Albanian Frogs’ Legs, Fried Mussels, and Rice Balls

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.

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Crimean Fishcakes with Mussel Sabayon and Tomato Compote

Here’s another recipe made with seafood that can be found in Crimea: skate, shrimp and mussels. (See also my Crimean Seafood Orzo). Following Ukrainian cuisine’s propensity for all things ground, the fish and the shrimp are minced to form nice little round patties. The vibrantly yellow mussel sabayon packs a lot of bivalve flavor that complements the fishcakes perfectly.

I served the dish with a green bean puree in the pictures, but in retrospect I think that a mix of spring vegetables would be a better match.


Tomato Compote
Yields about 4 servings

24 oz very ripe tomatoes
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 oz top-quality olive oil
1/2 tsp star anise
1 pinch nutmeg
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp ketchup
1 tsp basil, finely chopped

  • Bring a pot of water to a boil. Make cross marks in the tomatoes with a knife, blanch for 30 seconds, then shock in a bowl of ice water. Peel, core and seed the tomatoes. Roughly chop the flesh and reserve. Place the seeds and membranes with the salt into a conical sieve over a bowl, and leave for 30 minutes. Mash the contents of the sieve a few times, then discard. Reserve the tomato liquid.
  • Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the star anise and nutmeg. Add the tomato flesh, tomato liquid, Worcestershire sauce and ketchup, then cook over low heat for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Stir in the basil, let cool and reserve.
  • Reheat in a small saucepan just before serving.

Mussel preparation
Yields about 4 servings and 3 oz leftover cooked mussels

1 lb mussels
shrimp shells (optional)
4 oz dry white wine
1 oz sliced onion
green stems from 2 spring onions
4 filaments saffron

  • Clean and rinse the mussels under cold water. Place the mussels and shrimp shells in a pot with the white wine, onion, spring onion stems and saffron. Cover with a lid and cook over high heat until all the mussels are open, shaking the pot regularly. Let cool for 5 minutes.
  • Remove the mussels from their shells, let cool and refrigerate. Pass the cooking liquid through a chinois and reserve.

Fishcakes
Yields 4 servings

8 oz cleaned skate fillet
salt
1 1/2 oz butter
2 oz peeled spring onion, thinly sliced
8 oz peeled Yukon Gold potatoes
8 oz peeled shrimp
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp orange juice
1/2 tsp piment d’espelette

  • Season the skate with salt, and sauté in a hot pan with 1/3 of the butter until golden-brown on both sides. Let cool and reserve.
  • Sauté the spring onion with the rest of the butter in a saucepan over medium heat, season with salt and cook until soft. Let cool and reserve.
  • Quarter the potatoes, place in a saucepan with cold water and salt, and cook over medium heat until tender. Pass though a food mill using the finest grate, let cool and reserve.
  • Chop the shrimp very finely and place into a bowl. Shred the skate into the bowl, then add the beaten egg and egg yolk followed by the orange juice, piment d’espelette, spring onion and potato purée. Mix with a rubber spatula just enough to blend all the ingredients. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
  • Shape the mixture into 10 cakes. In a non-stick pan oven medium heat, sauté each cake with a small piece of butter until brown on both sides. Transfer the cakes to an oven-proof dish, cover with foil, and finish in a 350 F oven for about 10 minutes.

Mussel sabayon
Yields 4 servings

4 oz mussel juice
2 oz mussels
2 egg yolks
1 oz butter

  • Process the mussel juice and mussels in a blender until smooth, pass through a chinois and transfer to a double-boiler. Whisk in the egg yolks, and cook the mixture to a ribbon consistency, stirring constantly.
  • Remove from the heat, mix in the butter and serve immediately.


Crimean Seafood Orzo

When thinking about Ukrainian food, seafood is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. We tend to forget that in addition to its countryside and its heaps of sausages and potato pancakes, its pierogi and beet soup, Ukraine boasts an important coastline on the Black Sea — 2,782 km, second only to Turkey. A good chunk of that coastline is located in Crimea, and the local markets and restaurants offer a decent, if not spectacular, selection of fish and shellfish. In beach resort towns like Yalta, vendors defy sanitary common sense and sell cooked mussels or shrimp on the street in the middle of summer, without refrigeration:

I wanted to make a dish that shows the potential of Crimean seafood, a recipe that would be to Ukrainian cuisine what Artic Char Vojvodina is to Serbian cuisine. The tomato-carrot sauce is inspired by Heston Blumenthal’s tomato compote. This is the longest part of the recipe, but it’s well worth the trouble. You could prepare a large batch in advance, keep some in the refrigerator for a few days and freeze the rest. The rest of the recipe can be completed in about 30 minutes.

Tomato-carrot sauce
Yields 4 servings

8 oz tomatoes
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 oz olive oil
2 oz onion, brunoise
3 oz carrot, brunoise
1/4 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp ground star anise
1 pinch ground nutmeg
1 drop Tabasco sauce
1 /2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp ketchup
2 thyme sprigs, leaves only

  • Bring a pot of water to a boil. Make cross marks in the tomatoes with a knife, blanch for 30 seconds, then shock in a bowl of ice water. Peel, core and seed the tomatoes. Roughly chop the flesh and reserve. Place the seeds and membranes with the salt into a conical sieve over a bowl, and leave for 30 minutes. Push the contents of the sieve with a ladle a few times, then discard. Reserve the tomato liquid.
  • Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and carrot, and cook for about 10 minutes until soft. Stir in the coriander, star anise and nutmeg. Add the tomato flesh, tomato liquid, Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup and thyme, then cook over low heat for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Reserve.

Shrimp and mussel preparation
Yields 4 servings

1/2 lb large shrimp, shell-on
salt
1 tbsp olive oil
2 lb mussels
8 oz dry white wine
2 oz onion, sliced
4 chives

  • Peel the shrimp and reserve the shells. Keep 8 shrimp whole and cut the remaining ones in half. Season with salt and sauté in a hot pan with olive oil until brown on all sides. Remove from heat and reserve.
  • Place the shrimp shells, mussels, white wine, onion and chives in a pot. Cover with a lid and cook over high heat until all the mussels are open, stirring regularly. Let cool for 5 minutes. Keep 8 mussels whole, pick the others from their shells, and reserve. Pass the cooking liquid through a chinois and reserve.

Seafood orzo
Yields 4 servings

1 oz butter
5 oz orzo
mussel cooking liquid
3 oz green peas
cooked shrimp and mussels
1 tbsp chives and parsley, finely chopped

  • In a saucepan, melt half of the butter over medium heat, add the orzo, and stir for a minute. Add half of the mussel cooking liquid and bring to a simmer. Cover with a lid and cook over low heat until all the liquid is absorbed. Repeat with the rest of the liquid.
  • Add the green peas, the cooked shrimp and mussels, the rest of the butter, half of the chives and parsley, and enough water to finish cooking the orzo. Cook uncovered over low heat, stirring regularly.
  • Serve the orzo in a bowl, top with the whole shrimp on bamboo skewers, and sprinkle with the remaining chives and parsley.