Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cuba Libre- Parte 1

I’ve only had Cuban food once in my life, somewhere in the San Diego area about 4 years ago. All I remember is some amazing roast chicken, black beans, and that it completely rocked out with its socks out. I thought it was high time to try making it myself with the very helpful and capable hands (and family recipes) of Terra, friend and fellow food lover. Side note: Terra is half Cuban and had never made these recipes on her own before, and the recipes were emailed from her sweet and awesome Mama. Gracias Mami!

Of course, because it was Cuba Libre night and we’d invited Terra’s friends Jen and Chris over, we decided to start the evening out with a pitcher of Mojitos. For some reason, I’ve really disliked Mojitos for the majority of my drinking life, and I’m not sure why, because now I think they’re absolutely fabulous.

Mojito time! I crushed mint leaves with lime juice and sugar at the bottom of a pitcher, added some rum and ice, poured it in glasses, and finished it off with a nice splash of club soda. Very refreshing, and it made everyone talkative, happy, and not angry at all that they now had to wait for the meal from scratch. I must say, time seems to fly when you’re having a Cuba Libre night and food is cooking and the Gran Hotel Buenos Aires album by Federico Aubele is humming in the background. And YES I know Buenos Aires is in Argentina. And sounds nothing like salsa music in Havana, but don’t hate. Anyway.

From 2008

We decided to make Natilla, a Spanish egg-custard because it would need time to set if we wanted it for dessert. Terra’s mama had given strict instructions to CONTINUALLY STIR the milk, egg, vanilla, and sugar mixture…which I did. However, it was put into a too-small saucepan, and boiled over and everything smelled like burnt marshmallows. Terra argued that it had boiled over, thus it had boiled to the point of being able to set and thicken in the fridge. I argued that it did not actually boil, but got all hot and bothered and had just runneth over. We decided to try our luck and put it in the fridge and kept our fingers crossed. More on the Natilla That Refused To Set later! (Hope I didn’t give too much away.)

From 2008

Next came lots of chopping of onions, tomatoes, green peppers, and garlic. Terra was in charge of the Yellow Rice and I was pleasantly surprised when the recipe called for beer. Who’s ever had beer rice? Not me! Unfortunately, our fridge only offered Corona or Bud Light (nice… thanks go to Natalie, my sister, for those choices). Terra sautéed all the veggies, added some Corona, chicken broth, and the rice and let it cook. By now the burnt marshmallows smell was taken over by the Beer Rice, something we all preferred.

Meanwhile I kept chopping the exact same veggies for the Picadillo, which is basically just ground beef cooked up with lots of delish things and typically served with potatoes or Yellow Rice. So, I sautéed said veggies, added the meat, lots of seasoning of garlic powder, salt, pepper, bay leaves and oregano. We let that cook a bit, added half a can of tomato sauce and some white wine vinegar, and let the liquid boil away as we continually tasted it for seasoning and salt. Terra also cut up some plantains and fried them in veggie oil, then salted them after they turned a beautiful coffee-brown color in the pan.

From 2008

At this point, the Natilla had not set in the fridge, so we put the old gal in the freezer for good luck, which it needed a lot of. I hoped that my magical sprinkling of cinnamon would do something for it (which it did not. Ugh.)

The rice, it turned out, had too much liquid in it and had gotten kind of mushy. We decided at this point that it was because we had not accounted for the beer in the recipe and had put a cup too much of liquid, which might have well been my fault as when Terra was adding chicken stock to the rice, I started an argument about how many ounces were in a cup and how many ounces were needed for the recipe and what “use as much water as you would rice” would translate to in measurements. As this is only the second time I’ve made rice and completely forgot everything my G-Ma had taught me with the Pulao, I think I distracted the undistractable Terra. My bad, big T!

From 2008

The food: was okay. The yellow mushy rice, while it had a good flavor, was just that. Mushy. I got a little tired of the texture after a few bites. The plantains needed to have been really ripe, which they were not. I was hoping they’d be like the soft plantains I’m obsessed with from Ghana, but these little guys were too hard and more like a thick, chewy, chip. The Picadillo came out the best, and I can only imagine how good it would be if I wasn’t an idiot and could make rice correctly. The Mojitos made everything better, by the by, I HIGHLY suggest making a pitcher (or two, like we did) when you have your own Cuban food night.

And the Natilla? We decided to drop the idea of eating it that night, and thought maybe an entire night in the fridge would edge it along to custard heaven. The next morning I noticed it had kind of set on top, but never did anything more than that. It did taste good when I dipped my finger in it, but alas! I ended up having to throw the whole thing away and it made me sad for what-could-have-been, and how me and the Natilla just didn’t find a way to make it work. Sniff. Maybe the timing just wasn’t right, and maybe our paths will cross again in the future, but for now I have to just let it go and hope for the best…and the foresight to use a bigger saucepan next time.

Overall, I’d say it was a really FUN night rather than a culinary success. Mostly I’m looking forward to making some more of Terra’s Mami’s recipes without destroying them. Of the 4 dishes we scored a hit with One, and one outta 4 ain’t bad, folks. Unless you understand math, and then it is, but whatever, I was an English major.

Up next…. Not sure. I’m transitioning to DC and my BFF Erjona has promised me some sweet Albanian recipes, so I think it's time we trekked our tasted buds to that fun and surprising land across the sea! Or whatever else I feel like eating over the holidays. I love surprises.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Taste of Home

Since the whole point of this blog is to try the home cooking of cultures around the world, I figured I’d start somewhere close to home…or, er…my parent’s house. Since I’ve never actually cooked Indian food, and, coincidentally, my G-ma lives there, I figured I could treat you guys to something awesome right off the bat. (By the by, my 100% Indian friend, Shabad, recently informed me that she should technically be called my naani, not G-Ma. Since I’m only 50% I figure he’s an authority on the subject. Then again, since I’m only 50% I don’t care as much and use both to make everyone happy, but “G-Ma” is how she signs my birthday cards because she is cool like that.)

G and I had planned our meal out ahead of time, and we both agreed that my first dish should be one of my favorites: Vegetable Pulau (a savory rice dish), Apple Chutney, and a Cucumber Raita which is a yogurt mixture. Unfortunately, the rest of my family was out of town being do-gooders building homes in Mexico, so it was just me, G, test-subject Dad, and my friend Terra who has never had Indian food but has a thing for rice. On to the food! Because it was good. And really? Not hard at all.

First things first, G said I had to get the chutney going. After peeling, coring, and dicing 4 granny smith apples, I put them into a pot and added golden raisins, chili powder, vinegar, salt, and sugar and put them to boil. Isn’t it pretty?

You just boil, stir, boil, stir, and boil till it caramelizes, reduces, and looks golden brown and, when tasted, is sweet, a little sour, and spicy all at once. Hello, beautiful:

While the chutney was boiling away, I got to work chopping the veggies for the Pulau. Playing sous chef to my grandmother’s verbal directions wasn’t exactly easy. Like I said in the first entry, she has nothing written down so I was acting like a crazy person trying to guesstimate how much a “palmful” was or how much a “tin” equates to in regular measurements. Yeah…I’m still guessing, but with this kind of cooking, I figure the more the merrier. Also, when I’d finally write something down, G would taste whatever was on the stove at the time, shake her head and say, “Nay, this isn’t right. Add more till I say stop.” Which I did, but it just made my notes look all wonky and I might have to hire a detective to help me figure out what we actually did in the kitchen. But I digress.

First, you thinly slice and brown some onions. Then you add Ginger-Garlic (as that is, apparently, one item and actually just ginger and garlic mashed up together), Salt, Haldi powder (Turmeric), Garam Masala ( I have no idea what this is, but G said it has cinnamon and cloves in it. You can buy a jar at an Indian food store or any good grocery) and added very finely diced tomatoes. I let it get “melty” as G commanded. So we let it melt and kept stirring, then added rice, water, and the veggies which included sliced cabbage, cut green beans, peas, and a potato cut in big chunks. We brought it to a boil then we took it off the stove and let it bake about 15 minutes. I took it out and learned that you have to stir it from the edges IN, not the middle OUT because that is a cardinal sin in Pulau-ology and tends to break all the potato chunks and mush it up, which is not a good thing. Then, unlike moi, you will hopefully use a hot pad to put the lid of the pan back on the vessel, or you will BURN YOUR FINGERS!

Do you know when was the last time I burned my fingers on something hot out of the oven? NEVER. Way to go me and my first food entry, I’m so hardcore.

So we put the Pulau back in the oven to let the liquid cook off and soften the rice. By now my t-shirt smelled like Indian food. This is when Terra arrived and said the whole house smelled good, not just me and my t-shirt, which is always a good sign.

I then peeled and grated half a cucumber, whipped some yogurt with a fork in its own container (makes it creamier), added enough yogurt as a side for 4 people to the cucumber with some sugar, salt, and ground pepper, and mixed. Super simple, that Raita. Plus, it's awesome as it cools down curries and Pulau and makes things extra delicious.

See? MMMMMM. I wish you could taste this, and if you have the spices on hand, it’s easy. Thinking back to my own kitchen, the only thing I didn’t have was the Garam Masala or the Ginger-Garlic, but both are easy to obtain.

The Pulau was salty, slightly sweet from the browned onions and veggies, but also spicy. The Apple Chutney was sweet and had a nice kick from the chili powder, and the Raita was cool and tangy. When all mixed together, the different flavors work ridiculously well together. Dad and I were the hungry ones and had seconds, G said I had “caught on quickly” (I think she was surprised about that), Terra loved her first Indian meal, and we all ate happily ever after.

And THAT, food adventurers, is my first attempt to bring my family’s recipes to you. As a side note, I’m not twitchy around spices anymore. Hear me SPICES? Bring it on.

Next up: Cuban Cuisine. Yay.