Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Week Twenty-Five: A Journey to Iran

In March, my friend Carlos forwarded me a copy of Anissa Helou’s Saveur article, “Iran:  The Land of Bread and Spice,” and I’ve been looking forward to my week of Iranian cuisine ever since.  With so many colorful descriptions of dishes flavored with nuts, fruits, and spices, I knew that a focus on preparing this classic, storied cuisine would be both delicious and enlightening.  Because Persian cuisine is the root of Middle Eastern cuisines, many of the dishes featured in the article compelled me to consider their influences on those adapted by other regions I’ve written about this year or discovered through local restaurants and friends.  As I read about the preparation of Iranian rice pilafs, or polows, I immediately considered how it compared to the Uzbek plov I made last month and the Palestinian Maqloobeh my friend Lana prepared for me last year during Ramadan.  In addition to my intrigue regarding the dishes’ influences and preparations, I looked forward to trying new dishes that combine fruits, nuts, and fresh herbs to create interesting flavor profiles.

Although I found inspiration from this article, I discovered several highly-opinionated reviews of the featured recipes, which is not altogether unusual.  Many recipes for international cuisine featured in major publications are often scrutinized by readers with intimate knowledge of a specific country’s cuisine.  Sometimes, the scrutiny is warranted, especially when a recipe claims to be authentic, which is why I study dozens of recipes for the same dish in order to find the common components.  Other times, I find those “outraged” reviewers to be a bit misinformed albeit emotionally attached.  This is likely because they only knew a version from a specific region in a country or perhaps had a mother who took liberties with the dish.  In general, though, I find that these recipes capture the spirit of the dish even if they are not 100% authentic.

Shirin Polow (Jeweled Rice Pilaf) and Kufteh (Herbed Meatballs in a Tomato-Plum Sauce)

Shirin Polow
The most traditional preparation of rice in Iran begins with soaking the rice in salted water for a few hours before cooking it.  After soaking, the rice is parboiled and drained.  Oil and seasonings are added to the bottom of the pot (in my case olive oil, saffron, and milk), and similar to the process of my plov, the rice is steamed by mounding it into the center and poking holes in it while it cooks in the covered pot.  In addition to steaming the rice on top, this process crisps the bottom and creates a crust called tah dig.  The crust is broken up into pieces and mixed with the steamed rice to add flavor and texture.  The “jeweled” part of the dish included Orange Peel candied in saffron and rose water, fresh carrots, pistachios, and almonds.  Without a doubt, this dish was the star of the week, and its “jewels” certainly created delicate spikes of unexpected flavors.

Kufteh (meaningpounded meat”) is a general term used for meatballs.  In Persian cuisine, the meatball consists of a little meat mixed with rice, yellow split peas, vegetables, and lots of fresh herbs.  In some cases, the mixture is simply made into a round meatball and cooked in a tomato sauce, but I also found several recipes where the mixture is actually wrapped around something else, including dried sour plums, walnuts, and even lamb chops.  I opted for wrapping mine around dried sour plums and serving them in a tomato-plum sauce.  The tartness of the plums and sweetness of the tomatoes created a nice balance with the heartiness of the meatballs.

Borani-e Bedemjan (Eggplant & Yogurt Dip) and Ash-e Reshteh (Noodle Soup)

Drani-e Bedemjan
I wanted to make at least one meal that captured the simpler flavors of Iranian cuisine.  I began with a dip that included roasted eggplant, caramelized onions, and garlic mixed with yogurt.  I blended the dip with my immersion blender and chilled it in the refrigerator for about an hour before serving.  I topped it with walnut pieces, fried garlic chips, and saffron.  While the flavor of the dip was nice, the best bites were those loaded up with garlic chips, walnuts, and saffron.  That combination topped on salted pita chips provided a satisfying taste of crunchy, smooth, cool, sweet, and salt with the odd twist of saffron.

Ash-e Reshteh
Reshteh is a noodle similar to linguine that is used in a popular vegetable and bean soup.  I made a version that included kidney beans, cannellini beans, chickpeas, brown lentils, onion, chives, and parsley.  I topped it with caramelized onions and garlic chips.  All in all, I liked the soup, but I did not find it to have any particularly genius points to it.  In the soup’s defense, part of the reason for my disappointment may have been user-inflicted. 

  • First of all, I think I cooked it for too long with the noodles, because when I checked the pot, the noodles had soaked up so much of the broth that it wasn’t very soupy, instead it was like a noodle dish with a bean sauce. 
  • Second, the recipe called for an optional garnish of powdered whey mixed with water.  Every picture I found of this dish showed the drizzle of whey over the top, so I assumed that it was an important element.  When I went to Whole Foods to purchase powdered whey, I discovered they only carry vanilla-flavored powdered whey, so I decided to ditch this option out of convenience.
  • Third, and finally, I was so caught up in a conversation with my friend Katrina who had joined me for dinner on the night I made this dish, I forgot to make the mint oil to drizzle over the top.  I remembered it after we had already starting eating the dish and I was saying something about how the soup needed just a little something special to punch up its flavor.  Perhaps, this was the “something” and I just missed my opportunity to better understand its true flavors.
Still, it wasn’t a bad dish.  It’s the kind of dinner that you want to eat next to a fire while watching the snow fall in a cozy cabin.  I definitely don’t recommend it for a summer night in Miami!

Khoresht-e Fesenjan (Pomegranate-Walnut Stew with Chicken)

Khoresht-e Fesenjan
When I read about this dish in the Saveur article, I couldn’t wait to try it.  Interestingly, this is one of the recipes that included several harsh reviews from Iranians who insisted that this was absolutely not a proper Khoresht recipe.  The two biggest points of contention were the inclusion of spinach in the recipe and the large amount of pomegranate molasses. 

  • I did not find spinach in other recipes, so I think that ingredient may be a bit of an embellishment. 
  • The reviewers criticized the use of pomegranate molasses, instead of pomegranate paste, and they also questioned the amount included in the recipe. I think the root of the issue lies in the quality and origin of the pomegranate molasses used in the stew.  I found more recipes that called for pomegranate molasses than those calling for pomegranate paste.  Still, I thought maybe a trip to my local Middle Eastern market to actually see these ingredients and read their labels might help me resolve the issue.  Sure enough, my market did not even carry pomegranate paste, which is likely the reason most recipes do not call for it.  In a more interesting discovery, I think I solved the point of contention regarding the molasses.  The molasses bottled in the United States included sugar syrup as an ingredient, whereas the bottle from Lebanon touted itself as 100% pure concentrated pomegranate.  I purchased one of each bottle and went home to taste them.  Both packed a seriously tart punch, but the one bottled in the United States had less of an edge.  I would not say it was “sweet” by any means, but I could taste the difference.  Likely, someone using the bottled product with sugar would need to use a larger amount to achieve the rich, tart flavor profile of this stew, which would result in an underlying sweetness not generally associated with the dish.
After reading many, many recipes for this dish, I decided that the one posted on the West of Persia blog seemed to embody the most authentic ingredients and preparation.  It certainly tasted delicious although it was not what I expected.  Maybe it’s because I spent so long researching the pomegranate in the dish, but I expected the foremost flavor to be the tartness from the pomegranate.  Instead, the walnut flavor was the most prevalent with only hints of the sweet-tartness of the pomegranate and earthiness from the cardamom pod.  I used chicken thighs for my stew, which held up well to the heaviness of the walnut and pomegranate mixture.

All in all, I was not as romanced by this week's dishes as I was by the article from Saveur.  In all honesty, I enjoyed the research more than most of the dishes.  Admittedly, though, I’m still thinking about the flavor imparted by the small amount of candied orange peel with saffron and rose water in the rice pilaf.  Without a doubt, this week’s work was worth every effort just to discover that beautiful dish.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Week Twenty-Four: A Journey to Australia

I began this week’s exploration of Australian cuisine with an exotic vision of a barbie overflowing with kangaroo, lamb, and prawns, but when I started researching online purveyors of kangaroo meat, I discovered that everyone was out of stock.  Not to worry, my week of Australian fare offered plenty of other opportunities for meat as I discovered quickly that this is a “meat and potatoes” culture, not too dissimilar from my Southern roots.  Most modern-day Australian meals center on beef or lamb as the main protein although more exotic meats, such as kangaroo, occasionally appear on a grill.  In the coastal areas, prawns, lobsters, tuna, and salmon are the most commercially fished and most consumed seafood.   As with American cuisine, defining Australian cuisine becomes a difficult task because of its significant influence by European settlers who arrived in the late eighteenth century and almost immediately began establishing agricultural industries common to their cultures, instead of embracing those of the indigenous peoples who survived on native fruits and berries, kangaroo, emu, lizards, snakes, and other wild game.  As I set out to finalize my Australian menus for the week, I quickly found such a task to be daunting.  With so many dishes as common in the United States as they are in Australia, I struggled to formulate a week of authentically Australian menus, so I set out to discover the nuances and celebrate the key ingredients that define the cuisine.  I made some lists:
  • Basic dishes that celebrate the essence of the cuisine, such as Grilled Lamb, Lamb Roast, Grilled Prawns
  • Recipes with odd names that intrigue me, such as ANZAC biscuits, damper, pikelets, pavlovas, and lamingtons
  • Dishes similar to American “classics” with an Australian twist, such as an “Aussie Burger with the lot” meaning a hamburger piled high with a fried egg and a slice of pickled beet
  • Australian wines downstairs in the hub’s stash
  • Australian beers carried at Total Wine that are not Foster’s.
I began making my plans, but I just couldn’t find the “heart” in this week’s project.  I decided to turn to an expert, and I found the heart and soul I needed for inspiration.

As Executive Chef at Edge Steak & Bar in the Four Seasons, Aaron Brooks has transformed my notions for what a steakhouse in a swanky Miami hotel can be.  After attending two specialty dinners there in the last month (the first featuring BBQ, Whiskey, & Beer, and the second featuring Southeast Asian cuisine), I have come to appreciate his talent, style, and passion.  What does this have to do with Australian cuisine?  Chef Brooks is a native Australian.  It occurred to me that he might be able to point me in the right direction with this week’s planning, but I never expected such a warm, generous response.  He didn’t just tell me about the cuisine; he shared how the cuisine has been a part of his life.  That’s how I found the heart and soul of this week’s project! 

Monday Night:  Shrimp on the Barbie

Grilled Shrimp over a salad
of arugula and tomatoes
Shrimp on the Barbie is a requisite dish although my research leads me to believe that an Australian would definitely call them prawns.  (I guess “Prawns on the Barbie” doesn’t have the same pizzazz to marketers luring Americans to Australia.)  For these, I simply marinated them in olive oil, fresh lemon juice, garlic, shallots, and fresh parsley for about an hour.  Then, I grilled them in the shell and served over a salad of arugula and tomato. 

As a side note, when I researched which vegetables are most popular in Australia, I discovered that it’s mostly the same list as what we eat here in the United States.  I did find a June 2010 posting on the website of Food Safety Australia noting that the top ten vegetables purchased in Australia are potatoes, carrots, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, capsicum (peppers), mushrooms, broccoli, pumpkin, and zucchini.  In the spirit of this post, I served my Australian dishes with vegetables from this listing.

Friday Night: Rack of Lamb and Muscat-Grilled Pineapple with Sea Salt

Grilled Rack of Lamb
with zucchini-tomato salad
When leafing through recipes for grilled lamb in search of inspiration, I happened across a recipe for Grilled Rack of Lamb with Pinot Noir Marinade, which gave me the idea of using an Australian wine to make a marinade and sauce for our rack of lamb.  As it turns out, that idea proved to be a huge success story.  I followed the recipe and replaced the Pinot Noir with a 2010 Durif Shiraz Blend by The Black Stump.  (I also poured myself a nice big glass of this wine, which I really enjoyed…rich, fruity, but not sweet.)  The marinated the rack of lamb overnight in the wine, olive oil, rosemary, garlic, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper.  Before grilling, I poured off the marinade into a saucepan, added a touch of honey, and reduced it until I had a nice, thick sauce to serve with the lamb chops.  Big props to the hubs for his grilling performance on this rack of lamb!  He grilled them to a PERFECT medium rare, and they were absolutely delicious.  We loved the flavors of the wine marinade with the lamb.  I served them with a salad of grilled zucchini and grape tomatoes.

With so much grilling out, an Australian beer tasting seemed like an imperative.  Based on nothing more than Total Wine’s selection of Australian brews, I tried Coopers Original Pale Ale, Coopers Sparkling Ale, and James Boag’s Premium Lager.  James Boag’s was definitely my favorite of the three, and not just because Chef Brooks told me how much he liked it.  The brews from Coopers just tasted like good pale ales to me…no real significant flavor or finish to them.  The James Boag’s Premium Lager had a crisp refreshing quality with a nice carbonation and hints of lemon and hops.  A perfect beer for a hot summer day by the grill.  I would definitely buy this one, again.

Muscat-Grilled Pineapple
with Sea Salt
In Planet BBQ, Steven Raichlen cites an incredible statistic that 97% of Australian households own at least one grill.  That statistic alone speaks to the significance of grilling in Australian cuisine.  Raichlen shares a recipe for Muscat-Grilled Pineapple with Sea Salt that he learned from John Ryan, a Melbourne-based BBQ aficionado.  While this recipe may not be authentically Australian in its roots, it certainly captures the spirit of an Australian BBQ, and it sounded so delicious that I knew I had to try it.  Often times, the simplest recipes provide the most brilliant results, and this one meets those expectations.  I cored and sliced a fresh pineapple into rings.  Then, I marinated the pineapple in Muscat wine overnight.  (I tried to find Muscat wine from Australia’s Rutherglen district in Victoria to not avail.  I used a French muscat.)  When we were ready to grill the pineapple, I poured off the Muscat into a saucepan, boiled it, and reduced it to a sauce.  We grilled the pineapple over direct heat for a few minutes per side, and we were ready to assemble our dessert.  We topped vanilla bean ice cream with a slice of the grilled pineapple, poured a little muscat sauce over it, and sprinkled flaky sea salt on the pineapple.  The combination of flavors from the sweet wine, smoky fruit, and touch of sea salt culminated in a satisfying end to our meal.  What an amazing dish!

Saturday Snacks

ANZAC Biscuits
ANZAC Biscuits provide a great history lesson and an even better morning snack.  During World War I, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) deployed to Gallipoli off the coast of Turkey, and their wives, mothers, and girlfriends sent them Billy Tea tins filled with these non-perishable cookies made without milk and eggs.  For me, the most interesting ingredient in these cookies is desiccated coconut, a key component that keeps the cookies moist even when they are no longer fresh.  (I made desiccated coconut by spreading shredded coconut in a thin layer on a cookie sheet and baking it at 250°F.  I stirred it every five minutes until it felt brittle, about 25 minutes.)  A basic ANZAC biscuit dough includes butter, golden syrup, baking soda, boiling water, flour, desiccated coconut, sugar, and oatmeal.  The final results are delicious with a crispy edge and chewy middle.  The only thing I will do differently next time is to add a pinch of salt to the dough….and make two batches.  I have some desiccated coconut leftover that I had planned to use for Lamingtons, another Australian dessert specialty, but I suspect a second round of ANZAC biscuits are in my very near future. 

Meat Pie
Meat Pies are popular take-out menu items (or take-away, as they say in Australia).  These little individual pastries are typically filled with beef or lamb stewed in dark, rich gravy.  Chef Brooks shared with me that meat pies are particularly popular at sporting events and that “Four‘N Twenty” is the iconic brand eaten all over Australia.  I looked at the website for “Four ‘N Twenty”, and sure enough, they make fourteen different meat pies and include the tagline “Synonymous with sport, particularly AFL and NRL football, there’s nothing Australians love more at the game than a Four’N Twenty, the Great Australian Taste.”  Chef Brooks told me his favorite is Lamb and Kidney, which sounds delicious to me, but I had beef chuck in the freezer, so my homemade meat pies were filled with beef and onion stewed in beef stock, 2010 Durif Shiraz Blend by The Black Stump, tomato paste, and Worcestershire sauce.  I used puff pastry for my little pies, and they turned out fabulously!   (I finally found a good use for the Breville Pie Maker I received for competing in last year’s Slow Foods Pie contest.)  I tried them with and without ketchup (tomato sauce, as they say in Australia).  I must say that I expected to be snobby and say that the ketchup detracted from the rich flavors of the filling, but I actually loved the flavor of the sweet ketchup as a counterbalance to it.

Saturday Night: Lamb Roast and Pavlova

I knew that Lamb was popular in Australia, and based on Chef Brooks’ enthusiasm for it, I felt like serving it two nights in a row was more than appropriate.  Off the grill, he shared with me that his family would enjoy a “mixed grill” of chops, loins, kidneys, and sausages served family style.  For the ever-popular Sunday Roast, his family enjoyed Roasted Lamb with parsnips, carrots, minted peas, and gravy.  Even better, the day after Sunday Roast always included a breakfast of Bubble and Squeak, a hash with origins in the United Kingdom which is made with bacon, onions and leftover vegetables from the Sunday Roast.

Lamb Roast
Roasted Parsnips and Carrots
Fresh Peas with Mint
In all honesty, my original plans for this week did not include the Lamb Roast, but when Chef Brooks told me about Bubble and Squeak, I quickly changed my plans to cook a lamb roast on Saturday night.  I followed along Chef Brooks’ recommendations and roasted my lamb with parsnips and carrots.  I picked up some fresh peas at the farmer’s market for minted peas.  All in all, it was a nice dinner.  Nothing particularly stand out about it, except for the fresh peas, but I knew that Sunday morning’s Bubble and Squeak would make Saturday night’s lamb roast seem a lot better.

We followed up the Lamb Roast with an unforgettable dessert: Pavlova.  In many circles, Pavlova is considered the national dish of Australia despite the fact that it likely originated in New Zealand before Australians perfected it.  This meringue filled with fresh whipped cream and topped with fruit is the namesake of Anna Pavlova, a famous dancer who toured in Australia during the 1920s and danced “as light as a meringue”.  The significant difference in a pavlova and a meringue is the addition of cornstarch to the meringue mixture, which aids in forming a crisper outer shell and a more marshmallow-like interior.  I read numerous recipes for pavlovas, and most of the recipes for the meringues were the same, but the fruit toppings ran the gamut from mixed berries to kiwis.  Thankfully, Chef Brooks pointed me in the right direction noting that passion fruit is the choice topping, and in an even more fortunate turn of events, he mentioned that wattleseed is a common ingredient used in pavlovas and offered to give me some if I wanted to try it. I was thrilled, because I’d read about wattleseed but dismissed it as an ingredient I’d never find in Miami.  Wattleseed is made by from roasted Acacia seeds, and its use can be traced back to the indigenous Aboriginal tribes.  When roasted, its flavor is similar to that of coffee and chocolate.  For my pavlova, I steeped wattleseed in cream for three hours before whipping it to top the meringue.  I couldn’t find fresh passionfruit for the topping, so I paired fresh raspberries with a drizzle of passionfruit puree.  What a beautiful, delicious dessert, and of course, light!  In all serious, this is a brilliant dessert for summer.  One of my favorite things about this dessert is that it is not very sweet.  The meringue is the only really sweet element, and that sweetness is balanced by the wattleseed whipped cream and tart passionfruit flavors. 

Sunday Morning:  Bubble and Squeak

Sunday morning arrived, and I finally got to try Bubble and Squeak.  It was just as good as Chef Brooks described! As a child, I would’ve been much more excited about Crock Pot Roast if my mom had turned the leftover potatoes and carrots into this masterpiece for the next morning’s breakfast. 

Bubble and Squeak
I started by frying bacon pieces until they crisped.  I removed them from the sauté pan and added diced onion.  When the onions were cooked to my liking, I added leftover parsnips and carrots from the prior evening’s roast, the pieces of bacon, salt, and black pepper.  I cooked the hash until it developed a nice brown crust on the bottom, and then I stirred it up until it had another brown crust...about four times.  I topped the hash with a fried egg and sat down to enjoy this feast.  The sweetness of the carrots and parsnips with the smoky bacon and the oozy yellow yolk made for a breakfast to remember.  This was so tasty that I might start roasting parsnips and carrots on Saturdays just so I have them in my fridge for Bubble and Squeak Sunday mornings.

Obviously, I found the heart and soul of Australian cuisine!  It took a little longer than some weeks, but I appreciated it all the more.  I could not have experienced such a great week without the generosity of Chef Aaron Brooks, and really, that’s what I love most about this whole project.  Food is truly a universal element that unites us all.  We have favorite dishes that our moms and dads made, favorite restaurants that we love to visit with friends and families, and stories of new dishes discovered during our travels.  Those connections endure through the ages, and for me, they keep me searching for more.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Week Twenty-Three: A Journey to Ethiopia

My week with Ethiopian cuisine proved to be quite an experience.  I began with only the understanding that Ethiopian meals are eaten with bread, instead of utensils.  Such limited knowledge afforded me an opportunity to explore Ethiopian dishes with an open mind free of any preconceived notions.  Whereas my research typically begins with online searches and stacks of cookbooks piled on the couch, this week’s initial discovery began with a conversation over dinner at Edge a few weeks ago.  My husband and I attended one of Chef Brooks’ specialty dinners, and I was so excited to meet Twitter friends Patrick and Stephanie in person at the event.  They had recently visited Nile Ethiopian Restaurant in Orlando, and after discussing their meal and experience, we scheduled a “Y’all Taste This” dinner experiment for an Ethiopian feast at my house.

I immediately delved into planning for a Friday night feast.  I began with my copy of Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World, which included ZERO Ethiopian recipes.  I moved on to the big yellow Gourmet Cookbook which was another bust.  So, I turned to the internet.  As with other African cuisines I’ve researched, I found that the available information is somewhat limited as most recipes have been communicated through oral tradition.  Interestingly, many blogs with Ethiopian recipes are written by families who have adopted children from Ethiopia.  After a few hours of research, I felt comfortable enough to finalize recipes and a menu for Friday night.

As a note, I found that many Ethiopian dishes and ingredients have up to five different spellings in English format.  By no means am I claiming to use the most accepted spellings…just the ones that seemed to be used most often.

Basics Planning
There are four essential components to an authentic Ethiopian meal:  Berbere, Niter Qibe, Iab, and Injera.

Berbere Spice Mix
Berbere is a spice mix used in Ethiopian dishes, especially wats (spicy stews).  It is essentially a chile powder that includes almost everything in the spice cabinet as an accompaniment to the chiles.  To determine which spices I would use for a berbere, I read every recipe I could find and assembled a list of the most commonly used spices and their proportions.  In the end, my berbere mix included dried Chiles de arbol, cayenne pepper, coriander, fenugreek, peppercorn, allspice, cardamom, cloves, dried onion, paprika, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, garlic powder, and basil. 

Niter Qibe is clarified butter seasoned with spices.  It serves as the primary fat/oil and as a flavoring agent in many Ethiopian dishes.  I made Marcus Samuelson’s recipe for Niter Qibe as it seemed to encompass an appropriate list of spices and seasonings.  I simply made a clarified butter and then let it cook over low heat with red onion, garlic, ginger, fenugreek, cumin, cardamom, oregano, turmeric, and basil for about twenty minutes.  I strained the butter and kept it in the refrigerator to use later in the week.

Iab is a fresh curd cheese with a characteristically sour flavor that is served with Ethiopian meals.  I found numerous recipes for odd “Americanized” versions using cottage cheese and lemon juice, but I am confident that my research paid off when I found this simple direction for making Iab that appears to be much closer to the real thing than any weird cottage cheese concoction:

When I was in Ethiopia, on the mini bus to Harar, I met an Ethiopian woman who now lives in Scotland. She was back for Timkat and gave me this recipe for Iab.

Let buttermilk come to a slow boil in a pot. I always buy the highest fat content of buttermilk I can find. Then let it cool and strain it. Add a little bit of lemon juice to the cheese (to taste).

It is really good and she said it was the closest to the real thing she could make in Scotland.

I made Iab using these exact guidelines, and it turned out beautifully.  I had read that the texture of proper Iab is similar to feta cheese, and the finished product was indeed dry and crumbly just like feta.  I did not add lemon juice, because I thought the cheese had enough sour flavor as it was, but with no prior Iab experience, I cannot confirm that my version was truly as “sour” as it should be.

My Small Burned Injera
atop a stack of the beautiful
Injera I ordered online
Injera is a spongy flatbread made of Teff grain with a sour flavor.  This bread is used as the “utensil” in an Ethiopian meal.  There are hundreds of recipes for different “versions” of Injera online.  Most of the variations include recipes for making the bread with buckwheat flour and note the difficulty in finding Teff flour.  (Finding Teff flour was the easiest part of this task for me.  They sell it at Whole Foods.)  Since I attempt to be as authentic as possible in this project, I set out to make an injera with Teff Flour.  The key to making a proper batter is time.  It needs to ferment.  I found some recipes that quoted the timeline for preparing batter as a three week process.  Since I didn’t have that much time, I settled on a recipe for Injera that quoted a timeline of 3-4 days for fermentation.  I made the batter on Sunday (Teff Flour, AP Flour, salt, and water) and left it on the counter to begin its 3-4 day quest for fermentation.  On Monday, I came home from work and found the batter covered in bubbles just as the recipe noted I would.  I swirled around the batter a bit and left it until the next night. On Tuesday night, no bubbles.  Wednesday night, no bubbles.  Thursday night, no bubbles.  Friday night, no bubbles.  I wasn’t sure if this was correct or not, so Friday I attempted to make the bread.  I think it was actually fermented and ready on Monday night when I came home.  I made several different pieces trying to figure out the art of injera-making.  The basic directions are as follows:

Pour the batter in a round, non-stick skillet over medium heat and cook until bubbles form (similar to a pancake).  Do not turn the injera.  When the bubbles form and it is cooked through, flip it out onto a plate and let it rest.

Here’s the part they don’t tell you about the bubbles.  A pancake is ready to flip when bubbles form on top, so I waited and waited for bubbles to form on top.  All the while, my first two injera were burning on the bottom, because as it turns out, the bubbles form underneath.  After I figured out that part, I had slightly better success, but all in all, my injera was heavy, dark, and thin.  On the up side, the flavor of my injera was sour like it should be.  Not my biggest success story, but experience is everything.  I think I could actually make a decent batch now.

Fortunately, I had an Injera back-up plan that included ordering it online from a bakery in Washington, D.C. to ensure proper arrival for my Friday night feast.  I received beautiful, fluffy injera from Zelalem Injera.  I would highly recommend them to anyone interested in purchasing injera online.

Friday Night Feast
After reading several recommendations for Ethiopian menus, I determined that I needed to include at least one presentation of each dish listed below for my Friday Night Feast:

  • Wat, a spicy stew
  • Alicha, a mild stew
  • A dish with meat
  • A vegetarian dish with Lentils or Legumes
  • A vegetable stew
  • A vegetable cold salad
  • Iab Cheese
After finalizing a menu, I organized a plan to be ready for dinner guests at 8:00 PM on Friday (after working all day and getting home at 5:30 that is.)  Fortunately, the menu includes several stews that I could make on Thursday night, and everyone knows that stews are always better the second day!  Here is a play by play of my final menu and how I pulled it together.

Dabo Kolo
Dabo Kolo is a bready snack seasoned with berbere.  Since I had leftover berbere and niter qibe, I decided to make a batch of these snacks.  It’s a basic flour and water dough infused with the Ethiopian spices and butter, rolled into long strands, and cut into small pieces.  (So easy that I actually had time to make it when I came home on Friday before dinner.)  Traditionally, the snacks are cooked in a dry skillet, but they can also be baked in the oven.  I expected them to be crunchy and spicy.  Instead, they were crispy on the edges with a soft center and only mildly spiced.  At first, I was disappointed in them, but then I realized that this is the kind of snack that is addictive, because I kept going back for another handful.  With so many spices in the berbere, each bite presents a new “what is that?” moment. 

Even better, Patrick, a.k.a Miami Malt Bomb, kicked off our evening with a special treat, B. Nektar Yo Momma’s Strawberry Pizzazz mead.  The most popular beverage in Ethiopia is Tej, a honey wine similar to mead, so this was the perfect choice for a light, refreshing pre-dinner drink with our dabo kolo.

Iab, Doro Wat
Gomen, Timatim, Kik Alicha
Kitfo Leb Leb
Doro Wat is a spicy chicken stew seasoned with berbere and niter qibe.  Wats begin with finely chopped red onions simmered in niter qibe until golden brown.  Then, Berbere, cloves, garlic, and ginger are added, and the mixture stews until the onions take on the color of the spices.  Next, chicken stock, a little red wine, and chicken pieces are added to the pot to simmer until the chicken is cooked.  Just before serving, fresh lime juice is added to the stew and quartered, boiled eggs are added to the top of the stew to simmer and soak up the flavors of the broth.

Interestingly, all of the recipes called for a whole chicken cut in parts.  Of course, that is the best way to impart the chicken’s flavor into the stew; however, I thought it would be cumbersome to eat with injera on a large platter shared by a group of four.  With that in mind, I simmered my stew on Thursday night until the chicken was completely cooked.  Then, I took the chicken out of the stew, pulled the meat off the bones, shredded the meat, and added it back to the stew.  On Friday evening, I simmered it for about an hour before dinner.  Then, I added the lime juice and boiled eggs just before serving.

This turned out to be one of the most delicious parts of the meal.  With so many different spices in the berbere and niter qibe, each bite presented a new, interesting flavor.  I was a bit concerned about the thin sauce on the stew, but the injera soaked up the sauce which created another great layer of flavor.

Kik Alicha is a mild stew of yellow split peas with onions and tomatoes.  Because this dish is known for its bright yellow hue, I used yellow onions and yellow tomatoes in my presentation.  The stew’s seasonings include garlic, ginger, cardamom, and black pepper.  I made this dish on Thursday night, because I knew that a night in the refrigerator would intensify its flavor and provide a heartier, thicker texture.  On Friday evening, I simmered it for about an hour before dinner and added turmeric in the last fifteen minutes.

While I liked this dish, I wanted it to have more flavor.  With such a vibrant color, I expected to be blown away by the flavors of ginger and turmeric.  Of course, this dish’s role in the meal is that of the “mild stew” so I suppose its flavor was not only appropriate but correct!

I am 90% sure that Kitfo Leb Leb is the appropriate name for the next dish that I served.  In its most basic definition, Kitfo is an Ethiopian steak tartare.  The raw beef is marinated in berbere and niter qibe before serving.  Most of the information I found notes that Kitfo can be made from either ground beef or small cubes of beef tenderloin; however, some sources cite that the “cubed” version is called Gored Gored.  To add to the confusion, some general definitions of kitfo state that it may be served raw or cooked to rare.  While there are definitely Kitfo purists that believe this dish is only authentic if served raw, I found that it is actually appropriate to serve it both ways.  When served raw, it is served tre; when slightly cooked to rare, it is served leb leb.  There is also another fully cooked version called tibs.

My version included cubes of beef tenderloin lightly sautéed to rare.  (I just don’t trust myself to serve raw meat to guests.  I’m not a professional.  It would be an amazing tartare though!)  I began by cooking onions, garlic, chiles, ginger, and berbere in the niter qibe.  I added cubed beef tenderloin and briefly sautéed it just until the edges browned.  I seasoned it with salt, pepper, and fresh lemon juice just before serving.  It was delicious!  The strong flavors of the spices complemented the rich beef tenderloin really well, and I found myself going back for more. 

Gomen reminds me of Southern-style collard greens in the best way!  Instead of using pork fat to season collard greens, Ethiopians use niter qibe, and the results are outstanding.  Honestly, I can’t even believe I am admitting this, but I didn’t even miss the pork fat.  To make this dish, I cooked onions in niter qibe.  Then, I added garlic, ginger, and serrano peppers for a few minutes.  I added collard greens and some water, and I cooked them over low heat for about an hour and a half.  This was my favorite dish of the night! 

Timatim is a basic tomato and onion salad.  Sometimes, torn pieces of injera are added to it, in which case it is called Timatim Firfir.  This dish provides a light, cool element to an otherwise heavy, warm platter of stews and injera.  My timatim included tomato, onion, jalapeno pepper, Serrano pepper, and garlic dressed in a mixture of berbere, red wine, fresh lemon juice, and olive oil.  I made it on Thursday night, and the flavors came together for a refreshing addition to the platter. 

Patrick and Stephanie treated us to a few more beverages over the course of our Ethiopian Feast.  Stephanie read that a comparable version of Tej (honey wine) can be made by mixing 2 cups white wine, 2 cups of water, and 4 tablespoons of honey.  This turned out to be quite refreshing, and she said that it tasted as good as the Tej they had at Nile in Orlando.  Patrick brought Lion Stout brewed in Sri Lanka to accompany the stews.  Wow!  This is a great beer.  It is the lightest stout I’ve ever tasted, yet it still maintained the full-flavored qualities of a stout.  Both the tej and the stout complemented the flavors of our Ethiopian platter well.

Even though I only prepared one meal for this week’s project, the planning and preparation culminated in a week of Ethiopian immersion.  I enjoyed all of these dishes, and I will definitely be stopping by Nile Ethiopian on my next visit to Orlando.  I still have some berbere in the spice pantry, so I am confident that more Ethiopian food is in my future!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Week Twenty-Two: A Journey to Cambodia

Before this week, I knew nothing about Cambodia, except that it is a country in Southeast Asia near Thailand.  As I anticipated a week of discovering its cuisines, I expected to find a hybrid influenced by nearby Thailand, Vietnam, China, and India.  While I was not altogether incorrect about its influences, I was completely off-base in my assumption that it is merely an amalgamation of other nations’ cuisines.  Cambodian cuisine, also known as Khmer cuisine, is actually one of the oldest cuisines in the world with a tradition dating back to Angkor Thom’s reign as the largest city in the world during the 12th century.   The Bayon Temple, which was built during that time period, includes bas-reliefs depicting everyday “food life” of Khmers hunting, fishing, and even preparing kebabs over a fire.  (Rambling Spoon has a posting with severalphotos of these reliefs.)  While food as cuisine played a major role in the development of Khmer culture, food as industry served as an even greater influence.  While other civilizations were successfully harvesting rice one time each year, the Khmers grew their wealth by designing and building a state of the art water reservoir and canal system that afforded them three rice harvests per year.  Unfortunately for the Khmers, the 14th century was not such a success story as they experienced a significant loss of territory to the Siamese and Vietnamese.  In the mid-19th century, France’s interest in Vietnam and Cambodia piqued as a result of its rivalry with Britain and resulted in more struggles for the Khmer people.  Infringing neighbors, influences of the French colonial empire in Southeast Asia, and inspiration from Portuguese and Spanish travelers in the 16th century have contributed to what is today called Khmer cuisine. 

As I planned this week’s Cambodian dishes, I had to control my urge to have a full-fledged all Cambodian BBQ week.  Steven Raichlen’ s Planet Barbecue! includes several recipes for Cambodian dishes, and his description of its history within the country, as well as its presence today in almost the same manner as the 12th century, inspired me to focus on Cambodia’s grilled dishes.  In addition, the week would not be complete without at least one example of a dish that includes fish and rice, as these ingredients play major roles in the everyday cuisine of Cambodia.  So, I selected a popular rice noodle curry dish to explore those flavor profiles. 

Friday Night Steak Dinner

In the United States, the idea of a steak dinner summons the image of a thick, juicy ribeye, mashed potatoes, and creamed spinach.  In Cambodia, that single steak would feed a table of four to six people as its thin slices are served alongside an array of vegetables with lettuce leaves for wrapping and a dipping sauce to enhance the flavor of those delectable bundles.  I followed Raichlen’s recipe from Planet Barbecue! for creating this feast.  First, I marinated thin slices of sirloin steak in a sauce of garlic, ginger, scallions, Serrano chiles, fresh lemon juice, fish sauce, vegetable oil, finely chopped dry-roasted peanuts, fresh tumeric, and black pepper.  I marinated the steak for about two hours, and when we were ready for dinner, I grilled it just a few minutes per side and served it alongside a platter of vegetables, which included lettuce leaves, watercress, napa cabbage, basil, green beans, carrots, cucumber, and tomatoes.  I loved the presentation of the dipping sauce.  In the same way that the Vietnamese offer bean sprouts, chiles, fresh lime, mint, and basil with an order of Pho so that one may flavor the broth to his/her liking, this dipping sauce is served with sugar, lemongrass, scallions, chopped dry-roasted peanuts, chiles, and limes so that each individual guest may personalize the sauce.  The sauce is traditionally made of pra hok (a fermented fish paste) mixed with water until a thin sauce forms, but when I stopped by the Asian market in my neighborhood, they didn’t have pra hok or even shrimp paste that I could substitute, so I used fish sauce as an alternative.  The combined flavors and textures of the warm, spicy meat and cool, crisp vegetables with the pungent dipping sauce created a deliciously balanced bite.

Sunday Night BBQ

In Planet Barbecue!, Raichlen paints a picture of parking lots around Ankgor Wat full of vendors selling street-food specialties, such as skewers filled with grilled chicken and rows of grilled corn.  On Sunday night, we turned our backyard into a little slice of Cambodian BBQ heaven and grilled up those very dishes.  By far, this was our best “Y’all Taste This” grilling night. 

For the chicken, we cut out the backbone so that it could lay flat on the grill.  Then, we marinated it in garlic, sugar, salt, soy sauce, and fish sauce for about five hours.  Thirty minutes before we were ready to begin grilling, the hubs started the charcoal grill while I made the annatto glaze for the chicken.  The recipe calls for whole annatto seeds to be simmered in vegetable oil and offers an alternative use of ground paprika.  I used ground annatto seed, because I had it in the pantry.  We grilled the chicken directly over the coals for about thirty minutes turning it every ten minutes.  We began glazing it at the twenty minute mark, which is also when I employed the use of our digital thermometer to ensure that we cooked it to just the right temperature (160-165 deg F).  Unlike those who fear that they will not cook a chicken enough, I’m more fearful that I will overcook it and end up with dry, tough chicken.  We let the chicken rest for about five minutes...really just long enough to take a picture of it.  We served it with a simple dipping sauce of freshly squeezed lime juice, sugar, salt, and black pepper.  Perfection!  By far, this is the best chicken we have ever grilled.  The meat was so tender and moist.  The brightness of the dipping sauce complemented and brought out the smoky flavors developed from the charcoal grill and the annatto glaze.  And just when I thought our dinner couldn’t get any better, the hubs asked if I had tried the corn yet....

Imagine an ear of exquisitely charred sweet corn with a hint of salted caramel glaze.  That’s the best way I can describe our Cambodian-style grilled corn.  The glaze is simple, and I will be making it again and again.  In a saucepan, I heated 6 tbsp unsweetened coconut milk, 1 tbsp turbino sugar, 1 bay leaf, and a pinch of salt just until the sugar melted.  Then, we basted the corn and grilled it over direct high heat for about 2 minutes per side, basting it each time we turned it, too.  For anyone who loves a salty-sweet treat, this is the perfect summertime grilled vegetable!

Monday Night Fish Curry

I procrastinated about making the fish curry all weekend long.  Normally, I am really excited for any curry dish, but for some reason, I just could not get in a curry mood.  By Monday, I knew it was time to either put the catfish in the freezer or make the curry.  I’m so glad I decided to make this dish, because it turns out that Num Banh Chok (commonly referred to as Khmer noodles) has a delightful subtlety that is addicting.  This popular Cambodian dish is sold by street vendors, in restaurants, and even in local markets.  After reading several different recipes online, I found one posted on Rambling Spoon excerpted from From Spiders to Water Lilies, which seemed to be the most authentic as it included exotic ingredients, such as water lily root and banana flowers.  Like Rambling Spoon, I also had to make some substitutions, but all in all, I managed to stay true to the essence of the flavors.  To begin, I made a lemongrass paste of fresh lemongrass, galangal, tumeric, lime juice, lime zest, garlic, and ginger.  (This was particularly exciting for me, because I love an excuse to buy an ingredient that I’ve never used.  In this case, there were two:  fresh tumeric and galangal.)  I poached the catfish in salted water and let it cool for a few minutes.  Then, I worked it and into the lemongrass paste along with ground dry-roasted peanuts to function as the base of the curry.  To make the final curry, I mixed the leftover broth from poaching the fish, coconut milk, coconut cream, and shrimp paste (I didn’t have prahok) in a saucepan and brought the mixture to a boil.  I added the lemongrass/fish paste, fish sauce, salt, and brown sugar to the mixture and simmered it for about ten minutes while I cooked rice noodles.  To serve the final dish, I filled the bottom of a large bowl with julienned cucumbers, shredded cabbage, bean sprouts, and rice noodles.  I poured the fish curry sauce over the vegetables and noodles, and I added a garnish of sliced Serrano peppers.

The nicest part of this dish was its contrasting elements:  crunchy vegetables and soft noodles, sweet coconut milk and salty fish paste/sauce, cool vegetables and hot curry broth.  Another interesting aspect to this dish was the way that the curry separates when poured over the noodles and vegetables leaving a layer of the fish and lemongrass mixture on top of the noodles with the thin flavorful broth below to slurp up with the noodles.

This week of Cambodian dinners afforded me a better understanding of the cuisine’s subtle profiles and its use of fresh ingredients to create balanced flavors.  If nothing else, I can say with certainty that the grilled chicken and corn will definitely play reprisal roles in my backyard this summer.