Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Week Four: A Journey to Turkey

As I prepared for this week’s journey into Turkey, I considered what I already knew about the cuisine.  Interestingly, I endeavored to differentiate Turkish cuisine from what I considered general Middle Eastern cuisine.  I discovered that my struggle to make a distinction between the two was reasonable as Turkey actually influenced all Middle Eastern cuisine.  Its primary ascendance as a world cuisine stems from several basic tenets.  Turkey’s vast landmass opened it to neighboring countries’ influences, as well as a vast climatic and geographic variance.  During the time of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul hailed as a cosmopolitan city comprised of people from many backgrounds who brought their cultural customs into the mix of Turkish cuisine.  This convergence of cultures established the basis of today’s modern Turkish cuisine.

Turkish cuisine focuses on local, fresh ingredients combined to create simple, balanced cuisines.  Most dishes are not overly spiced.  Instead, they incorporate subtle spices and flavors to achieve a fine balance.  Most often, paprika is used to add any hint of spice to a dish.  The following list of ingredients comprises those commonly found in Turkish cuisine:  lamb, eggplant, tomatoes, spinach, peppers, onions, olives, grains, pistachios, walnuts, black pepper, garlic, mint, parsley, paprika, and olive oil.  Homemade food is prized, which may explain why this cuisine has endured over the years as generations of cooks have passed down family recipes.  Most meals begin with soup before the main course, and it is common practice to serve mezelar (appetizers) before dinner.

I determined that the nuances of Turkish cuisine would be best discovered by limiting this week’s menus to explicitly Turkish recipes.  I strived to honor the concept of simple, fresh ingredients as much as possible.  I opted for three menus this week. 

Monday Night Dinner Menu:  Batrik and Hunkar Begendi

After reviewing several recipes in Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World, I chose this menu for a simple Monday night dinner.  I began with the Batrik, or Bulgur and Tomato Salad with Nuts.  The salad is a testament to the concept of simple, fresh ingredients creating an interesting result.  The bulgar is hydrated with tomato and lemon juices, so it takes on a fresh quality which lightens and brightens the flavors.  After the bulgar hydrates in the tomato and lemon juices, simply mix in pure chile powder, diced onion, shelled pistachios, and salt/pepper to taste. 

For the next dish, Hunkar Begendi, or Braised Lamb in Eggplant Puree, I departed from fresh and simple to a dish with deep, rich colors and flavors.  The name means “Sultan’s Delight,” and on Monday night, it was my delight.  This is delicious.  Because of the time required to braise the lamb, I’m not sure most people would want to prepare this on a weeknight, but the resulting dish is worth the wait.  It’s a simple concept actually. 
§  Braise boneless lamb (I used leg) chunks in onion, garlic, tomatoes, and water. 
§  Roast eggplant and peel it.  Place the pulp in lemon juice.
§  When the lamb is finished, make a béchamel sauce.  Squeeze the liquid from the eggplant and mash it.  Then, add it to the finished béchamel. 
The combination of the tangy lamb and tomato balanced by the creamy sweetness of the eggplant puree created a warm, homey meal that we enjoyed tremendously.

Saturday Afternoon Lunch Menu:  Carrot, Spinach, & Rice Stew and Chicken Salad with Turkish Tarator

Bittman writes about trying this Carrot, Spinach, & Rice Stew at a lunch counter in Istanbul.  The basis of the dish illustrates the idea of simple, fresh foods creating a surprisingly flavorful course.  Water, carrots, rice, fresh spinach, salt, pepper, and garlic make up the whole of the recipe.  No fats.  No proteins, not even stock.  I must say that the resulting soup is a light, refreshing dish full of flavor. 

The second course of my Turkish lunch is a bit of a stretch as far as authenticity goes.  I’m not sure that Chicken Salad can be considered Turkish cuisine; however the Turkish Tarator is absolutely authentic and the reasoning behind the slight departure.  Interestingly, Mark Bittman defines Turkish tarator as a mayonnaise substitute, but after further research, I’m not so sure that is completely accurate.  Most of the references I found to Turkish tarator sited it as a dipping sauce for fried fish.  In Bittman’s defense, I agree that it makes a great binder, and that was the brilliant part of using it in chicken salad.  The sauce is simple:  bread soaked in milk, walnuts, garlic, paprika, fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper.  I pureed it in the food processor and immediately grabbed a spoon to taste it.  Delicious!  I mixed it with shredded chicken.  Then, I slathered the sauce on the inside of a fresh pita and stuffed the pita with fresh cucumber slices and the simple chicken salad.  All in all, it was an interesting take on a classic Southern dish my husband and I adore.

Sunday Night Pide Party:  Muhammara, a Taste of Yeni Raki, Assorted Pides, and Homemade Turkish Delight
When I told my friend Sweet Pea that I was planning a week of Turkish cuisine, she immediately stated that I MUST make pides.  During her travels in Turkey, pide was a favorite street food for lunch or just a snack.  I decided to take her challenge to heart, and I invited her to a Sunday night pide party.  I thought it would give me a chance to make one of her favorite Turkish dishes, and she could actually provide me with feedback about how closely I came to creating authentic dishes.

We began the evening with a meze, Muhammara, aka Toasted Walnut, Roasted Red Pepper, and Cumin Dip.  In The Gourmet Cookbook edited by Ruth Reichl, the editorial before the recipe states, “We think this Turkish spread is so delicious it deserves to be better known.”  That’s all I needed to convince me to try it!  They are right about this, too.  It was so good that I couldn’t keep myself out of it while I was working on making the rest of the night’s dinner.  The ingredients include garlic, salt, roasted red peppers, bread crumbs, walnuts, fresh lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, cumin, red pepper flakes, and olive oil.  We noshed on it with fresh pita bread, pita chips sprinkled with Za’atar seasoning, and thin slices of sujuk, which is spicy, Turkish beef salami. 

As is customary, I served Raki with our meze.  I read that it is the national drink of Turkey.  As it turns out, it is actually the basis for the more familiar Greek ouzo.  It is unsweetened, anise-flavored liquor that may be consumed as is, with a splash of water, or alongside a glass of water.  Even more interesting, this clear liquid becomes cloudy when mixed with water.  I must say that I did not like this drink at all…now, I also gag if I accidentally eat a black jelly bean, so I knew it probably would not suit my taste.  That’s the fun of this project though.  Sometimes I love it, and sometimes I don’t.  The important factor here is that now I know!

Pide is basically Turkish pizza.  The dough includes the same ingredients as regular pizza dough.  It is shaped like a canoe, and the key difference in pide and pizza lies in the flavors of the toppings.  Another type of Turkish pizza is lahmacun.  The only key difference that I found in lahmacun and pide is the shape of the pie as lahmacun is round.  I did also read that Lahmacun is generally not cooked to a crisp like pide, and sometimes lahmacun is rolled up similar to New York style pizza. 

Before I detail the various toppings I created for our pides, I will note that I simply made one recipe of regular pizza dough using my food processor like I always do.  I divided the dough into four balls.  Each pide was made from one ball of dough.  Later when I discuss the lahmacun, I divided one of my four dough balls into three small ones to roll out for individual sized lahmacun.  I baked the pides in a 475 º F oven on a pizza stone for about 15 minutes.

Peter Sommer Travels is a Turkish travel website with an entire webpage dedicated to pide.  I used three of the recipes on this site to make my toppings:  Lamb Pide, Sujuk Pide, and Cheesy Pide (peynirli).

First, we tried the Sujuk Pide.  As I only needed enough topping for one pide, I opted for the following balance of ingredients:  6 slices Sujuk, 6 slices of Roma Tomato (I didn’t peel it like the recipe states), 1½ ounces shredded Turkish Kasar cheese, and 2 long slices of cubanelle pepper.  The standout in this pide is definitely the Sujuk.  It was interesting how much its flavor changed when baked in the oven.  Basically, this pide is fancy pepperoni pizza at its finest.

Second, we tried the Lamb Pide.  The fact that the lamb cooks in red wine for over an hour intrigued me.  I expected a rich, deep flavorful topping, and I was not disappointed.  Sweet Pea immediately announced that this tasted like Turkey.  (Yes!  I did it!)  Here’s the breakdown of my ingredients for this single pide: ¾ cup diced white onion, ¼ lb of ground lamb, 1/3 cup red wine, ¾ tsp minced garlic, ¾ tsp cumin, and ¾ tsp paprika.

Third, we tried the Cheesy Pide.  The webpage with these recipes included mozzarella cheese, but I had seen other recipes calling for Turkish Kasar cheese.  It felt like the more authentic ingredient. I wasn’t sure if I could even find it, but thankfully, Daily Bread Marketplace was well stocked on this and many other unique ingredients I needed for this week’s menus (sujuk, pomegranate molasses, rose water).  For this individual pide, I used the following ingredients:  ½ cup diced white onion, ¼ cup chopped Roma tomato, ½ tsp minced garlic, 1½ oz Kasar cheese, 1½ oz crumbled feta cheese, and 8 Kalamata olives halved.  The most exciting part of this pide was the strong pungent flavor of the Kasar cheese melted into the fresh flavors of tomato, onion, and garlic.  The brininess of the black olives and the saltiness of the feta cheese provided a perfect balance to the pie.  As much as I am surprised to admit it (because I just knew one of the lamb toppings would be my favorite), I liked this version the best. 

Lahmacun served as the final flatbread of the evening.  I used Mark Bittman’s recipe from The Best Recipes in the World for this topping.  What inspired me to try this lamb topping was its use of fresh ingredients.  As I read the recipe, I could taste my idea of Turkey.  For my three individual Lahmacun, I used these ingredients:  ½ cup diced white onion, ½ tsp minced garlic, ¼ lb ground lamb, 1½ tsp paprika, salt/pepper, 1 tbsp pine nuts, ¼ cup chopped Roma tomato, 2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley, 2 tbsp chopped fresh mint, and ¾ tsp fresh lemon juice.  Bittman notes that it is traditional to serve an egg on top.  Out of our group of three, I am the only one who opted to add the egg, and I am confident that I made the best choice.  Sweet Pea noted that this one tasted even more like Turkey than the other lamb, and I must agree that it tasted like my “idea’ of Turkey.  The flavors melded perfectly, and my runny egg on top made it even better!

Last, but certainly not least, I served homemade Turkish Delight as an after-dinner sweet.  For this recipe, I opted to go straight to the experts.  I find that candy recipes online and even those in general cookbooks never include enough details for the actual science of candy-making.  I have learned to approach candy-making as chemistry lab, not a cooking class.  Preciseness is the key to being successful with such ventures.

I followed a recipe from Peter Greweling’s Chocolates and Confections in the At Home with The Culinary Institute of America cookbook series.  I made a version with rose water flavoring and pistachio inclusion.  Honestly, the hardest part of the process was whisking the candy for forty minutes while I waited for it to become clear.  (Whisking something with the consistency of melted taffy for over forty minutes can make one delusional.  I found myself thinking about an old college professor who defined dénouement as a cigarette after sex.  I decided to redefine it as the way I would feel when I didn’t have to whisk that damn candy anymore.)  Fortunately, the end product was a success.  It set up properly.  I didn’t use too much rosewater.  It looked pretty!

All in all, I had a long week in Turkey, and I enjoyed it all.  Even better, I have leftover Kasar cheese and sujuk in the refrigerator to snack on.  Now, what in the world am I going to do with that bottle of Raki?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Week Three: A Journey to Vietnam

This week’s journey took me to Vietnam.  Whereas Portuguese and South African cuisines offered a completely new food experience, Vietnamese cuisine presents familiar dishes that I recognize and admire.  I brought expectations to this journey.  I understand that the primary flavor profiles include lemongrass, ginger, chiles, cilantro, mint, and Thai Basil.  I know that beef, chicken, pork, and fish are commonly used as proteins.  I recognize the influences of the French and Chinese on the cuisine.  For that matter, I am so comfortable with it that I know exactly how much sriracha sauce I like in my weekly lunch bowl of pho at Little Saigon, and I can recite my usual order at Miami’s Hy Vong sans menu. (We’ll start with the Spring Rolls and Pork Rolling Cakes.  Then, we’ll each have an order of the pumpkin soup.  For our entrees, we’ll have the Beef with Fresh Rice Noodles and Fresh Fish with Mango.)  I delved into my research and discovered so much more.

In my discovery, I learned about the application of the Yin and Yang principle to cuisine in Vietnam, as well as the importance of the five senses related to a dish.  In essence, the Yin and Yang principles apply to finding balance in several ways:
§  Balance within a dish:  Fish, characterized as cold, is paired with hot elements like chiles.
§  Balance within the human body:  Someone with a cold is advised to eat foods with ginger because of its warm characteristic.
§  Balance with the environment:  In the cold of Winter, Vietnamese eat meat and spicy condiments.

Regarding the expression of the five senses, a well-balanced Vietnamese dish appeals to smell, sight, taste, hearing, and touch.  Consider the experience of pho.
§  Sight:  The colorful plate of herbs that accompanies the dish.
§  Touch:  Crushing fresh herbs before mixing them into the broth for flavoring.
§  Smell:  The fresh aromas of cilantro, thai basil, and chiles when they are stirred into the warm broth.
§  Taste:  The experience of creating personalized flavors by adding herbs and chile sauces to the broth to appeal to one’s personal taste.
§  Hearing:  The crunch of bean sprouts, the clink of chopsticks, and the soupy slurps of noodles in broth.
Without a doubt, the above examples are extremely simplified.  The principles are much more complex than what I can summarize in a short paragraph.  Arte Culinare provides an in-depth description if you are interested in learning more. 

As I considered this week’s Vietnamese menu, I encountered only one issue….editing.  I wanted to make everything!  When I began this project, the only rule that I gave myself for choosing menu items is that I can only make dishes that I’ve never attempted to cook previously.  So, that meant spring rolls with spiced-up fish sauce would not be allowed as I have made many versions of them.  I couldn’t decide if it would be more enlightening to make dishes I had never tried or to make dishes that I love to order in restaurants to better understand the skills and craft involved.  So, I decided to do both, and instead of creating one large menu, I decided on three smaller menus to explore throughout the week. 

Menu #1:  Fish Fillets Poached in Caramel Sauce, Stir-Fried Snow Peas and Rice

In his Best Recipes in the World, Mark Bittman notes his love for the Vietnamese technique of using caramelized sugar as the basis for a savory sauce served with beef, chicken thighs, pork steaks, fish and shrimp.  His book includes a recipe for Fish Fillets Poached in Caramel Sauce.  As a big fan of “sweet & salty” combinations, I eagerly added this dish to my Monday night dinner plans.  I thought it would be an easy weeknight dinner if I served it with stir-fried vegetables seasoned with fish sauce and sesame oil.  In all honesty, it would have been an easy weeknight dinner if I hadn’t burned the first batch of caramel sauce.  (That really wasn’t a surprise though.  Every Christmas I manage to burn my first batch of caramels.  I keep waiting and waiting for the deep rich color, and suddenly golden brown turns to dark brown smelly burnt caramel.)  All of that aside, the dish was incredible!  The combination of the sweet caramel infused with pungent fish sauce achieved a perfect balance of flavors.  I stir-fried snow peas, shredded carrots, and black sesame seeds with rice to serve with it.  I will definitely make this again!

Menu #2a:  Vietnamese Iced Coffee for Breakfast

In the spirit of the week’s project, I made Vietnamese Iced Coffees to go.  Just a little sweetened condensed milk and some strong espresso.  Made a nice morning beach treat!

Menu #2b:  Sauteed Beef with Fresh Rice Noodles, Spicy Eggplant, and “33” Export
One of my favorite Hy Vong dishes is Beef with Fresh Rice Noodles.  I decided to attempt a duplication.  I must say, I was quite impressed with myself for figuring this one out.  I bought the noodles at Vinh an Oriental Market.  I found several different recipes for Grilled Lemongrass Beef, which I used to develop a marinade for my thinly sliced sirloin:  2 garlic cloves, 2 stalks lemongrass crushed/minced, 2 large shallots minced, 2 tsp minced fresh ginger, 2 serrano chiles (stemmed, seeded, and chopped), 2 tbsp sugar, 1 tsp black pepper, ½ tsp salt, ¼ cup fish sauce, 2 tbsp sesame oil, 2 tbsp fresh lime juice, 1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds.  I marinated the beef for two hours in the refrigerator. 

To assemble the dish,
§  I sautéed the beef in a hot skillet for just a few minutes and transferred it to a plate.  I purposely left more marinade on the beef than I normally would so I had residual sauce in the pan for the noodles to soak up later.
§  I dunked the noodles in boiling water for about 10 seconds, rinsed them in cold water, and put them in the skillet with the leftover beef marinade/sauce to warm them up and add some flavor.
§  I placed the noodles on a platter, covered them with the sautéed beef, and sprinkled fried shallots, chopped peanuts, and fresh mint over the top.

I must say it was pretty close to Hy Vong…85% as good.  The only real difference was my noodles.  I think their noodles are “fresher” than mine, but all in all, I was pleased with this dish.

I attempt to include at least one vegetable dish in each week’s menus.  Eggplant is a commonly used vegetable in Vietnam, so when I found nice Japanese eggplant at the Asian market, I decided that would be the vegetable dish for the week.  At a website called Food of Vietnam, hundreds of recipes for Vietnamese cuisine are posted in English and Vietnamese.  There is a list of traditional recipes and a grouping designated as Some dishes are for the acquired taste.  With that grouping, they include Eggplant in Spicy Sauce, so I decided to try it out and see if I had the acquired taste necessary to appreciate it.  The recipe is simple. 
§  Fry sliced eggplant until half-cooked. 
§  Crush red chiles, green chiles, and onions. 
§  Fry the chile paste in a skillet. 
§  Add salt and fresh lime juice to the chile paste to make a sauce.
§  Toss the sauce with the eggplant and serve.
The eggplant was delicious.  It had a nice balance of flavors between the sweet eggplant, spicy chiles, and sour lime juice.  I’m not sure why it would be classified as a dish for acquired tastes.  There wasn’t anything unusual about it, but we did enjoy it.

I picked up some “33” Export beer because it was the only Vietnamese beer I could find quickly.  It was okay.  Not the best beer I’ve ever had, but certainly refreshing enough with the complex, rich flavors of the beef and the spiciness of the eggplant.

Menu #3:  Banh Cuon, Pho Bo, Cassava Cake
I invited Sweet Pea Ellman, one of our best friends, to dinner for our third menu, because I know how much she loves Vietnamese cuisine.  She was actually the first person to take us to Hy Vong.  I ambitiously decided to make pork rolling cakes as a first course for that Sunday night dinner.  Then, I planned to serve a rich beef pho and cassava cake for dessert.

Banh Cuon (pork rolling cakes) is one of our favorite appetizers at Hy Vong.  It isn’t always on the menu, and there have been several occasions that we’ve asked about its availability only to hear that Tung didn’t have time to make it that afternoon.  Now, I know why.  It’s a bitch!

After reading several different recipes online, I opted to try out Food & Wine’s “tested and perfected” Banh Cuon.  I started with the filling.  It was easy enough... ground pork, onion, re-hydrated tree ear mushrooms, and fish sauce in a skillet.  The most complicated part of the filling was trying to figure out which bag of “Dried Fungus” at the market was actually a tree ear mushroom.  I’m still not sure I bought the right one. 

The challenging part was making the rice flour crepes.  The recipe stated that it would make 18 crepes.  I assumed that there would be a learning curve for me in the actual technique of cooking the crepes, so I made the full recipe for crepe batter in hopes of making 9 acceptable crepes.  Nothing worked.  No matter what I tried, the final result was a gelatinous glob of rice flour batter.  I tried more batter, less batter, more time covered, less time covered, larger skillets, smaller skillets…nothing worked.  I wondered who had "tested and perfected" this recipe.  Not wanting to be completely defeated, I went to the grocery store, bought some wonton wrappers, and made steamed dumplings with the filling.  I sprinkled them with chopped peanuts and fried shallots.  The end result was not exactly a pork rolling cake, but at least we could enjoy the flavor of the filling in a somewhat similar manner…and they were good!

Maybe it’s because Pho is the first Vietnamese dish I ever tried, but I think of it as the quintessential Vietnamese meal.  My friend Jeff Skipper took me to Pho Que Huong in Birmingham, Alabama, for lunch one day, and I was hooked.  The idea of building my own flavors with the herbs and chile sauces was thrilling.  I loved it!  I know it’s actually a breakfast dish, but in the US, we more often have it for lunch.  Indeed, it isn’t normally considered a dinner entrée, but when I read Mark Bittman’s recipe for Pho Bo, I saw dinner potential. 

The broth cooks for almost four hours infused with beef bones, star anise, cloves, cinnamon stick, onion, ginger, garlic, and boneless chuck.  That direction alone promised a richer, more complex pho than I had experienced.  I had never tasted a pho with such a rich beef stock or with the addition of shredded chuck.  Days after this dinner, my husband and I are still talking about how much flavor was packed into that simple dish.  This one is a winner, and it was worth a full afternoon of simmering over a burner.

Last, but not least, another foray into the world of international desserts.  I poured over lists of desserts and didn’t see anything that really interested me until I read about Cassava Cake.  Part of the reason for my intrigue with this dish is because I closely associate cassava with South American and Caribbean cuisines, not Asian.  It makes sense that they are found in Southern Vietnam.  I also read several different blog posts written by native Vietnamese who wrote about their love of this dish and how it was something special a mother or grandmother would be known for making.  I used a combination of three different recipes I found across the internet. 

My cake included 1 ½ cups shredded cassava, 3 eggs, 1 cup sugar, 1 can coconut milk, 1 tbsp lemon peel, and 2 tbsp rum.  I baked it for 45 minutes in a 375 degree oven.  The cake was moist and somewhat flavorful, but it didn’t have that spark that makes you want to keep going back for another bite.  Maybe I should have used more lemon peel to pep it up.  One recipe called for 4 tbsp, but all of the others called for 1 tbsp, and I opted with the majority.   And so I find myself reporting that I made yet another excellently average dessert. 

This week was one of my most ambitious and rewarding.  I learned so much, and I will definitely be having more Vietnamese dinners at home in the future.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Week Two: A Journey to South Africa

Before this week’s culinary journey into South Africa, I had only a single experience regarding this cuisine.  After raving about the flavors of the sauce on the Bison Steak at Nemesis Urban Bistro, Micah and Izzy explained that the spiciness in the sauce is from a dried piri piri chili often used in South Africa to spice meats.  They even brought one from the kitchen to my table so that I could see, touch, and smell it for myself.  Perhaps that experience led to my final menu this week, because it certainly initiated a positive impression of South African flavor profiles.

South African cuisine earned the nickname “Rainbow Cuisine” because of the countless influences of settlers from both Western and Eastern cultures:  Portugal, The Netherlands, Germany, France, United Kingdom, and even, India.  Its flavor profiles include garlic, lime, ginger, chili, onions, and curry.  The most popular dish, some even call it the National dish, is Bobotie, a curried meatloaf covered in an egg custard.  Another curry dish called Bunny Chow features a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with curried meats and vegetables.  Dishes like these are reflections of the change that occurred within South African diets upon the introduction of new cultures.

After reading about so many dishes that were influenced by other cultures, I wanted to gain a better understanding of the norm before those settlers arrived.  As I read about indigenous South African dishes, I discovered a familiar theme.  The dishes included a cornmeal mush similar to grits called pap, braised fresh greens, pumpkin, and meats prepared on a grill.  Whereas the invading cultures of the East and West influenced South Africa’s cuisine of today, the indigenous South African dishes certainly inspired the flavor profiles of the American South where I grew up.  After all, these dishes are not so far away from a Pork BBQ with collard greens, cornbread, and sweet potato pie. 

Armed with just enough knowledge to begin planning a menu, I began opening all of my cookbook indexes and looking for “South African” dishes….nothing.  Not even Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World included a single South African dish.  I scoured the internet for inspiration, but I found none.  Then, I remembered that copy of Steven Raichlen’s Planet Barbecue! that I bought for my husband, and I found my inspiration.  Not only does he describe in detail the importance of the South African braai (barbecue grill), he provides almost twenty recipes related to the subject.  I immediately asked my husband to make sure we had plenty of charcoal for the grill, because I was planning our very own Backyard Braai for Saturday night.

The menu for Saturday night’s Backyard Braai included:
§  Goats Do Roam 2009 Red Wine
§  Rooster Brood (grilled yeast rolls)
§  Piri-Piri Shrimp
§  Pork Kebabs with Monkey Gland Sauce
§  Cucumber-Zucchini Salad
§  Lamb Sosaties
§  Pampenmoes (Pumpkin Bread Pudding)

Goats Do Roam 2009 Red Wine

We started the night with a bottle of Goats Do Roam 2009 Red Wine from South Africa.  It was a blend of Shiraz, Cinsaut, Granach, Mourvedre, and Carignan.  With hints of spice and a medium body, it was the perfect complement to our chile-spiced shrimp and rich meat dishes. 

Rooster Brood

Rooster Brood is simply a yeast roll tied into a knot that is grilled over direct heat, instead of baked in an oven.  In a word, it is addictive.  We ate at least three each before any of our meats were on the grill.  The dough is sweet and soft inside.  The char and smoky flavors from the grill permeate the entire roll.  Think naan bread meets parkerhouse rolls…

Piri-Piri Shrimp

Originally, the plan was to make Stephen Raichlen’s Piri-Piri Prawns, because I had read that prawns are prevalent in South African cuisines, especially in the regions near the coastline.  Unfortunately, Whole Foods did not have any prawns on the day of my grocery shopping for our braai, so I just used the largest shrimp I could buy.  I made a few other substitutions as well, but all in all, I kept to a set of traditional ingredients found in the sauce for this dish:  butter, chiles, garlic, fresh ginger, lime juice, hot sauce, salt, and pepper.  It’s a simple recipe with an incredible amount of flavor.  The most important part of the recipe is not overcooking the shrimp on the grill.  We grilled our shrimp about two minutes per side, and they were perfect!

Pork Kebabs with Monkey Gland Sauce
Full disclosure…I had to make these kebabs just so I could say that I made Monkey Gland Sauce.  I love saying.  I love typing it.  I love reading it.  It just makes me laugh.  I read several explanations of its origin online.  My favorite version is that French chefs working in a Johannesburg luxury hotel became frustrated with their guests’ lack of sophistication and decided to combine every commercial sauce in the kitchen into a large pot and pronounced it Monkey Glad Sauce.  Much to their surprise and, probably, dismay, the guests loved it!

For the Monkey Gland Sauce, I strayed from Stephen Raichlen’s recipe.  I read at least ten different recipes for Monkey Gland Sauce online, and after charting the most frequently used ingredients, I devised my version of the recipe:
§  1 tbsp butter
§  1 large sweet onion
§  1 garlic clove
§  1 tsp Tabasco sauce
§  ½ cup tomato sauce
§  3 tbsp Worcestershire’s Sauce
§  1 tbsp mustard powder
§  ½ cup Major Grey’s Chutney
§  2 tbsp dark brown sugar
§  3 tbsp red wine
§  1 cup Beef Stock
Melt butter in a saucepan and cook the onion until almost brown.  Add garlic and cook for about thirty seconds.  Stir in Tabasco, tomato sauce, Worcestershire’s sauce, mustard powder, chutney, and brown sugar.  Simmer until thick.  Stir in red wine and beef stock.  Increase heat to high and cook until reduced by half. Season with salt and pepper.  Use an immersion blender to create a thick, smooth sauce.

As for the pork kebabs, I followed Raichlen’s instructions by the book.  I marinated the pork tenderloin for over two hours in onion juice, bay leaves, black peppercorns, coriander seeds, white wine, and olive oil.  The kebabs included pork, shitake mushrooms, yellow bell peppers, sweet onion wedges, and thick-sliced bacon. 

We grilled the kebabs over direct heat and basted them with the Monkey Gland sauce three times.  The kebabs were delicious.  The pork tenderloin was tender, and the peppers, onions, mushrooms, and bacon slices complemented its flavor.  The Monkey Gland sauce provides an ideal combination of sweet and salty, which elevates the bold flavors of the kebabs even more.

When researching the traditional fare of a braai, I found most explanations stated that several cold salads are served to provide a crisp, refreshing counterpoint to the rich meats.  Many sited Cucumber-Zucchini Salad as a common one.  I’m not so sure this is technically South-African as I’ve been eating this salad of cucumber and onion marinated in vinegar and sugar for my whole life, but I am confident that it is a comparable representation of the type of salads that are served at a braai.

Lamb Sosaties
This is the dish I most wanted to try, and it did not disappoint.  I followed Raichlen’s recipe for the marinade and sauce explicitly, and the resulting dish was a rich, decadent sauce and a robustly flavored lamb and apricot grill combination.  Because I was only cooking for two people, and those two people were also consuming all of the aforementioned dishes, I omitted the pork and only made these sosaties with lamb.

The marinade includes brown sugar, Madras curry powder, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, salt, dried apricots, onion, orange zest, red wine, red wine vinegar, olive oil, and heavy cream.  I marinated the meat for three hours, and I must say that every time I opened the refrigerator door to stir it up, I had to remind myself that it wasn’t safe to slurp up the marinade…that’s how amazing it smelled.  I loved the fact that the lamb and the dried apricots soaked up the marinade and that the kebabs included both ingredients along with bacon and red onion wedges.  The sauce made from the leftover marinade is one of intense flavors.  One might suspect the red wine, heavy cream, and apricot jam may have something to do with its complexity and richness.  As with the other kebabs, we grilled these over direct heat and basted them with the sauce three times.  That first bite of the warm tender lamb, sweet apricot, tangy onion, and smoky bacon accompanied by the luxurious red wine cream sauce blew me away!  It’s the all-inclusive package of every flavor I want in a single bite combined. 

I kept reading about how much pumpkin is eaten in South Africa, and I felt the need to include it in my menu.  Everything I read noted its position in the meal as a savory side dish, but I thought I could convert it to a dessert.  I found numerous websites with South African recipes for pampenmoes.  Quite simply, the recipe is to create layers of buttered bread spread with Apricot Jam, thinly sliced pumpkin, and cinnamon/sugar.  That’s it.  As I read the recipe, I thought it sounded like it would be dry.  After all, I’ve never made a bread pudding that didn’t include custard, but every site raved about this dish just as it is described above.  So, I prepared the dish exactly as described…..and it was dry and almost inedible.  Truthfully, I didn’t even care because after all of that amazing food on the grill, I was already satisfied with my South African culinary adventures for the evening. 

All in all, our Saturday night Backyard Braai for two proved to be a memorable night.  We had so much fun sampling each dish.  This week’s culinary journey presented an entirely new menu for our grill, and I can’t wait to host a braai for friends and family!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Week One: A Journey to Portugal

Last week, if someone had asked me to describe Portuguese cuisine, my response would have been that it is very similar to Spanish cuisine.  After a week of researching Portuguese cuisine, I must say that such a flip, generalized response would not be completely inaccurate, but now, I have a much better understanding of its idiosyncrasies.  The flavor profiles are broad.  In just a few sources, I found all of these spices/ingredients listed as essentials:  bay leaves, black pepper, chili peppers, cilantro, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, curry powder, fennel, garlic, mint, nutmeg, olive oil, onions, oregano, paprika, parsley, rosemary, saffron, sweet red peppers, and vanilla.  In other words, almost every spice in my pantry is Portuguese.  I found the same range applies to produce.  In both cases, the diversity results from Portugal’s strong role in globalization dating back as far as the eleventh century.  In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Portuguese explorers were charged to bring bounty from the New World to their homeland, which resulted in a variety of spices, tomatoes, bell peppers, chili peppers, and potatoes being introduced to the Portuguese diet.  Seafood serves as the prominent protein with bacalhau (dried, salted cod) reigning as the most popular dish.  Meats and poultry are also strong components of the cuisine with the most prevalent being pork and poultry.  Most desserts are best described as rich and creamy.  Rice pudding and egg custards flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, or honey dominate the category.  Upon discovering such a broad definition of the cuisine, I decided to read recipes designated as Portuguese in every cookbook on my shelf in order to better understand its themes and nuances.  This menu is a result of my studies:
  • Portuguese White Cornmeal Bread
  • Cilantro and Garlic Soup
  • Clams Cataplana
  • Portuguese Custard Tarts
Portuguese White Cornmeal Bread
I found two similar recipes for Portuguese Bread and opted for the Portuguese White Cornmeal Bread in The Gourmet Cookbook edited by Ruth Reichl.  (In my house, I call it the yellow kitchen bible.)  I chose this recipe after reading that breads made with wheat flours and cornmeal are common in Portugal
The only problem I had making this bread is the same problem I have every time I make bread in Florida…finding a warm draft-free place for the bread to rise.  After ninety minutes of waiting for my dough to double in size, I started looking for tips online.  (I knew that the problem wasn’t the yeast, because I have made enough bread to know how “proofed” yeast looks.)  I discovered a tip that worked brilliantly.  Heat your oven to 100 degrees F.  Open the oven door and let it cool until you can touch the inside racks without burning yourself.  Place the dough in its bowl covered with a kitchen towel inside the oven with the door open half-way.  It creates the perfect environment for rising.  My bread doubled up within thirty minutes. 

As you can see, the loaves were beautiful.  The flavor was similar to sourdough bread, but the texture was much tenderer.  It was the perfect accompaniment to the meal. 

Cilantro and Garlic Soup
While reviewing soup recipes, I found that “green” soups lead the category.  Caldo Verde is the most popular, which is a kale soup thickened with potato puree.  It is sometimes flavored with chouriço, which is Portugal’s version of the more popular Spanish chorizo.  I also found another green soup in Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World called Cilantro and Garlic Soup.  Since everything I read about Portuguese flavor profiles consistently mentioned cilantro and garlic, this recipe piqued my interest.  It sounded interesting and a little more flavorful than the traditional caldo verde, so I opted to make it.  I am confident I made the correct choice, because it was so delicious that my husband couldn’t get enough and started offering up ways that I could use the same flavor profiles to make better chicken noodle soup.
The basic premise of the recipe is to make a paste of fresh garlic, fresh cilantro and olive oil.  Then, add the raw garlic/cilantro paste to simmering stock.  (I used Imagine Vegetable Stock, because I had it in my pantry.  Of course, homemade stock would improve the flavor.)  The resulting aroma of the raw garlic & cilantro melding with the simmering stock was heavenly. 

To serve the soup, place a thick slice of toasted bread in the bottom of a soup bowl.  (I used my homemade Portuguese Cornmeal White Bread, but the recipe calls for French or Italian bread.)  Place a poached egg on top of the toast.  Then, ladle the broth over the egg and bread.  This is peasant food at its highest form.  I could make a meal out of this soup alone.

Clams Cataplana
Although Portuguese cuisine includes meats and poultry, I felt like a seafood dish would be more representative of the whole.  Bacalhau is clearly the most prized choice in Portugal, but I just wasn’t feeling up to that.  I discovered two common threads among the numerous seafood recipes I reviewed.  Most dishes are stews or one-pot meals, and many incorporate meats into the dish to add flavor.  The two most popular are caldeirada, which is a stew of fish, potatoes, onions, and tomatoes, and cataplana, which is a layered “one pot” meal of shellfish, vegetables, and meat.  Cataplana is also the name of the vessel used to cook the dish.  It is generally a hammered copper pot with a hinged lid that looks like a giant clam.  The dish’s origin is from Algarve, the southernmost region of mainland Portugal.
I chose to make a cataplana called Portuguese Clams from The Gourmet Cookbook edited by Ruth Reichl.  Since I don’t own a cataplana, I used my All-Clad Stainless Steel 3-qt casserole, and it worked perfectly for a half-recipe.  I chose this dish because it included a large variety of the vegetables commonly found in Portuguese cuisine, and I wanted to experience how the whole of the flavor profile works together.  The dish is layered with clams, onions, garlic, tomatoes, roasted peppers (red, green, and yellow), fresh parsley, potatoes, and Spanish Chorizo.  White wine and tomato sauce are added to sauce the dish.  Basically, you just put a lid on the layered dish and simmer it for about fifteen minutes.  The final result was a hearty, fresh-flavored entree with beautiful colors and perfectly cooked clams, and the soaking up the last plate juices with the fresh Portuguese White Cornmeal Bread ensured that even the last bite was delectable.
On the day before I was planning to prepare this meal, it occurred to me that I should be able to find a nice Portuguese wine to complement it.  Jeffrey Wolfe from Wolfe’s Wine Shoppe helped me out with a great bottle of Auratus Alvarinho Trajadura 2009 for under $20.  This bright, crisp wine was perfectly paired with the rich chorizo and the fresh flavors of the clams and vegetables in the cataplana.
Portuguese Custard Tarts
I have never been a fan of rice pudding, so Portuguese Custard Tarts (Pasteis de Nata) were my choice for dessert.  I used an online recipe with high-praise reviews.  For me, it was just okay.  Excellently-average at best.  I mean, it’s just some egg custard in a puff pastry shell.  Admittedly, they were much better warm out of the oven than after they cooled. 

All in all, I had a successful Portuguese dinner, and I certainly know more about Portuguese Culture and Cuisine than I did before this week’s project, which is exactly the point.  I will definitely make the Portuguese White Cornmeal Bread, Cilantro & Garlic Soup, and Clams Cataplana, again.  Stay tuned for next week’s dinner in my South African kitchen!