Tuesday, October 18, 2011


So you may have noticed that I haven't posted in a while. The thing is that I started this blog because I wanted something to keep me entertained for a year before starting a master's in geography and, well, I started grad school. School itself wouldn't be so bad, except that I'm still working full time, and I'm exhausted. I'm not willing to give up on feeding myself relatively nutritious food and buy all my meals, so that means that cooking has basically turned into drudgery. I frantically try to marinate a bunch of vegetables for a salad during the week and make a slop bucket of something to go with it, plus a savory breakfast to help me resist the siren song of bacon, egg, and cheese on an everything bagel from the cafeteria in my office building. Plus get all my homework done, get a reasonable amount of sleep, and relax, have fun, and get outside to enjoy the fall weather. For the most part, even when I am home for dinner, I haven't had the energy to do more than slice some cheese and eat it with some crackers. It's depressing.

But I'm not conceding defeat. I signed up for regular produce deliveries. I'm not sure if that's a good idea (12 pounds of produce arriving at my place could definitely make cooking feel like a death march), but I can stop any time, and it's nice not to have to worry about getting to the farmers' market on Saturday morning for good produce. Over this past weekend I felt a cold coming on, and against all odds, instead of wanting to curl up on the couch with trashy tv, I had the urge to cook before I really got sick. It started with a dread of canned chicken noodle soup that led to making a relatively elaborate but delicious-smelling Italian broth, and continued with Greek spinach and chicken pie with feta (a variation of spanakopita), then mini quiches with sweet potato and fennel from my produce box. It felt so good that last night, when I hadn't really gotten sick but didn't have much to do because I'd prepared so well to get sick, I raided my fridge and the rest of my produce box and made a mango lassi, caesar salad from scratch, and Smitten Kitchen's roasted sweet potatoes with fall salsa. And you know what? It was delicious. I'm already plotting what I'll do with this week's box, and a fun brunch for this weekend.

I haven't totally dropped the international cooking either. Kenny and I have made a couple of really great meals (South Korea and Brazil) that I haven't gotten around to writing up and posting yet, and I have a few left over from the last few months (yes, I've been holding out). I'll get to those, and I'm thinking about a different approach for this blog during the school year. Planning a whole meal is, frankly, a lot of work. Work I don't think I have the mental energy for. Same with writing it up. So while I'm in school, I'll be cooking and posting about individual dishes. As the mood strikes, I may go back to a country and make a meal, but I hope that toning the obligation down will help keep my blogging motivation up.

Looking ahead: this week's produce box menu is inspiring a Portuguese kale and potato stew. Perfect for fall!

Aaaaaand a little food porn after the jump.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Traveling: Peru

I started this blog because I love to travel and experience new cuisines. Not having the vacation time or budget for nearly as much travel as I'd like to do, I decided that learning to cook food from different cultures was the next best thing. But last week, as a sort of last hurrah before I start grad school and get *really* busy, I headed off to Peru for a week of exploring! We spent about two days each in Lima, Cusco, and Machu Picchu, and all of it was amazing. We considered cooking in our hostel kitchens but decided we'd rather experience real Peruvian food cooked by Peruvians.

To answer the first question nearly everyone has asked me, YES we ate guinea pig (Cuy) and alpaca! Guinea pig has traditionally been a meal for special occasions (there's a version of the Last Supper in which the apostles are sitting down to a meal of cuy), but these days it seems to be primarily served to tourists. The first time we had it was in a fancy tapas bar (fancy enough that the fresh produce was safe). It was served as confit over a small pile of seasoned mashed potatoes in a cute little spoon. It was great - tasted almost like duck confit. The second (and last) time we had it was in a nearly-as-fancy (but much emptier) restaurant in Cusco, where it was served in full leg form, crusted in quinoa and fried. I thought it was vile. I managed maybe two bites before deciding that my soup had been enough lunch. Kenny ate a lot more, but I don't think he loved it either. We had alpaca twice, too, both times in Aguas Calientes (also called Machu Picchu city). The first time it was marinated and grilled on a skewer with peppers and onions. It was good, tasted a lot like beef. The second time (in a nicer establishment) it was wrapped in bacon and covered in chimichurri. It was good, tasted a lot like beef.

Mostly I'll let the pictures (after the jump) tell the story, but here are some highlights:

-Real, honest-to-goodness Peruvian chicken is amazing. It's served with a loose mayo sauce, a loose mustard sauce, and a loose green hot sauce. I liked combining these and dipping my chicken in that.
-Chicharrones (fried pork) are even better. We had a life-changing experience sandwich in Lima at a popular sandwich joint in Miraflores (if you're going, ask me for details. you cannot pass this up!) with chicharrones (recommended by the waiter), roasted sweet potato slices, pickled red onions, and a little mayo on a perfect french roll. I'm still dreaming about the flavors. Even the ghetto chicharrones we had in Cusco were great.
-If you're a salad junkie who can't have fresh vegetables for a week, any salad you can eat is going to look amazing. That said, the one we had in Cusco (twice) included crispy fried garlic slices, which I'd highly recommend.
-Pizza is BIG, especially in Cusco. Someone told us it was a Friday and Saturday tradition, but they seemed to always be open. We mostly tried to resist, except when our hunger and the pisco sours we were drinking made a pizza look too good to pass up.
-Pisco sours are good, especially when they're made with simple syrup instead of sugar.
-Our cab driver on the way in told us about tiraditos, which was supposedly like ceviche but with sashimi-like strips of fish. He may have said more, but it was 3AM and we were exhausted. In any case, we were surprised to order it and find it covered in [olive] cream sauce. It was great (as was the ceviche), but a little overwhelming. I'd recommend sharing this among several people.
-We tried to be pretty careful about street food (and were rewarded with not getting sick with food poisoning until we got back), but we had some amazing meat on a stick in a little town called Ollantaytambo between Machu Picchu and Cusco, and a bunch of fantastic cream-filled churros in Lima.
-Guys, I saw the Milky Way!! And more stars than I'd ever seen before! Out the window of a minivan between Ollantaytambo and Cusco on possibly our only clear night there.
-My very wise sister was not kidding about the need for dramamine on the roads of Latin America.
-Climbing mountains is hard work. We rewarded ourselves with delicious empanadas we bought in town and carried up with us.
-The hard work was totally worth it. Seriously. Sore muscles, fear of heights and all.
-Some of the most random, unexpected moments were the best. A park full of fountains with lights and music in Lima, hot churros when we were cold and tipsy, a personalized tour of the express bus system from a friendly Peruvian who spoke excellent English, bright green parakeets in the trees near Machu Picchu, a sky full of stars out the window of a minivan.

Pictures of food are after the jump. I'd really like to thank Jillian of I Should Log Off and my friends Kristin, Leo, and Elana for their excellent and helpful advice.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dutch Comfort Food

Dutch cuisine has been influenced by French and German cuisine. Dinner is typically the main meal of the day (unlike Germany), and meat, potatoes, and a variety of vegetables are common. Apples are frequently used in savory main courses and side dishes. Most traditional dutch main courses are very heavy.

One cool and rainy Saturday seemed like the perfect day to have some warm, hearty comfort food simmering on the stove. I happened across a Stoofvlees recipe on Kayotic Kitchen, and the author said she liked to eat it with just fries. That sounded good to me! I made some modifications to the Stoofvlees recipe using the Kayotic Kitchen Hachee recipe. It was fantastic! Flavorful and hearty and satisfying. If I make it again, though, I'd throw the dutch oven in the oven instead of simmering on the stove - more than I'd prefer stuck to the bottom. I also made a salad with a warm bacon dressing to get some vegetables. It was supposed to be two meals, but was so delicious I polished it off immediately!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Uruguay: A total meat-fest

South America is known for its beef. The gaucho has perhaps an even more romantic connotation than our cowboys - cattle are a big deal. Consequently, one of the most common Uruguayan meals is meat grilled over a wood fire, perhaps accompanied by some herb-y sauce. On the other hand, everything the Barbecue Bible listed for Uruguay was meat rolled up with stuff inside it. I made my own recipe based on what I had on hand (using chicken instead of beef since the beef version took about an hour to grill), and it was delicious! It couldn't even compare to the beef, though. We were a little worried about the short ribs, since after starting them in the oven they didn't smell super appetizing, but after a little time on the grill with some mojo (in this case, salt water) they were falling-apart tender and meaty. The flank steak wasn't really tender, but it was also delicious and highly edible. I'm looking forward to making tacos with the leftovers!

Another note: I'd read that South American short ribs are cut differently than American short ribs, so I went to a Latin market in Del Ray and talked to the butcher there about what I wanted. It was definitely a different cut, and worked really well. He also sliced the flank steak extra thin for me so that it cooked in no time! 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Democratic Republic of Congo: Bland isn't always bad

The lovely J of SoberSingleDC joined me for this one. She's vegetarian and I hadn't cooked anything African in a while, so I decided to make the Catholic Relief Services recipe for Saka-Madesu, or Greens and Beans, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. I'd planned on making some mashed sweet potatoes I'd had in my recipe file for a while to go with it, but the Congo Cookbook site wasn't working so I settled on Akara, or black eyed pea fritters. Congolese cuisine also seems to include a fair bit of grilled meat and meat stews, but those were obviously out.

The thing that struck me first about the recipes was that they didn't contain salt, pepper, or spices. Then it occurred to me that those things probably aren't readily available if you're poor in the DRC. Still, I told J many times over the evening that really, there was excellent pizza a mere few blocks away if this was as terrible as I thought it was going to be. I took a couple of shortcuts with the recipes - frozen spinach and canned beans - and I think the food came out fine despite that. Unfortunately, the fritters were not quite as functional as some I've made before. I think pulverizing the peas in the food processor was a bad idea (mashing coarsely with a wooden spoon probably would have worked better), as was not adding flour or eggs. J was flipping like a champ, but a lot of the paste melted away. They stayed together a bit better after I added some flour to the second batch, but I still wasn't happy with the texture. The stew was a pleasant surprise, though. Despite its only seasoning being a cube of vegetable bouillon, it was remarkably tasty. It probably helped that I salted the rice a fair bit.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

New Experiences: Cooking Classes

I'll write more on each of these classes individually and include pictures, but I wanted to write something comparing the two, and more generally about classes.

When I was younger I thought cooking classes would be the best thing ever. I took a candy-making class at the end of high school and loved it. But the idea fell by the wayside during college, and afterward I realized that teaching myself to cook was going pretty well (and it's continued to go well). Also, cooking classes are massively expensive.

Then came Groupon. And Living Social. And BuyWithMe. And a host of other discounts on almost anything you can imagine...including cooking classes. So I decided to try a couple out.

The first one I bought was for Company's Coming, which is taught by Jinny and Ed Fleischman out of their home in DC. It was a good deal - about half off one of their First Friday classes, and I could pick what I wanted to take. I chose a tapas class in March. Unfortunately, that month the first Friday class was actually taking place on the second Friday, which was during Lent (Ash Wednesday had been that week), which meant I couldn't eat meat that day, and the class was mostly meat. So I postponed it, and ended up taking an Italian class in June. I was a little cranky about the scheduling issues, but felt fine by the time I arrived at their beautiful Cleveland Park house and was handed a delicious cocktail and told to go nuts with the appetizers - a tuna dip and a goat cheese dip with crackers. The class was great. There were about ten of us, all stationed with our cutting boards and chef's knives around a long kitchen island. We all worked together, each taking over tasks such as chopping or mixing marinades, then dumping the ingredients into a pot, or onto the pastry to go in the oven. Someone got to man the grill when it was time to make the sausages. Then we all ate together standing at the counter. It was a fun atmosphere, and I got some great tips (which I'll share in the full entry on the class).

The second class I got was from Open Kitchen, which is a bistro and cooking school in Fall's Church (conveniently near my office). It's a much larger operation, with its own restaurant facility and more of a staff. Unfortunately, I had scheduling problems here too. Soon after I bought the voucher they were offering an Indian street food class, which looked amazing to me. I emailed to ask how to sign up, and waited. And waited. The date of the class passed, and a week later I got an apologetic email suggesting I sign up for another. So I signed up for an English tea class, which also looked pretty great. There was no way I could take three hours off from work in the morning, and the evening class ended up canceled due to lack of interest. Ok, I could roll with this. The next one was Peruvian food. Unfortunately, I had just made Peruvian food myself (I'd rather have done the class first), but I had two vouchers to use and they only offer one international class a month, so I decided to go for it.

Things didn't go very smoothly when I got there, either. I wasn't actually on the list, due to an email miscommunication with the manager. But that was ok, a couple of people didn't show up. Then she asked if I wanted to pay the rest of the balance now or wait until the end of the class. Um, rest of the balance? Now, I guess. Guys, I had to pay another $60! Admittedly, it was my bad to not look up how much the actual class cost before buying the vouchers. But she also mentioned (after seeing the look on my face) that I wasn't the only one with the misperception that I was buying a voucher for the class. Given that, I wish they had done a different format for the Capitol Deal: something like $15 for $30 toward the bistro, or $75 for a cooking class (what I ended up paying), the way companies occasionally do on Living Social or Groupon. Also, now I'm not sure what I'll do with my other voucher. Maybe lunch at the bistro?

Since there was nothing I could do short of saying screw it and leaving, I tried to calm down and make the most of the [very expensive] cooking class. I was presented with a glass of house wine and some bread with olive oil to take the edge off my hunger, and introduced myself to the group. This class was a little bigger - there were 12 of us - and set up in three groups, each with its own station including portable burners. Each group would make its own pot of each dish, with the chefs coming around to check on us and give us pointers. My group was fantastic - Amy was a lot of fun, and her boyfriend and Joe immediately bonded over their love of aquariums. We worked well together, and laughed a lot. With smaller groups, each person got to have a larger part in making the meal, which was kind of fun. And when it was time to eat, they brought chairs around so we could sit at our stations. Since we were running late, the chef just made dessert for us while we were eating so we could get out of there, but it was still 10:30 by the time it was over. The original 9:30 end time was already kind of pushing it for me, and I faded fast. I was so exhausted I couldn't each much at all! The other unfortunate thing was that although dessert was incredible (more than I expected), I just plain didn't like one of the dishes and the other two didn't thrill me. But to end on a positive note, the staff was very solicitous and seemed very concerned that we were having a good time. When I slipped out, the manager followed me to say good night personally.

To compare the two, I thought Open Kitchen did a better job taking care of the individual students (we had more to do and more interaction with the chefs), but Company's Coming was a better overall experience for me, and better organized. As far as cooking classes in general go, I'm not sure they're for me. On the plus side, you get to meet new people and try something new, and you don't have to do any cleanup. On the other hand, I think I'd rather spend the money on a nice dinner that someone else makes for me, or just cook for myself and have more control over the ingredients and what I make. What we made last night wasn't much better than something I could have made myself, although I did pick up a few tips at Company's Coming and a couple last night. I still might consider another class from a truly foreign cuisine - one that my kitchen isn't really set up for. Indian might be a good idea, since I haven't really built my spice collection around it.

Has anyone done a cooking class? Would you? Tell me about your experience in the comments!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Jordan: I couldn't pass up pomegranate-charred tomato sauce

Jordanian cuisine was influenced by the Arabs and Greeks. Small plates, grilled meats, salads, flatbreads, and an abundance of spices and herbs are common.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't go into this like "Let's make Jordanian food!" Actually, I found a recipe for "Palestinian Chicken" in the Barbecue Bible with a charred tomato sauce with pomegranate molasses and went, "I have to make that! But oh crap, Palestine is not a UN member. Oh hey, Jordan is right next to Palestine!" And then I did a whole bunch of research to make sure that the dishes would be valid (or at least not be invalid) for Jordan. So I don't know whether they eat Palestinian Chicken with Charred Tomato sauce in Jordan, but I do know that marinating meat in yogurt is common throughout the region, as is the use of pomegranate molasses in savory dishes. I added some tabbouleh for nutrition, authenticity, and good measure. And then I added some flatbread brushed with olive oil and zatar, thrown on the grill for a couple of minutes, just because I like it.

Apparently I'm not a huge tabbouleh fan, but the chicken and sauce were absolutely delicious! Flavorful, a little spiced, tart, garlicky, and sweet all at the same time. I've been fantasizing about what else I can smother in that sauce. Maybe a riff on mozzarella sticks, but with breaded and fried feta instead...

Note: my companion for this endeavor was Elana, and although I don't have a picture of her doing it, she is a master cilantro-chopper. She also brought some delicious baklava for dessert.