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Home with the Lost Italian: Leaping with joy

Fried frog legs with a honey Dijon dipping sauce is a Leap Year meal. Dave Wallis | Forum news service

FARGO -- This coming Monday, Feb. 29, is Leap Day, a day that comes only once every four years, if that, and we plan to help you mark the occasion with some fun food and beverage ideas.

I remember explaining the concept of a leap year to our son, Giovanni, when he was just a little guy, and I'll never forget his response.

While most of the adults I know are somewhat ambivalent about this bonus day, he embraced the idea with the clear perspective that only a child can bring. "Wow, an extra day of life—that's great!" he said. "What are we going to do with it?"

What, indeed? In centuries past, Leap Day was traditionally recognized in several European nations as the one occasion where women were allowed to propose marriage to a man. If he refused, protocol dictated that he was to buy an extravagant gift for the woman, often a pair, or pairs, of expensive gloves to hide the fact that she had no engagement ring.

While our societal conventions about marriage have changed since those days, there is still a nuptial relationship to Leap Day in our modern era, with many couples choosing Feb. 29 as their wedding date.

So how do you celebrate Leap Day if you're already married, or not married at all? When faced with a situation like this, Tony and I look to the wide world of food and drink for inspiration, which almost always provides us with a way to connect to an occasion.

But we worried that the abstract, esoteric nature of a Leap Year and Leap Day might present a real challenge in this regard. We should have known better. Once we had leaping on the brain, the ideas seemed to just spring forth.

Recently, we were shopping at Cash Wise Foods in Fargo when we noticed that they carry frog legs at their seafood counter. I turned to Tony and said, "Hey—those would be perfect for our Leap Day column." He looked at me like I was crazy, until he recognized the connection. They weren't expensive, so we picked up a pound and a half which was about 10 pairs, or 20 individual legs, and brought them home to freeze until ready to use.

A few days later we were shopping for wine and stumbled upon a zinfandel from a vintner called Frog's Leap. With our Leap Day celebration taking shape, we decided to create a special Leap Day cocktail combining gin, Bauchant (a French orange liqueur), sweet vermouth and lemon juice.

Never one to shy away from a cute food carving, for décor Tony transformed an apple and grapes into an easy-to-make Leap Day frog.

Armed with our props, we were ready for our photo shoot. Tony created a lovely breadcrumb coating for the frog legs, using a mix of dried herbs and panko breadcrumbs that he blitzed in the food processor until finely ground. After frying the frog legs, he served them on a bed of lettuce (for color) with fresh lemon and a honey mustard dipping sauce. They were wonderfully mild in flavor, a pleasant cross between chicken and fish, with a texture similar to a chicken wing.

Once the photos were taken, I sat at our kitchen counter eating frog legs and sipping on my Leap Day cocktail, feeling luxuriously content and grateful that we get to do this all over again when the real Leap Day arrives.

This is an extra day of life that I can't wait to repeat.

Leap Year Frog Legs

Serves 4 to 6 as appetizer

16 to 20 frog legs (8 to 10 pairs), thawed and rinsed

Juice of one lemon (3 tablespoons to ¼ cup)

Pinch of salt

Pinch of black pepper

2 cups vegetable oil

For dredging

Egg wash (beat 2 eggs with ¼ cup milk)

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 cups seasoned breadcrumbs (see recipe below or use pre-seasoned Italian breadcrumbs)

Rinse the frog legs under cold water and lay on paper towels to dry. Squeeze lemon juice over each leg, and sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper.

Use 3 pie plates or shallow pans to create a dredging station in the following order: egg wash, flour, breadcrumbs. Dredge each leg in the egg wash, then the flour and then the breadcrumbs, making sure that each piece is evenly coated.

Heat vegetable oil in a medium or large frying pan over medium-high heat until very hot. Place frog legs in hot oil and fry on each side until golden brown, about 3 to 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towel to drain, and serve with Leap Day cocktail and favorite dipping sauce.

Seasoned Breadcrumbs

2 cups panko breadcrumbs

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon garlic powder

¼ cup parmesan cheese

Mix all ingredients in a food processor until finely ground. Set aside until ready to use, or freeze for up to one month.

Honey Mustard Dipping Sauce

4 egg yolks (may use pasteurized)

2 tablespoons North Dakota honey

2 tablespoons grain mustard

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

Pinch of kosher salt

1 cup canola oil

Place all ingredients except the canola oil in a food processor and pulse until combined. Slowly add the canola oil in a steady stream until fully incorporated into the mixture.

To store: Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for 3 to 5 days.

Leap Day Cocktail

2 ounces gin

1½ tablespoons (¾ ounce) orange liqueur (Bauchant, Grand Marnier, Cointreau)

1 tablespoon (½ ounce) sweet vermouth

¾ teaspoon (1/8 ounce) lemon juice

Lemon twist to garnish

Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice and add all ingredients but the twist. Shake vigorously and strain into a martini or rocks glass. Enjoy in moderation.

"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 11-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at dine@sarellos.com and their blog at www.thelostitalian.areavoices.com.

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