Monday, April 20, 2009


Is pisto a mushy ratatouille, or is ratatouille a pisto with aubergines? Both are a perfect stew of fresh summer vegetables and a fantastic celebration of the season. They are both staples in the home kitchen, although the French ratatouille nicoise gained exposure from a Disney rat, while Spanish pisto manchego is described internationally as the "Spanish Ratatouille".

It's summertime, time for pisto manchego! (recipe)

What makes one a traditional Spanish or French dish? At the very least, they both agree that it must include onions, garlic, bell peppers, courgette (zucchini) and lots of fresh tomatoes, otherwise it's a different dish. The French version however insists that aubergines (eggplant) are integral, while they are not a strict requirement for the Spanish. But many Spanish grandmothers would swear by using aubergines in their pisto, so would that make it ratatouille?

I found pisto to be more of a sauce than a stew, where the tomatoes and aubergines melt away into a paste and the courgettes tender. Ratatouille is more a stew and an interplay between tomatoes, courgettes and aubergines. Cooking pisto is seemingly more relaxed - just chop and stew, while some ratatouille recipes require meticulous preparation - deseeding, peeling and/or individual cooking. The flavors of the vegetables are more discriminant, like the one the rat cooked in "Ratatouille a la Ratatouille".

Pisto lets the vegetables cook in their own juices with little or none accents of basil or oregano, while ratatouille may use various French herbs such as basil, marjoram, thyme, etc (see: herbes de Provence). But herein lies the problem with popular, traditional food: there are thousands of variations and no single "true" recipe. While some might say, pisto and ratatouille are like apples and oranges, I bet there are many proven pisto recipes that veer dangerously close into ratatouille territory, and vice versa.

At least we have the egg. Pisto is often served with a fried or poached egg, while not many ratatouille does - some French purists would quickly disapprove it. Commonly the egg is poached on top of the stew, a technique I also used while cooking chupe. I wonder if this is a Spanish thing. They sure love eggs.

When hungry, 87% Spaniards think of eggs. Ask Salvador Dali.

1. Pisto and Ratatouille - It's a Spanish-French Affair [1]
2. In praise of pisto and a perfectly balanced meal [2]
3. Pisto Manchego with Eggs [3]
4. Pisto on Wikipedia
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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Everybody loves jerk

It doesn't take much to be a "must-cook" plate of food: Give the name jerk chicken, and I'm already busy trawling the Web for more stories. The Jamaican jerk sauce is fiery hot and bursting with spices. The fire comes from the devil-hot Scotch Bonnet peppers, and the seasoning is a clever mix which features the pimento, also known as all-spice.

Jamaican jerk chicken (recipe) with festival.

The name jerk comes from the Quechua word charqui (dried meat), and related to the familiar term beef jerky. The technique of smoking meat was brought by Africans and later used by Arawaks using local Caribbean ingredients, originally for the modest purpose of keeping flies off the meat. The smoky flavors works wonderfully with the spices.

Pimento, the spice of all spices

The star spice is the pimento, the dried unripe fruit of a plant version, which looks like peppercorn. The name always confuses me because there is also the succulent pimento bell pepper. In Portuguese, pimento is the bell pepper, pimenta is the spice. In English, pimento can refer to either. It's just like the term Indians.

We can call it by the other names, Jamaican peppers or allspice (I think this is the proper English name). But I like pimento better - it sounds more fun. Allspice got its name because it tastes like a combination of flavors like nutmeg, pepper and clove. It's used extensively in the Caribbean, and to some extent in Europe and Middle East, but almost none in Eastern Asia. It is the only spice that is exclusively grown in the Western Hemisphere.

It has a share in history too. Pirates of the Caribbean used it by for boucan, barbecuing anything from fish, pigs, feral cats to turtles. Presumably the strong smell of pimento masks the taste of bad meat used by the ungourmandy crew. So the story goes, the pirates who make boucan for provisions become known as buccaneers. Now, if there's one spice associated with buccaneering, it should be pimento, not something delicate like lavender.

Peppers, evil little peppers

The other trademark of the jerk sauce is the fiery Scotch Bonnet peppers. These peppers are popular in Caribbean cuisine, like Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago. I had to substitute that with Madame Jeanette peppers which is Surinamese and has a more fruity flavor. They carry the same heat - an amazing 250,000 in the Scoville scale which measures chili intensity. Usually peppers I use like Thai pepper (cabe rawit) is around 75,000 while cayenne pepper is 15,000. Not sure how to understand the scale in human sensory terms but it's an impressive number nonetheless.

In my quest for looking for Scotch Bonnet peppers, I found that the hottest pepper is the Indian Naga Jolokia, with a whopping score of 850,000. So obsessed are these heat aficionados that they experiment crossbreeding to produce even hotter chili peppers (I can picture an Indian scientist, after creating the world's hottest pepper, screaming, "It is being alive! It is being alive!")

Madame Jeanette, substitute for Scotch Bonnet peppers. Damn hot.

I hesitated to put six of these little devils for four servings, but I always try to follow the most authentic recipe available. It turned out hot, but not overwhelming hot. Then again I have been conditioned with chilies lately from one of my latest experiment, the Bhutanese "chili curry" Emma Datschi.

Mise en place for jerk sauce, including pimento, pepper, nutmeg, ginger, lime, thyme, cinnamon, olive oil, orange juice, sugar, soy sauce (see complete recipe).

The result following this recipe was a success, it was very tasty. The burnt sugars in the sauce made it rather black, but it is easy to scrape off to reveal juicy chicken underneath (remember to baste it now and then). The overall pimento taste was prominent in the palate, it's hard to individually distinguish the additional cinammon, cloves, and nutmeg added. Even then, next time I won't skimp on the spices. Usually you can look for a "simple" version and a "sophisticated" version of the recipe to get an idea which spices are essential. But from the numerous recipes I looked at, you may reduce the heat but never reduce the variety of spices. You need them all: pimento, peppers, nutmeg, ginger, lime, thyme, cinnamon, etc.

Jerk chicken, festival, rice and peas!

With the quantity of jerk chicken made for two meals, I paired them with two different side dishes. The first one is festival, a sweet flour-and-cornmeal dough, fried in oil. Again, the name festival is too good to pass up. I'm a sucker for some catchy food names. The festival is very sweet, it contains lots of sugar and vanilla.

The next day, we had rice and peas! The name may be unassuming, but the mix is really good. The rice and peas have contrasting textures and the coconut milk adds richness. It is also scented with Madame Jeanette peppers.

Jerk chicken with rice and peas (recipe)

The two different pairings felt like two different concepts. The jerk chicken with sweet festival felt like a big between-meals snack, like hot dogs. The festival is great to be dipped in the jerk sauce. I'd say without sauce it may be too dry. Meanwhile, the jerk chicken with rice and peas feels more like a hearty dinner. I give a slight nod to the rice and peas. Both are great, but I felt the combination works just a little better there.

1. Jerk chicken recipe from Jamaican Travel and Culture [1A]; Festival [1B]; Rice and peas [1C].
2. Jerk chicken from Simply Recipes [2]
3. Allspice from Encyclopedia of Spices [3]
4. Allspice from Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages [4]
5. Chilies from [5]
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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

World's greatest undiscovered cuisine

Varying climates and genetic diversity lend to great cuisines. This I confirmed while browsing for culinary hotspots, with the expected, like Lebanon, and unexpected, like Azerbaijan. A humbling late discovery for me is Peru, which should be expected for a land that grows 4000 potato varieties. Add another 2000 types of sweet potatoes, a rich coastline and, well, you should have a head start to fantastic cuisines.

Foodies have been well aware of Peruvian cuisine. However, it remains lesser known than the (always arguable) greatest cuisines of the world: French and Chinese. And Indian, for those who do not blatantly generalize it as curry. Yet Peruvian rivals them with all it has to offer. This post wouldn't be the last of Peru surely, just an ode to its fusion culture.
Fusion Lomo saltado, stir-fried beef and french fries. Why not? (recipe)

Before it became chic, there was already fusion in Peruvian cuisine. It is exemplified in the popular Lomo Saltado, beef marinated with vinegar and aji amarillo, topped with french fries - then stir fried, Chinese style with soy sauce and culantro. It's funny to be eating stir-fried french fries with rice[*], yet oddly comforting. French fries are nothing special, neither is stir frying, but some thinking-out-of-the-box Peruvians thought, so why not? Exciting dishes need not exotic ingredients nor fanciful cooking techniques, just unusual combinations that work.

Mexican ceviche, inspired by the Peruvian trademark dish (recipe).
Peru's fusion tradition is deeply rooted since the discovery of Americas which combines Spanish kitchen and indigenous South American ingredients. For instance, since pre-Colombian times, Incans have perfected consuming fish, sometimes raw, with herbs and aji peppers. Spanish explorers imported Seville oranges and lemon, and there one of the greatest culinary achievements was born: the ceviche, the Peruvian hallmark and national dish. This brilliantinvention, and I don't use that term often, is raw fish cooked in lime or lemon juice.

The lime juice "cooks" the fish without heat, as it alters proteins the way normal cooking does. But it doesn't lose its freshness, so it's like a win-all situation. There are hundreds of varieties of ceviche in South America, yet I tried the Mexican version with raw onions and tomatoes, served on warm tortillas. If I'm not clear yet, I'll say it again: it's heavenly. As are many I discovered:Chupe de Camarones, rich thick shrimp soup with queso fresco, corn and egg; Suspiro de Limena, a meringue dessert as light as the sigh of a woman from Lima. Perhaps, it wouldn't be the world's greatest unknown cuisine for much longer.

More gems of Peru: Chupe de Camarones (recipe) and Suspiro de Limena (recipe).

References :
1. Peruvian cuisine from Wikipedia [1]
2. Peru: A gastronomic revolution from [2]
3. Peruvian food: Magic Spell Of Peruvian Cuisine With Seafood [3]
4. Ceviche, from What's Cooking America?[4]
5. Ceviche on Gourmet Sleuth [5]
6. Lomo Saltado recipe from AllRecipes [6]

[*] If you think rice and potatoes are too rich carbohydrate-wise, wait for the next item on my list: the Egyptian Kushari: lentil, corn, spaghetti, macaroni and rice.
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