Monday, January 16, 2017

A Flavor Trip to Peru

First up in my quest to try a new country's food every month this year: Peru!

I'd had Peruvian food only once before that I can recall: in a restaurant in Washington D.C. while on vacation a couple of years ago. I absolutely loved it, so was delighted to find multiple Peruvian recipes in Global Kitchen: The World's Most Delicious Food Made Easy, which my parents gave me for Christmas.

This meal introduced me to a new ingredient--aji amarillo paste--which I thankfully found on Amazon. It's made from a medium-hot yellow chili pepper which is very common in Peru. When I tasted the paste on its own, I worried that the dishes using it would be too hot for my taste, but that wasn't the case at all. It brought a nice flavor and a bit of heat, but nothing on my plate felt too spicy. Here's a rundown of our menu!

Peruvian Beef Kebabs (Anticuchos with Roasted Yellow Pepper Sauce) - These beef kebabs are marinated in red wine vinegar, aji amarillo, cumin, and turmeric. Then you dust them with parsley and more of the same spices, grill them (or cook in a cast iron skillet like I did), and dip them in this beautiful sauce made from roasted yellow bell pepper, green onions, white vinegar, oil, lemon, cumin, aji amarillo, turmeric, and garlic. This recipe actually calls for ground aji amarillo; since I bought paste instead of powder, I simply used the aji amarillo paste in the marinade and sauce. For the spice rub, I subbed equal parts regular paprika and smoked paprika. This was my favorite dish of the night.

Potatoes with Huancaina Sauce (Papa a la Huancaina) - This dish was the most unlike anything I've ever had before. To serve, you cover a platter with a bed of shredded lettuce, then top with boiled, peeled potatoes (gold or blue), and drizzle with a sauce made from roasted red bell pepper, sauteed onion and garlic, evaporated milk, aji amarillo paste, queso fresco (cheese), olive oil, and salt. But wait--there's more. On top of that you arrange wedges of hard-boiled eggs and a sprinkling of black olives. Potatoes are big in Peruvian cuisine, and this particular dish comes from the Peruvian highlands (Huancayo). I couldn't find the exact recipe I used online, but this one is fairly close to what I cooked from Global Kitchen.

Peruvian Sarsa Salad - My guests and I couldn't decide whether this was supposed to be a side dish eaten separately, or a relish eaten with a meaty main dish. Fortunately, it seemed to work both ways. It added a bright, fresh, crisp element to our plates. It was made from red onions, radishes, lima beans, queso fresco, roasted red bell pepper, and fresh cilantro and mint, all tossed in a light dressing of fresh lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper. I was worried that it would be overpoweringly oniony, but it actually was really nicely balanced and lovely. I used extra lima beans in place of hominy, queso fresco instead of feta or farmer's cheese, and some red bell pepper I roasted myself instead of using bottled.

Crema Volteada - For dessert, I made this Peruvian flan. I found several variations online (surprise, surprise), including one that incorporated pureed cooked quinoa, which sounded intriguing. I landed on this one which seemed more basic. For me, it was the weakest link in the menu--the texture was a little off (probably my doing), and it was the least adventurous element since I've had flan plenty of times before. However, in terms of work and time management, it was perfect--it could be made the day before, which was especially nice since there were so many different elements to prepare in the other dishes.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Pomegranate Molasses Chicken + Bulgar Wheat Salad with Currants and Mint

One of the things I love most about food is that it's communal. Sure, we need it for sustenance. And it's a fun creative outlet. But more than that, I love how it connects people.

When our friends have babies, we eagerly bring them food and share their joy. When someone dies, we bring food to their loved ones, sharing their pain. When we want our coworkers to like us, we take baked goods to the office. When there's cause for celebration--a graduation, a wedding, a birthday--we throw a party with snacks at the very least and quite possibly a full banquet. When we want to get to know someone better, we find a time to eat together.

Food connects us.

This week I've been thinking about Laura. She entered my life as my brothers' friend and my close friend's cousin, and she remained in my life as my friend. Laura died this week. She'd been battling cancer for some time now, and on Sunday I woke up to the news of her death. Though we rarely saw each other after I moved away for college, whenever I did get to spend time with Laura, she always had this peaceful, comforting, welcoming, nurturing presence about her. She always made me feel like I belonged in whatever group we were in (often a struggle for me). She loved people well. She brought so much beauty to this world.

I wish I could take her family a meal.

On the day Laura died, I made this meal which felt exotic and beautiful. Perhaps because cooking is comforting, and I needed that on a day dampened with death. Perhaps because the act of preparing and eating food made me feel somehow connected to the people all over the world who grieve Laura's passing. Perhaps because it was a small way to bring a little beauty back into the world.

Pomegranate Molasses Chicken and Bulgar Wheat Salad with Currants and Mint
Adapted from Honey and Co.: The Cookbook by Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer
Yield: 2-4 servings depending on the size of your appetite and your chicken thighs

Chicken ingredients
1 clove garlic, sliced
1/4 to 1/2 green chili, sliced (I used 1/3 of a jalapeno, seeded)
Scant 2 Tbsp. pomegranate molasses (see notes)
1/2 Tbsp. canola oil
1/4 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Canola oil, for pan frying
Salt and pepper, to taste

Bulgar salad ingredients
3/4 cup bulgar wheat
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. olive oil
1/2 Tbsp. pomegranate molasses
1/4 cup shelled pistachios, toasted and chopped
1/4 cup dried currants (see notes)
2-4 Tbsp. fresh pomegranate arils
Generous 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/4 to 3/8 cup chopped fresh parsley (a couple handfuls)
Additional pistachios (roasted and chopped), pomegranate arils, and mint to sprinkle on top

Marinate the chicken: In a gallon sized zip-top bag, combine garlic, chili, pomegranate molasses, canola oil, and black pepper. Add chicken thighs, then squoosh everything around so the marinade coats the chicken well and the garlic and chili slices are pretty evenly dispersed. Seal the bag and chill in your fridge for 2 hours, or up to 2 days.

Cook the chicken: Preheat oven to 400. In an oven-proof skillet (cast iron works great), heat a glug of canola oil over medium heat (on the stove). When the skillet is hot, add the marinated chicken thighs, smooth side down. Season with salt and pepper (to taste) then don't touch them for 2-3 minutes. Let them get nice and golden! Turn the chicken, let that side brown for a couple of minutes, then transfer the skillet into the preheated oven. Cook for 12 minutes or until chicken thighs are fully cooked.

Prepare the bulgar salad: Cook bulgar according to package directions, adding the 1/4 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. olive oil. (I tried the more traditional method of pouring boiling water over my bulgar and covering it for 5 minutes, but mine was still crunchy after 10 minutes, so I resorted to zapping it in the microwave. Always before I've used the stovetop method which worked much better for me.) Fluff with a fork, then add the pomegranate molasses and continue tossing with a fork. Add all the rest of the salad ingredients--pistachios, currants, pomegranate arils, mint, and parsley--and toss to combine. Taste; add salt and pepper if needed.

I followed Itamar and Sarit's recommendation for serving: scoop some bulgar wheat salad onto your plate, top with a chicken thigh or two, and sprinkle with some extra pistachios, pomegranate arils, and fresh mint.

  • In theory, you can buy pomegranate molasses. But I couldn't find any, so I improvised and made my own! Basically you just simmer pomegranate juice, sugar, and fresh lemon juice until it thickens and reduces. I used Alton Brown's ingredient ratios and looked to Tori Avey's extra detail in the instructions.
  • If you're a fellow Abilenian and know where to get pomegranate molasses locally, please share your wisdom! I looked at Market Street and HEB, Drug Emporium and Cordell's were closed, and Natural Grocer's didn't answer when I tried calling to see if they carried it. Also orange blossom water for future recipes from this cookbook.
  • Currants can also be tricky to find here, but I found some in the bulk bins at Market Street. One of my friends has found them at Natural Grocers as well.
  • I cheat and buy the pomegranate arils that come in a little cup in the produce section.
  • As long as you plan ahead on marinating the chicken (and making the pomegranate molasses if needed), this could easily be a weeknight meal. It felt really fancy, but it doesn't involve any fancy techniques, and it came together pretty quickly once the pom molasses was made. Also, leftovers reheated well.

Monday, January 2, 2017

2017 Food Goals: Global Edition

If you've followed my blog for a while, you may recall that for several years I've set food goals for myself at the beginning of each year (but skipped 2016). The goals usually involved trying a new ingredient (like tomatillos or lavender) or dish (like panna cotta or stovetop popcorn). This year I'm challenging myself to cook more foods from other countries and cultures.

I want to be neither too restrictive nor too loosey-goosey with myself, so here are some basic parameters:
  • Try a new country/cuisine at least once a month.
  • Aim for countries whose cuisines I'm less familiar with. This means Italian, Mexican, Greek, and Chinese are out. Probably French, German, and Irish as well. 
  • Try to hop around from continent to continent. For instance, try something from Belize one month, Tunisia the next, Cambodia the next, Ukraine next, and so on. 
  • Invite friends over to share at least some of the meals with me, but don't get stuck on that. Sometimes it's more feasible to make pomegranate molasses chicken for myself on a random weeknight than to spend a weekend cooking up a feast and roping some friends into helping me eat it.
Speaking of pomegranate molasses chicken with bulgar wheat salad ... that happened last night.

pomegranate molasses chicken with bulgar wheat salad

Finally, let me leave you with some resources I'm sure I'll be using throughout the year.
  • Honey and Co. by Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer - This cookbook is chock full of Middle Eastern recipes, personal anecdotes, and good humor. (For instance, the recipe for Mushroom and Cumin Sfiha ends with "Do not offer your guests seconds--squirrel away any that is left over for the next day; it'll still be delicious.") The book was entertaining to read, and I could easily spend the year cooking through this cookbook alone.
  • Global Kitchen by Cooking Light and David Joachim - This one covers a smattering of dishes from regions throughout the world, so it'll be a good launching point for my little challenge to myself. Most recipes include a few sentences about the dish, the culture from which it hails, and/or a word about traditional techniques or modern tweaks.
  • Wild Spice by Arun Kapil - This book may be a little harder to use exclusively for my 12 countries in 12 months challenge because many of the recipes don't include information about the country or region that birthed it. Nevertheless, his recipes draw on spices and ingredients from around the world, so I'm still optimistic it has a place in my cooking repertoire this year, even if not specifically as part of my 12 in 12 challenge.
  • by Sasha Martin - She challenged herself to cook something from every country in the world, and her site now holds over 650 recipes resulting from that challenge. Check out her Map Room page; click on a country and find all her posts and recipes from that country. She also has a page with a roundup of holidays from around the world, with recipes to go with them. Impressive! I'm trying to keep myself from exploring this site too much lest I paralyze myself with the sheer magnitude of options available.