Sunday, November 30, 2014

Venezuela, November 27th, 2014

It's been over 2 years since my last blog post... and since my last alphabetical dinner. So much has changed and not only in my kitchen... The world is still going around and I've been around the world. I know, this sounds like I've had two amazing years travelling across amazing countries, meeting all kind of people, feeling their culture and tasting their food. But that's not it. Yes, I've been around the world (on an airplane, last April: Myanmar - Florence, via Vietnam and France, Florence -Atlanta, via Paris, Atlanta-San Francisco, San Francisco-Myanmar, via Taipei) but that was only because I needed to go to Italy and the US and it was cheaper to do it this way. And I've lived for over a year in Yangon, Myanmar, what used to be called Burma, on the other side of the world (from where I was). Now I'm back in Atlanta, with Eric, trying to make sense of the changes and trying to figure out: what next?

When we left Atlanta in September 2013, we pretty much sold everything we had: house, two cars, Vespa, 3 bikes, most furniture, most kitchen stuff, ALL the candles and candle holders. The destination was Myanmar, for a one year assignment with my company. What a challenge! The excitement was overwhelming, the hope to make it work was very high. The desire to make it the next great chapter... in many ways it was. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience: moving to a country that was closed to most of the world for 60 years! My company is pretty much everywhere. There were only 3 countries left in the world where no Coke office existed: Myanmar was one of them. So what best opportunity to experience a real start-up? I took the challenge head on. And we really didn't plan to come back to Atlanta. But things rarely work out the way they were planned and without going into too many details, here we are, back. In a small - but lovely - apartment in Midtown Atlanta, back to a job, back to running outside, back to hot yoga, back to my friends. And back to my alphabetical dinners. I had planned to host a few in Myanmar but there simply was never any time for cooking. I'm not going to talk about the last year, but if you're curious about Yangon, you can read our few blog posts

And so back to Venezuela. This was the last countries of my third round of the alphabet. There are no more countries with W,X,Y or Z so after this it's back to A. I chose to host this dinner at Thanksgiving and invite just a few people (Kiyomi and Floyd and Christie, who is from China on an assignment in Atlanta and I met in Myanmar). As I mention, we have a small apartment and we are borrowing a smaller table (but I did keep my fabulous table, sits 12 - but I sold the chairs - it's in storage waiting for us to find a big enough condo) so we didn't want to invite too many people. It was actually the perfect size party. We had a great time and ended up sitting, eating and drinking until the very early hours of the morning. Time flies when you're eating good food!

This time, I used Pinterest to decide the menu. I love Pinterest and it was fun sitting on the sofa and just scroll through the myriads of photos of lovely dishes from Venezuela. But I also sought the approval of a friend/colleague from Venezuela: I sent him my proposed menu and he gave me the thumbs up. Plus told me what to make for dessert as I was too overwhelmed by the Pinterest photos to decide on my own.

Shopping was a delight! Despite the fact that there are nice supermarkets where you can get many western ingredients and foods, I don't think I would have found all I needed to cook my dinner in Yangon. It's true that I didn't try and I challenge any of my new found friends from Yangon to prove me wrong. But the trip to the Buford Highway farmers market armed with my typed shopping list sorted by food type (vegetable/fruits/meats/dairy/dry ingredients - Sheldon Cooperish, I know) was indeed fun and we found absolutely everything on the list. Including PAN, a Venezuelan white, precooked cornmeal that the recipe insisted must be used to make arepas.

We started cooking on Wednesday late afternoon so that we wouldn't have had to spend the entire day on Thursday standing on our feet, chopping and stirring. And it was a good thing too as I think the soup was very good because the ingredients had more times to blend together. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

On to the dinner. I changed none of the old traditions: I printed the menu, in color on nice paper, and asked my guests to fill out scoring cards. And naturally I prepared goody bags. I pride myself as being "paperless" at work but I love my alphabetical cooking binders and so I keep all the bits and pieces together (maybe one day in 60 years, long after I am dead, they will show up on the Antique Roadshow: "because of the original scoring cards, on the open market, this collection will fetch in the range of..." Well, one can dream).

I prepared a 4 course dinner: a starter, a soup, a main course and dessert. Naturally everything was washed down with plenty of wine... as I said, it was a long night!

As a starter, I prepared arepas. I first tried arepas at the Atlanta underground market: these are sandwiches (for lack of a better description) with bread made of cornmeal and stuffed with various filling. Mine were Arepas reina Pepiadas... not exactly a recipe from Venezuela but apparently they are famous at a Venezuelan hang out in New York (Caracas Arepa Bar). They are named after Susana Dujim, Miss World in 1955 and a popular Venezuelan celebrity. The filling is essentially chicken salad in avocado mayonnaise with plenty of garlic, parsley and cilantro as flavoring. Making arepas isn't easy. Particularly when your oven doesn't really warm up to the temperature you need... so, although everyone agreed, they were tasty, the general consensus was that the bread was a bit tough. The more polite people (or the one that had never been at my alpha dinners, Christie) called it "an interesting taste". The filling would probably have benefited from a little more spice. I need to make a mental note to go try the ones they make in NY next time I'm there.

Since there was a lot more food to try, rather than serve one each, I prepared 4 and cut them in half... but there were all gone so I suppose the bread wasn't that bad after all!

Next, I served Soncocho de Gallina: this is essentially a chicken soup made from scratch and with lots and lots of vegetables.  It’s quite time consuming to prepare and it involves a lot of ingredients and steps but it’s worthy.  This was my favorite dish of the night.  Thankfully we had a lot of leftovers (which on account of being late into the night by the time we said goodbye, I forgot to offer them to my guests) so we can make a few more meals out of it.  Just like any other Thanksgiving meal…

The recipe calls for the chicken to cook with some onions, leeks and bell peppers as well as ears of corns.  As a side note at the very end, it gives the options to blend the leeks, onions and peppers and add them back to the soup.  I did so as I didn’t want them to go to waste… it was an inspired idea.  It gave the soup a nice creamy consistency (so thick you almost don’t need a spoon to eat it) and a lovely, rich flavor.

I had mixed comments on the soup (proof that we all different favorites): Eric agreed with me that it was the best part, Floyd thought it was nice and tasty but nothing special, Kiyomi loved the texture and Christie was wondering which was the gender of the chicken (mental note to ask her about this)… can they really taste the gender of the chicken in China?  I think it was a guy… but I’m not sure.  Might have been a butch sort of gal.  Gallina in Italian is hen so perhaps I should have used a lady chicken?!

Next the main course: Pabellon Criollo.  This isn’t a one dish.  Or maybe it is and the recipe I found didn’t bother to split the sides… The pabellon is essentially pulled beef cooked for 4 hours at very low temperature so that it easily pulls apart and can be shredded.  It’s then re-cooked in a “sofrito” which is onions, bell peppers and garlic minced and sautéed and then mixed with tomatoes and cilantro.
This is accompanied by black beans, white rice and fried plantains.  The black beans
called for sweet habaneros… we used scotch bonnets a little too liberally and as a results the beans were very spicy.  But when mixed with the rice and the pabellon, the heat wasn’t too bad (plus my Japanese and Chinese guests were well accustomed to spicy so they actually liked it).
Everyone liked this dish… Eric wasn’t too crazy about the plantains but he loved the spicy beans.

The presentation was colorful and wholesome looking too:

And finally the dessert… which despite tasting good, it was a bit of a disaster.  The recipe was confusing – yes, blame it on the recipe – and I suppose I should have done a little bit of homework on how to make caramel.  Quesillo, is a pudding not too dissimilar from crème caramel in my view but I really messed up the caramel.  I suppose you really should not stir it.  You should just leave the sugar on the stove until it’s completely melted and brown looking.  I stirred it and made a mess.  It never really melted…. It’s supposed to form the top of the quesillo (other ingredients are condensed milk, milk and eggs).  You put the caramel at the bottom of a metal container, then fill it with the other mixture and cook it in the oven in a bain-marie.  Well, my caramel never set so when I turned the quesillo over, the not-so-caramel poured out from the sides.  Oops.  The quesillo also cracked and it reminded me of a smiley face so I puncture it twice to make a face.  Making the best of it, I suppose.
Eric, as usual, didn’t even try it but my other guests really liked it! I did too.

And finally the goody bags.  In the last few weeks in Myanmar, I decided that I had had enough of working non-stop and that I should take the opportunity to travel around the country a bit.  So we visited a few popular and amazing sites and did quite a bit of shopping… Therefore, being Thanksgiving and all, I decided to use a couple of bags I purchased in Taunggyi, not far from Inle Lake, as the containers from my goodies.  As we say in Italy, “tutto il mondo e’ paese” (the world is a small village) and I’m sure that these lovely handmade bags could have been made in Venezuela.  Or Italy (except if they had been made in Italy, they probably would have had a brand on it and cost an eye and a leg).

I filled the bags with my homemade Venezuelan goodies:  Caramel Lemon Syrup (really it’s caramel with lemonade, I suppose you can use it as a topping on ice-cream or as a spread on bread) and cachitos de jamon, which are a kind of baked sweet bread filled with ham and devilled ham.  I had never heard of devilled ham before.  It’s some kind of canned spread made of ham and spices.  It smells like, and I kid you not, cat food.  To the extent that I asked Eric to open the trash can and check the label to make sure I hadn’t mistakenly picked up a can of Zilla’s food (my cat, who is finally back with us – she never came to Myanmar).  A side note to Christie, Floyd and Kiyomi: don’t worry, it was not cat food I gave you… it really was devilled ham.  In the cachitos de jamon, it tastes ok.  But I think that if I make this again (and I might, it was good), I will not use the devilled ham…

Here is the full menu with the scores:

Arepas Reina Pepiadas       6.5
Soncocho de Gallina           8.0
Pabellon Criollo                  8.4
Quesillo                               8.7

Total Dinner                       7.8

In the last year, I have met some amazing people and have learned a lot about my job and about myself.  But I’m glad to be back.  Sometimes you have to leave to appreciate what you leave behind. I left more times in my life than your average person (I left Florence, I left London, I left Atlanta and now I left Yangon)…But in reality you never leave those that really matters. Who knows, maybe this is the beginning of my return journey… And I intend to enjoy it!  I’ll continue to explore the world in person, when possible, and in my kitchen the rest of the time.

Next, Andorra.  Stay Tuned…


Peter Wallace said...

Hooray! The Alphadinners blog is back ... and so are the Alphabetical Dinners! Sounds like a wonderful and delicious time. Thanks for the beautifully written report! Welcome back, y'all.

daniel Le said...

We would love some Venezuelan chicken and corn soup.... Is that the same white serving plate you had before you moved to Myanmar? DanPedro

Anonymous said...

I am glad that it was not cat food for Zilla. The bread was quite good anyway. ; ) Thanks for the fun night.

Anonymous said...

Now I wonder if Zilla will be interested in trying one Cachitos de Jamon. But really it tastes good. It's a lot of fun to read the blog especially being a part of the story. BTW, we normally use old lady chicken to cook soup in China. :)