Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Week 42: A Journey to Serbia

As I began researching Serbian cuisine, I quickly recognized several dishes that I had previously read about and cooked from other countries during this year’s global journey.  I immediately looked at a map, because I must confess that I could not remember Serbia's exact location.  Landlocked by Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Albania (controversially though…Albania borders the disputed Kosovo region), this country is surrounded by rich culinary traditions.  I recognized the dobos torte from my Hungarian journey, baklava and moussaka from Greece, paprikas from Hungary, kanafeh from Palestine, syriniki from Russia, and burek from Tunisia.  Most of these influences can be traced to Serbia’s rule under the Ottoman Empire.  The good news is that I enjoyed all of these dishes, so I was anxious to try other popular dishes within the Serbian culture.

The main course in Serbia is always a meat dish.  National dishes include pljeskavica (hamburger steak), cevapcici (grilled links of ground meat served with onions, sour cream, minced red pepper and salt in a flatbread), and sarma (cabbage leaves stuffed with ground meat).  Serbia is famous for its pork products, so much so that many have attained protected designation of origin status, such as Sunka (Serbian Smoked Ham), Uzice (Serbian Bacon), and Cvarci (Serbian Pork Rinds).  In addition to these smoked and cured meats, Serbians also produce many types of sausages, which can be traced to influences from Hungary and Austria.  Not surprisingly, barbeques are very popular in this meat-centric culture.  Pickled foods, such as sauerkraut and pickled peppers, are often found in Serbian cuisine, which as a matter of balance makes perfect sense as they would serve as great accompaniments to these rich meat dishes. 

Bread is the most important component of a Serbian meal.  Traditionally, house guests are greeted with bread and salt, and some people even believe that throwing away bread is sinful.  The breads range from large country-style loaves of soda bread to pita bread to deep fried doughs.  In keeping with the theme of baking, pies and pastries are also popular in Serbian culture.  Many pastries are similar to what we Americans know more familiarly as Greek, Turkish, or Middle Eastern because of their extensive use of phyllo dough.  In addition, numerous tortes similar to Hungary’s Dobos Torte appear in Serbian cuisine.  Because dairy products are both abundant and popular in Serbia, many desserts incorporate cheese fillings, such as palachinke (thin crepe-like pancakes stuffed with cheese and jam) and gibanica (a pastry dish of phyllo, fruit, and cheese layers). 

With a limited amount of time for cooking this week, I set out to touch on as many key elements of the cuisine as possible in only a few dishes.  I incorporated grilled meats, pickles, bread, pastry, and dairy products into one Serbian Meal.

Saturday’s Prep:  Cesnica (Christmas Soda Bread) and Grilled Pickled Peppers

Because bread serves such an important role in Serbian cuisine, I chose to make a fresh loaf of bread with cultural significance.  Cesnica (also chesnic or chesnitsa) is a country-style yeast bread served during the Christmas Holidays.  It is also referred to more commonly as Christmas Bread or Money Bread.  The recipes vary by family and also according to date.  Christmas serves as one of the holiest days in the Serbian Orthodox Church, and devout Serbians abstain from meat, dairy and eggs during the 40 days leading up to Christmas.  During this time period, a basic cesnica made with only water, yeast, flour, salt and shortening is served.  During the Christmas feast, a more flavorful cesnica made with eggs and butter may be served, and some families even serve a sweet version studded with raisins and nuts.  No matter which version a family makes, the baked loaf always includes a hidden silver coin.  The bread is torn, never sliced, and tradition holds that whomever gets the coin will be lucky during the next year.  

For this week’s project, I made a basic cesnica with eggs and butter, and I was surprised at what a big, beautiful loaf of bread I had.  The inside was light and fluffy, and the exterior had perfect crisp edges.  Other than dealing with the extremely sticky dough, it was a simple bread to make.  As with most basic yeast breads, it just took time.

In Planet BBQ, Steven Raichlen writes about Grilled Pickled Peppers as typical side items to be included in a grilled meal.  Until I read the recipe, I thought it meant that pickled peppers were to be grilled.  Instead, grilled peppers are pickled.  (So, really it is Pickled Grilled Peppers, right?)  He describes them as long, slender peppers and recommends using horn or banana peppers for authentically Serbian preparations.  At the market, I only found cubanelles, so I opted to use them.  (Raichlen notes that milder peppers like cubanelles are used in neighboring countries, such as Croatia.)  I grilled the peppers until the skin began to blister.  Then, I put them in a pickling jar with garlic cloves, and I covered them in a mixture of white vinegar, salt, and sugar.  I left them in the refrigerator overnight to pickle for Sunday night’s dinner.

Sunday Night’s Dinner:  Grilled Pork Roulade (rolovani punjeni raznjici), Grilled Pickled Peppers (ardei copti), Serbian-style Coleslaw, Grilled Cesnica, and Gibanica

pork roulades
grilled pickled peppers
oil and vinegar coleslaw
When I read the recipe for Raichlen’s rolovani punjeni raznijici, I knew it was the Serbian meat dish for our dinner as it incorporates most of the traditionally Serbian elements:  pork tenderloin wrapped around cheese, cornichon, and onion…and then wrapped in bacon.  Plus, it sounded amazing, and I knew the hubs would be happy to fire up the charcoal grill for this meal.  Each roulade is small as the size of the pork tenderloin is only two inches by three inches.  I used edam cheese, because I read that it was similar to typical Serbian cheese.  The final dish was rich and delicious, and tasted exactly as you might imagine it. 

For side items, I served the Grilled Pickled Peppers and an oil and vinegar dressed Serbian coleslaw.  Cabbage is such a major component of Eastern European cuisine that I felt like I had to include it somewhere in the meal.  Both the peppers and the coleslaw provided a nice balance to the meal as their cool, crunchy, and tart profiles offered the perfect counterpoint to the rich, smoky pork roulades.  Since I still had half of that big loaf of cesnica leftover, I cut a few thick slices, and we grilled it to enjoy with dinner, as well.


For dessert, I made gibanica layered with phyllo sheets, an apricot filling, raspberry preserves, and a cheese filling.  I liked this dessert, because it was not overly sweet.  While the separate flavors of the three fillings were discernible, together they complemented each other by offering sweet, tart, and creamy profiles to the dish.

I must admit that I was not confident that this week would yield many great dishes when I began this Serbian journey, but when I finished these dishes, I found myself wondering if I had shortchanged Serbia.  After I finally began to understand the culture and the convergence of the Ottoman influences with those of Hungary and other Balkan states, I stumbled upon some interesting dishes that we really enjoyed.  Every country's cuisine offers some interesting flavors and dishes...sometimes it just takes a little longer to find those gems.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Week 41: A Journey to Cuba

After living in Miami for five years, a week of Cuban food for a project celebrating World Cuisines almost felt like cheating.  Cuban food is so much a part of Miami culture that I don’t even think of it as exotic or different anymore.  Having previously written about the cuisines of Cuba’s neighbors, such as Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Haiti, it seems like a bit of a repeat to write about the same influences and seasonings, so I decided to explore some of my favorite Cuban comfort foods.  My sister, brother-in-law, niece, and nephews, were visiting for the week, and I decided that introducing them to Cuban cuisine would be an interesting way to rediscover the flavors of these dishes.

Cuban Sandwich, Frijoles Negros, and Rice
Cuban sandwich
The Cuban Sandwich made its way to the United States via cigar rollers and their families who lived in Tampa, Miami, and Key West.  In Cuba, this sandwich evolved over years of influences from Spanish settlers.  Linda Stradley wrote a great article, “History of the Cuban Sandwich,” which includes excerpts from Cuban-Americans in Tampa and Miami with close ties to the sandwich.  Of course, in Cuba, it was just called “a sandwich” and in the United States, its name became The Cuban in reference to a sandwich made with Cuban Bread (a soft, airy, white bread with a papery thin crust), filled with roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, and a thin layer of yellow mustard, and pressed to both warm the sandwich and compress it.  (In Tampa, a layer of Genoa salami is layered into the sandwich, which is a nod to the Italian community there.)  I set out to make an authentic version at home.  I slow-roasted a pork shoulder in sour orange juice and garlic for several hours.  Then, I piled the roast pork onto Cuban bread with Swiss cheese, Serrano ham, and yellow mustard.  Typically, a Cuban press is flat, but I forgot to change out the plates on my press, so you can see the “grill mark” grooves on the sandwich.  Otherwise, my Cuban Sandwich was the real deal!  It was good, too. 

frijoles negros
To accompany our Cuban Sandwiches, I made a big pot of Cuban Black Beans and white rice.  I’m not exactly sure what makes Cuban Black Beans authentic, because I found several different recipes claiming to be authentic.  I'm pretty sure that most people's idea of "authentic" is however their mothers or grandmothers made it.  I made the recipe posted on the Three Guys from Miami website, because I was intrigued by the list of seasonings for the beans:  onion, bell pepper, garlic, oregano, cumin, bay leaf, vinegar, dry Spanish wine, olive oil, and a little sugar.  Interestingly, my family enjoyed the beans as much, if not more than, the sandwiches.  We all agreed that the little bit of sugar added an interesting twist to our expectations.  It’s a recipe I will definitely make again.

Ropa Vieja, Arroz Amarillo, and Platanos Maduros
ropa vieja, arroz amarillo,
platanos maduros
Ropa Vieja is my absolute favorite Cuban dish.  On the rare occasion that we have a cool winter night in Miami, ropa vieja hits the spot!  Having eaten the dish out in restaurants on several occasions, I always thought it was traditionally made with chuck roast, but this week, I discovered that the dish’s most authentic presentation is made with flank steak.  The dish originated in Spain’s Canary Islands, the last stop on the way to the Americas, and those on the Spanish ships traveling through to the Caribbean introduced the dish to Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.  Its name means “old clothes” which references the fact that ladies remarked that its appearance was akin to that of old, torn rags.  A basic ropa vieja recipe is braised, shredded beef in a tomato sauce base with onions and peppers.  Sometimes olives, pimientos, chickpeas, potatoes, and capers are added, and in Mexico, the dish is actually made with mint, garlic and eggs.  I made a straightforward recipe from Mark Bittman that included onions, peppers, garlic, cumin, and diced tomatoes.  Without question, this was the best version I’ve ever tasted, and I attribute that to Bittman’s treatment of cumin in the dish.  Whereas other recipes include ground cumin, his recipe calls for cumin seeds and garlic paste to be fried in oil, and then the onions and bell peppers are sautéed in that oil.  This results in an aromatic, cumin-centric dish, which I loved.  I made yellow rice and fried some ripe plantains to accompany the dish.  The family loved it, especially the plantains.  I’ve become so accustomed to ripe plantains that I forget they are not so “everday” in the rest of the country.  The Ropa Vieja was so good that I found only a few stray pieces of shredded beef and a couple of bell pepper slices in my refrigerator when I was seeking out leftovers.  Definitely a hit with the family!

Pastelitos de Guayaba
pastelitos fresh from
the oven
Upon moving to Miami, it took me a while to figure out that what I called a “turnover” is actually a pastelito in Miami.  While a pastelito is basically a turnover, it represents so much more culturally.  It’s a snack enjoyed by strangers at a Cuban coffee window or a treat shared amongst friends and family at a casual gathering or for breakfast.  The pastry is similar to puff pastry, and by all means can be made with puff pastry, but when you bite into an authentic pastelito, you can taste that the pastry is not all butter…you can taste the lard.  The most traditional sweet filling is cream cheese and guava, although pineapple and coconut are also popular.  Pastelitos can be savory, too, and filled with meat and/or cheese.  In the case of both sweet and savory pastelitos, the pastries are topped with a thin sweet glaze.

guava and cream cheese filling
I made a batch of guava and cream cheese pastelitos using puff pastry, and I could not believe how amazingly delicious they tasted when they were fresh from the oven.  Plus, they are so easy to make.  Puff Pastry, a slice of guava paste, and some cream cheese mixed with a little milk, fresh lemon juice, and sugar create a perfect little pie.  I put an egg wash on them, baked for thirty minutes, and brushed them with simple syrup five minutes before they finished baking.  Perfect, delicious pastelitos!  I took some to work the next day, and we all agreed that these were some of the best pastelitos we’d ever tasted.  Another Y’all Taste This victory!

All in all, my week of Cuban cuisine was more comforting than enlightening, but I enjoyed making these dishes that I have grown to love.  Making them taught me about the layers of flavors used to create them, and introducing them to my family gave me an opportunity to rediscover their charms.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Week 40: A Journey to Laos

This week’s exploration of Lao cuisine introduced me to the customs and culture of a country absolutely unfamiliar to me.  My experience with Laos’ cuisine existed only regarding its relationships and influences with its bordering countries of Thailand, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, and Burma/Myanmar. Unlike its neighbors, Laos is land-locked with a mountainous terrain so underdeveloped that the word “wilderness” is often employed to describe its landscape, and not hyperbolically.  Because of this environment, its cuisine evolves from fresh, raw ingredients native to the land.  Its most famous dish, laap or larb, is a testament to this connection as it originated as a dish of raw, minced meat from a hunter’s fresh kill seasoned with onions, chiles, and herbs, such as mint and cilantro.  Another testament to the influence of the wild on Lao cuisine is the common occurrence of dried water buffalo skin in stews and chile pastes.  With no coastal borders, local freshwater fish, such as catfish, are used to create fresh fish dishes, as well as Laos’ most popular fermented fish sauce, padek.  Most meals are accompanied by fresh vegetables, and no Lao dinner would be complete without sticky rice, which is traditionally rolled into a ball and eaten by hand.  Whereas the dishes of its neighboring countries are famous for their “sweet and sour” or “sweet and savory” flavor profiles, Lao dishes are never sweet.  In fact, they are most frequently described as bitter due to their extensive use of fresh greens and herbs.  With this basic primer, I planned our Lao menus to further my understanding of the country’s cuisine and flavors.

Sticky Rice (khao niao) and Stuffed Lemongrass (ua si khai)
Sticky Rice, also known as glutinous rice, is the mainstay of Lao cuisine.  I read so many descriptions of its textures and qualities before making it, and I must say that making it, touching it, and tasting it are truly the only ways to really understand how it differs from other rice varieties.  It is definitely sticky, but in a way that it sticks to itself, the steamer, the serving bowl…but not one’s hands while rolling it into a neat little ball to pop it in the mouth.  I steamed it in a bamboo steamer lined with parchment paper.  (Banana leaves would have been more authentic but I didn’t have any in the freezer.)  While it is not as fragrant or flavorful as Jasmine rice, it does have a slightly aromatic flavor.  Interestingly, in addition to steaming this rice, Lao also toast the grains, grind them, and add them to dishes for a nutty flavor. 

stuffed lemongrass
and sticky rice
When researching authentic Lao dishes online, stuffed lemongrass, or ua si khai, constantly appeared in my search results.  Most likely, these numerous references are related to the fact that the chef from a popular Lao restaurant, Tamarind, in Luang Prabang offers Lao Cooking classes that tourists the world over have attended, and this is a dish he teaches.  The dish can be traced back to a compilation of handwritten recipes by a former chef of the royal palace at Luang Prabang.  I selected the recipe for two reasons.  I was curious to see how much of the lemongrass flavor would infuse into the stuffing, and I thought it looked cool.  Most of the recipes I found were pretty similar, so I selected a recipe with ingredients that sounded most appealing to me, which means I stuffed my lemongrass with garlic, scallions, cilantro, kaffir lime leaves, and ground pork.  I was surprised to find that making the “basket” in the lemongrass stalk is quite simple.  I cut a slit about 4 inches long with a paring knife, then turned the stalk a quarter turn and cut another slit until I worked my way around the stalk.  After that, I squeezed the stalk from end to end until the slits started to give and opened up for me to work a small handful of the stuffing into the lemongrass basket.  Some recipes recommended letting the stuffed lemongrass stalks rest overnight in the refrigerator so that the flavors would have more time to infuse.  I only let mine rest for an hour before coating them in egg and frying them for a few minutes.  With only an hour, the lemongrass flavor definitely came through, and it provided a nice, delicate aroma for the dish, as well.  I love it, and I was really proud of myself for creating such a beautiful dish.

Green Papaya Salad (tam mak hoong) and Duck Laap (laap ped)
green papaya salad
 A few weeks ago, I explored Thai cuisine, and although I had the best of intentions for making som tam (Northeast Thailand’s version of Green Papaya Salad), I just didn’t have enough time that week.  I knew that it was a dish influenced by the Lao border, but I did not realize that the dish actually originated in Laos.  I wish that I could say my presentation was authentically Lao in every way, but I think it was more likely a combination of the two.  I read as many descriptions of the Lao version as possible and finalized on these notes for ensuring some Lao authenticity: 
  • Both Thai and Lao versions include green papaya, garlic, peanuts, and chiles.
  • Lime juice is downplayed in the Lao version and sometimes not included at all.  Instead, a mortar and pestle is used to mash the shredded green papaya which releases some of its juices into the salad.
  • Lao salads generally include two types of tomatoes:  a larger, pulpier fruit and a small juicy one.  One should be sweet and the other a bit sour.
  • The Thai version generally includes palm sugar for a flavor profile of sweet, sour, and spicy, but Lao versions are more often only salty and spicy.  The saltiness comes from padek, Lao fish sauce.
  • Lao versions often include raw crabs seasoned in the fermented fish sauce.
mortar and pestle
 I followed these guidelines with the exception of the raw crab to make a fresh green papaya salad with fish sauce, dried shrimp, garlic, Chinese long beans, tomatoes, cilantro, scallions, red Thai chiles, peanuts, and a splash of fresh lime juice.  The salad was delicious, and I didn’t even mind the bits of chopped, dried shrimp.  The toughest part of making this salad is figuring out how to shred the papaya.  I tried using a mandolin, and it didn’t work at all.  So, I cut long slits into the fruit and thinly sliced off the top layer into a bowl.  Then, I mashed it using the Lao-style mortar and pestle I could not resist buying at Vihn An.  It worked really well, and I think it gave the salad a rustic, authentic look.

laap ped
Laap, also known as larb, is an herb-infused salad made with chopped meat, fish sauce, lime juice, and toasted glutinous rice powder.  The flavor profile is sour, salty, and spicy.  While in Laos the dish is most commonly made with raw meat, it is also served with cooked meat.  The choice of meat used in this dish ranges from fish to fowl to wild buffalo.  I opted to make my laap with cooked duck and followed a recipe that included the following ingredients for seasoning:  fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, roasted glutinous rice powder, roasted chili powder, fresh mint leaves, fresh scallions, and fresh cilantro.  I served it with wedges of cabbage, blanched long beans, and Thai red chiles.  The flavor combination was really nice, but then again, I am a big fan of duck.  The only indiscernible ingredient was the rice powder.  I tried to taste its supposed nuttiness, but it just wasn’t there; however, I think it aided in binding and thickening the mixture, which is a definite positive.  Overall, it was a nice dish, and I can imagine that the flavor combination of these herbs and seasonings with a raw gamy meat, or even raw beef, would be even better.

My week of Lao cuisine was quite interesting.  While the dishes were nice, the most enjoyable part of the week was considering each dish and its place in Southeastern Cuisine.  Considering how a dish has influenced other neighboring countries or how those neighbors influenced it motivated me as I read about the history of Laos, its geography, and it cuisine.  All in all, a thoughtful week.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Week 39: A Journey to Algeria

Prior to this week’s project, my definition of Algerian cuisine was limited to...it's like Moroccan.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that many dishes I consider Moroccan actually originated in Algeria and Tunisia.  The cuisine of all three countries is distinguished from other world cuisines by their use of dried red chiles and “warm” spices like cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, coriander, fennel, ginger, mace, star anise, saffron, and caraway.  Spice blends, such as ras el hanout, vary depending on the spice shop owner or chef.  Although Algerian cuisine clearly originated through its strong ties to Berber and Ottoman cuisines, the Spanish occupation of the late fifteenth century brought olives, oranges, plums and peaches from across the Mediterranean to Algeria, in addition to fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, and chiles from the New World.  France’s colonization of the land from 1830 to 1962 greatly influenced the cuisine by introducing tomato purees, baguettes, pastries, and the establishment of sidewalk cafes.  With such a significant number of worldly influences, Algerian cuisine differentiates itself through a global interpretation of dishes with sweet, savory, and balanced flavor profiles.  For this week’s project, I selected dishes that emphasize those influences.

Harissa and Merguez Sausages
Until this week, I was thought of Harissa and Merguez sausages as Moroccan.  Then, I found this fascinating commentary from Algerian Chef Farid Zadi on his Mediterranean Creole blog:

“Merquez are Algerian and Tunisian sausages made with lamb. Merguez are not ‘Moroccan sausages’. While I'm at it, I'll add that harissa is also Algerian and Tunisian. Packaged ‘Moroccan harissa’ as a ‘traditional Moroccan sauce’ is a marketing invention. Merguez sausage and harissa entered tourist areas in Morocco to meet foreign demand.
One of my sources for this information is my Moroccan friend Rachid of The Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Center for Scientific Research). We had an interesting discussion about how merguez and harissa became increasingly common in tourist areas in Morocco during the past several decades.”
Fascinated by this declaration, I found several examples of such marketing while researching Algerian cuisine.  First , I googled “Buy Harissa” and found that the first page of search results returned noted that Harissa is a Moroccan Spice.  Regarding Merguez Sausage, I found that both Whole Foods and Daily Bread Marketplace label it as Moroccan Sausage.  I also discovered that the ingredient labels on the Merguez Sausages in Whole Foods and Daily Bread included only a few of the basic seasonings traditionally included in Merguez Sausage:  Garlic, Cumin, Paprika, and Salt.  After reading these labels, I wondered if I had ever even tasted a full-flavored proper Merguez Sausage, so I set out to remedy that situation.
I began by making a homemade harissa.  Like any spice blend or chile paste, the recipes for Harissa vary, but after reading several, I found the key ingredients included dried red chiles, caraway seeds, coriander seeds, cumin, dried mint, olive oil, salt, garlic, and fresh lemon juice or zest.  I loosely followed a recipe from Saveur using dried ancho, guajillo, and pasilla chiles from my pantry, plus I added a teaspoon of cumin.  This final chile paste was smoky, spicy, and balanced.  Not only did it add a great base flavor to a few dishes I made this week, it also acted as a delicious spread for my Merguez sausage sandwiches.  It keeps for weeks in the refrigerator, too…that is, if there is any left in a few weeks.  It’s good stuff!
homemade merguez sausage
I read several recipes for homemade Merguez sausage and determined that no store bought version with a few spices could ever have the flavor of a proper Merguez.  I found recipes with more than twenty different spices.  Chef Zadi’s recipe seemed like an authentic presentation, so I followed his lead.  For starters, his recipe called for freshly ground lamb shoulder and leg, plus diced hard lamb fat to aid in keeping the sausages moist while they cook.  I needed to “grind” the lamb myself, because I found several sources that noted Merguez sausage should be a bit chunky and textured.  I found lamb shoulder blade “steaks” at a local grocer (Milam’s), and I butchered them dividing them into three groups:  hard fat, cubes of lean meat for stew, and cubes of lean-meat-with-a-little-fat-that-just-didn’t-have-that-perfect-cube-appearance for a stew.  I set aside the nice cubes for a stew to use later in the project, and I proceeded to add a 1/4 pound of hard diced fat and 1 1/4 pounds of the lean/fatty pieces to my food processor.  To the meat, I added garlic, salt, harissa, fresh cilantro, and one tablespoon of the merguez spice blend I made, which included cumin, turmeric, caraway, coriander, fennel, thyme, sumac, sweet paprika, ancho chile powder, cayenne pepper, and black pepper.  I pulsed it until the mixture just came together making sure it still had actual pieces of lamb in it for texture.  I didn’t see any reason to mess around with casing for a few sausages, so I just formed the mixture into individual sausages and wrapped each in cling wrap so they could set up in the refrigerator.
Merguez Sausage Sandwiches
Merguez sausage sandwich
Merguez sausages have been served alone, as an appetizer, with couscous, or in a tagine throughout North Africa for years.  When the French brought baguettes to region, the Merguez Sausage sandwich was born.  While I found several ideas for making these sandwiches, I chose to make mine with grilled Merguez sausage, thick layers of harissa on both slices of bread, and a salad of onion, cucumber, and tomato seasoned with mint, parsley, olive oil, and white wine vinegar.  I also made the sandwich on ciabatta bread, instead of a baguette, because I thought the larger, flat surface would allow for a bigger, more delectable sandwich, and that it did.  I am so proud of this one.  The sausage was a perfect balance of lamb flavor complemented by all of those spices, and I got the texture exactly right.  This sandwich was a textbook example of balance:  warm, spicy sausages; cool, crisp, bright salad; soft, sweet bread; and smoky harissa.
Chakchouka (also shakshouka) is a thick stew of tomatoes and peppers with eggs poached in its broth.  The dish is a staple of North Africa, and it is also popular in Israel where immigrant Tunisian Jews introduced it.  For me, all I had to read was “eggs poached in its broth” to know that I had to try it.  For the record, this is the best and easiest one-pot meal I have ever tried.  I don’t know why it hasn’t found popularity in the rest of the world, because the flavors are unbelievable, and it doesn’t even have meat or onions in it!  I followed a recipe from Global Gourmet that included red peppers, green peppers, garlic, chilies, tomatoes, harissa, caraway, paprika, and cumin.  I simmered that mixture for about fifteen minutes, and then I made little indentions in the top of the stew and added an egg in each spot to poach.  About eight minutes later, I had a big pot of heaven.  We ate the stew with fresh pita bread.  This was my favorite dish of the week!  Yes, it was even better than the Merguez sausage sandwiches.

Lahm Lhalou 
lahm lhalou
When I began researching Algerian cuisine, I found that most “Algerian” dishes were actually better described as “North African” or “Tunisian/Algerian” as there seems to be quite a bit of overlap in cuisine throughout that region.  Lahm Lhalou is the one of the few dishes that I found which is given full credit as an Algerian dish.  The name for this lamb stew means "sweet meat" in Arabic, and the dish is traditionally served during Ramadan.  The lamb meat is seasoned with cinnamon, turmeric, ground ginger, and saffron, and the stew includes dried fruits, sugar, and sometimes, orange blossom water, to provide its sweet profile.  Interestingly, the recipe specifically stated that salt is not added so as not to cause thirst during the next day’s fast.  For my presentation, I used prunes and raisins in the stew, and I served it over couscous.  The flavors were definitely better than the picture looks.  It was warm, rich, sweet, and the lamb was incredibly tender.  While it wasn’t the most exciting dish of the week, I can imagine how great it would taste after a day of fasting.  I would definitely make it again…but I’d add a little salt.

Makroud el Louse 
makroud el louse
I found numerous references to these little Algerian Almond Cookies and decided to try them out.  While I never found any details regarding their origins, I found the same recipe on about ten different sites.  The basic cookie is only almonds, sugar, and egg.  The almonds are pulverized until they are basically an almond flour although I did not process mine quite that much.  In my cookies, the small chunks of almonds were definitely discernible.  What intrigued me about these cookies is the steps taken after the cookies are baked.  They are dipped in orange blossom simple syrup and then powdered in confectioners’ sugar.  The slight floral note of that syrup with the richness of the almonds resulted in a sweet, refreshing cookie.  A perfect cookie to serve with a cup of mint tea.  

My week of Algerian cuisine provided me a more specific understanding of North African cuisines’ origins and Algeria’s contributions to that region.  Although chakchouka is definitely the dish that I will serve again and again, making harissa and Merguez sausage proved to be the most valuable lesson of the week.  I’ll never again wonder if I’ve tasted a proper Merguez sausage, because now I know I’ve made my own.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Week 38: A Journey to Thailand

I enthusiastically anticipated this week of Thai cuisine.  I still recall my first taste of Tom Kha Kai.  I thought it was the most incredible flavor profile:  spicy, sweet, and luxurious.  From that moment forward, Thai cuisine became one of my favorites.  I lived across the street from a great Thai restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, called Surin West.  I called them for takeout so often that they knew me and my usual orders with just the ring of their telephone.  Despite my adoration for Thai cuisine, the only Thai food I had cooked at home originated from a Thai Kitchen box or a jar of store-bought curry paste.  As I began my research, I quickly discovered that most of my favorite Thai dishes and, frankly, most dishes served in Thai restaurants, originate from Thailand’s Central region, which meant I needed to make an extra effort to study the dishes of Thailand’s other key regions (Northern, Northeastern, and Southern) if I wanted a more complete Thai experience.  Another resounding theme that I discovered in the recipes of bloggers and chefs with experience in authentic Thai cuisine is the absolute necessity for sourcing the proper ingredients and not attempting to make substitutions.  Keeping this in mind, I set out to create a challenging week of menus with three fundamental rules:

1.  All dishes must be homemade. 
2.  Dishes from regions other than the Central region must be included.
3.  No ingredient substitutions.  Source the real ingredients in order to experience the most authentic flavor profile.

Thai basil, Chinese chives,
Thai green eggplant,
lemongrass from Vinh An
With these ground rules in place, I looked at my calendar and wondered how I could possibly fit so many great dishes into my week.  After I determined a schedule and a list of ingredients, I headed to my favorite local market, Vihn An in North Miami Beach, to see if I could find the authentic ingredients I needed, and they did not disappoint.  As a matter of fact, they even had authentic ingredients that I hadn’t included on my list, such as banana flowers and Thai eggplant.  I left with two boxes of groceries and embarked on a week of exciting menus.

From the Northern Region
Northern Thailand is a mountainous region with a temperate climate.  Because its populations are isolated from the more populous Central region, its dishes have evolved with little influence from other regions.  Its flavor profile is primarily hot (from use of chiles, fresh ginger, galangal, and black pepper) and salty (from fermented soybeans, fish pastes, and salted land crabs).  Pork is the primary protein in the region's dishes, and because the area’s climate nurtures a fertile agricultural environment, the dishes focus on local ingredients, such as wild mushrooms, vegetables, and fruits.  Sticky rice and chile dipping sauces often accompany main dishes here.

nam phrik ong
Nam phrik ong is one of the most popular dishes in the Northern region, and its ingredients exemplify the definition of the area’s cuisine.  The dish includes ground pork seasoned with dried chiles and tomatoes.  It resembles a meat chili or Bolognese sauce.  Raw vegetables and sticky rice traditionally accompany dish.  Interestingly, most photos I saw of this dish online showed the dip with vegetables, such as carrot sticks or long beans.  I served the dip with carrot sticks, long beans, and raw slices of Thai eggplant, and I discovered that while it makes a pretty plate, it is completely impractical.  Because the dip is chunky, we found ourselves using forks to hold the dip on the vegetables in order to eat them together.  A cabbage or lettuce leaf would have offered a much easier solution to enjoying the dip with the vegetables.  That aside, the dish’s flavors were mildly spicy and quite delicious, and I enjoyed trying the raw Thai eggplant slices.  I had never considered eating raw eggplant, but I found several references to it being served with the dip and wanted to try it.  While the flavor was nice, I found the texture to be a bit “biting” for lack of a better term.  It had a sharpness to it that I didn’t particularly like.  The carrots were my favorite vegetable with the dip, and if I make it again, I will cut them on the bias in strips, instead of in sticks, to provide a surface for the dip.  Unfortunately, I did not serve sticky rice with this dish because I did not realize that it required eight hours of soaking time and did not plan accordingly.

From the Northeastern Region
The Northeastern region of Thailand is one of the poorest areas of the country with little infrastructure and an agricultural lifestyle.  Sticky rice is the staple of its cuisine, and its dishes are famous for being spicy and flavorful.  As it is not near the ocean, the dishes include preserved and pickled fish as flavoring components.  The area is renowned for its grilling and its most famous dish:  Som Tam, also known as Green Papaya salad.  I had great intentions of making green papaya salad and mu ping, grilled pork skewers, but I simply ran out of time this week.  I still have a green papaya in my refrigerator, so maybe I’ll make the salad this weekend.  It is one of my favorite Thai dishes!

From the Southern Region
The cuisine of Southern Thailand is known for its extreme spiciness and distinctively full-flavored curries influenced by its Muslim minority.  Without a doubt, kaeng matsaman, Massaman Curry, is the most famous dish from this area.  Interestingly, the dish ranked #1 in a 2011 CNN Go article featuring the world’s fifty most delicious foods (beating out Italy’s Neapolitan pizza, Mexico’s chocolate, Japan’s sushi, and China’s Peking duck).  As its name suggests, Massaman curry has Muslim origins and developed as a result of Arab traders traveling in Southern Thailand. 

Massaman Curry with
beef and potatoes
Having eaten this dish in Thai restaurants previously, I found its ranking in the CNN poll curious as I liked the dish but never thought it was better than anything else I had ever tried.  Feeling challenged, I set out to prepare an authentic Massaman curry.  I followed the Temple of Thai website’s recipe for a curry paste, which included coriander seeds, cumin seeds, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, shallot, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, coriander root (I substituted stems), lime zest, white pepper, dried red chiles, salt, and shrimp paste.  Then, I made their recipe for Beef and Potato Massaman Curry.  I wanted to love this dish, because I was so proud of my authentic undertaking, but I would not call this one of my more successful endeavors.  My fault was nothing but brazen conceit!  When the curry paste recipe called for 10-15 dried red chiles and 1-2 tbsp of shrimp paste, I opted for 10 chiles (not wanting to be wasteful and thinking that would be enough) and 2 full tbsp of shrimp paste (thinking that would make my curry more authentic and help me realize why this dish received that #1 ranking).  I was mistaken.  My palate is not that sophisticated, and I used too much shrimp paste.  The dish was pungent.  Don’t get me wrong…not inedible.  I ate it and considered the flavors with each bite.  However, there was so much strong fish flavor that the hubs looked at me confusingly and said, “Does this have fish in it?”  The potatoes soaked in so much of the shrimp paste flavor that he thought maybe his bite of potato was fish.  Truthfully, this dish would have been amazing with less shrimp paste, and I caught a glimpse of why people might love it so much.

From the Central-Bangkok Region
Ah, the dishes I love most…that make me swoon…that invoke happiness just at the mere mention of their names.  The cuisine of Thailand's Central region combines the best of all Thai regions with flavors ranging from mild to spicy.  I explored several of my favorite Thai dishes from this region discovering new preparations for them, as well as an appreciation for the tediousness of making them with fresh, authentic ingredients. 

tom kha kai
Tom kha kai (also tom kha gai) is such a simple soup, and it has always been my favorite part of a Thai meal.  The basic dish is a chicken and coconut milk soup infused with galangal, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves.  Most of the time, it also includes mushrooms and chiles, and it is seasoned with lime juice and fish sauce.  As I set out to find a recipe for it, I found strong opinions about the necessity for using authentic ingredients in a proper presentation.  On the blog, She Simmers, Leela Punyaratabandhu offers painstakingly detailed thoughts on a proper, authentic bowl of tom kah kai, which I followed precisely in order to create a fresh, fragrant, and delicious soup for myself.  As soon as I smelled the fresh galangal and kaffir lime leaves, I immediately understood why she so adamantly insists on their absolute necessity in an authentic tom kha kai.  Substituting ginger and/or regular lime zest would result in a complete loss of integrity here.  The galangal and kaffir lime leaves add an intriguing flavor and aroma, slightly floral even, that cannot be matched.  The only substitution I made in this preparation was to use Serrano pepper in place of fresh Thai chiles, which should not be a significant enough substitution to change the flavor profile.  I highly recommend making this dish at home.  It will surprise and delight you.

pad thai
Pad Thai is likely the most recognizable Thai dish on the planet.  Most people who have been to a Thai restaurant at least one time have tried this dish.  While we Americans think of it as a restaurant dish, it is actually a very popular street food in Thailand.  Food carts line up with vendors who have made this dish hundreds of times on a daily basis perfecting their recipes over the years.  On the website Thai Table, an authentic pad thai is described as “dry and light bodied, with a fresh, complex, balanced flavor…reddish and brownish in color. Not bright red and oily like…in the US.”  I followed the recipe posted on this site to create the freshest pad thai I’ve ever tried.  (For the optional items, I used bean sprouts, Chinese chives, peanuts, and shrimp.  Vihn An did not have banana flowers on the day I was making this dish, but they did have them later in the week, so by all means, try to find them.  I also omitted the preserved turnip because I couldn’t find it.)  This dish was so good that I’m not sure I will ever order it for take out again. 
tom yam goong
On Saturday night, I invited friends over for a Thai feast.  We began the evening with tom yam goong, a hot and sour soup with shrimp.  For such a simple recipe of just a few ingredients, this soup is packed with flavor.  Natty Netswan of Thai Table features her mother’s recipe for tom yam goong and offers interesting notes about its ingredients.  For instance, she notes that while most recipes for the dish include chicken broth, this is not only unnecessary, but inauthentic.  I used nam prig pow, a dark chili paste, from a jar for this dish, and it added incredible flavor.  (After making all of the curry pastes from scratch, I just didn’t have the energy to make the chile paste, too.  Besides, I only needed a small amount.)  Surprisingly, this turned out to be everyone’s favorite dish of the evening.  It was bright, flavorful, and spicy.  A real treat!

panaeng curry with
pork and kabocha squash
Next, I served two curries with steamed Jasmine Rice:  Panaeng Curry with pork and kabocha squash and Green Curry with tofu and Thai eggplant.  Panaeng Curry is another of my favorite Thai dishes, but I must admit that I do not think I got this one quite right.  It was good, but I’ve had better.  Maybe the ones I've tried before are just Americanized... who knows?  I will note that the use of pork and kabocha squash as a vehicle for the panaeng curry paste was quite brilliant.  (She Simmers featured this suggestion noting that her mother always made panaeng curry with this combination.  I loved the idea of it as it is not a presentation I have ever seen in a restaurant, yet it makes perfect sense that this mild, creamy curry sauce would complement the sweet profiles of pork and kabocha squash.)  For the panaeng curry paste, I used coriander seeds, cumin seeds, nutmeg, cardamom pods, black peppercorns, dried red chiles, fresh galangal, fresh lemongrass, lime zest, cilantro stems, shallots, garlic, and shrimp paste.  On the plus side, I did a much better job of balancing the shrimp paste in the dish than in my Massaman curry paste.  On the “just okay” side, the overall flavor seemed a bit bland.  I know panaeng should be mild, but this was much milder than I expected.  It needed more citrus to brighten it and more chiles to flavor it.  Not a total fail, but somewhat disappointing to me.

green curry with tofu
and Thai green eggplant
The Green Curry atoned for the lack of flavor in the panaeng.  Its flavor profile had the balance and the bold flavors I was craving.  I made a green curry paste from fresh green chiles, shallots, garlic, fresh galangal, fresh lemongrass, lime zest, cilantro stems, peppercorns, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, salt and shrimp paste.  This dish offered a great lesson in the difference between a jarred curry paste and a homemade curry paste.  The brightness and freshness of the dish was unlike any green curry I’ve had in a restaurant, and I loved it.  In addition to the green curry paste, the dish was flavored with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, palm sugar, chiles, and fresh Thai basil leaves.  I made it with tofu and those little green Thai eggplants that I found at Vihn An, which turned out to be delicious when cooked in a curry.  It was so good that three grown adult men who admitted that they never like tofu agreed that they had never tasted it prepared this way and loved it!  I knew they would, too, because tofu offers such a great canvas for flavorful sauces.  (The problem is that most people haven’t had it cooked properly.  The key is to press it, even if you buy the extra-firm, and to fry it before you add it into a curry.  Texture is key.)  I really can’t say enough about how much I loved this presentation. 

As an added plus for the evening, I made homemade ginger ice cream for dessert.  It was so delicious that I forgot to take a picture, or maybe I was too worn out by the end of this meal to take a picture.  Either way, I can report that it was quite delicious and a nice way to end our Thai feast.

Thai-Inspired Cocktails
I can’t write this post without commending my friends Keena and Ralph for creating some amazing Thai-inspired cocktails for our Saturday night feast.  When they asked if they could help with Saturday night’s dinner, I said, “Sure.  Why don’t you come up with a Thai-inspired cocktail for the night?”  So, they showed up with three amazing cocktails including recipe cards!  I loved it.  The drinks were great.

Lemongrass Martini Swirl

Shake the following ingredients with ice in a martini shaker:
  • ¼ tsp minced lemongrass paste
  • 6 oz Lemongrass infused green tea
  • Splash of fresh lime juice
  • Splash of fresh lemon juice
  • Splash of Soda
  • 1 oz Kaffir Lime Infused Vodka
  • 1 oz Russian Standard Vodka
Garnish with Swirls of Lemon Peel.

Coconut Painkiller

Shake the following ingredients with ice in a martini shaker:
  • 1 tbsp crushed mint leaves
  • 3 oz pure coconut water with pineapple
  • 3 oz soda
  • Splash of Fresh lime juice
  • Splash of Fresh lemon juice
  • 2 oz Kaffir Lime Infused Vodka or Ciroc Coconut Infused Vodka
Garnish with Mint Leaves or Lime Wedge.

Kenny Powers Ginger Chili Mule

Shake the following ingredients with ice in a martini shaker:
  • 1/4 tsp Minced Ginger
  • 3 oz Ginger Infused Green Tea
  • 3 oz Fever Tree Ginger Beer
  • Splash of fresh lemon juice
  • 2 oz Russian Standard Vodka
Rim the glass with chile powder and a touch of ground ginger.

All in all, I learned so much about Thai cuisine this week.  Making the curry pastes illustrated the complex list of ingredients required to produce these dishes.  My failures and successes illuminated the importance of finding the proper balance between sweet, spicy, salty, and downright pungent.  Most of all, I found a new appreciation for dishes prepared with authentic ingredients.  This week offered incredible insight regarding the “Americanization” of many Thai dishes we love.  The good news is that I found out I like most of these dishes done both ways, but now I know the difference!