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BIG BANANAS I HAVE KNOWN

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There’s just no way you can discuss bananas – especially a banana sometimes called Macho –  without heading straight into the gutter, yaknowwhatImean? So go ahead and snigger away. I’ll wait.

I don’t like bananas much. I did when I was a kid, I guess, because I do have faint memories of peeling and eating them, but somewhere along the way I started to dislike them. I think it’s the smell: like Play-Doh, which I really cannot stand the smell of (I couldn’t bear it when I was a kid either). I know bananas are good for you and all that, but I Just. Don’t. Like. Them. If I am in a social situation where there is no getting around them, I will of course choke them down with no fanfare, but I don’t go out of my way to say, “Oh yes, more, please!”

About 20 years ago there was a restaurant here called The Flamingo (I think) which I liked very much. Apparently I was one of the few people who did like it ’cause it went out of business fairly fast, but I ordered some Thai prawns which came with fried bananas, and I thought they were really good. I don’t remember now if they had sauce on them or were just fried or what, but I assume they were plantains because they didn’t have that Godawful banana smell.

Now if you are in the produce section of the supermarket, you might see the big display of bananas, and then a much smaller display of plantains. They look more or less the same, but the plantains cost twice as much and are usually bigger. You might have bought one and taken it home to eat it, and been so horrified that you spit it out and threw the rest away. Plantains gotta be cooked.

So one day my husband goes grocery shopping and comes home with a plantain because I had said I liked fried plantains. Now I’ve got to put up or shut up, so I did some fast research. Turns out you can cook them when they’re green and make tostones, or wait until they’re ripe and make fried bananas. This one was not green any more but had not reached the blackened ripe stage, so I waited about a week and dove in.

I removed the black peel, sliced the plantain about 1/3″ thick, and heated some butter in a frying pan. I fried the slices until they were lightly browned on each side, put them on a plate and lightly salted them, and served them up. They were really quite good: a vague banana taste, caramelized exterior, creamy interior. Yum! A new addition to the food line-up.

From there I decided to make tostones. I had read that they are hugely popular in Cuba, Latin America, and the Caribbean, but I didn’t know anyone from there to guide me, so I winged it.

Below: green plantains and slightly riper plantains. Green are what you want for tostones.

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The green plantains are a bitch to peel. They make plantain peelers, and if you Google that phrase you will come across a surprising array of  weird diagrams that look like instructions from The Joy of Plantains and a lot of  phallic images and devices you will use once or twice and then throw into a drawer until it becomes a yard sale item.  Here’s what you do.

Make half a dozen lengthwise cuts in the peel – which will feel rather crisp as you slice – all the way to but not into the fruit, all around the plantain, and if you want, cut off the ends too.

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Then soak the plantains in hot water for 20-30 minutes.

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They’ll peel a lot easier.

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Cut the plantain into slices 1/2″ to 1″ thick.

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Heat some vegetable oil in a frying pan; when it’s hot-but-not-smoking, carefully slide in the plantains.

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Turn them over to lightly brown each side, then remove to paper towels.

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So now here comes the part I don’t understand: Who was it that said, “Hey – I bet if we sliced these machos, then fried them, then took them out and smashed the shit out of them and then fried them again, they’d be good!” Who thought of that that? But that is what you do. Smash those fried bananas. If you Google “plantain masher” you will come up with a lot of folding devices that are going to join the plantain peelers on the yard sale table.

Just take a coffee mug or a drinking glass – or your fist – and mash them suckers.

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And fry them again.

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Remove them to more paper towels, sprinkle with salt, and serve.

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You’re supposed to serve them as a dipper with salsa, so I’d suggest you do that. But I have to confess: I wasn’t all that crazy about them. They’re quite starchy and bland, though the crunchy texture is nice. I can see how if you grew up eating tostones, you’d love them, but I probably wouldn’t make them again unless I was feeding Cubans.

The rest of the story:

We had a couple of plantains ripening on the counter, waiting for me to fry them up and caramelize them. Then The Dark Angel of High Cholesterol struck. One of us got a call from His doctor with a Lipitor prescription waiting in the wings. One of us did some fast talking and bought a month’s time to try to bring His cholesterol level down by diet.  Buh-bye frying.

The other night my husband barbecued some chicken and some corn on the cob, but there were still some hot coals left. I tossed the two ripened plantains onto the grill and moved them around now and then for about eight minutes, then wrapped them in foil and let them calm down.  We ate them with dinner, just pulling the peels off. Though they lacked that lovely crispy edge, they had that great brown-sugar taste. We can have our fried bananas after all – just roasted without the oils. They’d make a great banana split for dessert, or just serve alongside the rest of the barbecue.

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AMSTERDAM FOOD, PART 3

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So, you know, pancakes. There are a number of pancake houses in Amsterdam. The most famous – or infamous, depending on your point of view – might be the Upstairs Pancake House that inspired the Beastie Boys to write, “When I’m in Holland, I eat the pannekoeken.” We walked past it once but haven’t eaten there. We really like Sara’s Pancake House on Rozengracht.

Banana and pineapple pancake.

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Blueberry pancake. You might notice that Dutch pancakes are similar to French crepes.

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If we are out late – say, listening to music at a club – our favorite thing to do afterwards is find a Vlaamse frites stand. Vlaamse frites is kind of a bastardized phrase – frites is French for fries and Vlaamse is Dutch for Flemish. Belgium makes the best French fries in the world and these are the Dutch version. What makes them so good? When you order your fries, you’ll see a gigantic container behind the counter holding a lot of French fries. The counterman scoops up a portion of fries from that container and fries them again. You might think that makes them unbelievably oily, but no, they turn out so crisp and delicious you can never go back to American fries without whining a little.

The standard topping is mayonnaise – which is slightly sweeter and goopier than Best Foods – and chopped onions. You can also get curry sauce, green sauce, aioli, and several other sauces you might not associate with French fries. I once ordered the sate (peanut) sauce and while it was not bad, I feel that I never have to order that again. Peanut sauce + French fries = mouth full of starch that felt like wet drywall. Maybe it’s a Dutch thing.

Vlammse frites also make a good breakfast.  You will need at least two Wet Wipes to clean your hands afterwards.

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Amsterdam also has the best ice cream in the world. There is a small chain called IJscuypje, which is pronounced close to ice-cowp – meaning ice cream in a cup.  The fruit flavors taste like that fruit. The creamy flavors are rich without being sticky or too sweet. There is always a line out the door. We hit them at least half a dozen times.

Below, blood orange.

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Top one, below, is pistachio (my husband’s favorite) and I think the bottom one was names after a type of Dutch cookie that I can’t remember the name of.

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I think this one was rum raisin.

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There is a little Italian restaurant on Rozengracht – kitty-corner from Westerkerk – called Venezia del Nord. I ate there many years ago when I came to Amsterdam by myself and we still are eating there.

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Tomato salad with garlic bread. The “bread” is really just refrigerator biscuits but the garlic butter is heavenly.

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Spaghetti carbonara. LOVE.

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Stracciatella soup. You know egg drop soup? Imagine egg drop soup if a Roman made it with Parmesan cheese instead of soy sauce.

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Spaghetti with marinara.

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Tagliatelle with salmon. God, do I love this.

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One day I really wanted fish and chips for lunch. There are a number of Irish pubs in Amsterdam that serve it, but do you think I could find one? Nope, we just wandered around getting tired and hungry. But we did pass a brewery, Brouwerij de Prael, and then doubled back to step inside.  The lady in the museum part gave us discount coupons toward beer served in their restaurant, which was around the corner in an alleyway. They served fish and chips.

We were seated near two Dutch salesmen who ordered a sampler of beers. I tried to be really sneaky and take a picture.

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But I wasn’t too successful. Pretty soon they sent over their tray of beef tartare meatballs with caramelized onions. I like raw beef, and I trust the Dutch food safety people, so I happily ate them. My husband was less enthusiastic (or more suspicious of raw beef), but he did like the onions. Pretty soon the two guys gave us the beer they couldn’t drink (they were driving) and we took that too.

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So we ordered food. My husband got these (cooked) meatballs which were excellent

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plus this dark bread with garlic butter and tapenade.

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And me – I got the fish and chips. Some of the best fish I ever had. I don’t know what kind it was – and even if they had told me, it might have been something you can’t get in the US, or the translation might not have made sense. But it was really good.

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Years ago when I stayed in small hotels, the breakfasts served were simple but very different from American breakfasts. Rusks, thin slices of cheese and ham, a soft-boiled egg, toast. There are many places now where you can get more elaborate breakfasts – called American breakfast or English or Australian. Our favorite place is La Grotte on Haarlemmerstraat.

An uitsmeijter (out-smiter) is fried eggs on toast, topped with cheese and possibly meat. All the ingredients are so good that it tastes better than what you could make at home.

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La Grotte understand American-style pancakes.

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Amsterdam is a very diverse city. The neighborhood we stayed in has large populations from Iran, Turkey, Brazil, Egypt, Suriname, India, Iraq, etc. There were many places serving Middle Eastern food, which is good because we are huge fans of it. There was a tiny cafe around the corner from our apartment called Lissabon (dutch for Lisbon) and we happened into it because they were open late one night.

The lamb sandwich on Turkish pita with yogurt sauce and hot sauce was so good it brought tears to our eyes, and not just from the hot sauce.

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I don’t know what the stuffed red bell pepper had in it, but I would sure like to find out. Bulgar wheat, I guess, and maybe ground lamb, but the rest is a mystery forever because I don’t speak Turkish or Dutch and the staff barely spoke English.

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We ordered this by accident or by miscommunication. What we really wanted was just the eggplant, but what we got was a plateful that included rice, potatoes, a kind of vegetable stew that was poured over, plus the eggplant. It was so good we ordered it deliberately another time.

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The Turkish pizza, though – that might have been the best of all. It was on lavosh (I think) bread, rolled up with lamb, tomatoes, lettuce, yogurt and onions, and somehow heated or crisped or something.

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We didn’t buy anything at Jordino on this trip, but I have in the past. Their chocolates are some of the best anywhere, and incredibly inventive.

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Lastly – Perel white beer it Cafe Soundgarden, a place Anthony Bourdain says is “pretty relaxing” and can be accessed by boat if you so choose.

Here is a tip from me: do not order a cocktail in Europe unless you are somewhere like The American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London or Harry’s Bar in Venice or The Ritz in Paris. Order beer, wine, or shots. Otherwise, you will be throwing your money away on something undrinkable, as I have many times in the past. Europe, I love you, but you don’t know how to make a cocktail. The exceptions I listed will charge you more money than you thought possible, but the cocktail will be exceptionally good, plus the American Bar brings you silver dishes full of olives, potato chips, and almonds, so that kind of makes up for the $25  plus VAT you’ll spend on one drink.

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AMSTERDAM FOOD, PART 2

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Like I said before, there is a lot of fine food in the Netherlands, and a lot of it can be had at the farmer’s markets.

Chicken and poultry, whole birds, parts, seasoned – all kinds.

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Fish – some I recognized, some I didn’t.

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Whole smoked fish is widely available.

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There’s an amazing variety of olives, pickled vegetables, and prepared appetizers & snacks.

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What you don’t see much of is red meat, like beef or pork, unless it’s made into sausages.

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I had never seen so many types of mushrooms.

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Of course there are produce sellers.

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but the breads really got our attention. You see the Berlinerbol? When John F. Kennedy made his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, what he didn’t know was that slang term. So he really said, “I am a jelly doughnut.”

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and pastas.

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I’d like to point out that despite this No Carb Left Behind culture of eating, I did not see anyone worried about gaining weight (I never subscribed to that low-carb crapola anyway).

If you get hungry while shopping, there are booths selling crepes (made as you wait), poffertjes (a kind of tiny, fluffy pancake), fresh-squeezed orange juice, and cups of fresh fruit.  At Westermarkt, two cheerful, lively men singing “Rocky Raccoon” dish up cassoulet, split pea soup, and sandwiches of ham or sausage from the biggest frying pan you’ve ever seen.

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Elsewhere, a serious man with a scalpel slices proscuitto off the leg to make sandwiches.

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So did we just look, or did we actually eat any of this? Hell yes, we ate it. Not all of it, but we tried.

Below, a spread from the Ten Katemarkt near our apartment – clockwise from top: Turkish pita from a Turkish bakery, resting on a baguette; French emmenthaler; cippolina (pickled onions); roasted eggplant on hummus; a type of crisp green olive that I have forgotten the name of; garlicky hummus with cumin; tzatziki;  in the center: peppadews (South African pickled sweet cherry peppers, filled with some kind of cheese that was like creamy love).

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More later on eating in Amsterdam!

EATING IN EUROPE: AMSTERDAM

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Well my goodness gracious Ethel, it looks like it’s been about six weeks since I updated this blog! But that’s not for lack of cooking… I was  on vacation in Amsterdam, and then recovering at home from jet lag. My husband and I have discovered that the best of Amsterdam isn’t to be found in expensive eateries (though I am sure the food there is good), but in farmer’s markets and small independently owned restaurants.

Every day (except maybe Sunday) there are at least two or three or more street markets somewhere in the city, and the range and variety and quality of food simply cannot be beat.

From a little place called Gary’s Deli in the Oud West section on Kinkerstraat – blueberry pancakes, light and fluffy.

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My husband got the plain pancakes (they also make banana & walnut pancakes).

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There is a very small chain of restaurants called Burgermeester. They source their beef from one breed of cattle (Blonde d’aquitaine). They don’t serve fries because the owner doesn’t like the smell of cooking oil. But they make incredible hamburgers and innovative burgers and sides not seen in the US. Below is a Merguez (spicy lamb sausage) burger with yogurt, fried onions, and sauteed red bell peppers.

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A trio of mini-burgers: a Manchego (salty dry Spanish cheese) burger with pear-guava compote), a falafel burger with green peppers, green olive tapenade, and a portobello, and a lamb burger (locally raised lamb) with chorizo and Jalapenos.

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Baked potatoes are usually eaten because they take up space on the plate, but the baked potato at Burgermeester is worth it all by itself. They use Dutch yellow potatoes and creme fraiche. They’re amazing.

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We visited Burgermeester twice, and could have easily gone back several more times. Below is a tuna burger with Chinese broccoli and ginger mayonnaise, which resembles a tuna melt the same way a filet mignon resembles a Big Mac.

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Below, the Spanish lamb burger with red onion compote.

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Grilled corn and their potato salad that knocks American potato salad on its ass: potatoes with carrots, apples, basil, and more creme fraiche.

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Okay, we didn’t eat at Burgermeester all the time. We went to cheese shops too. Below are two photos from Kaasland.DSCN0627

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The cheese shops and many bakeries sell something just called Cheese sticks. Puff pastry baked with Parmesan cheese,

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I promise you: after you have eaten cheese as it is meant to be eaten – rich full-fat cheese, young and oozing milk or so aged that salt crystals have formed – you can never go back to Kraft singles.

More on Amsterdam food in another post!

NOCHEBUENA IN FEBRUARY

Every December I host what I call “dinner with a Christmas tree” – a dinner party for about a dozen guests. While the Christmas lights twinkle in the corner and the fire burns in the wood stove, we enjoy festive appetizers, good wine, and a special dinner.  I give a great deal of thought to what will be served, and try to come up with dishes that might not be familiar to many Americans. Over the years I have made cassoulet with sausages and duck, choucroute with fresh sauerkraut and ham hocks, Jewish-style brisket of beef with latkes, cioppino, and sometimes less exotic mains like beef roasts, Cornish game hens, and whatever else seemed appealing.

For the party in December 2011, I was planning nochebuena. Nochebuena – the Good Night – is what Latin Americans call Christmas Eve; according to chef Norman Van Aken, the traditional Cuban Christmas Eve dish is a marinated pork roast.

Two pork roasts had been purchased and were cooling their heels in my refrigerator when, one week before the dinner, I was struck with cluster headaches. If you’ve never had one, I hope you never get one. It is by far the most painful thing I have ever experienced and it completely incapacitated me. The headaches waned now and then; not yet fully aware of how disabled I was or how long this would go on, I forged ahead during my lucid moments and put together the marinade, poured it over the pork in a giant plastic bag, and optimistically planned for the dinner.

I was also planning a Julia Child cake, made with layers of baked meringue and a gooey, boozy apricot filling. The layers got made but the cake was never assembled.

Crippled with pain, the day before the dinner I called my most trusted, bestest gay boyfriend and asked him to please call the other guests and tell them the dinner was cancelled. I stuck the pork, marinade, plastic bag and all, in the freezer.  Time passed just because it always does. There was a trip to the emergency room and a cat scan and a lot of morphine. Christmas came and went. Eventually I got better.

Fast forward to last night, February 7. It was high time to deal with that frozen pig, for better or worse, so I separated the two roasts, put one back in the freezer, and cooked the other. It was divine. The two months of marinating in a winter wonderland had not hurt it at all. My husband pronounced it the best roast pork I had ever made, especially the cracklings.

So here is the somewhat amended recipe from New World Kitchen by Norman Van Aken, plus a few notes about what I did with it.

NOCHEBUENA

  • 1 5-6 pound boneless pork roast
  • 3/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 fresh orange juice
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted in a dry frying pan, then ground
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 5-6 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced

Put the pork in a large and sturdy plastic bag. Whisk all other ingredients together, pour into the bag, and kind of smoosh the marinade all over the pork. Refrigerate for at least 2 days and up to 4 days, turning the bag occasionally.

Put the roast in a large roasting pan; discard the marinade.  Roast at 350 for 25-30 minutes per pound, until pork is practically falling apart. Remove from oven and cover with foil for 20 minutes. Carve and serve.

Now, then: I had about two cups homemade chicken stock which I poured into the pan around the meat along with 4 bay leaves. After 2 hours, I sliced about six unpeeled Russet potatoes and pushed those into the stock. After another hour, I drained two cans of cannelini (white kidney beans) and poured those in too, along with several spoonfuls of minced garlic from a jar, plenty of freshly ground black pepper, and a good hefty sprinkle of dried basil.

After another hour I took the pork out of the pan and let it sit on a plate, covered. If I had been thinking, I would have removed the fat cap – the cracklings – and returned that to the oven for another ten minutes or so, but I didn’t.

When we were ready to eat, I tore up some fresh basil and sprinkled that over the beans & potatoes in the pan. The pork didn’t carve so much as just fell apart. We had that along with steamed broccoli and sweet & sour red cabbage with cloves and aniseed. It was wonderful.  The cracklings were like crack.

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