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Take A Break at Fika !

I’ve never had any form of Swedish style cuisine, and yesterday’s early lunch didn’t disappoint!

Fika, the Nordic-inspired café created by the American Swedish Institute inside the Nelson Cultural Center, offers comfort foods from the early start of the day.  My co-workers and I enjoyed items from the menu that included  seasoned meatballs, gravlax, and braised rabbit.

The cafe serves espresso and pastries as well as seasonal items.  Lunch is available from Tuesday to Sunday from 11am -3pm, and Wednesdays from 11am-8pm  (a happy hour entitled ‘After Work Wednesdays’, 3pm-8pm)

Fika

2600 Park Avenue

Minneapolis, MN 55407

http://www.fikacafe.net

Fika Cafe – Meatballs
Fika Cafe – Gravlax
Fika Cafe – Braised Rabbit

 

 

Red Chili Curry

Red Chili Curry

Curry Paste:

1 Tsp corriander

1 Tsp black peppercorn

2-3 Thai Chilies

1/4 C of chopped cilantro ends

1 Tsp chopped lemongrass

2-3 garlic cloves

2 Tsp ginger (chopped)

1 Tsp galangal

1 Kaffir lime leaf

1 Tsp fish sauce

1 Tsp oyster sauce

1/2 roasted red pepper

1 Tsp paprika

1 Tsp salt

*Put all the ingredients into a Vitamix or use a mortar and pestle to make it into a mash.  Add a 1/4 C of canola oil to smooth out the mix.  Cook the mah on low heat for about 20 mins.

Coconut Curry Chicken:

1 C coconut milk

2 Tsp curry paste

1 C diced chicken (thighs)

1 C chopped carrots

Optional:

1 C chopped green beans

1-2 C of mushrooms

* Cook the chicken and add the curry past and then the coconut milk and let it simmer for 15 mins.  Then serve over rice or eat with Naan bread.

 

(This recipe is courtesy of Chef Yia Vang who provided instructions for the cooking class entitled “Curry in a Hurry” hosted by the non-profit organization The Good Acre)

Ecuadorian Cuisine in the Northeast

I’ve learned never judge a restaurant by its size, because to do so would mean you might miss out on great cuisine and learning a little about a culture you’re not familiar with.  A great example is Chimborazo (www.chimborazorestaurant.com).  Though small in size, it offers a warm, cozy atmosphere and the staff is efficient and knowledgeable. They are focused on preparing traditional cuisines popular to Ecuador’s coastal areas and the Andean highlands of the South American country.  Located in the Northeast Minneapolis neighborhood, the Ecuadorian restaurant is popular with a variety of friends that I’ve chatted with.

 The cuisine in Ecuador is diverse depending on altitude and what type of agriculture can be grown in the area. In the highland regions, preparation of meats such as chicken, beef, or pork are popular. In the coastal areas, seafood tends to be the given staple, with dishes that include fish or shrimp.  Having ceviche is key to the diets of inhabitants of the coastal region.

 With so many friends telling me that I need to go there, I picked a late Friday evening to go. I was pleasantly surprised that even at the late hour that I chose, it was busy with at least 90% of the tables being occupied.  As I was alone, I didn’t mind being seated somewhat out of the way. I didn’t want anyone to notice the number of dishes I was getting anyway!

The first thing on their menu was the ceviche de camaron, which immediately caught my attention.  I wasn’t familiar with the item patacones, so the server described it as flatten plantain chips that have been twice fried, as though it were a cracker to eat with the ceviche. I was totally in and excited when the ceviche came because it had four to five huge whole shrimp, enveloped in the cocktail sauce made up of red onions, tomato, lime and roasted corn (tostada).  The patacones were steeped within the sauce, along the edges of the bowl. Make no mistake that was devoured.

Next, I ordered an empanada de carne, or beef turnover. Stuffed with well flavored beef, and then fried until the outside of the pastry is golden and crunchy, it was a wonderful transition from having a coastal dish, and now eating cuisine from the highland region.  I suggest asking for extra of a fantastic green salsa they serve along with it …aji criollo.  I eventually asked for the recipe.

My entrée was the seco de pollo which was stewed chicken with peppers, onions, garlic and passionfruit.  Served with white rice and fried plantain, the leg and thigh chicken pieces were seasoned extremely well and didn’t rely on the sauce that it is was in to make it stand out.  The added bonus was that more aji criollo was provided for this dish as well.  Once I deboned the chicken pieces, mixing it into the rice and added the Ecuadorian green salsa (aji), I was on cloud nine.  Probably a little too much as the couple next to me certainly gave me a surprising glance perhaps from the sounds of my elation.

Since the temptress, my server, came by and stated, “Dinner isn’t ever complete without dessert” I ordered tres leches cake.  With every fork indentation into that moist pound cake, soaked with sweetened milks, and garnished with whipped cream and strawberries, I knew that my fate was sealed and that my return to this hearty restaurant will involve a totally new experience of flavors.

 

Chimborazo Ecuadorian Restaurant

2851 Central Avenue NE

Minneapolis, MN 55418

Weekend Splurge – Egg Curry

Man was it a busy Thanksgiving weekend!  First it started with Thursday, preparing and eating (twice).  Then work on Friday (blah….lol) and finally, Saturday where I went to visit friends Aaron & Cecil,  Aaron is an excellent home chef with recipes that come together from years of traveling to various countries as a composer/producer.  He really expresses his love of food in every dish.  This was no exception.  Wonderful egg curry !

Egg Curry

Coming Together with Soul Food

 

With any cuisine, there are comfort foods that can transport a person back to a nostalgic time of their childhood,  or just feel mentally at ease as they eat their favorite meal.  But mention the words ‘soul food’ to friends, and it’s almost like you can see their eyes start to dance with excitement as they’re ready to share with you vivid stories about family Sunday dinners, holiday meals, or special occasions that ate those delicious dishes.  

Certainly, these stories will include their siblings, the parents, and even the funny uncle or inquisitive aunt that may ask a ton of embarrassing questions.  Ultimately though, it comes back to food that is shared with loved ones.  Listening to chicken being fried golden brown in a cast iron skillet.  Cornbread fresh out of the oven with a small pat of butter on top.  Macaroni and cheese, made from scratch, with the blend of various cheeses covering every surface of the pasta.  However, don’t forget the greens!  Whether they be collard, mustard, or turnip greens they are another staple that highlights the wistful experience of being together.  

 

I recall at the age of 23, a Canadian friend and I visited Manhattan, NY.  Of course, we did the standard touristy things (Central Park, Ellis Island, Rockefeller Center, etc.), but it was in our day long visit to Harlem that I got to have my first experience with authentic soul food.  After literally having a private tour at the historic Apollo Theater, we asked the host where can we get some food that gives us a true feel of the Harlem community.  He told us to go down two blocks on West 126th Street and then take a left at Malcom X Blvd/Lennox Ave and we’ll find Sylvia’s Restaurant.  Once inside, we had a marvelous home-style cooking that you can tell had been perfected decades prior, and being enjoyed by people of so many different nationalities, which left me with a lasting impression.

Fast forward to present day, my focus as of late has been on finding great soul food within the Twin Cities.  So, a recent event I attended entitled ‘Soul Bowl’ hosted by Chef Gerard Klass, (Facebook: @klassicsmpls) emphasized people gathering together to enjoy some soul food.  

Mac N Cheese, candied yams, fried chicken, with a bourbon BBQ sauce
Dirty rice, greens, braised beef with cajun gravy sauce

Described as being convenient, and customizable bowls that contained familiar soul food items, he prepared fried chicken, greens, candied yams, and more with an urban twist of unique flavors.  The event setting offered long and circular tables for community seating, giving people a chance to meet, and engage in conversations in an urban setting while enjoying an elevated dining experience.  This made me appreciate once again about the importance of food in our communities. That it’s not just for sustenance, but that it also serves as a vehicle to cultivate new relationships, having honest conversations, and always striving for progress in our communities.

Pupusas …with love

It makes it so special when you’re invited over to a friend’s home and they express their appreciation of your friendshop by preparing food. I had that experience this weekend with some friends from work. We chose to get together and just laugh and have a good time. Being co-workers we certainly talked about work, even though we said we really weren’t, but more importantly it was the gathering together just to give us some encouragement from the past week and things that we’ve experienced.

My power couple friends Walter and Maricella, graciously invited another co-worker Kim, her son, and I over for a wonderful meal with the help of Walter’s mom.  It consisted of pupusas, salsa, fried plantain, rice, cortido (a Central American garnish made with cabbage, carrots, and green onions) accompanied with pourings of Carlo Rossi’s Sangria and Moscato Sangria…my personal favorite.

Pupusas w/ rice and vegetables

We watched as our hosts made their way around the cozy kitchen, setting out accoutrements to go along with the arranged meal.  Kim asked questions to Walter’s mom, respectfully Mrs Catalina, in Spanish as I did my utmost to recall my 2 semesters and piece together parts of the conversation.

After preparing so much for us,  Mari and Walter joined us at their family dining table. It was so endearing to see Walter eat some of the pupusas, and then hear him say, “Man… I’ve missed having this!”

We conversed some more while still partaking in food. At one point, I asked my friends if they have a molé recipe that they would share with me.  Walter quickly pointed to Maricella and mentioned that she does a good one. But Mari asked Mrs Catalina about it also, complimenting the quality of her molé and inquired if she would allow me the opportunity to learn how to prepare it. Happily she agreed, so sometime in the near future I’m gonna make molé!

Sitting around a family’s table and having meaningful conversation, finding out more about your friends, giving advice or encouragement, are truly ways that express love and affection.  With this meal, an extra stamp of love was also demonstrated with …pupusas!

Love of the Food and Culture

Recently I had the privilege of being a guest on a popular radio station in the Twin Cities.  Our topic centered around cultural appropriation, and specifically for me, how this issue crosses boundaries into the food world.

Cultural appropriation may be defined as when the actions of individuals that are greater in power (whether socially or economically), cherry-pick specific aspects of a culture that they deem beneficial to them, resulting in that culture losing their societal voice, or becoming invisible.  But how does that affect the culinary society?

Researching the topic of culinary cultural appropriation, I came across a description which states, ‘it is the modifying of recipes without respect of someone else’s culture, and introducing a cuisine as if it were your own.’  An example of this may be seen when the cuisine, or ingredients that are used by immigrants of another culture are often frowned upon, classified as unappetizing or too ‘ethnic’.  Yet a popular chef that decides that they would like to introduce American culture to said cuisine, may mellow down or make a dish more palatable, referring to it as a cultural-fusion.  Shops and restaurant that once scoffed at these non-American standard ingredients, are placing them on their menu (i.e. oxtail sliders, poke bowls, spam sushi) becoming the adulation of food influencers as fresh, new and trendy.  Seemingly forgetting about the culture from the cuisine came from, and minimizing it’s importance to just the food that the taste of restaurant investors find appealing.

True, new and exciting cuisines should be celebrated.  Chefs are creative, and strive to be please their culinary public.  Perhaps the intention is to honor the culture, and highlight the cuisine. But if the actions in preparing the food does not demonstrate a passion for the food, along with it’s culture, and people… then your efforts are pointless.

Food is our common need as humans.  Everyone wants to sit and enjoy a great meal.  If your interests lead you only to be obsessed with the next best food without being open to teaching others about a different culture, how will we progress and appreciate the vast number of ethnicities we have in this country.  Offering food or restaurant suggestions should be an opportunity to learn about another culture, and then sharing your passion of both the food and the people behind the culture.  Educate yourself about the way a specific culture’s food is prepared.  If you like a certain type of cuisine, why not make a new friend and ask them to explain about the different ingredients that may go into a dish. You’ll find that your passion for that cuisine, and the culture will really shine!

Ras El Hanout: Head of the Shop

Imagine preparing a dish with a mixture of approximately 25-100 different spices?  That is what you would find in this spice mixture from North Africa, specifically Morocco, called ras el hanout.  The meaning behind the name of the mixture is “head of the shop”, similar to the expression “top-shelf”.  So, it literally refers to the best spices that the store has to offer.

Being of the most fundamental flavors and aromas of Moroccan cuisine, ras el hanout is the country’s ‘national spice blend’.  Though this is a popular spice blend, shops or companies competitively create their own unique secret blend, some boasting of their mixture containing the rarest ingredients.  No two recipes are ever alike, so creators of a particular blend would be hard-pressed to divulge information of that powdered treasure.  Which makes it all the more intriguing to learn how to use it.

Ras el hanout is not a spicy blend, but it provides aromatic and warm flavors.   True, you can add some chilies or peppers to raise the heat level, but ultimately you want as many of the characters of the blend to work together enhancing whatever dish you are preparing.  Spices such as coriander, and cumin take the lead and are complimented by sweet spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.  Conveniently you can add ras el hanout in marinades, as a rub, or seasoning for dishes like stews that will add a distinct North African flavor.

You can find ras el hanout in the following specialty shops:

  1. Holy Land, 2513 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis MN 55418
  2. World Street Kitchen, 2743 Lyndale Ave S. Minneapolis MN 55408
  3. Bills Imported Foods, 721 W Lake St, Minneapolis, MN 55408

After finding out that ras el hanout is perfect when preparing a lamb dish, I journeyed from St Paul to a meat shop in the Linden Hills area and purchased a lamb shoulder.  Check out my lamb preparation for the first time!

 

Lamb Shoulder Roast

2 lb. boneless lamb shoulder

3 cloves of garlic, cut into slivers

1 small shallot, minced

2 Tbsps. olive oil

1 Tbsp ras el hanout

3-4 sprigs of rosemary, remove leaves

Salt and pepper to taste

(Marinade for 2-3 hours, preferably overnight)

With a small sharp knife, cut slits over the lamb shoulder.  Insert the garlic and rosemary into the slits.  Mix olive oil, shallot, and ras el hanout spice blend.  Drizzle mixture over lamb shoulder.  Season with salt and pepper. Cover and place in refrigerator.   Remove from the refrigerator 1 hour prior to placing in the oven.

Roasting: Preheat oven to 180 degrees.  Place shoulder in a covered roasting pan, allowing approximately 4 hrs for roasting. Use the pan juices for basting.  Uncover and raise oven temperature to 275 degrees cooking for an additional 25-30 mins.  Allow roast a 15-minute rest time before slicing.

Potatoes or other vegetables are a great compliment to this dish, as I added some jalapenos, mushrooms and carrots to round out the roast.

Curry: The Spices of Life

Green Curry Chicken with Rainbow Chard and Mushrooms

The Twin Cities is a melting pot of various multicultural cuisines, so a person inquiring about restaurant recommendations that prepare good spicy food, might be met with some consternation.   After perhaps narrowing down the neighborhood, and how spicy the spectrum level should be, establishments such as East Side Thai (879 Payne Ave, St Paul,), Gorkha Palace (23 4th St NE Minneapolis, MN,) or Harry Singh’s Original Caribbean (2653 Nicollet Ave, Minneapolis) may easily be popular choices that are suggested.

These are all restaurants with curry cuisines, with many others that do similar fare.  But are all curries the same?  No my young pad thai, they’re not!

Consider the preceding example restaurant cuisines…Thai, Indian, and Caribbean.  Dishes that are prepared ‘curried’, the use of a complex combination of spices and herbs, have commonly an Asian origin, with there being a number of variations that are specific to region, cultural tradition, and just plain preference.  However, you can distinguish the differences.

Indian cuisines, and Caribbean for that matter, both rely on dry spices, or curry powder to produce a spice level that lingers on the palate. These types of curries are mostly prepared with spices like turmeric, coriander, cumin, chili peppers.

Thai curries however, are prepared as pastes, usually with fresh chilies, lemon grass, ginger, garlic, shallots, kaffir lime leaves, and cilantro.  All to provide you with that heat upfront when you are consuming your meal!  Even then, these pastes offer their own levels of heat that are not obvious until you taste them.

  • Sweet Green Curry; originates from Central Thailand commonly known as the hottest of the curries, but also very sweet as it is prepared with large amounts of lime juice and coconut milk. Vegetables are often prepared in this sauce.
  • Red Curry; another spicy, fiery one because of the amount of red chilies that’s used to prepare it. Gives the dish a reddish color, and mixed with coconut milk to form the sauce. This is a great curry for various meats (lamb, chicken, beef).
  • Yellow Curry; less spicy of the three types of Thai curries, rich with turmeric, and coconut milk

And there you have it… a fresh knowledge of curry types that will help you they next time you’re out at your favorite spicy spot!  Check out this great Green Curry Chicken recipe.  It’s wonderful over basmati rice.  You can find curry pastes similar to the ones in this article at your local Asian markets, like Shuang Hur, or Dragon Star.  Take a picture and share the presentation of your dish with us!