Tag Archives: international

General Tsao’s Chicken

7 Sep

Who is this General Tsao and did he own a cast iron skillet?! A quick Wikipedia search tells me that while the Hunan province man existed, it appears the Qing Dynasty general actually had little or no connection to the sweet & sour deliciousness named after him. It remains a mystery if he owned a cast iron skillet, but with cast iron being a Chinese invention from the 5th Century BC, I’m thinking “yes”.

I confess that I’ve never been a big fan of Chinese take-out. Not because I think the fate of all feral dogs & cats has anything to do with it, even though my mom would argue the mathematical uncertainty of this, but rather because it lacks bacon it tends to be so syrupy sweet. A factor that directly contributes to the Farklepants’ stepkids’ burning love for Chinese take-out.

Fueled by cocky contempt for cheap take-out, I figured that whatever Panda Express can do, I can do better. There’s no shortage of recipes online, so I blended the best of all and added Sriracha my own touch to please my palate. And since I’m preoccupied with the health of my family, I also added a good amount of veggies, because, you know, I’m an evil person “green” is a color my adopted brood’s diet is challenged by.

Feel free to substitute the bell peppers and/or sugar snap peas with any other vegetable(s) you like… or leave them out altogether and garner a deep respect from the entire male juvenile population in the USA. On that note, you can use this sauce on pretty much anything you want to give an Asian flavor, grill with it, marinate with it or simply suck it with a straw.

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GENERAL TSAO’S CHICKEN
(Loosely based on a vast collection of Pinterest recipes)
For the sauce:
– 1/2 cup of chicken stock
– 2 Tbsp of soy sauce
– 2 Tbsp of rice vinegar
– 4 Tbsp of Hoisin sauce (*)
– 4 tsp of Sriracha sauce (this dish is pretty spicy. Add less for moderate or mild heat)
– 4 tsp of sesame oil
– 5 Tbsp of honey or sugar
(*) You can find Hoisin sauce in the Asian section of your supermarket. Kikkoman is the brand I used and the most commonly sold.

For the stirfry:
– 3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
– 1/2 cup of corn meal (*)
– 1/2 of all-purpose flour
– 1 large red bell pepper, chopped into strips
– 2 good handfuls of sugar snap peas or snow peas
– 2 bunches of scallions, chopped
– 6 garlic cloves, minced
– 3 tsp of fresh ginger, grated (approx. 3-inch piece)
– peanut oil or lard for frying the chicken cubes
(*) You can also just use flour if you can’t find corn meal. I find that a flour/corn meal mixture gives extra crunch, but it’s not a “must”.

Combine all the sauce ingredients in a jar and give it a good shake. You should have about 1.5 cups worth, but a bit more or less is not a problem.

Slice all veggies and set aside. Grate garlic and ginger, and set aside.

Rinse & dry chicken breast completely. Slice chicken into bite-size pieces, approx. the size of a walnut. Salt & pepper the chicken pieces.
Combine corn meal & flour, and coat chicken pieces liberally. Make sure all pieces are bone-dry, as otherwise they won’t brown properly.

In a cast iron skillet or heavy pot, heat peanut oil (or lard) to 350F and fry the chicken pieces until they are golden brown and crisp. You only need to go about 1/2 inch deep with oil, and for me, that was about 1 cup of lard in my 12-inch cast iron skillet.
I fried my chicken in 3 batches. Each batch only takes a few minutes, so it went pretty quickly. They should be slightly crunchy on the outside. They may not be cooked entirely trough at this stage, but don’t worry, as they’ll cook through later on when we combine everything.

Take fried chicken pieces out of the pan, and set on a paper towel lined plate to absorb some of the excess fat.

Drain all but 1-2 Tbsp of the fat, place hot pan back over medium heat and add all of the bell pepper & sugar snap peas and sauté for a few minutes until ‘just’ beginning to soften. I like the crunchy texture of slightly under-cooked vegetables, but you can sauté them all the way to “done” if this is your preference.

Add grated garlic & ginger, half of the scallions & chicken pieces back into the pan, and pour sauce over the top. Simmer over medium-low heat until sauce reduces, thickens & coats chicken evenly. This only takes about 10-15 min or so.

When ready, add remaining scallions and serve hot over steamed white or brown rice.

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Picadillo Cubano

22 Aug

I’ll come right out and say that I knew very little about ethnic food whilst growing up in my small, rural neck of the woods. My mom would sometimes experiment with ethnic food, such as that time she prepared ‘babotee’. OMG!. Babotee!. I think my brother & I are still mentally scarred from that one. Funny enough, I have no memory whatsoever of having eaten anything exotic after the babotee disaster, so I’m thinking that that African devil even struck a nerve with mom. We didn’t have much money and food was never wasted, and that was both a promise as well as curse since you knew that when something didn’t turn out quite well, we’d still be eating it! Babotee was right up there with canned bananas.

Anyway, my first ‘real’ exposure to exotic cuisine was when I went to the ‘Polé Polé Festival’ in Gent (Belgium) with a few friends and enjoyed my first Mojito and roast pork. One of the things I probably miss most from Belgium, are the sultry Summer music festivals and their colorful posters that were haphazardly tacked on wooden telephone poles & announcement boards across town. The featured bands usually hailed from Northern Africa, Central & Latin America and flamenco heartbeats like Spain & Portugal. The band names alone were enough to lure us out of our rural shell: Radio Tarifa, Youssou n’Dour, Ojos de Brujo, Cesaria Evora… The sound of African drums and the exotic smells that wafted over the concert meadow, took us far away from the sugar beet fields & farms surrounding our houses. And when the heat became too much for the atmosphere and the torrential downpour of a typical Belgian thunderstorm came rolling in, we’d all huddle in the festival tents and it felt like a tropical vacation. It’s precisely there, in that oppressive hot tent, that my love for global music and world cuisine was born. My friend also found love for Ntibanoboka from Burundi there… but we shall say no more.

African, Caribbean & Latin cuisines are the type of culinary exploration that I haven’t really ventured into yet. I can follow a recipe, of course, but it’s not like I can add a little bit of this & a little bit of that and come up trumps. I have little to no understanding of flavor combinations in exotic cooking, yet I love mostly all ethnic food that I’ve eaten at small family-owned hole-in-the-wall type eateries as well as fancy restaurants. Now that our finances are seriously strapped and firmly rooted in the chicken & ground beef realm of things, I miss going to our favorite restaurants. Havana Mania in Inglewood, CA is no exception. I love that Cuban place. Not only do they serve the meanest mojito’s there, but the owner usually welcomes us with a broad smile and open arms, as though we’re his long lost relatives finally returning home. And it doesn’t matter if we haven’t been there for months, he still greets us like we were there just yesterday. I like that kind of gregariousness.

Yesterday, I figured I’d try my own hand at Cuban cuisine. I still had 2 lbs of ground beef in the fridge, and I remembered eating a beef dish at one time called ‘Picadillo Cubano’. It’s a delectable concoction of ground beef that is slowly braised in white wine, with capers, olives & raisins. It’s usually served over white rice, with black beans and fried plantains on the side, but it turns out it’s also often used as a filling for empanadas. Some add potatoes to it, other don’t and it seems to be the topic of many debates about authenticity. Personally, I think it’s one of those dishes that has local flair and varies depending on whom you ask… Either way, it’s seriously delicious and we cleaned off our plates in record time. As an added bonus to the fantastic flavor, it’s very budget-friendly and a breeze to make. Gloria Estefan’s nana was right on the money with this one.

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PICADILLO CUBANO
(as per Gloria Estefan’s nana)
– Approx. 2lbs of ground beef, the fatty kind (any ground beef with at least 15% fat)
– 1 medium-large onion, finely diced
1 large green bell pepper, finely diced
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp of cumin
1 tsp of ground dry oregano
1 8oz can of tomato sauce
1 ½ cups of dry white wine
2 bay leaves
2 Tbsp of capers (optional)
½ cup of ketchup
½ cup of raisins
½ cup of green pimiento-stuffed olives
Salt & pepper to taste
Olive oil for browning

In a large heavy pan with lid, brown the beef over medium-high heat until crumbled, stirring occasionally. Remove beef from pan and set aside, and drain all but 2Tbsp of the grease.

Add diced onions, bell pepper and minced garlic to the pan. Sauté over medium heat until onions turn translucent, stirring frequently. Sprinkle oregano & cumin over the vegetables, and give it a quick stir for another minute or so. Then add reserved beef and all of the remaining ingredients to the pan.

Cover the pan and allow beef mixture to simmer for 30-40 min, removing the lid for the last 5-10 min.

Serve beef stew over rice, alongside black beans and fried plantains for a true Cuban experience.
This dish goes great with a mojito, or two…

Smoky Mexican Chicken Soup

29 Nov

Yesterday was Thanksgiving here in America. It’s a day on which we are thankful for the blessings we have in our lives, and an excuse to pig out on crispy roast turkey, candied yams, creamy green beans, tart cranberries, butter-laden rolls and pumpkin pie. Heck, let’s throw in some pecan pie too, for good measure.

After roasting my favorite holiday bird with all the trimmings, eating like the end of the world was nigh, doing all the dishes… Twice!… and cutting into both a pumpkin pie and a pecan pie, I fully collapsed at 5:03P and woke up 3 hours later with Mr. Farklepants caressing my arm and lovingly asking me if I wanted to get up or sleep through the night?! Oh, you turkey, you!

I managed to get back into a conscious vertical position long enough to polish off another slice of pie and then crashed in tryptophan fantasyland until 6:17A this morning, when torrential down pours alerted my brain that I drank entirely too much yesterday. I wish I was one of those people that could jump right back on the snooze train, but once I’m awake, there’s no turning back… It’s my mother’s genes, you see. My genetic make up is the kind that creepily stands by the edge of your bed at 6A, menacingly watching your every eye twitch for a sign of life, and warning you promptly that the day is ticking away. I defiantly did go back to bed, but genetics prevailed.

I schlepped myself into our kitchen with that post-party trepidation we all know so well, and was pleasantly reminded of the fact that, pre-tryptophan TKO, I already cleaned up the turkey battlefield that is Thanksgiving cooking. Hurray! Feeling victorious, I tuned on the TV so I could get outraged at people’s pathetic behavior on Black Friday, poured myself a cup of coffee, squirted whipped cream directly in my mouth and enjoyed the last remaining slice of pumpkin pie, because…I felt sorry for it?!

I’m impressed with the dent we made into that gorgeous turkey too. And to work away some of the leftovers, nothing says rainy post-Thanksgiving what-are-we-going-to-do-with-all-that-turkey?! bliss more than a smoky hearty soup. While I named this one “chicken” soup, anything goes and it’s the prefect vessel to sail right back into tryptophan land… For all other 51 weeks, use rotisserie chicken!

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Smoky Mexican Chicken Soup
(Inspired by traditional Mexican Cuisine)
– 2-3 cups of leftover cooked turkey or rotisserie chicken, shredded
– 1 red bell pepper
– 1 green Pasillo pepper
– 4-5 ribs of celery
– 1 medium onion
– 1.5 cups of corn, thawed if frozen
– 1.5 cups of black beans, cooked or canned
– 1.5 Tbsp of ground cumin
– 1 tsp of hot smoked paprika
– 2-3 hot peppers in adobo sauce, diced (use more for a more spicy soup)
– 2 15oz cans of diced tomato
– 3/4 cup of fresh cilantro, chopped + more for garnish
– 6-8 cups of chicken broth
– 1.5 cups of smoky BBQ sauce
– salt & pepper to taste

Dice all vegetables and sauté over medium heat until softened. Sprinkle with cumin and paprika, add hot peppers in adobo sauce and sauté a few minutes more to blend the flavors.

Add canned diced tomato and chicken broth, and bring to a boil. Let simmer until all vegetables are soft.

Add BBQ sauce, shredded chicken or turkey, corn, beans and cilantro. Bring to a boil and simmer a few minutes more to warm through.

Ladle in bowls and garnish with fresh cilantro, sliced green onions, sour cream and/or grated Mexican cheese.

Greek Baked Beans

4 Nov

Last weekend, I found a package of giant dry white beans or ‘gigantes’ in my cupboard. These tasty plump beans are a staple in Greek cuisine, and the mere mentioning of the word ‘Greek’ always sends my mind to the time my best friend & I had pizza & cheap wine in her shoebox-size apartment in the ‘Lange Vlierstraat’ in Antwerp. I know it’s a bit of stretch and a far cry from the usual images of breezy seaside tavernas with vine-wrapped trellises and ouzo. Bear with me, please.

While most young adults live with their parents when they’re still in college, my friend lived solo’ and her digs were usually the place we’d hang out at to channel our inner-dork. Not that ‘two-buck-chuck’ & pizza nights were so unusual during our college years, but that night in particular, she was preparing to move in with her now American ex-husband and the purpose of our gathering was to get silly on cheap wine to facilitate her move into her fiance’s beautiful house on the left banks of the ‘Schelde’ river in Antwerp, and mostly to get rid of the stuff that really shouldn’t see the light of day when you’re twenty-something and about to engage in a serious relationship of co-habitation with the other sex.

On a side note, per my mother, W. & I have had a life-long reputation of unbridled ‘silliness’. ‘Onozel doen’, like mom would say. As a matter of fact, with W. living in Florida, we speak over the phone weekly. Or at least attempt to hold a conversation, which usually starts off with W. bursting out in a suffocating fit of snorting laughter the minute I answer my phone, muttering “I’ll call you right back” in between giggles, which spirals me into a similar guffaw before I even know what it is she wants to share with me. It’s like our ‘tween-gene’ is activated the minute we connect, and we are instantly transported back to the late 80’s.

Anyway, we digress… Thirty odd years ago or so (Gah! I’m old), we found ourselves slumped back on her couch, plastic Dixie cup of wine in hand, and thumbing through an old photo album with letters & pictures of her long forgotten high school pen pal: Kostas. He was Greek. He was twenty-something compared to her sweet sixteen. He had curly black hair, no bodily shame and he was censored by my friend’s prudence by means of black tape. The naughty picture in question was carefully glued in her album, with a strategically placed hand-crafted ‘trap door’ of black tape, which could be lifted to behold all of Kostas’ glory. Like a mini-peep show from the comfort of home, so to speak. I also remember he later came to visit from Greece with his friend while we were much older and already in college, and he turned out to be quite full of himself and a royal penis, pardon the pun.

If you think you can picture the ridiculousness of two grown women giggling like pimpled high school girls over a nude picture of a not-so-good looking young man, think harder and then multiply the dorkiness level by tenfold. That’s us! So any time I hear the word ‘Greek’ now, I have to think about Kostas. And that naughty trap-door picture that had us doubled up in silly laughter.

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GREEK BAKED BEANS
(‘Fasolia Plaki’… adapted per my own flavor preferences)
– 1 package of dry ‘gigantes’ or large white beans (500 gr or 0.5 lbs)
– 3 large juicy tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced (or 1 15oz can of diced tomatoes)
– 1 small can of ROTEL ‘mild’ tomatoes & chillies
– 2-3 roasted red bell peppers, peeled & diced (the jarred kind are fine too)
– 6 cloves of garlic, grated or minced
– 1 large onion, diced
– 2 Tbsp of tomato paste
– 2 Tbsp of dried oregano (or a few sprigs of fresh oregano, chopped fine)
– 4 Tbsp of dried parsley (or a handful of fresh parsley, chopped fine)
– 2 Tbsp of fresh dill, chopped fine
– 3 bay leaves
– 1 Tbsp of red pepper flakes (*)
– salt to taste
– 2 cups of the boiling water from the beans
(*) when using Rotel tomatoes & chillies, 1 Tbsp will do you just fine and will turn the dish medium spicy. For mild heat, leave out the red pepper flakes al together. For NO heat, leave out the red pepper flakes and use 2 more tomatoes instead of a can of Rotel chillies, and season with some pepper. For more heat, add more red pepper flakes. You get my drift…

Soak beans overnight in a large container of plain unsalted water, with at least 2-3 inches of water topping the beans once submerged. Let them soak on the counter.

The next day, drain beans from the soaking water, and place in a large pot. Bring beans to a boil and let simmer until tender, but still with a bit of bite. The ‘older’ the beans, the longer this stage will take, but for my 6-8 month old package of dry beans, this was approx. 75 min.
Drain beans, reserving approx. 2 cups of the bean water, and set aside.

If using fresh tomatoes, carve an ‘X’ in the bottom your tomato and flash-boil for about 1 minute in the boiling bean water (or a pot of boiling water). The edges of the ‘X’ will start to curl and this process will make peeling your tomatoes significantly easier. Peel each tomato, cut in quarters, remove seed-cores and dice the flesh in small cubes. Try to reserve some of the juice, but don’t worry too much about that.

While the beans boil, preheat oven to 350F. In a heavy oven-proof skillet (I used a cast iron skillet, but you can also use a regular pan and then transfer everything into a casserole), sauté the diced onions until tender and translucent, approx. 5 min. Add tomato paste, garlic, roasted & peeled bell peppers and red pepper flakes, and sauté for another few minutes to ‘cook out’ the tomato paste a bit. Then add diced tomatoes (with juice), can of Rotel chillies and all of the herbs. Stir the sauce and cook for another 10-15 minutes to reduce and thicken a little bit.

Fold cooked beans in the tomato sauce, and pour the reserved bean water over the beans until they are ‘just’ submerged. Stick bay leaves in the pan and bake, uncovered, in a 350F oven for another 75-90 min until the juices have evaporated. The top will be slightly crispy.

Serve hot with crusty bread. Or with an omelet, like I did.

Appalachian Onion Soup

22 Oct

Yes. You read that right. This is ‘Appalachian Onion Soup’ because a) it’s made with Kentucky Bourbon and b) who doesn’t want to stick it to the French? Don’t be shy, raise your hand. I haven’t decided yet whether I hate the French or like them, but I sure do love their cuisine. You can’t go wrong with all that butter, cream and wine… n’est-ce pas? In all honesty, I secretly love the French and their curly moustaches. But being that I am from Belgium, and that I’m decidedly non-Francais and speak ‘funny’ French, I can’t be loved in return… You see, it’s against ‘The Code of Honor’ between the French & the Belgians. I understand. At least we have better chocolate. OH SNAP!

But we digress…. When I discovered that I had half a dozen of onions in my fridge and feared they would meet their early demise, I decided my family’s dinner destiny had to be French onion soup, for starters. The only problem, it was already pushing 07:00P and with zero ambition to schlepp myself to the store to go pick up white wine and a few random ingredients that go in an authentic ‘soupe a l’oignon’, I decided to get creative with my American pantry. And since the French would rather die than to endorse this version of their beloved classic, I can’t shame myself further into naming it French onion soup. It’s not proper. And besides, I’m Belgian… what do I know? Tsk!

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APPALACHIAN ONION SOUP
(Adapted from a recipe for classic French Onion Soup)
– 6 large onions, halved and cut into half rounds
– 4 small cloves of garlic, pressed or minced (or 2-3 large ones)
– 3 bay leaves
– 3 Tbsp of ground thyme
– 1 Tbsp of ground sage
– 1/2 cup of aged balsamic vinegar
– 1 cup of Kentucky Bourbon
– 3 cups of beef broth
– 3 cups of chicken broth
– a few slices of 2-day old sour dough bread, toasted
– a handful of grated white cheddar cheese
– salt & pepper, to taste
– 2 Tbsp of butter + 2 Tbsp of olive oil, to caramelize the onions (or 4 Tbsp of ‘ghee’ or clarified butter)
– 1 Tbsp of maple syrup, to caramelize the onions (optional)
– fresh thyme, finely chopped (for garnish)

Heat oven to 500F.

Cut each onion in half, then slice each half into half-moon rounds. Chop fresh thyme finely.

Heat butter and olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. The oil will prevent the butter from burning. Add bay leaves and sliced onions and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are caramelized and a rich amber or golden brown color. You can sprinkle the raw onions with some maple syrup or honey/sugar, which will help them caramelize quicker. This is an optional step, though. Caramelizing the onions will take upwards of 30 min., so be patient and stir only occasionally! If the onions seem to be burning, turn the heat down a notch and add in a splash of water. The water will evaporate in the process and will not water down your soup, but it will prevent the onions from burning.
When the onions are beginning to color lightly, add in the pressed garlic and ground thyme & sage. Stir to combine and continue to simmer the onions until they have reach an amber-like color.

When the onions are browned and caramelized, remove bay leaves and add the balsamic vinegar and half of the Bourbon to the pan, and deglaze the pan by scraping up the browned bits. Add the rest of the Bourbon and both broths, and bring to a simmer. Allow to simmer for an additional 10-15 min without the lid, so the alcohol burns off and the flavors can develop further.

In the meanwhile, take your slices of 1-2 day-old bread and brush them lightly with olive oil. Lay bread slices on a flat baking sheet and toast in the hot oven for approx. 10 min. Keep an eye on them, as they can go from crispy to burned in a matter of seconds. Take the toasted slices out of the oven and lightly rub a clove of garlic over each slice.

Ladle soup into oven-safe bowls, and place a slice (or 2) of toasted bread on top of each bowl. Sprinkle cheddar cheese over bread, and place bowls under the broiler for a few minutes until cheese is melted and bubbly. Sprinkle some fresh thyme over the bubbly, melted cheese and serve right away.

Bangkok Chicken Satay with Coconut-Peanut Sauce

7 Sep

Football season is here! And with it, so is finger food season.

I confess that I know nothing about American football. Whenever a game comes on, I root for the team wearing the prettiest colors get lost in trying to figure out who actually has possession of the ball and when flags and penalties are dished out, all bets are off. I vaguely grasp the concept of a ‘first down and 8 yards to go’, but I guess football is one of those sports you must have either played yourself or grown up with, in order to fully comprehend the intricate detail of grown men throwing themselves on top of one another for… an oblong-shaped ball?! And why is that ball oblong shaped to begin with?! And who on earth understands what that referee is saying in that echoing microphone?

The first time I was graciously invited to someone’s house for an American cook-out and football BBQ party, I actually managed to silence an entire room by loudly jumping up from my comfy chair and belting out a cheer, complete with arms fully extended and the required high-pitched “WOOHOO!!!!”, when the referee threw a flag… against the team we were all supposed to be rooting for. Whoopsie!

I remember this incident greatly embarrassed my then boyfriend to the point where he felt compelled to formally apologize on my behalf to everybody in the room, and explained that I was from Belgium! I learned three things from that unfortunate moment: a) football is a serious thing over here, b) a man who-we-shall-not-name is an asshole and c) Thai chicken skewers are delicious!

Fast forward 10 years, and my football expertise hasn’t much improved since then. I grew up playing a lot of sports and I love watching sports, but when it comes to American football, I stick with my tried & true routine of picking the team with the snazziest outfit… And I do so from the comfort of my kitchen, where the magic of football parties really happens!

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BANGKOK CHICKEN SATAY WITH COCONUT-PEANUT SAUCE
(Adapted from a recipe by Bobby Flay)
For the chicken satay:
– 3 lbs of skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into 1 inch pieces
– 1/4 cup of soy sauce
– 3 Tbsp of dark brown sugar, firmly packed
– 2 Tbsp of fresh lime juice
– 2 tbsp of peanut oil
– 1 Tbsp of curry powder
– 2 garlic cloves, minced or grated
– 1 tsp of fresh ginger, grated
– 1/2 tsp of ground cardamom
– 24 wooden skewers, soaked in cold water for 20 min

Cut chicken into 1 inch cubes or bite-size pieces and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine all other ingredients and whisk to make a marinade. Pour marinade over the chicken, cover with plastic foil and let rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.

Thread 6-8 pieces of chicken on each skewer. Heat a grill pan or griddle over medium high heat, and cook chicken skewers for 8-10 min, turning once half way through… or cook skewers on the BBQ. Serve warm alongside peanut sauce below.

For the coconut-peanut sauce:
– 1 13.5oz can of coconut milk
– 1/4 cup of creamy peanut butter
– 1/4 cup of dark brown sugar, packed
– 1 Tbsp of soy sauce
– 1 1/2 tsp of red curry paste

Combine all ingredients in a small sauce pan. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 3-5 minutes. Pour sauce in the a small bowl and serve alongside chicken skewers.

Spicy Caribbean Fish Stew

9 Aug

OK. So a Belgian-Caribbean connection may sound far-fetched, but if you think about it, it isn’t really all that bizarre. After all, being right next door Holland, we’re directly exposed to the culture of its territories overseas and the culinary melting pot that is Suriname and the Dutch Antilles.

Furthermore, I’ve been blessed to work in the travel industry for roughly 20 years now and have always been exposed to a broader world view in that capacity. My very first job was at the much coveted chain of adventure travel stores named ‘Joker Toerisme’, a company exuding a laid back REI-kinda atmosphere. To this day, ‘Joker Toerisme‘ holds fast to its deep-rooted values of promoting sustainable travel with the utmost respect for local culture & customs, and ensures that the many tourist dollars spent overseas directly benefit the local population. I remember that the people who walked into our store were firm believers in fair trade and genuinely seemed interested in the cultural heritage of their planned destination.

Despite my desire to relocate to the USA, I absolutely loved my job there. My colleagues were among the coolest, most caring & well-traveled people I’ve had the pleasure to meet in my life. Even though I amicably quit that job heavy-hearted when an opportunity to relocate arose 13 years ago, I can pick up the phone today and talk to any of them as though no time has passed… My visits back to Belgium always include a few dinner invitations from former colleagues, which are traditionally evenings that are filled with great travel stories, reminiscing about the old times with laughter and fantastic home-cooked meals from recipes that were collected from all corners of the world.

No matter how many hours pass, these cozy evenings seem to fly by quickly. Belgians are known to be a gregarious, hospitable folk. We take great joy in welcoming guests and providing a warm, cozy atmosphere. Like many Europeans, most of my Belgian friends have traveled extensively and their homes are eclectic havens of exotic textiles & interesting knick-knack’s that were collected throughout their many adventures overseas. I remember that many years ago, my friend Griet put on a slide show about her trip to the Caribbean she had literally just returned from. To set the proper tone, her massive oak wood table was adorned with Caribbean-style stoneware, set neatly on banana-leaf placemats, and she had cooked a scrumptious spicy fish stew from the island of Aruba. The aroma greeting me at the front door was as though I had set foot ashore the Dutch Antilles… Reportedly, she had collected the recipe from the innkeeper’s cook of a small bed & breakfast in Oranjestad. Rumor has it, the cook in question fancied Griet’s fair skin & blue eyes, but let’s not go there, shall we?

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SPICY CARIBBEAN FISH STEW
(Adapted from a recipe by the ‘Arubiana Inn’ in Oranjestad, Aruba)
– 1 lbs of firm white fish (cat fish or halibut work great in this recipe)
– 1 lbs of large shrimp, shell-on
– 1 red onion, finely chopped or diced
– 2 cloves of garlic, minced or grated
– 2 whole cloves
– 2 laurel leaves
– 2 Tbsp of sweet curry powder
– 1 Tsp of ground cinnamon
– 1+ spicy red pepper(s), choose as per your ‘heat’ preference (*)
– 1 cans of diced tomatoes
– 1 lemon, zested & juiced
– 3 Tbsp of sour cream
– 1/3 cup of coconut cream (or coconut milk)
– Salt & pepper, to taste
– Olive oil
– Fresh cilantro, for garnish
(*) My friend Debi over at ‘Life Currents’ wrote a great post about choosing hot peppers. Read her post here, so you can decide how ‘hot’ you want to go in choosing the kind of pepper and the quantity for this dish.

In a large heavy pan, sauté the diced onion until translucent and starting to brown. After approx. 3 min or so, add the minced garlic, curry powder, cloves, cinnamon and chopped spicy pepper(s). Continue to stir-fry the spices and onions for 3-5 min to bring out their flavors. Add tomatoes, lemon juice, sour cream & coconut milk and season with salt & pepper to taste.

Chop fresh fish into large chunks, and place chunks in these in the sauce. Make sure to submerge them in the sauce as much as possible, so they cook evenly. Let them braise for about 15 min, then add shrimp and cook for 3-5 min more until shrimp are pink and fish is cooked through.

Sprinkle some chopped fresh cilantro over the top and serve with fried plantains, bread or rice.

Swedish Meatballs

22 Jul

The arrival of Swedish furniture giant Ikea not only brought us colorful & cozy Scandinavian home décor… but, more importantly, ‘kottbullar’! These tender morsels of beef & veal, in their creamy sauce and fruity lingonberry compote, sing their sweet siren song every time I happen to drive by the store alongside the 405 freeway. As soon as I see Ikea’s blue & gold logo in my line of sight, I feel a bubble of giddy excitement well up inside me and I nearly always feel compelled to pull off the freeway and stock up on a little bit of Europe in my otherwise American world. There’s something happy & cheery about Ikea, if it weren’t for the hoards of shoppers crowding the place on a daily basis.

Meatballs have long made their mark on Belgian cuisine as well. I think this is mainly because they pair so well with the warm fruity compotes you often find stewing in old-fashioned Belgian kitchens. I remember as a little girl, ‘omoe’ or grandma would brown up a batch of little meatballs and serve them with a sweet warm cherry sauce and chunky mashed potatoes. I have fond memories of those times, partly because grandpa would stuff his cheeks like a chipmunk and tell us stories in critter voice, much to the chagrin of grandma who felt it was not proper to indulge in such foolishness whilst having dinner. Occasionally, he’d lose a meatball and then all bets were off. Grandma would put an abrupt end to the silliness and grandpa would quickly follow suit for the sake of marital bliss and prompt us to be quiet and finish our plate. These moments of unbridled silliness never lasted long, but they shaped my memory of my beloved grandpa, who earned a PhD in biochemistry and was a professor emeritus at the renowned University of Ghent and super-cool kitchen table magician on weekends we visited. I think his world was filled with so much intellectual conversation and academic seriousness, that he enjoyed regaling his grandchildren with plain old silliness. Bless his soul in heaven.

As I got older and started paying my own bills, I developed a special affinity for the Swedish meatballs Ikea sold at bottom dollar. The recipe remains a bit of a mystery as so many Swedes have their own family recipe that was handed down from generation to generation, but below is my take on this beloved dish.

20130722-193259.jpg

SWEDISH MEATBALLS
(adapted from a recipe by Jeroen Meus)

For the meatballs:
– ½ lbs of lean ground beef
– ½ lbs of ground veal (or lean ground pork)
– 1 egg, yolk only
– ½ cup of breadcrumbs, soaked in 2-3 Tbsp of milk until just moistened through
– 1 Tbsp of allspice (or a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg & ground cloves)
– 2 shallots, very finely chopped
– salt & pepper
– beef broth, for boiling the meatballs before browning them

Take a large bowl and place the ground meats inside. Chop the shallots very finely and sauté in a little bit of butter until they turn translucent. Add the sautéed shallots to the bowl with the ground meats.

Add allspice and egg yolk to the meat mixture, and combine well. Add soaked breadcrumbs, and combine until everything is well incorporated. Add salt & pepper to taste.

Bring beef broth to a boil and drop 1.5-inch rolled meatballs into hot broth. Cook for approx. 4-5 minutes until done, and set aside on a plate. Once the meatballs are done, they’ll automatically float to the top.

In a heavy skillet, melt a few tablespoons of butter and quickly brown meatballs to a crispy golden brown, approx. 3 minutes.

For the creamy sauce:
– 4oz of heavy cream
– a splash of cognac (or cooking sherry)
– salt & pepper to taste

In the pan with the browned bits of the meatballs, add a hefty splash of cognac and ignite. You can do this with a match or – if you have a gas stove – by tilting your pan into flame, being careful not to spill the liquid. Stand back, as your pan will become enflamed for a few seconds.

Stir and scrape all the flavorful browned bits from the meatballs from the bottom of the pan, then add the cream and reduce the brown sauce a bit until it thickens. Add browned meatballs and toss to coat in the sauce.

Serve with mashed potatoes and a spoonful of cranberry sauce.

Swedish Meatballs

22 Jul

The arrival of Swedish furniture giant Ikea not only brought us colorful & cozy Scandinavian home décor… but, more importantly, ‘kottbullar’! These tender morsels of beef & veal, in their creamy sauce and fruity lingonberry compote, sing their sweet siren song every time I happen to drive by the store alongside the 405 freeway. As soon as I see Ikea’s blue & gold logo in my line of sight, I feel a bubble of giddy excitement well up inside me and I nearly always feel compelled to pull off the freeway and stock up on a little bit of Europe in my otherwise American world. There’s something happy & cheery about Ikea, if it weren’t for the hoards of shoppers crowding the place on a daily basis.

Meatballs have long made their mark on Belgian cuisine as well. I think this is mainly because they pair so well with the warm fruity compotes you often find stewing in old-fashioned Belgian kitchens. I remember as a little girl, ‘omoe’ or grandma would brown up a batch of little meatballs and serve them with a sweet warm cherry sauce and chunky mashed potatoes. I have fond memories of those times, partly because grandpa would stuff his cheeks like a chipmunk and tell us stories in critter voice, much to the chagrin of grandma who felt it was not proper to indulge in such foolishness whilst having dinner. Occasionally, he’d lose a meatball and then all bets were off. Grandma would put an abrupt end to the silliness and grandpa would quickly follow suit for the sake of marital bliss and prompt us to be quiet and finish our plate. These moments of unbridled silliness never lasted long, but they shaped my memory of my beloved grandpa, who earned a PhD in biochemistry and was a professor emeritus at the renowned University of Ghent and super-cool kitchen table magician on weekends we visited. I think his world was filled with so much intellectual conversation and academic seriousness, that he enjoyed regaling his grandchildren with plain old silliness. Bless his soul in heaven.

As I got older and started paying my own bills, I developed a special affinity for the Swedish meatballs Ikea sold at bottom dollar. The recipe remains a bit of a mystery as so many Swedes have their own family recipe that was handed down from generation to generation, but below is my take on this beloved dish.

20130722-193259.jpg

SWEDISH MEATBALLS
(adapted from a recipe by Jeroen Meus)

For the meatballs:
– ½ lbs of lean ground beef
– ½ lbs of ground veal (or lean ground pork)
– 1 egg, yolk only
– ½ cup of breadcrumbs, soaked in 2-3 Tbsp of milk until just moistened through
– 1 Tbsp of allspice (or a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg & ground cloves)
– 2 shallots, very finely chopped
– salt & pepper
– beef broth, for boiling the meatballs before browning them

Take a large bowl and place the ground meats inside. Chop the shallots very finely and sauté in a little bit of butter until they turn translucent. Add the sautéed shallots to the bowl with the ground meats.

Add allspice and egg yolk to the meat mixture, and combine well. Add soaked breadcrumbs, and combine until everything is well incorporated. Add salt & pepper to taste.

Bring beef broth to a boil and drop 1.5-inch rolled meatballs into hot broth. Cook for approx. 4-5 minutes until done, and set aside on a plate. Once the meatballs are done, they’ll automatically float to the top.

In a heavy skillet, melt a few tablespoons of butter and quickly brown meatballs to a crispy golden brown, approx. 3 minutes.

For the creamy sauce:
– 4oz of heavy cream
– a splash of cognac (or cooking sherry)
– salt & pepper to taste

In the pan with the browned bits of the meatballs, add a hefty splash of cognac and ignite. You can do this with a match or – if you have a gas stove – by tilting your pan into flame, being careful not to spill the liquid. Stand back, as your pan will become enflamed for a few seconds.

Stir and scrape all the flavorful browned bits from the meatballs from the bottom of the pan, then add the cream and reduce the brown sauce a bit until it thickens. Add browned meatballs and toss to coat in the sauce.

Serve with mashed potatoes and a spoonful of cranberry sauce.

Moroccan Spiced Meatloaf

8 Jul

I love the warmth and intense flavors you find in most ethnic cuisines. There’s something really homey about the scent of cinnamon, cardamom and cumin.

When I lived in Belgium, my humble 3-story house (commonly referred to as ‘the shoebox’ by a good friend of mine) stood in the beating heart of the Moroccan neighborhood in Ghent. Even though it’s been well over a decade since I called the ‘Jasmijnstraat’ my home, the inviting scent of that neighborhood is engraved into my olfactory system. I still remember stepping off the crowded tram after a long day’s work, and being greeted by the smell of roasted spiced meats and freshly baked sesame breads. I would often take the tram 1-2 blocks further, just so I could walk the extra few blocks home and pass by all the Moroccan bakeries & grocers. I loved that neighborhood. I’ve met some of the friendliest people there.

Even though our language-gap was roughly the size of the Mediterranean, my neighbors ‘Faisal & Mohammed’ welcomed me with traditional Moroccan hospitality when I moved into the neighborhood: mint tea & baklava. I didn’t catch on until much later that Faisal actually did not speak any Dutch and only spoke very broken French, but we shared a love for great home-cooked food. We frequently found common ground at the local spice vendors & small fresh produce markets, where she would often point and smile at me to indicate what the best flavor deal of the day was. As time went on, she would regularly send over her jeans-clad kids with dishes that were so delicious, that I may or may not have licked them clean. I plead the fifth.

Faisal & Mohammed, while very traditional in their Moroccan culture, loved & embraced Western culture, and married the best of both worlds. The recipe below is adapted from Faisal’s take on meatloaf. Don’t be alarmed by all the spices, it makes for a delicious meatloaf!

spiced meatloaf

MORROCAN SPICED MEATLOAF – served approx. 6 people
(adapted from a recipe by my former neighbor Faisal)

– 2 tbsp of olive oil
– 1 medium-sized carrot, grated
– 1 large rib of celery, diced very finely
– 6 green onions
– 1 clove of garlic, minced
– 1 lbs of lean ground beef
– ½ lbs of ground pork (or add ground lamb or more beef instead of pork )
– 1 tsp of salt
– a dash of cayenne pepper
– ¼ tsp of black pepper
– 1 ½ tsp of ground cardamom
– ½ tsp of ground cumin
– ½ tsp of ground cinnamon
– ¼ tsp of mace
– ¼ tsp of ground ginger
– 1 cup of breadcrumbs
– 1 large egg, whisked
– ¼ cup of milk
– 1 cup of curry ketchup, divided (for a basic homemade curry ketchup recipe, look here)

Heat the oven to 350F. Lightly grease a 9x5x3 loaf pan. In a skillet or saucepan, melt the butter with the olive oil. Sauté the grated carrot and the celery until softened. Add green onions and garlic and sauté for 1 minute longer. Let cool slightly.

In a large bowl with hands, thoroughly combine the beef, pork, salt, peppers, spices, bread crumbs, egg, 1/2 cup of ketchup, and the milk. Stir in the sautéed vegetables until well blended.

Pack into the prepared loaf pan and bake for 1 hour. Spread the remaining 3 tablespoons of ketchup over the top of the loaf and bake for 15 minutes longer. Let rest for 5 minutes before slicing.

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