Well, just take it as a lesson; there are consequences to not being able to hold that high temperature.
Primary Pairing – Vinho Verde
Since the “region” of Acras’ origin is quite a ways off from mainland France, I think I’m definitely free enough to use non-French wines in the pairing. In particular, I like the idea of going off Spain and Portugal, what with their large historical trade importance and history with Salt Cod. That said, I just had to grab something from either Vinho Verde(in the North of Portugal) or Txacolina(an interesting set of regions in northern Spain). Though neither is known for any sweetness to battle the hot habinero notes, the razor-sharp and intense acidity of a high quality Vinho Verde more than makes up for it, dealing with both the fat while dancing with the spicy notes in an interesting fashion. With a naturally lower body, simple and singular flavors, and a bare and bright little fizz of effervescence (bringing a nice bit of tannin to go with the light fish texture), Vinho Verde has become well known as one of the perfect food wines. It’s a shame we rarely if ever get any of their Reds in (though I did see a rose at a tasting recently).
Most of the vinho verde one finds in liquor stores is really cheap, somewhat generic crap version that hasn’t helped to build it any reputation in the US. If one goes to any decent wine store, though, you should be able to find at least one really good quality. The great thing is even though good ones, like this Broadbent, clock around only $11-$14, depending (sota like the Greek Retsina, which also wouldn’t be too bad a pairing with accras).
Broadbent is just what I was craving; limey, strong and acidic wine that goes down easy, an almost gulpable affair to drink with the crispy, eggy cod fritters. I didn’t have to think about much, there was fun little frizz, and a bare bitterness also quite characteristic of the region, all the aspects contrasting the hot pepper-oniony-lime flavor in the food. Either way, it made me happy.
Cuz it’s the Caribbean! Need I say more?
Okay fine. Rum, besides being the distilled beverage of the islands, has a natural sweetness which counters the hot qualities nicely. And the caramelly notes in the darker and/or spiced rums goes well with the fried brown crust. Mix it with some ginger ale, coconut, pineapple, or other typical mixers, and you calm it down for easier pairing while increasing the “Caribbean feel” of the meal. Oh, don’t forget the lime!