Saturday, October 29, 2011

Un chicharrón

If you've ever heard of chicharrones before, you probably knew them as fried pork skin, or perhaps fried something else (I remember seeing chicharrones de camaron (deep-fried shrimp) in Peru, but I've never been too clear on what exactly defines a chicharrón). In Colombia, chicharrón can mean one of three things:
1. fried pork skin, one of the essential components of the bandeja paisa
2. a difficult, annoying, or laborious situation: Tengo que pasar todo los papeles al inglés para la beca, ¡qué chicharrón! I have to translate all my papers into English for the scholarship, what a chicharrón!
3. a flaky pastry filled with guava paste

If you know me at all (or, uh, looked at the photo at the beginning of the post), you've already guessed what's coming next (hint: it's not fried pork skin). I´m not generally a huge fan of Colombian sweet pastry because I find it too sweet, but as long as they are freshly baked, I will happily wolf down a chicharrón with my cafe con leche. The flaky pastry is unsweetened, the guava paste is fruity and sweet but not overwhelmingly so, and they're shaped to look like pork skin, always a big plus in my book.

Now, as far as I understand it, the typical recipe used in Colombia calls for shortening, which is understandable given how easily butter just puddles on your average día caleño (day in Cali). Making any recipe that calls for maintaining the butter cold can be extremely frustrating. Rio's not any better, really, but I'm stubborn and can't really abide by shortening instead of butter unless there is some really good reason for it, so butter it is. To no one's surprise, the butter tastes way better, and did I mention this was my first time making puff pastry? I was so proud, and I feel like such a wuss for not doing it until now. If you're like me (a wuss), know that it's really not as hard as you think it is, just, you know be good friends with your freezer, especially if you're in 90 degree weather. Once the puff pastry is done, all that's left to do is fold it over some guava paste, cut some notches so it looks like a pork rind, and sprinkle sugar on top. Really, you could make these with good-quality store-bought puff pastry and still have some lovely porky looking pastries for your coffee. She's a continent away, but I can tell you with total certainty that as she reads this, my mother is making faces. What, you don't want something that looks like traif for breakfast? What a chicharrón.

Chicharrón de Dulce (Guava Pastry)

This really is quite a simple recipe. It has two components: puff pastry and guava paste, both which can be made at home or bought. I made the puff pastry using this recipe, which I highly recommend, and ended up with enough dough for 20 pastries. Whatever route you choose to go (homemade, premade), you will need around one pound of puff pastry dough to make a batch of 8 pastries.

Guava paste can be found in Latin markets or the "ethnic foods" section of many supermarkets; Goya is a common brand. You can make guava paste, too, but unless you have access to fresh guavas and want a project, I'd just go with the store-bought paste, which is generally good quality. For each pastry, you will need a thin slice of guava paste, about 1/4 oz. 

You will also need a bit of water to seal the pastries and sugar for sprinkling.

Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Take out the cold puff pastry from the fridge (if it was in the freezer let it defrost in the fridge so that it's workable). Cut your pastry into strips about 3 in. wide and 12 in. long. Cut thin strips of guava paste and arrange them so they make a long line down the center of the pastry strip. You'll need about 1 oz. per 3 in. x 12 in. strip of puff pastry, but don't worry so much about the quantity, you just want a thin strip.

Lightly paint one of the long edges of the strip with water, then fold the pastry over the guava, forming a long roll. Press lightly to seal the edges. Cut the roll into pastries 3 in. long, then cut notches into the side that was sealed about a third of the way in. Use your fingers to open up the notches a bit, fanning them out. 

Place them on a baking sheet, then sprinkle the top of each pastry generously with sugar. Bake until well risen and golden at the edges. If the bottoms begin to color too much but the pastry still looks raws (translucent and wet with butter instead of flaky), turn down the heat to 350ºF and continue to bake until the pastry is done. Remove from the oven and let cool on a rack.

These are really best fresh, but the formed pastries can be kept, unbaked and well-covered, in the fridge for a couple of days, or they can be stored in the freezer for longer periods of time. When you're ready to bake them, defrost them first in the fridge, and you will probably need the extra baking time at a lower temperature for them to bake all the way through.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

For whatever reason, I've been on a huge eggplant kick lately. I don't really understand seasons in Brazil yet but I doubt they are to blame in this case (spring eggplant?). What I can tell you is that one of the best things I've made, and possibly eaten, in quite awhile is peanut-stuffed eggplant. I had bookmarked this recipe from Mark Bittman's website ages ago and it caught my attention scrolling through the other day. I've had and enjoyed stuffed okra in the past (I come down squarely on the side of people who love okra) but had never thought much about stuffing other vegetables (and oh boy do I hate stuffed peppers. This is the stuff that nightmares of vegetarian food are made of.) Perhaps peanuts don't sound like the natural choice for an eggplant stuffing, to which I say, to quote the Baltimore tourism department: BELIEVE. (Silly but not as far a reach as the slogan they had for awhile, "Baltimore: the greatest city in America". Sorry, guys, but the rest of American is going to have to politely disagree.) Slogans aside, this eggplant is luscious, delicious stuff, suitable in my opinion even for eggplant haters and vegetarian food-averse carnivores.

Another discovery that I'm quite pleased about is that one of my favorite salsa songs, a total classic, is actually a Brazilian standard. Check it out: Usted Abuso (awesome version from the late 70's-- hipsters galore)- Você Abusou (there are about a million versions from different singers, this is a well-known one). I'm no expert on musical genealogy-- I only realized way after the 90's were over (let's been honest, this year) that Coolio was riffing on Stevie Wonder. But it's still cool to figure these things out. Not so cool but definitely sobering? Studying Portuguese alongside a native Spanish speaker: as decent as my Spanish is in a day-to-day context, I can't tell you how many times Felipe understands something in Portuguese because it's an archaic word in Spanish that "no one ever uses". I can't deny that the process is pretty fascinating, though, and I love the way that our networks of knowledge networks become more and more complex, building on each other and allowing new connections to be made. Ok, I sound like a brochure for a language learning camp in Siberia. Enough is enough. I'm giving you eggplant, eggplant that lives up to it's potential (which is what happens when you believe, duh) and I'll even spare you the truly inane slogans swirling around my head. Fair? Fair.

Peanut-Stuffed Eggplant
    adapted from Ruta Kahate

1/3 c. unsalted roasted peanuts
1 Tbsp. brown sugar (or natural sugar)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. turmeric
small pinch red pepper flakes or chili pepper
1 clove garlic, smashed with the side of a knife and finely chopped
2 Tbsp. cilantro leaves, finely chopped
3 small Italian or Japanese eggplants (or 4 small Indian ones if you can find them)
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

Blitz the peanuts together with the sugar, salt, turmeric and red pepper flakes in a small food processor until you have a crumbly texture. Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and stir in the garlic, cilantro, and about a teaspoon of water, just to wetten the mixture a bit.
Tear the green flaps from the caps of the eggplant. Make a vertical cut, halving the eggplant but leaving the cap intact. Now rotate the eggplant 90 degrees and make another vertical cut up to the cap, leaving you with four more or less equal section that are still connected to the cap. Use your fingers to stuff the eggplant with the peanut mixture, making sure that each section has filling in it. Gently squeeze the eggplant together so that the filling stays in.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat and add in the oil once it's hot. Add in the eggplants, laying them on their sides. Fry for 3 to 4 minutes, turning them frequently, just to brown them a bit. Try to be gentle when you turn them but don't worry too much about some filling spilling out (it will). Add 1/4 cup of water, cover the skillet, and turn the heat to low. Cook for 10 min., then gently turn each eggplant. Cook for another 5 to 10 min., until the eggplant is tender. Stick a knife in to check. If the pan is dry and the eggplant isn't done, add a splash of water and continue to cook, covered, until it is. Serve warm.
We ate this with a bright pink beet-bulgur pilaf, and I think it would go nicely with any rice or grain-based dish, or even roast, spiced potatoes.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Rolos en Rio

Rio's in the midst of its annual film festival, and luckily for me the tiny little theater from my neighborhood is participating. It only has 40 seats, and last night when we went they raffled off 2 loaves of whole grain bread (?), which took a good 15 minutes and lots of bobadas (silly, nonsensical commentaries). They were showing a Colombian film called Karen Llora en un Bus (Karen Cries on a Bus) that to be perfectly honest hadn't interested me all that much from the trailer (it was one of those trailers where after seeing it you have zero idea what the movie is going to be about), but some Colombian friends were going so we figured why not.

Though it wasn't a movie I would necessarily see over and over again, I thought it was well worth it, and a particularly good example of the type of conservatism found in Colombia. The movie's about a rola (from Bogota) housewife named Karen who decides to leave her marriage. When she goes to her mother's house, her mother asks, did he beat you or cheat on you?  When the answer is no, the mother calls the husband to come and tells her daughter that she needs to be with him. What I most liked about the movie were the small details that were right on-- the utter horror at having to live in a scummy house with cockroaches (I'm not saying that anyone likes that, but Colombians really don't do bugs or grime), the mother's immaculate house with dust ruffles for the kitchen appliances, Karen's shame at having small breasts. Last time I was in Bogota I stayed with friends who live just a couple of blocks away from her apartment in the movie. Like with most movies, it would be really easy to write off the particular situation as outdated or uncommon, but I can tell you that a close friend of mine went through a very similar situation, and I don't think her experience was at all unusual. Though divorce has become quite common, it's still looked down upon and the women are generally blamed for it no matter what the circumstances.

The best part of the movie last night for me was when Karen begins to see another man, and he quickly asks her to move with him to Argentina, where he will support her. She agrees, but then he asks her to pass him his suit jacket (which is the same thing they had shown her husband doing) and everyone in the theater yelled "Ooooooooo" and then burst out laughing at the collective reaction. Well done, movie. Now if only the film festival had included themed food (and before you roll your eyes, check this out)...

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Sem bondinho

About a month ago, the trolley that served as both a tourist attraction and affordable local transportation to our neighborhood crashed and killed 5 people. Footage from the aftermath can be seen here. Fingers have been pointed all around, there have been lots of protests, and for now the trolley service has been suspended. 

We're still without the trolley! But the metro is coming!!! Guimarães Station, Future Installations

We live on a hill. The metro is not coming. The trolley was basically free (it cost around .40, assuming you actually paid instead of hanging off the side), while the buses cost around $2, an enormous difference. Brazilian humor...

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Qué comen los vegetarianos #7

Collard greens and potato hash with eggs and harissa

Picadillo de couve (parecido a la acelga) y papa con huevos y harissa 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

An education

I think I freaked my parents out a little bit with my last post, which was not at all my intention. To set the record straight and lighten things up around here: things really are getting easier, each day I understand a little bit more of what people are saying, and I've been having quite a good time in the meantime.

One huge contributing factor is that Brazilians are the nicest people ever. Really. People have walked blocks out of their way to help me find buses, offered me fruit from their bags when I said I was hot (in case you´re thirsty...), given me rides to the other side of university campuses and invited me to lunch. It's both amazing and also makes me feel like a horrible person. I can't imagine what Brazilians must think of the rest of the world when they leave Brazil. The difference is really that remarkable. 

Certain people around here also had their birthday. Skillet tres leches cake=success.

I was also lucky enough to be invited to one of my roommate´s grandmother´s house for Sunday lunch, which I was psyched about because it was the first time I was going to eat Brazilian home cooking. My roommate had asked her to make rabada, a specialty of Rio made from the cow´s tail (yum?). In true grandmother fashion, she prepared enough food to feed a small army-- not only the rabada, which was delicious and served with potatoes and greens, but also black beans with sausage, rice, farofa (more on this some other time), stuffed pork, fried yuca, and a huge salad with cheese and quail eggs. I ate non-stop for more than an hour, trying my best to communicate in portuñol and enjoying eating family style for the first time since I moved here. For dessert we had a layered cream and ladyfinger dessert called pave along with an upside-down cake I had brought. How exactly anyone had room for dessert remains a mystery, but we pulled through, and then after coffee our hostess was disappointed that no one wanted a second round of the savory stuff. When she offered to send us home with some leftovers we readily agreed, and she sent us home with-- I kid you not-- enough food to last until mid week.

The upside-down cake I brought was mango-vanilla, which worked out nicely, but my favorite kind of upside-down cake involves a batter laced with fresh ginger. I had wanted to bring the ginger version but was afraid it was too out there (as far as I can tell ginger cakes are unheard of in Brazil), though I really doubt it would have been a problem. As far as the fruit, I´ve used apples, pears, pineapple, mango and even kumquats in the past. Kumquats are especially eye-catching (especially if you serve them to people who have never seen them before! Then you can make up stories about how the oranges got so small), and give the topping a really nice citrus-y bitterness.

The last time I made the ginger version, I used pineapple and served it on my boyfriend´s mother´s amazing plastic cake plates, so we ended up with a cake that looked straight out of a 1950's magazine, minus the maraschino cherries (we didn´t miss them). I also didn't go for the pineapple rings because I like more pineapple coverage for each piece of cake.

Sometimes I get asked what my favorite thing to make is, and my exceedingly annoying answer has now for awhile been, well it depends what country I´m in. Which is true, because depending on the weather, depending on what´s available, and depending on what´s typical, my desires and habits change. I do think cooking provides some kind of anchor, though, as well as a bridge to wherever I am. I´ve made upside-down cakes in Argentina, in Colombia, and now in Brazil, with whatever fruit is around, but I like that it´s a classically American dessert. Some things change, some things stay the same, we are where we are.

Words to live by: Please do not shit or pee in this area. Thank you. Education generates education.

Ginger Upside-Down Cake

For the topping:
2 Tbsp. (1 oz.) unsalted butter
1/4 c. brown sugar
1/2 ripe pineapple, peeled and cored

In a 9- or 10-in. cast-iron skillet melt the butter and brown sugar together over low heat, stirring, until melted and caramel-y. Turn off the heat. Cut your pineapple into slices 1 in. thick, then place them anyway you like in one layer over the caramel. You can arrange the slices so they all aim towards the center, or fan them out. It will look nice no matter what you do ("rustic"). Set aside and make the batter.

For the batter:
4 oz. unsalted butter, room temperature
scant 1/2 c. brown sugar
1 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger
2 eggs
1/3 c. molasses
1.5 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 c. buttermilk (or milk soured with 2 tsp. of white or apple cider vinegar)

Preheat the oven to 325ºF. 
Cream the butter with the brown sugar until smooth. Add in the ginger and beat well, then add in the eggs one at a time, beating for a minute after each addition. Add in the molasses slowly, beating well. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together into a separate bowl. Add in a third of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, fold in to incorporate, then add in half of the buttermilk and stir to incorporate. Repeat with the flour, then buttermilk, then the remaining flour. Don´t overmix. Pour the batter over the fruit. Bake until the cake springs back if you touch it lightly, 30-40 min. Being careful of the hot pan, run a knife around the outside of the cake. Place your serving plate face down over the cake, then quickly turn the pan upside down so that the cake slides out onto the plate. If any pieces of fruit stick to the bottom of the skillet, just put them back into the spaces they fell out of from the cake, no one will know the difference.

Torta Volteada de Gengibre

Para la parte de arriba:
30 g. de mantequilla sin sal
1/4 taza de azúcar rubia (morena)
1/2 piña madura, pelada y con el corazon sacado (o cualquier otra fruta que quieras)
una pizquita de sal

En un sarten de hierro fundido de 23 cm., derrite la mantequilla y el azúcar juntos sobre fuego bajo, revolviendo, hasta que estén bien mezclados. Apaga el fuego. Corta la piña en tajadas de 2-3 cm., después colocalas sobre el caramelo en una capa sola. Puedes arreglar las tajadas como quieras, va a lucir bien igual. Dejala y haz la masa.

Para la masa:
115 g. (4 oz.) mantequilla sin sal, a la temperatura ambiente 
1/2 taza pequeña de azúcar rubia (morena) 
1 cucharada de gengibre fresco rallado
2 huevos
1/3 taza de melado
1.5 taza de harina de trigo (tipo 000)
3/4 cucharita de polvo de hornear
3/4 cucharita de bicarbonato de soda
1/4 cucharita de sal
3/4 taza de suero de leche (o leche cortada con 2 cucharitas de vinagre de vino o vinagre de manzana)

Precaliente el horno a 160ºC. 
Mezcla la mantequilla con el azúcar hasta que estén bien incorporados y la masa está más aireada. Echale el gengibre y revuelve bien, después echa los huevos de a uno, revolviendo por un minuto después de cada uno. Agrega el melado despacio, batiendo bien. Tamiza la harina, polvo de hornear, bicarbonato de soda y sal a otro bol. Echa un tercio de la harina a la mezcla de mantequilla y mezcla ligeramente para incorporarla, después echa la mitad del suero de leche y revuelve para incorporarla. Repite con más harina, después el suero, y después la harina que queda, mezclando con cada adición. No la mezcles demasiado, solo para incorporar. Echa la masa sobre la fruta en el sarten. Horne hasta que un cuchillo metido al centro salga sin masa. Teniendo mucho cuidado con el sarten caliente, mete un cuchillo por el perimetro del recipiente para asegurarte que salga fácilmente. Pon un plato, encima del sarten y voltea la torta sobre el plato de modo tal que la fruta, que no era visible mientras la torta estaba en el sarten, queda ahora visible. La torta debería salir del sarten sin problema. Sí te quedan pedacitos pegados al fondo de fruta, simplemente recolocalos encima de la torta.