Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Week 48: A Journey to Sri Lanka

My week of Sri Lankan cuisine enlightened me to the limitless culinary possibilities this country offers.  Sri Lanka is an island nation off the southern coast of India.  While its dishes have obviously evolved though use of local ingredients, such as of tropical fruits, rice, and fish, Sri Lankan cuisine also bears the influence of Arab traders who settled there in the sixth century, as well as Portuguese and Dutch explorers who arrived in the sixteenth century.  Rice and curries are the most popular and prevalent dishes throughout the country, and Sri Lankan cuisine is most famous for its spicy profile.  Summarizing the cuisine beyond these simple points is nearly impossible, because Sri Lankan dishes are not necessarily the same throughout the country.  A basic dish may have very different presentations in the Northern and Southern Provinces, so for my purposes this week, I focused on finding authentic recipes for Sri Lankan dishes with an understanding that my dishes may not represent the entire country but certainly its spirit as a whole.

brinjal moju
brinjal moju
Eggplants grow well in warmer climates, so it is no surprise to learn that they are a common ingredient in Sri Lankan cuisine.  While many curry dishes feature eggplants, I discovered a dish called Brinjal Moju which is commonly described as a pickle in most references, but I think “relish” would be a better description of the dish.  It may be served with paratha, steamed rice, or as an accompaniment to a curry dish.  For my brinjal moju, I included eggplant, shallots, Serrano chilies, garlic, crushed red pepper, vinegar, ground mustard, rice vinegar, sugar, and cloves.  I sliced the eggplant into strips, tossed it in turmeric and salt, and let it sit for about 30 minutes.  Then, I fried the eggplant strips in coconut oil.  After removing them, I fried the shallots and Serrano peppers in the same oil.  In the meantime, I mixed the spices, sugar, and vinegar together and brought them to a boil.  When the sugar had dissolved, I removed the vinegar mixture from the stove top and mixed it together with the fried vegetables.  I let it cool to room temperature and then moved it to the refrigerator so that the flavors could meld overnight.

tamarind fish curry
tamarind fish curry
With limited time for cooking this week, I recognized that a fish curry was the most obvious and important dish to experience.  After reading dozens of recipes for Sri Lankan fish curries, I happened upon Laurie Ashton Farook’s recipe, Mama Farook’s Sri Lankan Tamarind Fish Curry, and I knew it was destiny.  Farook is a Canadian expat who has lived in Sri Lanka since 2003, and her blog chilli & chocolate serves as an incredible source for learning about Sri Lankan cuisine.  This dish is her mother-in-law’s recipe.  It begins with a marinade of tamarind paste, red chili powder, turmeric, salt, and a little water poured over white fish and sliced onions.  Then, coconut oil is heated in a hot pot (for me, a wok), and onion, a cinnamon stick, and garlic are fried in the oil.  The fish, onion, and marinade are added to the pot along with enough water to cover the fish.  The dish simmers until the fish is cooked and the sauce reduced and thick.  I served it with steamed rice and brinjal moju, and I couldn’t believe what an amazing dinner I had just created! In all seriousness, it turned out to be one of my favorite dishes of this year’s project.  It definitely had a kick of spice, but that was perfectly balanced by the fish, the tamarind, and the rice.  I also loved the way that the brinjal moju's cool, sweet, and sour flavors complemented the fish curry. 

This week, I didn’t have time to make as many dishes as I normally do, and yet, I feel like I learned more than some weeks with three dinners.  Sri Lankan cuisine offers an interesting combination of flavors, and I will definitely explore more dishes in the future.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Week 47: A Journey to Romania

When I glanced at the calendar and saw that this week’s culinary journey was taking me to Romania, I wondered why I had selected it for the project.  I couldn’t even name a Romanian dish if my life depended on it.  While my original intentions may have been lost, I immediately realized that my inclusion of this cuisine must have been intentional as I was immediately intrigued with Romania’s dishes and culinary history when I began my research.  Because of its history as part of the Ottoman Empire, Romanian cuisine includes Turkish dishes, and the dishes from its Western regions tend to be spicier due to influence of bordering Germany and Hungary.  Despite their rich heritage and numerous influences, Romanians actually do have several native dishes that differentiate them from their neighbors with the most famous category being ciorbă, sour soups flavored with vinegar, sauerkraut juice, or lemons.  Romanian cuisine is hearty.  Most meals center around meat, and the most common meal is mamaliga, a type of polenta, served on its own or as a side dish.  For this week’s menus, I focused on distinctively Romanian dishes and often found myself pleasantly surprised at the flavor profiles.

mititei (sausages) and ciorbă de perişoare (sour soup with meatballs)
Mititei are small sausages made from a mixture of beef, lamb, and/or pork.  Folklore holds that they were invented in the mid-nineteenth century when the chef at an inn famous for its sausage ran out of casings and improvised a dish by forming his regular sausage mixture into small patties.  The customers commented on how much they loved the mititei, which translates to “wee ones,” and the dish became infamous throughout Romania.  The spices used to flavor these little sausages varied in the recipes I reviewed, and I am sure that those variances reflect a cook’s geographic influences.  For instance, the recipe I used included seasonings prominent in German and Hungarian cuisine, such as garlic, thyme, hot red pepper, hot Hungarian paprika, caraway seeds, salt, and freshly ground black pepper.  I used lamb in my mititei, because I was only making a small batch and had about half a pound in the freezer leftover from another week’s project.  (Pork is the more traditional choice, but lamb, beef, and a combination of meats may also be used.)  I served the mititei with paprika-dusted sour cream.  The combination of the spicy meat with cool creamy sour cream was quite nice.  I would definitely make this dish again.  I read that the leftover sausages are often eaten cold in a sandwich, which sounds like a great idea, but there were no leftovers at my house.

Ciorbă is such a distinctive dish that Romanians actually refer to it separately from regular soup.  (In Romanian cuisine, supă refers to a broth, usually clear, made with vegetables and/or meat.  This broth is served with dumplings or noodles.)  Ciorbă refers to a sour broth, and the dish is served with many different meats and ingredients including tripe, meatballs, or leeks.  The broth is tomato-based and traditionally includes lovage.  Unfortunately, I did not plan ahead for lovage, so I substituted celery leaves which are offered as a decent substitution.  To make the broth, I stewed onions, celery leaves, parsley, parsnips, carrots, and beef bones in water until the vegetables became tender.  Then, I added pork meatballs (made with rice, onion, and bread crumbs) to the soup for another hour.  Just before serving, I added tomato paste and vinegar to the broth.  In all honesty, I never expected to be wowed by this dish, but it was actually my favorite Romanian dish of the week.  The complex flavor of the broth completely surprised me.  I liked it so much that I would’ve traded my meatballs for more broth….and I love meatballs.  After trying it, I understand why ciorbă is in a category of its own.  It doesn’t matter what you add to it…it’s all about the broth.

sarmale (cabbage rolls), mamaliga (polenta), and cozonac (sweet bread)
sarmale and mamaliga
A quick search on the internet for “Romanian Cuisine” results in a number of reminiscing Romanians sharing their memories of holiday dinners that include sarmale, mamaliga, and cozonac.  Sarmale is the dish that everyone’s grandmother made for special occasions and even casual family gatherings, and I found it interesting that most accounts regarding sarmale adamantly state that these cabbage rolls are nothing like Polish-style cabbage rolls.  After a little research, I discovered a few differences. The most significant difference is the Romanians’ use of sour cabbage leaves, instead of fresh cabbage leaves.  Romanians also primarily stuff their cabbage rolls only with ground pork whereas most recipes for Polish cabbage rolls use beef or beef with a combination of other meats.  In addition, Romanians layer smoked pork (fat, ribs, or sausage) between the cabbage rolls for added flavor in the dish and generally include dill, dried or fresh, in the bottom of the pot.  I did not find any full heads of sour cabbage to make my sarmale, so I followed the recommendations of several Romanian-Americans who note in their recipes that layering sauerkraut between the cabbage rolls made with fresh leaves incorporates the sour flavor into the rolls.  For the filling, I sautéed onions, celery, bacon, salt, pepper, paprika, and parsley together and mixed it with ground pork and rice after it cooled.  To cook the rolls, I placed a layer of fresh dill in the bottom of a dutch oven.  I layered the cabbage rolls with sauerkraut and thin slices of salt pork, and then I poured tomato sauce over the rolls and filled the pot with just enough water to cover them.  After bringing the stock to a boil, I reduced the heat and simmered the rolls a little over two hours.  I served them with sour cream and mamaliga, which is just yellow cornmeal and water.  They were delicious, but I must admit that while I tasted the sourness and the smokiness, I didn’t think that it changed the flavors that significantly from the Polish cabbage rolls I’d previously eaten without those elements.  Had I grown eating cabbage rolls as part of my normal diet, I’m sure my opinion would be different.  (I’m guessing that someone from Romania might find my strong opinions about barbecue to be a bit overstated, as well.)  Opinions aside, these cabbage rolls were great.

Cozonac is a popular sweet bread served during the holidays.  (Cozonac is the name for Romania’s version.  In Bulgaria, it is called kozunak. Both breads are basically the same as Italian panettone.)  This sweet yeast bread is made with milk, sugar, eggs, butter, and raisins in its most basic presentation.  Variations exist throughout the country depending on regional preferences and can include the addition of Turkish delight, orange zest, lemon zest, walnuts, hazelnuts, vanilla, and rum.  Sometimes, the bread is filled with a mixture of ground walnuts, poppy seeds, cocoa powder, rum, and raisins.  During the Easter holiday, the bread is filled with farmer’s cheese and called pasca.  I made a version which included golden raisins, lemon zest, rum, and vanilla.  The dough is extremely sticky, which makes it a little difficult to work with, but other than that, it is a simple yeast bread that even a novice baker could easily make with successful results. By all means, this is more a bread than a dessert, but it is just sweet enough that it makes a nice dessert with coffee.  Even better than dessert, I made French toast with it the next morning.

While I may have begun this journey questioning my decision to plan a week of Romanian cuisine, I certainly ended the week with a serious respect for Romania’s dishes.  I’m still telling people about the flavor of the broth in the ciorbă, and I suspect I will continue to do so.  This is one of those weeks that speaks to the heart of this project as I truly discovered new flavors and dishes previously foreign to me and now a cherished part of my culinary journey. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Week 46: A Journey to Italy

For months, I stared at the word Italian written across this week’s schedule and considered how I might approach the week with the necessary and appropriate reverence befitting such a beloved cuisine.  With a history that spans over two thousand years, the spirit of this cuisine which embodies the idea of cooking with fresh, local ingredients progressed as new ingredients and new ways to preserve food evolved in its regions.  Although Italian cuisine immediately evokes the idea of pasta and tomato sauce for many, its true dishes are not far removed from those that American households have served for years.  While I’ve noted previously that Italian cuisine is the only “non-Southern American” food my mom ever served in our East Tennessee kitchen, I had not considered just how much Italian cuisine truly influenced our table.  Although I was referring to the fact that mom made spaghetti, lasagna, and manicotti, most of the other dishes she served are rooted in Italian cuisine, as well, such as braised roast beef, fresh vegetables from the garden cooked with pork, and baked chicken coated in bread crumbs.  Even those bologna sandwiches and sloppy summertime tomato sandwiches made with tomatoes picked fresh from the vine could be categorized as Italian (minus the Miracle Whip component of our versions).  At its heart, the American table is more influenced by Italian cuisine than any others.

With a limited amount of time for cooking this week, I created a menu for a full traditional Italian meal celebrating fresh, seasonal ingredients.  Although I already had a few dishes planned, I turned to my copies of Mario Batali’s Molto Italiano: 327 Simple Italian Recipes to Cook at Home and Babbo Cookbook for the inspiration I needed to realize the complete menu.  After thoughtful consideration, I crafted a menu for an Italian Autumn Feast and invited over a few friends for Sunday Supper.

The apertivo is a pre-dinner drink served to introduce a meal.  It may be as simple as a glass of prosecco, but Italians often indulge in a cocktail made with Campari.  The Negroni is likely the most popular Campari cocktail.  It is made with gin, vermouth, and Campari and generally garnished with an orange peel.  This is not a cocktail for the faint of heart as it boasts a strong, piney flavor, and it is best defined as a a “sipping” drink.  For our dinner, half of the guests indulged in a Negroni while the others enjoyed a glass of prosecco.

frying the suppli di riso
The antipasto course offers guests an array of snacks that may range from a simple platter of cheese and meats to more elaborate salads and sandwiches.  A few weeks before our Italian dinner, my friend Stephanie told me about the suppli di riso (fried stuffed risotto balls) that she had in Italy while visiting with her friend Marco’s family.  She graciously asked Marco for his mother’s recipe so I could make it for our dinner, and a few days later I received an email that began with Marco’s family recipe in Italian and ended with his English translation.  
suppli di riso

Marco’s mother makes this dish with risotto flavored by homemade chicken stock and stuffs it with fresh mozzarella and prosciutto.  What an incredible dish!  It was also surprisingly simple to incorporate into the meal.  I made the risotto on the Saturday afternoon.  Then, I formed the risotto balls and stuffed them with the prosciutto and fresh mozzarella on Sunday afternoon, so the only task during the meal was to coat them in egg and bread crumbs before frying them. 

sauteed green and black olives
in tomato sauce
Because I knew the suppli di riso would require my full attention, I opted to serve two dishes that could easily be prepared before my guests arrived, such as sautéed black and green olives in tomato sauce and fresh herbed ricotta cheese served with homemade boules.  The recipe for the olives came from Batali’s Molto Italiano.  I made the tomato sauce on Saturday (enough for this dish and the braised veal I served in the secondo course), and on Sunday afternoon, I sautéed the olives with garlic, added the tomato sauce, and simmered them for about thirty minutes.  I served them at room temperature.  
fresh herbed ricotta

Making fresh ricotta cheese was a task I had tackled previously.  It’s simple to make and most recipes for it are similar.  My version is a hybrid of Michael Schwartz and Ina Garten’s recipes.   I just add some freshly chopped herbs, parsley in this case, for flavor and color.  For the boules, I followed Mark Bittman’s recipe in The Best Recipes in the World, and even though I’ve made many homemade breads, I was a little nervous about getting the consistency right when making such a classic bread; however, they turned out beautifully.  I thought two loaves would be enough bread, but everyone loved these boules so much that we ran out of bread before the antipasto course was complete.  They had an incredible crunchy crust with a perfectly tender center ideal for sopping up the tomato sauce with the olives. 

The primo course serves as the first course of the actual meal and commonly includes pasta, gnocchi, risotto, polenta, or soup.  This is another course that I planned weeks before our dinner.  I was lamenting over my failed experiences of making homemade pasta with my friend Christine, and she immediately offered to bring her pasta maker to my house and give me a personal pasta lesson.  Fortunately, we had that conversation during my week of French cuisine and I still had some duck confit left in my refrigerator.  She suggested that I freeze it so that we could make duck ravioli.  Brilliant!  So, on Sunday afternoon, Christine arrived with pasta maker in tow, and she proceeded to make beautiful pasta for us.  (It’s so nice to have chefs for friends!)  Watching her work was so much fun…partly because she makes gorgeous food but also because it was nice to take a break from cooking for a minute.  She made a delicious brown butter and sage sauce for the ravioli and then topped each dish with orange zest.  It was amazing! 

duck ravioli in brown butter sauce with sage
The secondo course functions as the main course.  It is generally the heartiest course and includes meat. I made braised veal rolls in tomato sauce from Batali’s Molto Italiano. I thought
 that the stuffing mix of bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, prosciutto, currants, pine nuts, and parsley evoked a sense of Autumn flavors that would enhance our seasonal feast.  I also liked the idea that I could make the dish just before my guests arrived and let it simmer on the stovetop as they enjoyed the first courses of the evening.  To make this dish, I spread the stuffing mixture on thin slices of veal that I rolled and secured with butcher’s string.  In a Dutch oven, I sautéed pancetta and onions in olive oil, and then I browned the rolls in the same oil and removed them.  I added the tomato sauce I made on Saturday afternoon and red wine to the Dutch oven, and then I added the onions, pancetta, and veal rolls back to the pan to simmer for over an hour.  The resulting dish was a tender piece of veal complemented well with the sweetness of the pine nuts, currants and tomato sauce, saltiness of the pancetta and prosciutto, and earthiness of the parsley and red wine.
onions with balsamic glaze
braised veal rolls in tomato sauce
broccoli rabe in the style of Puglia

For the contorno, or accompanying vegetable dishes served with the main course, I selected two dishes from Batali’s Molto Italiano:  broccoli rabe braised in the style of Puglia and onions with balsamic glaze.  The broccoli rabe is braised with garlic and red pepper flakes.  Then, chopped black olives are added just before serving.  The onions with balsamic glaze turned out to be one of the group’s favorite dishes of the evening.  This dish is the ultimate example of Italian cuisine at its best…only a few quality ingredients and time.  I was so proud of the beautiful, thick balsamic glaze on those sweet onions.  Both dishes complemented the veal rolls nicely.

Traditionally, the formaggio e frutta course (cheese and fruit) is served between the main course and the dessert case.  Although I had nice Italian cheeses (parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino, fontal, gorgonzola) ready to serve with some green grapes, I knew that we were nearing our maximum capacity, and I didn’t want to spoil our dolce course, so we agreed to forego this course and move ahead.

pumpkin cake with toasted pine nuts
olive oil gelato
The dolce course is the dessert course and usually includes baked goods such as cake or cookies.  Again, I turned to a Batali cookbook for this course and opted to make pumpkin cake with toasted pine nuts and olive oil gelato from his Babbo Cookbook.  It was every bit as good as it sounds, too.  I loved the pumpkin cake, because it only included one cup of brown sugar which served to elevate the sweetness of the pumpkin puree.  Even better, the cake is studded with toasted pine nuts, golden raisins soaked in grappa, and finely chopped fresh rosemary.  Pairing it with the unctuous olive oil gelato provided the perfect dessert…not too sweet but full of flavor and definitely reminiscent of a beautiful autumn evening. 

I offered espresso for the caffe course, and I intended to ask everyone if they would like some grappa for the digestivo course, but after dessert, I looked over and saw all of my friends lounging across the couches.  We had reached capacity, and even the idea of the digestive was too much.  This is not a group of lightweights either.  None of us is a small portions, calorie-counting, leave food on the plate kind of person, but this feast knocked us out!  Well, except for Patrick.  He even had two servings of the olive oil gelato, and I’m sure he could’ve handled the cheese course, too.  There’s a reason that the Italians reserve these large, traditional meals for special occasions.

I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate the cuisine of Italy than an evening spent with friends around a table of exquisite dishes.   I was so caught up in keeping our dinner on schedule that I completely forgot to document the incredible Italian beer that Patrick shared with the group and the numerous bottles of delicious Italian wines we enjoyed, but they have not been forgotten.  All in all, we had a lovely evening, and the feast was incredible.