Sunday, March 5, 2017

E is for Ecuador



Since coming to DC a year ago, I have gotten back in touch with Alan Edelman, a housemate from my graduate school days in Boston, and his wife Erica.  We were quite friendly in Boston, even attending each other’s weddings, but we had lost touch over the years.  The way we got back in touch was very coincidental – Davida met Erica at Israeli dancing, and somehow figured out the connection with me.  Even more coincidental is that Erica’s cousin Alana is a dear friend and previous housemate of Hannah, Davida’s daughter.  We decided to bring everyone together – Alan, Erica, Hannah, Alana, and their other previous housemate, Dan.  Being President’s Day (February 20), Davida decreed that everyone needed to bring bits of presidential trivia to share.  I’ll intersperse some of them throughout this blog, so keep reading!

For this meal, I was inspired by one of my graduate students, Juan Pablo Mendoza, who is from Ecuador.  I also wanted to get into the mood for traveling to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, hopefully next year.  Juan Pablo was very helpful with suggestions, and pointed me to Laylita’s Recipes, a fabulous site for Ecuadoran cuisine.  Usually, I surf around for good recipes from a particular country, but this time I found everything that I wanted to make on this one site.  In addition to great recipes, it also has extensive pictures and some videos with step-by-step instructions.  It’s a really great site!

The Appetizer:

I decided to make this a fish (dairy) dinner, due to the abundance of great fish recipes from Ecuador.  Ceviche is a dish that I just love, but have never made before.  Laylita’s site had a wonderful ceviche recipe, recommended by Juan Pablo (no better expert!).  I went with his suggestion to use mahi-mahi as the fish base, and the mahi-mahi that I found was from Ecuador – a good sign.  I went light on the hot peppers, using two serrano chilies with most of the seeds removed, and replaced the Ecuadoran red onions with shallots, a suggested alternative.  Rather than squeezing 20 limes by hand, I splurged for a lime squeezer.  After struggling with the first half-dozen limes, I found that if I cut off the bottoms of the limes (after cutting them in half) that the squeezer worked much better.  Maybe this is a well-known trick, but it was my first time with a squeezer, and it took me a while to figure out a good way to squeeze the limes.  Eventually, though, I produced enough juice to cover the fish and spices.

The result was well worth the effort.  The ceviche was outstanding – crisp, acidic, with a very fresh fish taste and a nice tang from the shallots and chilies.  We served the ceviche with gluten-free corn chips and found that the salty chips were a great complement to the lime and cilantro in the ceviche.  Most of the guests rated it a 7 (out of 7), with one lone 5 rating.  A really good start to the meal.

Did you know: John Tyler, who was born in 1790, has two grandsons who are still alive today

The Soup:

Usually, I make either a soup or an appetizer, but not both.  However, the soup that Juan Pablo suggested Locro o sopa de quinua con queso (quinoa and cheese soup, with potatoes) was just too tempting.  Since this was a dairy meal, I could follow the recipe exactly using whole milk (we had to go out and buy it special – we are typically a fat-free milk household) and queso fresco (which was available at the neighborhood Hispanic grocery store).  We were also able to find achiote powder there, which the soup recipe (and several other recipes in the meal) called for.  I was hoping to find some special potatoes (e.g., purple) to put in the soup, but ending up with red-skinned potatoes.  Rather than serving the soup with aji hot sauce, as indicated in the recipe, I added a generous pinch of red pepper flakes.  This gave the soup a hint of heat, which I thought it really benefited from.

The soup was quite delicious.  The potatoes and quinoa, as they cooked down, gave the soup a wonderful richness.  The queso fresco did not melt, but became a bit rubbery and chewy – in a good way!  So, every other spoon, or so, of soup one would get into this bursting flavor of the cheese.  Everyone rated the soup a 7, which is the first dish I’ve made that has gotten 7’s across the board.  A definite keeper, especially since it is relatively easy to make and really improves with age, as the flavors continue to meld.

Did you know: James Monroe is the only president to have a foreign capital (Monrovia) named after him

The Main Dish:

Juan Pablo strongly recommended pescado encocado, or fish with coconut sauce, for the entrée.  The pictures of this recipe on Laylita’s site look absolutely mouth-watering – I could only hope that my efforts would look half as good.  We used halibut, as recommended by the recipe, along with a combination of red and yellow bell peppers (the recipe was not specific, but that’s what it looks like was used, from the pictures).  We needed nearly four pounds of halibut.  The store had that available as one large fillet – it was a beautiful piece of fish, and may have been the second most expensive single food item that I’ve bought, after the kosher goose (see “D is for Denmark”).  I skinned the fish, which was probably not necessary, but I think it looks nicer skinned and not everyone wants to deal with fish skin when they are eating. I did add some corn starch (about 2 Tbsp), as recommended by the recipe, to thicken things up, first removing some of the juice, stirring in the cornstarch, and then returning it to the pan.  I did not use fresh coconut, as the recipe suggested, which might have been a nice touch, but I was already stretched with everything else that needed to be done.

The result was brilliantly colorful and flavorful, and the fish was extremely moist and tender.  While the flavors were not particularly bold, they were definitely very satisfying.  Adding a bit of cilantro helped bring out the flavors – I just love cilantro.  It’s a shame two older children have that gene that makes cilantro taste like soap, so I get to use it only when they are not involved with the meal.  The guests agreed that the dish was both pleasing to look at and delicious – the average rating was 6.2.  And, like the soup, the sauce of the fish got better over time (although the same cannot be said of the fish itself – reheating overcooked it, and it became a bit too chewy for my taste). Another keeper!

Did you know: James Buchanan quietly but consistently bought slaves in Washington DC and then set them free in Pennsylvania

The Starch:

The recipe for pescado encocado suggested rice as a starch, to soak up all the wonderful juices.  The Ecuadoran rice recipe is fairly straightforward, but also different from what I usually do, as it includes onions (I did not add garlic, as suggested by the recipe, since I felt there was already more than enough garlic in the meal) and sautéing the rice in oil before adding water.  We decided (well, Davida decided) to go with the yellow rice, rather than white, which was obtained by adding some achiote powder.  Since this was a pretty standard dish, I did not ask for ratings for it.  Besides, people did not eat it on its own, preferring instead to douse it with the sauce from the fish, which was a very flavorful combination.

Did you know: Abraham Lincoln is the only US president who was also a licensed bartender; he co-owned a saloon in Springfield, IL

The Vegetable:

No question here – I wanted to make fried plantains.  The only question was: ripe or green?  I really could not decide, so I decided to make some of each.  Platanos maduos fritos were very easy to make.  It involved just frying sliced ripe plantains in oil.  Patacones were a bit more difficult, since they needed to be cooked, then lightly smashed (but not enough so they cracked) and then fried. 
Apparently, most recipes call for frying them twice, but Laylita suggests (well, her brother suggests) to boil them first, instead of frying, as they will be soft inside and crispy outside.  I used the bottom of a small bowl to smash them – pushing down until the slices filled the bowl’s bottom (2” in diameter).  Unfortunately, I was not able to prevent many of the slices from cracking, and there were quite a few small pieces.  I did not want the patacones to be too spicy, so I added just a trace of chipotle chili powder along with garlic powder and salt, as the recipe suggested.  The chipotle gave them a subtle smoky flavor, along with a little bit of a kick.


The platanos maduos fritos were sweet and delicious, averaging a 5.3 rating from the guests (mostly positive, but one guest gave them a 3).  They were much better warm and freshly made, becoming a bit tough as they cooled.  The patacones were very crisp (and not so soft inside – perhaps I fried them for too long) and stayed good even as they cooled.  The guest rating averaged 5.6, with none of the ratings in the negative territory.
Ever the science nerd, I asked Davida to run an analysis to determine if the ratings were statistically different.  Ever the science nerd, she agreed, running a Mann-Whitney U test and, for good measure, a t-test and producing box plots of the results.  It turns out that there is, in fact, no significant difference between the two ratings.  That was confirmed by the meal: in the end, we had no leftover patacones and just a few of the platanos maduos fritos.

Did you know: Every member of Teddy Roosevelt’s family owned a pair of stilts, including the first lady

I learned my lesson after two disastrous desserts, and left it to Davida to buy Nutella brownies from the local gluten-free bakery.  No one complained!

Finally, did you know: Jimmy Carter was the first president to be born in a hospital

Up next: Fiji! (I considered doing France, but it was a bit too obvious; besides, how could I ever compare with my French mother-in-law’s cooking?)


Friday, February 17, 2017

D is for Denmark



Last meal, my daughter was visiting from Los Angeles.  This time, my youngest son Josh (a senior at Penn State) was in town to participate in a Mock Trial competition at Georgetown Law.  I spent Saturday morning (January 28)  watching Josh compete with his team, where he was one of the lawyers (the case was an age-discrimination suit; I also saw him give the opening statement as plaintiff attorney on Sunday – quite a treat!)  The afternoon was spent cooking and preparing for dinner – guests included Josh and his teammate Larissa, my eldest son Noah and his girlfriend Emily, my partner Davida’s daughter Hannah and her friend Peter, and my mother-in-law Brenda.

I chose Denmark for this meal mainly because Davida has a good friend, Hanne, from Denmark (who now lives in Sweden), and we figured she would be a good source for recipes and ideas.  She did not disappoint, pointing us to a great website (http://www.danishnet.com/food/) and providing some of her own personal favorite ideas.  Most of the main dishes were pork (not kosher) or red meat (not our favorite), but one dish caught my attention: roast goose stuffed with apples and prunes, a Danish holiday favorite.  I had never in my life eaten goose, and I don’t even recall ever seeing it on restaurant menus.  What a unique opportunity, I thought.  All I needed to do was find a kosher goose.  This proved easier said than done – none of the local DC kosher butchers carried goose, and a recommended butchery in Baltimore said they sometimes had goose, but currently had none in stock.  A Google search yielded a few hits for kosher goose, but only one of the sites was active – Aaron’s Gourmet, of Queens, NY.  They have an amazing array of exotic kosher meat (bison, venison, quail, pheasant, turducken) and, of course, goose.  Ordering was easy and they ship overnight (the 9 pound goose arrived frozen in a very well packaged Styrofoam container). 

Once I found a source for the goose, my aims were two-fold: (1) find good accompaniments; and (2) don’t ruin the goose - it was definitely the most expensive single food item I’ve ever purchased, although I don’t feel that the price per pound (~$13.50) was unreasonable.

The Appetizer:

Hanne had written that Rugbrød is a quintessential Danish food that cannot be readily found outside of Denmark, and one that all Danes crave.  Rugbrød is a very dense sourdough rye bread, filled with seeds.  I had never made bread before, but figured how hard could it be?     

The recipe calls for combining rye and wheat flours, adding a combination of seeds, using yeast and a dark beer as fermenting agents, and letting it ferment for 24 hours, or more.  I was not able to find rye berries, as called for in the recipe, so I just increased the quantity of flax and sunflower seeds.  Other than that, I followed the recipe strictly (using the suggestion of substituting almond milk and vinegar for the buttermilk, to make it pareve, and sprinkling oats on top).  The beer that I used (Alewerks Coffeehouse) imparted a nice sweet, nutty flavor to the bread.  The recipe needed only part of a bottle, and I was sure not to let the rest of it go to waste.  It was a lot of fun kneading the bread and watching it rise during the course of a day to almost overflow the bowl.  The recipe called for baking for 90 minutes.  I had thought that sounded like a long time, but checking after 75 minutes it was still fairly raw in the middle.  I kept checking every 10-15 minutes, and ended up baking for almost two hours.  The outside was nice and crusty but the inside was still a bit soggy.  I let it cool down, according to the recipe, but it was still quite hard to slice.  Over the course of a few days, however, it firmed up nicely.  If I were to do this again, I would bake the bread a full day in advance.

 

Inspired both by Hanne’s email about how Rugbrød is often eaten and some of the images on the recipe website, we prepared a bit of a Smörgåsbord, consisting of lox, cucumber, and pareve cream cheese, along with gluten-free crackers for Hannah.  It was a big hit!  The bread has a very unusual taste, with rye sourdough, seeds, and beer flavors.  Initially it was off-putting, but it really grew on all of us, and in the days that followed we really enjoyed it, especially toasted.  The reviews were very mixed – 3 people gave it a 7 (the top rating), 2 gave it a 5, and two gave it a negative rating.

This turned out to be the major commonality of the dinner – a very wide range of ratings, with some people really liking one aspect and disliking another, and others with the opposite reactions.  Very different from any of the previous meals, where, by and large, the ratings were relatively consistent.

The Soup:

Usually, I make just one appetizer, but I really wanted to try both the Rugbrød and a split pea soup recipe, topped with caramelized onions and fresh dill.  It sounded like a perfect dish for a winter meal, and seemed to be fairly simple to make, consisting of just green split peas, some vegetables, and a little bit of seasoning.  I did not have fresh thyme, as called for by the recipe, so used dried.  The soup tasted a bit bland, so I added quite a bit more thyme and dill than the recipe called for.  It ended up being a luscious, thick soup.  The caramelized onions were a great addition – they added a flavor and texture that made the soup really special (at least, for those of us who like caramelized onions).  I always underestimate, though, how long it takes to caramelize onions – I should have started a bit earlier, and reheated the onions to finish them off right before serving.  The Rugbrød and the soup went very well together – they could have been a meal all by themselves.  The soup was the one exception to the wide variation in ratings – all were positive, average 6 (out of 7).  A clear winner, and one to put in my “keepers” file.

The Main Dish:

Roast goose!  Sounds so exotic, and it was!  The recipe calls for stuffing the goose with apples and prunes.  I used a combination of Granny Smith and Gala apples (the idea was for a sweet and tart combination).  The goose is stuffed and then trussed – had to go out and buy trussing pins and string.  I actually found it easier to stuff the goose than turkey, as it seems to have a much wider, longer cavity and a lot of fatty skin to keep everything inside.  The recipe is actually fairly straightforward – the goose is roasted on its side in chicken stock, to keep the meat moist.  A 9 pound bird is supposed to cook for nearly 4 hours.  After just over 3 hours, I checked the temperature with a meat thermometer, and it seemed to be done (175 degrees in the middle of the thigh).  I was not confident that I had measured the temperature correctly, since it was so much less time than the recipe called for, that I cooked it another 20 minutes.  Big mistake – by that time, my goose was really cooked.  It sure looked beautiful, though! I found that it tasted much gamier than either chicken or turkey.  In addition, it was all dark meat, the wings and the neck bone were huge, and the wishbone was completely different from a chicken or turkey wishbone.

I actually liked the flavor of the goose meat quite a bit, although I was disappointed that I had overcooked it.  Most of the guests were muted in their responses – four 4’s and two 3’s – but one person gave it a 7 (I gave it a 5).  I felt that the apple and prune stuffing was not at all special – to me, it was fairly bland and the mushy texture was not appealing.  But, the guests’ reactions to the stuffing was the most varied – it got one vote each from 2 to 7, except 3 got two votes.  As I said before, the biggest commonality was the wide variance in the ratings.

The Starch:

Every recipe that I read for Danish roast goose said to serve them with caramelized potatoes.  The recipe calls for boiling the potatoes, cutting them up, and then mixing them in the caramelized sugar.  I used Earth Balance instead of butter, to keep it pareve.  This was my first time caramelizing sugar; I’ve seen on cooking shows how easy it is to burn sugar, so I was extra careful.  Even so, it was a real disaster – rather than good caramelization, I ended up with a soupy, goopy mess that was overly sweet.  I thought the potatoes were just horrible (because of my technique – I am sure that, properly caramelized, they would have been amazing).  Most people agreed with me, rating the potatoes in the neutral to negative range, although one person (apparently with a sweet tooth) gave them a 6.

The Vegetable:

The rest of the meal was mostly brown and mushy, so I wanted to brighten things up and add a bit of crunch.  A recipe for Rødkål, Danish pickled red cabbage, did the trick.  The pickling ingredient is balsamic vinegar and red currant jelly – yum!  When Davida and I were in London last fall, we went to a food market and ended up buying white balsamic vinegar, which is much sweeter and more intense than regular balsamic.  I decided to use a combination of the white and black vinegars and used Earth Balance instead of butter, again.  I really liked the result – it was sweet and acidic, with an intense flavor from both the vinegars and the allspice, and the color just popped.  Two of the guests didn’t like it (giving it a 2 and 3), but most of the other guests liked it a lot, averaging a 6 (which was my rating, too).  I made a lot of it (we bought a really big cabbage), and I enjoyed eating it for days afterwards.

The Dessert:

I usually don’t make dessert with the meal, but Hanne had sent a recipe for an intriguing looking apple parfait, called æblekage and Davida decided to give it a try (instead of buying her favorite chocolate cake balls at the bakery around the corner).   The dish consists of apples (we used Macintosh) cooked with lemon and honey, and a meringue folded into it.  The apples are layered with toasted breadcrumbs and topped with hazelnuts.  I really don’t know why, but it just did not turn out well.  The breadcrumb mixture was dry, the apples combined with the meringue were not appealing (other photos of æblekage show the apples and meringue as separate layers – which may have been a better idea), and overall it was cloyingly sweet.  The average rating was 2.7, and no one gave it a positive review (and I was the only guest who actually finished their portion).  Given this disaster, and the disastrous dessert from the Cuban dinner, I think we will stick to the main part of the meal, and serve something chocolate (and bought) in the future.

Addendum:

Every time I make turkey, I use the carcass to make soup.  I love turkey soup with vegetables and barley.  The goose carcass was so lovely, that I wanted to do the same.  I looked for a while, but didn’t find anything I liked better than my mother’s turkey soup recipe.  I altered the recipe below slightly, to use celery root, instead of parsnip, and fresh dill, both of which I had left over from the split pea soup.  The goose carcass is so much more fatty than a turkey carcass, so the soup ended up being even more luscious.  I found the same with the juice from roasting the goose – after being in the fridge for a day, it separated and the top third was all fat.  I briefly considered making schmaltz and gribenes, like my mother used to do on occasion, but could not bring myself to making a dish that was basically all fat.

Turkey soup recipe:
-        Cook the carcass and skin in 2½  quarts of water with ½ cup barley and salt for 1-1½ hours
-        Remove bones from soup; remove me