Rob likes to have dinner themes for his birthday parties. Last year, it was Japanese.
We had planned on going Ethiopian this year, as it is the theme of our current neighbourhood. However, we changed our minds at the last minute because I wasn’t in the mood to cook up 5 different cooked dishes.
While I can dream up menus for days on end, they involve vegan dishes. Rob knew that some of our guests might balk at the lack of meat, so he offered to make a Southwestern Pulled Brisket in the slow cooker. With his meal chosen, I crafted the remainder of the menu with it in mind.
Therefore, this year it was a hodge podge of Southern US and Mexican dishes, foreshadowing our next, next move to Texas in 2013. My (not so) discerning palate can’t tell the difference between Texan and Carolina BBQ styles, but I can tell you how delicious everything turned out.
I was initially hesitant, but Rob encouraged me to try my hand at jackfruit carnitas. We had all the fixings for great tacos for the brisket, so why not have another filling, too?
I eventually settled on a recipe for Carolina BBQ-inspired pulled “pork” from Jessica.
Jackfruit is a fruit from Southeast Asia. Rob tells me it tastes like bubble gum. While the ripe fruit is sweet, you can buy canned young jackfruit in brine, which is quite flavourless. It has been used as a meat substitute due to its texture. After being cooked, it pulls apart into stringy bits akin to pulled pork and beef brisket.
While Rob’s brisket took 8 hours in the slow cooker, my BBQ jackfruit pulled “pork” took an hour, tops.
They key of the recipe is the spice blend, and here we used a plethora of spices to capture a Southern BBQ flavour: sweet smoked paprika, Aleppo chili flakes, mustard, tomato and red pepper pastes, tamarind and vinegar for some tang and sweetness from the maple syrup (yes, that’s 4/8 of my favourite ingredients in one sauce!). Such a glorious BBQ flavour with a bit of a kick. Chile heads, again, feel free to use the suggested cayenne, but I though it was plenty spicy without it. Dry frying brought out the flavours from the dry spices, then a slow simmer expanded the saucy flavours. Baking it firmed up the jackfruit so that it was more akin to pork.
As the jackfruit bakes, or if you are more inclined to make the brisket (it had rave, rave reviews, btw, and Rob loved its sheer simplicity to prepare), make some pickled red onions. I know many people shun fresh red onions, and a quick marinade in vinegar with some salt and sugar can really bring out their flavour. We used the recipe suggested by Deb.
Both the brisket and BBQ jackfruit pulled pork was served with an assortment of toppings – shredded Romaine, chopped tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts, sliced cabbage, avocado and the pickled red onions. While we had roti and pitas for guests, I opted to make wraps with Romaine lettuce leaves. The jackfruit was so flavourful that you didn’t need so much per wrap. While Rob’s 3 lbs of beef brisket easily fed 10 people, my 20 oz of jackfruit served more like 2-4 people, depending on how many toppings you added.
Continuing with the nut theme after muhammara, here is scrumptious nut, roasted pepper, tomato-based sauce teamed with chickpeas. Romesco sauce is a popular Spanish sauce from the Catalan Tarragona province and the variations are endless depending on whether the sauce is served as a dip, with vegetables, meatballs, fish, etc. The New Spanish Table, an enticing, Spanish cookbook, has 4 different recipes of the romesco sauce as each is tweaked to its accompaniment.
The sauce reminds me a bit of muhammara as the main flavours are roasted red peppers and nuts. The Romesco sauce has a heavier comforting tomato presence and the use of almonds is a bit more creamy than walnuts. As I prefer cooking vegetarian at home, I was excited to try it with chickpeas when I saw Joanne posted it on Eats Well With Others, who had adapted it from Veganomicon.
I wasn’t disappointed because the Romesco sauce worked wonderfully with the inherent nuttiness of chickpeas. This comforting dish is great year-round as canned tomatoes were easy to use before the juicy, ripe ones are available locally. I roasted my own peppers which added some time, but it was a fabulous, easy meal served alongside rice.
One mention about portion sizes, as I am still working my way through leftovers (which are really tasty, too). The original recipe says serves 4-6 but it really makes a lot of food. I’d gather around 8 servings. It could be due to the bigger cans of chickpeas in Canada (19 oz compared to the 15 oz in the recipe) and I also threw in an extra red pepper. Although this is not the first time I have run into discrepant portion sizes. I blame it on the bigger “super-sized” American meals! Has anyone else noticed this? As much as I loved it, I might half the recipe next time unless I am feeding a crowd.
While travelling in Turkey, one of my highlights was a cooking course in Istanbul through Cooking Alaturka. The class was a great introduction to both Turkish cuisine and culture. Run by Chef Eveline Zoutendijk, an expatriate Dutch who trained at Cordon Bleu in Paris, as well as Feyzi Yildirim, a Turkish chef, a group of 10 helped to prepare 5 traditional Turkish dishes: Spicy Lentil and bulgur soup with dried mint and red pepper (Ezogelin Çorbası), Green beans in olive oil (Zeytinyağlı Taze Fasulye), Zucchini patties with herbs and cheese (Kabak Mücveri), Lamb stew in tomato sauce on smoky eggplant puree (Hünkar beğendili kuzu) and Walnut-stuffed figs in syrup (İncir Tatlısı).
The venue was perfect for our class. In fact, Chef Eveline designed the kitchen specifically for cooking classes when creating her own restaurant. Chef Eveline leads the majority of the instructions but Chef Feyzi teaches us more hands-on techniques. Both have made this a fun, yet informative cooking class. Chef Eveline’s culinary school background was evident in her teaching – this wasn’t just thrown together for tourists.
This was a hands-on cooking class. However, we didn’t each create every single dish. We shared in the prep work and then came together to create the main meals. My task was to chop red peppers for the lamb stew, which look surprisingly like chili peppers, but that’s what they look like in Turkey: slim, in all their glory. Chef Feyzi showed me how to chop the perfect pepper, with a slight diagonal.
Afterwards, I used a huge zirh, the Turkish equivalent of a mezzaluna, to chop herbs for the zucchini fritters. Armed with the lid from the pot, I became a kitchen warrior! Later, I mixed everything together and grilled the fritters on the stovetop. Chef Feyzi watched very intently – “too small!”, “too much oil!” he proclaimed, yet they all turned out delicious. Others helped to blanch tomatoes or chop the green beans for other dishes. We each peeled our own charred eggplant and stuffed our own figs with walnuts, ready to be poached for dessert.
Each dish was fabulous. My father thought this was the best meal we had during our entire trip in Turkey. He really enjoyed the Spicy Lentil and Bulgur Soup, which was more spicy than what we had elsewhere. Chef Eveline explained that the recipe originates from southeast Turkey, where they like a bit more heat with their dishes. This soup has a very nice textural component, with cooked lentils perked with bulgur, in a spicy broth flavoured with tomato, red pepper and a dash of mint. Delicious and easy to make.
Chef Eveline told us to pick up some red pepper paste at the Spice Bazaar before we left Turkey, but I wasn’t able to fit it into my schedule. I looked at other grocery stores throughout my trip, with no luck. I determined it was an ingredient found mainly around Istanbul. After I found red pepper paste at Marche Istanbul, I knew I had to recreate the soup at home. Even if you can’t find red pepper paste, you can substitute more tomato paste instead. You can also make your own.