Growing up, koftas was one of my favorite foods of choice. Which kid doesn't like meatballs? And almost all cultures have their own particular culinary expression of spectacularly flavored balls of meat.
Mum would usually make hers with ground mutton or goat meat with the distinct flavor of peppercorns in every bite. Having left India, finding excellent quality spring goat meat, which by the way is far more superior to lamb since it has neither the toughness nor the pungent odor, was quite hard to find. Don't get me wrong, I love spring lamb when cooked right but spring goat is in a league entirely its own!
And so I turned to the meat of which there was plenty i.e. chicken. Interestingly enough this posed yet another problem - It is nearly impossible to create chicken meatballs i.e. koftas that are succulent and moist that don't turn into tough rubbery balls of meat.
The answer to this lies in the addition of ground pork. You don't need a lot, just half the quantity of the ground chicken you are using but the results are fantastic! Moist succulent and flavorful spheres of chook heaven.
Now I may have convinced you to add the pork but my own Mum is proving to be a rather tough customer. Its been years and every time we have a conversation about chicken koftas & I add my two cents worth aboutadding the ground pork, I can hear her less than enthusiastic unhaa...unhaa..transmitted across the sound waves. Noncommittal followed by a swift change of topic!
OK, I need to look at it from Mum's point of view. Most traditional Indian families in India don't set out to buy pork on a regular basis if at all. They tolerate it if it is served in restaurants or when traveling abroad but to seek it out goes against their grain. The exception to this rule are the Goan Christian inhabitants who favor pork more than any other meat.
But here in the great void of the world wide web, I have this to say to Mum - Since she & Dad tolerate pork in all those wonderful creations served up just for them at China Garden & Ling's Pavilion (their favorite restaurants by far) surely she can go to the market and buy a 1/2 lb of ground pork when she does end up making Chicken koftas a la her daughter.
Surely the shop that sells those cocktail sausages at Pali Naka will have little bags of it ready to go without your having to see big pig heads on a stake at the abattoir.
The figurative ball or should I say 'kofta' as they say is now in Mum's court!
If you are reading this and wondering if my mother dropped me on my head when I was little, let me just say that my Mother was an excellent Mum and did no such thing!
Quirky as I may be, the responsibility of such a splendid attribute rests solely on my shoulders & mine alone.
Anyway, back to the point, many of my cookbooks live in old packing boxes in the storage area. It isn't because I don't love them so I treat them as orphans - far from it! We simply have no room and were I too bring all my cookbooks in the home to live with us, I'd basically have to move into the car with Mr. Hubby, 2 kids and our enormous Golden Retriever Sydney! Mr. Hubby has allergies & Sydney (our Golden) occasionally farts so that simply won't do!
So to assuage myself, I once in a while drag the boxes indoors and spend a few days sighing & reading & sifting through all those wonderful olden golden recipes. For the longest time, I had misplaced the itty bitty book by Nika Hazelton on Regional Italian cooking which I had purchased from a street vendor in Mumbai when I was about yay high. So when I found it at the bottom of the box wedged under my coffee table pasta book & Fannie Farmer's Cookbook, I yanked it out with such flourish, that I fell flat on my behind. Anyway, now that we've found each other again, I haven't been able to put it down since. (Needless to say, it now sits on my kitchen counter top)
Anyway, its late in the evening and as I am perusing its picture-less pages, I come across a recipe for a Bread cake and I read it again because the bloody thing has no flour - it's made with stale breadcrumbs! And I'm thinking, good old Nika's gone batty - anyway I have such respect for her andwe've known each other for such a long time that I decided that I simply must take a chance and fix this cake.
The cake is an old world recipe that hails from Lake Como, in Lombardy, Italy and its as rustic as they come. I call it rustic because it reminds me of the old tea cakes from growing up - they were always very dense and incredibly flavorful with none of that fru fru stuff in it. So don't expect this to be a light and fluffy cake , it isn't, its not meant to be!
You know what it reminded me of - a semolina tea cake that I fix which is also very rustic.
There are some days, when no force on earth is going to get me out of my jammies to go grocery shopping and on such days raiding the pantry and the freezer will just have to do.
This afternoon, I open my freezer to find one measly packet of a lb and a half of flank steak. My refrigerator looks like it has been hit by famine and a further rummage through the pantry reveals a similar condition - some black beans and an assortment of other lentils.
The combination of the 2 ingredients - steak and beans, gets me thinking of South American cuisine and I rush to pull out my Mark Miller cookbook which has my go-to recipe for his fabulous Black Bean Soup but I have yet to figure out what to do with the flank steak.
I recall a lovely lunch I had several years ago in this hole-in-the wall, mom and pop, Cuban diner the name of which eludes me but it was in Richmond, Virginia. I remember turning into a shopping center and stopping at the only place still open for a late lunch.
And what a lunch it was! I had ordered Ropa Vieja(for the first time ever) which means 'Old Clothes' referring to the shredded beef. This was served with black beans, rice and fried bananas. I absolutely adored the flavors of the meat with the onions, tomatoes, cumin and bell peppers.
Fortunately, the nice elderly Cuban couple behind the counter had given me a brief run through the recipe and though mine may not be a 100% authentic rendition, I am pretty confident I can pull off a pretty decent Ropa Vieja nevertheless. (Undoubtedly, I shall be taking artistic liberties as I progress..smile...)
How wonderful to fix a dish of this at home! It would be perfect for large gatherings and pot lucks but be sure to set aside a couple of hours to let meat slow cook.
Traditionally, the recipe is made with leftover meat but nowadays flank steak is a common place since it has a natural proclivity to being shredded and all. Also instead of just using green bell peppers as is traditional, I am also using red bell peppers because of the nice play of color and added natural sweetness.
There are essentially 2 steps to cooking this dish - first, the meat by itself is stewed to a point where it can be shredded, blind folded with one hand tied to the back and the meat is then simmered in a traditional tomato based sauce known as sofrito for its ultimate flavor. Let's get started -
I have been running around like a chicken with my head cut off all morning and have about 45 minutes before I have to run out the door again. As much as I love using seasonal fruits and vegetables as much as possible and we seem to be suffering an overload of oranges in the fruit bowl.
I also have 2 rather sorry looking bananas that beg rescue. I love it when my bananas begin to look battered and bruised because for me its a sign to get baking or in this case, fix pancakes. I have no real recipe in hand and I'm in such a hurry that I have no time to pull out cookbooks - so I'm on my own. Whew!
Now normally, I'd start pancakes with flour etc etc but on days like this, its Bisquick to the rescue. So here's the plan, measure out some Bisquick, add milk, egg, orange rind, mashed bananas & chopped oranges. To this add sugar, give it a whirl & off to the griddle.
On the griddle, I'm going to drop spoonfuls of yummilicious Ricotta cheese and I think we're onto something - don't you?
When it comes to some eats I suffer from a predilection of culinary snobbery. For those of us who lived or have for any length of time lived it those states of the US that abut the Mexican border, we've had the opportunity to taste some seriously good Mexican grub.
Not the kind that is regularly dished out to the unsuspecting folk in other parts of the world but the kind available in little cantinas, barrios and little abuela-owned hole-in-the-wall places. You know the kind that is just an ordinary eatery in places like Nogales from where you can see Mexican sprawl in your line of sight.
So you will forgive me when I don't jump up and down in glee when you suggest we go for 'Mexican' in let's say - Maine. I mean no offense but I wouldn't dream of getting lobster rolls in Arizona - so there, we're even!
Now before I offer you the recipe for some of the very best Carintas you will ever chow down, let me explain something. There is no true and blue recipe for Carnitas - it's a recipe that has evolved naturally with each family adding their own special twist. I know families who marinate theirs in orange juice, many in beer, some loaded with hot serrano chiles and some who barely spice theirs at all.
But one thing remains the same in all these recipes is the method of cooking the pork that renders it so tender and then finished to a beautiful mahogany brown. I have known many families to cook their pork and then fry it up in lard which is actually the traditional way.
My Carnitas has evolved over our time spent in the Southwest. And I won't tweak it, change it or mess with it for all the Dos Equis in the world. The pork is spiced, marinated in beer overnight and then slow cooked for about 6 hours. Once shredded, I add no additional fat and saute it in its own juices till the meat is a rich mahogany brown.
The meat is served over griddle warmed corn tortillas with a touch of ghee (oh yes! clarified butter has been used traditonally for a very long time) - double layers of corn tortillas to soak up the juices of course!
Finally topped with Pico De Gallo - what makes mine dangerously good? In additon to the usual ingredients of tomatoes, onions, cilantro and jalapenos, the trio of -lime, beer, & sugar work their magic and takes this Pico De Gallo to a whole other level.
Pork butt is the meat of choice which by the way has nothing to do with piggy bottom. It's rather the upper portion of the shoulder.
Enough talk - it's time to put the Carnitas where the mouth is!
Mr. Hubby is not what you call a foodie. He enjoys good food but without the swooning, gasping, cussing & all such over the top reactions (unlike someone else we all know).
In fact, there are a few food related things that bring a twinkle in Mr. Hubby's eyes.
As I walked through the door this morning after my water aerobics class, there were stars in Mr. Hubby's eyes and of all things because of a telephone conversation with my Mum.
Curiouser & curiouser! He excitedly continued that he had heard from Mum that Fed Ex would now overnight a case of Alphonso mangoes to the US for 50 bucks + the cost of mangoes. Hmm...let's see - between the kid's swimming lessons & diving lessons another 150 bucks? I think not!
But at that moment I had what can only be described as a aha! moment. With Mr. Hubby's birthday around the corner, I was determined to make his favorite mango based dessert - ice cream.
But not with any mangoes - they must be Alphonsos or not at all. Alphonso mangoes are known as the King of Mangoes in India and rightfully so.
Local to the state of Maharashtra in India, these beauties are unparalleled in flavor, color and sweetness, it is devoured in gluttonous quantities during the summer months all over India.
Fact is, like the finest caviar, once you've tasted an Alphonso - every other falls short and you are left with the taste of bitter disappointment every time you eat any other mango. The variety grown in Devgad in Maharashtra is supposed to be the best. It's also the most expensive amongst the sub-breeds of Alphonso.
Did you know?
Of the 1,365 varieties of mangoes available around the world, 1,000 varieties can be found in India & India is believed to contribute 50 per cent of the total mango production in the world.
Moving on, since we've already settled on the matter & spending 150 bucks was out of the question, I decided to do the next best thing. Jump into the car and traipse to the Indian/Pakistani grocery store for a large can of Alphonso Mango pulp. When all else fails and fresh Alphonsos are not an option, the canned version does quite nicely.
Now, you know I am not a fan of canned anything so it is very big deal for me to pitch anything canned to you - so when I tell you that pulp of Alphonso mangoes available only at Indian-Pakistani grocery stores is a must for this ice cream then well, you'll better believe it!
To elevate this ice cream to yet another level, I have decided to revert back to its traditional age old accompaniments - saffron & pistachios. Just writing this makes my mouth water. I can't wait to see Mr. Hubby's eyes on his birthday when I surprise him with this!