Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Axis of Evil!

So back in April, Michael and I were staying at our friend Tom's house waiting for Leah to make her debut, and the three of us were sitting around shooting the breeze one night, talking about cooking and the 80 Plates project when it popped into my head that I should do an Axis of Evil dinner. All three of us were cackling about it, it just seemed so clever. I did some research and found some recipes which I bookmarked, but then Leah was born and it was pushed to the back burner.

Since then, I have tried unsuccessfully 4 times to talk people into try out the Axis of Evil dinner. It is the kind of thing where you need a crowd, since three countries makes a lot of food. But I've discovered it's one thing to select a European country or a country like Mexico that everyone's familiar with the food and you feel safe. It's quite another when it's a country people aren't entirely sure about. Multiply that by three countries, throw in some people who don't think you're as clever as you think you are, and you've got a conundrum on your hands.

So, the stars aligned at a recent BBQ we went to at our friends Heather and Steve's house. We were discussing getting together again with them and I mentioned doing the Axis of Evil dinner for my birthday and they were game, as was Joe. We set a date for the end of August to roughly coincide with my birthday. I confirmed with them last week and we were on!

However, this plan brought with it a new wrinkle: Heather is a vegetarian and Joe is nearly a vegetarian. So I was going to have to do some creative cooking to accomodate them as well as fix something the General would eat, as well as Heather's husband Steve who is a bit of a fussy eater. Plus Heather and Steve have a three-year-old and I had no idea if she was going to feel adventurous about eating! Hoo boy! I got back on the computer and started doing some research and eventually found recipes that I felt would take care of everything everyone would be willing to eat. I let Heather, Steve, and Joe take care of munchies for before the meal and I made up a menu for the main course and dessert which was:

1. Kookoo-e Gol-e Kalam - a cauliflower torte/quiche type of thing from Iran
2. Adas Polow - Rice pilaf from Iran
3. Tashreeb Dajaj - a chicken stew from Iraq
4. Ho Dduk - sweet cinnamon pancakes from North Korea

I'm afraid the picture taking for this edition got screwed up. For one thing, I felt like I was cooking for Three Kings all over again--a lot of food and a lot of company on top of the Honduras dinner. For another thing, I fudged a bit and turned over the prep work on the Ho Dduk to my sister so I could concentrate on fixing up the other things. I also did things out of order a lot so that I could get prep work out of the way before the serious cooking kicked in. I'm going to attempt to put the steps in chronological order, but forgive me if I fail miserably!

Ok, so the first dish I started on was the Kookoo-e Gol-e Kalam, hereafter known as 'cauliflower pie'. This is a really simple dish if you are in the mood for a quick, vegetarian friendly food that tastes pretty darned good! Basically all you do is chop up a small head of cauliflower, boil it till it's a bit soft, and mash it with a fork.

Beat some eggs together with a little salt and pepper, dissolve some saffron in some hot water, dissolve some baking soda in a little cold water, and add those to the egg mixture. Ok, let me tell you about my saffron adventure. I went to Wegman's with my shopping list the other night to buy all the goods for this fun little dinner. I got to the spice aisle, and there was one other woman there shopping too. She took one look at Leah and one look at me and said, "Your baby is cold." Mmmmm-kay, I didn't recall asking your opinion. In fact, Leah was quite toasty, but apparently this lady was mad I didn't have any socks on her feet. So I said as politely as I could, "No she isn't, she's just fine. She's just like her dad, always warm!" and laughed "Hahahaha". The woman looked at me like I was a little crazy and Leah began to wail (of course! the kid has got timing!). So I pulled Leah out of the seat and we start looking at the spices. I find one bottle of saffron and looked at the price tag, $16.50. I audibly inhaled. I said, "Leah, let's see if there isn't a cheaper one somewhere!" so we turned to the 'budget' spices (McCormick) and I found a jar of imported Spanish saffron for $14.99. I said, "Well, Leah, fifteen dollars seems like a relative bargain!" and the woman behind us started laughing. I had forgotten she was still back there. So what does $14.99 worth of saffron get ya? 0.06 ounces! I swear, I'm going to start a damned crocus farm! Forget illicit drugs, saffron is the way to go! While I was cooking with it, I was literally scraping out every last little shred--it was NOT going to waste. My trusty pal Joe was watching over me saying, "You missed a stamen! Oh, there's one! Don't forget that one!" He and I cleaned it out!

So anyway, you pour the egg mixture over the cauliflower and mix it all up nice and mushy like mashed potatoes, only chunkier. Then you dump the whole thing in a pan and fry it up! About 10 minutes on the first side, then you cut it into quarters, flip it, and fry the other side for about another ten minutes. This was by far the easiest dish we made all day!

I also decided to get a good jump start on the Adas Polow, which was a good thing because you must soak the rice for 3-4 hours before you do anything else. I love, love, love basmati rice, and I have a lot of it on hand from this experiment, so I was excited to see that I could use some up for this. However, I was not going to be able to use my rice cooker--there was too much going on with it, and having soaked it first, I was afraid it would be really mushy if I put it in the cooker.

Now, if you read the recipe, you will see that it calls for beef or lamb. Since I knew the General was not going to eat rice regardless of how I jazzed it up, I decided to go ahead and take out the meat. This would allow Heather and Joe to enjoy the dish as well as the rest of us. This is not an overly complicated recipe to follow, but there are a lot of steps to it and when you subtract some ingredients you have to do some creative thinking about how you might have to modify the rest of the recipe.

Anyway, once the rice was soaked, I cooked up the lentils. I have never cooked with lentils before. I'm sure I've eaten them, but I didn't really know the first thing about cooking with them. The recipe said to let them boil 15-20 minutes, but I didn't think they were done enough, so I let them go a little bit longer.

As you can see, it got crowded on the stove again! Why oh why don't I have a professional grade kitchen? Does the Food Network or Frigidaire or Kenmore or Home Depot or Sears want to upgrade my kitchen for free sponsorship rights? :-) I'll advertise the hell out of you if you pay me in appliances, cabinetry, and flooring.

While the rice and lentils were cooking away, it was time to get down to business on the onions. They had to be thinly sliced and then fried. Once fried, you add some spices--in this case tumeric, salt, and pepper. Then you are supposed to add the meat and a cup of water and cook the whole thing until all the water is absorbed. Now here's the thing: I didn't add the meat. So I knew I probably didn't need all that water, but I had no idea how much water I did need! I finally decided to add 1/3 of a cup approximately. It was still a bit more than I needed, but it got absorbed by the rice when I put it all together at the end, so I don't think it hurt anything.

Once that had been accomplished and the rice was cooked and the lentils were cooked, I washed up some raisins and dates, and then it was time to assemble the dish for the final cooking! It was a bit like assembling a lasagna or a trifle--you just do it in layers. In the bottom of the pot goes a bit of oil and water, then half the rice, then all the "stuff" (lentils, onions, raisins, dates) and then the rest of the rice. For the finishing touch, you dissolve some saffron in water and pour it over the top of the rice. Then you cook it over low heat for 20 minutes or so and voila! Adas polow!

Finally, it was time to turn my attention to the Tashreeb Dajaj. As I said, this is a chicken stew and I must be honest and say that mine turned out looking nowhere near as good as the picture on the recipe site, but it tasted damned good! Now, I did have an issue with the ingredient list. The recipe called for three dried limes and I could not find them anywhere. I looked in the produce section, I looked in the dried fruit section, I looked in the ethnic food section, I looked with candy, I looked by the juice, and nothing, nada. So I substituted a little bit of lime zest for dried limes, which was unfortunately, as I don't really like to substitute if I don't have to. But that's life! Also having learned the hard way that no one will eat the chicken if it's on the bone, I boguht boneless, skinless thighs and breasts in lieu of a roasting chicken. I had roasted a chicken earlier in the week and the General decided to "have a snack later" and I knew my sister wouldn't really eat it if it was on the bone, so that eliminated half my chicken-eating audience right there. The recipe said it was OK, though, so I took the authors at their word and made it my way.

Ok, so the first step is pretty simple, just to brown the chicken in a non-stick frying pan. Since my big pan was in use cooking the cauliflower, I got out my handy dandy electric frying pan for the chicken. I must be honest and say that I do have some trouble regulating the heat on it--it either seems to be too hot or too low and I only ever adjust it between 250 and 350. It's very frustrating, things either burn or don't cook! I think I did a pretty good job cooking up the chicken, though. Meanwhile, I set to work on peeling and pureeing tomatoes.

Have you ever attempted to peel a tomato? Well I can tell you right now it is impossible. I suppose what they wanted me to do was to boil some water and dip the tomatoes in quickly and remove them, then the skins would peel right off. I didn't have that kind of time--my guests were arriving any minute and I needed to get the show on the road! So I got the food processor back out and threw the tomatoes in, skins and all, hit "on" and walked away. When I came back, even the skins were pureed.

Once the chicken had browned up, I added some tomato paste and let it cook down and soften some before adding the lime zest, pureed tomato, garlic, chicken bouillon, baby onions, and water. I also threw in the potatoes at this point inadvertantly, but had to fish them back out because it wasn't time yet!

Ok, once that was done, I put the potatoes back in, added chickpeas, and let the whole thing go.

Meanwhile, I had gotten Judy started making the Ho Dduk, a sort of inside out sweet pancake from North Korea which was to be our dessert. Frankly, she kept saying, "I think it's time to take a picture now" and I kept snapping pictures randomly and madly, but I'm not necessarily sure that anything we took pictures of is going to be all that helpful. And let me be honest here, people, this was the most goddamned complex recipe of the bunch. It called for tons of ingredients, including potato flakes and powdered milk, required yeast and consequently needed 45 minutes to rise, required 10 minutes of hand-kneading. I dubbed them "Let them eat pancakes!" in deference to one of the original bad girl dictators of all time (who probably never said it anyway), but it seemed like the perfect name for them.

Not only did Judy get saddled with the hardest recipe, she also had approximately 2 square feet of counterspace to work on. I took exactly 3 pictures, I'll let you figure out what's going on in them.

Honestly, you will do better to read the recipe yourself (linked above) and figure it out, I had absolutely nothing to do with this part of the recipe--I did the cooking of the pancakes, but none of the preparation!

With that, it was time to eat. Heather and I had set the table using the good china and silver, as befits the evil dictators we were pretending to be and everyone assembled to feast! I said, "Everyone say 'Saddam Hussein'!" and snapped a picture of my wonderful dinner guests before we got down to the serious business of eating. Unfortunately said picture is also the closest you will get to seeing the finished products, as I neglected to take pictures of any of the food when I took it out of the pan. I can't possibly relate to you what a frenzy of cooking all this was and how out of control it felt. At one point, I turned to Judy and said, "this is worse than Three Kings. At least with Three Kings, we know what the hell we're doing."

The food itself was WONDERFUL! Everything was very flavorful and the saffron makes a nice taste, I will say. We had a lot of fun talking over current events and just being together. This year we've been reconnecting with Heather and Steve after a little bit of a lull in our friendship (if you want to call 2 years a lull), and I really was feeling quite emotional that we were all gathered around my table again spending time together. It was fantastic.

(If you are not cooking for a crowd, I would recommend at a bare minimum you halve the recipe for the adas polow--it made a TON. I sent Heather and Joe both home with gallon freezer bags of it half full and I still had enough left for 2 meals for myself.)

After we finished up our delicious main meal, we cleared the table a bit and I fried up the Let Them Eat Pancakes. I used a scoop to scoop out the little balls of dough, rolled them in cinnamon and brown sugar, dropped them into hot oil and then flattened them with a spatula. They rose up quite nicely and were actually chewy on the inside while being a bit crisp on the outside--like fried dough but not quite as crisp.

We served them with a bit of ice cream just to be decadent, and everyone loved them. They were excellent!

And then the time of our dictatorship was over. But I think we could rule the world quite effectively--just feed everyone till they fall asleep in a food coma and then we can do what we want!! I might do an Axis of Evil II: Pakistan-Afghanistan edition if anyone would like to come! But it might be a while. There is an Afghani food store in Alexandria and I want to scope that out first before commiting to anything. :-)

And in case you're wondering, this is approximately one-third to one-half of the dishes we generated. I have the world's best brother-in-law to do the dishes for me!

1 comment:

  1. To peel a tomato - after dunking it in boiling water - dunk it in ice cold water. The peels should immediately start shredding off. Just like how when you sun burn and then you dunk yourself in cold water your skin starts peeling. :)