Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Journey to Paris

As I reflect on my time in Paris, I find myself daydreaming, sighing, and fighting the urge to describe it in fluffy terms like lovely and exquisite.  In essence, that’s exactly the kind of week I had.  Preparing oneself for a holiday in such an idyllic city presents an interesting array of presumptions and expectations.  As I pored over saved magazine and newspaper articles, internet “best of” lists, and recommendations from friends, I painstakingly whittled away at a pages-long list of options and settled on a culinary itinerary that I hoped would provide a broad range of experiences.  From markets and quaint shops to highly rated restaurants, I set out to immerse myself in the Parisian ways.

We arrived in Paris late Sunday afternoon.  After checking into our hotel and unpacking, we set out to find a casual spot for dinner in St. Germain.  Because most restaurants are closed on Sunday and one never knows if a flight schedule will actually hold true, I made no reservations for Sunday night.  It provided us an opportunity to have at least one night to simply choose a café and just be in Paris without an agenda.  We grabbed a table at Le Bonaparte, and I began my first foray into the French language on actual French soil (as opposed to three years in a high school classroom and the last eight months of podcasts alone in my car).  I successfully ordered a beet carpaccio salad, croque madame sandwiches, and wine, and we settled into our first meal in Paris.  In all honesty, I make a better croque madame than the one we had at Le Bonaparte, but the ethereal atmosphere of dining in a Paris café for the first time completely outweighed my disappointment in the sandwich.  This casual dinner was not meant to be the culinary culmination of the trip rather an opportunity to sit back, relax, and imagine the days to follow.

grilled duck necks from dans les landes
click here for more dans les landes photos
Monday morning began with coffee and tartine followed by a trek around the Latin Quarter.  We enjoyed a great lunch at Dans les Landes, a casual neighborhood spot offering Spanish-style tapas dishes with a definite French influence.  I’d read rave reviews about their smoked duck and polenta croquettes and their fried baby squid, so I knew those were required orders.  Apparently, I was in a “poultry” mood, because I selected grilled duck necks and quail filets as our other plates.  Every dish was fantastic and full of flavor.  While I expected the croquettes to be one of our favorites, I was surprised at how much we gushed over the grilled duck necks.  The sauce boasted an addictive sweet and sour quality, and the tender meat pulled away from the bone with ease. In retrospect, we didn’t fully appreciate the unusual quality of the restaurant’s bold flavors and unique plates, because this was only our first day in Paris.  Still, we adored it.  Without question, it’s the kind of spot that we’d frequent if we lived in the neighborhood. 

Our plans for Monday evening took us to the Marais district.  Before dinner, we stopped by The Experimental Cocktail Club for drinks.  This was quite the experience.  As someone who grew up in Tennessee, I couldn’t get enough of these Parisian hipsters donning overalls and piping Hank Williams through the speakers as if this somehow represented the epitome of cool.  Oddly enough, it is cool in Paris.  I guess Paris has a way of making everything better.  The drinks lived up to the vibe, too.  I had l’ecume des jour, a whiskey sour with fresh celery juice and celery bitters, and with each sip, I began to calculate how I would recreate this cocktail at a later date.  

After drinks, we walked a few blocks to Frenchie for dinner.  The concept here is to present a nightly prix fixe menu of dishes crafted to emphasize local, seasonal foods.  The menu offers two choices for each course and an optional fois opening course, so between the two of us, we sampled the full menu, as follows:
duck fois gras torchon and pear
black trompette mushrooms, chicken liver parfait, figs, fresh hazelnuts
crab, tomato, basil, hysope
trout, cauliflower mushrooms, walnuts
guinea fowl, eggplant, bell pepper, feta
wild blackberries, lime, hazelnuts
miso ice cream, plums, raspberries
 
black trompette mushrooms, chicken liver parfait,
figs, fresh hazelnuts from frenchie
click here for more frenchie photos
Each dish presented a balanced, thoughtful combination of ingredients.  The black trompette mushroom/chicken liver parfait and trout courses were our favorites, and while we enjoyed every dish and appreciated the skill and creativity necessary for such a menu, I found myself a bit puzzled that nothing about it brought forth a “wow” moment.  After all, this is one of the most highly regarded restaurants in the city, right?  At the time, I was surprised, but after a few more days in Paris, I began to understand that the chefs in these seasonally-focused restaurants are not seeking to wow with big bold flavors.  Not at all.  That’s not the point.  This is not rock ‘n’ roll, rather jazz improvisation.  They endeavor to take an ingredient in the peak of its season and subtly elevate it by accentuating its best qualities with other local ingredients.  Upon recognizing this philosophy, the delicate intricacies of these dishes revealed themselves, and the imparted flavors became better defined.  Even now, as I recall this dinner, I smile at its charm and thoughtful quality.
 
From a planner’s perspective, Tuesday’s lunch and dinner were a mess.  My idea to have a galette and cider for lunch at Little Breizh stalled when we arrived to a sign stating that they were closed for the day so that they could paint the restaurant.  Insistent that I find another creperie in the neighborhood, I began an internet search that should’ve landed me at La Creperie des Canettes. As we approached rue des canettes, we saw a large yellow sign proclaiming CREPERIE and darted right in.  The server brought us menus and while I found it odd that they were covered in pictures of clowns, I forged ahead and ordered.  Shortly thereafter, I realized that we were not in La Creperie des Canettes when I spotted the sign in the restaurant for Creperie du Clown.  Still in the dark, I assumed that the name of the restaurant had changed. My galette arrived, and it was okay.  Not bad, not great.   We finished our lunch, crossed the street, looked back, and saw La Creperie des Canettes right beside the clown spot.   We were oh so close. 
 
 
goat cheeses from androuet
click here for more androuet photos
Tuesday afternoon improved dramatically with the onset of our Tour de Fromage with Paris By Mouth founder Meg Zimbeck.  I’ve always loved cheese, but this experience sparked a new fascination for me.  Mesmerized by the sight of France’s best cheeses and intoxicated by their aroma, I stood in Androuet and listened to Meg explain the history of cheese-making in France, how the country’s geography has informed so many varieties, an affineur’s process for maturing and ripening a cheese, and the innovative initiative of Henri Androuet to curate a shop of cheeses from all over France in 1909.  We purchased twenty cheeses and took them to La Derniere Goutte, a charming wine shop specializing in small French producers.  In the back salesroom, our small group of seven sat in a tightly knit circle of chairs and commenced our exploration of French cheeses with paired wines straight from the sales floor, and each taste initiated a discussion of geography, terroir, and comparisons to previous bites.  Within minutes, our group of strangers found common ground, and I suspect anyone passing by would’ve thought us old friends catching up on life over a feast of fantastic cheeses and wines.  I cannot imagine a better way to experience the history and culture of France.  This afternoon topped my list for the week…above any museum, garden, café, or restaurant.
 
In keeping with Tuesday’s theme of poor planning, we walked back to the hotel and wondered how we would ever eat dinner after such an incredible afternoon.  We lay around in a cheese coma for a little while and finally mustered up the energy to dress for dinner.  We walked a mile to La Table d’Aki to discover that something with our reservation was awry.  Long story short, we turned around, walked back to the hotel, and went to bed. 

 
le crabe royal from l'atelier de joel robuchon
click here for more l'atelier de joel robuchon photos
Wednesday morning I awakened with a resolve to conquer my disappointment regarding the La Table d’Aki reservation.  After an inspired morning at the Musee d’Orsay, we walked a few blocks to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Saint-Germain.  We settled in at the bar that surrounds the kitchen, and I was taken with the show before me.  This immaculate kitchen buzzed with energy, and as beautiful plates appeared on the service counter like clockwork, I watched in awe of the calm, yet focused, atmosphere.  My initial plan for this lunch was to order a la carte, but in an unusual (and welcome) turn of events, the hubs overruled me and ordered the tasting menu.  What’s a girl to do?  Of course, I obliged.  A technically flawless menu like none other followed:
 
la tomate
en gazpacho aux croutons dores, sorbet moutarde a l’ancienne
 
le crabe royal
aux fines lamelies de raves epicees
 
le caviar
et sa crème aigre, sure une pomme de terre mixee a l’huile d’olive des baux
 
l’oeuf
cocotte a la crème legere de girolles
 
le foie gras
de canard chaud, cocos de paimpol au jus d’hibiscus
 
le gyoza
a la plancha, farcie de volaille, dans son bouillon au parfum d’asie
 
le saint-pierre
dore a la plancha sous une vierge condimentee a l’huile de pistache
 
l’agneau de lait
en cotelettes a la fleur de thym
 
le black angus
Coeur d’onglet fondant, aux echalotes confites
 
le parfum des iles
crème aux fruits de la passion et a la banana, granite au rhum, legerete a la noix de coco
 
le chocolat tendance
ganache onctueuse au chocolat araguani, glace au grue de cacao, biscuit oreo
 
We enjoyed every dish.  Our favorites included the tomato gazpacho with mustard sorbet, the crab royale, the 65-degree egg layered between cream and mushrooms, the saint-pierre with nori and pistachio oil, and the beef with shallot confit. Oddly enough, I expected this to be the disappointment of the week.  With so many quaint, trendy spots on my list, I suppose I thought this wouldn’t live up to the hype or the “big name” label.  When I mentioned to friends that we planned to lunch there, most responded with lackluster comments seeming disappointed that we’d spend our time there.  I know this much…there is a reason Robuchon’s name is on the door.  This meal was nothing short of magnificent.
 
After our leisurely two-hour lunch, we ditched all plans for afternoon museum tours and hiked around the city for the next three hours…from Saint-Germain into the Jardin de Tuileries down avenue des champs-elysees to the top of the Arc de Triomphe under the Eifel Tower through the Invalides neighborhood, and back to our hotel in Saint-Germain.  We needed every mile of that walk. 
 
I opted for dinner at Chez l’Ami Jean on Wednesday night, because I wanted to experience a real neighborhood bistro in Paris.  I imagined a casual spot where the chef and the servers know the patrons, and everyone is there to enjoy great food in the company of friends and family.  With so many endearing reviews about its food and charm, I expected Chez l’Ami Jean to be one of our best dinners, but alas, it was not.  It’s a shame, too, because from the moment I walked in, I found it brimming with possibilities for greatness.  By all means, the atmosphere lived up to the hype.  Locals finishing their meals walked over to the service window to shake hands with the chef, have a few laughs, and thank him for their meals.  As we took our seats near the kitchen, a server delivered a full terrine of pate de campagne, a crock of cornichons, and a basket of fresh bread.  I couldn’t help gushing, and my anticipation for dinner heightened.  We ordered the tasting menu, and the first dish arrived, a parmesan soup with buttered breadcrumbs and parsley.  A simple, flavorful opening course that anyone would enjoy.  The second course arrived, sausage and oyster in a mushroom broth, and I liked it but immediately thought the broth was over-salted.  In the midst of this course, my opinion regarding the bistro’s charm began its steady decline as I witnessed the chef yell at a server on the floor a la Hell’s Kitchen, not to mention his incessant loud clapping to summon servers to the window.  The third course arrived, calamari noodles, chanterelles, and fois gras in another salty broth.  Again, the execution and the quality of ingredients impressed me, but I couldn’t get past that broth.  At this point, I asked the hubs, “is it just me?”  He tends to like saltier dishes, and even he agrees.  The fourth dish arrived, roasted monkfish with white beans and bacon in yet another salty broth.  Not wanting to offend, I tried to finish the dish, but the fish was overcooked to the point of requiring a knife to cut it, plus it had a large, ugly bloodline in it.  I realized that I was in serious trouble as I began to wonder how I would finish another dish.  It wasn’t just that the portions were large, but that coupled with the saltiness made me feel as if I might swell up and pop the zipper in my dress.  I left a chunk of the fish with bloodline on the plate and reluctantly finished the rest of the dish.  When the server came by, he asked why I hadn’t finished the fish.  I paused and considered my options.  No matter my response, I would surely be labeled the ignorant American, so I opted to play the role of the woman who was simply getting full and saving room for the next course.  Thinking this strategy more polite than criticizing the heavy-handed saltiness of the broths and the overcooked fish, I expected the server to smile and take away the dish.  Instead, he raised his voice to ask again why I didn’t finish the dish and if there was something wrong with it.  At this point, what appeared to be the entire front of house staff surrounded our table to hear my answer, and I suddenly felt like I had been transported to a theater stage with a full chorus chanting in stage whispers “she didn’t eat the monkfish,” and “what’s wrong with the monkfish?” as the music swelled behind them.  Embarrassed, I stuck with my original answer that I was just getting full, and a cacophony of sighs emerged from the chorus.  The rest of the meal is a bit of a blur.  We had two more large (and salty) protein courses each preceded by our server taunting me about whether or not I would be able to finish them.  I did finish them, but it was a miserable experience.  To add insult to injury, the server arrived at our table with a wry grin on his face and presented a vat of rice pudding large enough to feed an army.  At this point, laughter was the only antidote to the evening’s progression, and although we didn’t love the food, the sheer spectacle of it will forever hold a special place in my heart.  We laughed all the way back to our hotel and then some.
 
croissant de beurre and tarte aux pommes from poilane
On Thursday morning, we took the metro to the Marais district for another Paris by Mouth tour.  Unlike the Tour de Fromage on Tuesday, this tour was a general overview of artisanal shops and markets in the neighborhood, and we certainly discovered several local gems that I don’t think we would’ve found without the tour.  For me, a tour like this isn’t for the experience of walking through the neighborhood and trying a few bites here and there, rather it is for the back story.  Visiting a shop with someone who can communicate its history and significance provides a sense of greater understanding.  Our tour began at Poilane with tarte aux pommes and the most incredible croissant de beurre I’ve ever tasted, and the stage was set for a great morning.  We browsed the city’s oldest covered market, Marche des Enfants Rouges, and we sampled French olive oils from Premiere Pression de Provence (so amazing that I bought three olive oils and a bottle of fig vinegar to bring home), cheeses from Jouannault Pere et Fille, and rabbit pate and duck rillettes from Ramella Charcutier et Traiteur. 

pate de fruits from jacques genin chocolatier
We concluded our tour at Jacques Genin Chocolatier.  I conscientiously tried not to deign everything delicious in Paris with the label of “best” as it can sometimes be a term used in the moment and not literally, but without question, Jacques Genin’s chocolates, caramels, and pate de fruits truly earned that label on every level.  I’ve never experienced candies like these, and I do not have the words to describe them.  Every attempt at writing a description here culminates in me deleting the words because they don’t quite communicate the full elevated experience that is Jacques Genin Chocolatier.  In a word, they are perfection.
 
We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting the Pompidou Centre and leisurely walking back.  As we strolled through Les Halles, I noticed a large kitchen store on a corner and darted in.  It was full of people, which seemed odd, until I realized that it was the store made famous by Julia Child’s patronage, E. Dehillerin.  For a while, I just worked through the utensils one by one giving myself a sort of, “hmm, what does this do?” quiz.  If it hadn’t been so crowded, I could’ve stayed for hours.  Instead, we ventured west and ducked into Telescope for a coffee while we waited out the first rain shower of our trip. 
 
raw oyster from spring
click here for more spring photos
Thursday evening began with a downpour of rain on our walk to Spring.  I can’t complain though.  Squeezing under an umbrella with the one you love while walking next to the Seine is quite romantic, and we arrived at Spring happy to come in from the rain and have a glass of champagne.  Similar in style to Frenchie, Spring offers a prix fixe dinner of local, seasonal dishes.  Not surprisingly, we saw a reprise of many seasonal ingredients from our trip: oysters, trout, chanterelles, turnips, and pears.  The meal was spectacular...simple, playful, thoughtful, delicious.  After the previous night’s circus, I welcomed the calm, comfortable atmosphere, and when our first course arrived, a bowl of buttery potatoes with a smiley face drawn in chervil oil, I breathed a sigh of relief, settled in with our bottle of wine, and savored everything about the night.  The menu included:
 
buttery creamed potatoes, chervil oil
raw oysters, apple gelee, raw green apple
trout, honey-olive oil sauce, radish, herb salad
langoustine, butternut squash puree, chanterelles
pigeon breast, bok choy, marrow broth
pigeon leg quarters, roasted turnips, microgreens
cheese course of chevre served on a chestnut leaf, brie de meaux, roquefort
pear, mini mille-feuille, raspberries and thyme
 
buttery potaoes and chervil oil from spring
All in all, this meal fully illustrated a perfect example of what a local and seasonal-focused menu should be.  Each dish captured the essence of its components.  When I ate the raw oyster, I tasted the brininess of the oyster, the sweetness of the gelle, and the tartness of the raw apple while I felt the softness of the oyster and crunch of the apple…all in one glorious, well-composed, simple bite.  Such a bite defines balance, and every course at Spring exemplified this idea. 
 

We slept in a little on Friday morning before visiting the Louvre for an obligatory glance at Mona Lisa and a few Michelangelo statues.  Then, we lingered around the nearby gardens and just soaked in as much Paris as possible on our last morning there.  Eventually, we sauntered over to yam’Tcha for lunch, and it set the course for our best culinary day in Paris.  I arrived there with high expectations, and even still, they were exceeded.  This small, unassuming space brimmed with positive energy.  I settled into a seat with a view of the open kitchen, and they presented us with welcoming tea.  We ordered the prix fixe lunch, and while the hubs opted for the wine pairing, I selected the tea pairing.  Our menu included these dishes:
 
crab and tofu spring roll with plum sauce
sweet potato noodles, white sesame, and shiso
steamed oyster, fois gras, and raw cucumber with date-seaweed sauce
steamed buns
shrimp and chanterelles in fish broth
chicken and apples with shaoxing wine sauce
chocolate cake with almond cream and brittle
raspberry sorbet and fresh raspberries
 
shrimp and chanterelles in fish broth from yam'Tcha
click here for more yam'Tcha photos
One by one, the dishes arrived, and a pensiveness overcame us as we fell into the spell that is yam’Tcha.  Each dish had one “pop” that elevated it from good to outstanding, such as the date-seaweed sauce under the oyster/fois dish, the fish broth in the shrimp/chanterelle dish, or the shaoxing wine sauce served with the chicken and apples.  The dishes were delicate, balanced, and thoughtful, and most importantly, the flavors wowed.  As a bonus, I found the tea pairings fascinating.  With each dish a new tea arrived.  Red tea, black tea, blue tea, green tea…each presented with an interesting description of its origin and the reason for its pairing.  The exercise of considering each tea as an element within its course made the full lunch experience even more exhilarating, like I was in new culinary territory.  As I watched the chefs in the open kitchen working calmly with smiles all around, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps we had glimpsed a bit of realized utopia.
 
We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling through St. Germain.  After a leisurely visit to Delacroix’s home, we headed to Pierre Herme for a sampler box of macarons.  (Earlier in the week, we sampled macarons from Laduree and Sadaharu Aoki, and I needed to try Pierre Herme before we left the city in order to form a somewhat knowledgeable opinion in the whole “best macaron in Paris” debate.  While we enjoyed them all, Laduree’s pink peppercorn macaron received my vote for best macaron of the two dozen we tried over the course of our week.)  For our final order of business, we circled back to La Derniere Goutte for our final souvenir…a box of wine.  These guys are so nice, and their selection and pricing is great.  Just as impressive as their selection and pricing, the case of wine they packed for us to check as luggage arrived to Miami in pristine condition.  We began our walk back to the hotel, and I couldn’t help wondering if yam’Tcha for lunch, instead of dinner, had been a mistake.  It seemed an impossibility that any restaurant would compare….but I was wrong.
 
Friday evening, we headed north on the metro for dinner at Le Chateaubriand.  Until this point, our Paris restaurant experiences had been fairly low key and quiet (with the obvious exception of Chez l’Ami Jean), and as we stepped onto Avenue Parmentier, I immediately recognized that we were embarking upon new territory.  The streets buzzed with energy, and I discovered that the “rock n roll” vibe I expected to find in Paris’s hot spots was alive and well at Le Chateaubriand.  Our meal was phenomenal.  The dishes ranged from minimalist thought-provoking ideas to full-flavored bold presentations.  Our menu included:
cheese puffs
ceviche shots
fried shrimp with passionfruit powder
squid noodles, squid ink, raw pear
raspberry lobster broth
red snapper, green tomato, pimenton
bream, mushrooms, yellow beans, fermented black beans
rare beef with thin potato crisps and chives
egg yolk atop crunchy meringue
chocolate ganache, fresh mint granite, cocoa powder
fresh strawberries and candied anise seed
 

egg yolk atop crunchy meringue from le chateaubriand
click here for more le chateaubriand photos
As the menu progressed, my admiration for everything Le Chateaubriand amplified.  We reached the pinnacle of the meal when a server presented the egg yolk atop crunchy meringue.  He instructed us to eat the whole yolk and meringue in one bite, so I carefully scooped the full bite into my spoon.  Wow!  The yolk oozed into the meringues, and as the crunchy bits of meringue began to melt, the textures and flavors achieved a beautiful synergy.  Without question, that was the best bite of our vacation.  The server smiled and nodded.  Later, he told us that it is his favorite dish, as well, and the three of us spent a few minutes discussing and honoring every perfect detail of it.  This is the kind of energy I love in a restaurant.  From the bussers to the kitchen, everyone working there believed in, embraced, and supported the cause wholeheartedly.  Fresh and hip.  Bold and creative.  Emotive and smart.  Dinner at Le Chateaubriand transformed and elevated my idea of a great meal, and its spirit will forever dwell within me.  Best meal of the vacation!
 
Our week in Paris was truly unforgettable.  I’ve returned to Miami with a new respect for the Parisian way and a keen curiosity for further exploration.  From the happy accidents to the less-inspired plans, I will cherish every moment.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Week 52: A Journey to Korea

I approached this week’s plan for Korean cuisine with great anticipation.  I will always remember the first time my friend Vanessa took me into the heart of New York’s Koreatown for dinner.  I had never experienced such sensory satiation as I watched small dishes fill our table, felt the warmth of the grill in the center of the table, listened to the bustle of the servers keeping tables filled, smelled the spices, and tasted each dish.  When we finished our meal, I gazed in wonder and awe at the whole of my experience.  What were all of those little dishes?  Was there a rhyme or reason to them?  How could anyone possibly manage to serve so many dishes in such a short amount of time?  For this week’s project, I set out to answer those questions by planning and preparing an authentic Korean meal.

To begin my preparations, I studied the table settings and structure of Korean meals in the Korean Royal Courts.  During the Joseon period (1392 – 1897), the royal palace placed significant importance on culture and societal gatherings which resulted in the court’s focus on Korean cuisine and etiquette.  While a commoner’s diet consisted of seasonal dishes, the Royal Court insisted on serving the finest specialties from across the country.  Its banquets featured delicacies from each of Korea’s eight provinces each month.  The court even created official positions related to the procurement of the ingredients necessary to feature such dishes.  Five meals were served daily, and the main meals included an elaborate setting (bansang) of rice, soups, stews, vegetables, meats, and side dishes.  The number of side dishes, or banchan, dictates the setting of the table as a 3 cheop (cheop meaning the number of side dishes), 5 cheop, 7 cheop, 9 cheop, or 12 cheop.  Unlike a Western meal served in courses, Korean meals are served in one large course.  The dishes are arranged according to guidelines designed to organize them in categories.  Examples of these guidelines include setting cold dishes on the left, soups and stews on the right, vegetables and rice on the left, kimchi at the back, and sauces in the front.  Utensils, a spoon and chopsticks, are set to the right of the diner.  In other words, this is a “rules” cuisine, which makes it so much more complicated than the covered-dish suppers of my youth. 

As mentioned above, the number of banchan served can vary significantly at a Korean dinner, and in general, more formal meals include a larger number of banchan.   Several categories of small dishes varying based on ingredients and style of preparation make up the whole of a banchan presentation. 
  • Kimchi:  Likely the most popular category, it is in its most basic form fermented vegetables.  Most people are familiar with kimchi made from napa cabbage; however, boundless versions of the dish exist including different vegetables, varying times of fermentation, and the amount of chilis used for heat.  No Korean meal is complete without at least one presentation of kimchi, and most include more.
  • Namul:  Vegetables that have been steamed or stir-fried and seasoned.  
  • Bokkeum:  A dish that has been stir-fried with a sauce.
  • Jorim:  A dish simmered in a seasoned broth.
  • Jjim: A steamed dish.
  • Jeon:  A pan-fried dish.
While these are the main categories, there are a few other dishes that may be served as banchan, such as japchae (glass noodles served with vegetables and beef) and Korean-style potato salad.  Understanding these categories of dishes proved to be the most powerful lesson of this week’s blog for me.  What seemed a barrage of small dishes at a Korean table suddenly has transformed into a more meaningful, thoughtful presentation.
 
Never one to back down from a challenge, I took all of this information and formulated a menu for four people, which included rice, a clear broth soup (guk), a stew (jiggae), two secondary main courses featuring grilled meats, three kimchi presentations, and other banchan that featured vegetables in cold and hot presentations.  It would’ve been nice to stay true to the Korean way of presenting the full meal all at the same time, but I don’t have a workforce in my kitchen beyond me (and the hubs) so this meal would definitely have to be presented in a few courses.  I did commit to serving the secondary main courses and full array of banchan at the same time though, and that felt like a real accomplishment in and of itself.
 
kimchi
While I knew that many types of kimchi existed, I did not understand what a significant role kimchi plays in Korean cuisine.  It’s not just a salad or a relish.  For the project, I wanted to make several versions so that I could experience the differences.  I made the kimchi several days before our meal to allow it time to ferment, but in reality, some of these kimchis would've been even better if they had been made several weeks before the meal. 
 
kkakdugi, dongchimi, baechu kimchi
I made three versions.  For the baechu kimchi, which is made with Napa cabbage, I seasoned it with garlic, ginger, fish sauce, grated daikon, scallions, and gochugaru (Korean red pepper powder).  I also made kkakdugi, which is made with cubed daikon, and I seasoned it with gochugaru, fish sauce, raw shrimp, garlic, ginger, and glutinous rice powder.  Because these two kimchis had similar seasonings, the flavors were comparable, but it was interesting to taste the differences based on the use of the cabbage or the daikon.  The one made with cabbage definitely had more bite, which is probably because the cabbage released less water than the daikon.  The third kimchi that I made is called dongchimi or radish water kimchi.  It presented a completely different profile than the others.  Water kimchis are considered “quick” kimchis, because they require less time for fermenting.  They are more watery and offer a lighter flavor.  The recipe I followed included daikon, sugar, napa cabbage, salt, thinly sliced chili peppers, scallions, and a puree of Asian pear, garlic, ginger, and onion.  I loved this one!  It offered a light, refreshing balance when served with grilled meats for our dinner.  We enjoyed all three with our meal.
 
duk guk
duk guk
Guk refers to soups that feature vegetables, seafood, and/or meat in a clear broth.  Even more specifically, guk is categorized into four different groups based on the ingredients used to make the broth.  For our dinner, we began with duk guk (also spelled tteokguk), a dish traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day.  Duk refers to a thinly sliced rice cake.  These rice cakes are white, and the custom of eating this dish on New Year’s Day originated from the idea of the white duk representing purity and bringing good fortune in the new year.  For my presentation, I sautéed garlic and ginger in a large pot for about a minute and then added beef broth.  When the broth came to a boil, I added the rice cakes.  (I purchased frozen rice cakes at Vihn An.)  Just like gnocchi, the rice cakes are finished cooking when they float to the top of the pot.  When they were finished, I turned off the heat on the stove and added fresh scallions to the pot.  To serve the dish, I labeled the soup into individual bowls and topped it with the traditional garnishments of thinly sliced fried egg, roasted seaweed, and roasted sesame seeds.  I liked the flavors of the broth with the garnishments, but I wouldn’t make the guk with rice cakes again.  I found them overly chewy and not very flavorful.  Perhaps I didn’t cook them long enough or maybe fresh ones would have had more flavor.  I don’t know.  I do know that everyone else at lunch disagreed with me and liked them, so it may just be an issue of personal taste.  Nonetheless, I was more than happy to slurp every drop of the broth out of my bowl.
 
haemul sundubu jjigae
Jjigae is a stew.  Many varieties exist, and their names differ based on their principle ingredients and seasonings.  The dish is served in a large communal hot pot.  Kimchi jjigae appears to be the most popular variation of the stew as there were more returns for it than any other versions when I performed a quick internet search for “jjigae,” but another version called haemul sundubu jjigae that features seafood, meat, and silken tofu intrigued me.  I thought the combination of ingredients was unusual, and I couldn’t resist experiencing the dish for myself.
 
The base of the stew is anchovy broth.  I must admit that this was a tough start for me.  As much as I pride myself in being adventurous when it comes to food, I just don’t like anchovies.  I’ve tried to like them.  I want to like them, but it just isn’t happening.  Unfailingly, I am presented with anchovies at a tasting about once a year, and each time I think that it will be the turning point moment when I finally like them.  Then, I take a bite and immediately wish I hadn’t.  Nevertheless, this jjigae recipe began with anchovy broth, so I bought some freeze-dried anchovies at a local market and made an anchovy broth.  I survived…that’s all I’ll say about it.
 
haemul sundubu jjigae
Now, for the good part…the stew!  I began by warming gochugaru and sesame oil over medium heat until a paste formed.  Then, I added thinly sliced strips of beef sirloin, diced onion, garlic, and soy sauce, and I cooked the mixture for a few minutes.  I poured anchovy broth over the mixture and brought it to a boil.  Then, I added large chunks of silken tofu and diced, fresh zucchini to the mixture and brought it to a boil again.  When it reached the boiling point, I added shrimp and clams to the stew and cooked it just until the clams opened.  Then, I added chopped scallions and turned off the heat.  At the table, I cracked an egg into the stew just before we began ladeling it into our individual bowls.  This was my favorite dish of the day!  I loved it so much that I would even suffer through making anchovy broth again.  The tofu added an interesting richness and texture to the stew, and the rich flavors from the chili powder and sesame oil complemented the seafood well.  When I make it again, the only thing I will change is the timing of adding the shrimp.  It was a little overcooked.  I think it would’ve been cooked perfectly if I had added it when the first clam opened, instead of adding it at the same time as the clams.  All in all though, a stellar dish!
 
banchan
gyeran jjim, modum bausut bokkeum
sigeumchi namul, baechu kimchi
kkakdugi, dongchimi
After careful consideration, I selected banchan from three categories to accompany the three kimchis.  I purposely selected side dishes that did not include meat or fish, because I needed to balance the meat and seafood in the jjigae and the grilled meats I was serving as secondary main courses.  (I am making a point to explain this because I don’t want my selections for banchan to mislead someone into thinking that banchan are vegetable side dishes.  In fact, many banchan dishes feature fish.)  From the namul category, which includes vegetables that have been steamed or stir-fried and then seasoned, I made a spinach dish called sigeumchi namul.  The dish is one of the most common namuls.  I included it because it can be served at a cool temperature, and I wanted to make sure I served a cold dish.  Quite simply, I blanched spinach in salted boiling water for less than a minute, moved it into a bowl of ice water, drained it, and then seasoned it with scallions, gochujang (Korean chili paste), soy sauce, garlic, sugar, sesame oil, and toasted sesame seeds.  I’d make this dish for any occasion, because it presents an interesting combination of complex flavors yet I found it light and refreshing.  From the bokkeum category (stir-fried dishes with a sauce), I made modum bausut bokkeum, which is quite simply stir-fried wild mushrooms.  I selected this because it was easy.  Mushrooms release so much moisture when stir-fried that they basically create their own sauce.  I used a mixture of oyster, shitake, and portabella mushrooms.  My third choice for banchan was from the jjim (steamed) category and called gyeran jjim or steamed silken eggs.  I hadn’t considered eggs as a “steamed” dish, so I was intrigued when I found several references to it.  It’s a simple dish of eggs, water, gochugaru, garlic, scallion, sesame oil, and toasted sesame seeds poured into a ramekin and steamed.  (It can also include salted shrimp.)  Placing the ramekin in a steamer basket insert is the most traditional way to steam it although I found several references on Korean blogs to cooking it in the microwave.  The end result is a delicious dish with a custard-like texture.
 
beef bulgogi and sam gyeop sal

beef bulgogi, sam gyeop sal
Since I don’t have one of those cool tables with a charcoal grill in the middle, we grilled our beef bulgogi and sam gyeop sal outside and brought them inside for the feast.  Making these dishes at home makes me appreciate the ingenuity of creating those special tables.  With such thin slices of meat, it is nearly impossible to cook on a large grill for a crowd unless you want well done temperatures on the meats.  It cooks almost immediately.  Next time, I may just invite my guests to stand around the charcoal grill and cook their own.
 
sesame salt, gochujang
soy sauce, asian pear dipping sauce
For the beef bulgogi, I used Mark Bittman’s recipe from a June 2011 NYT Magazine article I saved.  I sliced sirloin steak thinly and marinated it for a few hours in a mixture of scallions, garlic, sugar, black pepper, soy sauce, and sesame oil.  For the sam gyeop sal, I followed Steven Raichlen’s recipe based on a version he had in Seoul.  I sliced pork belly as thinly as possible (not an easy feat), and we served it grilled with an Asian Pear Dipping Sauce (Asian pear, garlic, fresh ginger, scallion, sugar, salt, sesame oil, rice vinegar, gochugaru, and gochugang), sesame salt (salt, black pepper, and toasted sesame seeds), soy sauce, and gochuchang.  We filled lettuce leaves with the grilled meats and grilled garlic cloves, red chilis, and onions.  The pear dipping sauce was absolutely delicious.  Raichlen explains that the proper way to enjoy the pork belly is to dip it in the sesame salt and then in the pear dipping sauce.  The combination was great, and it was a nice accent to the pork.  There was not a single morsel left on the table when we finished, so I have to believe that we did something right.
 
What a meal!  I’m still surprised that I managed to organize so many dishes for one meal.  (Of course, having the hubs there to grill everything helped.  Plus, our friends Patrick and Stephanie were not shy about pitching in.  Patrick kept our glasses full of perfectly-paired beers, and Stephanie stir-fried the mushrooms for me.)  I must admit that I enjoyed the research for this week’s cuisine as much as the food.  It’s a fascinating approach.
 
I can’t think of a better way to end my 2012 project!  For those of you who read these blog posts and shared your thoughts with me, thank you.  This project was truly a life-changing experience.  It presented me with incredible opportunities to connect with lifelong friends, co-workers, fellow Miami food aficionados, and bloggers around the globe in a way that I never expected.  I have yet to decide on 2013’s project, but I can assure you that there will be more dishes and blog posts to follow.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Week 51: A Journey to Ukraine

When planning the year’s fifty-two countries, I realized that some countries would overlap by design.  I just assumed that in the end, there would be plenty of dishes to cover in a week’s time despite the number of similar countries in the mix.  In light of that decision, I found myself in a quandary when I saw “Week 51: Ukraine” on my schedule.  To date, I had already covered Russia, Poland, Romania, and Hungary, and borscht was the only dish that I felt was missed.  Longing to take it easy while enjoying the holidays and my time in Tennessee with family, I almost allowed myself a tiny sabbatical from the project, but then I thought, “It’s Week 51.  I’ve almost made it to the end.  I can do this.  I just need a little inspiration.”  I found that inspiration from my Ukrainian friend and co-worker, Greg.  I ran into him in the break room on the week before Christmas and told him I needed help choosing some dishes from Ukraine for the project, and within thirty minutes, I had a list of frantically written notes and an email inbox filling with pictures and recipes that reflect authentic preparations of traditional dishes.  These moments are the ones I cherish most during the project.  Nothing compares to hearing someone enthusiastically share his culture, his homeland, and his family with you.  When I finally sat down and summarized our conversation, I had these notes to plan my week of Ukrainian dishes:
  • Borscht:  A must try.  There are more versions than imaginable, so just pick one that sounds good.  Green borscht, made with sorrel and no beets, is a favorite in Greg’s family, but finding fresh sorrel in the winter is difficult. Make a meaty borscht with red beets.  It should be sour.  Greg likes his borscht so thick that a fork will stand up straight in the bowl, but his dad likes it very brothy.  Either way is right, so make it as I like.
  • Varenyky and Perohy:  Varenyky are similar to pierogi.  They can be filled with anything….mashed potato and onion, liver, or even cherries.  Perohy are also dumplings stuffed with the same types of fillings, but they are very small…the smaller the better.  A cook who can make the tiniest of perohy is revered.
  • Greg’s Ukrainian Appetizer:  While he didn’t know the English name for the dish, he explained that most Ukrainian restaurants cook peas in lard, mash them with garlic, salt, and pepper, and serve it on Russian black bread as an appetizer.  He also explained that in the Ukraine this would more likely be made with kidney beans than peas.
  • Blintz:  Make with ground meat and onion like you’d use in shepherd’s pie.  Roll like a tamale, not like a crepe.  Fry in lard to crisp the edges.
  • Kiev:  One of the most famous dishes from Ukraine.  A definite must.  Serve it with potatoes.
  • Vinigret:  Greg’s dad’s favorite dish.  A salad made with beets.  Very important to cut up all vegetables in the same sizes.
  • Olivye:  A salad served at EVERY special occasion. 
  • Latkes:  A family favorite.
  • Pork:  They eat lots of it.
  • Sour Cream:  Serve it with everything.
From this list, I organized a plan to integrate Ukrainian cuisine into my post-Christmas holiday.  Greg’s enthusiasm boosted my spirits, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed thinking of him and his family as I cooked these dishes.
 
borscht
Despite my adoration for roasted beets, I never found the idea of borscht appealing.  In full disclosure, I knew nothing about it beyond the fact that it was a beet stew, its pink coloration in photos reminded me of Pepto-Bismol, and its mention summoned images of a circa 1950s housewife trying to impress her husband’s boss at a dinner party.  I was so wrong. 


borscht
Borscht is not really a dish as much as it is a category of Eastern European stews.  It may be hot or cold, vegetarian or meaty, hearty or brothy, and with beets or without beets.  I must note, though, that its name is derived from an old Slavic word for beets, borsch, so it likely began as a beet stew and evolved into many different variations over time.  In actuality, borscht is best described as a vegetable soup made with rich beef or pork broth.  In many cases, roasted beets are shredded or cubed and added to the soup.  The reason those “Pepto-like” photos exist is because many of the cold versions have sour cream mixed into the soup.  After Greg told me how much he loves “Green Borscht” made with sorrel and no beets, I considered sourcing fresh sorrel online to make it, but instead, I chose a traditional version for my first borscht.  After reading several recipes, I determined that one posted by Alan Leonetti on food.com for his Ukrainian grandmother’s recipe best represented an authentic preparation.  The recipe begins with rendered bacon and beef chuck browned in the bacon fat.  The meat is removed, and carrots, onions, garlic, oregano, dill, and bay leaves are sautéed in the fat.  Then, red wine vinegar is added to deglaze the pot, and the beef, bacon, and some water are added back to the pot to simmer until the meat is tender, which is about two hours.  When the meat is tender, roasted beets, potatoes, cabbage, parsley, tomato paste, celery seed and salt are added and simmered for another thirty minutes.  Finally, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and sugar are added to taste, and the borscht is served with a dollop of sour cream and fresh dill.  The complex harmony of sweet, savory, sour, hot, cool, tangy, creamy, and tangy elements produces a lovely, rich broth with an irresistible flavor.  I couldn’t believe how much I loved this dish.  It was unbelievably delicious.

blintz

blintz
When someone says “blintz” to me, I think of something similar to a French crepe stuffed with sweet cheese and possibly fruit.  If pressed to define them further, I might add that it is also similar to a blini and is sometimes served with crème fraiche and caviar.  When Greg suggested that I make blintzes for this week’s project, I was a bit confused and surprised when he said that I should “make it with ground meat and onion like you’d use in a shepherd’s pie, roll it like a tamale, not like a crepe, and fry it in lard.”  I found a basic recipe for the batter (milk, eggs, oil, and flour), and with Greg’s notes, I set out to make blintzes.  I rolled and stuffed the thin pancakes with ground pork and onion.  Then, I dredged them in an egg wash and bread crumbs before frying them in some lard.  I served them with a dollop of sour cream and fresh parsley, and they were quite satisfying.  My favorite part of the dish was the crispiness of the pancake edges as a result of dredging them in egg wash and breadcrumbs before frying them.  It added a nice texture next to the filling.  I also enjoyed the addition of the fresh parsley and cool sour cream, which offered a light counterpoint to the rich pork and onion filling.  I can see how this would be a great lunch on a cold, winter’s day.

vinigret
vinigret
Vinigret is a beet and potato salad dressed with oil and vinegar.  When Greg mentioned that it is his father’s favorite dish, I knew it would be worth my time.  After reading several recipes for it, I quickly recognized that the most important element of the salad is not necessarily the ingredients, but the precise size of the ingredients.  Each component of the salad should be diced into small cubes.  On the night before I planned to serve the salad, I boiled a large potato, two beets, and a carrot until they were tender.  When they were cool enough to handle, I peeled them and stored them in the refrigerator overnight so that they would be easier to dice the next day.  When I was ready to assemble the salad, I diced the potato, beets, and carrots, along with onion and dill pickles.  I mixed them with sauerkraut, and then I dressed the salad with olive oil and white vinegar and seasoned it with salt and pepper.  (Sunflower oil would have been a more authentic choice, but I didn’t have any on hand.)  The brightness of the vinegar, pickles, and sauerkraut elevates the root vegetables into a light, refreshing salad.  The small dice of the vegetables allows for each bite to include a bit of sweet carrot, earthy beet, silky potato, crispy pickles and onions, and sour pickles and sauerkraut.  I can see why Greg’s dad is such a fan of this salad. 

kiev
chicken kiev served with
mashed potatoes and peas
Although I’d heard of Chicken Kiev, I really didn’t know much about it.  I knew it was famous, but I had no idea why.  As it turns out, the Russian aristocracy in the late seventeenth century was enamored with French fashion and food, and aristocrats sent their chefs to train in Paris or hired French chefs to serve in their households.  A French chef named Nicolas Appert, who is also credited with the invention of canning to preserve foods, invented the dish, which is best described as a flattened, boneless chicken breast rolled around a chilled piece of herbed butter, breaded, and fried.  The dish gained popularity in Russia and was called Chicken Supreme.  I found two explanations regarding the dish’s name, Chicken Kiev.  One source states that New York restaurants in the early twentieth century named it Chicken Kiev to encourage Russian immigrants to patronize their restaurants, and another source states that Russian immigrants referred to it as Chicken Kiev as a way of referencing that it was chicken prepared in the style of what they remembered from Kiev.  Either way, this dish with French roots emerged from Ukraine as a representation of its style. 

Although its components are simple, assembling Chicken Kiev is not an easy task.  The key to successfully preparing the dish is rolling the chicken so tightly around the butter that it cannot escape while frying.  If properly prepared, a distinctive “poof” of air releasing can be heard when cutting into the center of the roll.  After several attempts to roll the chicken tightly, I gave up and tied mine with cooking string.  I’m not sure if that’s considered cheating, but I knew that my rolls would never stay together enough to achieve the necessary “poof” without a little help.  Cheating or not, it worked.  I leaned in closely as I cut into my first piece of Chicken Kiev, and sure enough…I heard it.  I sighed with amazement.  Everything worked like it should.  The chicken was moist; the breading was crisp; and the compound butter pooled onto my plate and provided a perfect elevation of flavor.  I cannot say that there was anything particularly different or interesting about the flavors here, but the simplicity of the ingredients and the technique for preparation certainly result in a well-cooked piece of chicken, which is not always as easy as some might think.

 
What a rewarding a week!  I wish I’d found more time to make the other dishes that Greg recommended, but I tried enough dishes to end the week with a newfound appreciation for the cuisine of Ukraine.  Without question, the borscht surprised me most as I never expected to find it so full of flavor.  All in all, I enjoyed every dish this week, and yet again, I remember why I began this project.  It’s a journey of discovery and overcoming misconceptions, and these Ukrainian dishes certainly provided opportunity for both.

 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Week 50: A Journey to Nicaragua

I must admit that I am guilty of living in a city full of fritangas yet I knew nothing of Nicaraguan cuisine until I embarked upon this week’s culinary journey.  While I was a bit embarrassed to admit how little I knew of Nicaraguan cuisine, I felt better when I began asking friends who grew up in Miami, Columbia, and Venezuela who also didn’t know.  Apparently, I hadn’t asked the right friends, because as soon as I began my research and started posting photos of my dishes on twitter and instagram, I discovered a group of people professing their love for nica food.  Like other South American cuisines, Nicaraguan cuisine is rooted in dishes from pre-Colonial times that focused on local crops.  Corn is a key ingredient in many of its most popular dishes, including beverages and desserts.  In addition to consuming common cuts of beef and pork, Nicaraguan dishes contain many of the offals, such as udders, stomachs, brains, testicles, and hoofs, plus more exotic species such as lizards, armadillos, boas, and turtle eggs.  To say the least, I had plenty of options when planning this week’s menus.  I focused on cooking Nicaragua’s most famous dishes, and although many are similar to other South American dishes, understanding the nuance of the Nicaraguan approach proved both satisfying and intriguing.

gallo pinto
gallo pinto
Gallo pinto is the national dish of Nicaragua.  This simple dish of rice and red beans seasoned with onions, bell pepper, and garlic is well known in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and both countries claim to be the origination point of the dish.  The name translates to “spotted rooster” which describes the speckled appearance of the beans and peppers in the rice.  Nicaraguans enjoy this dish on a daily basis for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  I liked it, but in all fairness, it didn’t seem any different to me than other basic red beans and rice dishes I’ve tried in the United States.  If someone simply presented it to me with no context of origin, I would assume that it was a vegetarian version of Louisiana Creole red beans and rice.  That is likely due to my Southern American heritage.  Regardless of which country the dish represents, I would be happy to enjoy it on a regular basis…but maybe not daily.

indio viejo
indio viejo
Indio Viejo is a traditional Nicaraguan dish dating back over five hundred years.  The dish only uses ingredients native to Nicaragua, such as tomatoes, sour oranges, achiote, corn, mint, and beef.  Legend states that the stew’s namesake, which translates to old Indian, can be traced back to the days of the Conquistadors.  When the local conquistadors learned that native Nicarao celebrated a tradition of providing food for anyone who asked, they took advantage of the communities and constantly appeared at their feasts in large numbers devouring most of the food and leaving little for the natives.  At one such feast, a conquistador asked the man tending to the pot of stew on the fire what he was cooking, and the man responded, “It’s just an old Indian who passed away recently.”  As the conquistadors quickly left the party, the natives laughed and continued with their party.  Hence, the name.

The dish includes beef that is boiled in water and sour orange juice until it is tender enough to shred with a fork.  Tomatoes, onions, peppers, and achiote flavor the stew, and corn tortilla dough is added to thicken the stew.  My understanding is that the stew should have a consistency similar to polenta as result of the corn tortilla dough added to the dish.  I read several accounts stating that cornmeal is often used in place of tortilla dough.  I opted to make my version with cornmeal, but I don’t think my dish reached the proper consistency.  I kept adding water in hopes of “plumping” the cornmeal, but somehow it never soaked in enough to be creamy.  Instead, my version was gritty.  I think the root of my problem is that someone more familiar with Nicaraguan cuisine would’ve known that the direction to “substitute cornmeal” meant to substitute the finer ground masa harina, not regular cornmeal.  If I try to make the dish again, I will actually make some tortilla dough to attempt a more authentic result.  On a positive note, the flavor of the stew was delicious.  I was surprised at how well the flavor of the sour orange paired with beef.  All in all, it wasn’t a complete disaster, but I definitely need to work on it.

vigorón
vigoron
Vigorón is a popular street food in Nicaragua.  The dish originated in Granada in the mid-twentieth century, and its popularity quickly spread throughout neighboring countries.  The dish begins with a plantain or banana leaf used as a vessel for serving boiled yuca topped with a cabbage salad called repollo and chicharrones.  While the concept of the dish is simple, the repollo varies among vendors and family recipes.  Repollo is a pickled cabbage slaw commonly served as an accompaniment to Nicaraguan meals.  A basic repollo includes shredded cabbage, grated carrot, chopped tomatoes, lime juice, red pepper flakes, and scallions.  In most cases, the salad is left to ferment for a few hours or several days to develop the flavors.  (For my vigorón, I made repollo and allowed it three days for fermentation.)  Although the dish is simple and compact, it truly ignites the senses with a variety of textures and flavors.  The yuca provides warm, creamy, and sweet elements, while the repollo offers sour, cool, and slightly crunchy textures next to the rich and crunchy chicharrones broken into bite size pieces.  I found the use of a banana leaf as a vessel for easy “fast food” transport to be a clever idea, as well.  Of all the Nicaraguan dishes I prepared this week, this one definitely stands apart for its ingenious juxtaposition of simple and complex flavors.

nacatamales
nacatamales cooking
in a pot of boiling water
I am a huge fan of tamales.  I rarely pass up an opportunity to order a tamale, but in all honestly, I always get to the center of that delicious cornmeal dough and wish that the small, thin layer of pork was just a little thicker…a little larger…a little heartier.  When I began reading about nacatamales, I was intrigued on several levels.  For starters, I loved the idea of wrapping a tamale in a plantain leaf (or banana leaf in my case), instead of a corn husk, because I knew that would impart an interesting flavor.  Beyond that, nacatamales presented a full realization of my desire to open a tamale and find thick layers of meat and vegetables with my pillow of cornmeal dough.  So, I set out to make nacatamales. 

The dough is made with masa harina, lard, sour orange juice, and broth (I used chicken broth).  I found a broad assortment of recipes for the dough.  The simple recipes included instructions to make the dough and let it rest for thirty minutes.  The more complicated instructions included a process of cooking the cornmeal in water and orange juice over low heat, rinsing it with cold water, placing it in fresh water and resting it for three days with daily water changes.  Even though the latter option presented a few more steps, I decided to try it because it “seemed” authentic and I thought the longer rest time would result in a stronger flavor. 

Upon reading lists of ingredients used in nacatamale fillings, I immediately recognized that the genesis of this dish must have been a cook looking to transform leftovers into a new dish.  The filling includes mashed potatoes, cooked rice, and pork.  For the mashed potatoes and cooked rice, I planned ahead when I was making them earlier in the week and made extra.  For the pork, most recipes called for “cubes” of pork butt, so I braised a pork butt earlier in the week and refrigerated it so that it would be firm enough to cut into cubes.  On the day that I assembled the nacatamales, I sautéed bell peppers, onions, garlic, achiote, tomatoes, fresh mint, and fresh parsley until the vegetables were tender.  Then, I mixed in the pork, potatoes, and rice.


nacatamale filling
After three days of attending to the dough and prepping the filling ingredients, I was more than ready to start assembling these little bundles.  I cut banana leaves into 16-inch squares and placed one cup of dough in the center of the leaf. I added a heaping spoonful of filling on top of the dough, folded the leaf around it, and tied it with string.  Then, I dropped the nacatamales in a large pot of boiling water, cooked them for thirty minutes, removed them from the pot, and let them rest for about five minutes.  When I finally had the opportunity to unwrap my first nacatamale, I discovered a little package of goodness just as delicious as I had imagined.  Wow!  The dough not only maintained its corn flavor, but it also took on the pungency of the banana leaf and the full flavors of the pork and vegetables.  Without question, this dish was the most flavorful and satisfying of the week.

tres leches
tres leches
Tres leches is a popular dessert in most Central American countries, and since moving to Miami, I have definitely eaten my fair share of it.  During my research, I discovered that many culinary historians believe the cake originated in Nicaragua.  The dessert is actually quite simple.  It begins with a white cake.  When the cake has cooled from baking in the oven, small holes are pricked throughout the cake and a mixture of whole milk, evaporated milk, and sweetened condensed milk are poured over the cake until it cannot absorb anymore.  (This reminded me of the infamous 1980s craze for pudding cakes.)  The last step is to add a simple white frosting and serve.  Interestingly, most recipes that I found called for a frosting made with whipping cream and sugar, but when I was discussing the recipes I’d read with a co-worker from Venezuela, she explained that a more authentic frosting would be one made with egg whites and sugar.  She pointed out that whipping cream would be too expensive for most people, and everyone had access to eggs, which is why so many cakes made in Central America have that fluffy, white meringue-style frosting.  I topped my tres leches cake with a thin layer of frosting made with egg whites and sugar.  I was very happy with the flavor, and the texture of the cake with the soaked milk was exactly like ones I’ve tried in local restaurants.  A definite success!

Although I enjoyed all of the week’s dishes, none compared to the nacatamales.  If I learned nothing else, I learned that this dish presents the best reincarnation for leftovers I ever imagined!  Fortunately, I did learn much more, and I ended the week with a newfound respect and understanding of Nicaraguan cuisine.