Sunday, January 31, 2010

La cocina peruana

Over winter break I had the opportunity to travel to beautiful Peru with my boyfriend, Gabriel, to meet his family and see the sights. I spent time in Lima and in various places in the Sacred Valley of the Andes. Naturally we went to Machu Picchu, and it was breathtaking (figuratively and literally - at an altitude of 8,000 ft above sea level). This abandoned city of the Incas is hidden in the mountains, and although the locals have probably always known about it (since it was built in 1430 AD), it was only discovered in 1911 by a guy named Hiram Bingham, from Hawaii. I could keep spouting facts about the Incas and their building styles and methods, but you could always just find that on Wikipedia. What Wikipedia won't tell you is how absolutely delicious Peruvian food is. (There is a nice article on Peruvian cuisine, but, in order to be objective, it doesn't speak to the tastiness of the food.)

The first half of the trip was spent in the Sacred Valley, traveling from Cuzco, to a little lodge just outside of Calca, passing through Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu, and then back to Cuzco. Our first afternoon at the lodge, I had kabobs with chicken and peaches (pollo con duraznos). That evening I ordered the chef's special trucha a la teja. My limited Spanish vocabulary does include trucha, which means trout. I learned that teja is a roof tile (along with being a tasty majar blanco-filled confection). To my surprise, I was presented with a whole trout cooked on a real roof tile. It was pretty rare, and I was being careful about what I was eating, so I had it cooked a little more. I'm glad I did, because it returned perfectly cooked and tender. Along with the mashed potatoes served along-side (fact: potatoes originated in Peru!), the fish was filled with a lot of garlic and an herb which I think was parsley. It was also filled with bones. After I got the hang of eating the meat from around the bones, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was a fairly large trout, so my oh-so-helpful boyfriend assisted me in finishing it.

The next morning for breakfast there was an array of fruit, which included sliced papaya and tiny, incredibly sweet mountain strawberries, yogurt (which was much more liquid-y than yogurt here) , eggs, bacon, and the typical Andean bread. It was simple but delicious. That afternoon we attended a wedding reception at the lodge, after which there was large buffet of Peruvian food. I tried some of the classic Peruvian dishes, like lomo saltado (beef, onions, and peppers in a soy-sauce-based sauce), rocoto relleno (rocoto peppers stuffed with meat, olives, egg, and a bunch of other things), ceviche (raw fish marinated in lemon or lime juice and peppers), and arroz con leche (Peruvian rice-pudding, or rice with milk) for dessert. I also tried the alpaca carpaccio with gorgonzola sauce... which I didn't realize was alpaca at the time. Finally, to toast the couple celebrating their wedding, we raised glasses of pisco sour. Pisco is a Peruvian liquor distilled from grapes, and probably considered the national spirit. In fact, although the customs form going into Peru didn't make a big deal about bringing in plant, animal, or food products (like the form for entering the US), it made very clear that liquors purporting to be pisco, but were not of peruvian origin, were strictly not allowed.

The next day, Gabriel and I set off with our backpacks to journey to Machu Picchu. While waiting for the train in Ollantaytambo, we had Peruvian corn with cheese (choclo con queso) from a street vendor. The corn kernels there are at least two times as large as American sweet corn, and not as sweet. The cheese tucked into the serving husk with the cob is a salty fresh cheese very common in the Andes. Walking past street vendors, I saw quite a few fruits that I didn't recognize among the bottles of Inca Kola and SD cards for digital cameras. I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about world foods, but my ignorance about even the most common fruits in Peru humbled me. For instance, always in the fruit basket at the family's home were granadillas. People eat this yellow-orange fig-shaped fruit by pulling off a section of the rind, and eating the grey pulp-covered seeds with a spoon (or with their hands, if they are being casual). The lúcuma fruit is also important to Peruvian cuisine. Although I never saw a fresh lúcuma, I enjoyed plenty of lúcuma-flavored tortes, custards, and puddings.

After seeing Machu Picchu, eating more traditional Peruvian food, and traveling by train and by cab, we arrived in Cuzco again. The next day we spent shopping (ooo alpaca scarves and sweaters!) and touring churches and Inca ruins in and around the city. Both our tour-guide and Gabriel's brother recommended the same restaurant, so for dinner we went to Incanto, just off the main square in Cuzco. We arrived early for dinner (by Peruvian standards), so we were practically alone in the spacious, cleanly decorated restaurant. I was given an English menu (despite food-words being probably my only strong point in Spanish). The cuisine was mainly Italian, with a Peruvian twist. For an appetizer we had bruschetta with house-cured alpaca, sun-dried tomatoes (oil-packed, not dry), and goat cheese. They were so good, and I was so hungry that by the time I thought to take a picture they were gone.

For dinner, I ordered spinach and ricotta Malfatti (meaning poorly-formed in Italian, they are little dumplings of cheese and spinach). As you can see in the picture above, they were dressed with a tomato sauce and lots of delicious gorgonzola cheese. Gabriel ordered the ravioli de "Aji de Gallina." Aji de gallina is another ubiquitous Peruvian dish. Shredded chicken is cooked in a really fantastic yellow sauce made of aji peppers. This is usually served with an olive and a hard-boiled egg over rice. This particular dish is a good example of the subtlety of Peruvian cooking. The aji pepper doesn't make the dish particularly spicy-hot, but it does impart a deep pepper taste. It has the flavor of something that is spicy, without being so hot that you can't eat it. Anyway, the ravioli were stuffed with chicken and served in the aji sauce. Gabriel approved.

For dessert we split the torta húmeda de chocolate (moist chocolate cake). This is definitely something I am going to try to replicate. The cake had alternating layers of cake and mousse, with a chocolate ganache and chocolate shavings on top. It was good, as far as chocolate cakes go, but what really made the dessert was the lime-mint shaved-ice (like a very tart granita?) served in a shot-glass alongside. The tart lime and cool mint balanced the rich chocolate perfectly. For me, a chocolate cake is the litmus test of a restaurant. Anybody can make something sweet and chocolaty - but it takes skill to make something that is both sweet and rich, but which is not so cloying that you can only eat one bite of it. And Incanto passed the test with flying colors.

My trip to Peru included many more exciting edibles. There was the homemade causa, the huge and delicious turkey for Christmas dinner, the visit to a Peruvian Chinese restaurant (called a chifa), and lots of panettone. The food only made an otherwise wonderful trip better. In short, I can't wait to go back, but until then, I'll try making some dishes from my new Peruvian cookbook. :)

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Ducken-hen

One day last fall, my friend Jeska called me and asked me if I might be interested in helping her create a Turducken. Did she even have to ask? I was already thinking about what kinds of stuffing to use, and if we should wrap the whole thing in bacon. Naturally, I accepted her offer.

When we saw each other next, we discussed how we were preparing. I had watched some videos on youtube about deboning a chicken, and had scheduled a practice deboned chicken into my meal plan. She had talked to a few butchers and chefs, and was feeling a bit worried about the whole thing. There was the general impression that making a whole Turducken was more hassle than it was worth. But, what can I say? We were drawn to the challenge, and we finalized that we would serve the Turducken as the main course of an upcoming potluck.

The week before the potluck, I watched this video, and, with the help of my boyfriend rewinding parts while I confusedly poked around leg-joints, successfully deboned a chicken. (I also consulted Julia Child's instructions for deboning poultry in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.) I filled it with garlic and rosemary, rolled it and tied it, and made Roast Boned Chicken from The Guardian. Jeska picked two stuffing recipes, and we considered who would buy and defrost the birds. Neither of us had the time or space to correctly defrost a whole turkey at that time, and we worried that we would have to back out of our planned Turducken feast. Instead of canceling, we decided to punt and make a Ducken - simply stuff a chicken in a duck. And then when I was at the grocery store to buy the birds, I saw little Cornish game hens in the case next to the ducks, and I picked one up just for kicks. And so the Ducken-hen was born.

The day before potluck, Jeska, her friend William, and I met at her co-op to prepare the birds and stuffing. First we whipped up two stuffing recipes: a basic stuffing with mushrooms, and a sausage, apple and cranberry stuffing. I don't often cook in other people's kitchens, especially big co-op kitchens! It's strange not to know where everything is, but the collection of utensils and the rack of large jars full of tea and spices made up for feeling out of place. Once we had two bowls full of stuffing set aside, we removed the defrosted birds from the fridge and set up large pans as prep areas. Armed with small knives, we began what we believed would be the most difficult part of the process. Jeska demonstrated properly stretching the birds by helping them do shoulder rolls. She worked on the chicken (with William's help on the legs), and I tackled the duck and game hen.

I successfully deboned the duck first. (We left the lower leg-bones and wings on the duck, since it would be on the outside.) Although the duck weighed almost a pound more than the chicken (which was a pound and a half more than the game hen), the duck had less meat. It was significantly fattier and the carcass was larger and longer. The video I watched to prepare me for deboning poultry warned that smaller birds were more difficult than larger birds, but I found that removing the bones from the game hen was pretty simple. Once you know how to handle the joints to the wings and legs, the whole business boils down to not slipping while you are carving.

With three birds deboned, we started layering them with the stuffing. The game hen was easy enough to skewer closed around the stuffing. The chicken was difficult but not impossible to close around the stuffing and smaller stuffed bird. The duck, however, who fooled us into thinking he was larger with his heavier weight, simply would not close around the chicken. This was the only point during the process that I wished we had planned ahead well enough to use a turkey. A 15 lb turkey surely would have had ample room to hold a duck, even a duck which would not close around the chicken inside it. We tried using four or five skewers, all at different angles, to secure the duck. Then we started cutting lengths of kitchen twine to tie around the mass of poultry. With hands tying twine, jabbing with skewers, and desperately trying to hold the whole thing together, it felt a bit like a dramatic scene in Grey's Anatomy. We finally managed to secure the outer bird to our liking, and we put our anatine/galline* Frankenstein's monster in the fridge to stay cold overnight.

The next day our Franken-fowl got some salt and pepper, and went into the oven for the timerescribed by its weight. When I next saw it, it was plump and golden brown - practically begging to be eaten. Our fellow potluckers didn't disappoint when it came to sides. We had gravy, mashed potaotes, luscious chocolate tortes, and a whole tub of local, fresh-picked grapes. And the Ducken-hen? Well, although we never got the beautifully layered look when we cut into it, the meat was moist, tender, and tasty, all the way through. I had one of the duck legs, which was so flavorful and tender, that I was convinced I definitely need to cook duck more often. The already delicious stuffing was improved by the meat. In the end, only a few pieces of skin remained on the platter. In short, it was a success. Jeska and I vowed to take on the full Turducken next. If trussing the too-small bird was the hardest part, then using a large turkey could only make the next time easier. What could go wrong?

*anatine means "duck-like", and galline means "chicken-like"
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Sunday, January 10, 2010

The New Year in Food

I am finally back from a rather long winter vacation in Peru, Omaha, and Albuquerque. Before that I was finishing up the semester. But enough with the excuses - I just am not in the habit of writing a blog post regularly. So, in the spirit of the new year, I come to you with a resolution and some cooking goals.

First and foremost, I resolve to blog regularly, both about Thursday potlucks, and about the other exciting food events in my life.

During my flight home a few days ago, I was reading the latest issue of Saveur, which included 100 food topics submitted by readers. The wide variety of topics covered, along with my experiences with new and different food in Peru (more on that in an upcoming post!), inspired me to tackle 12 culinary tasks that I've either put off trying or been intimidated by.

Here is my list, with each task assigned to a month:

January: Cook a meal drawn entirely from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This was a birthday gift from my wonderful boyfriend, so I'm guessing he will be invited to this meal...

February: Cook a dish including mussels and/or oysters. The whole shell business has always unnerved me, and only recently have I learned to enjoy eating mussels and oysters. Cooking them is the next step!

March: Make a yeast bread. Maybe start with the no-knead type early on in the month and progress to something more intensive.

April: Make my own pasta. This looks fun, but I've never made the time for it. I'd like to try both gnocchi and egg noodles.

May: Bake a "Baked Alaska." Perhaps not as formidable as rolling out pasta, but the thermodynamics of ice cream inside a baked meringue shell is quite intriguing.

June: Eat entirely local for a day. Some people do this on a regular basis, and it shouldn't be too difficult in a food-centric state like Wisconsin. Maybe this will help me start better habits, even if I can't eat entirely local all of the time.

July: Make mulberry ice cream. We have a large mulberry tree in our back yard, which produces more fruit than I know what to do with. I'm also interested in experimenting with methods for making ice cream (or something similar to ice cream) that don't require an ice cream maker, which my small kitchen has no room for.

August: Make ceviche. I hope to include a lot more Peruvian cooking in my repertoire, but I'll admit that this marinated fish dish intimidates me a bit. It may take a resolution and someone's August birthday to get me to try it.

September: Make cherries jubilee. Late summer in Wisconsin is prime time for delicious fresh cherries, and what better way to celebrate Door County cherries than by setting your house on fire? Just kidding - but I would like to try flambeing something.

October: Cook an unusual meat. Our farmers' market routinely has ostrich meat, but I would also consider cooking rabbit or something else I've never tried before.

November: Brine a turkey. As far as I can tell, I'll be staying in Madison for Thanksgiving, which means I will probably host a meal of some kind. And while I've participated in numerous turkey roasts (during which Betty White makes dirty jokes about the turkey... or is that something else?) I've never brined a turkey.

December: Create some awesome homemade food gifts. I wont give away my ideas yet, but I'd like to share some kitchen joy with my dear friends next holiday season. The past two years have included biscotti, but I'd like to push the boundaries to include some non-baked goods.

So goes my plan for the year. I hope to fit this all in with work, school, community choir, and having some sort of social life... but, as I tell my hesitant-to-cook father, "You have to eat anyway, so you might as well have some fun with it!"

Coming up soon - the long awaited ducken-hen post... I know you can hardly wait.