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Key Ingredient: Jonathan Zaragoza gets into muddy-tasting amphibians, skin and all

Challenged with live frog, the Masa Azul chef takes a trip to Chinatown and goes from there.

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The Chef: Jonathan Zaragoza (Masa Azul)
The Challenger: Abraham Conlon (Fat Rice)
The Ingredient: Frog

Jonathan Zaragoza had a little trouble getting live frogs. He knew where to find them—Abraham Conlon, who'd assigned him the ingredient (and specified that they had to be alive), had taken him to Chinatown for his first—but when he went back to buy more, he encountered a language barrier. Zaragoza googled "frog in Chinese" on his phone and pointed out the symbol to the guy behind the counter, but it didn't help.

"So I google-imaged 'frog,' and the WB frog came up and I was like, 'This guy right here,'" Zaragoza said. "Sure enough, he's like, 'Yeah, yeah.' So he goes back and pulls out a crate from the bottom of the table, opens it up, and there's five frogs just sitting there staring at me." Zaragoza asked for four, and says the guy put them in a bag and handed them to him. "I was like, 'No no no, you need to do the deed for me. I can't do it.'"

The guy in the store skinned and gutted the frogs for him, and Zaragoza saved the skins in case he wanted to use them. He hadn't decided yet what he wanted to cook, but was considering a soup because that's what all the Chinese people he'd talked to said they made with frog. Posole was the first thing that came to mind, but when Zaragoza tried it he found that the mole he uses in the soup overpowered the flavor of the frog.

That might not seem like such a bad thing—Zaragoza says that frog tastes a lot like mud. But "our job's not to mask it, it's to accent it," he said. "So we went about coming up with a nice recipe that would complement the swampiness of the frog."

He thought about fried frog legs, which reminded him of fish-and-chips. "And then it clicked: I said, let's do the original fish-and-chips, which is ceviche and totopos." The acidity of the lime juice and orange juice cuts through the muddiness, he said, and he used habanero peppers for their fruity quality. "We smoke the habaneros, so we have some spice in there, and then the smokiness just kind of rounds out that swamp gaminess of it."

The texture of the frog after it's "cooked" in the acid is a little chewy, somewhere between chicken and fish, Zaragoza said. (According to legend, 12th-century French monks classified frogs as fish to avoid a rule that prohibited them from eating meat on certain days). In addition to the citrus juices and smoked habaneros, he used avocado, red onion, and cilantro.

The final touch was the chips: instead of serving the ceviche with corn chips, Zaragoza cut up, dehydrated, and deep-fried the frog skin to serve as totopos. Tasting it, he said, "The textures are nice; you get some nice smoke from the habanero. The frog-skin chip is superfunky. Funkier than last time—I don't know what this dude was eating."

Though he has no intention of serving it, Zaragoza thought the dish worked: "You only get the swampiness toward the back end."

Who's next:

John Asbaty of Panozzo's Italian Market, working with honeycomb tripe. "It's got a weird texture, gelatinous almost," Zaragoza says. He's only had it in menudo, but said he's heard that in Italian cooking they sometimes substitute it for pasta.

Frog ceviche

1 whole frog, skin removed
1/2 red onion, small dice
1/4 cup orange juice
1/2 cup lime juice
2 smoked habaneros, minced
1 T cilantro
1/4 avocado, small dice
Kosher salt
Hawaiian black salt for garnish
Petite red watercress for garnish

Take frog skin and portion into one-inch by one-inch sections.Place in a dehydrator and dehydrate at 95 degrees F for ten hours. Remove leg meat from the frog and give it a rough chop. Dice red onion and combine with meat and citrus juice and let it marinate for about three hours. Strain off excess liquid and add the cilantro, habanero, and avocado and season with kosher salt. Deep-fry the dehydrated frog skin in 350-degree oil until it puffs, then remove and season with salt. Garnish ceviche with black salt and watercress and serve with frog skin.

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