Saturday, September 17, 2011

Panama, Sep 10th 2011

I was recently invited to a Japanese cooking demo in a fancy appliances store by my friend Kako. With fancy appliances store I don't mean to say the store was fancy, but the appliances were really something. One thing that truly caught my attention was a steamer; I've had an electric steamer at some point in my cooking life - that was in London, I probably purchased it at a catalogue store and I've used it very few times. The fancy steamer at the fancy appliances store, however, looked exactly like a microwave oven and you could cook pretty much anything. The price tag was closer to a regular stove than a microwave so I guess this was the Ferrari of the steamer oven. Needless to say, I didn't purchase anything, but Kako asked the owner if he would have been interested in having an Italian cooking demo that I could have hosted there. He was very interested in it... I've got scared! Not because I'm afraid of cooking in front of people or for people - I let people score my cooking so I'm not scared of a little harsh criticism, but those who have been following this blog, would have noticed that I've cooked an Italian exactly never. It's not that I'm not capable of making a few things, after all I still boast of making the best Tiramisu in the world, but it's not like I have some repertoire of Italian dishes that I could demo to people. As much as it pains me to admit it, when my super busy mother was making pizza, the dough usually came out of a box or we purchased it frozen at the supermarket (it was good but this is probably disappointing news for those accustomed to the notion that most Italian mothers whip up a fabulous meal from scratch most days).
This story does not exactly relate to my recently hosted Panamanian dinner but the reason I brought it up is because we eventually settled the matter by agreeing with the owner that he would give me use of his store and the fancy appliances to cook one of my alphabetical dinner. I need to follow up on that offer ... anyone interested in coming?

My Panamanian dinner was a simple affair. I found that Panamanian dishes are relatively simple to make, not a lot of ingredients and not a lot of advance preparation are required and that turned out to be a blessing since I have had a rather busy week, including having to attend - a really fun - dinner party to celebrate my friend's Peter's birthday at Dot's house, last Friday night. Thankfully, the only dish that required to stay overnight in the refrigerator was a ceviche and that was really quick to make. In addition, Eric has discovered that there's an H-Mart by the airport and so he did the shopping for me one night after work. The shopping part is one of the favorite parts of my dinner preparation tasks so I wasn't thrilled that I had to delegate this but he offered and as I said, I was busy...

I've also realized that when I instituted scoring cards for my dinners, I also eliminated another part of the whole experience that I truly enjoy: the critiquing of the food. Since I've given pencils and papers to my guests, they write down their opinions but we don't really get to talk about it. I hereby eliminate the scoring cards. My next affair will be based on drunken communication and debate (yeah, there is a bit of that). My guests for the evening were Anne & Tony (who we later discovered had spent the afternoon watching football in a pub and therefore was tired by the time he arrived), Jeff, and Christine and Chad - turned out Eric and Chad have the exact same point of view on a topic that I won't write about for insurance purposes. 

But enough of the process, let's talk about the food. I started the evening with a cocktail and home made empanadas. I did not intend to serve these, they were meant for the goody bag, but the recipe yielded many more than I thought (a ton of the filling is currently in the freezer) and so we ate them as an amouse bouche with a little bit of green salsa. They were actually pretty good! And they're baked so in my book healthy. 

The first course was a shrimp ceviche. I normally really like ceviche (raw fish cooked in lime/lemon juice) but this was a bit bland. The reviews were mixed also: Tony, Chad and Eric really liked it, Anne hated it (hadn't gotten a zero in a while...). Christine thought there was too much raw onion, then again she admitted she doesn't like raw onion. This could easily be diet food. It's literally, fish, lemon and lime juice, onion and a few other seasonings. Zero added fat. A weight watchers dream. I thought it looked quite pleasing to the eye also, unless you don't like the look of shrimp: 

As another appetizer, I served Carimanolas. These are fried stuffed yucca balls (the healthy food ended with the ceviche). I actually liked these. The stuffing of beef in tomato sauce was lovely and slightly spicy but working with smashed yucca isn't very easy and as a result there was too much yucca, not enough stuffing. But since they were fried, what's not to like (despite the too much yucca)?  Christine (a Chinese-Jamaican), commented that they tasted a bit like Chinese cha-su-bau buns which obviously I have no idea what they were in Chinese until a quick Google search revealed that they're barbecue pork buns. Perhaps the filling was reminiscent of the barbecue pork... See how they looked outside and inside:

The main course was Arroz con Pollo. In English this translates as Rice with chicken. The recipe's explanation mentioned that this is a bit like a Spanish paella, meaning the dish is about rice with chicken not the other way round. Therefore there was A LOT of rice and not so much chicken (drumsticks). And guess what everyone said about it: too much arroz, not enough pollo. Unanimous opinion. Yeah. That was the point exactly. Had it been a little more flavorful, perhaps it wouldn't have matter but unfortunately the whole concoction was a bit bland. And given that I am still eating leftover rice a week later, perhaps it was a bit too much rice (Eric has been gone since Monday so he's been eating rice in Tokyo and he didn't want me to pack him a few lunches to take with him). I have to say, I did like the fact that the chicken drumstick had the skin on.

As a little accompaniment to the arroz (little because 2 plantains turned up to be quite too few for 7 people) I made Patacones which is the Panamanian version of Tostones. I learned that these are actually fried twice. The first time you fried them in large pieces, then you flatten them up with the bottom of a heavy skillet and then you fried them again. They were also a tad bland and a tad too well done but Eric said they were surprisingly good with hot sauce and miracle of miracles, he gave the highest score. 

The star of the evening was without a doubt, the dessert: I made Tres Leches and it was absolutely divine. It was moist and sweet but not overwhelmingly so considering that there were 3 cups of sugar and a can of sweetened condensed milk. I think the reason for the success was due primarily to the fact that I might have used too small a Pyrex container to cook the sponge cake: as a result, it took 1 hour too cook (instead of the prescribed 30 minutes) but when I covered it with the cream (made of 3 different milk/creams - hence the name 3 leches) it absorbed a ton of it and the frosting was light and fluffy so it went really well with the rest. And it was also rather nice to look at. I had some leftover blanched almond pieces which I scattered on the top together with some silver colored flakes. I took the leftover to work on Monday and my colleague Eduardo (who's from Mexico and grew up with this cake) said it reminded him of the one his grandmother used to make. I take it, it was pretty authentic then (yes, I do know Panama isn't in Mexico but tres leches is tres leches).
Chad liked it so much that is now demanding that Christine bakes it for him for every birthday. Tony said "yum yum", Jeff said he'd love to have it again. Eric - as usual - refused to try it (his loss). 

As there is in almost everyone of my dinners, the disaster was in the goody bag: the empanadas were nice and pretty, but the Cocadas con Almendra (some coconut candies) I couldn't save. They tasted sweet and if you like coconut you probably would like them but how the hell are they supposed to stay together? Coconut meat, coconut water and syrup don't make a candy, they make a mess. Should they have had some egg white whipped with sugar in the mix? I can't figure it out. I've been mixing the leftover with light whipped cream (from the aerosol can) this week as dessert but I still can't make out what it is I did wrong in the recipe (so I have to deduce the recipe is wrong and so I won't include it in the recipe depository - aka
By the way, sorry Anne, Eric and I ate the empanadas you left behind (I understand Tony wasn't happy to hear it.... :)

Here is the menu with the scores:
Ceviche de Camarones: Shrimp Ceviche 6.3
CarimaƱolas: Stuffed Yucca 7.2
Arroz con Pollo: Rice with Chicken 6.6
Patacones: 6.8.
Tres Leches: 9.3
Overall dinner: 7.1

The next journey should take me, Eric and whoever will be at the dinner table, to Africa as it is the turn of Rwanda but... I'm debating whether I should divert for once and use the missing Q country to do something a bit closer to home: how about "cooking with Qoca-Cola"? I don't know... sounds intriguing...

Stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

Arroz con pollo! Whats not to like? I made them with dummettes sometimes and they are yummy.

Can't wait for your Italian cooking demo. D&P

Anonymous said...

Best Tiramisu in the world... where do I sign up?