Monday, April 23, 2012

Cuba

History: Christopher Columbus landed there in 1492
Location: Caribbean island, 150 km south of Key West
Area: Over 100,000 sq km; 106th largest in the world
         Slightly smaller than Pennsylvania
Borders: Technically, the US base at Guantanamo Bay could be considered their only border
Geography: Largest country in the Caribbean
Population: Over 11 million; 74th most in the world
Capital: Havana
Physician density: Almost 6.4/1000 population; 2nd highest in the world
Literacy: 99.8%
Source: CIA World Factbook

For a country that is so close to parts of the US, Cuba is a country that I do not know much about personally.  I was, however, in that scene from Guys and Dolls.  Yeah, I had a lot to learn.

The internet did not give consensus on what the national dish of Cuba was.  There are different opinions out there - shocking!  However, Ropa Vieja was a common dish I saw over and over.  The name means "old clothes."  A popular story says that a poor man could not buy food for his family.  He instead gathered some old clothes, imbued them with his love, and cooked them.  His love turned the dish into a "wonderful beef stew."

Research showed it to be shredded beef in a homemade barbecue sauce - sounds more delicious than clothes. There were a lot of possible recipes out there, but I ended up settling on this one.  I would generally rather get things from more ethnic websites, but there were good reviews from people who claimed to be Cuban.  Close enough!

The directions for this recipe are incredibly simple.  After browning the meat, you throw all of the ingredients in a slow cooker for a few hours.  It takes a day when you can plan ahead, but the actual prep was not time-consuming at all.  I like that.

The hardest part was actually the fact that the steak was too big to brown in any of our pans effectively.

While I finagled with that, Kevin worked on chopping up the onion, green pepper, and garlic.  It is amazing how much better cooking is when you don't have to do all of the chopping yourself.

There was some debate about whether or not the order of the things going into the slow cooker mattered.  Kevin voted yes, because it lists them specifically in the recipe.  I voted no, because you were supposed to stir it all together anyway.  Plus it was easier for Kevin to throw things in since the meat was still browning.  We just ended up throwing things in.  It was a little difficult to stir just because of the size of the meat.  I cut it a little bit.
Yeah, that's not going to stir much.
We had recently planted some cilantro on our balcony, so I actually got to use some fresh herbs.  That is way more exciting than half a bunch of it going bad in my fridge because I don't use it often enough.
Everything is doing really well except for those flowers in the middle.  They died super-quickly.

Once all of the liquids and other ingredients were added, it became much easier to mix everything together.
Cumin, garlic, tomato - yum!
Kevin's parents were visiting us, so we decided to go out and see Georgetown while the beef was stewing.  Luckily we had nice weather and tulips in bloom, which made for a nice day.  Not particularly Cuban.

The one part I didn't really know about the recipe was how to shred the beef.  Luckily, Kevin's mom was able to show me - it is really easy!  You just take two forks and start pulling at it.  It shredded really easily.

Her hands were moving too quickly to get a good clear picture.
We mixed the beef back with the sauce.  I also made some rice to serve with it.  According to what I was reading, that was much more authentic than tortillas.
Add in some salad and broccoli, and we have a meal!
I thought this turned out really well, especially for my first time making a shredded beef dish.  The sauce had a pretty good blend of spices and other ingredients.  It was familiar enough to be recognizable as a barbecue sauce, but different enough that it didn't feel like a waste of effort because we could have gotten it out of a bottle.  Combine that with the ease of work, and I think we have a winner.

Everyone seemed to like it, but not be overly excited for it either.  It was a good, solid meal.  There wasn't really any one thing that I think could have been improved.  It also didn't make me want to immediately put it into our meal rotation.  There may be one of those coming up, though...

Do you make homemade barbecue sauces ever?  Any good ingredients you highly recommend?

Next time: Cyprus

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Croatia

Brief history: Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the close of WWI.  Later it was part of Yugoslavia until they declared independence in 1991.  It took four more years to clear out most of the Serb armies.
Location: Southeasten Europe, between Bosnia and Slovenia
Area: Over 56,500 sq km; 127th largest in the world
         Slightly smaller than West Virginia
Natural Hazards: Destructive earthquakes
Language: Croatian
Biggest ethnic group: Croats
Population: Almost 4.5 million; 124th most in the world
Capital: Zagreb
Source: CIA Factbook

Croatian cuisine seems to be pretty varied throughout this relatively small country.  There were a lot of dishes to choose from, which was rather exciting.  Goulash was listed, but I have traditionally associated that with Hungary.  Rather than just looking at information about their cuisine, I decided to make my choice based on the recipes themselves.

Pasticada caught my eye.  It is specifically from one area of Croatia, but seemed to be quite popular.  I was able to find multiple variations of recipes for the dish, and it sounded good.  Additionally, beef pot roast is not something I normally make, and I would like the experience.  After looking through different variations, I settled on the one found here.  I liked the idea of the fruit with the vegetables, and it was more traditional in the prep.  Exciting.

Did you read the first sentence?  No?  Shame on you.  Is it possible to read a more glorious direction than this?
Day One: slit pockets into the meat and insert the bacon and garlic. 
Yes please.  It ended up being a little bit more difficult than it sounds, but still wonderful.
The meat was big, but thin.  It made cutting pockets difficult.
The bacon and garlic were overflowing.  I believe it was one of the first times I have ever expressed the sentiment that I might have too much bacon...

I also assumed that the mustard it called for was wet and not dried.  That would be a ridiculous amount of dried mustard.

Doing some of the prep the day before was actually kinda nice.  It meant that I didn't have to worry a lot about when I started - after dinner, before, didn't matter.

Browning the meat was a little difficult.  It is hard to flip something like that, and I didn't want all of the deliciousness to fall out.
Browned - at least somewhat.
There were a lot of veggies to cut up.  I went with carrots and celery as the soup vegetables - nothing too exciting.

I wasn't sure how much water to put in, since it didn't specify.  I didn't want it to dry out, and juiciness is good, so I put in a bit.
It had to cook for a bit, so I made some rye bread in the meantime.  I don't have pictures of the whole process, but there are a few of the beginning.


This is where the instructions started to confuse me.  It says stew for 2 hours.  It then says to add some stuff when "...the meat has softened and is tender...."  Is this supposed to be after the 2 hours?  In the middle?  I think I ended up doing it at around 1.75 hours.  I didn't want things to stew for too long if they were not supposed to.


Kevin has to get down all of the high things for me now...
I didn't have fresh herbs, so I used dried.  Yeah, I know.

And then I had my "wow, I don't know a lot" minute.  It says to strain the sauce, so I did.  I assumed the part it wanted was the liquid.
Kevin pointed out that it was probably the vegetables and other yumminess.
I had already poured some liquid on the meat.  Oops.  I then served this stuff on the side.  Which approach is right?  My guess is Kevin's.  Yours?
I had been "tasting" this meal ever since I first read it.  I didn't even ask for Kevin's opinion on this one - I knew that this is what I wanted to make.  So maybe my disappointment was because I had built it up so much in my mind.  It was rather bland.  The meat was tough and seemed overcooked.  I'm not sure where all of the vegetable flavor went.  Or the bacon.  Where were you, bacon?

It certainly wasn't bad.  Just not exciting.  I think a thicker cut of meat would help.  In fact, a little bit of research starts showing me that there is a different between a "round steak" and "round roast."  Maybe it would retain a little more of the delicious beef taste, while also allowing more room in the "pockets."  And I'm fairly certain I put in too much water.  I'm not sure what else to change given what I know, though.  The description is still delicious, and I'm sure an authentic Croatian cook would make a much better version that I did.

Next time: Cuba