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!

Monday, September 4, 2017

E is for Exodus from Egypt

Yes, I know that Passover was nearly five months ago, but I’ve been too busy to blog, until now.  And, yes, I know that I had already done an “E” meal, but this meal was special.  To make a long story short, I had three seders this year – one in Reading, PA with Davida’s family on the Saturday before Passover started (so everyone could conveniently attend over the weekend); one on the first night at the home of friends nearby in Maryland, (Alan and Erica, guests at E is for Ecuador); and one at our apartment on the second night with Noah, Emily, and Becky, Emily’s mother.  The seder itself was fairly simple – lots of discussion and singing, and of course lots of eating, featuring Israeli/Middle Eastern food.  Not much of a stretch this time, in terms of exotic food, but quite an enjoyable meal.  Also, we hadn’t brought any of our Passover dishes to D.C., so we made do with paper plates and plastic ware.  Oh, and the “shank bone” is the wishbone of the goose (see D is for Denmark)!  Talk about making do with what you have!

There are dozens of different recipes for charoset.  While I much prefer the apples/wine/walnut Ashkenazi version that I grew up with, I have experimented over the years with various Sephardi recipes.  These recipes tend to have more sweet fruits, such as dates and raisins.  This charoset recipe seemed to be somewhat of a compromise – it has dates and raisins, like many Sephardi recipes, but also walnuts and apples common to Ashkenazi recipes.  The ginger also gives it a bit of a kick.  Personally, I found it a bit too sweet, but it was very good on matzah.

The Main Dish:
I was really excited when I found this recipe for chicken shawarma!  I just love a good shawarma, and this recipe promised to taste very much like the spit-roasted meat, but made in an oven.  The recipe insists on using some thigh meat, but all we had available was boneless chicken breasts, so it may have been a bit drier than it could have been, but it was definitely tasty.  I did take the recipe’s advice and sauteed the chicken after baking it, which definitely improved the taste.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t enjoy the shawarma with a good pita or lafa, but it’s now in my “keepers” folder, and I’ll be enjoying home-made shawarma for years to come.

The Starches:
This is the first year that I decided to follow the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly’s ruling on kitniyot – much to Davida’s delight, since she could eat rice every day, for every meal.  I have tried to make Persian rice before, where the rice forms a crunchy crust at the bottom of the pot, but without much success.  So I figured, why not try again for my first rice-on-Passover meal.  Fortunately, I found a fairly easy recipe for saffron rice made in the Persian style using Basmati rice, my favorite.  The results were not quite as pretty as the picture on the recipe page, and some of the rice was a little burnt, but it was, nonetheless, very tasty with a wonderful crunchy texture.  In keeping with the Sephardi/Ashkenazi theme of the meal (and being a bit nervous about the rice coming out right), Davida made a traditional potato-zucchini kugel:
·        6 medium potatoes
·        1 medium onion
·        3 medium zucchini
·        6 eggs, beaten
·        2 Tbsp oil
·        1.5 tsp salt
·        1/8 tsp pepper
·        ½ cup matzah meal
Peel potatoes and place in a large bowl of cold water.  Peel onion and zucchini.  Cut vegetables in large chunks and grate in food processor.  Add remaining ingredients and mix well.  Pour into 9x13 pan and bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, about 1-1.5 hours.
The kugel was quite tasty, and a nice complement to the rest of the meal.

The Vegetables:
Sticking with the Passover theme of roasting, I decided to make a roasted vegetable.  This roasted cauliflower recipe looked good, although I eliminated the Parmesan cheese, of course.  When shopping, we chose a head of cauliflower that was way too small, which I didn’t realize until it was time to begin cooking.  I had to throw in some zucchini that was left over from the kugel to make up for it.  I think it would have been better had it just been cauliflower, but it wasn’t too bad, all in all (although, in retrospect, it doesn’t look very appetizing).  To top it off, Davida made an Israeli salad – chopped cucumber, tomatoes, red and yellow peppers, and parsley, with a simple salt, pepper and lemon juice dressing.  It was very refreshing!

The Dessert:
Afikomen, of course!  Love that matzah!!

Up next: Fiji!