Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sweet & Salty & Spicy

It's funny how a feature of one cuisine can jump out at you and remind you of a cuisine on the far side of the world from that one. This happened when Himself and I noshed at Lotería, a Mexican restaurant in Hollywood this past weekend. To drink, he ordered a michelada de mango, a combination of beer with fruit juices. One sip and I was ordering my own.

This one was a mixture of Cerveza Sol with mango and lime juices. While the combo of beer and fruit juices was appealing, what really won me over was the rim, which was coated with a mixture of salt and crushed chili peppers. It reminded me of Thailand's prik kab kleua, a dry mix of salt, sugar and crushed hot chilis that you dip slices of fresh fruit into. Most every meal I've had in Thailand has ended with a platter of fresh fruit and a bowl of this sweet-salty-spicy mixture.

fresh watermelon, pineapple and papaya with a dish of prik kab kleua

prik kab kleua with star fruit
As you can see, the first mixture is much lighter than the one just above. No two batches will be exactly the same--it's all up to the individual taste of the person preparing it. And if the fruit isn't quite in season, a little extra sugar helps balance out the blend.

While the coating on the rim of the glass of michelada didn't contain sugar, the aim was essentially the same--to mix the sweetness of fruit with saltiness and spicy heat. It's refreshing, hydrating and cooling on a hot day. Even if it's not especially hot, it's still a winning combination.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Couscous Bang Bang!

The recent couscous festival was a bang, with an abundance of wonderful North African food and music and a great positive vibe. But I've heard several people--people who weren't there--comment, "I like couscous, but why would you devote an entire festival to it?"

It's like this: What rice is to Asians and what corn is to Native Americans, couscous is to North Africans. It is such an integral part of the culture that it transcends being a mere ingredient in a dish. It's elemental--in fact, I've found that the words in several North African dialects for "couscous" are interchangeable with the word "food." It's THE food of the Maghreb, that is, a good portion of the Sahara and what's above it.

chicken and beef cheeks braised in tagines and served with couscous

We're not talking about that five-minute instant stuff you mix with boiling water. Authentically prepared couscous is steamed for three hours, over either broth or water; every 30 minutes it is fluffed and massaged with a bit of oil, and put back in to steam until 30 minutes later, when the process begins all over again. The result is couscous that is perfectly hydrated--light and fluffy, not soggy and leaden. And amazingly flavorful.

Couscous is good in either savory or sweet dishes, so you might have a bed of couscous soaked with the juices of braised lamb and a generous serving of lamb perched on top for dinner, followed by more couscous mixed with honey, spices, fresh fruit, rosewater--you name it--for dessert. It has great versatility.

Yeah, I know this photo is out of focus, but it expresses so well the character of authentic couscous, which looks like it could just fly right off your plate--it DOES, actually!

I assumed that couscous was a pasta, but it turns out that it's not. Rather, it's a grain, semolina wheat, that has been rolled by hand in what is quite a labor-intensive process. Couscous first showed up in 13th century Spanish and Syrian writings and is thought to have originated with the Berbers, North Africa's indigenous people. It didn't take long to spread from there, to become a staple of cuisines throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. Couscous is high-gluten and low-moisture, so it keeps well in harsh environments, perfect for the desert.

 Tagines are earthenware vessels used for cooking meat until it is succulent and juicy, perfect for topping a plate of couscous. Vegetables cook up nicely in them, too.

Couscous made a good point of departure for sampling more North African cuisine and exploring different styles of cooking. The rabbit with currants and pine nuts was cooked in tagines, while the lamb was smoked whole in a giant smoker. Traditionally it would have been spit roasted, but the sheer volume required for the festival necessitated stationing a large smoker in the parking lot. The point was to present slow cooked lamb, so I'd say mission accomplished!

Rabbit and lamb on corn tortillas (a concession to the Southwest!) with a generous dollop of harissa, a condiment made of pounded chili peppers.

 Assembling a briq (by the way, while the expression goes, "Never trust a skinny chef," I frankly don't think I'd trust one without some serious tatts!)

Also on the menu was the briq, a thin crepe-like pastry of durum wheat filled with bites of food (shrimp in this case), a dollop of harissa and a raw egg...
...and folded into a tidy package before cooking. It is placed in the shallow side of a pan tilted over a fire with hot grease. You spoon the grease over the briq as it cooks so that it cooks quickly but without becoming soggy. 
mmmm, briq!

 Confession time: Between you and me, I adore couscous made the proper way, but I can't devote three hours of cooking every time I want some. So I'll have to get by on the quick stuff, until I can make it out to a Moroccan restaurant--or back to next year's couscous festival. I'll be there, and I'll be sure to be hungry when I get there.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Beyond 52 Cuisines: #53 Basque

Hey-ho, told you we're not finished with these cuisines! The world is a huuuuuge place and its foods and flavors, practically unlimited.

This month we set our sights on the cuisine of the Basque country, the region of southwestern France and northwestern Spain that loves bullfighting, gourmet club and Basque autonomy. The least volatile of these three things to talk about is gourmet club, so we're in safe waters here. The Basque not only love to eat and drink, but they enjoy doing all the planning, gathering, cooking and cleaning together as well.

For our anniversary earlier this month, Himself and I decided to stay in and cook a feast, sort of our own private Basque gourmet club. I've been toying with the idea of visiting Harmony Farms in La Crescenta once a month to pick up some sort of wild game or exotic meat that I can't find in the local market, something I don't often cook--perhaps some meats I've yet to try cooking. This looked like a good time to begin that enterprise while indulging in the next cuisine. So we toddled on up to Harmony Farms to peruse our options. In addition to hormone-, pesticide- and radiation-free meats and soy products, they carry a dizzying array of meats that you don't find just anywhere. It's a great place to rummage and plot and scheme over your next special dinner menu.

We've fixed pheasant a few times before, always with the extra ingredient of buckshot. It's so nice not to have that component this time. Dinner should never be capable of setting off a metal detector!
The mélange of flavors in the Basque pheasant recipe I found in a book called Dressing and Cooking Wild Game blends the zing of green olives and capers with the rich sweetness of prunes and brown sugar. Sounds odd, but this combination works. I cut up the pheasant and gave it an all-day soak in a marinade of white wine, white wine vinegar, olive oil, brown sugar, prunes, green olives, capers, garlic, bay leaf and basil. This combination of flavors reminds me of what is known as "Old California" cuisine with its Spanish influences, in which a single dish might include olives, onion, raisins and oregano, giving the dish a happy intensity of aromatics, umami, saltiness, sourness and sweetness. Essentially, all parts of the tongue get something to excite them.

While pheasant is more or less the same size and shape as a chicken, cutting and eating it is more of a challenge, because pheasant is much leaner and more muscular. Its flesh clings more tenaciously to the bone, even after it has been cooked sufficiently. It was quite tasty, and our sofa lions all paraded in, trilling, leg-rubbing and kneecap smooching, eager to convince us they hadn't eaten in many days. There was plenty of pheasant for everyone, and the pusses didn't seem to mind the bits of caper and herbs clinging to their allotment.

The cuisine of the Basque territory contains a lot of potato dishes and features a dish called pipérade, a blend of cooked sweet peppers and tomatoes (by the way, the three primary ingredients in this dish show just how ingrained the foods of the Americas are in this region). The potatoes are baked in a pipérade of red and yellow bell peppers, shallots and lots of fresh herbs, which season the creamy fingerlings and give them a glorious aroma as well. It's a good idea to make this dish in a generous quantity so you can enjoy it for several days. Himself suggested using the leftover potatoes the next morning in a frittata. That would have been a grand idea if we hadn't gobbled them all up with total abandon. Next time we'll make more than we can eat in a single sitting.

We topped our salad of baby spinach greens with a creamy and intensely garlicky dressing and some chopped hard-cooked egg. I want to try some of the leftover dressing over cooked spinach sometime. It should be quite good. You can fine tune the amount of garlic you use--this recipe calls for both fresh garlic and garlic powder. But the Basque way is to use a heavy hand when adding garlic to the mix. I have no problem with that!

A favorite meal finisher is some fresh fruit with a local cheese, such as idiazabal. If I hadn't been too lazy to go to the cheese store, that's what we'd have had (and then there's the fact that to save my life I can't leave a fromagerie with only one cheese). While the Basques aren't huge on dessert, they do have a fondness for custard and custard-filled tarts. So for dessert we made Basque crème, a.k.a. natillas. It is essentially a cooked crème anglaise, made with generous use of cinnamon. The resulting crème is quite thick, and the instructions say to thin it out at service by stirring in more heavy crème. Considering how much heavy crème, along with eggs and sugar, is already in there, I choked. I just couldn't do it. Probably a good thing. Himself and I have enjoyed a spoonful each after meals the past couple of days. It's so rich that that's all we really want or need. Natillas is certainly made to savor, it's so rich and flavorful.

The nice thing about all these dishes is that they can be enjoyed as part of a regular meal. It's not like you have to announce that you're having a specially-planned Basque dinner to enjoy them.

Following is the recipe for Basque pheasant. If you can't lay your hands on a pheasant, chicken works just fine, too. You'll still get the distinctive blend of flavors that speak of this region:

Cut up one bird, arrange it in a single layer in a 13-by-9-inch baking dish, and pour over it the following marinade: In a medium-sized bowl stir together 3 Tbsp. brown sugar, 3 oz. white wine, 1/4 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup white wine vinegar. Then stir in 2 minced cloves of garlic, 1 bay leaf, 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley, 2 Tbsp. dried basil leaves, 1/2 cup pitted medium prunes and 1/2 cup pitted medium green olives. Pour this mixture over pheasant pieces and cover the dish with plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight--or all day--turning the pieces a couple of times.

Preheat oven to 350°F, remove plastic wrap and bake bird uncovered until it is tender, turning once. Baking should take about one hour, depending on the size of the bird. Remove bird, olives and prunes to a serving dish and, if desired, spoon pan juices over it before serving.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Distinctive Weekend Cocktails

Himself, a.k.a. Hungry Passport's husband, a.k.a. Andrew Penn Romine is taking on a new challenge in his blog. Each Friday he plans to write about a different cocktail--not your run-o-the-mill stuff (and no, rum & Coke is NOT a cocktail. Neither is 7 & 7. Neither is anything made with jug mix--all of which are liquid versions of fast food). It's about hearkening back to the classics, the first entry being the cognac sazerac. I'll let him fill you in on the details. So please visit Ink Gorilla to find out what you should be mixing and drinking each weekend.

And if you're encouraged to start some serious cocktail mixing beyond each Friday's offering, I suggest you pick up a copy of Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, by Ted Haigh, a.k.a. Dr. Cocktail. It's history in a glass, tasty tasty history.

Himself behind the bar