Monday, August 31, 2009

80 Plates: Honduras!

I have been looking to get back into the 80 Plates cooking game for a while now. Things are settling down at home with the new baby and it seemed a good time to start cooking and getting back to enjoying some new cuisines and new countries. This weekend, I had my Axis of Evil dinner planned with friends from Maryland coming down to dine with us. When Melissa mentioned she wouldn't mind coming over, I invited our new pal Andy to come too and decided what better time to pick a country and cook something than with extra mouths to feed? As great as 80 Plates has been, often times I wind up making A LOT of food, and it's nice when people are here to help eat it all up!

I went to the National Dish list I've been using as a research tool and perused through dozens of national dishes before I hit on a winner: Honduras's plato tipico. Translated into English as "typical dish", plato tipico is a favorite in restaurants in Honduras and consists of carneada (carne asada), chismol sauce, plantains, chorizo, cheese, tortillas, guacamole, and refried beans. Wikipedia says preparing the carne asada is typically a real social event, which seemed perfect for having friends over! Andy had never partaken of an 80 Plates meal and Melissa had only been privy to one (Switzerland back in February), so I was super excited that they would both be able to join us.

I did some recipe research and finally decided on 2 Alton Brown recipes, one for guacamole and one for plantains. I found a site with a recipe for chismol sauce and used that, and used a recipe from for the carne asada. I used store bought tortillas and refried beans, forgive me!

Ok, so task one was to make the marinade for the carne asada, as it has to marinate for a while. Everything I read about the dish said it should be marinated in sour orange juice, but this particular recipe called for lime juice. I decided to use the lime juice, but to substitute some orange juice for some of the vinegar in the recipe. (To me, all orange juice tastes sour, so I don't know if there's something special I needed, but I scoured the Latin American aisle of the grocery stores as well as the juice aisle and didn't find anything marked 'sour orange juice', so I went with the regular stuff.)

I decided to get daring this time and put my food processor to the test. For Honduras, I needed a LOT of lime juice and I get kind of tired of squeezing limes and lemons and getting just a bit of juice out of them. So I decided to take a crack at the juicer attachment. I have owned this food processor for more than 7 years--it was a wedding gift from my mom's best friend and her husband--and I swear it has never gotten such a workout as it has this year. But I've never messed with the attachments before. It has a slicer/shredder, plus the juicer, and a small bowl for smaller items. As you can see, the juicer leaves nothing behind but the skin of the fruit. I have never gotten so much juice from a couple of measly limes in my life. I was so impressed. The Pampered Chef has a nice little juicer that I might get for times I don't want to drag the processor out, but this was an awesome, awesome way to juice limes. And it took like 2 seconds. Plus, there's a little basket to catch the pulp, so it's even better!

Anyway, I digress. Since I had the food processor out, I decided to go ahead and make the marinade in it and save myself a lot of chopping and cutting. So I put in some garlic, jalapeno, cumin, salt, pepper, sugar, vinegar, and OJ and gave it a whirl.

Then came time for my favorite part: CILANTRO! As I've said in the past, cilantro is my favorite herb. And this recipe called for "one large handful of fresh cilantro, leaves and stems". Well, I wasn't going to turn that down! I added a very large handful and had lots of fun pulsing it down into something nice and green and gooey. And then I figured I was done and it was time to put it on the steak.

I rubbed it all over and put it in the fridge, but the whole time I was thinking, "This really isn't sticking very well." Then I re-read the recipe and noted that I had neglected to put any olive oil in the marinade! No wonder!! Well, there was no way to scrape all the marinade back into the processor, so I just dumped the oil on top of the steak and proceeded to re-massage the entire thing until it looked all green and happy.


The plantains and guacamole both had to be done much closer to time, so I held off on them and decided to make the chismol sauce. Chismol is basically a type of salsa made from onions, green peppers, tomatoes, lime juice, vinegar, and spices. The recipe called for "Honduran especias", so I combed the Latin American aisle at Wegman's and couldn't find it. I did find something called "Caribbean all purpose seasoning" and bought it. I figured it would be good enough, since the chismol recipe said we could use a blend of garlic powder, oregano, onion powder, and pepper. I cleaned out the food processor from the marinade and tossed everything into it for the chismol. Turned it on, let it run a while, and voila! Chismol sauce!

Melissa arrived right on schedule, which was helpful because by now, I had two executive chef assistants helping me out in the kitchen and they needed a little distracting. Melissa is one of those weirdos who like babies, so she was more than happy to keep them company and keep me company as well!

As it was getting down to go time, I was able to make the guacamole, which needed to sit for an hour. I trust Alton Brown implicitly, so I didn't give any thought to following his recipe and blithely dumped everything in a bowl. It was a very easy recipe to make, compared to some of his recipes I've seen him make on TV. (As you can see in the picture, my cilantro is looking significantly less leafy than it did when I started the day.) The recipe is pretty basic--you half the avocados and scoop out the pulp, which you then toss with some lime juice. Then you are supposed to drain the juice out and reserve, only I must have had some super absorbent avocados, because I had no juice left after the tossing.

I decided to do the cutting and dicing by hand of the tomato and onions and cilantro, just to get my hands on the food again, and it came out looking very nice, if I say so myself. My only slip up was that I did not seed the tomatoes as directed, so I had to dump the chunks back out and pick through them, removing all the seeds. Fortunatey I caught it before I put the tomatoes in the avocado.

You mash up the avocados, toss in some spices, and then add the tomatoes and onions and cilantro. Once all that is mixed, you add one more tablespoon of lime juice and voila! Guacamole! Unfortunately, I neglected to take a picture of the finished product, but you'll have to trust me, it looked great! We put the pit of one of the avocados in the bowl to prevent it from turning brown and unpalatable and put it on the table, which we were starting to get ready for the meal.

It was about this time I turned my attention to the store-bought accompaniments of the meal. I had a can of re-fried beans and I got out my handy dandy hands-free can opener. It has one button and is battery powered, you put it on the can, hit the button, and voila! It does all the work for you, kind of like an electric can opener, only smaller and no need to plug it in. Unfortunately, this was the day my handy dandy hands-free can opener would die. No sooner did I put it on the can and push the button than the batteries died. And we couldn't disengage the blade from the can opener to get it off the can. As you can see, my favorite brother-in-law Lucas has braced himself in an attempt to get the thing off the can and he could not, I couldn't, Melissa couldn't, and Judy couldn't. The reset button only works if the batteries are working and the battery door is where the blade is and you can't get it off when it's attached to a can. So finally, I looked at the bottom of the can and told Lucas to use my non-electric can opener to open the other end. Once he did, we got the beans out and threw the can and other can opener in the trash. Bummer! Another casualty in the kitchen!

We were getting close to go time, so I went ahead and fired up Vesuvius and then turned my attention to the plantains. Making plantains is a real labor of love for me. One of my top 5 most hated foods on the planet is bananas. Oh how I loathe bananas. I hate the smell, the taste, the texture. (The others would be licorice, coffee, most fish, and moldy cheeses.) But the research says I must have the plantains, so I was going to make them. I just had no intention of eating them. Unfortunately I found the recipe AFTER I bought the plantains and I should have used green plantains instead of yellow, but they were kind of greenish around the stem, so there.

Plantains are actually pretty easy to make. You slice them, fry them up, drain the oil off, mash them, soak them in water, re-fry them, and voila! Fried plantains!

Ok, so by now, Vesuvius was good and hot, I'd looked up how long to throw the steaks on for and for medium, it said 4 minutes per side. I also put on the chorizo, which was fully cooked and just needed reheating. My sister was insistent on 4 minutes per side and the Joy of Cooking seemed to back her up on this, so after 4 minutes, I brought in the meat. Everyone had helped out by setting the table and minding the baby, so I put the chorizo into a bowl, cut into the steak, and watched as it bled all over the tray and let out a mournful "Mooooooo!" Yeah, it was that rare. Ok, no problem, I told everyone we'd have a steak course, put it back on the grill (it was now pouring buckets outside), and we sat down to dine.

It really was a fun meal. Everyone passed around sausage and tortillas and all the fixin's and we made nice wraps of the food. The General declared the chorizo the best he's had outside Fall River, so I will have to go back to Wegmans and clear them out of it. In fact, everyone was in love with the stuff!!! It was delicious!

Soon enough, I pulled the steak off again and because it was raining so damned hard, I decided que sera sera, I wasn't cooking outside any more--I literally had to change because my clothes were sopping, dripping wet when I came back in. I sliced up the steak and put it on the table, but it was still awfully pink and we were all sizing each other up as to who was going to eat it. So despite Andy's suggestion that I microwave it, I got out the Foreman grill and finished it off that way and we all enjoyed it. Melissa is picky about beef, but I forcefed it to her any way. The chorizo was definitely the hit of the night though, and I think if I host a Honduran meal again, I will dispense with the beef and just buy a lot of chorizo and serve it. Everyone just wanted that and nothing else. Maybe I'll dispense with everything and just put a plate of sausage on the table and we can get in touch with our cavemen selves next time. It was that good!

Now, remember I said I trusted Alton on the guacamole and threw everything in willy nilly? As we were eating, someone mentioned that there was something really spicy that we were eating and we couldn't figure out what it was! I finally took a taste of each thing individually and it was the guacamole. I would suggest that if you are going to make it, you might want to eliminate the cayenne if you don't like spicy foods. Also, Melissa said the plantains were very good when they were fresh, but she took the leftovers home and said that when she tried to reheat them, they turned to mush. I wonder if using the green plantains would have made a difference in reheating.

So that's it! A great success, we loved this meal and it was a fun meal to eat with friends! Try it yourself and see :-)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Five Star Summer

This summer, I've been incredibly lucky to happen upon some amazing reading. I've read my usual favorites, sure, but I've discovered some new greats along the way.

Just last night, I finished Stuart McLean's Home from the Vinyl Cafe. I happened upon this at the library book sale and it sounded like something I would really enjoy. It's basically a secular Canadian version of Philip Gulley's Harmony series. This series of short stories chronicles the life of Dave, the owner of a small record store, his beleaguered wife Morley, their children Sam and Stephanie, and various family, friends and neighbors (One of my favorite characters is Dave's friend Kenny Wong who owns a Scottish emporium). The stories cover one year from winter to winter.

As I have often said in the past, it is the rare book that makes me laugh out loud, but this is one of those rare books that not only had me laughing, but had me actually crying from laughter. Dave is a lot like me--just a tad neurotic--and the story in which the blood pressure machine haunts him until he HAS to go and get his blood pressure checked, but he doesn't want anyone to see him or his numbers just totally resonated with me. The mayhem to follow was not only out of his worst nightmares but also my own.

The stories are also poignant--Dave realizes how much he loves the niece he thought he hated, Morley leaves Sam to the devices of a piano teacher she previously didn't think was good enough for him, Dave's love for a bird he feeds through the winter. This is a wonderful collection of stories and I am pleased to see there is another volume of stories from the Vinyl Cafe, although interestingly, they don't all involve Dave. I'll be checking that book out as soon as I can get it from PBS! (Ok, checking PBS, there are TWO more volumes of Vinyl Cafe stories--I've ordered them both!)

This summer I also finished Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!). Now, I'll be honest here, people, I never even really started Jon Stewart's book America. I skimmed through it when I bought it, I even chatted with Bob Schieffer about it at a book signing, but it's one of those things I never quite got around to reading. But I was determined to read Colbert's book because I waited so damned long to get the thing from PBS! The book is Colbert's entry into the world of literary political satire, and is much like his TV show, apparently, although I have only watched the Colbert Report once from start to finish (someone is probably going to come and demand to have my White Person ID card back now, right?). Anyway, according to Publisher's Weekly, if you want a real idea of what the book is about:

Realizing that it takes more than thirty minutes a night to fix everything that's destroying America, Colbert bravely takes on the forces aligned to destroy our country—whether they be terrorists, environmentalists, or Kashi brand breakfast cereals. His various targets include nature (I've never trusted the sea. What's it hiding under there?), the Hollywood Blacklist (I would have named enough names to fill the Moscow phone book), and atheists (Imagine going through life completely duped into thinking that there's no invisible, omniscient higher power guiding every action on Earth. It's just so arbitrary!).

The book is such smart humor, I couldn't read it fast enough. I read it while I was at my dad's house and despite being tired from caring for a baby and helping him out, I would stay up until I fell asleep on the book reading it. It was so, so entertaining and smart. The margin notes are great, the footnotes funny, and despite the fact I got my copy from PBS, all my stickers were in tact! HOORAY! Definitely a great, quick read.

My third great read of the summer was Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family. I don't want to get too much into this one, as it is a book club read and we're not discussing it for another few weeks, but I will say, it is a gripping read. The book covers the story of four young people living in the Bronx: Cesar and Jessica, a brother and sister swept into a life of crime, and their love interests Coco and George. LeBlanc followed them for more than ten years, going to detention centers, welfare offices, hospitals, homes, anywhere they went, she went. It got to be a joke as to whether or not she'd ever actually write the book and get it published, but she did and the results were spectacular. I have a lot of issues with the behavior of the people in the book, but the book itself was very, very well written and extraordinarily interesting. I'll have to leave it at that.

I've also spent a good portion of this summer trying to clear out some of the books on my to-be-read shelves, trying to determine if these are books I am actually going to read or if I'm just hanging on to them "just in case". As I was going through my fiction shelve, the first book I came to was Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. I didn't make it any further in cleaning off the shelf (the books are currently arranged alphabetically), because I read the first page and I was lost in the grip of the story of Melinda, a high school student who is her Syracuse NY high school's latest social pariah because she called the police to break up a summer party. No one knows the secret Melinda is hiding about why she broke up the party, and Melinda finds herself more and more unable to actually physically speak the more she hides her secret from her family and anyone in any position to possibly help her with anything. My father actually taught this book to his English class this past year and was raving about it, although he never actually told me the name of the book. After I read it, I called him and asked about it and he confirmed it was the same book. I would have loved to have sat in on some of the classes to hear the students who are the same age as the fictional Melinda talk about their opinions of the book. I bet it led to some fascinating discussion.

So, if you're looking for some good reads this year, there you have a couple of fiction and a couple of non-fiction to keep you going. I've read a lot more than I thought I would have time for this year, and I'm doing very well on the alphabet challenge and am up over 40 books on the year, which is exciting. I very much doubt I'll break 100 this year, but I might hit 75 which would be cool. Happy reading, everyone!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Dear Blog

Dear Blog,

Over the course of this year, you have worked miracles. I wanted a road trip to NJ, you got my dear friends to come with me. I wanted Mike and Lesley to come for another visit, their tickets are bought for September.

I just returned home clutching my MegaMillions tickets, Blog. If you could see your way fit to making me one of the winners, I'll use the money for good, I promise. I don't mind sharing with another winner somewhere in this country, $162.5 million is fine with me. I'll even smile when I pay Uncle Sam the taxes on it.

It sure would help us out, Blog, and I know you can do it if you put your mind to it.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Musical Memories

One of the funny things that has happened since becoming a parent is that my parents have felt free to tell me all their memories of when I was a baby. I have enjoyed hearing these stories although I find it a challenge to think of myself as a little baby--looking at Leah it seems impossible to think that I was once at her stage of development, was once her size.

One of the things that is apparently legend from my young days is my love of a John Denver song called "On the Road". My parents both sing the line "Go home, said the Man in the Moon, go home!" as if to jog some latent memory I might have of this song. Apparently it used to put me to sleep with some regularity. I have no memory of it.

However, something about John Denver must have stuck because to this day I like his gentle music and find it very soothing when I'm in a certain frame of mind. I play it for Leah once in a while and she seems to enjoy it too. Her particular favorite song, however, is "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" which is no doubt due to my passionate "WOO! THANK GOD I'M A COUNTRY BOY!" shout at the appropriate moment. Seriously, this sends her into fits of laughter. I joke that my daughter will probably be the one African-American woman in the country to love John Denver, but so be it.

Tonight I was cleaning the house and for some reason started thinking about this song and wondering what it was about and if my brain would remember it if I heard it again. Since it's not one of John Denver's most well known tunes, I googled the one line I've been sung over and over again. I found the title and went on Amazon and found the song and downloaded it.

Ok, that line? It's sung exactly 3 times during the entire song, which I had somehow fantasized was something about the actual man-in-the-moon, maybe the song was about a fairy tale type of thing, I dunno. In fact, it's not, it's about a wandering family and the impressionable young son who's on a trip with his dad.

It didn't jog anything in my brain, although I will say, my parents sing the line with great precision, just the way John Denver sings it. I think I'll be attached to it for sentimental reasons and it's nice to hear it. I look forward to playing it for Leah tomorrow.

Back in 1958, we drove an old V-8.
And when it gone a hundred 'thou, we got out and pushed it a mile.
We didn't know who we were, we didn't know what we did, we were just on the road.

Heading down from Canada on a gravel road a mile from Montana,
then my Daddy read a sign and took us in the wrong direction.
I asked my Daddy, where are we going? He said we'll just follow our nose.
So I looked out the window and dreamed I was a cowboy.
We didn't know who we were, we didn't know what we did, we were just on the road.

Met a girl in a truck cafe, fell in love almost right away,
then the Mercury was ready to go, and I had to leave her.
Shooby dooby doo sha doo, shooby dooby doo sha doo, shoo doo.

Go home, said the man in the moon, go home.
Go home, said the man in the moon, go home.
Because it's getting sort of late, and I'll soon turn out my light.
Go home, said the man in the moon, go home.
We didn't know who we were, we didn't know what we did, we were just on the road.
We didn't know who we were, we didn't know what we did, we were just on the road.

Monday, August 24, 2009

80 Plates: Good Dining, Vietnam!

So lately my impatient and not-so-impatient friends have been asking, "When are ya doin' another 80 Plates?!" Well, surprise, surprise, Michael and I did one before I left on my 3 week odyssey in the Northeast, I just never had time to post about it. I had wanted to do Vietnam back in June since my sister-in-law took a trip over there and we ribbed her just a little bit about eating fish guts and stuff, which I'm sure is not what they eat, but it was all in good fun and she took it well. (Speaking of which, P., what DID you eat in Vietnam?)

Anyway, after doing a little research, I discovered the Vietnamese dish banh mi. Banh mi is a popular sandwich in Vietnam which consists of a salad and a meat filling. It is often called a Saigon sub. There are banh mi shops all over Vietnam, apparently, or at least so says Wikipedia.

I wound up using Emeril's recipe from the Food Network site for my banh mi, but he does call it "Vietnamese-style" versus "Vietnamese" so I'm not sure how authentic it is. In any event, if you want to follow the recipe I used, you can visit it HERE. I'm not sure where we learned about banh mi, but I'm glad we did! Banh mi has a variety of filling, but we used pork. Some of the recipes we read called for things like "Vietnamese style bologna". First off, I'm not that crazy about bologna, but I wouldn't even know where to find Vietnamese style bologna--I did look at Wegman's, but no dice.

Because the pork tenderloin has to marinate overnight, it was the first thing I tackled. The marinade is a delicious combination of scallions, chili peppers, garlic, sugar, fish sauce (got to use up some more fish sauce, woo hoo!), black pepper, and lime juice. It's pretty simple and doesn't look like much, but it smells AMAZING. I was excited to put my pork in there and stick it in the fridge overnight. I knew it was going to be delicious!

The next day, I preheated the grill, brushed the pork with a little bit of vegetable oil, and tossed it on the 'coals', which of course I don't have since I have a gas grill!

While that was cooking away, it was time to focus on preparing my vegetable toppings for the banh mi. Traditional banh mi has a vegetable filling that consists of carrots, jalapenos, cucumbers, daikon, and cilantro. Emeril's recipe called for all that, but what the heck is daikon? I went to a couple of different stores looking for it and couldn't find it. At first I thought it must be some sort of cabbage, but I couldn't find it near the cabbage, then I suspected it might be like a radish, but I couldn't find it there either, and then I wondered if it wasn't like a root vegetable of some stripe, but I couldn't find it. So my banh mi didn't include daikon. If anyone wants to tell me a) what it is and b) where to find it, I will happily try it if I make this dish again!

The prep work here is pretty simple. You need to make a dressing for the vegetables and then prep the veggies. The dressing is a simple mixture of sugar, crushed red pepper, rice wine vinegar, and salt. You combine it in a saucepan and bring it to a boil until the sugar dissolves, then put it aside off the heat to cool. For this reason, I suggest waiting to do the vegetables until after you finish making the dressing.

Also, I neglected to read the directions. It would seem that you are supposed to put the carrots and daikon into a bowl and put the dressing over them. Well, by the time I got that far, I had done all the veggies and everything was all mixed together, so I didn't get the chance to follow that direction to a T. Oh well! After you combine the carrots, daikon and dressing, you're supposed to let it cool in the fridge for 30 minutes. Oh well! Sorry, Emeril! I didn't have that kind of time!

Meanwhile, I chopped up the carrots, cucumbers, seeded and chopped the jalapenos (I'm not good with a lot of heat in my food and I figured the crushed red peppers was good enough!), and lots of cilantro, which you know I love! I also sliced a nice French baguette in half so it was ready to go and poured the dressing over the veggies. Can you guess which half is mine and which half is Michael's?

By then, the pork was ready to come off the grill. If I do say so myself, I'm starting to master this grilling thing!

I decided to chop or shred the pork with my handy dandy Pampered Chef kitchen shears. I wanted it to be bite size and for us not to have to battle through it while we were trying to eat. I really love these shears because they do a great job chopping and shredding meat. Then I added the meat to the baguette and voila! We were ready to eat!

Then it was time for the ultimate taste test. As usual, the General took the ceremonial first bite. He was slightly underwhelmed, calling it 'dry'. I disagreed and thought it was great. I think he thought it was dry for 2 reasons: 1. He didn't have the salad with the dressing on his portion and 2. Banh mi is traditionally served with mayonnaise, which neither one of us likes. Consequently, he asked me to add some barbeque sauce to his sandwich. I decided to leave mine like it was, since I thought it was quite moist and flavorful.

This sandwich could easily serve four people for a very good lunch. Neither one of us finished our half of the sandwich. Good bread is essential to the success of a banh mi, however! We both really enjoyed this taste of Vietnam. It was not our favorite dish we've made as part of 80 plates, but it was up at the top of the middle of the pack, and nowhere near the bottom. I really, really liked the dressing and the salad part of it, I can't imagine just eating the meat! The flavors really came alive in my mouth, most definitely!

I am keeping hope alive that the Axis of Evil dinner will happen this weekend. That's my next 80 Plates adventure. I am also open to doing requests! If you have a country you'd like to see featured, drop me a comment and I'll do it!