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!