Monday, November 29, 2010

To Burundi with Love: Pineapple Salsa as a Starter

Cooking is like giving.  It is a way I show affection and involves a careful attention of the needs of others. It requires sharing the flavors that I love with understanding the tastes, needs and sometimes lifestyle choices of the person I am are cooking for.  Writing is like remembering.  It is a way that I hold on to details and savor them.  It is natural for me that these two activities should go together.

This blog post is for Melissa.  Melissa is one of my oldest friends (as in going back the farthest in my memory, not oldest in age).  We met the second year of high school at our after school job in a library.  We may have had everything in common then except our tastes in food.  I have always been adventurous eater, even then.  Melissa grew to be one later but in those days a hamburger with cheese was a little too exotic ( really, no cheese, no bun).  I vaguely remember an issue with spaghetti sauce where Melissa reverted to noodles with ketchup.

Thankfully Melissa made it through that phase and so lessened the strain on our friendship (just kidding, Mel!).  These days both of us have varied our eating habits largely based on our social, political and environmental views as they relate to the food industry.  Melissa, although no longer shy about trying new flavors, is now a vegetarian.  So this noodle-and-ketchup girl did not hesitate to dig in to my fontina polenta topped with sauteed ramps.  Times certainly have changed. 

In addition to vegetarianism being on the list of contributions to a new way of looking at diet, Melissa currently lives  in Bujumbura, Burundi. We said goodbye in May before she moved and the question arose: "what will I eat?"  There was not much way of knowing what to expect in terms of what types of food would be available and in two years she is bound to get homesick for some familiar flavors.  Alas, no beloved broccoli in Burundi.  What does Melissa do without her broccoli?  "As soon as you get the chance send me a list of the foods that are most available and I will come up with recipes for them," I offered.

She has since assured me that she is eating alright although missing the occasional few comfort foods from home.  Recently though, she sent me that list. so I will devote some blog posts to the challenge of cooking in Burundi...from New York.

Cut the top and bottom of pineapple off so that it is easier to cut off the spiny skin.  Then you can take your knife and cut down along the side of the pineapple, removing the skin.

Pineapple Salsa

1 pineapple
2 serrano pepper (can substitute another hot pepper or chili)
2 scallions chopped fine
3/4 cup chopped mint leaves (can substitute cilantro but you should probably use less)

Toss and refrigerate.  This is better when the flavors get a chance to mingle.  I would make this at least 2 hours in advance.  
This is a great pairing with tortilla chips or fried plantains (easily found in Burundi, I believe).

We are the same in our thirties as we were in our teens.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Community Table: Biscotti di Pignoli

Pine nut macaroons.  They are the simplest cookie.  My mom made these at Christmas every year.  Like a lot of other moms, she made dozens of cookies at that time of the year.  Pink and green butter cookies that were piped out of pastry bags, cookies with rainbow sprinkles, snickerdoodles,  chocolate peanut butter clusters and, of course, pine nut macaroons.  I always ate too many of the chocolate peanut butter clusters.  They were definitely good but in that I'm-a-kid-and-I-get-to-eat-junk-food-today kind of good. I would always bring the pretty butter cookies to school.  The snickerdoodles were paired with hot chocolate on Christmas Eve so that we could leave a plateful for Santa.  Sadly, I overlooked the pine nut macaroons.

Maybe its that they sounded like cookies for grown-ups.  If you give any child a choice between chocolate and pine nuts, you know what they will choose.  Besides, they have no fancy colors or gooey texture.  They are just good.  Good in the way that something that has only four ingredients can be.  There is nothing fancy for these ingredients to hide behind.  I have seen other recipes that have flour and butter but for me it takes away from the taste of the sweet almond paste.

I like all the cookies my Mom makes but now I reach for the pine nut cookies first.

Biscotti di Pignoli

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 egg whites
  • 16 oz. almond paste (if you are from Napoli you would make your own from ground almonds, if you are not you can find it in 8oz cans a the supermarket)
  • 1 cup pine nuts
  • Confectioners sugar for sprinkling (optional) 

The fifth ingredient on the far right, confectioners sugar, is an optional garnish.  Actually, this time we left it off.  Papa` was already brewing coffee before they came out of the oven so no time to make them pretty.
The cookie sheets are lined with parchment paper.  This is my Mom and her baking is very organized.  Ingredients and bakeware are lined up and promptly put away in the order she is done with them.
After you separate out the egg whites, beat them with a fork until you get a little foam on top.

Mix sugar and almond paste first.  While the mixer is on low add your egg whites.
A taste, anyone?
Dad drops in to taste the batter.
Spoon out batter with about an inch and a half between each cookie.  Sprinkle pine nuts on the top.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes at 300 degrees.
Serve with a good espresso!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Community Table: El Salvadorian Pupusas!

I have been meaning to do more posts under the title Community Table.   I am a pretty good cook but only because I am so inspired by other great cooks I come in contact with.

This past weekend I had the honor of bringing the most delicious home-made pupusas to a party.  Some guests  already had heard of or tried them before but most had not.  Either way, once I uncovered them they barely made it to the table.  I thought I would cut them up and serve them as appetizers.  They were snatched up too fast.  One by one guests were first biting into these warm, stuffed, tortilla-like patties then asking "Wow, what is this?" (instead of the other way around).

I must admit, if you hand me anything stuffed with melted cheese I am yours.  My husband could have proposed on the second date with a jalapeno popper.  I like to tell people I fell in love with Rome because of the grand history of architecture that make up the city but it may very well have been the suppli`.  I might even swoon over a really good grilled cheese sandwich.  Let's add pupusas to this list.  Although melted cheese is not their only charm.  The typical pupusa you will find in this country is usually filled with queso, frijoles and chicharon or in other words cheese, beans and pork. But as Maria told me in El Salvador you may find more of a variety of fillings such as shrimp, small fish or zucchini.

Maria is the lovely lady in the picture above who showed me how she makes her pupusas.  She has been generous enough to show me how these wonderful snacks are made.

The dough of the pupusa is made with corn masa, which is like a cornmeal.  It is mixed with water to make a dough-like consistency.  The cup is filled with corn oil that you will add on the surface of the pupusa just before it goes on the griddle. 
Maria shows me how to pat the dough, turning it in a circle so the form is even on all sides.  We dip our hands in a bowl of water to keep the dough from sticking to our fingers.
We are filling the pupusas with cheese first. Maria uses a shredded mozzarella but I think most mild cheeses that melt well will work.  Then there are black beans that have been pureed to a paste.  The third mixture is pork.  The ground pork is cooked first and then pureed with raw onions, bell peppers and tomatoes. These three ingredients will melt together perfectly on the griddle.
Then Maria showed me how to carefully close the masa dough around the filling and then use the same circular patting motion to reshape it into a disc.  Maria does this expertly but to be honest I need a little practice.  The masa is very soft and it takes a skilled and gentle hand.
These are cooked on a cast iron griddle that goes right over the stovetop.  You don't want to forget to smear a little bit of corn oil on the surface of the papusa before you put it on the grill.  It isn't too different than cooking pancakes.  It takes a couple of minutes for each side to set and get some good toasty color.
There are two condiments that go with papusas and, please, do not forego them.  It is a mistake.  They are simple but they add a subtle complexity to the dish.  On the left is like a slaw that is made with cabbage that has been steamed in boiling water, then tossed with carrots, onions and a dash of white vinegar and oregano. On the right is a simple, salted tomato puree.

So if you are in Brooklyn, think about bringing some papusas to your next party!