Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Week 51: A Journey to Ukraine

When planning the year’s fifty-two countries, I realized that some countries would overlap by design.  I just assumed that in the end, there would be plenty of dishes to cover in a week’s time despite the number of similar countries in the mix.  In light of that decision, I found myself in a quandary when I saw “Week 51: Ukraine” on my schedule.  To date, I had already covered Russia, Poland, Romania, and Hungary, and borscht was the only dish that I felt was missed.  Longing to take it easy while enjoying the holidays and my time in Tennessee with family, I almost allowed myself a tiny sabbatical from the project, but then I thought, “It’s Week 51.  I’ve almost made it to the end.  I can do this.  I just need a little inspiration.”  I found that inspiration from my Ukrainian friend and co-worker, Greg.  I ran into him in the break room on the week before Christmas and told him I needed help choosing some dishes from Ukraine for the project, and within thirty minutes, I had a list of frantically written notes and an email inbox filling with pictures and recipes that reflect authentic preparations of traditional dishes.  These moments are the ones I cherish most during the project.  Nothing compares to hearing someone enthusiastically share his culture, his homeland, and his family with you.  When I finally sat down and summarized our conversation, I had these notes to plan my week of Ukrainian dishes:
  • Borscht:  A must try.  There are more versions than imaginable, so just pick one that sounds good.  Green borscht, made with sorrel and no beets, is a favorite in Greg’s family, but finding fresh sorrel in the winter is difficult. Make a meaty borscht with red beets.  It should be sour.  Greg likes his borscht so thick that a fork will stand up straight in the bowl, but his dad likes it very brothy.  Either way is right, so make it as I like.
  • Varenyky and Perohy:  Varenyky are similar to pierogi.  They can be filled with anything….mashed potato and onion, liver, or even cherries.  Perohy are also dumplings stuffed with the same types of fillings, but they are very small…the smaller the better.  A cook who can make the tiniest of perohy is revered.
  • Greg’s Ukrainian Appetizer:  While he didn’t know the English name for the dish, he explained that most Ukrainian restaurants cook peas in lard, mash them with garlic, salt, and pepper, and serve it on Russian black bread as an appetizer.  He also explained that in the Ukraine this would more likely be made with kidney beans than peas.
  • Blintz:  Make with ground meat and onion like you’d use in shepherd’s pie.  Roll like a tamale, not like a crepe.  Fry in lard to crisp the edges.
  • Kiev:  One of the most famous dishes from Ukraine.  A definite must.  Serve it with potatoes.
  • Vinigret:  Greg’s dad’s favorite dish.  A salad made with beets.  Very important to cut up all vegetables in the same sizes.
  • Olivye:  A salad served at EVERY special occasion. 
  • Latkes:  A family favorite.
  • Pork:  They eat lots of it.
  • Sour Cream:  Serve it with everything.
From this list, I organized a plan to integrate Ukrainian cuisine into my post-Christmas holiday.  Greg’s enthusiasm boosted my spirits, and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed thinking of him and his family as I cooked these dishes.
Despite my adoration for roasted beets, I never found the idea of borscht appealing.  In full disclosure, I knew nothing about it beyond the fact that it was a beet stew, its pink coloration in photos reminded me of Pepto-Bismol, and its mention summoned images of a circa 1950s housewife trying to impress her husband’s boss at a dinner party.  I was so wrong. 

Borscht is not really a dish as much as it is a category of Eastern European stews.  It may be hot or cold, vegetarian or meaty, hearty or brothy, and with beets or without beets.  I must note, though, that its name is derived from an old Slavic word for beets, borsch, so it likely began as a beet stew and evolved into many different variations over time.  In actuality, borscht is best described as a vegetable soup made with rich beef or pork broth.  In many cases, roasted beets are shredded or cubed and added to the soup.  The reason those “Pepto-like” photos exist is because many of the cold versions have sour cream mixed into the soup.  After Greg told me how much he loves “Green Borscht” made with sorrel and no beets, I considered sourcing fresh sorrel online to make it, but instead, I chose a traditional version for my first borscht.  After reading several recipes, I determined that one posted by Alan Leonetti on for his Ukrainian grandmother’s recipe best represented an authentic preparation.  The recipe begins with rendered bacon and beef chuck browned in the bacon fat.  The meat is removed, and carrots, onions, garlic, oregano, dill, and bay leaves are sautéed in the fat.  Then, red wine vinegar is added to deglaze the pot, and the beef, bacon, and some water are added back to the pot to simmer until the meat is tender, which is about two hours.  When the meat is tender, roasted beets, potatoes, cabbage, parsley, tomato paste, celery seed and salt are added and simmered for another thirty minutes.  Finally, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and sugar are added to taste, and the borscht is served with a dollop of sour cream and fresh dill.  The complex harmony of sweet, savory, sour, hot, cool, tangy, creamy, and tangy elements produces a lovely, rich broth with an irresistible flavor.  I couldn’t believe how much I loved this dish.  It was unbelievably delicious.


When someone says “blintz” to me, I think of something similar to a French crepe stuffed with sweet cheese and possibly fruit.  If pressed to define them further, I might add that it is also similar to a blini and is sometimes served with crème fraiche and caviar.  When Greg suggested that I make blintzes for this week’s project, I was a bit confused and surprised when he said that I should “make it with ground meat and onion like you’d use in a shepherd’s pie, roll it like a tamale, not like a crepe, and fry it in lard.”  I found a basic recipe for the batter (milk, eggs, oil, and flour), and with Greg’s notes, I set out to make blintzes.  I rolled and stuffed the thin pancakes with ground pork and onion.  Then, I dredged them in an egg wash and bread crumbs before frying them in some lard.  I served them with a dollop of sour cream and fresh parsley, and they were quite satisfying.  My favorite part of the dish was the crispiness of the pancake edges as a result of dredging them in egg wash and breadcrumbs before frying them.  It added a nice texture next to the filling.  I also enjoyed the addition of the fresh parsley and cool sour cream, which offered a light counterpoint to the rich pork and onion filling.  I can see how this would be a great lunch on a cold, winter’s day.

Vinigret is a beet and potato salad dressed with oil and vinegar.  When Greg mentioned that it is his father’s favorite dish, I knew it would be worth my time.  After reading several recipes for it, I quickly recognized that the most important element of the salad is not necessarily the ingredients, but the precise size of the ingredients.  Each component of the salad should be diced into small cubes.  On the night before I planned to serve the salad, I boiled a large potato, two beets, and a carrot until they were tender.  When they were cool enough to handle, I peeled them and stored them in the refrigerator overnight so that they would be easier to dice the next day.  When I was ready to assemble the salad, I diced the potato, beets, and carrots, along with onion and dill pickles.  I mixed them with sauerkraut, and then I dressed the salad with olive oil and white vinegar and seasoned it with salt and pepper.  (Sunflower oil would have been a more authentic choice, but I didn’t have any on hand.)  The brightness of the vinegar, pickles, and sauerkraut elevates the root vegetables into a light, refreshing salad.  The small dice of the vegetables allows for each bite to include a bit of sweet carrot, earthy beet, silky potato, crispy pickles and onions, and sour pickles and sauerkraut.  I can see why Greg’s dad is such a fan of this salad. 

chicken kiev served with
mashed potatoes and peas
Although I’d heard of Chicken Kiev, I really didn’t know much about it.  I knew it was famous, but I had no idea why.  As it turns out, the Russian aristocracy in the late seventeenth century was enamored with French fashion and food, and aristocrats sent their chefs to train in Paris or hired French chefs to serve in their households.  A French chef named Nicolas Appert, who is also credited with the invention of canning to preserve foods, invented the dish, which is best described as a flattened, boneless chicken breast rolled around a chilled piece of herbed butter, breaded, and fried.  The dish gained popularity in Russia and was called Chicken Supreme.  I found two explanations regarding the dish’s name, Chicken Kiev.  One source states that New York restaurants in the early twentieth century named it Chicken Kiev to encourage Russian immigrants to patronize their restaurants, and another source states that Russian immigrants referred to it as Chicken Kiev as a way of referencing that it was chicken prepared in the style of what they remembered from Kiev.  Either way, this dish with French roots emerged from Ukraine as a representation of its style. 

Although its components are simple, assembling Chicken Kiev is not an easy task.  The key to successfully preparing the dish is rolling the chicken so tightly around the butter that it cannot escape while frying.  If properly prepared, a distinctive “poof” of air releasing can be heard when cutting into the center of the roll.  After several attempts to roll the chicken tightly, I gave up and tied mine with cooking string.  I’m not sure if that’s considered cheating, but I knew that my rolls would never stay together enough to achieve the necessary “poof” without a little help.  Cheating or not, it worked.  I leaned in closely as I cut into my first piece of Chicken Kiev, and sure enough…I heard it.  I sighed with amazement.  Everything worked like it should.  The chicken was moist; the breading was crisp; and the compound butter pooled onto my plate and provided a perfect elevation of flavor.  I cannot say that there was anything particularly different or interesting about the flavors here, but the simplicity of the ingredients and the technique for preparation certainly result in a well-cooked piece of chicken, which is not always as easy as some might think.

What a rewarding a week!  I wish I’d found more time to make the other dishes that Greg recommended, but I tried enough dishes to end the week with a newfound appreciation for the cuisine of Ukraine.  Without question, the borscht surprised me most as I never expected to find it so full of flavor.  All in all, I enjoyed every dish this week, and yet again, I remember why I began this project.  It’s a journey of discovery and overcoming misconceptions, and these Ukrainian dishes certainly provided opportunity for both.


Monday, January 21, 2013

Week 50: A Journey to Nicaragua

I must admit that I am guilty of living in a city full of fritangas yet I knew nothing of Nicaraguan cuisine until I embarked upon this week’s culinary journey.  While I was a bit embarrassed to admit how little I knew of Nicaraguan cuisine, I felt better when I began asking friends who grew up in Miami, Columbia, and Venezuela who also didn’t know.  Apparently, I hadn’t asked the right friends, because as soon as I began my research and started posting photos of my dishes on twitter and instagram, I discovered a group of people professing their love for nica food.  Like other South American cuisines, Nicaraguan cuisine is rooted in dishes from pre-Colonial times that focused on local crops.  Corn is a key ingredient in many of its most popular dishes, including beverages and desserts.  In addition to consuming common cuts of beef and pork, Nicaraguan dishes contain many of the offals, such as udders, stomachs, brains, testicles, and hoofs, plus more exotic species such as lizards, armadillos, boas, and turtle eggs.  To say the least, I had plenty of options when planning this week’s menus.  I focused on cooking Nicaragua’s most famous dishes, and although many are similar to other South American dishes, understanding the nuance of the Nicaraguan approach proved both satisfying and intriguing.

gallo pinto
gallo pinto
Gallo pinto is the national dish of Nicaragua.  This simple dish of rice and red beans seasoned with onions, bell pepper, and garlic is well known in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and both countries claim to be the origination point of the dish.  The name translates to “spotted rooster” which describes the speckled appearance of the beans and peppers in the rice.  Nicaraguans enjoy this dish on a daily basis for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  I liked it, but in all fairness, it didn’t seem any different to me than other basic red beans and rice dishes I’ve tried in the United States.  If someone simply presented it to me with no context of origin, I would assume that it was a vegetarian version of Louisiana Creole red beans and rice.  That is likely due to my Southern American heritage.  Regardless of which country the dish represents, I would be happy to enjoy it on a regular basis…but maybe not daily.

indio viejo
indio viejo
Indio Viejo is a traditional Nicaraguan dish dating back over five hundred years.  The dish only uses ingredients native to Nicaragua, such as tomatoes, sour oranges, achiote, corn, mint, and beef.  Legend states that the stew’s namesake, which translates to old Indian, can be traced back to the days of the Conquistadors.  When the local conquistadors learned that native Nicarao celebrated a tradition of providing food for anyone who asked, they took advantage of the communities and constantly appeared at their feasts in large numbers devouring most of the food and leaving little for the natives.  At one such feast, a conquistador asked the man tending to the pot of stew on the fire what he was cooking, and the man responded, “It’s just an old Indian who passed away recently.”  As the conquistadors quickly left the party, the natives laughed and continued with their party.  Hence, the name.

The dish includes beef that is boiled in water and sour orange juice until it is tender enough to shred with a fork.  Tomatoes, onions, peppers, and achiote flavor the stew, and corn tortilla dough is added to thicken the stew.  My understanding is that the stew should have a consistency similar to polenta as result of the corn tortilla dough added to the dish.  I read several accounts stating that cornmeal is often used in place of tortilla dough.  I opted to make my version with cornmeal, but I don’t think my dish reached the proper consistency.  I kept adding water in hopes of “plumping” the cornmeal, but somehow it never soaked in enough to be creamy.  Instead, my version was gritty.  I think the root of my problem is that someone more familiar with Nicaraguan cuisine would’ve known that the direction to “substitute cornmeal” meant to substitute the finer ground masa harina, not regular cornmeal.  If I try to make the dish again, I will actually make some tortilla dough to attempt a more authentic result.  On a positive note, the flavor of the stew was delicious.  I was surprised at how well the flavor of the sour orange paired with beef.  All in all, it wasn’t a complete disaster, but I definitely need to work on it.

Vigorón is a popular street food in Nicaragua.  The dish originated in Granada in the mid-twentieth century, and its popularity quickly spread throughout neighboring countries.  The dish begins with a plantain or banana leaf used as a vessel for serving boiled yuca topped with a cabbage salad called repollo and chicharrones.  While the concept of the dish is simple, the repollo varies among vendors and family recipes.  Repollo is a pickled cabbage slaw commonly served as an accompaniment to Nicaraguan meals.  A basic repollo includes shredded cabbage, grated carrot, chopped tomatoes, lime juice, red pepper flakes, and scallions.  In most cases, the salad is left to ferment for a few hours or several days to develop the flavors.  (For my vigorón, I made repollo and allowed it three days for fermentation.)  Although the dish is simple and compact, it truly ignites the senses with a variety of textures and flavors.  The yuca provides warm, creamy, and sweet elements, while the repollo offers sour, cool, and slightly crunchy textures next to the rich and crunchy chicharrones broken into bite size pieces.  I found the use of a banana leaf as a vessel for easy “fast food” transport to be a clever idea, as well.  Of all the Nicaraguan dishes I prepared this week, this one definitely stands apart for its ingenious juxtaposition of simple and complex flavors.

nacatamales cooking
in a pot of boiling water
I am a huge fan of tamales.  I rarely pass up an opportunity to order a tamale, but in all honestly, I always get to the center of that delicious cornmeal dough and wish that the small, thin layer of pork was just a little thicker…a little larger…a little heartier.  When I began reading about nacatamales, I was intrigued on several levels.  For starters, I loved the idea of wrapping a tamale in a plantain leaf (or banana leaf in my case), instead of a corn husk, because I knew that would impart an interesting flavor.  Beyond that, nacatamales presented a full realization of my desire to open a tamale and find thick layers of meat and vegetables with my pillow of cornmeal dough.  So, I set out to make nacatamales. 

The dough is made with masa harina, lard, sour orange juice, and broth (I used chicken broth).  I found a broad assortment of recipes for the dough.  The simple recipes included instructions to make the dough and let it rest for thirty minutes.  The more complicated instructions included a process of cooking the cornmeal in water and orange juice over low heat, rinsing it with cold water, placing it in fresh water and resting it for three days with daily water changes.  Even though the latter option presented a few more steps, I decided to try it because it “seemed” authentic and I thought the longer rest time would result in a stronger flavor. 

Upon reading lists of ingredients used in nacatamale fillings, I immediately recognized that the genesis of this dish must have been a cook looking to transform leftovers into a new dish.  The filling includes mashed potatoes, cooked rice, and pork.  For the mashed potatoes and cooked rice, I planned ahead when I was making them earlier in the week and made extra.  For the pork, most recipes called for “cubes” of pork butt, so I braised a pork butt earlier in the week and refrigerated it so that it would be firm enough to cut into cubes.  On the day that I assembled the nacatamales, I sautéed bell peppers, onions, garlic, achiote, tomatoes, fresh mint, and fresh parsley until the vegetables were tender.  Then, I mixed in the pork, potatoes, and rice.

nacatamale filling
After three days of attending to the dough and prepping the filling ingredients, I was more than ready to start assembling these little bundles.  I cut banana leaves into 16-inch squares and placed one cup of dough in the center of the leaf. I added a heaping spoonful of filling on top of the dough, folded the leaf around it, and tied it with string.  Then, I dropped the nacatamales in a large pot of boiling water, cooked them for thirty minutes, removed them from the pot, and let them rest for about five minutes.  When I finally had the opportunity to unwrap my first nacatamale, I discovered a little package of goodness just as delicious as I had imagined.  Wow!  The dough not only maintained its corn flavor, but it also took on the pungency of the banana leaf and the full flavors of the pork and vegetables.  Without question, this dish was the most flavorful and satisfying of the week.

tres leches
tres leches
Tres leches is a popular dessert in most Central American countries, and since moving to Miami, I have definitely eaten my fair share of it.  During my research, I discovered that many culinary historians believe the cake originated in Nicaragua.  The dessert is actually quite simple.  It begins with a white cake.  When the cake has cooled from baking in the oven, small holes are pricked throughout the cake and a mixture of whole milk, evaporated milk, and sweetened condensed milk are poured over the cake until it cannot absorb anymore.  (This reminded me of the infamous 1980s craze for pudding cakes.)  The last step is to add a simple white frosting and serve.  Interestingly, most recipes that I found called for a frosting made with whipping cream and sugar, but when I was discussing the recipes I’d read with a co-worker from Venezuela, she explained that a more authentic frosting would be one made with egg whites and sugar.  She pointed out that whipping cream would be too expensive for most people, and everyone had access to eggs, which is why so many cakes made in Central America have that fluffy, white meringue-style frosting.  I topped my tres leches cake with a thin layer of frosting made with egg whites and sugar.  I was very happy with the flavor, and the texture of the cake with the soaked milk was exactly like ones I’ve tried in local restaurants.  A definite success!

Although I enjoyed all of the week’s dishes, none compared to the nacatamales.  If I learned nothing else, I learned that this dish presents the best reincarnation for leftovers I ever imagined!  Fortunately, I did learn much more, and I ended the week with a newfound respect and understanding of Nicaraguan cuisine.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Week 49: A Journey to India

Indian cuisine offers a diverse presentation of dishes defined by their ingredients, cooking methods, religious connections, and regional origins.  While the original Indian diet dating back over five thousand years was simple, the introduction of spices by traveling salesmen and invading countries spurred the evolution of the more complex dishes we recognize as Indian cuisine today.  The introduction of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam influenced Indians’ culinary choices, as well.  With such a breadth of options, I found myself struggling to create menus for this week’s project, so I selected dishes that were outside the norm of my normal Indian dining regimen.  

Vegetarian Dinner
Because vegetarianism is a common way of life for many in India, its cuisine offers numerous options for hosting a legitimate vegetarian meal.  By that, I mean a menu with thoughtful dishes presented in a manner that celebrates their ingredients, instead of dishes obviously conceived as meat dishes with substitutions.  After planning the menu, I invited over a few friends (one, a vegetarian) for a fully vegetarian Indian feast.

homemade paneer
On the morning of our dinner, I began my day by making homemade paneer, which sounds impressive, but it’s really quite simple.  I boiled whole milk, added lemon juice, turned down the heat, simmered it for about a minute while the curds and whey separated, strained it into cheesecloth, rinsed off the lemon juice with some water, and let it drain for about five minutes.  Then, I shaped it into a round and set a heavy pot on it so that it could mold into a block of cheese.  When I came home from work that night, the cheese was perfect and ready to be cut into cubes for palak paneer.

papadum and tomato raita
My friends arrived for dinner bearing gifts.  Katrina brought a nice bottle of wine.  Debra brought an amazing homemade tomato raita, and Sweet Pea brought frozen papadums that can be microwaved to a perfect crisp.  (I didn’t even know that these little frozen gems existed, and I must say that I was skeptical until we popped them in the microwave.  Wow!  I couldn’t believe my eyes or my taste buds!)  Never a host to say “let’s save these for later,” we immediately began our meal with their gifts!  When we finished our papadums and raita, I served palak paneer, chana masala, and basmati rice that I lightly infused with cinnamon and cloves. 

palak paneer
Having ordered palak paneer and saag paneer many times in Indian restaurants, I actually never knew the difference in these dishes.  After a little research, I discovered that palak paneer is only made with spinach, but saag paneer may be made with any greens and is commonly made with a combination of greens, such as spinach and fenugreek greens.  With this information, I confidently set out to make palak paneer.  I couldn’t find one single recipe that seemed to include all of the necessary elements, so I combined a few different recipes to achieve the right combination of flavors.  For the sauce, I used fresh garlic, fresh ginger, ground coriander, ground red pepper, finely ground cashews and poppy seeds, onions, diced tomatoes, turmeric, sugar, cinnamon, and cloves.  When the sauce was simmering, I added the blanched spinach, and just before serving, I stirred in the cubes of homemade paneer and cooked it long enough to heat through the cheese.  Without question, this was the best palak (or saag) paneer I have ever tasted.  I used a full tablespoon of cayenne pepper, so it definitely had heat, but beyond that, I could taste the difference in using fresh spinach, garlic, and ginger.  Also, the consistency of the paneer was nice, firm yet creamy.  Sometimes in restaurants, I find it a bit rubbery or so creamy that it is falling apart and spreading into the sauce.  All in all, a stellar dish that I will make again.

chana masala
Chana masala is a popular chickpea dish in Northern India with a sour bite.  The chickpeas are stewed in a tomato-based sauce seasoned with onion, garlic, ginger, chili peppers, and curry powder or garam masala.  According to my research, the most authentic way to achieve the sour flavor is the addition of amchoor powder (dried unripe mango powder), but most accounts note that additional fresh lemon juice can achieve the same flavor profile.  I’m not sure what the correct flavor balance should be, but I added lemon juice and tasted the dish until I felt like the flavors were balanced.  I liked the dish, and it was especially nice alongside the very spicy palak paneer.

Friday Night Dinner for Two

chicken biryani
With so many options, I struggled to determine which dishes I should make for Friday night’s dinner.  In all honesty, I wanted to make our favorite Indian dishes (korma, tikka masala, and kadhai), but adhering to my project rules, I resisted.  Truthfully, I’ve made them all at home previously.  So, I chose to make Chicken Biryani.  While it’s one of the most famous Indian dishes around, I had never tried it.  I always thought it seemed so boring compared to the spicy curries and grilled dishes on Indian menus.  Then, I read Mark Bittman’s glowing description of it in his The Best Recipes in the World cookbook, and I decided to give it a try.  It was the most delicious version of “chicken and rice” that I have ever tasted.  In addition to achieving the most perfectly moist chicken I could imagine, the recipe’s use of onion, saffron, cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger creates an alluring aroma.  The dish is topped with almonds fried in butter which adds a rich, crunchy, nutty element to the dish and elevates it to another plane.  (Topping dishes with fried almonds is a trick I learned from my Palestinian friend Lana who fries slivered almonds in ghee and tops almost all of her dishes with them.)  This is truly a perfect dish for a night when comfort food is in order.  Bittman’s recipe is absolutely foolproof and delicious.

vankaya nuvvula masala
Fortunately, I made a large pot of chicken biryani, because the Vankaya Nuvvula Masala, eggplants stewed in sesame sauce, proved to be a complete failure.  In defense of the dish, I attribute the failure to my inability to select properly sized eggplants and the amount of time required to properly cook through large eggplants.  In other words, my eggplants needed to be smaller, or I needed to cook my large ones for much longer.  Despite the toughness of the eggplant, the flavor of the sauce was delicious and complex as it included onion, chilies, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, cumin seeds, ginger, garlic, turmeric, cayenne powder, coriander, and fenugreek.  For the purposes of the project, the sauce certainly offered a new flavor profile that I had not previously experienced in Indian food.  I don’t normally consider sesame seeds as representative of Indian flavors, but this dish surely changed that perspective.

With more available time, I could have cooked a different Indian meal every night this week, and still, I would’ve only scratched the surface of possibilities.  That’s one of the most appealing things about Indian food, yet I tend to always order the same dishes when I visit an Indian restaurant.  This week’s dishes inspired me to try new ones in an effort to experience the full scope of flavor profiles that Indian cuisine offers.  Fortunately, we have a great little Indian restaurant in our neighborhood for these future endeavors.