Foodie Tuesday: When Cultures Collide

So many beautiful nationalities and ethnicities with so many fabulous cuisines! How on earth can I possibly choose when I’m about to fix a meal?

Then again, why choose? After all, the best of cuisines have borrowed (or stolen) from each other, been influenced by each other, and often gotten so intertwined that it’s hard to know for certain what the absolute baseline, source, or original version of any popular food or dish really was. Sometimes I think that half the fun of creating the menu for an occasion is figuring out how to play with commonalities and contrasts in the most delicious and interesting ways.

Multiply the possibilities of that original menu with my affinity for revising every ingredient or dish in its following appearances as a leftover, and you have one impressively complicated matrix of possible and tangential menus. Exponential recipe improvisation: that’s a kind of math that appeals even to a mathematical dullard like me.

There was that recent episode when I found an interesting-sounding ready-to-cook packet of mushroom risotto that had—unlike most prefab dishes of the sort—only about five or six ingredients, all of them actual foods, and thought it’d be an interesting basis for my dinner preparations. Even with pre-packaged items, it’s a virtual certainty that I will fail to prepare them exactly as proposed. I’m not talking about that silly thing where you buy a boxed frozen dinner and because it’s pictured on the box as set on a plate, the seller assumes you’re too stupid to know that you might need to remove it from the box and heat it in order to consume it, so it says in tidy type, “Serving Suggestion.” I’m talking about actual changes in the way the contents of the box are prepared or served.

So, first of all, being the perpetually lazy person I am, I thought the prospect of standing around stirring a risotto for eons was less appealing than seeing what would happen if I put the ingredients into my rice cooker with extra liquids and let it do the work. Ours is a low-tech oldie but goodie among rice cookers, with a chintzy looking removable aluminum pot insert, so I did toast the rice, with its spice and earthy little pieces of dried mushrooms and shallots in a generous pool of butter, setting that little aluminum canister right on the burner, before popping it into the rice cooker shell and pouring in a half and half mixture of homemade broth and water, slightly more than my usual doubling of quantity over dry (rice and other) ingredients, and a good dash of dry sherry. It may not have been a true risotto by a long stretch, but by golly, it was pretty darn tasty all the same. I served it topped with bacon pieces and alongside that, with some patties of slightly spicy chorizo, sauced thickly with lemony avocado cream and topped in turn with sweet grape tomatoes, all with a little green salad on the side.Photo: Risotto & Chorizo

It was a filling and nicely congenial combination, this meeting of Italian influenced risotto rice, Mexican style chorizo, and a very slightly French treatment of the avocado sauce.

Later in the week, this pseudo-risotto segued on down to Puerto Rico when I incorporated a big scoop of chipotle salsa, the rest of those thick-cut cooked bacon pieces from the previous garnish, and crumbled leftover chorizo into it, heated it through, and then let it crisp on the outside during a low and slow rest on the cooker to become a fair facsimile of the Mamposteao we fell in love with on our May visit to San Juan. With some of my sushi-ginger dressed coleslaw on the side, I think I managed to get the meal to span even further global miles than the first time, perhaps. In any case, it spanned from pots and pans to stomachs pretty neatly both times.

Foodie Tuesday: No Aphasia from Persia to Asia

photoIf America really is a Melting Pot, combining a multitude of cultures into one big, satisfying stew, it’s most believably so in the kitchen. Nobody can convincingly argue this concept to my satisfaction as applied to a nation founded over the centuries by invasive species of the human variety in a bizarre and often violent series of waves, frequently waves that if they don’t actively seek to wipe out everything Other that made a beachhead on these shores before them, are still not very good at blending and assimilating and otherwise embracing each other. We’re fond of ‘talking the talk,’ so to speak, as long as the other guy is willing and able to do it not only in our preferred language but with the same point of view.photoBut when we get to the table, our omnivorous love of good things can at least fairly often override our worst instincts. It’s true that breaking bread together is one of the best ways of finding commonality and even, perhaps, community. So although it’s sometimes quite delightful to be thematic in our thinking and our tastes to the point of specificity, it’s also very possible to enjoy the bounty of whole parts of the world when one is hungry for ideas, culture and especially, for good food. One can easily find a north Indian restaurant or a Sicilian one or a New Orleans-style Cajun one, but it’s not unusual either to find eateries that have a wider-ranging reach: pan-Pacific, Middle Eastern, Scandinavian, or Mediterranean, perhaps. My own tastes are shaped not only by the foods and flavors I like, but of course by the versions of them with which I am familiar and those I adopt or adapt for my own purposes and interests.photo

So it’s quite common indeed to arrive at my table and find foods influenced by particular places’ or regions’ cuisines sitting side by side with foods from decidedly different ones, or even trying a little intermingling in one dish, just for fun. The other day the meal consisted of a warm quinoa dish with a bit of Persian inspiration, right along with a salad that had slight Japanese leanings. However incongruous they might be geographically, their flavors and textures seemed complementary enough to me, and I found the combination not only edible but pretty friendly after all. So here for your refreshment, and a table-top vignette of world peace, is a little lunch invention of the Persian-Asian persuasion.

Spiced Lamb Quinoa

Cook one cup of plain quinoa in water or (as I did) homemade broth until tender. While that’s cooking, brown 1/2 lb of ground lamb, seasoning it fairly liberally with salt, pepper, thyme and nutmeg. Set both of these elements aside while preparing and combining the following in a spacious bowl: about 1/2 cup each of crumbled feta cheese, sliced black olives of any variety on hand, chopped preserved lemon, diced dried apricots, and sliced almonds (plain or toasted), and about 1/4 cup each of chopped fresh mint leaves and sesame seeds (plain or toasted). Finally, mix the prepared quinoa with that bowl of flavor-boosters, and either layer on or stir in the ground lamb. Dress the dish with fresh lime juice, raw honey and olive oil (I used my favorite blood orange olive oil), and re-season the whole with salt or pepper or any of the other previously included seasonings to adjust to your taste.

Serve warm or hot–let your taste and the weather be your guide. This dish stores well in either refrigerator or freezer and can be reheated in the microwave once mixed. Vegetarians can certainly omit the meat, and those who don’t enjoy lamb might also like ground or diced chicken better in the dish.

Quick Green-&-Orange Salad

Assemble these ingredients and mix freely, or present separately for guests to mix: sweet orange sections, snap pea shoots and carrots are the ‘big three’ here. I put them in separate “stripes” in the serving dish to show off the alternating orange-green-orange of the simple ingredients, and topped the oranges and carrots with fresh lime zest and the pea shoots with fresh orange zest just to exaggerate the color effect.

I had some pre-shredded carrots handy and in retrospect would have preferred to shred my own with the coarse side of the blade rather than have the oversized bulk of store-bought shreds. The pea sprouts are easy to cut up once plated and look kind of pretty as a long-stemmed mini-bouquet, but I’m pretty pragmatic about my food (you may have noticed), so in future I’d probably chop those into 1″ lengths beforehand too. The orange (one large navel orange) was cut into about 1″ dice and was good and juicy.

The dressing for this bright fruit-and-veg combination was a simple blend of about 2 Tablespoons of minced pickled ginger (sushi gari), orange juice squeezed out of the peel I’d cut off the orange sections while dicing it, the juice of half a lime, a splash of soy sauce, a splash of ginger juice, and a hint of honey. The soy sauce makes the dressing a less than picturesque muddy color (maybe I should try white miso next time), so I served it separately so as not to spoil my little orange-green-orange picture before we chomped all of it into moot bits.photo

And if I am to make a statement about interculturalism or ecumenism or any such blending in the way of my household cuisine, it might just be that when we eat food it all gets turned into Us, respectively and eventually, kind of the same way that every one of us on the planet will all turn after living into the same dust (unless we get to be reincarnated), so why not simply embrace the differences that become one in us, eh? At least we’ll eat happily.