30 August 2010

Belarusian Pink Hands

Belarus shares a border with Russia, Ukraine, and Poland – all countries I considered for this challenge. So I went with the country stuck in the middle of them assuming that all three would find their way into Belarusian cuisine. I was not left disappointed; Bealarusian cuisine takes the term melting pot quite literally. An interesting fact about Belarus that I discovered is that it is a “coinless” country, meaning they don’t use coins and every bit of their currency is in notes. In fact they have thirteen different notes of varying values! I mean sure, you don’t have to deal with coins, but could you imagine having to sort through bills every time?

I found my recipe for this dish from a legit Belarusian site, and I mean legit! As in I had to search for a site that could translate Belarusian to read the recipe. I can only hope I was translating a recipe handed down from someone’s Belarusian grandmother. Lucky for me the soup has only three steps so even with the use of a poor translating site (as most of them are), I still understood what was going on.

So what did I choose from Belarus? I went with a soup. I haven’t done a soup yet but this was definitely different and very traditional, so I went for it. I decided on a beet soup called Borshch which can be served with sour cream and dill. The soup is Ukranian in origin, but it has been adapted by several other countries and each country has made it their own. In fact there are Romanian, Polish, Russian, even Chinese variations (to name a few). In fact in some countries it is served cold or mixed with cream. Then of course there is the Belarusian variation which uses tomatoes in addition to beets.

So I dyed not just my hand pink from cutting the beets needed for this, but also my cutting board and my spoon. I also scraped my pinkie while peeling my beet which was a little on the “I’ve been sitting around for too long” side. See what kind of sacrifices I’ve made for this blog? My lovely pink hands are the reason why I try to avoid cooking with beets, I mean I love beets, but they are a very messy vegetable.

Due to the tomato paste and the sad state of my beet, the soup wasn’t nearly as pink as I expected as I had seen photos of it. Mine was a dark red-orange color (it’s actually a bit darker and redder in person than the photo below). I suppose if I had used a fresher beet there would have been more of a pink tint from the juices, but this was definitely a very tinted soup, dying all the ingredients. One thing to remember, the longer you cook the soup, the more flavorful it is.

The soup itself is super tasty. The pink hands were worth it! Because of the tomato paste and beef stock, the broth doesn’t have an overly “beety” flavor and manages to absorb a lot of the flavor from the other vegetables. Cutting out the many adjectives I could use to describe this, let me just use one – delicious! Serve it with a thick slice of bread, sheer soup heaven. As you can tell, I definitely liked this soup and if blood red color doesn’t bother you, this is definitely something you want to try. I know when winter comes I’ll be making this one again; it’s a great alternative to the typical vegetable or cabbage soup I make during that time and I do love beets. One thing to note, if you are vegetarian you could swap the beef stock with vegetable stock no problem, there will be just as much flavor and the soup will taste just as great. That concludes country 10, whew! Six dishes this week was hard work! This next day or so I’ll be taking a little break to come up with my next 10 dishes.

29 August 2010

Banitsa Expectations

I'm not going to lie, I chose Bulgaria specifically for its mouth-watering rich pastries since I've heard about them from several people claiming how utterly delicious they are. When I start with a country the first thing I do is turn to Wikipedia, which may get a lot of flack for being unreliable, but it has gotten better over the years. The first pastry mentioned concerning Bulgaria was banitsa, which is a cheese and egg pastry wrapped in layers of phyllo. Sounded good to me! Banitsa is slang for something that's crumpled, for example let's say I was scolded for allowing my homework to become like a banitsa when I turned it in.

Around the holidays such as Christmas or New Years, kusmeti is baked right into the pastry. Kusmeti means luck and you may be asking yourself how they could possibly bake something immaterial like luck into a pastry, well luck comes in the form of charms, coins, or wishes written on paper and wrapped in foil. One lucky charm used is dogwood and each bud symbolizes health and longevity and the pastry is cut in a way that everyone receives a bit of the dogwood branch, I guess depending on the number of buds you receive in your piece determines how many wishes you get. I really enjoyed the optimism that accompanies this pastry.

The most important thing to remember when making banitsa – REMAIN CALM! The phyllo dough is going to break, the mixture is going to seep through, there will be leaks, don’t panic! Just work in a cool and collected manner and take your time… well don’t take too much time or the phyllo will dry out and the eggs will make it mushy, but take enough time to roll it carefully without creating unnecessary holes and tucking away any loose edges. What I’m getting at here is that when baked the dough is very forgiving. I’ve made Baklava several times and no matter how brittle my phyllo is or how many holes appear, it always comes out the same – flaky and delicious. The same can be said here. As long as you get the ingredients from counter to pan without completely destroying each piece, it will work. Think of the phyllo as the newspaper and the butter as your glue, think like this and you’re back to third grade making things with paper mache. Easy right?

As far as taste goes, I was a little overwhelmed with the feta. I have never really eaten feta on anything aside from the occasional Greek salad and I’ve certainly never cooked with it extensively. Having said that, I did like the concept of this pastry overall, I just think it would be a whole lot better with some spinach added to it to balance all that cheese. Because there is A LOT of cheese going on here. I can also see this as more of a brunch thing since it is quite heavy and rich and I couldn’t imagine eating it for dinner or as an appetizer. It’s way too heavy sit in your stomach before bed and the thought of eating anything after this makes me bloated just thinking about it. It’s just too filling.

I would also be interested to see if I can somehow spin this into a dessert since I love the presentation and the flaky layers of phyllo, perhaps turn it into a cream cheese or fruit thing? That sounds more up my alley. I feel like desserts can get away with a lot more as far as overly rich and heavy is concerned. I did read about banitsas made with apples or pumpkins and also some filled with cinnamon, sugar, and nuts and wish I had tried one of those even if they aren't as traditional.

Clearly with all the changes I plan on making to this, I can say it was probably my least favorite dish so far. I was shocked, I really thought I would like this and to be honest, I wanted to like it. I thought it would be reminiscent of the delicious cheese pastries I had in Greece, but the feta was just too much for me and too salty. I do wonder how the “real thing” tastes in Bulgaria. It did have a strange taste to it as well and it took me a while to figure out why it tasted familiar. Then it hit me, this tastes like mac and cheese. Don’t ask me how a carefully handmade pastry could possibly taste like something that comes in a box and sells for 99 cents, but I swear that’s what I got from it. Another downside is that phyllo, while delicious when right out of the oven, becomes rather un-delicious after a day of soaking up all the moisture from the eggs and the cheese.

My conclusion, would I make this the traditional way again? Probably not. Would I experiment with it and turn it into a really delicious desert? Most definitely.

28 August 2010

Armenian Revani

Armenia is a fairly small country, about the same size as Belgium, located on the eastern side of Turkey. Armenia is almost right smack between the Middle East and Eastern Europe in the region known as Eurasia. I actually picked Armenia because I was curious whether the cuisine was more Asian inspired, European inspired, or some jumble of both. Sounded like a great transition country from Asia to Europe! Surprisingly, there is a larger Armenian population living outside the country of Armenia than in the country itself and Armenian communities have sprung up all over the globe. Therefore, a lot of Armenian cuisine varies greatly depending on the different Armenian communities spread throughout the globe. Unlike my original hypothesis that the cuisine would only be influenced by Eastern Europe and the Middle East, I discovered it's influenced by not only both of these regions, but several other regions in Europe, including the Mediterranean and Balkan regions.

So it's no surprise that a lot of the dishes have roots in Turkey, Greece, and France. Dishes on heavy on nuts and fruits and key spices vary from region to region. I came across one sweet called Revani which is present in both Greece and Turkey as well and is a cake soaked in a honey syrup. Many recipes I discovered use seminola, although I did find some that took flour instead giving it a more "cake-like" texture. The cake is still on the dense side as the batter contains a high percentage of ground nuts which add both texture and flavor. Like many Armenian dishes, spices are not heavily relied upon for flavor and this dessert only utilizes cinnamon.

For me, baking this cake was better than eating it. The smell that drifted through the house reminded me of freshly baked muffins or bread, instant stress reliever right there. I'm still convinced someone could make a fortune manufacturing the smell of banana bread, I always find that a very relaxing smell and sometimes bake it during finals week. Mmmm. Revani reminded me of that. Once cooked, the honey syrup is poured over the cake while it's still hot and then chilled. Mom and I had a taste about an hour after it had chilled and both of us found the cake had a bit of a strange flavor, this may be on account of the ancient brandy extract I used in the syrup. However, I took it to school and ate it for breakfast the next day having let it chill overnight and I found the flavor less strange and grew quite fond of it.

I've been eating a piece of it every morning since then and I find that the longer the flavor has to mix with the cake, the better it gets and keeps the cake from drying out. Now I've become attached to the flavor and I do enjoy the slight crunch of the nuts in the cake and the light honey flavor, yum. The best part - it's not too sweet and It tastes great with coffee. In the future I wonder if I would have any luck making revani cupcakes/muffins. The cake rose beautifully, even at 7000 feet and I could see hazelnut cupcakes being a huge success. The only downside of this recipe - hazelnuts can be a bit expensive if they aren't local or you don't have a good place to buy them. Although, with this cake I bet you could experiment with other types of nuts and it would be just as good. In other countries the cake is topped with cream and pistachios. I bet it tasted great with a little vanilla ice cream too. Yummy!

27 August 2010

Pakistan Copies India

I moved back into the dorms yesterday and had to say goodbye to a very well-equipped kitchen. I also didn't have to worry about any smoke alarms going off or kitchen supplies randomly disappearing, this makes my cooking adventure even more of a challenge! I also didn't post yesterday which I feel a little bad about, but man I was beat! You trying carrying heavy boxes up some stairs in this heat and cook afterwards! However, my goal was four dishes a week and it's only Thursday so I'm not too worried. Now, enough of my excuses, let's get on with the real reason for posting.

Pakistan makes the news a lot and like most of the Middle East, it has had its fair share of political and military problems. I wasn't much for World History and that's a topic that would take too long for me to thoroughly research, but what I can tell you about Pakistan is that it holds the second highest mountain in the world and that it's cuisine differs quite a bit from region to region. I was a little overwhelmed at how much the dishes varied. I also know that they consume more meat than India and less fish than much of Asia. I was excited about two things when I chose my dish from Pakistan. The first, it was mostly vegetables, something that has been a bit lacking in many of the dishes previously. Secondly, it did not call for rice! I don't usually have rice more than once a week (I'm more of a pasta person), and between the dishes, the leftovers, and going out for Chinese food with my parents, I was a bit riced out.

The dish I chose to cook wasn't too incredibly common, but it does turn up some recipes if you Google search it. It's called Nauaratan, and I'm not sure how this translates, but it can also be called Nine Jewels Meat with Vegetable. No matter how many Google searches I did, I could not find the origins of how this dish came to be called that or why the title even included the "Nine Jewels" part since there is only one type of meat and twelve different vegetables in it, why nine? Then, after what felt like scrolling through hundreds of pages, I discovered an Indian dish called Navaratan, a dish with a very similar name. This dish had nine ingredients, ah ha! Now that makes more sense. So I Googled some more and discovered that in India Navaratan refers to nine "extraordinary people in a King's Court." I knew the phrase 'Nine Jewels of India' sounded familiar. After looking at the Indian version of the recipe I noticed that it really is quite different. My best guess is that the dish was carried over into Pakistan and it was adapted to ingredients more prevalent int hat region, but that's just a guess. I learned a very important lesson in all this, tracing the history of food can be quite difficult, no wonder there's controversy surrounding Pavlova!

I decided that there was a lot I liked about this dish and a lot that I either didn't like or felt could be changed and so to organize my thoughts better I'm broken them up in a sort of good/not so good list.

The Good
-Veggies! If you love vegetables like me, you will love this, it's bursting with them.
-After quite a bit of chopping, the rest is incredibly simple. One good thing about moving back to the dorms, we just got a whole set of new knives last semester and they sure beat the ones at home making even the chopping part easy.
-Did I mention just how much I love vegetables? This dish has almost all my favorites in it.

The Not So Good (but easy to change)
-I read so much about how flavorful the dishes were, but didn't taste much of the spices that I added. I tasted the vegetables, which were very good, but kind of make adding spices pointless. Perhaps I should have added a little more? I'm always wary of overpowering a dish.
-This recipe called for lamb and I honestly think it would do better without, I just don't think the lamb adds a lot to it. perhaps if the lamb was marinated in something before so it complemented the dish rather than just drowning amongst the vegetables.
-The peas sink to the bottom. I know, I'm getting picky, but that really bothered me during the cooking aspect of it.
-Speaking of cooking, some vegetables cook much faster than others. If I were to make this again the potatoes and turnips would go in first and cooked for a while, then maybe the carrots and zucchini added, then the rest. The eggplant also cooked very quickly and turned a kind of gross brown color. With 12 vegetables (well 11 since I omitted the okra), it really is difficult to get them done at the same time and just sticking them all in at once, not possible.

Okay so it looks like the "Not So Good" beat out the "Good," but that's not necessarily the case. I still really liked the dish and I loved how healthy it was. I could see myself adapting this quite easily to my likes and even adding or omitting vegetables to my personal taste. I also want to try sticking it in the oven instead and adding additional spices, I think with a little experimentation I could really like this, more as a side though to be honest rather than a main course. However, that wouldn't require a recipe so it's not likely I need to add this one in my cookbook since I plan to deviate from it quite a bit to make it to my liking. It is rather pretty though, even in the pitiful lighting in my dorm room as I try to block out the afternoon sun.

To be honest, you're better off winging it, unless you want hard potatoes and mushy eggplant, but hey that's just me.

25 August 2010

Mixed Byrek Results

Okay so here's the deal, I was too lazy today to go out and buy the lamb I needed to make my Pakistani dish. I know, that shouldn't be an excuse. So I'm going to take a random dive into Albania instead, which is a country on my list, it's just a little further down on the list from where I left off. I'll return to Pakistan tomorrow and pick up from there. So guilty feelings aside, let's travel to Albania.

Albania is an interesting country as its cuisine is heavily influenced by Turkey, Greece, and Italy. Popular vegetables in Albania include leeks, eggplant, and peppers and one of the more common dishes is a vegetable pie, byrek or burek depending on where you look for the proper spelling and what country you're in. A byrek was not like any kind of vegetable pie I had ever encountered before, it is kind of like a quiche in the sense that requires quite a bit of eggs, but the similarities kind of stop there. The byrek recipe that I discovered was a leek byrek mostly consisting of eggs, cottage cheese, and a little feta encased in either phyllo or a thick pastry, depending on the region. One major characteristic of Albanian food is that it is not heavily spiced, in fact there are very few spices in their dishes and they seem to follow a very strict “one spice per dish” way of thinking. Not exactly something I’m used to and coming from all the Asian and Middle Eastern food I’ve been cooking, it was strange to only hunt the spice cabinet for one thing. Even when I cook for myself, I use more than just one spice!

Due to the difficulty of scaling down an entire vegetable pie for just one, I decided to cook enough for the family this time around. In my opinion (not my mother’s) the dish came out beautiful with thick golden crust. My mom said it looked bizarre, although I can’t see why since it just looked like a kind of pie, you’ll have to be the judge yourself. My mom was served first and before I could even serve myself she had taken a bite and declared that she didn’t like it. Instant rejection, ouch. I was a bit worried at that point, what if nobody liked it and my Albanian adventure was a huge flop? I mean it’s one thing for me not to like a dish, but what if the entire family hated it?

My dad was next and said that if a little less leek was used it would be spot on. I was more encouraged to take a bite at that point. Contrary to my mom, I really liked this dish. However, I really like leeks as well whereas I decided that she didn’t since she isn’t a fan of potato and leek soup either which is one of my favorites. Overall my mom gave the recipe a 2 (ouch), my younger brother gave it a 7, and my dad gave it an 8. I give it an 8 as well, mostly because I was not too crazy about this “one spice” business and could see how other spices could really enhance the flavors. I was most surprised by my brother who liked it much more than mom, I mean this is the kid who lives off Hot Pockets and corn dogs and here he was eating Albanian food without complaint! Overall, the dish averaged a 6.25, my mother’s critique bringing down the score quite a bit (would have been a 7.7 without her input).

Everyone else had second servings leaving few leftovers. The second round we added a little bit of hot sauce called Tapatío, which really added a lot to the dish. I have to agree with my dad that in the future I would cut the leeks down from the two large leeks used, as I realized not everybody likes leeks as much as I do. I could see myself cutting down the leek content and adding more feta to balance the flavor better. In the end this dish may not be one my mom will be making again but it did make its way into my cookbook and I am excited to try adding new things to the dish. If you don’t like leeks maybe try it with spinach.

One thing I enjoyed more than the dish itself, was sharing it with other people and being able to talk about it at the table – even if it was just my family this time. I suppose this is what dinner parties are about, talking about food. Even if everyone did not like the byrek (ahem, mom), it still provides a topic for conversation and made dinner a little more interesting. From this experience I learned to be less afraid of people liking the cuisine, and more open to cooking for more than just me and seeing what others have to say, even if it’s not always positive. Cooking for just myself and having only my perspective to go off gets a little boring and it’s nice to think of a “dinner party” as another option in this little adventure.

24 August 2010

Saudi Arabia is like Tatooine

I don't know why I chose Saudi Arabia as a country quite frankly. I've never had any desire to visit there because just hearing the name of the country makes me sweat. I don't know anything about the cuisine and the only thing I really know about the culture concerns women's rights, which to be honest makes me even less tempted to visit. So I guess it was curiosity that made me chose to cook something from here.

I did learn something right off the bat which might interest mom. While I was cooking this chicken-containing dish she asked if they even ate chicken there. Well of course they did if I had found it in their recipes, what I didn't know was that Saudis consume the most chicken per person than anyone else in the world. Well according to Wikipedia and a website all about chicken at least. According to this though, they even beat us despite our love affair with chicken wings and Superbowl Sunday. One thing to note about Saudi Arabia is that alcohol is banned so if you're looking for a country known for its alcohol, this one is out.

I was also curious about the climate there, when I think of Saudi Arabia I think of the planet Tatooine from Star Wars - sand, sand and more sand. Did I mention hot?

Well that was pretty accurate from my research, although there are regions that have slightly cooler climates. In fact, between the Red Sea and Persian Gulf temperatures reach no more than about 38C (Oh, that's only 100F) with humidity levels between 85 and 100%. I couldn't even imagine living there, I'm pretty sure I would die. So if that's the "cooler climate" I wondered just how hot does it get everywhere else? Well in the summer it can get up to 54C, that's 130F! Um, no thank you, that's more than fifty degrees past my comfort level. Even in spring and autumn temperatures reach about 85F, so if you ever have any desire to visit this place, go during those times. Now I don't want to be biased against this place, but so far I'm not too thrilled about ever visiting. Perhaps it will redeem itself through my stomach?

One of the iconic Saudi dishes is kabsa, which is exactly what I made for this dish. Kabsa can be made with lamb or chicken which is cooked with rice. One thing to note about this dish, there are lot of spices in it so if you don't have a well stocked spice collection, be prepared to have to buy them. Despite the extensive list of spices required, the dish is one of the easiest I've had to make yet, stick some chicken in a pot, add some veggies and spices, add rice, let simmer and done. Not much to it other than that. The chicken was nice and moist and does cook to the point where it comes away from the bone easily and the rice does have an interesting flavor. Interesting not necessarily delicious, but not bad either.

Not sure I liked it enough to eat again or not. I'll have to eat the leftovers tomorrow and decide whether I like the slight cinnamon and nutmeg flavors coming through. I mean I ate it, but I might hold off on some of the spices if I make this again. I felt like I couldn't keep track of them all when I took a bite it felt like they were all screaming for my attention. I mean I like the general idea of the dish, I'm just not sure about how many spices you could possibly pack into one dish without feeling overwhelmed with flavor. I'm not sure, I'm on the fence on this one.

Pardon the giant gash in my chicken, I had to make sure it was done.

20 August 2010

Bengali - Bangladeshi Fish

"Macch-e-Bhat-e-Bangali" which translates to “fish and rice make a Bengali” can sum up their cuisine pretty well. Fish, rice, and lentils are staples in this country, which is about as big as Greece, however, it’s also the ninth most densely populated country in the world (2,917.6/sq mi, about the same a Phoenix). One thing to note about Bangladeshi cuisine – it’s spicy! Everywhere I seemed to look the word “chili” was staring me in the face whether it was in the form of powder or pepper.

I had terrible flashbacks to sophomore year when I thought I could hack a 5 at Pato Thai after ordering 4’s for several months. For those of you who are Thai illiterate, 5 is the highest number you can go on the spicy scale. I spent the rest of the night guzzling water trying to quench the inferno in my mouth. I’m convinced the waitress was openly mocking me for my stupidity. I’ve been ordering 3’s ever since then.

So you can imagine my hesitation at cooking “traditional” Bangladeshi food. In the end I told myself to just suck it up though and go for it, however hot “it” may be. In the end I narrowed down my choices to a type of spicy potato curry or fish in a hot mustard paste. I have had Indian, Thai and African curries and make them fairly regularly so I figured it was time to try something new. I went with the spicy mustard fish recipe and while I did have my reservations on how hot the recipe could actually be, it still sounded like a dish I should try. I can handle spicy food (for the most part) – perhaps it won’t be too hot…

Sorse Bata Diya Maach is the name of the dish and I found that most of the recipes online and in “The World Cookbook for Students” were similar enough, give or take a couple ingredients. I had some salmon already in my freezer so that became the fish of choice for this, although trout is recommended as well. This being my fourth country, I realized I was already entering very unknown territory as far as spices are concerned. The recipe called for cracked mustard seed and I felt a little ridiculous at the store when looking for cracked mustard seed and not finding any. I must have stood there for ten minutes reading every jar. After a quick Google search I realized that you actually use whole mustard seeds and crack them yourself. Needless to say, I felt incredibly silly for what now seems like common sense. In my defense, I never said I was a culinary master. I also had an interesting encounter with some chilies when trying to decide which one to buy, the recipe didn’t specify. Turns out I bought Serrano chilies which are supposedly hotter than Jalapeños. Good going Chelsea, pick the hottest pepper in the store for an already spicy dish.

After attempting to crack mustard seeds (tiny little buggers) and sweating over my chili choice (I may have “accidentally” forgotten to include all of the seeds out of fear), my fish was left to marinate over night. By morning one whiff of the mixture cleared any sinus problems I may have been having. On another note, I don’t recommend you take a whiff of salmon and lots of cilantro in the morning – it’s really not pleasing. That night it was all thrown into a pan with some leeks and green onions and steamed to completion. Now don’t let all my remarks about the potent aroma of the sauce influence your choice to ever make this, it was delicious and surprisingly not all that spicy. It had a little hint of chili as an aftertaste, but by no means did it leave me running for water. In fact you could probably add a little more chili and be fine as long as you like spicy food. The tomatoes, fish, and the rice really do make the dish milder. In fact I tasted the cilantro more than the chili and will add less next time I make this. That’s right, I liked it so much I would make it again! Note to cilantro haters: you will not like this dish.

I also found that the mustard seed really adds a unique undertone that’s almost hidden. I’ll never look at mustard as just a condiment ever again! One thing this dish taught me is that salmon could actually be used as an accent in a dish. Normally I just coat it lightly with olive oil and herbs and toss it in the oven and voilà dinner! Hey I’m in college, you should be surprised I even use an oven! I always looked at chopping it up and mixing it with something as ruining a perfectly good piece of fish. I’m not sure how my way of thinking was brought about, but I’ve learned my lesson and will be exploring more options from now on. I definitely give this one five stars for it’s unique flavor, although I will be doubling the “sauce” in the future since a lot of the juices are lost during cooking. Bangladeshi food will have to be something I explore more sometime, this was my favorite dish thus far. With Bangladesh I have finished week one of cooking and still have so many countries left to go before I reach 30, let's hope I can accomplish this by the end of September!

19 August 2010

Mongolian Misconceptions

Before I start this post, I just want to thank everyone who has decided to follow along on my little kitchen adventure and for the wave of comments. In fact, I love you all so much for commenting and sharing your thoughts and feedback (did you see my photos are normal looking now!) that I will be rewarding you with food very soon. If you don’t live in Flag, you should come visit so I can cook for you! That’s not considered bribery right? Now onto Asia!

The main reason I chose Mongolia as a country is because I realized early on when researching the culture is that the cuisine is very poorly represented here in the United States. I am sure that when the words Mongolia and food come together the first dish that comes to mind is Mongolian Beef. However, this dish is not Mongolian in origin at all, try Chinese-American. Such deception! So I’m here to set the record straight.

Mongolia has a very cold climate where it can reach -40C (brrrr) – in case you are geographically challenged like myself, it shares a border with Russia where it gets pretty freaking cold. Due to the climate the cuisine is heavy in fats, both animal and dairy fats, and many of the recipes I discovered heavily encourage using slices of meat containing the most fat. Due to its climate, vegetables and spices are uncommon, which was the first clue concerning the false origins of Mongolian Beef, which contains broccoli and other greens. Finding a Mongolian recipe I could stomach, kind of an unexpected challenge for me. Just ask anyone in my family, fatty meat is not my kind of food. I’m the one who meticulously cuts away any ounce of fat from my meat. In other news, I’ve decided I could never live in Mongolia.

I discovered that the majority of the traditional Mongolian dishes are either a type of soup or dumpling. With few vegetables in sight, I decided to try my hand at making a very typical Mongolian meat dumpling called Khuushuur. Another is called Buuz and the only real noticeable difference between that and Khuushuur is that Buuz is steamed while Khuushuur is fried. Otherwise, the ingredients for the filling and the dough were the same.

I chose Khuushuur over Buuz because there is a very unique practice associated with it. I learned that fresh Khuushuur is held between the palms to simulate nerves and blood circulation. I also didn’t think we had a steamer to make Buuz (turns out we do). I suppose the practice of holding a piping hot dumpling for heat makes sense given how cold it can get in Mongolia – I would get pretty desperate for warmth too. In some cases it is also placed on the soles of feet to treat neurosis. I’m not quite sure how sticking dumplings on your feet cures you of mild mental disorders since the whole act seems a bit mental, but who am I to judge what I’ve never tried right? Maybe there’s a reason I’m still an arachnophobe.

Another interesting tidbit, by eating Khuushuur you are also helping balance the air element, which is one of the five elements composing the human body. The others are fire, water, wind, earth, and space. After some more digging I discovered this practice is known as Ayurveda or “science of life” and that each element can be portrayed in various foods. For example space is represented by light foods such as wafers and fire by very spicy foods like chilies. In the case of air, ingesting a food of this element should increase dryness, movement, and circulation. Needless to say, I found this practice of balancing the body’s elements through food fascinating since in theory if all of the elements are balanced, your diet would also be balanced. I’ve heard of pH balanced diets and everyone is familiar of the food pyramid, but I never thought of my body containing elements and working towards somehow balancing those. I swear I’ve learned more things about Mongolian dumplings than the religions liberal studies class I took three semesters ago.

To wrap this up, the Khuushuur was pretty good with a slightly crispy outside and I liked the overall simplicity of it, only five ingredients! There are no spices and the dish relies on the subtle garlic flavor and the meat. However, because of the rather simple taste, my mom and I felt the dumplings would be better with some sort of sauce to dip them in and would make a good appetizer. Not quite in line with traditional Mongolian food, but it just felt like it was missing something. If you decide to make this dish and lack the skill to make dumplings quickly (like me), be sure to leave yourself enough time as it took me about an hour to make about ten of these little guys from start to finish. I really should to perfect my dumpling making skills, that’s just shameful.

Oh did I mention the recipe had no quantities or dumpling folding instructions? I’m nice enough to have written some in, recipe in the comments!

18 August 2010

The Pavlova Controversy

I’m sure plenty of people have heard of the Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, what may be less familiar is the dessert Pavlova which is actually pronounced slightly different. When she visited New Zealand in 1926 she was brilliant enough to get an entire dessert named after her (lucky girl!) and thus begins the great debate, did the dessert originate in Australia or New Zealand? My research convinced me New Zealand ultimately gets the credit since the earliest records appeared to trace back to there and many others pinpoint New Zealand as the country of origin. However the debate remains due to a similar dish being created in Australia - one with no name and no official date of creation. Apparently there’s a whole book about this debate (The Pavlova Story: A Slice of New Zealand’s Culinary History) and while I didn’t read the book, I gathered from summaries that it also stated New Zealand as the victor. I’m sorry Australia, but it appears you are outnumbered.

Amid the controversy, Pavlova has always been a dessert that has intrigued me, but I’ve never made it. Until now that is. Pavlova is a meringue topped with heavy cream and fresh fruit, often kiwi. I have never had meringue or tasted meringue so the process of making the dish fascinated me, as I’ve always been more of a baker than a cook as well as a dessert person. I don’t think I’ve ever beaten egg whites so stiff in my life, or at least prayed they were stiff enough to hold their shape.

The unusual thing about this for me was that the uncooked meringue (which tastes like marshmallow fluff) is just spread onto parchment paper in a circle and shaped, kind of tricky in this Arizona heat when it loses its form so easily! I then had to leave it to faith that it wouldn’t spread out and become some sort of meringue pancake while baking. Into the oven it went looking like a blob of plaster and out it came, dark cream colored and crispy .

As my first meringue experience, I was very impressed. For only containing a handful of ingredients (mostly sugar and eggs), this was actually quite delicious and with heaps of whipped cream how could it not be? The texture of meringue was completely new to me and the best description I can give is that the edges were very “airy” with a little bit of a crunch. The further inside was still very light, but was a little chewy and fluffy like marshmallows, not nearly as much as taffy, but lightly reminiscent of that texture. I did some research and the unique texture is said to differ from traditional meringue slightly because Pavlova contains cornstarch. I liked how the tart kiwis balanced the sweet of the overall desert and this one is definitely going into my recipe book!

17 August 2010

Kangeroo Shortage

I ran into an unfortunate dilemma when choosing a dish to cook from Australia, there isn’t a single place in Flagstaff to get kangaroo meat, which was an ingredient in many of the recipes I dug up. Given that this isn’t exactly an animal native to the state of Arizona, I had to go another route.

So I had to resort to a recipe that highlights Australia’s origins, which are influenced by the British, so many of the foods are various meat pies, bangers, and so forth. Australia is also influenced heavily by Asia, but seeing as I was going to be cooking enough Asian food in the coming weeks and wanted something truly “Aussie” I passed on those dishes. I figured with a casserole I could ease myself into this project. In advance, I want to apologize for the weird contrast in the photos; my camera was having a temper tantrum and I was too hungry to fuss with it.

I went with a simple beef casserole with mashed potatoes, which seemed to be a very common Australian meal as there were numerous variations to this recipe available on the web and in books. The only unusual ingredient on the list was a parsnip, which to some may not be that unusual, but I had never personally had a parsnip and apparently neither had the guy at the check-out since he had to ask me what it was. You really do learn something new everyday! The casserole was good, don’t get me wrong, and since beer was one of the ingredients in the dish it did have a more unique and memorable flavor, however it was something familiar as it reminded me of beef stew. The only thing I really got out of the dish was that I now know that a parsnip has an exaggerated carrot flavor.

I decided a couple bites in that while this meal was very tasty, it was just too “normal” compared to what I was aiming for when I first started this little culinary adventure. So from here on out I will try to find more unusual recipes. Recipes that have a more foreign taste at least and don’t remind me so much of the familiar. This dish did teach me a little lesson and next time I will be more brazen in choosing dishes, especially those that have ties to Britain and perhaps for this meal I should have gone with the “pie-floater” which is very foreign to me and consists of a meat pie stuck in a bowl with split-pea soup and covered in ketchup. However, I learned my lesson and will be braver next time, no matter how much the recipe makes my stomach squirm! I mean come on, I’m a college student who ate ramen stir-fry freshman year! I can do this!