Thursday, May 26, 2011

Algeria: high school revisited

My first experience with Algeria came though my senior paper in high school. We were supposed to draw a developing country out of a hat and write about 60-90 pages about the art, literature, culture, history, and music. Food, unfortunately, didn't really come into it except when we presented our papers to the class (for which I made apple cinnamon couscous). The first country I drew was Nauru, but when I told my teacher they didn't have a written language (which would make a literary analysis of a novel problematic) and weren't going to have an economy within the next ten years (they were dependent on phosphates from guano, which was about to be used up), he let me choose another. And I ended up with Algeria. My overall impression of Algeria, from writing these 90 pages, was that it was a lot like Morocco, but less friendly. Influenced by the French, but undergoing Arabization. This was supported by the recipes I looked at. Instead of the flatbread that's typical in the Maghreb, urbanites usually eat baguettes with their meals. Lentils, couscous, and lamb were all common ingredients. Stews (called tagines in Morocco) were common as well. Dishes could be spicy, and cumin and lemon were common seasonings. Luckily, the food was much friendlier than the culture seemed to be.

Craving something reasonably healthy and low-fat, I picked a lentil/orzo/lamb (or in this case beef) stew and a carrot salad. I invited my friend Katie to eat with me, and she brought a baguette. Of course, when you put a [single at the time] food blogger and a dating blogger together, they eat a lot and talk about guys. We got a little distracted by the conversation and forgot to take pictures of the finished products! So you'll have to imagine what a carrot salad looks like, as well as a loaf of bread. It was all pretty tasty. I've had stews I liked better, so I may not make this one again, but I'll be perfectly happy eating all the leftovers. And it was filling and reasonably nutritious. Katie said the carrot salad was like crack - she was a big fan!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Burkina Faso: Groundnut Stew

Burkinabe cuisine is pretty similar to most West African. Peanuts are a common source of protein, particularly since meat is not prevalent due to scarce resources. Typical meals consist of a vegetable stew or sauce ("relish") over a grain such as rice. Stews usually have a bit of a bite to them.

My friend Stacey sent me a link to the Catholic Relief Services recipe archive - a list of vegetarian recipes for Lent from all over the world. I intend to try many of them, but started out with the Burkinabe Groundnut Stew - perfect, since my dinner guest was vegetarian. Efi (said dinner guest) was very helpful when it came to chopping and eating, and although this may be the least appetizing-looking thing I've ever eaten we both thought it was delicious. I took to calling it puke with rice (the mashed sweet potato base gives the stew an orange hue), but have seriously enjoyed eating the leftovers. And it's *super* nutritious. We had some iced  hibiscus tea with pineapple too, but that was underwhelming.

Efi was a little skeptical.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The South Pacific: Cheating a little?

When I was in high school, we all had to draw a developing country out of a hat at the end of junior year and write our senior paper on it. Apparently my teachers hadn't done their research, because the first one I drew was Nauru. I'd never heard of Nauru, but I gamely went to the CIA Factbook and checked it out. It turned out Nauru was approximately the size of a postage stamp in the middle of the Pacific. It had no written language (problematic since part of the paper was to be literary analysis), and its economy was based on bird crap (ok, phosphates) that was supposed to run out within ten years. After I brought these findings to my teachers, they let me pick again and I ended up with Algeria.

But Nauru stayed with me. I later learned that the South Pacific has a number of inhabited postage stamps that are members of the United Nations. I looked for recipes from each, but Samoa was the only one for which I had any luck. Consequently, for this post I've combined Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia.

The islands are relatively diverse ethnically, but as their climates are much the same, so too is their cuisine (as far as I can tell - if you have different information, please share it in the comments!). They're very tropical, and fruit and vegetables are common, particularly yams, breadfruit, cassava, taro, bananas, coconut, mango, papaya, and greens. Pork and fish seem to be the most common proteins, although I've also seen some chicken recipes. I found a great resource in The Pacific Islands Cookbook, available online here.

I decided to make banana rice, yam fritters, and a coconut tuna ceviche called poisson cru, or oka i'a in Samoa. The oka'i was only supposed to marinate in the lime juice for 10-20 minutes, so I thought it was important to use sushi-grade tuna. Kenny was my hero with regard to the tuna. After questing all day Saturday, I finally gave up and bought some tilapia on Sunday morning (the nice lady at Harris Teeter promised me I was unlikely to die from eating it raw), only to get a call from Kenny saying that he had found sushi grade tuna at Eastern Market and would bring it over for me. The oka i'a was delicious, so I'm pretty sure he saved the meal!

I was joined for dinner by James of Jimbaux's Journal, who wanted a cooking lesson. I put him to work chopping and grating and mixing, explaining everything I was doing and why. It was a great time, and he seemed to think everything was delicious! All photos are courtesy of him.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Eating Out: Oyamel (in which I eat my first insect)

Tonight was happy hour (which turned into dinner) with my new friend Elana. Since we were in Chinatown and my only Jose Andres experience was Jaleo, she decided we should check out Oyamel. I didn't love my first drink- China Paloma, which was tequila and grapefruit lavender soda - apparently I'd rather smell lavender than drink it, but it was way smoother than I had expected anything with tequila to be. I followed up with a cucumber-mint-lime agua fresca, which was delicious and refreshing. Elana enjoyed her classic margaritas.

When we sat down for dinner, we each picked a couple of small plates. Elana picked the Ceviche Veracruzana, described as "Lime marinated red snapper with fresh tomato sauce, capers, olives and piparra pepper air." She thought the strong flavors covered up the fishy flavor of the red snapper; I thought this made the dish, as I'm not really a seafood fan. The air was a little zesty for me, but all in all I enjoyed the experience. I thought the flavors meshed really well. I picked the Quesadilla de chicharrones, described as pasture raised Shenandoah Valley pork belly fried until crisp and served in a house made tortilla with chihuahua cheese and a sauce of five chiles. It also had some kind of bean, and while everything else was delicious (especially the pork and cheese combination), I felt that the bean could have been replaced with more pork and cheese. But the chile sauce was good - very mild. As for tacos, we started out with one with marinated chicken thighs, guacamole, and green onions. The chicken was absolutely delicious, but I thought it was a little heavy on the guacamole and would rather the onion had been sliced so I could have had some in each bite.

Finally, the point of this review: I ATE GRASSHOPPERS. A sauteed grasshopper taco is one of Oyamel's specialties, and I couldn't let the opportunity to try it pass. I was assured that they wouldn't have legs and would just be a little crispy. They were also smothered in tequila sauce. I wish I had taken a picture - it almost looked like heavily sauced carnitas. Although I was intimidated, knowing what they were, I manned up and took a bite. It wasn't as weird as I thought it would be, although that one bite was enough.

I'm not sure how authentic it was, but all in all, Oyamel was a very pleasant dinner experience - good service and tasty food. I'd love to go back and try more tacos!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Indonesia: Meat on a Stick

A shamefully long time ago now, I made a bunch of Indonesian food. It was a rare nice day in February, I had been reading the Barbecue Bible, and it just seemed a shame to waste the opportunity. Indonesian food is typically fresh and heavily spiced, as well as quite diverse. Sates, or small kebabs, are the most common street food. I made three of them: two beef and one chicken, as well as a fresh relish/salad and dessert. Overall, the meal looked gorgeous on a plate. And it was enjoyable. I'd say it was the most exotic meal I've cooked so far, with the most unfamiliar flavors and combinations. The highlight was the coconut lemongrass caramel sauce from dessert; I could actually have done without the caramelized banana it was served over. The chicken sates were my favorite. I finished the leftover relish, but for me it was more interesting than enjoyable, especially after the first couple of bites. It was very strong.