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Insane in the Bahrain

February 22, 2009

Once again, we have struck out:  we failed to find any Bahraini restaurants in NYC (You will hear about our adventure searching for Bahamian food once Noquar gets around to posting the story.  For now I’ve decided to go ahead and get this one up).  Granted, we didn’t give the consulate a call this time (admittedly, this is simply sheer absentmindedness and laziness), but we did ask the proprietor of a Middle Eastern grocery store in Brooklyn if he knew of any Bahraini restaurants here, to which he replied, “Bahrain?!  Those people are too rich.  They don’t need to leave their country.” Fair enough.

So twice in a row now we have had to cook food from the country at hand.  As much as I judge the success of this mission on finding authentic cuisine cooked by natives, I have to think we have also succeeded when we manage to find all the ingredients needed to cook a meal that would be found on a table half way around the world.  And this is what has happened for Bahrain.

map

Bahrain is a tiny island nation in the Persian Gulf.  It’s one million+ residents live on a total of 253 sq miles, which covers thirty-three islands.  In fact, according to one source, the entire archipelago has less total land than the nearby King Fahd International Airport in Saudi Arabia. That just seems like one big airport to me.

A few minutes of googling was all it took to figure out that the most well-known dish of Bahrain is machbous (or machboos, depending on how the Arabic spelling has been translated), which is a meat and rice stew.  Kind of like a biryani, but more saucy.  A bit more web surfing and I had come up with a menu for the evening. Now all we needed were the ingredients.

Bahraini cuisine uses many of the same spices that are used throughout the Middle East and South Asia. Because I often cook Indian food, I have quite a stock pile of spices on hand. There were a few, however, that required a visit to the local Middle Eastern grocery store.

One stop at the Oriental Pastry and Grocery at 170 Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn was all we needed to find every ingredient necessary for our dishes, including rosewater, bahrat (a Middle Eastern spice mix) and dried lemons, as well as a number of bonus items like delicious, sticky, sweet pastries. The store has only a narrow aisle down the middle that is not piled high with essentials: bulk items like rice and wheat, packaged goods, olives, and whole and ground spices. Far off in a dim corner in the back of the store is the pastry counter — if you ever pay a visit (and you definitely should) don’t miss it! The prices were right on and the staff very helpful. I highly recommend you stop by the next time you are on Atlantic Ave near Clinton Ave, even if just for one of the cheese filled sweets. Yumm…

baba

baba ghanoush

Anyway, back at home we made a Bahraini baba ghanoush that we nibbled on with some pita as we prepared the main dishes: the machbous and a fish curry that I found here, which turned out to be no more than OK (I am of the opinion that the recipe wasn’t written very well). The machbous, I’m proud to say, was quite delicious.

fish_curry

fish curry

I cobbled the machbous recipe together from a few that I found online, here and here. It takes a little while, but the results are worth the wait.   We served it with dates and finished it all off with the fabulous pastries and an attempt at Bahraini coffee (we basically just added a dash of rosewater and green cardamom).

dates

Irani dates

Here is my machbous recipe.  Try it and let me know what you think!

2 lb lamb (I used the kind already prepared for stew)
1 tbs bahrat
1 1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cumin powder
3 tbs olive oil
2 large onions, finely chopped
5 black cardamom pods
2 dried black lemons or limes, with hole punched in each
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp black pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 quarter-sized slices ginger, minced
4 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
2 tsp salt
4 cups water
2 cups basmati rice, washed in 3-4 changes water
3 tbs rosewater
2 tbs lemon juice

1. Mix together the bahrat, turmeric, and cumin. Spread all over lamb. Set aside.

2. Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Cook the onions until golden brown

3. Add the cardamom, dried lemons, cinnamon, and pepper. Stir well and cook for 3 minutes.

4. Add the garlic, ginger, tomatoes, and salt. Stir well and cook for 3 minutes.

5. Cover the pot and cook for one hour.

6. Add the water and rice. Cook until water is absorbed, about 30 minutes.

7. Add the rosewater and lemon juice. Cook a few more minutes then serve.

Enjoy, but be careful not to bite into one of the dried lemons!  You’ll be in for a sour surprise.

machbous

machbous


glossary1

On another one of those bitterly cold, snowy nights we’ve been experiencing so often this winter, we ventured out of the warmth of our Brooklyn residences and made the trek to the Lower East Side, where we met two friends at Cafe Katja.  It’s a small place, with a nice bar and just a few tables.  We were seated fairly quickly, which was lucky because not too long after our arrival the place became slam packed.

bigbeer2

Cafe Katja is understandably popular.  They serve an excellent selection of beers in true Austrian style — by the liter.  There’s also the great wine list, which features red and whites primarily from Austria and Hungary.  And then there’s the fantastic food.  AND it’s affordable, especially for a hip Lower East Side joint.  It’s hard not to enjoy this place.

Local sources tell us that the restaurant is inspired by traditional Austrian buschenschanks, little places to eat and drink, where farmers sell what they’ve harvested for the season.  The food was fresh enough here, even in the dead of an NYC winter, that the comparison is acceptably fitting.

Despite the crowd encroaching on us, we took our time and sampled as much of the menu as possible.  This slow dining experience was facilitated by the slight delay in service.  Our lovely waitress was taking care of the whole restaurant, and the kitchen seemed to be running slow.  All that was fine  by us since the beer and wine kept flowing and the food trickled out at a perfect pace.

sampler

We started the with the aufschnitt teller, a sampler of cured meats, spreads and pickled onions and carrots.  The roasted beet and goat cheese salad followed, along with a marinated herring salad.  Personally, I’m not a huge fan of salty fish, but those at the table that do enjoy them raved about it.

beetsalad

Our main dishes were all stellar.  I enjoyed a perfectly prepared and portioned seared trout with spinach and roasted potatoes, topped with a pat of garlic butter. Yum…

trout

Across from me Supereg wrestled with a gigantic plate of beef goulash and spätzle, a traditional egg pasta that was served with a creamy sauce.

goulash

Despite his insistence earlier in the night that he would not eat any sausage, Noquar, who is still having nightmares after his horrible experience following our trip to the Argentine steakhouse, ended up ordering the homemade bratwurst, which he thoroughly enjoyed.

bratwurst

One of our dinner companions ordered the buckwheat spätzle, which was served in a heap with squash, nuts, and chopped brussels sprouts, and topped with grated parmesan.  This is an exceptionally good dish, highly recommended for vegetarians who might be wary of dining at an Austrian restaurant where much of the menu is meat.  The other friend ordered the sausage stuffed with cheese, a special for the evening.  Also fantastic.

buckwheatspatzle

We finished the meal with the dessert special.  A few people ordered coffee that turned out to be exceptionally bitter, but I couldn’t resist trying an Austrian liquer that smelled like a Christmas tree and had a delicious sweet, piney flavor.  By this time a friendly man, presumably one of the restaurant’s owners, was working the floor, settled our bill, and ushered us out so he could seat a few more of the 15 or so people who were patiently waiting, sipping on their liters of beer.  We stumbled back out into the snowy night stuffed and happy.

13 days.

10 cities.

3200 miles in a 1992 Toyota Corolla.

Pork, pork, and more pork.

This BBQ tour focused on two of the four reputed barbecue styles in the US: Carolina and Memphis.  In North Carolina, we savored the subtle yet distinct differences between Eastern style (vinegar based) and Lexington/Western style (vinegar with a hint of ketchup).   In Memphis, we debated wet vs. dry. We also picked up a few ribs, pork sandwiches, and other delights along the way, with stops Richmond, Savannah, Birmingham and Nashville.  We can safely say, we now know what constitutes a true “bbq joint.”

There is no way we could choose a best overall; the styles are just too different.  Besides, comparing North Carolina and Memphis BBQ is like comparing apples and oranges (or, uh, pulled pork and ribs).  But a clear winner in each category did emerge.  Here were our favorites:

North Carolina: Lexington Barbeque – Lexington, NC. You just can’t get much better than the chopped pork, hush puppies, and bbq slaw they serve here.  And once you make friends with the locals waiting in the line that is spilling out the door at lunch time, you won’t mind the wait one bit.

Coarse chopped pork at Lexington BBQ

Coarse chopped pork and slaw at Lexington BBQ

Memphis: Interstate Barbeque. There ain’t much to be said about the service or the decor, but the rib bones that fall out of the meat will have you ordering more, even after you’ve gorged on a plate full of them and downed a side of bbq spaghetti, a Memphis specialty.

Rib and pork dinner at Interstate BBQ

Rib and pork dinner at Interstate BBQ

There were of course many other joints that we thoroughly enjoyed stuffing ourselves at.  We’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Fried chicken and bbq plate, Smithfield Chicken and BBQ

Fried chicken and bbq plate, Smithfield Chicken and BBQ, Clayton, NC

Pulled pork on texas toast, The Bar-b-que Shop, Memphis

Pulled pork on texas toast, The Bar-b-que Shop, Memphis

Barbecue spaghetti, The Bar-b-que Shop, Memphis

Barbecue spaghetti, The Bar-b-que Shop, Memphis

Wet and dry, The Bar-b-que Shop, Memphis

Wet and dry, The Bar-b-que Shop, Memphis

Cozy Corner, Memphis

Cozy Corner, Memphis

New Year's Eve ribs at Jack's, Nashville

New Year's Eve ribs at Jack's, Nashville

Many thanks to our family and friends who aided and guided us along the way!!  We couldn’t have done it without your guest bedrooms and local culinary insight!  You all will always have a place to stay and a few foodies to show you around New York City anytime!

La Parrilla de Argentina

December 7, 2008

card

It was a blistering cold evening when we headed out to Queens for our Argentina experience, one of those where you are chilled entirely to the bone after just walking one block.  Even when you are wearing your heaviest winter coat, hat, and scarf.  And this was November!

decorLuckily we warmed up right away upon entering La Porteña (74-25 37th Ave, Jackson Heights, 11372).  The hosts’ smiles, tasteful wood paneling, and soft light quickly relaxed our shivers.  Knick knacks, Argentine collectibles, memorabilia and photographs of Carlos Gardel adorned the walls.  We settled in to our table, and prepared to devour some meat.

La Porteña is a traditional Argentine style parrilla, or grill.  The menu features familiar comfort favorites like pasta (Argentina was heavily settled by Italians) but the crowds flock here for the grilled meats.  And there was definitely a crowd that Saturday night.

We were a group of five that week, and one of our guests was half Argentinian.  So we relied on her to order us the true parrilla experience.   She started us out with some grilled cheese, or provoleta, which is nothing like the stuff that goes in those sandwiches your mama used to make you, and is a common starter before a meal of grilled meat.  We also tried some slighted spicy and very tasty chorizo, (grilled pork sausage) and fried calamari (no different from any other decent calamari you’ve had elsewhere). These items were all devoured instantly, along with the basket of french bread that was set on the table.  We still had half a bottle of malbec to work on, so we sipped and chatted and waited for the main event.  So far so good.

Read the rest of this entry »

It may appear that we’ve broken two rules of this game.  We left NYC to find the Angolan food described in this entry.  But our travels only took us to nearby Elizabeth, NJ, which is certainly well-situated in the greater metropolitan area (just over the water from Staten Island).  And, because it is home to what was formerly NYC’s only Ikea, most New Yorkers know the town and consider it an extension of the city since most of their furnishings came from there.  So, forgive us, dear readers.  We left the 5 boroughs, but not so much as to lose the heart of the journey. In all honesty, we knew Jersey would come into play at some stage.  It’s inescapable.

The second rule we kind-a sort-a broke was getting food from Antigua and Barbuda before sampling Angolan.  Though this is an apparent breach of parameters, I have an excellent argument otherwise.  Late in October, I rang up the Permanent Mission of Angola to the United Nations, to inquire about Angolan eateries in the area.  The charming and friendly receptionist told me that there were in fact no Angolan restaurants in the city.  Sad news indeed.  We chatted for a while, and I asked her where she goes to eat food from her homeland.  She answered, “At my house!  I cook Angolan food every day.”  To which I naturally replied, “Well, can I come over to your house?”  And she said yes!  But then decided it would be even better if we came to her church on November 9, when they would be having a celebration of their congregation’s second year.  A feast was planned following the service, which would include all sorts of Angolan dishes.  That was certainly worth the wait, so we went ahead and checked out Antigua and Barbuda in the meantime.

Read the rest of this entry »

Andorra: Part One

October 14, 2008

We’ve hit our first big challenge.  Andorra is a tiny, landlocked principality nestled in the Pyrenees mountains on the border between France and Spain.  Of its 72,000 residents, at least 67% of those are from elsewhere in Europe, mainly neighboring France and Spain, as well as Italy, Britain, and Portugal.  The national language is Catalan, which is also spoken in certain regions of Spain (including Catalonia, where you would find Barcelona), the Italian island of Sardinia, and the Roussillon region of Southern France.  Andorra’s main industry is tourism (i.e. skiing) and it’s tax haven status also attracts some wealthy types.

We started out by crawling the Internet in search of any mention of “andorra” and “New York.”  Nothing turned up except a few mentions of the UN Mission to Andorra.  So a friend of the Nomad actually rang them up for us (thanks again!) and they told her that in fact there are no Andorran restaurants in New York City.  Hardly surprising considering that there are only 28,000 or so Andorrans in the world.  The person at the UN Mission recommended that we go to Le Bernadin, as chef Eric Ripert used to live in Andorra (this is corroborated by his biography on the restaurant’s website).  Anyone who lives in NYC or has watched Top Chef probably knows of this restaurant and its famous chef.  And anyone who has been there can tell you it’s a seafood restaurant (not the type of cuisine I would associate with a landlocked, mountainous country), and it’s also one of the city’s more expensive. I hear it’s fantastic though.

We decided not to go that route.  It would be hard to justify a very pricey meal that wouldn’t even quite fit our mission.  But we still had to give Andorra its due diligence.  We came up with a two part plan:

  1. Make Andorran food at home
  2. Go to a Catalonian restaurant

This is the story of part one.

I started out by cruising the web for Andorran recipes.  There were very few in English, but of those that I did come across, one dish was mentioned on nearly every site: Trinxat.   It’s a potato and cabbage pancake with smoky bacon, described by europeancuisines.com as, “probably one of the best-known dishes of Andorra.” And the recipe looked pretty easy.  I figured this had to be the thing to try.  Apparently it looks like this:

My methodology involved combining a few recipes I found for this dish, and boiling them down to the common elements.  It seemed simple enough.  Here’s is what I came up with:

4 large russet potatoes, peeled

1 head green cabbage

1 package bacon (12 strips)

3 tbs olive oil

2 cloves garlic, peeled

salt and pepper

(you are also supposed to use fatback, but since I couldn’t find any, I left it out.  Probably a critical missed step.)

1.  Discard the outer layers of the cabbage.  Cut the cabbage into fourths.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and boil cabbage for about 45 minutes.  Once that is going bring another large pot to boil, and boil the potatoes for about 25 minutes.  Allow both to cool.

2.  Discard the core of the cabbage, and press cabbage to release water.  Put cabbage and potatoes in a large bowl and mash together.  Salt to taste.

3.  Start cooking the bacon in batches.  Set on a plate covered with a paper towel to absorb grease.

4.  Drain off some of the grease from the pan, and then add garlic.  Cook for about 2 minutes until its about to burn, and then mix it in with the potato/cabbage mixture.

5.  (Here is the part where you are supposed to add the fatback to the pan, and cook it for a few minutes, but since I didn’t have any, I left that part out.  Did leave some extra bacon grease in there though.).  Add about half of the potato mixture to the same pan, and spread it around until it’s in the shape of about a 1/2″ think pancake.  Cook over medium high heat for about 10 minutes.

before flip attempt

6.  Here is the hard part:  put a plate over the skillet and the flip it over, so the pancake is browned side up on the plate.  Slide it back in to the skillet and cook for 10 more minutes until it’s finished. Crumble the bacon, add it to the top of the pancake, and serve.

Easy, right?  Wrong!  I attempted this flipping of the pancake twice, and met with disaster each time.  The first time, I was using a very slick, brand new, deep Calphalon skillet.  As soon as I went to flip it, the food just slipped right out and landed in a pile on my stove.  I figured it had to be the skillet.  Way too slippery!

So I went for a cast iron the second time around.  It wouldn’t brown.  I waited and waited and finally got too hungry to wait any more.  This time when I went to flip it, I found it the skillet was too heavy to hold with one hand, and hold a plate with the other.  So I got some help.  But the pancake was stuck.  And once again I ended up with a pile, luckily this time I managed to get it on plates, and throw some bacon on top.  Below you have the result.  Not as pretty as the picture above.  But I imagine the taste was somewhat similar…maybe.  Kind of an Irish-ish dish to my taste, but good nonetheless.

And there you have it.  If anyone else decides to try this, I recommend including the step that involves the fatback, and using a light weight, shallow skillet.  Let me know if you are successful, and send in some pictures.

Part two coming soon…