Monday, October 23, 2017

G is for Ghana

After skipping “G” (see “H is for Hungary”), I return to the order of the alphabet with my first meal from an African country (though I had made several African meals the first time I cooked through the alphabet, before I started blogging).  My youngest son, Josh, recently moved to Washington to work for IBM, and we thought this was a great way to introduce him to the multi-cultural nation’s capital.  It took a bit of doing to find a date where we, and all our DC children (Josh, Noah, Emily, and Hannah), were available, but Tuesday October 10 was free on everyone’s calendars.  I had not previously made an “alphabet meal” mid-week, but I figured I could pull it off with enough advance preparation (and getting back early from work).

Given that I do not make many African recipes, I wanted to do something a bit unusual for this special meal.  I read in various places that goat was typically used in Ghanaian cooking, and decided that was the thing to try.  The only two problems I foresaw were 1) finding a source for kosher goat meat, and 2) convincing the guests that a goat-based entree would be fun to try.  Davida, although a bit skeptical, was good sport about it and the children (I was going to write “kids”, but thought better about it, given the subject matter) were excited about it, so it was only a matter of finding the meat, itself.  After a bit of googling, I found that Bisra, in Hackensack NJ, has a wide variety of glatt-kosher goat products, including the goat stew meat that I needed for the recipe.  They were great working with me, and delivered the vacuum-sealed goat in a small icebag-packed Styrofoam container.  The only small hiccup was that their delivery of meat was delayed and they had to work into the evening cutting up the goat meat to get it delivered before the start of Sukkot.

The Appetizer:
Groundnut soup is a typical African dish.  I had made it during my first round of cooking through the alphabet (pre-blog) as part of my Nigerian meal, and liked it very much.  That recipe included kale, which is not my favorite vegetable; the Ghanaian groundnut soup recipe calls only for mushrooms.  I decided to leave out the protein and make the dish vegetarian, to make it easier to eat afterwards, as leftovers.  That may have been a mistake, as the soup was a bit watery and I felt that it needed a bit more flavor.  I also probably did not chop the onions finely enough, as they ended up being a bit chunky and competing with the texture of the mushrooms. 

Ghanaian groundnut soup is traditionally accompanied by fufu, a spongy ball of starch made from either cassava, plantain, or yam powder.  I couldn’t find any of those ingredients in the immediate neighborhood, but I did find Afrik International Foods, a small store specializing in African food about 3 miles from our apartment.  A quick bike ride through 85 degree heat got me there, right before closing time.  The woman who helped me find the fufu powder did a great job helping me decide which type to get (yam or cassava) and instructing me on how to make it (lots of mixing).  I went with her favorite – yam powder, and now have enough for years of fufu.  Making the fufu was a lot easier than I had been led to believe, and it needed a lot more water than the recipes recommed, which makes me wonder if I was doing it correctly.  The recipe called for a one-to-one ratio between water and yam powder, but I ended up using nearly a 3-1 ratio.  I also added two pinches of salt per cup of yam powder, since I found it extremely bland otherwise.  The result was not unlike mashed potatoes – approximately the same consistency and a similar flavor.  I served the fufu as a ball in the middle of the groundnut soup, which was both aesthically pleasing and a very good complement to the flavor and textures of the soup.  While I liked the Nigerian recipe better (even with the kale), the Ghanaian soup was still reasonably good.  The guests gave it a similarly reasonable rating, averaging 5.8 – not bad, but not a keeper, either.

The Main Dish:
I thought that a stew would be a great way to use the goat meat – that way, if it did not appeal to some of the guests, they could eat around the meat itself (as Davida ended up doing).  Besides, I really love making (and eating) stews.  The goat stew recipe that I settled on was fairly simple, but seemed that it would be flavorful, with ginger, garlic and hot peppers.  Someone suggested to me that potatoes would be a good addition to the stew and, even though it is not in any of the recipes I found, I thought that yams would be a great addition to the recipe.  So, what I ended up making is not exactly a traditional Ghanaian stew, but sometimes one just has to improvise. 

The goat had been cut into about 1” pieces, but the recipe called for half-inch pieces.  I doubled the recipe, so ended cutting up about 3 pounds of goat meat (leaving me with 1.5 pounds for future meals).  It was a fair amount of work, but good exercise for my hand!  I mostly left out the seeds of the pepper (I used a bonnet pepper, which many of the other goat stew recipes suggested), to keep down the heat, and used canned, diced tomatoes, instead of fresh, mainly because I didn’t have a lot of time to do the cooking - I made the stew the night before, partially cooked it, and finished with 45 extra minutes of cooking right before the meal.  The extra cooking time was necessary, as when I cooked it the recommended time, the goat was still a bit chewy, the eggplant was not very soft and, not surprisingly, the yams were crunchy.  After the extra cooking time, though, everything got nice and soft (although not mushy) and the goat was very tender.  I was afraid that the goat would be gamey, but it tasted like a milder version of lamb.  It was really quite tasty!  Overall, the stew was OK, but not great. The guests were fairly split in their opinions – ranging from a 4 to a 7, averaging 5.4.  One guest really did not like the eggplant and another (who shall remain nameless) didn’t like the goat.  While I felt that making and eating the stew was definitely a good experience, unfortunately the recipe is not a keeper.

The Starch:
The two main Ghanaian starches to eat with stew are apparently fufu and jollof rice.  We had fufu with the soup, so naturally, I decided to make jollof rice with the stew.  Jollof rice is infused with tomato puree and baked along with onion and carrots.  The recipe calls for an optional addition of noodles, but I eliminated them to make the dish gluten-free, for Hannah.  We also had some leftover parsnip from an earlier (non-alphabet) meal, which I decided to slice like the carrots and add in.  It turned out to be a good move, in my opinion, adding a nice crunch and sweetness to the dish.  The guests seemed to agree – the rice was, by far, the highest rated dish of the meal, averaging 6.4 (all 6’s and 7’s)!  I baked the rice in the oven, as suggested, in a pyrex casserole dish, and that helped, I believe, in making the rice fluffy and keeping it fairly moist.  If I make this recipe again, I may try to add other root vegetables, since the carrots and parsnip seemed to add so much.

The Vegetable:
Many of the Ghanaian vegetable dishes are stews, which I felt would clash with the goat stew.  Instead, I chose to make kelewele, or cubes of fried plantains.   I used ground ginger, instead of freshly grated, and cut down the amount of cayenne by half.  As a result, the dish wasn’t all that spicy, but still had a bit of heat, which contrasted nicely with the sweetness of the plantains (if I make the recipe again, I would probably use more cayenne, closer to what is suggested in the recipe) .  As usual with frying, it took quite a while to make, especially since I was using a smallish pan, to avoid using up too much oil.  On the other hand, who doesn’t like fried food – the guests liked this almost as much as the rice, with an average rating of 6.0.

Overall, there weren’t any bad recipes, but nothing that really stood out, except maybe for the jollof rice.  I will be looking out, though, for other countries where goat is featured, since I really thought that was a tasty part of the meal.

Up next: Still undecided – probably one of either Iceland, Iraq, or Iran!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

H is for Hungary

No, intrepid reader, you did not miss the blog of the “G” meal.  I skipped to “H” because Davida’s parents, Bernie and Barbara Fromm, were visiting from New York, and we thought Ghanaian food might be a bit too different for them.  Ghana will have to wait.  The other guests at this meal included my son Josh, his friend Jake, Davida’s daughter Hannah, and Davida’s nephew Jordan, who was interning with the Washington Nationals this summer.  Unfortunately, in all the excitement of the meal, I forgot to take a picture of the guests, so you’ll just have to make do looking at a picture of the chef.

Davida and I felt that Hungarian food would be a good choice for her parents since many Ashkenazi recipes have connections to Hungarian food.  I tried to choose some recipes that would be familiar and some that were different from dishes I had before. I definitely wanted to make Chicken Paprikash, since that is so strongly associated with Hungary (and, since it is traditionally made with sour cream, it is a dish I had never before eaten).  But, the other parts of the meal were up for grabs.

The Appetizer:
Although not usually thought of as an appetizer, stuffed cabbage is quintessentially both Hungarian and Jewish.  The only change to the recipe was, of course, to replace the pork with more ground beef.  Also, since this was an appetizer, I used mainly the inner leaves of the cabbage and cut the larger leaves in half, so that the resulting dish would be more finger-food sized.  This made the cabbages more difficult to fold up, and I had to be very careful so that the stuffing didn’t fall out during cooking.  I loved the fact that these cabbages were cooked in sauerkraut – the tang of the sauerkraut infused the cabbages so nicely, and the sauerkraut was a pleasure to eat on its own (I know that not everyone shares my taste for sauerkraut, but fortunately Davida’s father did).  This was reflected in the ratings given by the guests – spanning the range from 4-7, averaging 5.7, which is probably where I would have rated it – it was good soul food, but nothing really exceptional.

The Main Dish:
The star of the meal was the Chicken Paprikash.  While I was unable to find authentic hot Hungarian paprika, I did find Hungarian sweet paprika and combined that with “regular” paprika for the dish. Other adaptations to the recipe included: Earth Balance vegan spread instead of butter; gluten-free flour (Hannah has celiac); and dairy-free coconut milk yogurt rather than sour cream.  Those guests who had Paprikash before said that, while it was not as spicy as the traditional dish, it was otherwise a very good approximation.  The first time I cooked through the alphabet, I studiously avoided dishes that combined milk and meat, to adhere to the standards of Kashrut.  This time around, I am enjoying using dairy-free “milk” products, especially coconut milk yogurt, to expand my horizons.  It has really been an enlightening experience!

Not only was the dish delicious, the bright red color and thick sauce made it a delight to look at.  The dish was rated 6’s and 7’s, averaging just under 6.5.  I would have rated it a 7; definitely a keeper.  Not very fussy to make and great for leftovers.

The Starches:
What would a Hungarian/Jewish meal be without two starches!  While the paprikash recipe that I used says to serve it over noodles, other sites that I looked at suggested that Nokedii dumplings are often served with chicken paprikash.  They looked simple to make, consisting only of eggs, salt, and flour.  The only real question I had was how well they would turn out using gluten-free flour.  Well, that didn’t turn out to be an issue – the gluten-free flour worked just perfectly; the problem was the time it took to make the dumplings.  It was very tedious making dozens of small dumplings; putting small dabs of the dough into boiling water, and fishing them out when done. Cooking them took about 45 minutes of constant supervision.  While they were surprisingly tasty and went incredibly well with the paprikash sauce, soaking it up like a sponge (guest rating of 5.7, although one guest gave it a 2), I’m not sure it was worth the time.  Next time, I’ll stick to noodles with the paprikash.

The other starch was a rakott krumpli (pleated potato casserole).  While the recipe was from, I still needed to tweak the recipe, because it included dairy. Coconut milk yogurt to the rescue, once again replacing the sour cream in the original recipe, together with vegan “cheese.”  The end result was not as pretty as the picture in the recipe, I think mainly because the yogurt didn’t bake as well as sour cream would have, and it wasn’t as creamy as I would have liked, but it definitely was quite tasty.  The hard-boiled eggs, however, did not add much to the potatoes, onions, and yogurt.  I would use twice as many were I to make it again.  The guests all really liked it, though, giving it an average rating of 6.3!

The Vegetable:

Lecso is a tomato-pepper-onion stew.  Apparently, some make it with hot peppers, but I just used a combination of sweet red and green pepper.  It was a very simple dish, seasoned with just paprika and a bit of salt.  Nothing special, but also did not compete with the other dishes.  It got a wide range of ratings, from 4’s to 7’s, with a majority of 5’s (average of 5.4); personally, I give it a 4.  Probably not something I would make again, but it was simple to prepare and not objectionable in any way.

I do think we did the right thing skipping “G” for this meal.  The overall comments, especially about the Chicken Paprikash, were really quite positive.  Always nice to cook for appreciative eaters!

Up next: Iceland! (after going back to Ghana, of course)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

F is for Fiji

The reason we are living in DC this year is that I am working as a Program Director at the National Science Foundation (NSF), helping to manage programs in the areas of Robotics and AI.  For this dinner, we invited some of my colleagues from NSF and their spouses.  The rules were supposed to be no shop talk, but even though we ended up talking about programs and funding, everyone had a good time getting to know each other better.  And, true to our nature as program officers, responses to the post-meal survey had the flavor of NSF proposal reviews.

For this meal, the choice of Fiji was fairly straightforward: I had done Finland the first time around (probably the biggest flop of my meals, but that’s another story) and didn’t want to do France, since my mother-in-law is French and I figured I just couldn’t compare with her exquisite cooking.  Besides, how can you pick a more exotic place than Fiji!  Fijian diet consists of mainly pig and fish, so right there it narrowed things down to fish.  And, while the influences are mostly from Southeast Asia, there is apparently a significant Indian influence, as well.  I figured it would be a very tasty and interesting meal.

The Appetizer:

One of the most popular appetizers in Fiji is Kokoda, a ceviche-type dish.  Coincidentally, it is very similar to the appetizer I made for the Ecuador meal. Since that dish was such a success, I figured that the Kokoda would be very good as well, so I, once again, used mahi-mahi..  The main difference between the two dishes is that Kokoda has coconut milk (actually, almost every dish I made for this meal had coconut milk, which some of the guests found repetitive).  That gave the Kokoda a creamy texture and, of course, a coconutty flavor that meshed very well with the lime juice.  The guests rated the Kokoda 6.7 out of 7 – definitely a keeper!

I also made taro chips to accompany the Kokoda.  We had to go to a few places to find enough taro root for the meal, and I had to buy a mandolin to make the chips.  It was cool using a kitchen gadget that I had heard a lot about but never used, and fortunately I avoided slicing my fingers off. Unfortunately, the mandolin was not a high-quality implement and the slices were not uniform, so they did not bake evenly – some were nice and crisp, but some were burnt, as one can see from the picture.  I tried to compensate by moving the chips around a bit as they were baking, but the overall effect was not all that pretty.  I did heavily salt and pepper them, so they were quite tasty, as long as one avoided the burnt parts.  Overall, the guests didn’t seem to mind and rated them 6.3.

The Main Dish:
While the main dish was also fish, I tried to make something distinctive from the Kokoda.  Suruwa, Fijian fish curry, has Indian influences, and I thought it would contrast nicely with the other, more indigenous, Fijian foods.  We used cod for the recipe, which I cut into roughly 2” pieces.  I also seeded the chilis so the dish wouldn’t be too hot.  Unfortunately, the dish turned out quite bland.  Even after adding more salt, doubling the amount of cumin and turmeric, and adding a teaspoon of curry powder, the dish still did not have a very distinctive flavor.  I guess that the chili seeds would have made it much less bland, but I really don’t like to make dishes that blast heat.  It was not a bad dish, and the turmeric made it look very pretty, but it was just not overly flavorful.  The guests evidently agreed, with ratings in the 4-6 range, averaging 5.4.  Not a keeper.

The Starch:
Besides using a lot of coconut milk, Fijian recipes apparently also use a lot of taro.  For the starch, I found a recipe that combined the two – boiled taro in coconut milk.  I was a bit worried that the dish would be too bland with just salt and coconut milk, and, indeed, it was bland and also not very appetizing looking.  However, the texture was nice; the starch in the taro thickened up the coconut milk nicely, and it paired well with the more Suruwa.  The guests’ reviews were generally good, though – mostly 5’s and 6’s, with one 7 and one 3.  Personally, I would have given it a 4.  I don’t think I’d make it again, though, since it takes so long to cook (it needs about an hour for boiling and then must be peeled once the taro cools down). 

The Vegetable:
Keeping with the theme of the meal, the vegetable recipe, called roro, also calls for coconut milk.  Roro is apparently the Fijian word for taro leaves but the recipe acknowledges that they are very difficut to find in the West, and frozen chopped spinach can be used instead.  I thought I would be fancy and use fresh spinach – and was amazed when a big bag of spinach ended up as a small clump.  Fortunately, we had some frozen spinach in the freezer, and that saved the recipe.  I used about 50% more onions than called for in the recipe (not really on purpose – it was just the size of the onions that we had) and substituted siracha for the thai chilis.  Again, I erred on the side of not too much heat, so, while the dish was not bland, it was also not very spicy.  The roro had a great creamy consistency, and I felt it went well with the fish.  The overall ratings were fairly mixed, though – spanning the range from 4-7, with an average of 5.33.  I found it quite tasty, but not enough to be a keeper.  The only dish of the four from this meal that really stood out was the appetizer of Kokoda and taro chips.  As we NSF program directors know, however, a success rate of 25% is pretty good!

Up next: Ghana!  First meal of this round from Africa!