Democratic Republic of Congo: 1st Stop 2014

28 Jan

Happy New Year 2014 loyal followers! Sorry for the time lapse but 2013 has been a busy and productive year as I have been working hard in the catering world.  What better way of starting the year and giving the globe a spin to see what part of the world our culinary adventure takes us. Pack your appetites because here is a glimpse of what to expect in 2014, we will submerge in the culinary culture of a different country each month. I am excited for this adventure as I have a partner in crime and fellow Chef:  Cody who will be cooking side by side with me. I can’t wait to see the outcome, from the culinary research we do, his creativity and our expertise. Buckle up, as we glide around the globe.

Our first stop for 2014 is the Republique Democratique du Congo. D.R. Congo is centrally located in the beautiful continent of Africa next to the African Great Lakes, it is the 2nd largest country in Africa and 11th in the world. We discovered that in D.R. Congo they do not have the luxury that we take for granted of buying food items at international markets and price not being a concern. Congolese are resourceful and have no choice but to make use of what is available to them and in accord with the season, this is reflective in their cuisine. In a way this is an advantage because it makes them more sustainable. Starch, such as cassava, is a large component of their staple items. Keeping with their sustainable way of life even the cassava leaves are used, this has similarity to how we in the Latin Americas and the Caribbean utilize plantain leaves for tamales to hold the food together and as a flavor enhancer.  Meat is a rarity that when available it is more like a side dish, it is found best in the form of dried or smoked fish and guinea pig. This makes sense as smoked or dried meats preserve longer. Peanuts are in abundance and it is seen in many of their dishes. Last but not least is, stews are very popular. It is a savory way to incorporate and marry all the flavors.

Chef Cody and I prepared a three-course traditional Congolese meal.

Appetizer Akara Awon which translates to Black-eyed Peas Fritter. akara

The amazing ingredient was the fresh ginger which gave this dish such a distinct flavor. We plated this decadent appetizer on a dollop of pink sauce which complemented it very well. Entree was Dongo-Dongo which is Beef Gumbo, awon

the dish was delightfully spicy and was served with brown rice and stewed cassava. You may notice a double starch on the dish which keeps in the tradition of starch enriched meals. We found it fascinating to link how gumbo made it across the Atlantic into dishes that are found in the South of the Continental U.S., also ‘carb’ rich dishes can be found in the Caribbean and Latin Americas as well.

Dessert was Mousse a la Cacahuete (peanut butter mousse)mousse

it was savory and sweet and such a delight to conclude the dining adventure with. Thank you again for traveling with us and we can’t wait to spin the globe tomorrow to see where we land. Bon Appetit!

Liberia

25 Jan

Happy New Year dear followers! May 2012 be a prosperous one for all and may our blog followers multiply. Our goal remains that one dish at a time we may learn and in return educate.

With the holidays and all in between now and our previous blog, it seems like forever.

For 2012 we are taking an approach of a journey around the world. Get your passports and appetites ready because we are off.

We spin the globe and it stops at this month’s country, Liberia!

Liberia was founded by freed American slaves in the early nineteenth century. Their flag is just as the American flag but with only one star.

Liberian cuisine heavily incorporates rice, the country’s staple food. Other ingredients include yuca, fresh fish, bananas, plantains, coconut and okra. Heavy stews spiced with habanero and scotch bonnet chillies that are popular and eaten with fufu. (Sounds very Caribbean as well, it is as if we have come full circle from Africa to the Carribean and America then back to Africa.)  Fufu, a staple snack of West and Central Africa, is a thick paste make from boiling in water starchy root vegetables such as yuca and pounding them in a mortar and pestle until the desired consistency is reached. Tiny roadside restaurants are called “Cook Shops” and feature Jollof Rice.

The greeting of one Liberian to another is unusual, and you might greet your guests this way at your Liberian dinner. When shaking hands you grasp the middle finger of your friend’s right hand between your thumb and third finger and bring it up quickly with a snap. The custom had its origin in the days of slavery when it was not uncommon for a slave owner to break the finger of his slave’s hand to indicate bondage. When the freed slaves colonized Liberia, they began this ritualistic greeting as a “sign” of their freedom.

This round I was able to spoil my pallet with Chef Elizabeth’s creativity. The true art of a Chef is amazing as she reads on the culinary style of the country, familiarizes herself with the core ingredients and viola creates the dishes as a native.

Our starter course was a traditional black-eyed pea soup:

the presence of the peas stood out but only to be enhance by the okra and collard greens.

Main course was Jollof Rice:

This dish reminded me so much of a traditional Arroz con Pollo, but the burst of flavor was amazing.

To finish off our dining experience, Chef Elizabeth prepared a traditional dessert of Stewed Mangoes with a lemon whipped cream:

It’s fascinating how an array of foreign dishes can transport you to another continent but yet feel so familiar that it ties you back to home.

Chef Elizabeth is a talent and a true artist with her culinary skills.


Arepas pues! not Orale tortillas!

3 Oct

Arepas:

 to many it would be an easy way out to compare it to a tortilla but there is a huge difference starting with the corn and method of preparation. An arepa is a native bread made from hominy, which is corn with the hull and germ removed, very popular in Colombia and Venezuela.

It can be grilled, baked, or fried. Both Colombians and Venezuelans view the arepa as a traditional national food. Arepas are usually eaten for breakfast or as an afternoon snack (merienda). It is our pita or Naan and very similar to the Salvadorean Pupusa.

For Colombia, the arepa has deep roots in the colonial farms and the cuisine of the indigenous people. There are two ways to prepare the dough. First one requires maize grains (hominy) to be cooked to softness, strained then grounded in a mortar or pilón. The end result is maíz pilado. The second method is the most modern used today, which is packaged cooked arepa cornmeal. The flour is mixed with water and salt,  and occasionally oil, butter, eggs, and/or milk.

The characteristics vary by color, flavor, size, thickness, fillings or stuffings depending on the region. In the Carribean coast arepa de huevo is very popular. This arepa is deep fried with a single raw egg inside that is cooked by the frying process. The arepa valluna the dough is salted and once cooked, buttered before eating. 

Arepa de choclo is made with sweet corn that is ground and that batter is cooked on the griddle in laddled rounds then once golden toped with fresh farmer’s white cheese. Arepa paisa – a very large, flat arepa made of white maize without salt, but accompanied by meat or butter on top and is common in Antioquia. In the north, bollos are popular for breakfast, which are made with the same dough as an arepa, but are boiled rather than fried, which gives them a texture similar dumplings.

The dough lends so well for creativity, I have even used arepas as canape bases topped with crumbled home-made colombian chorizo and garnished with queso fresco. So get creative with your arepa! Make it fun and make a whole meal out of it.

Platano Maduro!

14 Sep aborr

Plantains are a staple food in the tropical regions of the world. In its ‘green’ or unripe stage it  cooks like a potato with a similar neutral flavour and texture when steamed, boiled or fried. Plantains are, as I would say, a cousin of the banana. It is used more for cooking versus how the globally known banana is eaten as a fruit or snack and in its raw form. Plantains are bigger in size. In picking the right one at your local  market always follow this rule of thumb, as the plantain ripens, it becomes sweeter and its color changes from green to yellow to black, just like bananas.

Green plantains are firm and starchy. Yellow plantains are softer and still starchy but sweet. Extremely ripe plantains have a deep yellow pulp that is much sweeter than the earlier stages of ripeness.

Our traditional way to enjoy plantains is ‘tajadas’ which are yellow plantains, after removing the skin sliced on a diagonal and pan fried in corn oil until golden. Platano asado is another great way since you throw it on the grill in its skin and all. Its fascinating to see its transformation as the pulp inside caramelizes and once the natural sweetness starts oozing its a self indicator of readiness.  Cut a slit down the middle and sprinkle with queso fresco. Get creative and kick up the flavor by adding a sprinkle of salt and cayenne pepper.

A traditional dish from Cali is ‘Aborrajado’ which is know as ‘Yo-yo’ in Venezuela. This plantain fritter is made of two short slices of fried ripened plantain placed on top of each other, with local soft white cheese in the middle (in a sandwich-like fashion). The arrangement is dipped in an flour-egg batter with a pinch of salt and cinnnamon and fried again until the cheese melts and it acquires a deep golden hue. They are served as sides or entrees.

I am a firm believer how food connects the world and its fascinating to know that, in different variations, it is a staple in many corners of the world from Asia to Africa, to the Carribean and South America.

A comer se dijo!

Parba…my favorite subject..=)

9 Sep

What’s for breakfast? Our version of a continental breakfast is parba with ‘cafe con leche’ or hot cocoa. On the regular breads are bland in flavor since they are the base for sandwiches but colombian breads have layers of flavor. To name a few: pandebono, buñuelos, pan-queso or roscon.

Bueñuelos are our version of dumplings. They are fried cheese breads that don’t start off as the perfect round but boy when the hot oil does it magic I couldn’t get a more perfect circle even if I tried!

Us colombians are very patriotic of our regions and love to engage in debate on what is the proper name for foods. So, is it pandebono, pandequeso or almojabana? But research shows the name depends on the region of colombia that you are in. Almojaban for the Pacific side of Colombia, Pandebono for the Valle del Cauca and Pandequeso for Antioquia. At the end of the day the ingredients are the same just that Almojabana is round in shape and has more cheese. Pandequeso and Pandebono are shaped like a donut. The secret ingredient to this recipe is almidon aka yucca starch. Many latin markets nowadays stock the boxed dry mix all you have to do is add the wet ingredients.

Did someone say Roscon? For us it’s ‘go big or go home’! Roscon is our version of a donut, double the size and stuffed with arequipe (dulce de leche) or guava and topped with sugar for a decadent glaze.

Last but not least is Pan-queso which literally is a bakes loaf of bread with a strip of cheese down the center and then topped off with shredded cheese just in case you can’t have enough cheese.

With such a selection of breads and with such depth in flavors we can’t just limit ourselves to enjoying them only at breakfast time. We incorporate them as snacks as well or as ‘merienda‘. Merienda is a snack that is best when it is shared in good company. It could be 7pm, you have some friends and family over you warm up some bread and serve with ‘cafe con leche’ or hot cocoa. Our traditional chocolate caliente is not a powdered version. We use ‘Luker‘ cocoa bars that are dissolved in panela (brown sugar chunks) and hot water on the stove. Once dissolved it is poured in a ‘chocolatera‘ (aluminum pitcher) and beaten with a ‘molinillo‘ to produce a foam. So my friend, pull out the parques, serve la merienda and don’t forget to dunk the bread in the hot cocoa…enjoy!

Gimme the whole Tamale!

31 Aug
Is it Christmas yet? I am craving my parents tamales. The famous Tamal stems down to our indigenous roots and spreads all over Central, South America and the Caribbean. Funny how we use the same base cornmeal but each tamal can taste so different by the diverse ingredients we top them with. Tamales, hallacas, pasteles…all equal YUM!
Distinctly to Colombia the preparation varies from Region to Region. The traditional wrapping that holds it all together is green sturdy plantain leaves. If those happen not to be available we can use corn husks or even aluminum foil.
Amongst the variations are:
Tamal Santandereano
Tamal Cucuteno (Hallaca)
Tamal Valluno
 Tamal Tolimense
 
Tamal del Arriero (Antioquia y eje cafetero)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Hallaca Araucana (Llanos Orientales)
Tamal de Piangüa (Costa Pacífica)
Tamal Santafereño (Región Cundinamarca)
Pastel de arroz con cerdo y gallina (Región Caribe)
Tamal de Pipían (Cauca)
Bollitos de corazón de fríjol 
Envueltos o bollos de mazorca 
Bollo limpio (Región Atlántica)
Bollo de yuca (Región Atlántica) 
Bollo de Angelito (Región Atlántica)
Yellow cornmeal is the most popular but in areas like Santander we use white corn meal as the foundation. In Colombia, there is a true argument to this day on which City makes the better Tamal. I can still hear my mom in the kitchen fussin’ about the ‘Tolimenses’ blasphemous addition of rice inside the tamal, rice is a side dish!
In Colombia, tamales are symbolic to special occasions especially as an intricate part of Christmas/New Year’s Dinner. I guess because of its laborious preparation and this item definitely being a ‘slow food’ dish.  Prepare ‘la masa’, cook the meats, saute the ‘Hogao’, cook the carrots and potatoes and assemble the layers: Leaf, masa, meats, a slice of carrot a slice of potato finish off with Hogao, wrap and boil. Who has the time for all this?!
My modern Chef Elizabeth variation:
-make a creamy polenta seasoned with cumin, garlic powder, salt and pepper
-cook some short ribs with onions, peppers and tomatoes
-top with sliced carrots, a drizzle of EVOO and a sprinkle of cilantro and viola!
Mind you it’s not the real thing, but trust me this dish will encompass all the flavors and it will feel like Christmas!
 

Colombian food, how I love thee…

26 Aug

The only thing I wish I could adjust to our colombian plate would be our starchy selection of root ‘vegetables’ but then again can you imagine a bandeja paisa

Bandeja Paisa

with sauteed spinach? What would a sancocho be without the yuca, papa and platano??

So, no need trying to re-invent the wheel. At the end of the day I love the simpleness of our ingredients. The foundation of all our recipes is scallions, tomato and cilantro….boy do we use cilantro. Cilantro is our Basil!

It is fascinating to undestand the background to our cuisine. Colombia being a laborous culture and dishes being created from sustainable vegetables we depended a lot on  yuca, potato, plantain, arracacha and corn. Corn is the basis for arepas, tamales, empanadas etc.

But I welcome this challenge, because then creativity kicks in and I pull together a cream of broccoli soup with notes of Hogao. Cuisine brings worlds together.

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