Monday, February 27, 2012

Week Eight: A Journey to China

My journey into China resulted in a week best described as both filling and fulfilling.  With its rich history and culinary influence, China’s greatest challenge to me came in the editing department.  With such a breadth of options and regional cuisines, I found myself with a list of dishes to attempt that required more days and hours than I could possibly find in a month.  In the end, I made a plan to cook every night of the week and managed to do so six of the seven nights.  This was quite the undertaking.

I’m not going to attempt to summarize Chinese cuisine in a paragraph for this week’s blog.  Instead, I hope that the broad range of dishes I present below will paint that picture.  For anyone unfamiliar with the primary flavor profiles and seasonings for Chinese dishes, I will tell you that I have used more fresh ginger, rice vinegar, soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, and Shaoxing wine in this single week than I probably used in the last two years combined.  In addition, I used a considerable amount of garlic, onion, fermented black beans, chili oil, tofu, mushrooms, scallions, and cilantro.  Those ingredients may not define the flavor profile alone, but they certainly provide a strong platform.

Sunday Night Takeout:  Hot & Sour Soup, Egg Rolls, and Kung Pao Chicken
Sometimes, a girl just needs greasy Chinese takeout…and lots of it.  For me, that usually means a takeout order at Chef Tien’s in Coral Gables for Hot & Sour Soup, Egg Rolls, and General Tso’s Chicken eaten on the couch in front on the television with a beer in hand.  I thought it would be fun to recreate that menu, but of course, General Tso’s Chicken is not actually Chinese.  It’s American-Chinese, so I opted to make Kung Pao Chicken to maintain the authenticity of my project.

For years, I have wondered what exactly is in my Hot & Sour Soup, but for some reason, I never took the time to actually find out the answer.  The soup has a distinct, unusual aroma that always intrigued me, too.  After purchasing wood-ear mushrooms for my week of Vietnamese Cuisine, I pinpointed that they were the odd-textured mushrooms in the soup.  Now, I can authoritatively state that the key ingredient producing the unusual, alluring aroma is Dried Lily Buds.  Honestly, I didn’t even know that such an ingredient existed. 

I turned to Mark Bittman’s recipe for Hot and Sour Soup in The Best Recipes in the World, because I found his version to include the most authentic ingredients.  (Oddly enough, I always start with his recipes, and then I think that I’ll find something better or more authentic if I turn to the internet, and I almost always go back to his book.  Most of the time, his recipes turn out to be the most authentic.  I find that most internet bloggers or recipe websites eliminate the key unusual ingredients to present a version with ingredients that can be picked up quickly at a major supermarket chain.)  His recipe included Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, wood-ear mushrooms, dried lily buds, slivered bamboo shoots, tofu, rice vinegar, black pepper, and eggs.  A cornstarch slurry is added to thicken the soup, and a garnish of cilantro and scallion are added at the end.  While the lily buds provide the funky-good flavor and aroma, the rice vinegar is the key to the sour element of the soup.

For egg rolls, I made Mark Bittman’s vegetarian version, which includes cabbage, fresh bean sprouts, shitake mushrooms, scallions, and fresh ginger.  This was my first time to make egg rolls, and they are certainly simple to assemble.  One mistake that I made though was not rolling them tightly enough.  It didn’t affect the flavor, but the air bubble that formed inside meant that only one side naturally floated on the top of the oil.  In order to fry the “bubble” side to an even matching brown, I had to hold the egg roll upside down with my tongs.  I made Bittman’s Soy Dipping Sauce to accompany them (soy sauce, rice vinegar, water, fresh ginger, cayenne pepper, and sugar).  I also mixed dry Colman’s Mustard with water to create a hot mustard sauce, which is my favorite “packet” with Chinese takeout.  The egg rolls and sauces turned out well, and I wish I had made more than just one per person.  Next time, I’ll make at least three for myself.

Finally, I served Kung Pao Chicken with steamed rice to complete our takeout dinner.  I turned to Bittman, again.  His recipe was simple and the results delicious.  I marinated chicken breast pieces in a slurry of cornstarch and Shaoxing wine.  Then, I stir-fried them in a wok with dried chilis, garlic, and ginger.  Later I added sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil, and scallions.  We garnished with chopped, roasted peanuts at the table. 

Monday Night:  Clams Stir-Fried with Black Beans, Steamed Bok Choy, and Steamed Rice

Chronicle Books published Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking in Fall 2009, and after reading several glowing reviews, I knew it was a must-have.  (I have a “cookbook” habit.  The hubs laughs every time a new one arrives at our house.  I could sit on the couch and read cookbooks for hours while he watches football, basketball, or whatever ESPN is dishing out.)  I chose the recipe for Clams Stir-Fried with Black Beans mainly because I wanted to work with fermented black beans. The preparation is quite simple.  I cooked the clams in boiling water and removed each one as soon as it opened.  I made the sauce of stock, oyster sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, cornstarch, sugar, and freshly ground pepper.  To complete the dish, I heated peanut oil in the wok.  Then, I added ginger, garlic and the black beans (which I rinsed and dried earlier) and cooked for a few minutes.  Then, I added the clams for another two minutes followed by the sauce, which I simply cooked until it thickened and coated the clams.  In the meantime, I steamed bok choy and rice in separate pots.  We drizzled sesame oil on the bok choy and garnished the clams with cilantro and scallions.  Because the clams are actually cooked in the sauce, instead of just being covered in the sauce, the flavors permeate every bite of the clams.  I really enjoyed the dish and discovering the distinct flavor of the fermented black beans.

Tuesday Night:  Braised Whole Red Snapper in Hot and Sour Sauce
This week seemed like the perfect time to try my hand at cooking a whole fish.  It seems intimidating, but I had read that it was actually simple to do.  I can now report that it is simple and a delicious way to enjoy fish at home. 

I prepared Mark Bittman’s recipe for Braised Whole Fish in Hot and Sour Sauce from The Best Recipes in the World.  Because I did not have a skillet large enough to make this dish, I used a roasting pan spanned across two burners, which he brilliantly suggested.  I began by heating peanut oil in the roasting pan, and then browning the flour-dredged fish on both sides.  I removed the fish and cleaned out the pan.  Then, I cooked onions and shitake mushrooms in the roasting pan until tender.  I added garlic, ginger, crushed red pepper flakes, and fermented black beans to cook for another minute.  I added Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and vegetable stock.  When the mixture boiled, I turned the heat to low and returned the fish to the roasting pan.  I covered the pan with aluminum foil as tightly as possible.  The recipe says that it should take about 15 minutes to cook the fish with a tight fitting lid, but with my aluminum foil, it was more like 25 minutes.  All in all, this dish topped our list of best dishes from the Y’all Taste This project.  The fish was perfectly flaky and pulled away from the bone exactly like it should.  The flavor of the sauce complemented the fish well, and we drug every bite of steamed rice through the sauce on the platter until the well ran dry.

Wednesday Night:  Simple Fried Rice
Of course, I have previously made fried rice, but when I read Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s recipe for it in Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking, I decided it would be a nice addition to this week’s menus.  Plus, it would be a night for me to cook “project-worthy” food without a fuss. 

Earlier in the week, I made Mark Bittman’s Barbecued Pork recipe, because I needed the bbq pork for a noodle dish and the char siu bao I planned to make later in the week.  I had leftover bbq pork, so I tossed some of it into the Fried Rice, as well.  (The Barbecue Pork is simply pork tenderloin marinated in honey, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, oyster sauce, and five-spice powder.  I marinated it overnight and then roasted the pork in the oven.)

The Simple Fried Rice recipe held true to its title.  I heated some peanut oil in the wok and scrambled eggs in it.  I removed the eggs and chopped them so that they could be added later.  I cooked ginger, garlic, and shallots in the wok for a few minutes.  Then, I added the peas followed by leftover steamed rice from the previous night.  After two minutes, I added a mixture of oyster sauce, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, sugar, and salt to the wok and cooked it until the rice was evenly coated with the sauce.  I added the scrambled eggs and diced bbq pork, mixed it all up, and served!  The result was one of the best fried rice dishes I’ve ever eaten.  I think the key is the ginger, garlic, and shallots early in the process.  This is officially my new “go to” fried rice recipe.  Loved it!

Friday Night:  Tea-Smoked Duck and Spicy Cold Noodles
In full disclosure, my original plan was to make Spicy Cold Noodles dinner on Thursday night and the duck with a different noodle dish on Friday; however, on Thursday night, I needed a break from the kitchen.  I thought the chili oil in the cold noodles would provide a good balance to the richness of the duck, so I switched out my plan to this menu of Tea-Smoked Duck and Spicy Cold Noodles.  Both dishes were beautiful!

I selected Mark Bittman’s recipe for Tea-Smoked Duck for a few reasons, but primarily, I chose it because it offered a different type of preparation than I had previously made and because I was intrigued by his method for smoking the duck.  Here are the basic steps for the recipe:
  • I pricked the skin of a 4 pound duck with a sharp, thin-bladed knife.  Then, I rubbed soy sauce and five-spice powder into the skin.
  • I steamed the duck for forty-five minutes.
  • I transformed my wok into a smoker.  I lined it with two pieces of heavy aluminum foil and added dry rice, black tea leaves, sugar, orange peel, and cinnamon sticks in the bottom.  I set an inexpensive 1” rack that I grabbed at the Asian market over the dried, smoking agents (rice, tea leaves, sugar, orange peel, and cinnamon stick), and then I placed the duck on the rack.  I gathered the aluminum foil and tightly creased it together.  I added another layer over the top of the wok, and then added the lid on top of it.
  • I set the wok over high heat for 10 minutes.  Then, I reduced the heat to medium and smoked for another 20 minutes.  I turned off the heat and let it rest for about 30 minutes before carving and drizzling with sesame oil.

The resulting dish was a flavorful, smoky, rich meat.  As I tasted the duck, I could sense the background flavors of tea, orange, and cinnamon.  Because of the way it was prepared, I knew the skin wouldn’t be crispy, but I was curious to see if the affects of smoking would at least dry it out just enough to give it a different texture than the meat, and it certainly did.

I am so happy that I changed course and decided to serve the spicy cold noodle dish with the duck.  Oddly enough, we loved the duck, but found ourselves going back for noodles while we still had duck on our plates.  This was yet another Mark Bittman recipe.  I cooked fresh Chinese egg noodles (from PK Oriental in Kendall) until just tender.  Then, I ran cold water over them and drained.  The dish included the noodles, diced barbecue pork, grated cucumber, sliced radishes, and bean sprouts.  The sauce that tied it all together included soy sauce, rice vinegar, and chili oil.  We garnished with fresh cilantro leaves and chopped scallions.  The freshness of the vegetables and the heat of the chili oil complemented the rich flavors of the duck perfectly.

Dim Sum Saturday Night:  Watercress & Tofu Potstickers, Shrimp Sui Mai, and Char Siu Bao
The first time I tried dim sum was on a vacation in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and I must admit that I wondered why everyone makes such a big deal about dim sum.  It didn’t seem that great to me.  Years later, when I traveled to Hong Kong for the first time, one of the hosts insisted that we order dim sum for lunch.  Not wanting to be rude, I agreed.  Thank goodness I agreed, because that was how I discovered why people love dim sum.  Of course, my host was smart enough to start our lunch with char siu bao…I mean, what Southerner wouldn’t love something that is basically sweet white bread wrapped around pork barbecue?

Since the first minute I began planning for this week’s menus, I knew I would attempt a dim sum dinner.  I knew it had to be on a weekend, because I had no experience with this type of menu and needed the extra time.  As I planned out this menu, I consciously selected three very different types of dumplings.  The Watercress & Tofu Potstickers represented the only fried and vegetarian offerings.  The Shrimp Sui Mai presented a challenge because of the skill needed to artfully pleat the dumpling wrappers around the filling.  The Char Siu Bao presented a challenge in that I needed to make the yeast bread dough.  Each offered different addicting flavor profiles, and I will definitely make them again.

We began with the Watercress & Tofu Potstickers.  I used a filling recipe by Food and Wine magazine’s Grace Parisi.  The filling included wilted watercress, tofu, scallions, garlic, water chestnuts, egg, white pepper, salt and toasted sesame oil.  I used gyoza wrappers for these, instead of making my own dough.  (After assembling the dumplings, I set them on a baking sheet lined with waxed paper and stored them in the refrigerator until I was ready to cook them.)  To cook them, I heated oil in the bottom of a skillet and cooked them in the oil for 2 minutes.  Then, I added water and covered the skillet to steam them until they were cooked through.  Next time, I’ll turn the heat down to medium while they are steaming because the bottoms were dark brown (not burned) when I transferred them to a serving dish.  I served with a chili-soy sauce I made with soy sauce, chili oil, fresh ginger, and sugar.

For Shrimp Sui Mai, I used a recipe from a Williams-Sonoma San Francisco cookbook that my friend Jenny Walters gave me years ago.  To make the filling, I combined shrimp, pork fat, water chestnuts, scallions, ginger, garlic, Shaoxing wine, cornstarch, salt, sugar, sesame oil, and egg whites in a food processor.  That was the easy part…making them look pretty in the dumpling wrappers is not so simple.  Making dumplings is truly a craft and an art form.  Fortunately, they tasted amazing.  As a matter of fact, they were our favorites of the night.  I steamed them in a bamboo steamer for twenty minutes and served with the chili-soy sauce.

I made Mark Bittman’s recipe for Char Siu Bao.  They were actually much simpler to make than I expected.  The dough rose without issue, and it was simple to divide and roll out into even disks.  For the filling, I marinated the already-cooked barbecue pork pieces in soy sauce, oyster sauce, honey, sesame oil, ground pepper, and a cornstarch slurry for over two hours.  Forming them into the correct “shape” was not difficult; however, one lesson I learned is that they continue to rise as they sit out.  I should have steamed them more quickly after I assembled them.  My buns were huge!  They lost a bit of the daintiness normally associated with dim sum, but the flavors were still there. 

As an addendum to his recipe, Bittman notes that the dough balls are sometimes steamed without the pork filling to make Mantou, which is usually served with a pat of butter as a side item.  I ended up with two leftover dough balls and decided to add Mantou to the menu.  Instead of serving them with a pat of butter, I drizzled them in local Avocado-Lychee honey from Bee Heaven Farms for a fantastic dessert!  Maybe not so Chinese, but still delicious in its own right.

What a crazy week!  I definitely pushed the limits of my free time, and I enjoyed every minute.  I’m looking forward to slowing down the pace a little this week…

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Week Seven: A Journey to Russia

Not surprisingly, a country as large as Russia offers a breadth of cuisines to review and consider for one week’s journey. Its large expanse and terrain provides a plentiful basis of grains and proteins. To add to its diversity, many chefs and cuisines were “imported” from France and Austria to serve the court of Catherine the Great, which led to fusion dishes, such as Beef Stroganoff, Chicken Kiev, and Veal Orloff. Before my research, I imagined Russian cuisine to include lots of cabbages, potatoes, beets, and boiled meats. Then, I remembered blini and caviar, which brings to mind a much more luxurious image. As I read of its diverse ingredients and influences, I hoped to find an exciting element that I hadn’t expected, but alas, most of my first impressions closely resembled much of my reading. I struggled to find that spark. As I read soup recipe after stew recipe after soup recipe, I considered turning down the air conditioner, piling blankets around me, and donning an ushanka atop my head for inspiration. Everything sounded so heavy, which makes sense, because if I lived near Siberia, I’d love hearty warm soups, too. I continued reading, and I found a few points of inspiration. While part of my motivation for these weekly projects is to discover amazing new flavors, I also strive to understand the basic, everyday dishes. Where I grew up, pinto beans and collard greens is a meal my mom made on snowy days, and I still love that dish. It’s home and comfort for me but certainly not the most amazing, surprising flavors. My Russian journey was a little like pinto beans and collard greens on one day…and royalty the next!

Friday Night Dinner: Shchi (Cabbage Soup), Wild Mushroom & Onion Kasha
a.k.a my pinto beans and collard greens dinner

I knew that my Russian journey would only be complete if I prepared one meal of peasant food, because so many of the recipes fell into this category. I learned that a Russian meal is not complete without soup, and the most popular soup is Shchi, a cabbage soup made with both fresh cabbage and sauerkraut. After reading several versions of Schni recipes, I determined that Mark Bittman’s recipe from The Best Recipes in the World felt like the most authentic. I prepared it 48 hours before I planned to serve it based on his recommendation. The soup included cabbage, sauerkraut, beef chuck, carrot, onion, celery, garlic, mushrooms, and potatoes. In the recipe, Bittman recommends serving with fresh dill and sour cream (or Smetana as they say in Russia). When I served the soup, we tried it first without the sour cream. It was good, but honestly, it tasted so much like sauerkraut that my brain kept hoping for a hunk of sausage or hot dog in the bowl. Then, I added the dollop of sour cream. The whole flavor profile elevated. Just that additional creamy element with a hint of sour and freshness transformed this soup. I kept going back for another bite and being more satisfied each time. Those are the little touches that great chefs understand.

Although most references to Kasha note it as simply Eastern European, the RusCuisine blog notes that it is a native Russian dish and also includes fifteen variations on it. As a matter of fact, I found multiple blogs and articles referencing this Russian proverb, “You can’t feed a Russian without a Kasha.” One of the hub’s favorite dishes is Wild Mushroom Risotto, so when I decided to make a version of Kasha with Wild Mushroom and Onion from Epicurious. Kasha is a warm salad made with buckwheat groats. Although the wild mushrooms added a nice, earthy richness to the dish, it still tastes like something heavy one would only eat to fill up and warm up in the cold.

Saturday Morning Breakfast: Syrniki and Tea with Jam
Wikipedia defines this dish as “fried curd fritters,” but I think they are better described as cheesecake pancakes….and they are good! In Russia, they include Tvorog, which is a product similar to cottage cheese. In Miami, I made Mark Bittman’s version with cottage cheese that I squeezed in cheesecloth until it was as dry as possible. I added sour cream, egg yolks, flour, and a little sugar to make a batter that sits in the refrigerator overnight. Then, I basically just cooked them like pancakes and served them with sour cream and jam. We had red raspberry preserves in the fridge, so that was our jam of choice.

Tea is a popular beverage in Russia, and I found it interesting that in addition to using customary enhancements like sugar, lemon, and honey, Russians also commonly add jam for flavoring. I added raspberry jam to my hot mug of tea, and I must say that I quite enjoyed it as a sweetener and a flavor boost. Interesting touch!

Saturday Night Dinner: Braised Veal Shanks in Cherry Sauce over Buttered Egg Noodles, Paskha (Russian Cheesecake)
a.k.a my “eat like Catherine the Great” dinner
After Friday night’s peasant food, I needed a seriously amped up Russian dinner on Saturday. Originally, I planned to make Beef Stroganoff, because I’d read several accounts about how flavorful, and even refined, “real” beef stroganoff can be. (Apparently, the 1950s American housewife casserole version is not quite the same.) As I sat down to leaf through Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World to review his recipe for beef stroganoff, I happened across “Braised Veal Shanks with Cherry Sauce” and suddenly remembered that I had seen some nice, thick, center-cut veal shank slices at Whole Foods on my last venture there. I changed course immediately. What’s not to love about a recipe described as “Russian Osso Buco”? Plus, in my freaky English-Major mind, I thought cherries were a perfectly Russian addition to the dish. In hindsight, that was more assumption based on my many readings of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard than fact. (Wikipedia notes that Russia was the seventh largest producer of cherries in 2009.)

Nevertheless, I forged ahead and made this dish, which is certainly a meal fit for an empress! Thankfully, I didn’t have to eat this big, gorgeous meal while wearing a corset though. This is a meal best served to someone wearing stretchy pants. The Veal Shanks braise in a sauce of onion, carrot, cardamom, and sour cherries. Just before serving the sauce, a touch of lemon zest is added to boost its flavor and add a hint of freshness. The resulting dish is decadent and delightful.

Paskha is Russian Cheesecake. The authentic version is made in pyramid-shaped molds, steamed, and served for the Easter Holidays. (Epicurious has a great picture on its site.) As with the Syrniki, the dish traditionally includes tvorog cheese, but in this case, I made Mark Bittman’s version with farmer’s cheese, which is baked without a crust. The filling is simply farmer’s cheese, sour cream, butter, eggs, vanilla, cornstarch, and golden raisins. After baking, I added toasted, slivered almonds to the top of the cheesecake. As a result, I finally made a successful international dessert that we loved!

All in all, my journey into Russia included some odd twists and turns, but as always, the surprises made the experience memorable.  The hubs already asked me to make the Paskha again next week when we have family visiting, so I know that recipe is officially in permanent rotation of sweets he adores and Russian cuisine will forver be a part of our lives.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Week Six: A Journey to Somalia

I began my journey to Somalia with absolutely no expectations or predispositions.  I knew nothing of this cuisine.  Finding information was not an easy task.  I read the general Wikipedia page and learned that its flavors are the results of influences from its native Somali people, Ethiopia, Yemen, Persia, Turkey, India, and Italy.  In general, most of the recipes I found or cuisines I read about were simply stews served with rice, bread, or pasta.  I kept looking for that special twist that would help me better understand the flavor profiles and the spirit of the cuisine.  It took a little longer than usual, but eventually, I found that glimmer of excitement upon the discovery of a web article about a Somali-born chef of a Minnesota restaurant. 

As I read Lori Writer’s article, An Evening in a Somali Kitchen, I began to understand the heart of Somali cuisine through Chef Jamal Hashi’s recollections of food from his childhood.  He describes the cuisine as a fusion of Somali’s three parts:  France in the North, United Kingdom in the center, and Italy in the south.  He describes a playfulness with which dishes are created as a result of these merging influences, such as curry and pasta in the same dish.  Not surprisingly, he notes that recipes are not written down, rather passed down from generation to generation.  (I knew that to be true in the small amount of time I had spent researching recipes for Somali cuisine.)  He reminisces about his neighbors’ mango tree that hung over into his yard and then shares his recipe for Mango (Ambe) Curry Chicken noting that one should play with the combination of spices and ingredients as is customary in Somalia.

With my interest piqued, I searched for more Somalian inspiration until I found the Xawaash blog by Abdullahi Kassim and Leila Adde.  What an incredible blog!  Pictures of better quality than most professional ones and superb writing elevate this site dedicated to a love of Somali cuisine.  Go there.  Read it.  Find your inspiration.  I did.  I immediately honed in on the Xawaash spice mix recipe and its inclusion in Somali spaghetti.  I’d read several accounts about the commonplace of “spaghetti with meat sauce” in Somali households, but every recipe online sounded like the same way my mom would make it.  I was looking for the key to making is Somali.  This spice mix is the answer!  Inspired by Chef Jamal Hashi, Abdullahi Kassim, and Leila Adde, I began to plan my menus for the week. 

Monday Night Dinner:  Somali Spaghetti
Over the weekend, I made the Xawaash Spice Mix recipe from the Xawaash blog.  The blend includes cumin, coriander, black pepper, cinnamon, green cardamom, cloves, and turmeric.  The aroma of the toasted spices filled my kitchen, and I wanted to start cooking with it immediately.  I knew that this would be a keeper!

I also turned to the Xawaash blog for a Somali Pasta Sauce (Suugo).  The description of the recipe is just as interesting as the dish itself.  Instead of using ground beef as the base for the sauce, the recipe includes Beef Round cut into tiny cubes.  The author explains that this is partly for economic reasons, but also because ground meat is not commonly found.  With the cubed meat, the sauce has a different texture than a traditional Bolognese.  The sauce includes the same base as normal spaghetti:  onion, green pepper, garlic, and tomatoes; however, the addition of the Xawaash spice mix and fresh cilantro lends it the Somali trademark.  Thankfully, I made way too much meat sauce, so after I sauced our pasta, we grabbed some bread and finished off the leftovers from the pan.  This is home-cooking at its best!

Wednesday Night Dinner:  Mango (Ambe) Curry Chicken with Somali Rice
I had been looking forward to making this dish since I first read about it.  All in all, I loved it.  In the article, Hashi speaks of using creativity to adapt a dish for personal taste, and I will definitely play with the seasonings the next time I make the dish.
§  The Mango Sauce is sweet and flavorful.  I used hot Madras Curry powder, and I still think the sauce needed more flavor.  Next time, I will double the curry powder.
§  For the Stir-Fry, I used snap peas, green bell pepper, and carrots.  It would have been prettier with red bell peppers, but I had green bell peppers on hand.  I particularly loved the crunch of the snap peas.  The recipe calls for 1 tsp of red pepper flakes, which is very important, because you need that heat to balance the sweetness of the Mango Sauce.
§  The Somali Rice recipe is perfect.  I made half of the recipe, and I did use vegetable broth.  Many of the same spices from the Xawaash were included as flavor enhancers for the rice, too, and they added a warm, nutty quality.

Sunday Lunch
I planned Sunday’s lunch menu around the flatbread called Sabaayad.  I read several different recipes for it, but at last, I decided to try the new one that appeared on Xawaash this very week.  The bread is generally served with a stew, and I had been thinking about making Baamiye Suqaar, a stew of beef and okra.  I had read a promising recipe for this dish on a blog called My Somali Food.  The reason for my curiosity about the stew was the use of okra.  Being from the south, I am familiar with fried okra, boiled okra, and okra used in gumbos and stews as a thickener; however, this recipe incorporated okra into the dish as just another vegetable.  “Cook until tender” was not a familiar step for okra in recipes that I had cooked previously, and I was interested to see its texture and flavor profile with the beef, onion, potatoes, squash, and tomatoes in the dish.

The Sabaayad challenged me more than I expected.  The dough is extremely sticky, and it took a few tries to figure out just how much flour I needed to keep the dough from sticking to the rolling pin and the countertop as I rolled it out.  I wasn’t 100% sure about the use of oil in the recipe, because it was included in the ingredients but not included in the directions or pictures in a specific way.  I decided not to include it in the dough.  I think that was the right decision.  The end result was a tender, flaky flatbread.  

The Baamiye Suqaar was delicious.  The flavors of the beef and vegetables melded together into a warm, homey meal.  I loved the texture and flavor of the okra, too.  The only thing I will change for next time is adding more tomato.  The dish needed more acidity, and the recipe’s ingredients were not precise in the sense that the amount of chopped tomato produced by “1 tomato” can vary greatly depending on a tomato’s size.  Next time, I’ll use more small ones or buy larger ones.

All in all, this week surprised me.  I enjoyed the dishes, and I certainly have an understanding and appreciation for Somalia’s cuisine after this undertaking.  My only regret is that I did not make any dishes with goat.  Chef Jamal Hashi states that if any dish could be considered a “national dish” of Somalia, it would be goat.  I had every intention of adding a goat dish to this week’s meals, but I ran out of time.  I’ll have to tackle that one on another journey!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Week Five: A Journey to Spain

This week’s journey took me to Spain, and it is a journey that I welcomed with open arms.  Of course, I love Spanish cuisine.  Who doesn’t?  As I embarked upon planning for this week’s menus, I realized that I did not have as much free time as usual.  I needed a creative way to get the most out of this week’s dishes.  Since I already knew about the cuisine’s general flavor profiles and major ingredients, I approached my research from a different angle than previous weeks.  Typically, I read about the history and significance of a cuisine as it relates to its country of origin.  I make notes about key ingredients and dishes that intrigue me, and then I research corresponding recipes and create menus.  In this case, I began with recipes and a trip to a Spanish market for inspiration.  I had selected only one specific recipe, a Chickpea and Bacalao Stew from Jose Andres.  (I wimped out during my Portuguese journey and didn’t attempt the salt cod.  I felt like I was ready to add that to my repertoire.)  Regarding the Spanish market, I knew exactly where to go.

Months ago, my friend, Carlos Quinones, told me about Delicias de Espana, a Spanish restaurant and market on the corner of Bird and Red Roads.  Somehow, I just couldn’t seem to put it on my agenda.  After reviewing their website, I knew Delicias de Espana would be the perfect spot for imported Spanish goods.  I entered the market with only a few specific items on my list to purchase:  Jamon Serrano, aged Manchego Cheese, pimentón, and saffron.  I began in the grocery section with canned goods and spices.  I chose pimentón, saffron, piquillo peppers, sherry vinegar, black olives with orange essence, and dried figs.  A lovely Spanish woman offered to assist me.  We talked about my project for a few minutes, and she pointed out the deli, pastry, cheese, and wine counters.  I grabbed a block of 12-month aged manchego, and I headed to the deli counter for a half-pound of jamon Serrano.  While I waited for my ham to be sliced, I perused the selection of sausages and pates.  There were at least ten different pates at the counter in small pre-packaged slices.  I opted for the Anchovy Pate mostly because I had never tried it but also because anchovies are a significant ingredient within Spanish cuisine.  I added chorizo to my basket as I had seen a Mark Bittman recipe where he sliced it thinly, fried it, added red wine & garlic to the skillet, and then cooked it in the oven until ½ the liquid evaporated.  Then, I saw the package of Morcilla…blood sausage.  I immediately put it in my basket and thought “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this, but I have to try it!”  I returned to the other side of the market to find the woman who had been so helpful earlier, and I asked her how I should prepare it.  She made two suggestions:  (1) fry one-inch thick slices in a skillet, or (2) steep the whole sausages in either wine or beer with onions and cook in the oven.  In other words, I could just try the same preparations as with the chorizo, so I decided to try them both.  I bought my goodies and headed home knowing that I will definitely return.  What a lovely place!

Upon arriving home, I made a platter of jamon Serrano, manchego cheese, anchovy pate, oil-cured black olives, and dried figs.  I poured a glass of Rioja, grabbed some crackers, and sat down to enjoy my buffet of Spanish bites.  Needless to say, it was a good night!

After procuring my Spanish treasures, I finalized a menu for Sunday night.  Fortunately, Steve is open-minded to my kitchen projects and graciously agreed to a parade of Spanish dishes during the Super Bowl.  (After all, a menu laden with this much pork must be appropriate Super Bowl fare.)

Snacking Bowl of Black Olives with Orange Essence

This is just basics.  Olives are an important element of Spanish cuisine.  I was surprised to learn that during the Roman Empire’s occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, the olive oil from modern-day Spain was shipped to Rome because of its quality and abundant availability.  Olives and olive oils are most commonly found in Andalusia now, but clearly, their presence in the cuisine is throughout all regions.

I found the recipe by Jose Andres and chose it for several reasons:
§  Although artichokes are native to North Africa, they are primarily cultivated in Mediterranean countries, and Spain is one of the largest producers of artichokes in the world.
§  I wanted to incorporate the flavors of jamon Serrano into a dish.
§  I love eggs.
Unfortunately, they looked better than they tasted.  The overwhelming flavor was that of the “canned” artichoke.  I’m guessing they would’ve been better with steamed fresh artichoke hearts.
Chorizo in Red Wine

Now, this is great Spanish tapas.  Delicious and so simple!  I prepared according to Mark Bittman’s suggestion noted above. 

Wow!  Talk about packing a punch of flavor!  These were some of the most decadent bites of my life! 
In my research, I learned that onion and rice are commonly used as filler in these sausages.  I purchased onion blood sausage.  I prepared it in the two ways suggested by the lady from Delicias de Espana, so that we could taste both versions.  We agreed that both tasted great.  Steve liked the fried pieces better because of the crisp edges.  I preferred the ones cooked in red wine and onion, but the flavors were so rich, I could only eat a few bites.
Fried Morcilla
Whole Morcilla Sausages cooked in Red Wine and Onions
Sauteed Piquillo Peppers

Basic, simple, and good.  I found a nice jar of piquillo peppers at the market and decided to simply sauté them in olive oil and garlic.  I drizzled them with sherry vinegar just before serving. 

This was my special project for the week…another Jose Andres recipe.  I bought the salt cod on Thursday and began soaking it in water that night.  I changed the water several times over those three days to ensure it wouldn’t be too salty.  I really wanted to love this stew!

I must disclose that I am generally not a big fan of fish stews.  It was promising as I prepared it.  As a matter of fact, I tasted the paste of pimentón, saffron, cumin, and sherry vinegar in its pure, undiluted form and thought it tasted great.  Somehow when it mixed into the broth with the chickpeas, it lost its oomph.  The fish was good.  I liked the texture and flavor.  I do think that my disappointment with the dish is a bit biased though, because Steve not only liked it, he ate every bite.  In all fairness, he also likes fish stews, so I think it’s possibly a matter of taste and not quality of product.  At least, I can say with authority that I have now cooked bacalao.
Olive Oil Cookies with Orange and Cinnamon

For dessert, I made Mark Bittman’s recipe for Olive Oil Cookies with Orange and Cinnamon from his The Best Recipes in the World.  I aspired to make something simple, and these were basic:  flour, baking powder, sugar, cinnamon, egg, olive oil, orange zest, and orange liqueur.  The cookies reminded me of mini-scones, because they were not very sweet, but perfectly moist and delicious.  We enjoyed them as much with coffee for breakfast as we did after dinner on Sunday night.  We also enjoyed a bottle of Rosado Fresco sparkling rose wine with them.  It isn’t what I had planned.  I intended for us to have a glass of sherry with them, but the lady at Delicias de Espana insisted that this would be the perfect wine to enjoy with these cookies after dinner.  We did enjoy it, and I toasted her for her generosity and kind spirit!

All in all, my journey into Spain wasn’t quite as delicious as I had hoped, but all was not lost.  I discovered Delicias de Espana, enjoyed some fabulous Spanish imports, and discovered a new cookie recipe!