Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Week 29: A Journey to Brazil

Ah, Brazilian cuisine.  Until this week, my idea of a Brazilian dinner was limited to grilled meat and caipirinhas.  Of course, that is a Brazilian meal well worth its hype, but I knew there would be more dishes to discover from a country with so many European and African influences, a vast Atlantic coastline, the Amazon River covering almost half of its land, and topography from sea level to mountains averaging heights of 6500 ft. which is more than double the average heights of the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern United States.  With this in mind, I focused on dishes that emphasize Brazil’s local ingredients, illustrate its influences, and highlight its unique approach to typical South American fare.

Wednesday Night Dinner:  Caruru de Camarao
Caruru de Camarao is a stew featuring shrimp and okra.  This traditional dish from the Bahia region, a coastal state, includes many native ingredients and demonstrates a significant African influence.  I find it impossible to describe the origins of this dish without recognizing the history of slavery in Brazil.  In the early sixteenth century, Brazil obtained over three million slaves, more than 38% of all African slaves, primarily to work in its mines and on its sugarcane plantations.  (In comparison, the United States obtained approximately 645,000.)  Most of the slaves were processed through Bahia, and incidentally, Bahia was the site of an extremely influential slave rebellion in 1835.  With such a strong African presence, dishes like Caruru De Camarrao are bound to appear. 

Caruru de Camarao
After having just completed a week of Senegalese cuisine, I suppose my radar for African-influenced dishes was more acute than usual, but as I researched traditional ingredients for Caruru de Camarao, I was fascinated by the dish’s ability to cross cultures with such ease.  Here’s a quick ingredient summary:  shrimp, lime juice, palm oil, onion, garlic, bell pepper, tomatoes, scallions, cilantro, ginger, okra, dried shrimp, natural peanut butter, and coconut milk.  Without a “Brazilian” label, this recipe could easily be construed as African, Southeast Asian, or South American cuisine.  Because its origins lie in Brazil, I made it and celebrated it as a Brazilian dish. 

I found a recipe and a great explanation about the history of the dish in The South American Table: The Flavor and Soul of Authentic Home Cooking fromPatagonia to Rio de Janeiro written by Maria Baez Kijac.  Traditionally, the dish is served in celebration of twins, and since I am from a family of twins, this appealed to me as much as the dish.  (My mom is a twin, and my sisters are twins.)  Here’s an excerpt from the book about the dish:

“Caruru is a tradition dish of Bahia, usually served in honor of the ‘twin saints,’ Cosme and Damian.  Familes with twins invite friends and neighbors to celebrate the feast of the twin saints, which takes place in September.  This custom, called ‘caruru of the two-two,’ features a large platter of caruru.”

In all honesty, I would make this dish in celebration of anyone.  I loved it!  One of my favorite Thai indulgences is Panang Curry, and the flavors and textures in this dish remind me of Shrimp Panang.  Interestingly, I read that peanuts are sometimes substituted with coarse manioc flour depending on which ingredient is more readily available in an area.  Although I’m sure the dish is still nice with manioc, I doubt it has the same rich and flavorful qualities as with ground peanuts. 

Saturday Afternoon Lunch:  Empadinhas de Palmito
Empadinhas de Palmito
Hearts of Palm is a popular ingredient in Brazil.  In addition to its typical uses in salads, Brazilians also incorporate it into soups, pizzas (typically a combination of arugula and hearts of palm), and empanadas.  Interestingly, Brazilian empanadas are not folded over like turnovers; instead, they are similar to mini pot pies.  For my lunch, I made a recipe with a filling of hearts of palm, onions, bacon, black olives, and queijo minas, which is a Brazilian farmer’s cheese.  They were quite delicious, but of course, anything with that combination of ingredients should be.  I struggled a bit with my pastry though.  I think the dough needed to rest for a little longer, and I ended up overworking some of it for my last few pies.  The ones pictured were my best examples, but most importantly, they all tasted great.

I must say that I hadn’t really thought about using hearts of palm in anything other than salads, and now I am considering new opportunities to incorporate them into other dishes…. pasta with a lemon and olive oil, sautéed with onions as a relish for fish tacos, or even grilled and served on a roll with arugula, piquillo peppers, and fresh ricotta.

Saturday Night:  Brazilian Steakhouse Dinner
When planning for this project, I attempt to create menus that challenge me in at least one manner.  Sometimes, I look for interesting new flavor combinations, and other times I choose to make something because it includes an ingredient that is new to my kitchen.  At first, opting for a steak dinner felt a little like cheating on the project, because steak dinner is our house specialty.  (Seriously, our go-to dinner for guests is steak, horseradish mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and either flourless chocolate cake or homemade ice cream.  It’s also our favorite dinner on a weekend night that we just want to chill and not think about anything.  No recipes. No fuss.  We just shop and cook.)  On the flip-side of that argument, not having a steak dinner seemed like a miss, too, so I challenged myself to create a Brazilian-style Steak Dinner like none that we had ever cooked at home.

I began my Saturday morning with a visit to a local Brazilian market in search of a few special items for our steakhouse dinner.  When I arrived at Mercado Brasil near Dadeland in Miami, I must admit that I did not think it looked promising; however, looks can be deceiving.  I found everything I needed at that little market:  picanha, linguica calabresa, and manioc flour.

Grilled Linguica Calabresa
Linguica calabresa is a smoked sausage which originated in Italy.  The Portuguese use this sausage in many dishes, and they brought it to Brazil.  It is incorporated in Brazil's most popular dish, feijoada, along with at least six other cuts of meat.  I purchased some to incorporate in the beans I cooked for this dinner, which meant extras!  We grilled them and topped them with a thin slice of mild cheddar cheese for a great pre-dinner snack.

Brazil’s most popular cut of steak is picanha, or the top sirloin cap.  Typically, the meat is roasted whole on a spit, but it is sometimes grilled in thick pieces over direct heat.  I purchased the smallest one I could find (2.5 pounds) and followed Stephen Raichlen’s instructions in Planet BBQ for grilling the thick slices with only salt for seasoning.  The results were incredible.  We grilled each piece fat side down first for about four minutes in order to crisp it, and then we grilled each side for two minutes and the bottom for two minutes.  I am still in awe of the amount of flavor this cut of steak imparted from its fat.  Absolutely delicious!  Of course, we had leftovers for two days because this cut is anything but small, but I never complain about leftovers like these.

Grilled Picanha, Farofa, Rice, and Beans
As with most South American countries, rice and beans is a mainstay of the Brazilian diet.  I decided to include them with my steak dinner if, and only if, I could find a recipe with a real Brazilian perspective.  Fortunately, I discovered exactly what I needed on blue kitchen’s blog post, “Direct from the source: Brazilian Rice and Beans.”  This post from January 2007 features Brazilian food blogger Patricia Scarpin’s recipe for authentic Brazilian Rice and Beans.  I highly recommend trying out this recipe.  No joke...the hubs asked me if there were more beans in the kitchen when he still had steak on his plate.  That says it all!  In all fairness, we are Southerners, and this recipe for Brazilian beans is very similar to traditional Southern pinto beans, minus the red chile, cumin, and bay leaf.  Maybe we are just predisposed to liking these beans.  Either way, they were a hit!  I made the recipe as directed, except I made them in a dutch oven.  I used linguica calabresa, instead of bacon, because I felt like it added a bit more Brazilian authenticity to the dish, plus it gave me an excuse to buy linguica calabresa for a our pre-dinner bites.  This dish offered a welcomed change from our usual mashed potatoes with steak, and I will definitely make it again.

One ingredient that recurs constantly in Brazilian cuisine is Manioc Flour (also called cassava flour, tapioca flour, and yucca flour).  Farofa is a side dish of toasted coarsely ground Manioc flour typically served with grilled meats.  The idea is to let the juices from the grilled meats soak into the farofa.  In its most simplistic form, it is made by toasting coarsely ground manioc flour in butter (or lard) and salt.  I also found recipes with additions of meat, peppers, and onions.  I made it by melting butter in a cast iron skillet, adding salt, and then adding the flour until it looked like the “fluffy” mixture I saw in pictures.  (For me, that ratio was about 3 tbsp of butter to 2/3 cup flour.)  On its own, the farofa tasted like salty, buttery bread crumbs; however, when mixed with a bite of steak or rice and beans, it added a complementary layer of seasoning and texture that elevated those dishes.  It’s one of those dishes that tastes better with each bite.

For dessert, I planned to serve Brazil’s simple Romeu e Julieta, a slice of quiejo minas and a slice of guava paste.  Alas, we ate so much steak that we could not even fathom eating dessert.  Another day!

Sunday Morning:  Pao de Queijo
Pao de Queijo
I couldn’t resist making a fresh batch of homemade Brazilian Cheese bread for Sunday morning’s breakfast.  Our house smelled like butter for three or four hours after I made these rich little rolls.  I made them with quiejo minas and sour manioc flour.  They were not as fluffy as I expected, and I think that is because I should’ve used finely ground flour.  None of the recipes I found online designated the grind of flour, and when I found a bag of coarsely ground sour manioc flour at the Brazilian market with a recipe for these on it, I assumed that this would be the right choice.  Next time, I’ll try it with finer flour, and I think I will achieve a lighter texture.

I really enjoyed this week of discovering Brazilian cuisine.  I love an opportunity to seek out a new market in the city, and I will definitely return to Mercado Brasil for future needs.  The caruru provided a perfect transition from the previous week’s Senegalese cuisine to Brazilian cuisine.  I have a new found obsession for incorporating hearts of palm into more dishes.  Most significantly, I discovered an amazing new approach to “steak night” at home and an incredible recipe for rice and beans.  A definite week to savor!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Week Twenty-Eight: A Journey to Senegal

This week’s culinary journey marked an interesting turn as I discovered Senegalese cuisine, its influences, and how it has inspired the cuisines of other nations.  Senegal’s cuisine reflects its native crops and geography, as well as the influence of Portuguese, Dutch, and English navigators in the fifteenth century and the French occupation in the seventeenth century that lasted until Senegal’s independence in 1960.  After twenty-eight weeks of detailed research, country by country, Senegal presented a confluence of dishes I recognized and understood in a new way.  Because of its climate and geography, its dishes include many of the same ingredients used here in Miami, as well as the Caribbean and Latin America, including fish, yucca, mango, and rice.  I found many examples of dishes from Senegal that I recognized as Latin American.  These dishes evolved as a result of West Africans brought to Latin American plantations as slaves.  I discovered the influences of the French occupation in its recipes, such as the inclusion of mustard in the sauce for a popular dish called yassa.  Most surprisingly, the French influence even stretches to connect Vietnam (also once a French colony) to Senegal.  As it turns out, Senegalese men served as French soldiers in Vietnam, and many married Vietnamese women.  This explains a popular Senegalese dish called nems which is basically Vietnamese Spring Rolls served with fish sauce.  The list of examples goes on and on.  Even today as I’m writing about last week’s Senegalese dishes and planning this week’s Brazilian ones, I discovered that the Red Palm Oil so frequently used in Senegalese dishes is also a staple in Brazilian cuisine called Dende Oil.  With so many avenues to explore, I attempted to touch on them all through my Senegalese menus this week.

Wednesday Night: Chicken Yassa
Originating from the Casamance region north of Dakar, yassa refers to a dish of fish or chicken marinated and simmered in a sauce of lemon, onion, and mustard.  By most accounts, this dish is considered a favorite by visiting Americans, so I decided to embark upon my introduction to Senegalese cuisine with something presumably suited to my tastes.  At first, I thought it was strange that the sauce included mustard, but then it occurred to me that this is clearly a French influence.  The flavors of the sauce wowed me!  I made it with chicken, which provided the perfect blank canvas for the piquancy of the sauce and sweetness of the onions and carrots.  It was definitely my favorite dish of the week.

Saturday Night:  Accra, Jus de Bissap, Thebouidienne, Mafe, Mango-Avocado Salad, Cinq Centimes, and Peanut Ice Cream
When planning Saturday night’s menu, I selected dishes that emphasize native Senegalese ingredients and those highlighting Senegal’s influences in the cuisine of other countries.  When researching African cuisines, I often find guidance for presenting authentic meals at the University of Pennsylvania’s African Studies website.  For Senegal, I discovered that an authentic formal meal begins with an appetizer followed by the main course.  Because most of the population is Muslim, many meals do not include wine or beer; instead, fresh juices or teas are generally served.  After the main course, a salad is presented to guests, and on special occasions, dessert ends the meal and may be served with Demitasse Dakar, a coffee drink made by steeping ground coffee and one beaten egg in boiling water.  With this in mind, I set out to create a Senegalese-inspired meal for my husband and some gracious friends who agreed to brave one of my project’s dinners.

When I stumbled upon a recipe for Senegalese accra, I immediately recognized a convergence of cultures.  The recipe presented a fritter made from mashed black-eyed peas and onions, which just happens to be one of my favorite specials called bollitos de carita offered at La Camaronera, a local fish joint in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.  Even more interesting, Haitian cuisine includes a fritter called accra, which is made from grated malanaga and a binder of black-eyed pea puree, onion, peppers, and garlic.  This all makes perfect sense considering that many West Africans were brought to Caribbean islands and Latin American countries to work as slaves on plantations, and it is easy to see how they would use their black-eyed pea batter to bind inexpensive, accessible malanga root for a fritter.  The best part of my discovery was the unexpected surprise that I would have the opportunity to make one of my favorite dishes for this week’s project!  I followed a recipe from Saveur magazine for the fritters and the tomato-chile dipping sauce, and the results were delicious.  The fritters tasted just like my favorite treats from La Camaronera.  The only thing I will change about this on my next attempt is to use just a little less water in the batter.  Otherwise, I thought the recipe worked really well.

Thebouidienne is considered the national dish of Senegal.  It is pronounced cheh-boo jen, and other spellings include Ceebu Jen, Ceeb bu jen, Ceeb u jen, Thebouidienne, Theibou Dienn, Thiebou Dienn, Thiebou Dienne, Thiebou Dienne, Thiébou dieune, Tié bou dienne, Thieb-ou-Djien, Thiebu Djen and sometimes just called Thieb or in French, Riz au Poisson.  The dish features white fish stuffed with a mixture of herbs and stewed with vegetables in a tomato based broth.  When the fish and vegetables are tender, they are removed from the stew so that rice may be cooked in the stewing broth.  The vegetables used seem to be selected based on family recipe preference and availability.  I followed the recipe featured in The Congo Cookbook, which reads like a recipe handed down generation after generation.  The recipe offers several options for vegetables, and I chose to use the vegetables I read about in other writers’ accounts of travel in Senegal:  onion, bell pepper, carrots, yucca, eggplant, and cauliflower.  All in all, I liked this dish.  Without question, my favorite element was the fish fillet stuffed with a paste made from bell peppers, onion, scallions, garlic, fresh parsley, salt, and a scotch bonnet pepper.  The rest of the dish just tasted heavy and, well, like a stew.


Mafe is a ground nut stew generally made with lamb, but it can be made with mutton, fish, or chicken.  I chose this dish because I wanted to incorporate peanuts into a savory dish, and I must say that this stew brimmed with rich flavors.  I followed the directions from The Congo Cookbook for this dish, although I took a few liberties.  For the vegetables, I used carrots, okra, butternut squash, and cabbage.  I also removed the vegetables and lamb when they were tender and cooked the sauce down until it was a thick, smooth consistency.  Then, I poured it over the lamb and vegetables on a platter to serve.  This sauce was delicious!  Because of its thick consistency and bold flavor, it reminded me a little of Mexican mole sauce, and its richness complemented the flavor of the lamb well.

Jus de Bissap
Jus de Bissap is a bit of a misnomer as it isn’t a juice at all, rather a tea.  Dried hibiscus flowers, sometimes called sorrel or roselle, are steeped in boiling water, sweetened with sugar, and flavored with mint, ginger, vanilla, orange-flower water, lemon juice, pineapple juice, or orange juice.  Admittedly, I went to several markets in search of dried hibiscus flowers, including my favorite local Middle-Eastern market, and I had no luck; however, at a grocery in a West-Indian neighborhood near my office, I found a tea of pure hibiscus flowers and ginger marketed as Jamaican, which is exactly what I needed.  Having read The Congo Cookbook’s directions to steep 2-3 cups of dried hibiscus flowers in two quarts of boiling water, I deduced that steeping the entire box of tea bags in two quarts of water would render the same intense flavor profile.  After ten minutes of steeping, I added one cup of sugar, a few sprigs of mint, and a teaspoon of vanilla to the tea.  After trying it, I can understand why the Senegalese refer to this as a juice, because it has the intense color, sweetness, and tartness that I associate with juice.  I served it chilled with our dinner, and it provided a welcome freshness against the heavy stews. 

Saladu Awooka ak Mango
I served a simple salad of avocado, mango, and orange segments after we finished our stews.  I’m not sure how authentically Senegalese this is, but it was included with a group of recipes in Saveur magazine inspired by a trip to Senegal, so I decided it would fit the bill.  I am confident that it achieves the goal of serving a fresh salad made of local ingredients to cleanse the palate after such a heavy meal.

Cinq Centimes
Peanut Ice Cream
Cinq Centimes (Five-Cent Cookies) are peanut cookies sold in markets and are especially popular in Dakar.  Oddly enough, I searched the internet for an authentic recipe, and I found the same recipe over and over without fail:  Spread Peanut Butter on store-bought sugar cookies and sprinkle with coarsely chopped peanuts.  So, that’s just what I did, and I must say to great effect.  We really loved this simple concept!  Being the overachiever that I am, I didn’t feel like that was quite enough effort for the project.  On the University of Pennsylvania African Studies webpage regarding Senegalese meals, the author suggests that Peanut Ice Cream is a common dessert served at finer restaurants in Dakar.  I made the recipe on their site, and it was delicious.  Interestingly, the recipe included instructions to whip evaporated milk and fold it into the base, which is a fantastic alternative way to create a fluffy ice cream without using an actual ice cream maker.  I was surprised by the use of fresh lemon juice in this recipe, too, but it contributed a lightness that balanced the heavy use of peanut butter.  All in all, these peanut desserts were a great way to end our dinner.

I had no idea what to expect when I started researching Senegalese cuisine this week, but for most weeks, that is exactly the point.  I discovered some incredible new dishes, and I reveled in the connections I made to other countries’ dishes.  I may have actually enjoyed this week’s research even more than the food!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Week Twenty-Seven: A Journey to the Dominican Republic

As I approached this week’s foray into the cuisine of the Dominican Republic, I knew my greatest challenge would be finding the nuances that set it apart from Cuban, Puerto Rican, and other South American cuisines.  Because most of these countries share influences from Spanish cuisine, the ideas relate, but their interpretations through the native populations who survived the Spanish takeovers and the immigrants from other countries result in distinctive dishes.  Interestingly, a number of dishes in the Dominican Republic share the same names as others from these countries, such as Mofongo, Sancocho, and Majarete, but the dishes are not the same.  Similar, but with different seasonings, techniques, or even ingredients.  In addition to Spanish influence, the cuisine of the Dominican Republic is inspired by its native Taino people, African slaves who began arriving in the sixteenth century, and Middle Eastern immigrants who arrived in the nineteenth century.  Keeping in mind these influences and the country’s native ingredients, I set out to discover the cuisine of the Dominican Republic.  In addition to perusing cookbooks and online recipes, I sought the advice and recommendations of my friend, Carlos, who lived in the Dominican Republic until he was eight years old and more importantly, learned to cook the country’s dishes alongside his grandmother.  I am so grateful to him for his enthusiasm and assistance with this week’s project.  Not only did he provide me a list of his favorite dishes, he joined us for dinner on Sunday night and shared a few of his grandmother’s recipes.  What a treat!

Saturday Night:  Quipes and Locrio de Pollo

Quipes reflect the influence of Middle Eastern immigrants as they are basically traditional kibbeh updated with the ingredients and spices more commonly found in the Dominican Republic.  Whereas kibbeh generally consist of ground lamb and bulgur wheat seasoned with onion, mint, cinnamon, allspice, and cumin, I found most recipes for Dominican quipes used ground beef, instead of lamb, and included raisins in the filling.  For the most part, quipe recipes included either basil or cilantro, instead of mint.  The recipe I used also included tomato paste in the filling.  The only issue with this dish was my poor chopping skills as the onion and red bell pepper should have been chopped much more finely.  Nonetheless, the final product was delicious.

Locrio de Pollo
As with all Latin American countries, chicken and rice is a beloved dish.  In the Dominican Republic, the dish is referred to as Locrio de Pollo.  In search of a recipe that would provide me with something a little different than the norm, I happened upon one that included pumpkin as an ingredient, so I tried it out.  I must say that the pumpkin provided a nice, sweet flavor balance to the salty olives.  All in all, the dish had great flavor.  Nothing that wowed me, but then again, I don’t tend to be someone who is easily excited about chicken and rice.

Sunday Night Feast:  Yucca Fritters, Pescado con Coco, Pernil, Pastelon de Platanos Maduros, Majarete, and Habichuelas con Dulce
On Sunday night, we didn’t hold back anything!  Five food-loving, giddy people sharing some incredible dishes made for a night to remember.  Honestly, I didn’t think we could eat it all, but we came very close.  Every dish on the table sparked a new conversation, and none disappointed.
Yucca Fritters
Photo by Stephanie Glass

For starters, Carlos filled my cast iron skillet with some vegetable oil and fried the most delicious Yucca Fritters I have ever tasted.  I fell in love with yucca when I moved to Miami, and his fritters now serve as top billing on my list of best yucca dishes.  Just as he learned from his grandmother, he made the fritters with grated yucca, milk, eggs, and aniseed.  That’s right, aniseed.  What a brilliant addition to a simple dish!

Pecado con Coco
Photo by Stephanie Glass
Pescado con coco is a popular preparation for fresh fish in villages located near the ocean.  While most online recipes include fish fillets poached in coconut milk with peppers and onions, I confirmed with Carlos that a cook in the Dominican Republic would be much more likely cook a whole fish caught fresh from the water.  The preparation is really quite simple and absolutely delicious.  I scored the fish with diagonal cuts and seasoned them with a combination of freshly crushed garlic, ground annatto seed, and kosher salt (a combination I found on  I dredge the seasoned fish in flour, browned it on both sides, and set it aside.  In the same oil and pan, I sautéed strips of bell peppers and onions.  I added two cans of coconut milk, chopped cilantro, salt and pepper to the sautéed vegetables.  Then, I laid the fish back in the pan on top of the vegetables, tightly covered the pan with aluminum foil, and let the fish braise for about fifteen minutes.  The fish was perfect!  It slipped right off the bone, and the complement of peppers and onions in the coconut milk heightened the sweetness of its flavor.

Photo by Stephanie Glass
Pernil is roasted pork shoulder served on holidays and for celebrations, and this meal definitely fit the bill for a celebration!  For this dish, I turned to the blog a chica bakes for Eliana’s recipe.  It’s really quite simple.  Time is the most essential ingredient in this dish.  I began by making her sofrito of onion, scotch bonnets, garlic, salt, pepper, oregano, vinegar, tomatoes, bell peppers, cilantro, scallions, and celery.  Then, I started the process of seasoning the pork.  I rubbed a four-pound bone-in pork shoulder with fresh lime juice and salt on all sides.  I washed off the salt and lime, and I covered it in the sofrito to marinate for a little over twenty-four hours.  On Sunday, I simmered it in a covered pot over low heat for three hours on the stovetop.  Then, I moved it to a 350°F oven for another three hours uncovered.  Our house smelled intoxicating all afternoon!  The pork was delicious.  The interior meat was moist and flavorful, and the bark had a fantastic bite of flavor and texture.

Pastelon de Platanos Maduros
Photo by Stephanie Glass
When Carlos sent me a list of his favorite dishes from the Dominican Republic, it only took a few seconds for me to recognize that pastelon de platanos maduros would be a must-try dish for me, and it tasted even better than I expected.  This is comfort food at its finest.  The dish begins with a layer of sweet plantains mashed with evaporated milk and butter.  Then, a mixture of ground beef sautéed with garlic, oregano, cubanelle peppers, onion, bell peppers, tomatoes, and raisins is layered on top of that.  Finally, a second layer of the mashed plantains is added and topped off with a thick layer of mild cheddar cheese.  I intended to take a photo of the layers in this dish, but in full disclosure, I got so excited about eating it that I completely forgot.  This dish is the ultimate comfort food.  Imagine shepherd’s pie with Latin flair.  Heaven!

Majarete and
Habichuelas con Dulce
We indulged in two desserts:  majarete and habichuelas con dulce.  Majarete is one of those dishes that exists by name in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, but each country’s version is different.  In the Dominican Republic, the dish is a corn pudding and the only real variance I found is in the use of coconut milk for some recipes.  I consulted with Carlos who told me that his family did not use coconut milk…only whole milk, so that’s how I made it.  It was really simple.  I cut fresh kernels from sweet corn and put them in the food processor with whole milk, sugar, cornstarch, and ground cinnamon.  Then, I strained the mixture and cooked the liquid with cinnamon sticks on the stove top just like any other pudding.  (The recipe I’ve linked here has the correct ratio of ingredients, but the directions for cooking the custard do not work.  Just bring it to a boil and cook for about five minutes, stirring constantly, to achieve the correct texture.)  I served it chilled with a sprinkle of ground cinnamon on top.  We were amazed at the flavor of this dessert, and all commented on how the corn flavor was so subtle.  Carlos treated us to habicuelas con dulce, or Sweet Beans, just as his grandmother made it.  Prior to this dinner, I had never encountered the use of red beans in desserts outside Asian cuisine, so when he told me about this dessert, I was excited to try it.  In essence, the recipe is a chilled soup of pureed (and strained) kidney beans, sugar, milk, and coconut milk seasoned with cinnamon and cloves.  In Carlos’s version, he included aniseed for flavoring, as well.  Boiled cubes of sweet potato and raisins are added to the soup, and it is served with milk cookies.  This unusual combination of flavors actually works, and I must say that this is a dish that really sets itself apart as a true Dominican tradition.

All in all, I really enjoyed the Dominican Republic dishes this week, and I am so grateful to Carlos for his participation.  My only regret is that I never made Mangu.  Sometimes, life happens, and I just can’t seem to make everything I plan, but I have the queso de freir and salami waiting in my refrigerator for one morning this weekend.  Hopefully, it will happen then.  In the meantime, I definitely have to buy more green plantains, because I’ve waited so long that the ones I purchased are ripe now.  That’s okay though.  It just gives me another reason to look forward to the weekend.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Week Twenty-Six: A Journey to Peru

Since moving to Miami, Peruvian food has become a mainstay in my everyday life, and I eagerly anticipated cooking some of my favorite dishes this week.  Modern-day Peruvian dishes are rooted in the region’s native ingredients and a strong Spanish influence dating back to Spain’s arrival there in the sixteenth century.  In addition, influences of immigrant cultures, including Chinese, Japanese, African, Middle Eastern, and Italian, present dishes that represent the styles of each culture’s cuisines interpreted with native Peruvian ingredients.  As an example, ceviche is popular in coastal areas with an abundance of fresh fish.  The fish and Andean chiles used in this dish are certainly native ingredients, not to mention the boiled sweet potatoes and corn typically served alongside it, but the use of limes can be traced to a variety of limes that the Spanish introduced there.  In a twist, Japanese immigrants who first arrived in 1899 applied the sashimi techniques of their native cuisine to the concept of ceviche resulting in the creation of another famous Peruvian dish, tiradito.   As I considered which Peruvian dishes to try at home this week, I focused on the more traditional dishes with native ingredients and Spanish influence in order to better understand the roots of this nation’s cuisine.

In full disclosure, arroz chaufa is one of my all-time favorite Peruvian dishes, but I felt like making it would not acquaint me with the true origins of Peruvian cuisine.  For culinary purposes, it is just Chinese Fried Rice served on a Peruvian menu.  If I hadn’t made Fried Rice for Week Eight’s Journey to China, I might have allowed it.  Fortunately, I found plenty of new dishes to satisfy my quest for Peruvian food, and I can always order chaufa takeout for lunch.

Tueday Night Prep:  Aji Amarillo Paste and Aji Panca Paste
Aji amarillo and aji panca are chiles that consistently appear in traditional Peruvian recipes.  The Amarillo is an orange pepper with a bright flavor and medium heat; whereas Panca chiles are hot with a smoky, fruity flavor.  In order to incorporate their flavors into the Peruvian dishes I planned to cook, I made pastes with dried aji amarillo and aji panca chiles that I purchased at Whole Foods.  For each paste, I simply soaked the peppers in water overnight and blended them with a little canola oil, salt, and fresh garlic. 

Wednesday Night Dinner:  Pisco Sours and Aji de Gallina
Pisco Sour
I really couldn’t spend a week focused on Peruvian cuisine without including Pisco Sours.  I still remember the first time I read the ingredients of a Pisco Sour on the cocktail menu at Jaguar shortly after I moved to Miami.  I was shocked to see egg whites listed and immediately ordered one to try it out!  I must admit that I like this as a summer cocktail, and I whipped up a quick batch with some Pisco, freshly squeezed key limes, simple syrup, and egg whites topped with a few dashes of Angostura bitters.

Aji de Gallina
This dinner served as a vehicle for my aji amarillo paste.  By all accounts, this traditional Peruvian chicken stew served with a nutty cheese sauce is a Peruvian favorite, and I must admit that I had never heard of it until this project.  I’m so glad I know about it now though.  The dish begins with a mixture of sautéed onions and garlic mixed with milk-soaked white bread and aji amarillo paste.  I used an immersion blender to mix these ingredients into a smooth texture before adding chicken stock to create the sauce.  When the sauce thickened, I added shredded chicken to stew for about five minutes.  Then, I added chopped walnuts and parmesan cheese for the final five minutes of simmering on the stovetop.  I served it with rice and garnished it with chopped parsley, kalamata olives, and boiled eggs.  My friend Bonnie joined me for dinner this night, and I think she best described the dish as warm chicken salad with rice.  That’s exactly what it tasted like…and in a good way.  I loved the subtle heat of the aji amarillo paste. 

The Aji de Gallina was a treat in itself, but just as exciting was the way it connected me to a fellow Miamian, Elizabeth Anne, who responded to my tweet about Aji de Gallina.  As it turns out, her family is Peruvian, and she provided me with some great insight about her favorite dishes:

Thursday Night Madness:  Sopa a la Criolla for Dinner / Prepwork for Friday Lunch and Dinner
My original plan for Thursday night was to make jamon del pais and salsa criolla to take to work on Friday for butifarra sandwiches.  I also needed to carve a beef heart into thin slices and begin marinating them for Friday night’s dinner.  In all seriousness, those three tasks were enough to fill my evening, but after my twitter conversation on Wednesday night, I decided to push the limits of my time and create a much more aggressive plan.  What can I say?  Sometimes the overachiever in me takes over, and I just can’t help myself.  Most of the ingredients for the sopa a la criolla were already in my pantry, so I decided to make it for my dinner that night.  The suspira a la Limeña seemed simple enough that I could make it in small cups for an added treat at work on Friday.

Jamon del Pais
Jamon del Pais is Peruvian ham seasoned with aji panca and garlic.  For my preparation, I simmered a two pound pork loin roast in water with onion and a bay leaf for about two hours.  When the roast had cooked through, I coated it with a mixture of aji panca paste, minced garlic, vinegar, cumin, turmeric, sazon completa, and ground annatto seeds.  I placed it in a roasting pan with two cups of the cooking liquid to ensure that the pork remained moist, and I roasted it for thirty minutes.  After it cooled, I sliced it thinly for the next day’s butifarra sandwiches.

Salsa Criolla
While the jamon del pais simmered on the stovetop, I focused on the salsa criolla, an onion salad seasoned with jalapeno peppers, lime juice, vinegar, cilantro, and parsley.  Admittedly, my knife skills are not stellar, and when I read that having “feathery” looking onions was the key to an authentic salsa criolla, I took that as a challenge, and the finished product turned out beautifully!

Beef Heart
Having successfully completed the slight knife skills challenge of salsa criolla, I forged ahead to the more daunting task of butchering the big beef heart for Friday night’s anticuchos.  I cut the fat from the top of the heart and worked to divide it into chambers as I had read was the appropriate way to approach this.  As it turned out, the chamber on the bottom was much larger than the others and the perfect sized “chunk” to trim and cut into thin slices for the skewers.  Based on Steven Raichlen’s recommendations in Planet BBQ, I added garlic, toasted cumin seeds, ground annatto seed, and olive oil to my Aji panca paste and slathered the skewered beef heart in it to marinate overnight.

Sopa a la Criolla

Next on Thursday night’s agenda:  Sopa a la Criolla.  I decided to make the recipe posted on the Fighting Windmills blog as it seemed authentic and simple enough to throw together on a weeknight packed with other projects.  The soup begins with a quick sauté of flank steak cut into small cubes.  Then, aji panca paste, chopped onion, diced tomatoes, and dried oregano are added.  The recipe also includes a paste of rocoto chiles (another chile native to Peru) in the sauté, but I did not have that ingredient available and substituted hot sauce like it recommended.  When the onions are translucent, hot water is added to the mixture.  When it reaches a boil, angel hair pasta or spaghetti is added and cooked until the pasta is al dente.  Finally, a can of evaporated milk and two eggs are mixed into the soup, and it is ready to be served. 

When I read this recipe, I expected a rich, heavy soup due to the final additions of eggs and evaporated milk, but I was surprised to find a light, flavorful broth.  The juxtaposition of the evaporated milk and peppers offered an interesting twist.  At first, the initial flavor of the soup is mild and milky, but the heat from the peppers builds bite after bite resulting in an interesting and satisfying flavor profile.  It reminded me a bit of Vietnamese Pho because of the spaghetti noodles served in a thin sauce with only a small amount of meat included for seasoning…not to mention all of the slurping noises I made while eating it.

Suspira a la Limena
After finishing my big bowl of soup, I jumped back into the kitchen to make Suspira a la Limeña.  This custard-based dessert is popular in Lima and coastal cities, and I found several recipes online.  The easiest version was basically dulce de leche topped with meringue, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t the most authentic, more like a “semi-homemade” version.  I opted for a recipe that began with a custard made from sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, egg yolks, and vanilla extract.  After cooking the custard to a thick pudding-like texture, I let it cool for about thirty minutes.  Then, I spooned it into individual cups and topped it with a basic meringue.  I was just sliding them into the refrigerator at about 11:30 PM when the hubs walked in the door from the airport and laughed out loud at the sight of me still working on the “project” late into the evening on a Thursday night.

Friday Lunch at Work:  Butifarra Sandwiches, Sopa a la Criolla, and Suspira a la Limeña

Peruvian take-out is one of the most popular lunches in my office.  Luckily for us, we have a great little Peruvian spot called The Peruvian Kitchen nearby.  When walking through our kitchen, it’s not uncommon to hear the words “is there any more green sauce?” from someone with a plate of Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken and French fries.  With that in mind, I brought in the fixings for Butifarra Sandwiches, Sopa a la Criolla, and Suspira a la Limeña for a Friday feast.  For the sandwiches, we piled jamon del pais and salsa criolla on some Cuban rolls dressed with mayonnaise.  The combination of the chile-spiced pork, the crunchy, tart salsa criolla, and creamy sweet mayonnaise created a perfect sandwich!  As with most soups, the sopa a la criolla tasted even better after a night in the refrigerator, and in all honesty, we actually swooned over the suspira dessert, which reminded me of a cross between caramel cream and butterscotch pies.  Rich, unctuous, and delicious!  A real treat, and I am so glad I added it to the menu at the last minute.

Friday Night Dinner at Home:  Ceviche and Anticuchos

After a chaotic Thursday evening, a simple, laid-back menu was in order.  I came home from work and started working on the ceviche.  As much as I love ceviche, I had never attempted to make it at home.  Everything I read pointed to the fact that making ceviche is a simple, straightforward process without much room for error, but somehow I always stayed away from it.  I wanted to create a basic Peruvian presentation, so I started a pot of water on the stovetop to boil a sweet potato and an ear of fresh corn for my ceviche plates.  For the ceviche, I used flounder (because the fish guy said it was his best and freshest fish in stock), fresh lime juice, serrano peppers, cilantro, and black pepper.  After letting it marinate for thirty minutes, I topped it with red onions and served it with boiled sweet potato and corn.  The fish tasted so fresh and had a perfect texture.  While this may have been my first time to make ceviche at home, it will not be the last as it was some of the best ceviche I’ve ever eaten.

Anticuchos are skewers of grilled meat served on the streets of Peru that date back as far as the sixteenth century when the Incans made them with llama meat.  When Spaniards arrived on the scene, they brought beef and slaves with them.  At the time, the Spaniards showed no interest in offals and considered them food for slaves.  Interestingly, the slaves adapted the Incan dish by adding garlic to the marinade and by using beef hearts, instead of llama meat, to create a dish that is now a mainstay of Peruvian street food.

For our Anitcuchos, we grilled the skewered beef heart for a few minutes on each side and served it with a sauce made with an aji amarillo and peanut sauce.  Raichlen recommends this sauce and notes that it is more likely to be found in Bolivia; however, after discovering that peanuts are native to Peru and that the Spanish brought peanuts back to Europe as a result of their conquests in Peru, I decided that this sauce was appropriate at a Peruvian dinner table.  Plus, I had leftover aji amarillo paste, and this was a great way to use it.  We really enjoyed this dish.  I loved the flavor of the beef heart!  I will definitely make it again, but I will cut thicker slices next time.   My slices were so thin that I had to thread them onto the skewers, and it would have been better if it was thick enough to pierce through the middle of the slice with the skewer.  I didn’t realize the extent to which the pieces would shrink, and larger pieces would make a difference in this aspect, as well.  Still, the flavors of the meat and the dipping sauce were amazing, and I was proud of myself for stepping out of the box a bit this week.

I had so much fun making these Peruvian dishes.  My friend John has shared with me on several occasions that Peruvian food is truly his favorite of all South American cuisines, and I didn’t understand why until this week.  Beyond ceviche and chaufa, it seemed like every other dish that my friends introduced to me was just meat and French fries, which did not quite translate to me as special.  Making the chile pastes from aji amarillo and aji panca chiles proved to be the best decision I made.  From the mild chile accents in the Aji de Gallina and Sopa a la Criolla to the stronger, more powerful flavors in the Jamon del Pais and Anticuchos, I used these chile pastes as a compass to discover how they enhance and define Peruvian dishes.  The flavors certainly left a lasting impression on me, and I will continue to explore Peruvian cuisine in the future.