Monday, August 27, 2012

X is for Xalapa, Mexico- A Tasty Take on Traditional Flavors

“Side Note: I know I haven’t written a post for close to a year, but my hiatus was simply because I had to be a big girl and work full time! But now that I am back to being a student, I officially have time to write about one of my favorite things in the world: Food! So I hope you all don’t hate me too much, and if you do, I hope after reading this, you will forgive me, and hate me just a little less”

 As pointed out to me by my brilliant sorority sister, Keshia, there is no country that starts with the letter “X”. Although she suggested we start our own country that begins with the letter X, I thought an easier, and more practical option would be to pick a country that has a city that begins with X, and seeing that this is my blog, and I can do what I please, I did exactly that.

As you could imagine there are many (many, many!) cities in China that begin with the letter X, but that is too predictable! Instead I wanted to take advantage of Columbus’ annual Festival Latino, and write about Xalapa, Mexico!

Xalapa (pronounced ja-la-pa) is the capital city of Veracruz, a costal state on the southeastern side of Mexico. In honor of Governor Juan de la Luz Enríquez, the city is officially, Xalapa de Enríquez. Governor Enríquez served as Governor of Veracruz from 1884 until his death in 1892, and is celebrated for the foundation of schools and universities that brought development and prosperity during the 19th century. But, before there was Enríquez, there were the Totonacas.

During the 14th century the Totonacas were the first group of people to establish themselves in present day Xalapa. The villages in Xalapa grew and united, forming one large village, and named Xallapan. During the 15th century the village was invaded by Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, and became part of the Aztec Empire…until the Spanish arrived.

Those of you who have read my blogs can guess what happens next…the Spanish, led by Hernándo Cortés, and allied with the Tlaxcala, laid siege to the Aztec Empire and destroyed what is known as present day Mexico City. From there, the Aztecs crumbled and an outbreak of smallpox eventually led to the fall of city.

Fresh Red Snapper
Due to its proximity to water, Xalapa became a thriving center for Spanish commerce, both buying and selling products form the peninsula. Popular Spanish ingredients, such as olives, capers, almonds, dried fruit, olive oil, cheeses, wine, and vinegar, imprinted with lush vegetation Xalaba to create this regional cuisine. The coast also provides a great array of gulf coast fish, including red snapper. Traditional dishes include, Arroz a la tumbada, a rice dish with a variety of seafood (translated: “tumbled rice”), and caldo de mariscos, a seafood stew known to cure a hangovers. Pescado a la Veracruzana (Veracruz fish) showcases the tasty blend of Mexican and Spanish influence. Dishes labeled “a la Veracruzana” usually mean it contains a tomato-based sauce with onions, garlic, olives, chilies and spices.

Xalapa is known as the birthplace of the jalapeño peppers. These medium-sized chili peppers are usually picked before they are fully ripe, and still green. Like most peppers, the seeds of the chili contain the heat of the jalapeño, while the flesh has a mild flavor close to the green bell pepper. The jalapeños are used in salsas, are stuffed, or used as a vinaigrette condiment, known as jalapeños en escabeche. When the jalapeño is dried and smoked it becomes a chipotle (not like the restaurant). The chipotles are usually pickled in a sweet-and-hot brown sugar and vinegar marinade. Ancient Xalapa was also known for their corn cultivations, and thus products made of maize, such as gorditas and tostada, are also prevalent to the region. The land also provides ideal climate for coffee production, which remains one of the regions main agricultural products.
Other local staples include green beans, black beans, fava beans, zucchini, and chayote. The chayote is added to Xalapan mole verde (a stew that includes ground chilies, spices and tomatillos). The root of the chayote is also consumed, typically fried and served in a red sauce. An abundant number of edible flowers are also typical to Xallapan cuisine. The most common is the squash blossom, which is used in soups and quesadillas. Also common is the yucca flower, which is also used in soups, but is also added to red mole.


Recipe Time:

To my surprise Festival Latino hardly had any Mexican food stands. Those that were in attendance served typical taco stand items. On to plan B: Find a restaurant. As it can be imagined, there are many Mexican restaurants in Columbus, but the tricky part is to A.) find good, authentic one, and B.) one that serves a dish from the region. After a great time spent reading various Columbus food blogs, Yelp, and Urban Spoon reviews, I chose Cuco's Taqueria. They are locally owned, and had good reviews about their Pescado a la Veracruzana.  Oh, did I mention that back when I had cable I heard their commercial like 52895832 times a day…because I did (marketing strategies at its finest).
Chiles Rellenos 
All my friends were too cool or busy with the real world to have lunch with me, so I took it to go. Naturally, I ordered the Pescado Veracruz but I also ordered Chiles Rellenos, because I love fried cheesy things. My meal also came with a nice, heaping, portion of tortillas with a mild salsa. The Chiles Rellenos, are two roasted poblano peppers stuffed with cheese, deep fried, and topped with a red ranchero sauce. The first bite always scares me. Peppers in themselves are necessarily spicy; it is the seeds that usually contain the heat. So, not knowing if the peppers were deseeded, I took a large bite while simultaneously clenching a large glass of water in the other hand…and to my surprised it was delicious. It was cheesy, crispy, and airy. The ranchero sauce was also quite flavorful; my only complaint is that there was a tad too much ranchero sauce.
Pescado Veracruz
 On to the main event! The Pescado Veracruz was a grilled fish (I think tilapia) smothered with the salsa Veracruz. The meal was served with black beans, rice, and guacamole. The fish was light, delicate, and flavorful. The true star was the salsas amazing blend of Mexican and Spanish flavors. It’s amazing the flavor olives can add to a dish. Minus the deep fried pepper and tortillas, the fish is a perfect light lunch that I would order again.

Red snapper would be the ideal fish to make a traditional Pescado a la Veracruzana, but budget restraints led me to choose a less expensive white, flaky fish…tilapia! The mild fish takes to the flavors of the salsa just lovely, and honestly any white fish filets would do.
I got the recipe from Food Network’s Marcela Valladolid, from “Mexican Made Easy” (you can watch her Saturday mornings at 9am).

Pescado a la Veracruzana
Serves 4

·      3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
·      4 (6-ounce) tilapia fillets or other white fish fillets
·      Salt and freshly ground black pepper
·      1 small onion, chopped
·      4 garlic cloves, minced
·      1 1/2 cups canned crush tomatoes with juice (I used tomatoes from my cousin’s garden, which I think made a big difference. Not to be super snobby, but local tomatoes always taste better, and I would recommend using them if you can)
·      1 Anaheim chile, stemmed, seeded and cut into thin strips
·      1 bay leaf
·      1 teaspoon dried oregano
·      1/2 cup pitted and halved green olives
·      1/4 cup capers, drained

1.    Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2.   In a medium saute pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Season the fish fillets on both sides with salt and black pepper, to taste. Saute the fillets until they are opaque and just cooked through, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer the fish to a glass baking dish where they fit snugly.
3.   In the same saute pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.
4.    Add the tomatoes, Anaheim chile, bay leaf and oregano and bring the pan to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover and let the sauce simmer until the chiles soften, about 6 minutes.
5.   Uncover the pan, add the olives and capers, and cook until the flavors combine, about 4 minutes. Season the sauce with salt and pepper, to taste.
6.   Pour the sauce over the fish in the baking dish. Bake until the fish is heated through, about 5 minutes. Remove the dish from the oven, discard the bay leaf and serve.

**I served mine with brown rice, black beans, guacamole (made by Colin) and pickled jalapeños. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

W is for the West Indies: An amalgamation of cuisines


So you know the All State commercials that always end “Life Comes At You Fast..”, well that’s how I feel about my life right now. It’s been crazy, hectic, and my blog has somehow ended at the bottom of my to-do list. But I am back now, over this hiatus, and ready to eat and write!

A sign from the universe came to me a few weeks ago when I was trying to figure out what to write for “W”. I was driving home from work, and I was going back and forth in my head on what to write about when I realized I was lost. Yes, lost…in Columbus. This never happens! I know Columbus like the back of my hand! So, here I am, driving around a not very safe part of Columbus, when I see a beautiful, bright, gem in the middle of gray, boarded houses. It was Ena’s Caribbean Cuisine, and in that instant I knew I had to try this beauty, and further more I knew I had to write about the West Indies.

Yes, I know, the West Indies is not a country, but this is my blog, and I’ll do what I please.

So the West Indies is a region better known as the Caribbean. However, back in the day, January 3, 1958 to be exact, there was a short-lived British federation known as The West Indies Federation that encompassed Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos, Barbados, the Leeward Islands, the Windward Islands, and Trinidad and Tobago. Due to internal political conflicts the federation only lasted 4 years.

Most people tend to forget that I am half Puerto Rican (that’s until my excessive pride comes to light) and I grew up on flavorful, colorful Caribbean food. Saying my dad was an excellent cook is an understatement. My papi grew up cooking, and my parents even met at a restaurant (he the chef, she the waitress). As much as I love my mother’s cooking, I would take my father’s cooking over hers any day. He cooked with love, and soul, and lots of salt, which is why I think I love salty things so much. I cherish the memories I have of him cooking. His cooking brought the family together, and I hope to someday do that with my family.

So the point is, I have a soft spot for Caribbean. It represents my father and childhood, and I am excited to write about it.

Caribbean food is so unique because it is an amalgamation (GRE word!) of cuisines from different cultures, representing the Virgin Islands, Cuba, Barbados and Puerto Rican to name a few. The power struggle over the islands, mainly between the French, British, and Spanish, has influenced the flavors of Caribbean cuisine, brining not only their own touches but also the gastronomic trends from African, Indian, and China.

Carib Family, 1818 - Credit: John Gabriel Stedman
Now, it is time for your anthropology/ history lesson of the day.  Two tribes --- the Arawaks and the Caribs, first inhabited the islands. The Arawaks were the indigenous peoples that Christopher Columbus encountered when he first ventured out to the Americas. They had a particular way of farming, in which they created slow burning fires that enriched the soul with phosphorus and potassium that allowed for a more sustainable way of farming.  The also developed the hammock and drank alcohol made from fermented corn (i.e everclear). According to (one of my favorite websites!) “theArawaks are credited with beginning barbecue techniques, by fabricating grills with native green sticks called barbacoa. Crops tended by these Native Americans included taro root, corn, yams, cassava, and peanuts. Guavas and pineapple, as well as black-eyed peas and lima beans grew wild on the islands.” The Caribs, after whom the Caribbean Sea was named, are claimed to have begun spicing food with chili peppers. However don’t be fooled, most Caribbean food is not very spicy. The Caribs, were also cannibals, hence the meaning of the English "cannibal". It was associated with rituals related to the eating of war enemies, and lucky for us that trend did not stick around. When our buddy Chris Columbus arrived in 1493, he introduced sugarcane to the indigenous peoples. It was later discovered that rum could be made from fermented cane juice, a drink that remains the ultimate in tropical Caribbean refreshment, such as piña coladas, and my favorite drink, the Mojito. My awesome Puerto Rican buddy Emilio, also introduced me to a traditional Puerto Rican drink, coquito, an eggnog-like drink made from egg yolks, rum, coconut milk, coconut cream, sweet condensed milk, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.  The Spaniards also introduced other foods, notably coconut, chickpeas, cilantro, eggplant, onions, and garlic. Soon other European colonists, including the Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, British, French, and the Swedes, brought to the islands their culinary influences, particularly, oranges, limes, mangoes, rice, and coffee.
In the 1600’s, slaves from West Africa were brought to the Caribbean Islands, and carried their trademark ingredients, including okra, pigeon peas, plantains, callaloo, taro, breadfruit and ackee. In 1838, following the abolishment of the slave trade, laborers from India and China came to work in the fields and plantations, adding two very different culinary convergences to the already long list.
There are distinct regional differences in cuisines of the Caribbean. Islands like Puerto Rico and Cuba have distinct Spanish-influenced food. Guadeloupe and Martinique are French-owned; their native cuisine having ties to France. Jamaica, which was once a major slave-trading center, is rich in African culture.
Although it is difficult to generalize about Caribbean cuisine, all that you need to know is that it is delicious. It has a little something from everywhere, which is what makes this multicultural cuisine quite fantastic.

Recipe time:
As I have said before some of the best spots to eat in Columbus are those “hole-in-wall”/mom and pop joints that often go unrecognized. For inspiration I checked out the diamond in the rough known as Ena’s Caribbean Kitchen.  Mrs. Ena’s restaurant has been open in the Linden area for about 11 years, however her cooking experience has spanned over 45 years. She infuses her Jamaican roots with her experience in Spanish influenced Caribbean kitchens. The restaurant is small, yet the aromas of spices and grill flood the neighborhood. I was almost drooling from excitement of the smells and colors coming from the building. I could never live across the street from that place….I would constantly be hungry. So, along with my trusty sidekick Emil, and his buddy, we embarked on a Caribbean voyage. I wanted to be adventurous with my meal choice, so I chose the oxtail, with red beans and rice, and a side of cabbage.  The meat was seriously the most tender cut of meat I have ever had in my entire life….yes entire life. I have been a few fancy, smancy restaurants, and nothing compares to this juicy, flavorful meat that literally falls off the bone…it was delicious, and I was glad I decided to buy a large portion. Ena’s has definitely become a new favorite of mine, and I can’t wait to get “lost” again.
oxtail with red beans and rice and cabbage  
Although I ate a more African influenced Caribbean meal, I decided to stick to my roots and prepare a Puerto Rican classic, pastelón. Pastelón is the way Puerto Rican’s make lasgna. It has the perfect combo of savory and sweet, of juicy and cheesy, and just simply delicioso! I learned to make this dish from a good friend of my mom and dad, Leslie. Leslie is a petite, little firecracker…the quintessential Puerto Rican women, feisty, family oriented, and a great cook. She puts green beans in her pastelón, but I wanted to go with a more traditional recipe, so I omitted the green beans and added  Spanish olives. She also does a montery cheese, and I decided to go with a Chihuahua cheese, which melts better and goes a bit better with Latin flavors. All in all it was pretty freaking delicious.  My moocher sister and new roommate, Jenny, ate it so fast that I couldn’t take a photo of her eating it. I had to physically stop my self from eating it all. It was beyond yummy. Yet, next time I would make more plantains, and add more meat. The flavors were nostalgic, so this dish is dedicated to my Papi and all Puerto Rican women that love to cook!
Little me, my sisters, my mother and father <3

Serves about 6, but honestly you will not want to share with anyone

                1 lbs ground beef
                1 onion,minced
                3 gloves garlic, minced
                1 green pepper, minced
                1/2 chopped cilantro
                2 tsp adobo
                2 tsp oregano
                2 Tbs vinegar
                1 envelope sazón
                2 bay leaves
                3 plantains, peeled and sliced into strips
                3 eggs
                2 Tbs milk
                2 cups white shredded cheese ( I used Chihuahua cheese)
                Olive oil

1.     Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter square pan with 1 tbs of butter.

2.     Heat a large skillet at medium-high heat with 2 Tbs of olive oil,
3.     Combine onion, pepper, garlic, adobo, and sazon in oil. 
4.     Add meat, and mix well.
5.     Cook beef until brown and of the juices bubble up, add bay leaves, and olives.  Mix and let simmer for 10 minutes, set aside.
6.     Heat a large frying pan with vegetable oil, just enough to coat the bottom.  Fry plantains for 2-3 minutes on each side or until golden and slitely crispy.  Drain on a plate with paper towel, set aside.

notice how I couldn't resist eating one....
7.     To assemble pastelon: Take your prepared square pan, start with a layer of plantains, then beef, then a fistful of cheese, repeat.  You want to finish with cheese and plantains.  Beat 3 eggs with 2 Tbs of milk, pour over the pastelón.  Let it sit for a minute allowing the egg to soak in.  Top off with just a bit more cheese.

8.     Bake in oven at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

V is for Vietnam: My Pho is not your Pho

Vietnamese market

One of my oldest friends, Erika, is basically my go to person for everything and anything Asian. Her time dating a Vietnamese/Chinese guy basically made her an expert in my eyes (Sidenote: I heard the best way to learn about a culture is not to visit places but to have a lover from a different country, so I think , strictly for educational purposes only, I must date a French guy) . Well, let us go back to that time when I talked about my road trip to Arizona (Remember the Pad Thai post?).  Not only did I experience my first Pad Thai, which I loved, I also experience my first Pho, which I hated. Pho (not pronounced Phooo, but more like Phu) is basically a traditional Vietnamese beef soup with a bunch of fixings. I decided to be adventurous and try seafood Pho. It was filled with squishy, chewy, not cooked, sea critters that I did not like. But since it is “V” week, I thought I’d give Pho another chance in my life, and unlike most men I date, I was not disappointed.
Vietnam is peninsula nestled close to Laos, Cambodia, and China.  Vietnam’s geography and proximity to these other Asian countries has very much influenced their culture, and it is clearly reflected in their cuisine. Vietnamese cuisine reflects China’s use of stir-fries, noodles, and chopsticks, Cambodia’s egg noodles, coconut milk, and spices, and even its former invaders, Mongolia, use of beef (remember they are the ones that invented the hamburger).

It is said that Vietnam resembles a bamboo pole with a basket of rice at each end. Surrounded by water, its rivers provide the fertile soil need for the abundance of rice consumed in the country.  However, unlike the short-grain rice common in Chinese cooking, the Vietnamese prefer long-grain rice. Rice is not only eaten as a side dish, it is also transformed into other staple ingredients such as, rice wine, rice vinegar, rice paper wrappers, and noodles.
Rice fields 

Noodles are also quite important in a Vietnamese diet. There are basically four main types of rice noodles used in Vietnamese gastronomy:
  1. Banh pho- wide white noodle used in Pho
  2. Bun- basically rice vermicelli, used in spring rolls
  3. Banh hoi- a thinner version of bun noodles
  4. Mein/Bun Tao- cellophane noodles made from mung bean starch

Banh pho

But Vietnamese is sooooo much more than rice and noodles.  Equally as important to Vietnamese cuisine is nước mm (nuoc man), a fish sauce used in most Vietnamese dishes. It is made by layering anchovies in salt and then fermenting them in wooden barrels for about six months.

nuoc man

star anise 
Vietnamese food has a unique flavor that is created by a diverse range of herbs and spices such as, lemongrass, mint, coriander, Thai basil, soy sauce, star anise, shallots, green onions, cilantro, and limejuice. To provide a contrast to what can sometimes be quite spicy food, cool and crunchy foods, like cucumbers and bean sprouts, is usually incorporated into a dish.  A typical Vietnamese also includes some meat, such as beef, fish, pork, or chicken (nothing too crazy). However there is still a strong vegetarian tradition influenced by Buddhist values.

While the regions in Vietnam are noted to a have different flavor preferences (the North being mild and traditional, Central is spicy and complex, while the South is sweet and vibrant) all three areas share some fundamental features:
  1. Freshness- Meats and vegetables are usually only briefly cooked (such as done in Pho), to preserver their original textures and colors.
  2. Herbs- they are used in abundance in traditional cuisine.
  3. Broth and Soup based dishes are characteristics of all three regions.
  4. Presentation- Meals are usually very colorful and arranged in a visually pleasing manner.

I love finding different cultures proverbs, and much to my fancy, Vietnam has a plethora of food related proverbs. I have been doing a lot of volunteering at farmers market, so I decided to end with this:

“Ăn quả nhớ kẻ trồng cây”
When eating a fruit, think of the person who planted the tree


As I mentioned earlier, I decided to give Pho another chance, and boy did it pay off! Pho is beef noodle soup, and Vietnam’s signature dish. It can be eaten any time, and place. It is also a fun dish to make for a large group, because it is one of those communal type of dishes I love. Basically, everyone is seated around a table with the condiments of the soup, and then you can put whatever you want into your own bowl of beef noodle soup. Thus no two bowls of pho are alike!

Arielle, who is almost as obsessed with food as I am, and I had a brilliant plan for a boring Tuesday night in Columbus. We decided to visit our local Vietnamese restaurant (Yea, we have one of those) and eat our tummys full while watching my favorite summer reality show….So You Think You Can Dance! We visited Pho Asian Noodle House & Grill located off Lane Ave.  The menu is extensive, but that doesn’t stop it from having a DRIVE THROUGH (How amazing, an Asian restaurant with a drive through, I love it). But we decided to go in, where we were promptly greeted by a sweet staff member who answered all of our questions without making me feel dumb. I ended up getting pho and Vietnamese spring rolls all for under $10. The food is cheap, delicious, and the place has a drive through. Definitely one for everyone to go try.

I recreated my meal Sunday night for my #1 moochers, my sister Jennifer and Emil. Like I always stress…GO TO AN ASIAN MARKET. I got everything but the meat there for under $10 ( I didn’t get meat there because they don’t sell any). The meal was exremly aromatic (it smelled like pho for days!) and flavorful. I also tried really hard to make the presentation nice, which I think I did pretty well. Except…my spring rolls. They looked horrid. I didn’t roll them tight enough. However they were quite tasty. The meal also took hours to make, but it was just hours of the broth simmering. Most of the work went into prep work. This is a fun dish for a large group, so next time you entertain I totally suggest this!

Chả Giò (spring rolls)

makes 20 rolls

wood ear mushrooms
cellophane noodles 
  • 1/4 lb. minced raw shrimp
  • 1/4 lb. ground pork
  • 1/4 pound of bean sprouts
  • 1 medium carrots, grated
  • 2 minced shallots
  • 1/2 cup wood ear mushrooms, chopped finely 
  • 1/z oz. cellophane noodles 
  • 1 medium white onions, chopped
  • 1 package round rice paper
  • 1 eggs, beaten
  • Vegetable oil for deep frying
  • Salt and pepper 
1. Combine the ground pork, minced shrimp, bean sprouts, shredded carrots, mushrooms     and shallots, then set aside. 

2. Soak the cellophane noodles in a bowl of warm water for 15 to 30 minutes. 
3. Add the onions, black pepper and salt, then mix until well-blended, set them aside to rest for at least 15 minutes before rolling them, or if you choose, you can leave the mixture refrigerated overnight.
4. Begin to roll. I used this video to help me figure out how to roll a spring roll. 

5.  In medium heat, place about 2 cups or more of vegetable oil in a wok or deep sauce    pan. The oil should be at a depth of about 2 1/2 inches. When ready, Fry about eight rolls at a time until golden brown, about 15 minutes per batch. 
6. As you remove the rolls from the pan, drain them on paper towels. Add more oil when   necessary.  
7. Dip with sweet and sour sauce and enjoy.                                                            

Pho Bo
serves 6

Pho Broth and spice mix
  • 4 quarts Beef broth or Pho Broth mix ( I found the Pho Broth mix at the Asian market)
  • Pho Spices ( I found a spice mix at the Asian Market)
    • ginger root
    • lemon grass
    • cinnamon
    • peppercorns 
    • star anise
  • 1 large Onion
  • 1 pound sirloin tip, cut into thin slices
  • 8oz dried rice noodles 
  • 3 tbsp fish sauce 
  • Basil leaves, preferably Thai Basil 
  • Bean Sprouts
  • Mint
  • Cilantro
  • Limes
  • Jalapeno peppers (optional)
    1.In a large pot, combine the 10 quarts of water with the broth mix, Pho spices, and onion. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and cover. Simmer for 1 hour.

    2.Strain the broth and return broth to the pot.

    3. Arrange bean sprouts, mint, basil, cilantro, and lime on platter.

    4.Soak the noodles in hot water to cover for 15 minuets or until soft. Drain and place in the broth. 

    rice noodles 

    5.Place the thin slices of beef in the hot soup. The meat should be on slightly cooked.
    Pass plates for guest to garnish on their own.