Thursday, January 26, 2012

Comoros

History: Gained independence from France in 1975.  Since then has had more than 20 coups or attempted coups.
Location: Islands in Southern Africa, at the northern mouth of the Mozambique Channel, near Madagascar
Area: 2235 sq km; 180th largest in the world
        Slightly more than 12 times the size of DC
Terrain: Volcanic islands
Official languages: Arabic and French
Religion: 98% Sunni Muslim
Population: Almost 8 million; 162nd largest in the world
Capital: Moroni
Diplomacy: The US does not have an embassy in Comoros
GDP: $800 million; 205th largest in the world
Military: Women were first allowed in in 2004
Source: CIA Factbook

Back to Africa, where we will stay for a little while.  I didn't know much about Comoros, and didn't know there were so many island nations around there.  This is why I do this.  Learning.

Finding a recipe wasn't as difficult as it was for some other African countries, but there also weren't a lot of choices.  After looking at a few I settled on Comoran Chicken Curry, or Poulet à L'Indienne.  There are a lot of spices.  Plus, I get to cut up a whole chicken.  Who doesn't want to do that?  Most of the ingredients are pretty standard, although I don't often use natural yogurt in my cooking.

I wasn't entirely sure what "serving pieces" meant for the chicken, so I approximated.  Read also, I sometimes took the easy way out.
I tend to use kitchen shears for this job, although I'm beginning to think I should get a cleaver.
I did get rid of the pieces that were all spine or sternum.
I decided to try immersing the tomatoes in boiling water to peel them, since it worked so well last week.  Also because I had to blanch them anyway.  Tomatoes are my least favorite thing to peel, so something had to help.

The color and consistency difference is pretty astonishing when you compare the before and after blanching pictures.  Some of the bright-redness goes away, and it feels like you could completely puree them with your hands.  I wouldn't recommend it, though.  Peeling becomes a breeze.

Kevin said that the chilies were pretty hot, so I de-seeded them.  I don't really want to take any chances with too much spice right now.
With my chopping bases covered, I fried the chicken pieces.  It really didn't take that long.  I also left the skin on, because the directions didn't say otherwise.  Also skin is delicious.
After that was done, the chicken got set aside and it was time to saute the onions, chilies, and garlic.  In the meantime, I ground up the cardamom pods I had so they would become usable.  They are really easy to crush, so it is kinda fun.

Before.
After.
After the chicken and tomatoes were added to the pan, I mixed the remaining spices with the yogurt.  In this case, I assumed that saffron meant turmeric.  This mixture got poured over the chicken.
Cumin is wonderful.
At this point it felt a little weird.  I thought there would be a higher ratio of yogurt, to create a creamy base.  This didn't even cover the top, though.  I didn't know what else to do beside follow the rest of the directions, so I forged on.

The dish simmered for an hour while Kevin anxiously awaited the start of the Broncos game.  Let's not talk about the end of it.

Tesla is glaringly white and sleeping on the laundry.  Football is not his thing.
I was worried when the hour was up and I looked at the food.  The directions warned me it may dry out.  I had the opposite problem.  It had basically turned into a stew.  I guess enough juices from the various ingredients came out that all of the ingredients were now getting boiled.  This wasn't consistent with the directions, but I'm not sure where I went wrong.
Water almost to the top.
As was foreseeable at the end, this didn't turn out like desired.  It smelled delicious, but a lot of the flavors seemed to end up in the water instead of the chicken or vegetables.  The liquid wasn't thick enough to really act as a sauce, though, so piling it on didn't really help.  I'm not sure what happened to the yogurt, but it didn't seem to have much of an impact.

Was it bad?  No.  Just kinda bland.  Looking at the ingredients, that is not how I would have predicted it.  Guess I have to do some more learning.

Next time: Congo, Democratic Republic of the

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Colombia

Excuses.  I could find a ton of them for why I have not written.  I bet I could even make a list.  I will not give into that desire, however.  I will limit myself to two.  One isn't really a good one, but it is true nonetheless.  I think the second one is legit.  I guess you can judge for yourself.

Months ago, I very quickly found a recipe that I wanted to do for Colombia.  It had all of the makings that I look for.  New ingredients, delicious-sounding.  AND it was published in the Washington Post from the cook at the Colombian Embassy.  How perfect!

Here it is.  Sorry it is annoyingly on multiple pages.

I went out and bought all of the ingredients except for two: papa criolla (Colombian potatoes) and dried guascas.  Couldn't find them in the Latin American section.  No worries.  Visit to the Latin American grocery store: no luck.  I even asked and the guy there couldn't help me.  A trip to the gigantic international grocery store didn't help either.  I was stuck.

I know I have cooked these without all of the right ingredients before.  This felt wrong, though, to cut out the only two uniquely Colombian parts of the recipe.  I felt like I need to get at least one of the two.

My old roommate, Ryan, offered to look for them for me at the grocery store near his place.  Sorry I never got back to you, Ryan!  There was another reason I wasn't cooking much.  The thought of raw meat really made me feel ill.  That is right: I am pregnant.

We are really very excited.  And I have avoided much of the unpleasantness that most people have.  No morning sickness, no random food cravings.  But for the first few months my desire to cook really went out the window.  It was hard enough to cook our normal dinners, nonetheless experimental ones with unfamiliar ingredients.

So those are my excuses.  But I am now out of the first trimester, and raw chicken does not make me lose my appetite.  That is how I found myself in Denver for Christmas while still on Colombia.  All I needed was a new recipe and I could finally get this ball rolling again.

Colombia

History: One of three countries to come out of the collapse of "Gran Colombia" in 1830
Location: Northern part of South America, bordering both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean
Area: Over 1 million sq km; 26th largest in the world
         Slightly less than twice the size of Texas
Borders we've already touched onBrazil
Population: Almost 44.75 million; 30th largest in the world
Religion: 90% Roman Catholic
Capital: Bogota
Cuisine: Ajiaco is listed as a traditional dish is certain areas
Sources: CIA Factbook and Wikipedia

With the embassy recipe out of the picture, I kept going back to one I had found during my search.  Every time I read it it enticed me and I really wanted to see how it would turn out.  I couldn't find much independent backup for the authenticity, but I didn't care.  She gives some story and even a region of the country.  Therefore it was time to make Colombian-Style Pork Risotto.  Looking through, she also had a recipe for Fruit Salad.  Since it wasn't the main event I just got some ideas from this recipe but decided to use whatever tropical-ish fruits I could find at the store plus what was already on hand.

Chopping was a significant portion of this recipe, so I recruited some help and got all of that started.
Pork - we found the closest to the cuts listed as we could.
Kevin helped with the scallions/green onions.
Among other things.
Kevin's dad was in charge of the tomatoes, so he was also in charge of peeling them.  Similar to Sylvie, he said he would prep them by putting them in boiling water.  However, he just immersed them and let them sit for a bit.  It seemed to work well.  I recommend it.
We did have one ingredient issue, as always.  Sazon Goya with Azafran.  Not only was that missing, there were no Goya products at all.  What's up, Denver?  Instead, we found a recipe for a substitute online.  We used this one.  I also added turmeric, because the internet told us that that was what azafran is.
I was apparently confused about some of the spices.

If you can identify the spices in the picture, you'll have an idea of the recipe we used.
While we were preparing these items for the seasoning, the pork was simmering and making our pork stock.

The Hogao or Seasoning ended up being very similar to a salsa.  In fact, it may be worth trying that some time.  Seasonings, herbs, and of course tomatoes.

They were very helpful and I am glad that I don't always have to do this stuff all alone.
Hogao.
The nametags are because we had come from visiting our new nephew in the NICU.  He is doing well.  And he is cute.
Wearing the hat I made him!
We then combined the pork, stock, rice, and hogao into one pot to simmer for a while.  It smelled really wonderful.
We also had to start chopping all of the fruits if we wanted everything done on time.  The boys got stuck with the difficult stuff.  Turns out: mangoes, not so easy to cut into smaller pieces.  They really hold onto their pits, like a peach.  Also, it is difficult to hollow out a pineapple.
Engineers take every problem seriously.
Strawberries and mangoes.
Kevin looks surprised with his kiwi.
I needed some good presentation.
We added the potatoes to the pork dish, let it simmer, and set up our fruit display.  At this point I was feeling good with how everything looked and smelled.
We soon were able to set the table, pour some wine (for some of us), and sit down with some food.  It did take a little longer to get the rice to finish, but I will blame that on the altitude.

This dish lived up to expectations.  That is really exciting to write.  It was flavorful and had diverse textures and ingredients and was also filling.  I believe that everyone else really liked it as well.  It got good reviews.  I would highly recommend making it.

It would be interesting to try it with Arborio rice, or something that is traditionally used in other countries for risotto.  It may make it less Colombian, but might add an extra oomph to an already excellent dish.

The fruit salad was also delicious, which is to be expected when you just chop them up and throw them together.  It made me realize how delicious properly-ripe mangoes are, though.  Very rarely have I eaten them raw and out in the open like this, and I was very happy.  They might make it onto my grocery list more often now.

So there you go - a successful return to cooking around the world.  And one that I feel confident in recommending you try.  Next up we have three African nations in a row, so we'll be doing a little less travelling than normal.  Thank you for your patience!

Next time: Comoros

Sunday, January 15, 2012

China - Day 3

Yes, it has been a really long time.  I'm not going to go into why - that is for next post.  I can tell you that I am back to cooking.  Two more countries checked off and I've already got a few recipe ideas for the countries after that.  No, I have not given up.

Please assume I had witty and hilarious things planned for this post.  I just forgot them all.

So, China.  I already made duck and vegetable stir fry, pot stickers and kung pao chicken.  I really wanted to make quail for the third day.  Kevin however, had other ideas.  And I obliged him.  Partially because he is cute and partially because it seemed like a good idea.

For him I would make Char Siu, or Cantonese Roast Pork.  The best part of that is Char Siu was one of the ingredients in Yangchow Fried Rice.  He could get a lot of his favorite things all in one meal.  It also seemed like a good way to round out our Chinese experience.

"Lean pork butt" was the cut of meat that the recipe called for, and I think I hit the jackpot.
The thin lice are much better than the thick ones.
You cut the pork into strips and then set it in a marinade for 1 - 3 hours.  I can get behind a recipe like this.  Not a ton of chopping.

Light soy sauce, sesame paste, brown bean paste, hoisin sauce, and Chinese five-spice powder.  More common ingredients not pictured.
While that sits it is on to the fried rice.  I made Kevin help me a lot because (1) it was his pick and (2) I told him he had to if we were going to keep the shrimp in the recipe.  I do not mix well with seafood.

This involved a lot more chopping.  There were four types of meat (chicken, shrimp, roast pork, and Chinese ham) alone.  I never found Chinese ham...hopefully the Canadian kind was acceptable.

Both the shrimp and chicken were marinated in their own sauce.  They both involved dry sherry, egg, white pepper, cornstarch, and sesame oil.  In fact, the biggest difference was whole egg vs an egg white.
My skills are unmatched.
We also got another chance to hydrate some dry mushrooms.  Yay!  This went with the other vegetables: carrots, green peas, cooked rice, and green onions.
They don't exactly look like the most appetizing things.
The consistency is very soft and velvety when they are done.
The pork had to cook before we could get too far with the fried rice, since it was one of the ingredients.  To do this we skewered the pork and roasted it.  We were supposed to actually hook the skewers to the top shelf and have them hang over a pan of boiling water.  Didn't have the right equipment for that, though, so we made do.
After 40 minutes, you baste the meat with a combination of honey, mirin wine, and sesame oil.  It smelled absolutely amazing.  Ten minutes later, the meat is ready to go!

Anxious to get his fried rice, Kevin immediately began dissecting it.

From there you are mostly stir-frying the ingredients.  They get cooked in groups and removed.  First some meat, then some others, then some vegetables.  There was an egg getting scrambled in there too.  Add some rice and then everything else back in for a bit and you have fried rice.

Scrambling an egg in a wok feels like using a sledgehammer for a nail to hang a picture.


More sesame oil, white pepper, and salt finishes off the dish and everything is ready to be served!

I can eat too?
The pork was delicious.  I think this is what we were looking for.  There was a lot of stuff I wouldn't have used on my own: mirin wine, brown bean paste, hoisin sauce.  There wasn't a lot of chopping that slows me down or complicated cooking maneuvers.  Simple and fragrant and delicious.  The honey really helped to bring everything together and make a unique taste.  I plan on making it again.

The fried rice was good.  Not quite what we were expecting, but we are American and have only eaten the kinds you get a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants.  Drenched in salt and soy sauce.  This wasn't like that.  The flavors were much more subtle and delicate.  Probably much better, just something to get used to.  Can't expect the in-your-face version from your local delivery place.

Overall, what did I learn from China?  I learned that a country as big as they are can have very varied cuisine, which is not very surprising.  I learned the Chinese food I am eating here is sometimes closer to the real thing than I thought.  Sometimes much farther away.  But mostly I learned about ingredients.  I learned how amazing sesame oil smells.  I learned to not be afraid of something called brown bean paste.  I learned about some of the subtleties of soy sauce.  And I learned I was to use all of the stuff I went out and bought again.

Next time: Colombia