15 October 2010

Back to Greece and Blogging

So after taking two weeks off it's about time I get back to cooking. I decided to head back to Greece for my next dish since I am completely in love with Greek cuisine. Tzatziki alone makes me drool. Now I've been to Greece so I feel like I can share a few of my own fun facts about Greek cuisine and culture having experienced it instead of researching the place.

1. In Greece they really take their siesta time seriously. Stores are closed for a few hours in the afternoon and unless you are in the really touristy parts, the streets are pretty empty so make sure you grab lunch before this happens or you’ll be left eating airplane peanuts you stored away. Embrace naptime instead of hunting for food.

2. Street cart food is super cheap and super delicious. I went at Christmas where every corner had a cart selling roasting chestnuts, coconut pieces, kabobs, gyros, or giant doughnuts. Everything is fresh and the point and pay method works really well, just make sure they don’t rip you off.

3. The restaurant owners love hassling tourists to eat at their establishment and they will follow you down the street no matter how many times you reject their offer. It’s much worse when traveling in a group so just be prepared to say no a lot.

4. Despite the husslers, you might get lucky enough to eat Christmas Eve dinner at a restaurant owned by a large Greek family around closing time where they will offer you free kabobs and spiced desserts because they need to get rid of the food. Take the food and thank them generously and if they offer to adopt you, consider their offer. I’m joking of course. Well about the last part anyways.

5. Greek pastries are like heaven in your mouth. Especially the cheese ones. Yes in fact you should buy as many as you can. Just walk up the Acropolis if you’re feeling guilty afterwards.

So because I had such a great Christmas Eve in Athens, I decided to re-visit and recreate that particular memory. In fact, I have so many fond memories of Greece, mostly due to all the people I had the pleasure of meeting. So as you may guess, Christmas Eve was exactly that. Staying at a hostel definitely has its advantages because you are given the perfect opportunity to meet and interact with people all over the world and around the holidays everyone is just trying to find some semblance of family away from home.

In Athens I shared a room with a great group of girls and on Christmas Eve we decided to go out to dinner. When all the shops would close for a couple hours, most of us would return from our sightseeing for a nap. So in the company of four girls, we began our restaurant hunt well after nine at night and after several blocks of walking we came across a small family owned place away from the tourist traps. We were welcomed warmly and offered the Christmas Eve specials which included either Moussaka or lamp chops along with a complimentary bottle of wine. I told you we were welcomed warmly! I also mentioned the free lamb kabobs and a spiced gelatin dessert. I had the Moussaka and it was absolutely delicious.

Moussaka is an eggplant dish with some form of minced meat with a tomato base topped with a type of baked cream or custard. Not the type of dessert custard, but a sauce called bechamel which is made of mostly of milk, flour, and eggs. The whole thing is baked to a beautiful shade of brown and is absolutely delicious. On that memorable Christmas Eve my moussaka was made from ground lamb and also had zucchini. I decided I should try and recreate the recipe so I began my search for a five star moussaka recipe and tweaked from there. I did end up using lean ground beef instead of lamb (way cheaper!) but my result was just as I remembered. If you love eggplant and zucchini you will love this casserole-type dish. The eggplant came out tender, the spices created a unique flavor without being overwhelming, and bechamel sauce turned a lovely golden brown and was creamy not chewy. I'm praying that the leftovers are just as good since that tends to be what determines whether I keep a recipe like this or not. So far it's looking promising though. Sometimes I don't even feel like I'm living in a dorm, I don't know how other college students can live off mac and cheese!

29 September 2010

Sweet Endings

Canada is one of those places I've always wanted to visit. In fact it's really kind of strange how I've been able to visit Europe four times but can't seem to plan a trip to Canada even though it's closer in mileage and wouldn't involve crossing any oceans. If there is some way for me to visit Canada, I will take it. Canada was colonized by the French and the British so it's only natural for it to pick up some of those customs and of course the impact those cultures have played on the cuisine. The range in climate and landscape is of course equally influential.

In the southeastern and western plains wheat, barley, fruits, and vegetables are gown and dispersed within Canada and also exported to other countries. Cattle are also raised for meat and dairy. Then of course along the coasts you have plentiful amounts of fish and seafood. The U.S. is pretty much the same in these respects and it makes sense. As I mentioned, a lot of the cuisine is British and French inspired, however, like here there are of course other European dishes that became popular during immigration.

Staples and popular foods in Canada mirror those of the U.S. with potatoes, bread, and pasta playing a huge part. Unlike the U.S. however, rarer meats such as seal blubber, caribou, and buffalo have a small role in certain regions. Another Canadian specialty is wild rice which looks black before being cooked is much longer and larger than the rice we tend to refer to as "wild" rice. In Canada Thanksgiving is also observed, except in October, but it's still the typical turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and pumpkin pie combo that we find here. Because of all the similarities between Canadian cuisine and American cuisine, I wanted to find something that was definitely more Canadian inspired or highlighted their history as a French colony. I also wanted to end things on a sweet note, so yes, I wanted to cook another dessert type dish.

My dish of choice fell into my lap when I learned about a type of dumpling cooked in maple syrup called grandfathers or, more accurately, grandperes. Grandperes is a very old recipe that doesn't have a specific origin other than some sort of French background as seen in the name as it has been passed down through French-Canadian families with no real root of origin. The dumplings were super easy to make and used staples of any cupboard, yes even that of a college student like myself, and the only required purchase was real maple syrup. I paid a pretty penny for my cute jug of syrup, but the authentic maple flavor was worth it. I haven't had real maple syrup in ages so this was definitely a treat for me.

I will say one thing, this recipe is definitely sweet and three of these little guys had me completely full. I ate mine as an afternoon snack with vanilla ice cream after class and what a treat! I don't make dumplings often because they don't keep well and I'm more of a pancake kind of person, but with the maple syrup these were a little reminiscent of that. They also smell delightful, let's just say it's going to be hard to go back to imitation maple syrup after I'm done with my little jug. I definitely wrapped up my thirty country cooking adventure on the right note.

So now that I've reached the light at the end of the tunnel, I am actually a little sad that it's over. Now I have to begin the process of putting together my cookbook, a task that just doesn't sound as fun as actually researching the recipes and cooking them, but as promised that will be my end result and I only have two days to accomplish it. I hope you all enjoyed my recipes, I have future plans to keep expanding my cookbook so keep in touch and I'll let you know when I have this adventure up and running again. For now I must take a small break from a hectic cooking schedule, copy some recipes down, and eat some Italian food. I will be writing one final post before this competition ends, I can't believe this is my penultimate post, September just flew on by and October is nearly upon me.
My sweet endings, click the photo one last time for a recipe. Enjoy and make these anytime you need life to be a little sweeter.

27 September 2010

Beans with History

My most recent memory of Cuba involves the documentary Sicko and how "amazing" Cuba's health care was portrayed. Heath care issues seem to come up time and time again and it seems like comparing other countries and their health care systems to that of the United States has definitely added some heat to the debates. From my own experience I will say one thing, not everything appears as nice (or not nice depending on viewpoint) in real life as it does in a documentary. Now Cuba may have free health care, yes this is true. This sort of comes with socialism if I remember correctly from my high school history classes. Which by the way, if free health care isn't part of a socialist government correct me because it's a miracle I even passed those classes since me and history are less adhesive than oil and water. Now I don't want to turn this into some huge health care debate, but I will say one thing, free health care makes it difficult to pay doctors and keep facilities equipped, higher life expectancy or not, it's not a walk in the park. So that's my spiel on Cuba and their health care.

As one of the remaining Communist countries, Cuba also suffers from what probably isn't the best reputation. However, politics aside, their cuisine is something to be desired, no matter what kind of government eats it. This place knows how to make great food. Any list of Cuban dishes will be extensive, all noteworthy in my opinion. In fact when I first began my research for Cuba, which seems like ages ago, I had a very difficult time choosing a dish. I had realized that every single dish sounded amazing, each bursting with flavor and spices, all fusions of Spanish, Caribbean, and African cuisines. So I went for one of the most obvious, their national dish, something called "Monk's Black Beans." Well after some extensive recipe hunting and digging around in Cuban cuisine, I emerged without a clue on why the dish was the national dish or where the name came from. I ended my search with the conclusion that Monk's Black Beans and a bean and rice dish called Moros Y Cristianos (Moors and Christians) were one in the same. Now I can't guarantee the accuracy of this statement, but the ingredients for the two are pretty much identical. Having said that, I am formally changing the original name of my chosen dish from Monk's Black Beans to Moros Y Christianos, which actually has cultural and historical significance.

The name of the dish refers to wars between the Moors and the Spaniards. The black beans in the dish signify the Moors and the rice represents the Christian Spaniards and the centuries of battle that happened between them in Spain. Nowadays, this rice and bean dish is found on almost every Cuban table to act as a reminder of the Spanish influence on Cuba. It's not a daily ritual to think about the Spanish invasion that happened centuries ago, but it does show you just how much ancient history can impact the cultures today. That is what I found so incredibly fascinating about this dish. Can you imagine, I mean we're talking about an event that happened more than 500 years ago and how it has impacted everyday cuisine. This goes to show you how sometimes finding the origins of dishes can be a long and laborious process and even just discovering the names behind some dishes can remain a mystery.

I do have to say right off the bat, this recipe is definitely a keeper and one of my favorites. It was so incredibly easy but so incredibly tasty that I will be making it again very soon. I do have a strong love of black beans so that certainly contributed, but I did love the infusion of the spices. I also love cumin so with the black beans the likelihood of me disliking this was pretty slim. The best part, you stick it in a pot and let it cook, no tending or difficult steps needed. The most intensive process is cutting up the veggies and the results do wow. You could definitely serve this as a side dish no problem, or be like me and eat it alone with some tortillas. It's not spicy, it's incredibly flavorful, it's easy to make, and it is one of the standout dishes I've made out of this cooking challenge. Cuban food will become a part of my cuisines I cook more of!

26 September 2010

Chicken Salad with a Twist

First off, I do have to apologize for the lateness of this post. I spent all day drawing bones which takes much longer than I expected. Now lets forget about the ache in my right hand and take our minds to another paradise. Antigua and Barbuda is much like Belize with bright blue seas and sparkling beaches. Unlike Belize which is landlocked, this country is actually composed to two islands located in the Caribbean separated by only a few miles. At one time the islands were used extensively for producing cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, and the production of other goods. As a result, many of the workers were slaves and so nowadays the majority are those who are descendants of the slaves who were brought from Africa to work in the fields. The islands were also under British rule until they gained independence in 1981, however the official language has remained English and British customs like afternoon tea and sandwiches are still very common in daily life.

Now the islands are producers of pineapple, bananas, and other fruits and vegetables that thrive in the tropical climate. Staples on the islands are those common all over the world such as rice, beans, and corn. Being surrounded by water has allowed shellfish to have a large role in the cuisine, however chicken and preserved meats are also very common. Typical meals can be anything from grilled fish to stews called pepper pots which contain meats and vegetables as well as Indian curry inspired dishes such as curried chicken salad, which is what I intended to make since it was fused with the exotic flavors of the island.

I have nice enough parents that are willing to play a game of chicken trade-off where I sent some raw chicken breasts home with mom who gave them to dad who grilled them and sent them back to work with mom for me to pick up. It was like hot potato. I just couldn't imagine making this salad any other way though and felt that in this case I needed the slightly smoky flavor of grilled chicken to help compliment the rest of the ingredients. I was not wrong, the grilled chicken really heightens the other flavors in this. The recipe I found also used mango chutney, which I couldn't find in stores, so I made my own. I was actually a little wary about making chutney since 1-I had never made it before and 2-I thought it would take forever since I thought it was more of a preserve. After searching for a recipe I was amazed and relieved that it only took about half an hour to make on a stove top and required easy to find ingredients, most of which I had already. I actually made the chutney a day in advance just in case something were to go horribly wrong, but it was very much like making a type of soup where all you really have to do is chop everything up and toss it in a pot in the right order. Not to mention, I'm sure my homemade stuff was better than anything found in a jar sitting on a shelf.

For me the best thing about this chicken salad was that it didn't use that much mayonnaise, which I always find is way overused in salad recipes, and with the chutney, pineapple bits, and curry the flavor is definitely unique with a tropical twist. I was actually afraid it would be too sweet, but with some romaine, toasted bread, and the grilled chicken, it only had a hint of sweet and was actually a little tangy from the lemon juice. I really enjoyed the flavor of this one and this has been the first meal that I have made for myself which can be grabbed out of the fridge, no reheating necessary, whipped up and taken to class for lunch. For this reason specifically I chose this sandwich recipe the minute I read about it in The World Cookbook for Students. I always try to find other types of dishes than just those that are served hot or required the extensive use of an oven or stove. I will be playing around with curry chicken salads in the future to see what other fun things I can add to give them a little "oomph."