Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Apple Curry Quinoa Salad and a Trip to the Andes

The mother of all grains meets the mother of all media.
This Martha Stewart-adapted quinoa recipe got me thinkin' about the Incans, so I took out some old trip pics for a blast from the past. Park your alpaca and sit for a bit.

Grainy pics and grainy souvenirs. Quinoa is spelled Quinua and amaranth is Kiwicha.

Ah, quinoa. I remember that humble, yet pleasant peasant food that grew high in the soil of the picturesque Andes. We first met in 1998 in Peru and Bolivia, and I wondered where it had been all my life—or any of our lives in the West for that matter. That was long before it had become a first-world pantry staple and proclaimed a superfood by the superfood proclamators (I’d like to know how you become a superfood proclamator, as I’m looking for new career options). Yep, quinoa has come a long way from the Inca empire to the Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia empire. And that’s a good thing, right?

Well, it depends on who you ask. A couple of years ago I had read in The Guardian and The New York Times that because of quinoa’s huge popularity in the West, the indigenous people couldn’t afford to eat it anymore since they were exporting most of it to us at premium prices. That meant they were eating cheaper processed foods like noodles and white rice. Indigenous people forced to swap the rich, ancestral crop they had been growing for thousands of years for nutritionally inferior "white" food? Only in a Pizarro world. On the other hand, I also read that this economic boon has allowed the Andean people to become more self-sufficient and are able to diversify their diet by adding more fresh vegetables. So if we buy quinoa, are we taking it off their plates? If we don't buy it, are we depriving them of a place at the table? Damned if you quinoa, damned if you don't. Meanwhile, I continued to buy it in moderation, unsure if I should be feeling guilty or not. Ambivalent guilt. That was new—even to me.

And now I've come to find out that according to the United Nations, 2013 is The International Year of Quinoa. Whoa. Quinoa gets its own year? Barley never got squat! Then I wondered if The International Year of Quinoa was just some PR stunt, as large corporations try to swoop in and root out the small organic quinoa farmers, which would result in environmental degradation from more aggressive cultivation. Some say that traditional, organic farming methods must be maintained to preserve the purity of the crop.

As quinoa's worldwide popularity spreads and other countries including the U.S. are trying to grow it, The Year Of Quinoa co-founder, UN chief Ban Ki-Moon said, “I hope this international year will be a catalyst for learning about the potential of quinoa for food and nutrition security, for reducing poverty—especially among the world’s small farmers—and for environmentally sustainable agriculture.” And since outspoken Bolivian president Evo Morales supports The Year of Quinoa, I figure it must be okay to eat. I mean, the guy is a celebrated proponent of indigenous rights, anti-imperialism, was named "World Hero of Mother Earth" by the U.N. and has blamed our fast-food empire and transnational corporations for disease and obesity. Sounds like he's looking out for his homies, so I'm hitching my llama to Evo. Ba bye, first-world guilt. Hello, Apple Curry Quinoa Salad. I've made this recipe several times. Trust me, it's a good thing.

Apple Curry Quinoa Salad 

This was adapted from a Martha Stewart recipe. The curry, apple, raisins and almonds are a sweet and spicy counterpoint to the nutty quinoa, and the mint adds a refreshing, whimsical note. I threw in a little chiffonaded kale for more greenery, but it's not necessary.

1/4 cup sliced almonds
1 cup quinoa (2/3 white and 1/3 red for color)
1 teaspoon honey or agave
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot
1 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons currants or raisins 
1 small sweet red apple, cut into thin wedges
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped, plus more for garnish
*Optional handful of kale, cut in thin strips

Rinse quinoa thoroughly in a fine sieve; drain. Bring 2 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add quinoa; return to a boil. Stir quinoa; cover, and reduce heat. Simmer until quinoa is tender but still chewy, about 15 minutes. Fluff quinoa with a fork; let cool.

Spread sliced almonds in a skillet over a low flame and heat until lightly toasted and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Let cool.

Whisk together honey, shallot, curry powder, salt, and lemon juice in a large bowl. Season with pepper. Whisking constantly, pour in oil in a slow, steady stream; whisk until dressing is emulsified. Add quinoa, currants or raisins, apple, mint, nuts (and kale if using); toss well. Garnish with mint.

Lentil's Breakdown
  • Quinoa is not a grain, but is a chenopod, which is a flowering plant of the goosefoot family that includes spinach, beets and pigweed.
  • High in protein, quinoa was a major crop with great importance to pre-Colombian Andean civilizations, second only to the potato. It still remains an important food for the Quechua and Aymara peoples of the rural areas in the Andes. In the Quechua language, quinoa is called chisiya, meaning ‘mother grain’.
  • Quinoa is the only plant food that has all the essential amino acids, trace elements and vitamins.
  • It’s grown in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile, though Peru and Bolivia account for as much as 97% of global production.
  • Resistant to drought, poor soils and high salinity, it has the ability to adapt to different ecological environments and climates, offering an alternative for countries suffering from food insecurity.
  • The Rocky Mountains, much of Canada, and the Pacific Northwest all have potential as quinoa-producing regions.
  • Quinoa prices have almost tripled over the past five years, yet Bolivia’s consumption fell 34 percent over the same period.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

10 Things I Ate in Morocco

People love top 10 lists almost as much as they love phonetic spellings. So I've spelled out some typical dishes from Morocco with an accent on the word "yum." Uh oh. I just violated my no yum policy. Now I have to go wash the cutesy off my keyboard. Might even have to chuck my whole computer. But before I do, my gift to you.

1. Salade Marocaine

The ubiquitous Moroccan salad appears in many forms, but the very first one I had in Casablanca was probably my favorite. Tomatoes, onions, peppers, roasted zucchini and parsley were plated over lettuce in a simple, yet vibrant vinaigrette. The fanciful surrounding veg, egg and olive accoutrements made for a show-stopping presentation. Light and zesty with great textural diversity, it was an equal opportunity salad. Must've been because it was so far away from the Tea Party.

Other regulars in the Moroccan salad lineup are cooked beets, green beans, potatoes, rice and even green chiles for a salsa-like sensation. How do you say olé in Arabic? Nope, that’s not it.

2. Harira Soup

This hearty lentil, chickpea and tomato soup was so full-bodied, Lane Bryant could have designed a pantsuit for it. Some had pieces of vermicelli in it, and though I never saw any traces of meat, I wasn't convinced such a rich broth was vegetarian. But I abided by a don't ask, don't smell policy and made believe it was. Though it’s a favorite for breaking the fast during Ramadan, harira soup is eaten all year long at any meal, including breakfast. Once I thought about saying to the waiter, "There's a harira in my soup," but I was afraid he’d think, “Out of the whole USA, and I have to get the one named Shecky.”

While every bowl I had was a winner (and I had many), my favorite was at this harira stall in the Fez medina for 60¢. Testament to the credo that when you specialize in one thing, it better be freaking good. Note to self: When I open a harira stall, mediocrity is not an option.

3. Sfenj and Msemen 

Okay, so they're really two completely unrelated breadstuffs. But the sfenj and msemen came as a matched set for breakfast one morning at my riad in Marrakech. The Moroccan doughnut, sfenj (an Arabic word meaning "sponge"), is a regional street food also found in Algeria and Tunisia that’s deep-fried and sprinkled with sugar or soaked in honey. Like a cross between a doughnut and croissant, I heard somewhere that the cronut idea originated from a pastry chef in Morocco. But I can't prove it, so no frivolous pastry lawsuits over the Moroccronut, please. 

This thick tortilla-like bread called msemen that's pan-fried was served with a traditional topping of hot syrup made from butter and honey (top photo). My riad in Fez served it in thin, layered pieces (above) sans the syrup that was greasier and tasted like a quesadilla. How do you say oilé in Arabic? Nope, still not it. 

4. Tagine 

What makes this dish a tagine is the clay vessel with a conical lid that it’s cooked in called a tagine. Yep, those two nouns are effing with you the same way the word “dishis, as in “that was one tasty dish.” I ordered this chicken tagine in the city of Meknes, and after the first bite, I discovered the "chicken" was beef short ribs. Rather than proclaim I had been violated by unwittingly eating a cow, as a flexitarian in a faraway land, I went with it since I didn't want to waste said cow. But it didn't hurt to have the waiter write me a note to PETA saying it was his bad. I just hope PETA can read Arabic on napkin.

While the beef tagine was served over couscous, most tagines come without it. Top row: two sardine tagines; bottom left: vegetable; bottom right: chicken with apricots and almonds. For a reasonably priced clay tagine, this one comes highly recommended by renowned Moroccan cookbook author, Paula Wolfert.

5. Couscous

No, it’s not a big plate of fugly. It’s a resplendent fish tfaya couscous that taught me not to judge a couscous by its cover. Tfaya is the topping of rich, caramelized onions and raisins with a garbanzo bean garnish. Underneath all that deep flavor were thick pieces of a mild white fish called dourado, and I was in the coastal city of Essaouira—prime real estate for the catch of the day. As far as the couscous part, well, you know those boxed ones in the States? My condolences. This was the lightest, fluffiest, most pillowy couscous—the real deal—without that cardboard aftertaste.

While this more typical vegetable couscous was undeniably tasty and fugly-free, I’ll take fugly over perky cheerleader any day, thank you. 

6. Grilled Sardines

Americans may see him as a poor, lowly ghetto swimmer, but in Morocco, he’s the Michael Phelps of fish. Well, maybe not Phelps, but the silver-medal sardine is a popular, celebrated everyfish, eaten grilled, fried and baked in tagines. The city of Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast, is swimming in seafood, and since the sardine is so nutritious and plentiful, I chose him over sexier crustaceans. 

Just look at all those bad boys. Still, I tried to be a good girl. Turns out sardines aren't as sustainable as I thought. The world’s largest exporter of sardines, Morocco sadly has overfishing issues with them too. 

7. Bastilla

This famous Fassi (from Fes) delicacy, bastilla, is traditionally made with pigeon, but the birds were all busy delivering letters that day, so mine had chicken. The paper-thin pastry called warqa—similar to phyllo dough but even thinner—is filled with chicken, eggs, almonds and spices, while powdered sugar and cinnamon artfully adorn the top. Mine was apparently the victim of a BP (Bastila Powdered sugar) spill, and the sweet and meat combo left an oily residue in my belly. My bad for not giving it another go somewhere else, but I was awaiting the BP degreasing crew. The bastilla Anthony Bourdain had in this video from Tangier looks like it had more refined oil.

Memo to bastilla chef: Halt powdered-sugar production immediately or be prepared to lawyer up. 

8. Rotisserie Chicken

I took a two-hour bus ride out of Fez to a small town in the Atlas mountains called Azrou and ended up in a spit rotisserie joint because some hot, twirling birds were winking at me on the sidewalk like cheap trollops. Despite their unhygienic-sounding moniker, spit-roasted chickens are popular in Morocco, and they always come with fries and rice just to mess with the paleos. One had had its way with me before, but this time I was the only female in a packed house of burly, Arabic-speaking men who were seriously gettin' their chicken on. I might've been nervous had I not been so busy gettin' mine on too.  

Why did the Moroccan chicken cross the road? To get to the other spit. Their chickens aren't too bright. But then, ours aren't exactly road scholars either.

9. Snail Soup

No, they're not related to those uptown escargot who luxuriate in a rich butter and wine sauce in France. These smaller, garden-variety, everyman's snails or babouche are served in an earthy broth that cost me a whopping 70¢ on Marrakech’s main square, Djemaa el-Fna. Purported to aid in digestion and cure what snails you, the soothing broth has delicate notes of thyme, anise, mint, bitter orange and other fragrant herbs and spices. You simply pluck the snails out of their shells with a toothpick, eat the chewy little guys and then down the broth. See how snail soup is eaten on the Marrakech square here.

Poised over big vats, the snailmen really deliver with their fast-food snails (yup, it's an oxymoron). Street food was perfectly safe to eat, as last time I checked, I was still alive. I’ll check again after I finish this post, just to be sure.   

10. Sellou

After my last slurp of snail soup on the square in Marrakech, I walked through the food stalls and stood mesmerized by a dark, mysterious concoction next to a big copper kettle. The vendor reeled me in for a taste of the sellou, and I became enchanted by this spicy sweet with a strong gingerbread flavor and the consistency of a pudding-like cake. The sellou recipes I've read say it's made from flour, almonds, sesame seeds, honey, sugar, butter, cinnamon and anise, but I could taste stronger spices like clove. It was served alongside a spicy tea with the burning-hot flavors of cinnamon, ginger, clove, cardamom, galangal, nutmeg, star anise, etc. for a true sensory spice overload.

I was so taken by this tall, dark, rich, spicy stranger, I had to have one last fling with him the night before I left. But we'll always have Marrakech.

Related Links:
Ode to a Sardine
Animal, Vegetable, Minaret: Fez Medina, Part 1
Animal, Vegetable, Minaret: Fez Medina, Part 2
Animal, Vegetable, Minaret: Fez Medina, Part 3
Letting Go and a Moroccan Gigolo