Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ecuador - Quimbolitos and Coffee


Ecuador straddles the equator on the west coast of South America. Its major regions are the coastal lowlands, the Andes mountains, the Amazon, and the Galapagos Islands. The cuisine of the lowlands is heavier in seafood with lots of ceviche. The mountain regions tend to have more grains and farmed meats. The mountain regions are also known for eating guinea pig. Yuca is the major staple in the Amazon region.
We chose to make sweet tamales, called quimbolitos, which we found in The South American Table. They are served as snacks, desserts, or for breakfast with a cup of coffee. The recipe varies from region to region, most often in the proportion of cornmeal to wheat flour. The ratio of lard to butter also varies.  We decided to skip the raisins since we forgot to buy any Kitty doesn't really like them.
The exotic ingredient for this week is the banana leaf. We are using it a wrapper for the tamale dough. Banana leaves can be found in the produce or frozen section of most market that carry Latin foods. They are also used as serving dishes across tropical and equatorial regions. The leaves are very large!
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • ¾ cup + 2 tbsp sugar
  • 6 eggs, separated
  • 6 oz chihuahua cheese, shredded
  • ½ cup cornmeal
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tbsp lemon zest
  • ½ tsp anise seeds
  • 2 tbsp brandy or anise liquor
  • banana leaves, thawed if frozen and cut into 10x14 inch rectangles
  1. Cream butter and ¾ cup of sugar.
  2. Add egg yolks one at a time, beat until the mixture is light and fluffy.
  3. Stir in cheese, cornmeal, flour, baking powder, zest, and anise.
  4. Mix egg whites with a pinch of salt.
  5. Beat the eggs until you have soft peaks, then add 2 tbsp of sugar and continue to beat until you get glossy, stiff peaks.
  6. Fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the butter and cheese mixture to lighten, then gently fold in the remaining egg whites.
  7. Spread ¾ cup of the mixture onto the middle of the banana leaf to a thickness of ¾ inch.
  8. Fold the long sides of the leaf together over the filling. Fold short ends under the leaf.
  9. If the leaves seem flimsy or have holes you can then wrap the packets again in aluminum foil. Otherwise tie them up using kitchen twine.
  10. Steam for about 20 minutes.

Results and Discussion
These turn out really well. A lump of butter, cheese, and flour goes into the banana leaf and very moist, puffy cake comes out. The shredded cheese adds texture and the lemon and anise give a really nice flavor. If you want to cook a lot of these at once a multi-level bamboo steamer basket might work very well.
The banana leaves are not eaten but we were trying to describe their smell. Kitty thought they smelled like tea. The smell reminded me of artichoke. In the end we decided they had the general vegetable-y leaf smell. They are not edible, probably because the leaves are so tough and fibrous.
You will probably have lots of leftover banana leaves as they are commonly sold in one pound bags. They can be used like a natural tinfoil to wrap things that you want to roast or steam, or as serving "dishes." If you leaves have not already been frozen you can also just freeze them, otherwise they last 1-3 weeks in the fridge.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Malawi - Nshima and Tea


Malawi is one of the poorest countries in southern Africa. The economy is largely agricultural and the population rural. The major crops are corn, tea, sugarcane, and sorghum. It was colonized by the British in the late 1800s and was known as Nyasaland until it gained independence in the 1960s. The country is also where Stanley presumed to find Dr. Livingston
My search for books on Malawi led me to two books in the Schlesinger Library, the The Malawi Cookbook and Nyasaland Cookery Book and Household Guide. Both books were written for missionaries and other foreigners living in the country. The Malawi Cookbook gives mostly recipes, and the Nyasaland Cookery Book also provides information about how to preserve foods, hire household staff, and avoid dangerous local insects. Neither book provided must information about what is eaten when, but the World Cookbook for Students gave us context.
Nshima is a thick white cornmeal porridge that is a staple of the cuisine. For breakfast they eat a more dilute version of nshima flavored with peanuts and butter (we decided it needed a bit of sugar and imagine we are not the first to add some). I give a recipe for roasting your own peanuts below, since this is the primary flavor, the extra time is worth it.
Tea is a major export of Malawi, and single-estate Malawi teas can be purchased from Upton Tea Imports.  We bought a sample of Mboma Estate BOP.

Roasted Peanuts
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 350°F
  2. Spread the peanuts over an edged cookie sheet.
  3. Roast the nuts for 15 to 20 minutes until they are of the desired darkness. The color change doesn't really start until 15 minutes in.
  4. Let the peanuts cool and set aside until use. They will last several weeks on the shelf after roasting.
  • 1 cup ufa (white cornmeal)
  • 3 cups water
  1. Heat the water in a large sauce pan until it is lukewarm.
  2. Add ¼ cup of ufa and mix in well using a whisk to avoid lumps.
  3. Bring the water to a boil and stir in the remaining ufa avoiding lumps.
  4. Mix in some of the chopped peanuts and butter to taste.
  5. Garnish with chopped nuts and add sugar as desired.

Results and Discussion
Use a larger pan than you think will be required for the nshima, as the mixture starts to foam as it boils. I would also maybe start with an additional cup of water to get a more dilute porridge. I think our result was stiffer than the usual breakfast meal. I started with too small a pot and I was not able to dilute to the desired thickness.
It is very important to use a whisk and remove lumps from the porridge as an uncooked lump is a bit unpalatable.
Again, most of the flavor comes from the roasted peanuts, so I would make sure to get a really nice dark roast on them. A little bit of sugar enhances the taste a bit.
The tea had a simple, homey, classic tea taste. Kitty thought it was rather like Lipton yellow-box tea, only much better.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Kazakhstan - Nan, Baursaki, Sausage, & Tea


Kazakhstan is an ethnically diverse country in central Asia. Much of this diversity is a result of Stalin's prison camps and other forced migration policies of the Soviet Union. Kazakhs are traditionally nomadic and their cuisine reflects this with lots of preserved food and protein sources that range well. The prominent protein sources are horse and lamb, and much of the dairy is preserved or fermented. The only breakfast information I found online was that Russian influence have made kasha more prevalent. I looked for Kazakh restaurants in the Boston area to get some better information. I found Cafe Assorti in Washington D.C. They got back to me immediately with information and suggestions. So if you are in the D.C. Metro area please go eat there. We are looking forward to trying them the next time we are in the area.
According to our source, Kazakhs are tending towards a more western breakfast as they are less nomadic. Our contact at Cafe Assorti gave us a break down of what they would consider a traditional breakfast: an assortment of thinly sliced sausages made from lamb or horse meat, served with taba-nan and/or baursak (a flat bread and a fried dough respectively). The bread is eaten with a type of sour cream called kaymak. Kaymak is also used in a tea made with cardamom and fennel.
Taba-nan requires special equipment (two oven-proof frying pans), so we adapted an Uighur flatbread from nearby western China. We chose it because it the base of the recipe was quite simple and seemed to be a good approximation of a nonspecific central Asian flatbread. We found the original recipe in Flatbreads & Flavors. We got our baursak recipe from Food by Country (originally published in Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods & Recipes of the World). We made some substitutions to reduce the size of the recipe to something two people can eat.  The tea recipe is from The World Cookbook for Students.
Kaymak is not readily available in the United States, but can be made at home by steaming a mixture of milk and cream for eight hours. Kitty tried a homemade recipe but it did not work for us. Instead, we bought clotted cream as the closest available substitute.
Even setting aside any ethical concerns, horse meat was not an option as it is simply not available in the United States. The last horse slaughterhouse closed in 2007 and it existed mostly to provide zoos with meat. We decided to purchase beef or lamb sausage instead. One of the sausages is called shuzhuk, and given the histroical Turkish influence in the region, we assume it to be related sujuk. I got the sujuk from a local halal market and proceeded to pseudo-smoke it using a 200°F oven and waiting until it got to 150°F internally. I then refrigerated it overnight. I got the technique from a summer sausage recipe that can be found here.

Basic Nan (6 pieces)
  • 2 tsp dry yeast
  • 2 ½ cups warm water (105-115°F)
  • 5-6 cups white flour
  • 2 tsp salt
  • Ceramic baking tile/pizza stone (optional)
  1. Place warm water in a mixing bowl and add yeast.
  2. Mix in 3 cups of flour one cup at a time.
  3. Stir the mixture 100 times in the same direction to develop the gluten.
  4. Add 2 teaspoons of salt, then continue to add flour until you cannot stir the dough.
  5. Flip the dough onto a floured surface and knead until it smooth and elastic.
  6. Lightly oil a bowl, put the dough in, and let it rise until it has doubled in size.
  7. Break the dough into 6 pieces. Roll out the pieces into 4-5 inch disks. Cover the disks and working one at a time roll them out into 10 inch disks (Note: Avoid making the dough too thin as it will easily burn. Think thin crust pizza for the correct thickness.)
  8. Let the disks rest for 10 minutes, then prick the dough with a fork (traditionally, a specialized bread stamp is used to apply a pricked design). Leave a two inch boundary unpricked around the edge of the dough.
  9. Place dough on a stone in a 500°F oven. Bake for 7 minutes or until golden brown on top. (Monitor it closely.) Let it cool for 5 minutes before serving.

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1½ tsp yeast
  • 2 tbsp water (105-115°F)
  • 2 tbsp yogurt
  • 1 egg white
  • 2 tsp butter
  • 1½ tsp salt
  • Oil for frying
  1. Mix water and yeast and wait for the yeast to bubble.
  2. Mix in the remaining ingredients, knead until it forms a dough.
  3. Let the dough rise for 30 minutes.
  4. Break off tablespoon sized pieces of dough and roll them into balls.
  5. Heat the oil in a deep skillet over high heat.
  6. Carefully add the balls and fry them until they are golden brown. Drain on a paper towel.
  7. Roll in sugar before serving, if desired.

Kazakh Tea
  • 4 cups water
  • 5 tsp black tea leaves
  • 4 cardamom pods
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • 2 cups milk
  • Sugar/honey, salt, and cream to taste.
  1. Bring water to a simmer.
  2. Simmer tea and seeds for 3 minutes.
  3. Add milk and simmer for 2 minutes more.
  4. Remove from heat and strain tea.
  5. Add sugar or honey, salt, and cream as desired.

Results and Discussion
The bread had a nice crispy texture with very puffed outer crust. The puff comes from the fork pricks (or rather, the lack of them around the outer edges) and gives a pretty cool bread bowl effect. It might be fun to try this on pizza crust.
Fried dough continues to taste good. I am curious if there exists a civilization that practices agriculture that does not have some form of fried dough. This particular dough was not as fluffy as some of the recipes but it had a nice dense texture and felt more substantial. It was also a slightly drier dough which makes getting the dough from your fingers to the hot oil much safer.
The tea is basically chai with salt. I added more salt with each until I noticed its effect. I would estimate I topped out around 1/8 teaspoon with 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. As I drank it I realized the only drink I am used to tasting this much salt in is a sports drink. The clotted cream gave the tea a rich texture. (Clotted cream is nearly butter, very rich and creamy. It tastes great, but you can feel your arteries clogging.)
The suzhuk was nicely spiced with what tasted like garlic and black pepper which is matches my understanding of Kazakh version. The oven-smoking process gave decent results but it is no substitute for the flavor of a proper smoking.