Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Week 48: A Journey to Sri Lanka

My week of Sri Lankan cuisine enlightened me to the limitless culinary possibilities this country offers.  Sri Lanka is an island nation off the southern coast of India.  While its dishes have obviously evolved though use of local ingredients, such as of tropical fruits, rice, and fish, Sri Lankan cuisine also bears the influence of Arab traders who settled there in the sixth century, as well as Portuguese and Dutch explorers who arrived in the sixteenth century.  Rice and curries are the most popular and prevalent dishes throughout the country, and Sri Lankan cuisine is most famous for its spicy profile.  Summarizing the cuisine beyond these simple points is nearly impossible, because Sri Lankan dishes are not necessarily the same throughout the country.  A basic dish may have very different presentations in the Northern and Southern Provinces, so for my purposes this week, I focused on finding authentic recipes for Sri Lankan dishes with an understanding that my dishes may not represent the entire country but certainly its spirit as a whole.

brinjal moju
brinjal moju
Eggplants grow well in warmer climates, so it is no surprise to learn that they are a common ingredient in Sri Lankan cuisine.  While many curry dishes feature eggplants, I discovered a dish called Brinjal Moju which is commonly described as a pickle in most references, but I think “relish” would be a better description of the dish.  It may be served with paratha, steamed rice, or as an accompaniment to a curry dish.  For my brinjal moju, I included eggplant, shallots, Serrano chilies, garlic, crushed red pepper, vinegar, ground mustard, rice vinegar, sugar, and cloves.  I sliced the eggplant into strips, tossed it in turmeric and salt, and let it sit for about 30 minutes.  Then, I fried the eggplant strips in coconut oil.  After removing them, I fried the shallots and Serrano peppers in the same oil.  In the meantime, I mixed the spices, sugar, and vinegar together and brought them to a boil.  When the sugar had dissolved, I removed the vinegar mixture from the stove top and mixed it together with the fried vegetables.  I let it cool to room temperature and then moved it to the refrigerator so that the flavors could meld overnight.

tamarind fish curry
tamarind fish curry
With limited time for cooking this week, I recognized that a fish curry was the most obvious and important dish to experience.  After reading dozens of recipes for Sri Lankan fish curries, I happened upon Laurie Ashton Farook’s recipe, Mama Farook’s Sri Lankan Tamarind Fish Curry, and I knew it was destiny.  Farook is a Canadian expat who has lived in Sri Lanka since 2003, and her blog chilli & chocolate serves as an incredible source for learning about Sri Lankan cuisine.  This dish is her mother-in-law’s recipe.  It begins with a marinade of tamarind paste, red chili powder, turmeric, salt, and a little water poured over white fish and sliced onions.  Then, coconut oil is heated in a hot pot (for me, a wok), and onion, a cinnamon stick, and garlic are fried in the oil.  The fish, onion, and marinade are added to the pot along with enough water to cover the fish.  The dish simmers until the fish is cooked and the sauce reduced and thick.  I served it with steamed rice and brinjal moju, and I couldn’t believe what an amazing dinner I had just created! In all seriousness, it turned out to be one of my favorite dishes of this year’s project.  It definitely had a kick of spice, but that was perfectly balanced by the fish, the tamarind, and the rice.  I also loved the way that the brinjal moju's cool, sweet, and sour flavors complemented the fish curry. 

This week, I didn’t have time to make as many dishes as I normally do, and yet, I feel like I learned more than some weeks with three dinners.  Sri Lankan cuisine offers an interesting combination of flavors, and I will definitely explore more dishes in the future.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Week 47: A Journey to Romania

When I glanced at the calendar and saw that this week’s culinary journey was taking me to Romania, I wondered why I had selected it for the project.  I couldn’t even name a Romanian dish if my life depended on it.  While my original intentions may have been lost, I immediately realized that my inclusion of this cuisine must have been intentional as I was immediately intrigued with Romania’s dishes and culinary history when I began my research.  Because of its history as part of the Ottoman Empire, Romanian cuisine includes Turkish dishes, and the dishes from its Western regions tend to be spicier due to influence of bordering Germany and Hungary.  Despite their rich heritage and numerous influences, Romanians actually do have several native dishes that differentiate them from their neighbors with the most famous category being ciorbă, sour soups flavored with vinegar, sauerkraut juice, or lemons.  Romanian cuisine is hearty.  Most meals center around meat, and the most common meal is mamaliga, a type of polenta, served on its own or as a side dish.  For this week’s menus, I focused on distinctively Romanian dishes and often found myself pleasantly surprised at the flavor profiles.

mititei (sausages) and ciorbă de perişoare (sour soup with meatballs)
Mititei are small sausages made from a mixture of beef, lamb, and/or pork.  Folklore holds that they were invented in the mid-nineteenth century when the chef at an inn famous for its sausage ran out of casings and improvised a dish by forming his regular sausage mixture into small patties.  The customers commented on how much they loved the mititei, which translates to “wee ones,” and the dish became infamous throughout Romania.  The spices used to flavor these little sausages varied in the recipes I reviewed, and I am sure that those variances reflect a cook’s geographic influences.  For instance, the recipe I used included seasonings prominent in German and Hungarian cuisine, such as garlic, thyme, hot red pepper, hot Hungarian paprika, caraway seeds, salt, and freshly ground black pepper.  I used lamb in my mititei, because I was only making a small batch and had about half a pound in the freezer leftover from another week’s project.  (Pork is the more traditional choice, but lamb, beef, and a combination of meats may also be used.)  I served the mititei with paprika-dusted sour cream.  The combination of the spicy meat with cool creamy sour cream was quite nice.  I would definitely make this dish again.  I read that the leftover sausages are often eaten cold in a sandwich, which sounds like a great idea, but there were no leftovers at my house.

Ciorbă is such a distinctive dish that Romanians actually refer to it separately from regular soup.  (In Romanian cuisine, supă refers to a broth, usually clear, made with vegetables and/or meat.  This broth is served with dumplings or noodles.)  Ciorbă refers to a sour broth, and the dish is served with many different meats and ingredients including tripe, meatballs, or leeks.  The broth is tomato-based and traditionally includes lovage.  Unfortunately, I did not plan ahead for lovage, so I substituted celery leaves which are offered as a decent substitution.  To make the broth, I stewed onions, celery leaves, parsley, parsnips, carrots, and beef bones in water until the vegetables became tender.  Then, I added pork meatballs (made with rice, onion, and bread crumbs) to the soup for another hour.  Just before serving, I added tomato paste and vinegar to the broth.  In all honesty, I never expected to be wowed by this dish, but it was actually my favorite Romanian dish of the week.  The complex flavor of the broth completely surprised me.  I liked it so much that I would’ve traded my meatballs for more broth….and I love meatballs.  After trying it, I understand why ciorbă is in a category of its own.  It doesn’t matter what you add to it…it’s all about the broth.

sarmale (cabbage rolls), mamaliga (polenta), and cozonac (sweet bread)
sarmale and mamaliga
A quick search on the internet for “Romanian Cuisine” results in a number of reminiscing Romanians sharing their memories of holiday dinners that include sarmale, mamaliga, and cozonac.  Sarmale is the dish that everyone’s grandmother made for special occasions and even casual family gatherings, and I found it interesting that most accounts regarding sarmale adamantly state that these cabbage rolls are nothing like Polish-style cabbage rolls.  After a little research, I discovered a few differences. The most significant difference is the Romanians’ use of sour cabbage leaves, instead of fresh cabbage leaves.  Romanians also primarily stuff their cabbage rolls only with ground pork whereas most recipes for Polish cabbage rolls use beef or beef with a combination of other meats.  In addition, Romanians layer smoked pork (fat, ribs, or sausage) between the cabbage rolls for added flavor in the dish and generally include dill, dried or fresh, in the bottom of the pot.  I did not find any full heads of sour cabbage to make my sarmale, so I followed the recommendations of several Romanian-Americans who note in their recipes that layering sauerkraut between the cabbage rolls made with fresh leaves incorporates the sour flavor into the rolls.  For the filling, I sautéed onions, celery, bacon, salt, pepper, paprika, and parsley together and mixed it with ground pork and rice after it cooled.  To cook the rolls, I placed a layer of fresh dill in the bottom of a dutch oven.  I layered the cabbage rolls with sauerkraut and thin slices of salt pork, and then I poured tomato sauce over the rolls and filled the pot with just enough water to cover them.  After bringing the stock to a boil, I reduced the heat and simmered the rolls a little over two hours.  I served them with sour cream and mamaliga, which is just yellow cornmeal and water.  They were delicious, but I must admit that while I tasted the sourness and the smokiness, I didn’t think that it changed the flavors that significantly from the Polish cabbage rolls I’d previously eaten without those elements.  Had I grown eating cabbage rolls as part of my normal diet, I’m sure my opinion would be different.  (I’m guessing that someone from Romania might find my strong opinions about barbecue to be a bit overstated, as well.)  Opinions aside, these cabbage rolls were great.

Cozonac is a popular sweet bread served during the holidays.  (Cozonac is the name for Romania’s version.  In Bulgaria, it is called kozunak. Both breads are basically the same as Italian panettone.)  This sweet yeast bread is made with milk, sugar, eggs, butter, and raisins in its most basic presentation.  Variations exist throughout the country depending on regional preferences and can include the addition of Turkish delight, orange zest, lemon zest, walnuts, hazelnuts, vanilla, and rum.  Sometimes, the bread is filled with a mixture of ground walnuts, poppy seeds, cocoa powder, rum, and raisins.  During the Easter holiday, the bread is filled with farmer’s cheese and called pasca.  I made a version which included golden raisins, lemon zest, rum, and vanilla.  The dough is extremely sticky, which makes it a little difficult to work with, but other than that, it is a simple yeast bread that even a novice baker could easily make with successful results. By all means, this is more a bread than a dessert, but it is just sweet enough that it makes a nice dessert with coffee.  Even better than dessert, I made French toast with it the next morning.

While I may have begun this journey questioning my decision to plan a week of Romanian cuisine, I certainly ended the week with a serious respect for Romania’s dishes.  I’m still telling people about the flavor of the broth in the ciorbă, and I suspect I will continue to do so.  This is one of those weeks that speaks to the heart of this project as I truly discovered new flavors and dishes previously foreign to me and now a cherished part of my culinary journey. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Week 46: A Journey to Italy

For months, I stared at the word Italian written across this week’s schedule and considered how I might approach the week with the necessary and appropriate reverence befitting such a beloved cuisine.  With a history that spans over two thousand years, the spirit of this cuisine which embodies the idea of cooking with fresh, local ingredients progressed as new ingredients and new ways to preserve food evolved in its regions.  Although Italian cuisine immediately evokes the idea of pasta and tomato sauce for many, its true dishes are not far removed from those that American households have served for years.  While I’ve noted previously that Italian cuisine is the only “non-Southern American” food my mom ever served in our East Tennessee kitchen, I had not considered just how much Italian cuisine truly influenced our table.  Although I was referring to the fact that mom made spaghetti, lasagna, and manicotti, most of the other dishes she served are rooted in Italian cuisine, as well, such as braised roast beef, fresh vegetables from the garden cooked with pork, and baked chicken coated in bread crumbs.  Even those bologna sandwiches and sloppy summertime tomato sandwiches made with tomatoes picked fresh from the vine could be categorized as Italian (minus the Miracle Whip component of our versions).  At its heart, the American table is more influenced by Italian cuisine than any others.

With a limited amount of time for cooking this week, I created a menu for a full traditional Italian meal celebrating fresh, seasonal ingredients.  Although I already had a few dishes planned, I turned to my copies of Mario Batali’s Molto Italiano: 327 Simple Italian Recipes to Cook at Home and Babbo Cookbook for the inspiration I needed to realize the complete menu.  After thoughtful consideration, I crafted a menu for an Italian Autumn Feast and invited over a few friends for Sunday Supper.

The apertivo is a pre-dinner drink served to introduce a meal.  It may be as simple as a glass of prosecco, but Italians often indulge in a cocktail made with Campari.  The Negroni is likely the most popular Campari cocktail.  It is made with gin, vermouth, and Campari and generally garnished with an orange peel.  This is not a cocktail for the faint of heart as it boasts a strong, piney flavor, and it is best defined as a a “sipping” drink.  For our dinner, half of the guests indulged in a Negroni while the others enjoyed a glass of prosecco.

frying the suppli di riso
The antipasto course offers guests an array of snacks that may range from a simple platter of cheese and meats to more elaborate salads and sandwiches.  A few weeks before our Italian dinner, my friend Stephanie told me about the suppli di riso (fried stuffed risotto balls) that she had in Italy while visiting with her friend Marco’s family.  She graciously asked Marco for his mother’s recipe so I could make it for our dinner, and a few days later I received an email that began with Marco’s family recipe in Italian and ended with his English translation.  
suppli di riso

Marco’s mother makes this dish with risotto flavored by homemade chicken stock and stuffs it with fresh mozzarella and prosciutto.  What an incredible dish!  It was also surprisingly simple to incorporate into the meal.  I made the risotto on the Saturday afternoon.  Then, I formed the risotto balls and stuffed them with the prosciutto and fresh mozzarella on Sunday afternoon, so the only task during the meal was to coat them in egg and bread crumbs before frying them. 

sauteed green and black olives
in tomato sauce
Because I knew the suppli di riso would require my full attention, I opted to serve two dishes that could easily be prepared before my guests arrived, such as sautéed black and green olives in tomato sauce and fresh herbed ricotta cheese served with homemade boules.  The recipe for the olives came from Batali’s Molto Italiano.  I made the tomato sauce on Saturday (enough for this dish and the braised veal I served in the secondo course), and on Sunday afternoon, I sautéed the olives with garlic, added the tomato sauce, and simmered them for about thirty minutes.  I served them at room temperature.  
fresh herbed ricotta

Making fresh ricotta cheese was a task I had tackled previously.  It’s simple to make and most recipes for it are similar.  My version is a hybrid of Michael Schwartz and Ina Garten’s recipes.   I just add some freshly chopped herbs, parsley in this case, for flavor and color.  For the boules, I followed Mark Bittman’s recipe in The Best Recipes in the World, and even though I’ve made many homemade breads, I was a little nervous about getting the consistency right when making such a classic bread; however, they turned out beautifully.  I thought two loaves would be enough bread, but everyone loved these boules so much that we ran out of bread before the antipasto course was complete.  They had an incredible crunchy crust with a perfectly tender center ideal for sopping up the tomato sauce with the olives. 

The primo course serves as the first course of the actual meal and commonly includes pasta, gnocchi, risotto, polenta, or soup.  This is another course that I planned weeks before our dinner.  I was lamenting over my failed experiences of making homemade pasta with my friend Christine, and she immediately offered to bring her pasta maker to my house and give me a personal pasta lesson.  Fortunately, we had that conversation during my week of French cuisine and I still had some duck confit left in my refrigerator.  She suggested that I freeze it so that we could make duck ravioli.  Brilliant!  So, on Sunday afternoon, Christine arrived with pasta maker in tow, and she proceeded to make beautiful pasta for us.  (It’s so nice to have chefs for friends!)  Watching her work was so much fun…partly because she makes gorgeous food but also because it was nice to take a break from cooking for a minute.  She made a delicious brown butter and sage sauce for the ravioli and then topped each dish with orange zest.  It was amazing! 

duck ravioli in brown butter sauce with sage
The secondo course functions as the main course.  It is generally the heartiest course and includes meat. I made braised veal rolls in tomato sauce from Batali’s Molto Italiano. I thought
 that the stuffing mix of bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, prosciutto, currants, pine nuts, and parsley evoked a sense of Autumn flavors that would enhance our seasonal feast.  I also liked the idea that I could make the dish just before my guests arrived and let it simmer on the stovetop as they enjoyed the first courses of the evening.  To make this dish, I spread the stuffing mixture on thin slices of veal that I rolled and secured with butcher’s string.  In a Dutch oven, I sautéed pancetta and onions in olive oil, and then I browned the rolls in the same oil and removed them.  I added the tomato sauce I made on Saturday afternoon and red wine to the Dutch oven, and then I added the onions, pancetta, and veal rolls back to the pan to simmer for over an hour.  The resulting dish was a tender piece of veal complemented well with the sweetness of the pine nuts, currants and tomato sauce, saltiness of the pancetta and prosciutto, and earthiness of the parsley and red wine.
onions with balsamic glaze
braised veal rolls in tomato sauce
broccoli rabe in the style of Puglia

For the contorno, or accompanying vegetable dishes served with the main course, I selected two dishes from Batali’s Molto Italiano:  broccoli rabe braised in the style of Puglia and onions with balsamic glaze.  The broccoli rabe is braised with garlic and red pepper flakes.  Then, chopped black olives are added just before serving.  The onions with balsamic glaze turned out to be one of the group’s favorite dishes of the evening.  This dish is the ultimate example of Italian cuisine at its best…only a few quality ingredients and time.  I was so proud of the beautiful, thick balsamic glaze on those sweet onions.  Both dishes complemented the veal rolls nicely.

Traditionally, the formaggio e frutta course (cheese and fruit) is served between the main course and the dessert case.  Although I had nice Italian cheeses (parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino, fontal, gorgonzola) ready to serve with some green grapes, I knew that we were nearing our maximum capacity, and I didn’t want to spoil our dolce course, so we agreed to forego this course and move ahead.

pumpkin cake with toasted pine nuts
olive oil gelato
The dolce course is the dessert course and usually includes baked goods such as cake or cookies.  Again, I turned to a Batali cookbook for this course and opted to make pumpkin cake with toasted pine nuts and olive oil gelato from his Babbo Cookbook.  It was every bit as good as it sounds, too.  I loved the pumpkin cake, because it only included one cup of brown sugar which served to elevate the sweetness of the pumpkin puree.  Even better, the cake is studded with toasted pine nuts, golden raisins soaked in grappa, and finely chopped fresh rosemary.  Pairing it with the unctuous olive oil gelato provided the perfect dessert…not too sweet but full of flavor and definitely reminiscent of a beautiful autumn evening. 

I offered espresso for the caffe course, and I intended to ask everyone if they would like some grappa for the digestivo course, but after dessert, I looked over and saw all of my friends lounging across the couches.  We had reached capacity, and even the idea of the digestive was too much.  This is not a group of lightweights either.  None of us is a small portions, calorie-counting, leave food on the plate kind of person, but this feast knocked us out!  Well, except for Patrick.  He even had two servings of the olive oil gelato, and I’m sure he could’ve handled the cheese course, too.  There’s a reason that the Italians reserve these large, traditional meals for special occasions.

I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate the cuisine of Italy than an evening spent with friends around a table of exquisite dishes.   I was so caught up in keeping our dinner on schedule that I completely forgot to document the incredible Italian beer that Patrick shared with the group and the numerous bottles of delicious Italian wines we enjoyed, but they have not been forgotten.  All in all, we had a lovely evening, and the feast was incredible. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Week 45: A Journey to Lebanon

To date, I’ve research and cooked dishes of several countries significantly influenced by the dishes of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey, Greece, Algeria, Iran, and Palestine).  As I began to research this week of Lebanese cuisine, I found many familiar dishes, and in an effort to give Lebanon a more personal perspective, I turned to my friends Vanessa and Mohammed for a list of their favorite Lebanese dishes.  Mohammed grew up in Lebanon, and he quickly responded with a great roster of dishes, some that were new to me and others familiar.  With his notes, I set out to recreate iconic Lebanese dishes of his childhood.

Monday Night Dinner:  Kibbeh and Mujadarah
kibbeh with tahini
Kibbeh is the first dish Mohammed recommended, and after reading about it online, I understand why.  It is Lebanon’s National Dish, and its traditional preparation requires one to use a mortar and pestle to pound the ingredients.  I read that you can hear the sounds of kibbeh being made every morning all over the countryside.  Mohammed noted that I should make the “football-shaped” kibbeh, and when I started researching kibbeh, I understood why he specified that size and shape.  There are several versions of kibbeh ranging from raw to baked like a meatloaf to fried quenelles.  The basic ingredients are the same in all of them:  bulgur wheat, lamb, and onion.  Although some recipes simply call for mixing the ingredients, shaping them, and frying them, I turned to the more authentic tradition of wrapping the bulgur wheat/lamb mixture around a teaspoonful of sautéed lamb and onion.  I served tahini as a dipping sauce with the kibbeh, and they tasted great. 

Mujadarah was a new dish for me, and as a big fan of lentils, I knew I would enjoy it.  Quite simply, the dish is rice and lentils garnished with fried onions.  Because most recipes I found online said that the dish could be eaten hot or cold, I asked Vanessa and Mohammed how it was served most often, and they responded that the dish is actually more often served room temperature or cool.  On Monday night, I served it for dinner hot off the stovetop.  I thought it tasted great that way, but I also enjoyed the leftovers I took to work for Tuesday’s lunch.  I had the cold mujadarah with yogurt, and I enjoyed it just as much as the hot dish from the previous night.  Without a doubt, the fried onions are the star of the show here.

Friday Night Dinner:  Fattoush and Kousa Mahshi Bi Laban
During my week of Palestinian dishes, I fell in love with sumac, and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to serve a salad that uses it as a primary source of its flavor.  Considered a peasant salad, fattoush is generally made with assorted in-season fresh greens and vegetables, stale flatbread, and a tangy dressing that features sumac and pomegranate molasses.  For my presentation, I tossed stale pita bread in olive oil and sumac, and then I toasted it in the oven.  For the salad, I tossed together romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, mint, parsley, red radish, bell pepper, and the toasted sumac pita wedges.  Then, I dressed it with a mixture of mashed garlic, sumac, pomegranate molasses, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and olive oil.  It was one of the best salads I’ve ever tasted.  The hubs liked it so much that he suggested I make it more often.  It is a perfect salad to serve as an entrée on a hot summer night.

kousa mahshi bi laban
When Vanessa and Mohammed recommended Kousa Mahshi bi Laban (stuffed squash in yogurt sauce), I knew we had to try it.  The dish actually originated in Syria, but it is commonly found in Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, and Libya.  The squash used in this dish (or marrows as they call them in the Middle East) is not readily available here in the United States, but after reading about it, I determined that our green zucchini squash would be the closest in size, texture, and flavor.  To make the dish, I hollowed out zucchini squash and filled them with a mixture of raw lamb, uncooked rice, onion, garlic, pine nuts, cinnamon, and allspice.  Then, I stewed them in a tomato broth for over an hour.  (I admit that I was nervous about the raw rice cooking through, but it cooked perfectly.)  While the stuffed zucchinis stewed, I made a yogurt sauce seasoned with mint and garlic.  To serve the dish, I covered the bottom of a plate with the yogurt sauce and lay the stuffed zucchinis on top of it.  Unfortunately, my pictures show a dish that looks a little like big stuffed pickles.  They do not reflect the incredible flavors imparted by this dish.  I took one bite and thought, “Oh my goodness. This is amazing.  It’s like moussaka.  Why didn’t I think of this earlier?”  Not surprisingly, a variation of this dish is made with stuffed eggplants, and in retrospect, I recall having read moussaka recipes that incorporate zucchini squash in the dish with eggplant and sometimes as a substitute for eggplant.  To call this dish “deconstructed moussaka” is a bit of a stretch, but it definitely offers an interesting variation on the same theme.  I loved it, and I will definitely make it again.
I am so grateful that Mohammed and Vanessa shared their list of beloved Lebanese dishes for this week’s project, because it motivated me to try interesting variations on ingredients I adore.  These dishes prove that a few simple ingredients can truly come together to create a fantastic composed dish. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Week 44: A Journey to Mozambique

I began this week’s journey with a search for culinary inspiration from an African nation.  When I discovered John Burnett’s chronicled story, “Hungry for Adventure,” published by Gourmet in March 2000, I found that spark.  Burnett tells the story of his quest through a minefield and into the bush of Mozambique in search of a good matapa.  He writes,

I had heard about matapa from Michael Bond, in the Mozambican capital of Maputo, where he is the British chef at the city’s Hotel Cardoso. Bond, who had described Mozambican cuisine as a blend of Portuguese, African, and Asian influences, had told me that finding a really good matapa—a combination of seafood, peanuts, coconut milk, cassava leaf, and garlic—prepared a day in advance, was worth almost any effort. “You can find it in the city,” he said, “but that would be like me going to New York for good hush puppies. If you want the best matapa, you don’t come to Maputo—you have to go into the bush, where they have the time, the ingredients, and the tradition. Find a fisherman. A good matapa, really, is a little taste of heaven.”

He found a fisherman who agreed to drive him into the country on the next morning for the best matapa, and fortunately, he finally made it to the little spot that the fisherman promised where he is served a matapa full of seafood that he describes as, “to my taste, quite possibly one of the most intriguing, satisfying dishes I have ever eaten, worth almost any effort—short of blowing oneself to smithereens. I could not get enough of it.”  With this, I decided to focus on Mozambican cuisine for the week and seek out my own version of matapa.

Matapa and Arroz de Coco
matapa and arroz de coco
As I began my search for an authentic matapa recipe, I discovered that most online recipes are much more basic than the dish John Burnett describes in his article.  In essence, there are three recipes posted repeatedly online: (1) one with only coconut milk, cassava leaves, peanuts, and garlic, (2) one which takes those basic ingredients and adds shrimp and shrimp broth to the mix, and (3) a recipe called matata or Clam and Peanut Stew.  I found references noting that some cooks add onions and/or tomatoes, and in John Burnett’s description of the dish he was served, he describes the inclusion of tomatoes, onions, and so many different types of seafood that he couldn’t even identify every type.  With this in mind, I set out to create a dish as close to his experience as possible.  I substituted collard greens for the cassava leaves, and I also used tomatoes and onions.  I made a broth with the shrimp shells to serve as the base of the dish.  I simmered the matapa for a few hours on the stovetop, and then I refrigerated it as I had read that most people make the dish a day before serving to ensure that all of the flavors develop.  When I was ready to serve it, I reheated the matapa, made arroz de coco (rice in coconut water) to serve it over, and sautéed some clams and shrimp in onions and garlic to serve on top of the dish.  I wanted to love it as much as Burnett, but somehow, it left me wanting more.  Don’t get me wrong…the flavors were nice, but it reminded me a great Indian curry without the curry.  About halfway through the plate, I added some piri piri hot sauce to the dish, which definitely helped to elevate the flavors. 

coconut scars
Interestingly, when Burnett asked his driver why he couldn’t have a good matapa in Maputo, the driver responded that the coconuts in the city aren’t sweet.  With this bit of info, I began to consider the quality of canned coconut milk versus homemade coconut milk, and I set out to make coconut milk for my matapa.  Unfortunately, this project did not turn out so well.  I followed the directions precisely.  I set the coconut on my kitchen counter, laid a kitchen towel over it, and smacked it as hard as I could three times.  It didn’t seem to be breaking apart, so I removed the kitchen towel to discover that the coconut wasn’t breaking up, but my kitchen counter had a huge dent in it.  Lesson learned.  Beat the hell out of your coconut outside on the ground.  Considering that this is week 44 of the project, I’m shocked that this is my first real casualty.  Oh well.  Live and learn.  Fortunately, I had a few cans of coconut milk in the pantry, and we have a few extra pieces of that tile for events such as these.

Tomato-Avocado-Buttermilk Soup, Frango a Cafrial (Barbecued Chicken), Mucapata (Rice with Split Peas) , Piri Piri Hot Sauce, and Bolo Polana (Cashew Cake)
tomato avocado buttermilk soup

Early in the day, I made a cold Tomato-Avocado-Buttermilk Soup that is popular in Mozambique.  It’s a simple soup with mild flavors, and the pureed avocado adds a nice creaminess.  Perfect for a hot summer day.  We began our dinner with a bowl of this soup while we waited for the chicken to finish on the grill. 

frango a cafrial, mucapata,
piri piri hot sauce
Frango a Cafrial is one of the most popular Mozambican meat dishes, and it couldn’t be simpler to make.  It’s just a grilled whole chicken seasoned with hot sauce.  The Mozambican hot sauce of choice is Piri Piri named for the small red fiery pepper native to Southern Africa.  In addition to the piri piri peppers, the sauce includes fresh lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, and salt.  I found some recipes that also included ginger, coarse red pepper, and vinegar.  Because I couldn’t find piri piri peppers, I just used a chile paste and added lots of fresh lemon juice, garlic, ginger, olive oil, white wine vinegar, and salt.  While not the most authentic, I imagine it is authentic in that most home cooks start with the basic pepper and fresh lemon juice then add other ingredients to taste.  To prepare the chicken, I simply mixed some of my hot sauce with olive oil and covered the chicken in the mixture.  Then, I handed it off to the hubs and sent him to the grill.  (During this year’s project, he has mastered the art of cooking a whole chicken on the charcoal grill.  Everytime he cooks it, the skin is crispy and flavorful, and the chicken is the moistest I’ve ever tasted.  Big shout out to him for his mastery of this dish!) I served the chicken with mucapata, which is a dish of rice, split green peas, and coconut milk.  As a fan of all three ingredients, I thought I would like this dish, but as it turned out, I found it to be a bit flat.  Even with some hot sauce poured over it, it just felt like eating a filler dish.  That’s okay though.  I just focused on that amazingly delicious grilled chicken!

bolo polana
Cashews grow so well in Mozambique that they are one of the country’s primary sources of agricultural income.  Because of their abundance, many dishes, from stews to desserts, include them.  I found a recipe for a popular cashew cake, Bolo Polana,  served at the Grand Hotel in Maputo.  The cake is made with ground cashew nuts in place of flour and mashed potatoes, sugar, butter, lemon zest, and eggs.  I loved this cake!  With so many eggs in it (9 yolks and 4 whites), the texture was moist and the flavor rich.  In addition to serving a great dessert, it made an excellent breakfast cake with coffee the next morning.

Although I found John Burnett’s story to be a bit more exciting than the actual dishes I made from Mozambique, I certainly enjoyed my journey of discovering Mozambican cuisine.  Sometimes, the journey is as much about understanding the history and cultural impact of a cuisine as it is the actual flavors.  Fortunately, we had some dishes, too!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Week 43: A Journey to France

Ah, French cuisine…beautifully crafted, well thought, and absolutely delicious.  To describe the whole of its history, influence, and general elements with a simple introductory paragraph is impossible.  To explore its dishes in depth over a one week period is just as absurd.  So, I spent a few days researching its history, its influences, and its most significant contributions.  I considered what purpose I could define for this week’s project, and I realized that most of my favorite French dishes are ones I had never attempted, or even considered, making at home.  Why was this?  The reasons could be summarized into three categories:  (1) easy availability of ingredients, (2) the amount of time required to make them, and (3) inexperience with a technique.  So, I set out to create menus that challenged these obstacles.  As a result, I gained a new confidence in the kitchen, discovered an even more profound admiration for chefs who do this every day to such an effortless effect, and enjoyed some incredible dinners.

Monday Night Menu:  Seared Fois Gras with baked apples & prunes, Mixed Greens in vinaigrette with walnuts and Roquefort
I have come to realize that most people either love fois gras or hate it.  There aren’t many people in the middle.  I still remember my first taste of it.  I wish I remembered the name of the restaurant, but at a little bistro in San Francisco, I had a sandwich with toasted multigrain bread, cashew butter, boysenberry jam, and seared fois gras, which blew me away.  I loved everything about the fois gras, and I especially loved how the cashew butter and sweet boysenberry jam complemented it perfectly.  A few months later at Spoon by Alain Ducasse in Hong Kong, I was presented with a “fois gras” trio as part of a tasting menu, and it made me swoon.  It included a small piece of seared fois, a slice from a terrine, and a shot of warm fois soup…each element offered a straightforward presentation that showcased the beauty of the ingredient in its simplest form.  Those initial experiences happen to be the reason that I fall into the category of people who love it.

seared fois gras
So, where to start?  I didn’t really have time to run around Miami trying to figure out where I could buy a lobe of fois gras, so I ordered one from Hudson Valley Fois based on their impressive reputation.  I considered making a terrine, but I wanted to actually “cook” with it and try to understand the idiosyncrasies involved in searing a nice piece of fois.  I watched two or three You Tube videos about how to devein it and how to prepare it.  Deveining it was actually much simpler than I expected it to be.  The key is removing it from the refrigerator for a few hours so that the texture is malleable enough to remove the veins without having it crumble apart.  After I deveined it and molded the “broken” parts back together, I put it back in the refrigerator until I was ready to cook it that night.  I understood that the key to achieving a good sear on it is a very hot pan and only cooking it for about thirty seconds per side.  Some recommended flouring it a bit to help with the sear, while others noted that scoring it would release the fat and provide a better sear.  The BEST piece of advice I found was to be prepared to constantly pour fat out of the skillet.  Otherwise, the fois just “poaches” in the fat, instead of searing.  As I began to sear the pieces of fois, I quickly discovered that getting the fat poured off was the biggest challenge of making the dish.  I used my heavy cast iron skillet, because it holds so much heat, and I thought it would make searing it easier.  In retrospect, I wish I’d used a lighter skillet, because the skillet was so heavy I needed two hands to manage the job of pouring off the fat.  I served the fois over apples and prunes that I tossed in honey, sauternes, and fresh lemon juice before baking with fresh rosemary sprigs.  Overall, the dish was amazing.  A salad of mixed greens in a vinaigrette with toasted walnuts and Roquefort provided the perfect balance to the richness of the dish.  I wish I had achieved a better sear on the fois, but I was pleased with the fact that I got a sear at all and that the flavor and texture turned out well.  It was a great way to begin my week of French cuisine.

Tuesday Night Menu:  Duck Confit with braised Belgian endive, Pear Clafouti
duck confit fresh from the oven
Despite the fact that I knew Duck Confit was nothing more than duck cooked in duck fat, I always thought that it must be a little more complicated than that, but as it turns out, it really is that easy!  On Sunday afternoon, I rubbed six duck legs in a paste of coriander, cloves, juniper berries, black pepper, cardamom, fresh garlic, fresh thyme, fresh rosemary, brandy, and honey.  I left them in a dry roasting pan in the refrigerator until Monday night. 
duck confit,
brasied Belgian endive
Then, on Monday night, I warmed a quart of duck fat until it was liquid, and I poured it over the duck legs.  I cooked them in a 300 F oven for three hours and let them cool in the fat.  When they were completely cool, I removed them from the duck fat and wrapped each individual leg tightly in plastic wrap.  When we were ready for dinner on Tuesday night, I simply melted a little duck fat in the cast iron skillet and added two duck legs when the skillet was hot.  I cooked it until the duck was warmed through and had crispy skin.  It was one of the most delicious and simplest dishes I’ve ever made.  I couldn’t believe it.  In an attempt to not serve salad with every meal this week, I opted to braise some Belgian endive in red wine and butter to accompany the duck.  It was the first time I ever cooked Belgian endive, and I must say that I really enjoyed it served this way.

pear clafouti
I’ve thought about making clafouti so many times, but for some reason, I always make something else.  I knew it was a simple dessert, so I thought it would be a nice addition to a weeknight meal.  It can be made with any fruit, although cherries and apricots are used more traditionally.  Since apricots and cherries are no longer in season here, I made a clafouti with pears.  I expected the dish to be similar to an “upside down cake” with fruit surrounded by a cakey batter, but I discovered that the dish is actually more flan-like because of the amount of eggs used.  The dessert was quite delicious, and the hubs loved it!  If I make it with pears again, I will sauté them before adding them to the dish so that they are a little softer, but otherwise, I found it to be a perfect dessert for a busy night.

Wednesday Night Menu:  Fish Quenelles in mushroom cream sauce
I knew this menu was a bit ambitious.  I originally planned to make Mark Bittman’s recipe for fish quenelles in a white wine sauce from The Best Recipes in the World.  Then, over dinner with a friend, I mentioned that I was attempting to make fish quenelles for the project, and a sort of uncontrollable joy came over her as she told me how much she loves Julia Child’s recipe for them, that she had never tasted anything like them, and how she has made them so many times that the recipe is so smudged that it’s almost unreadable.  I decided to up the ante.

Before heading off to work on Wednesday morning, I jumped online and started looking for Julia’s recipe in hopes of finding some of my friend’s inspiration.  Although I did find Julia’s recipe, it was a recipe by Jacques Pepin that caught my attention and reset my course for fish quenelles at dinner that night.  More than just a recipe, Pepin explains that white fish with high albumin levels, such as Dover sole or hake, bind better in the mousse, and he notes the importance of using more than one type of fish for flavor and texture.  Over lunch, I studied his recipe and determined that we could have dinner at 9:15 if I arrived home and was in the kitchen working by 6:30.  And so, the challenge began.

fish quenelles in
mushroom cream sauce
From 6:30 to 8:45, I made the fish mousse, refrigerated it, shaped it into quenelles, poached it, and cooled it.  In between those activities, I made a homemade fish stock, reduced it, and transformed it into a mushroom cream sauce.  Finally, at 8:45 PM, I put the quenelles in a casserole dish, covered them in the mushroom cream sauce, slid them into the oven, and sat down with a glass of wine to chill.  When we had dinner thirty minutes later, I could not believe that I had made this somewhat sophisticated dish.  The quenelles were light and fluffy, yet they stayed perfectly formed.  The rich mushroom cream sauce offered a nice, warm complement to the fish quenelles.  The hubs loved the mushroom sauce so much that when he went back for seconds, he piled the fish quenelles and sauce into a bowl and grabbed a spoon so he didn’t miss any of the sauce.  All in all, I was pretty proud of this one.

Saturday Night Menu:  Boeuf Bourguignon, New Potatoes roasted in duck fat, and steamed asparagus with sauce gribiche
boeuf bourguignon
roasted new potatoes
asparagus with sauce gribiche
Boeuf Bourguignon is one of my favorite dishes of all time, and while it’s relatively simple to make, it requires time, which is not something I always have.  My Saturday of French cooking began at 9:00 AM, and I started with this dish.  Boneless beef chuck, fresh mushrooms, a little bacon, pearl onions, a bottle of Burgundy, and about three hours on the stovetop transformed a few fabulous ingredients into a perfect dinner on a cool night.  I let it cool and then brought it back up to temperature when we were ready for dinner on Saturday.  By then, the flavors had melded, and the beef was fall-apart tender.  What a treat!

profiterole with
vanilla pastry cream
I couldn’t resist using some of the leftover duck fat in the refrigerator, so I tossed a few new potatoes in it and roasted them until the skins were crispy and the insides creamy.  I steamed some fresh asparagus and tried out a little sauce gribiche over it.  (I’d never had sauce gribiche, and I must say that we loved it with the asparagus.  It’s just vinaigrette with chopped cornichons, hard-boiled egg, lemon zest, and a few herbs, but give it a fancy French name, and you have a great accompaniment to steamed vegetables or poached fish.)  For dessert, we had profiteroles stuffed with vanilla pastry cream.  I was surprised that making profiteroles is quite easy and quick.  The only issue I had was piping them out of my pastry bag.  The dough is so buttery that it just slips and slides around on the pan.  I think it would’ve been easier if I had lined my baking sheets with parchment paper.  Nonetheless, they were airy and delicious.  We had the leftovers with coffee on Sunday morning.

Sunday Night Menu:  Onion Soup, Rabbit Terrine, Mixed Greens, and Tarte Tatin
I spent most of Saturday getting ready for Sunday night’s menu. 

onion soup
For the Onion Soup, I knew that the most important element would be the stock, so I began by roasting some beef bones and using them, along with carrots, celery, onions, cloves, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, and peppercorns, to make homemade beef stock.  In another pot, I cooked down thin slices of five large yellow onions in butter.  When the stock and the onions were finished, I combined them and let them simmer together for about two hours.  I let the soup cool and refrigerated it until Sunday night.  On Sunday afternoon, I made croutons out of Saturday night’s leftover baguettes, and I reheated the onion soup.  When we were ready for dinner, I put a crouton in the bottom of a bowl, ladled soup over it, and added a thin layer or parmesan and gruyere cheese on top.  (Interestingly, the most common complaint I read about French Onion Soup in America is that Americans use too much cheese, so I purposely went easy on the cheese.)  Ten minutes in the oven and our onion soups were finished.  I must say that it did not taste like any French Onion Soup I have ever tasted.  The broth was flavorful, yet delicate, and I’m confident that it was a result of using homemade broth.  It was a nice way to start the meal.

rabbit terrine with green
olives and pistachios
For our second course, I served a Rabbit Terrine with mixed greens tossed in a vinaigrette. So, why a rabbit terrine?  Well, when I started the project, I decided that I wanted to include rabbit, because I had never cooked with it, and it is one of my favorite dishes when cooked properly.  I also wanted to include a pate or some sort of terrine, and since I was already planning to sear the fois gras, I opted for a terrine, instead of a pate.  I opened my big yellow kitchen bible, the Gourmet Cookbook, and I found a recipe for Rabbit Terrine with green olives and pistachios.  Sounded like a great way to accomplish both goals, so I added it to the week’s menus.  This one took me longer to make than I ever imagined. 
  • The recipe called for a three pound rabbit, but I ended up using 2 rabbits (1.3 lbs and 1.7 lbs).  Because I purchased frozen whole rabbits, I did not have the option of asking a butcher to cut the rabbit for me, so I studied a few photos to figure out exactly how I was supposed to butcher a whole rabbit into eight pieces. And, of course, I got to do this two times since I had two rabbits.  It was not the most beautiful butcher job, but fortunately, the meat was going to be pulled off the bones and shredded anyway.
  • I cooked the rabbit in a large stock pot with water, carrots, shallots, parsley, thyme, leek, garlic, salt and peppercorns for an hour. 
  • I let the mixture cool for thirty minutes. 
  • I removed the rabbit from the broth, strained the broth, and proceeded to mix it with crushed egg shells and egg whites.  Then, I heated it on the stove top to attempt to clarify it.  When I poured it through a sieve lined with damp paper towels, the broth was not clear, so I had to reheat it and attempt to clarify it again.  I did this three times until I finally got it right.
  • I pulled the rabbit meat and shredded it into small pieces.  This took me much longer than expected, too.  I hadn’t anticipated just how many little pieces there would be to pull off, and I was trying to make sure I didn’t accidentally pull any bones into my mixture.  When I finally finished with the meat, I mixed fennel seeds, chopped picholine olives, chopped pistachios, fresh chives, fresh thyme, salt and black pepper into the meat and set it aside.
  • I reduced the clarified broth until I had the correct concentration and removed it from the heat.  I whisked in a mixture of cold water and softened unflavored gelatin until it dissolved.  I stirred in Madeira and salt for flavoring.
  • Finally, it was time to assemble the terrine.  I don’t own a special pate mold with a press, but after a little research, I determined that it is easy to create your own press if you are happy with your terrine being made in a loaf pan (and I was fine with that).  So, I lined a loaf pan with plastic wrap, filled it with the rabbit mixture, and poured the gelatin broth over it.  Then, I fitted a piece of cardboard wrapped in aluminum foil that I cut out earlier in the day over the rabbit mixture and pressed it down so that the gelatin started rising above it.  I lay the body of wine bottle that matched the size of my loaf pan on top of the cardboard “lid” and used kitchen string to tie it down and put pressure on the terrine.
  • I chilled the terrine with the wine bottle “weight” in the refrigerator for three hours.
  • After the three hours, I removed the wine bottle and cardboard lid from the loaf pan.  I reheated the gelatin that was on top of the lid until it was pourable, and I poured it back on top of the terrine.  Then, I covered the whole terrine with plastic wrap and put it back in the refrigerator until Sunday night’s dinner.
Thankfully, when I unmolded and sliced the terrine on Sunday night, I discovered a perfectly formed and flavored terrine.  The brininess of the olives and the crunchiness of the pistachios added a perfect balance of flavor and texture to the dish.  I do not foresee making another terrine for a long time, but I will never have another without appreciating the amount of work that goes into that dish. Wow!

tarte tatin
I ended Sunday night’s dinner with my favorite French dessert, tarte tatin.  This is a dish that I have made previously, but this time, I spent a little more time researching tips for creating an even better tarte tatin than I’ve ever made.  I found a great article by Felicity Cloake from The Guardian entitled “How to cook perfect tarte tatin” and followed her recommendations to use different varieties of apples and to let the peeled apples sit in the refrigerator uncovered overnight to intensify their flavor.  I made a shortbread crust (because I like it better than puffed pastry), and I baked it in a cast iron skillet.  Another great dish!  I wish I had let the sugar caramelize a little longer so that the apples had a richer color on them, but otherwise, I was very happy with the final result.  It was a fine way to bid adieu to my week of French cuisine.

I set out to challenge myself this week, and without a doubt, I achieved that goal.  Even now as I write about this week’s dishes, I am surprised at how many I squeezed into a few days and that I did not have a single failure.  Without a doubt, I will look back to this week as one of the project’s best!