Kavi’s had a bit of a stomach bug the last two days and hasn’t been eating much and it’s made me a little anxious because if I love you and you’re not eating well and I can’t feed you, I can’t think straight…
(but I try to keep all that to myself so my anxieties doesn’t spill over onto her and make her anxious)
…so when she finally looked up from the TV and asked if we had avocados (yes) and if I could make her avocado toast, I may have gone a little overboard.
(I asked her which one she liked best: tomato, bell pepper, parsley, flake salt — she liked them all equally, which is not helpful. Oh well.)
As part of my birthday week celebrations, and since we were up near the area anyway (taking the kids to Foster Beach), I finally stopped by the new Sri Lankan-owned restaurant, Cafe Nova. Their regular menu is a mix of Indian and Sri Lankan dishes, so you can get samosas, if you like (and they even have nasi goreng, so a little Indonesian too).
I went for the Sri Lankan, of course, and I’m delighted to report that it was very tasty. Kottu paratha, chicken mustard curry, lentil curry, all delicious.
There’s apparently a Sri Lankan buffet on Sunday afternoons, so I really need to get over there sometime soon. It’s a bit of a hike from Oak Park — 45-75 minutes, depending on traffic, but maybe Sundays wouldn’t be so bad.
Chicago folks in the area, PLEASE try them out if this appeals to you at all. I’ve lived in the Midwest for two decades, with the closest Sri Lankan restaurant eight hours away in Minnesota. I’d really like this place to survive and thrive — they have plans to open more of them, but first, this one has to succeed. Check them out!
Kevin did most of the cooking for the Venezuelan refugee lunch on Friday, while I was at the beach with the kids. He made rice and beans, but the main entree was carne mechada, a Venezuelan shredded beef dish.
Typically it’s made with skirt or flank steak, but since we were quadrupling the recipe (to feed about 40), I picked up a cheaper cut of meat, brisket, instead. About $50 ($5.98 / lb at Wild Fork), so a good option for feeding a (non-veg) crowd.
Brisket takes an hour or so longer to cook, so you do have to allow for that, and the end result is a little drier, Kevin says? But I thought it was still quite tasty.
We also did a big fruit salad; I put in avocado, which they may not do in Venezuela? But we do in Sri Lanka, and it’s delicious — I usually do a lime-honey dressing to go with it. Hope they liked it! I’m guessing they don’t have a lot of access to fresh fruit right now.
We did some cooking for the Venezuelan refugees this weekend — Kevin actually did most of it, but I did make polvorosas. These are little Venezuelan shortbread cookies — the name means ‘powdery’ and the cookies have a powdery / sandy texture — crisp on the outside and powdery on the interior, delicious with a cup of coffee or tea.
I’m not sure I quite understand the science of baking here — they’re made with clarified butter (I made mine, but you could also just buy ghee instead), and I have to think that that’s what changes the texture. So you’re removing the milk solids — that’s reducing the amount of protein and maybe a little bit of water? Is that what gives them a more powdery texture than traditional shortbread (made with regular butter)? It must be, right?
These would be fun to make with kids — easy and tasty!
(Continuing from previous post, last post in sequence).
So after all that, I needed a dessert for the refugees, right? I was originally going to make polvorosas (Venezuelan shortbread cookies) with the kids, but our schedule didn’t really work out for that. And I was really intrigued by a dish called majarete — sort of like a flan, but made with corn and coconut milk. Intriguing!
In case it’s not clear, while this project of cooking a lunch for 42 refugees was a fair bit of work, it was also a lot of fun for me. I love learning new things, and exploring a new-to-me-cuisine gave me plenty of reward for the labor. I could’ve just made lots of trays of mac-and-cheese with roasted broccoli, which I’ve made so often for the kids in the last decade that I can do it in my sleep, but learning to cook Venezuelan food was much more interesting!
Anyway, back to majarete. I’m not sure I’d recommend this one, unless you have a fair bit of time, because it had one really tedious step, be warned.
It starts out simple enough — simmering milk with cinnamon sticks and nutmeg. Easy-peasy.
The next step involved blending corn, coconut milk, cornstarch and sugar. I started to do this in my blender, and then realized that was a mistake (I made a LOT of dirty dishes with this particular recipe), because I’d have to do it three separate times for a triple batch. Instead, I dumped it all into my biggest pot (just fit), and pulled out the stick blender.
That worked pretty well, though it took a little longer to get it smooth than my regular blender would have. But then came the tricky bit — the final dish is supposed to have a silky-smooth texture, so you need to strain out any grainy corn bits. Reader, that took a while. And it was messy. My bowls weren’t big enough. There was corn everywhere.
I eventually had to get Kavi to stop watching Jane the Virgin (she’s on her third or fourth rewatch, and I suppose it’s solidifying her Spanish, which is something) to come help me, holding the sieve while I scraped with the spatula, trying to get the liquid to drip through…
…well, it took a while, okay. Cleaning up my kitchen also took a while. Let’s leave it at that.
Eventually, I was able to combine the sieved corn & coconut milk mixture with the milk/cinnamon/nutmeg mixture, and cook it down for a little bit, and pour it into two foil half-pans, and put them in the fridge to chill.
(Pro-tip — slide a cutting board underneath foil trays when moving them to the fridge or oven, if they have liquids inside. And for transport on the day of, flat pieces of cardboard cut from boxes work well.)
The end result — SO TASTY. I’m not going to make a triple batch again anytime soon, and I think maybe we should invest in a proper chinois — that might help with the sieving? I’m not sure. But I definitely like this quite a bit. If you like flan, coconut milk, and corn, I’d recommend trying majarete! (There are apparently pre-made mixes that are much less work…)
And that was it — we packed up the food, along with some water and lemonade and juice boxes, drove them over, and the kids helped me deliver to the refugees (who also ran over to help carry things).
It honestly felt like so little to contribute — one meal, when their needs are clearly so great. One man asked me if I knew of anywhere a family of five could rent an apartment, and I had no idea. Kavi was trying to translate for me, since my Spanish is pretty terrible (so out of practice since studying in grad school), but hers isn’t so much better, so I’m really unclear on whether he actually had money for rent or not, for example. I hope a refugee org. can help them out soon.
It was truly pitiful, seeing the toddlers on that piece of concrete. I hope their parents can get them into a proper home soon.
If you’re wanting to donate, I’m honestly not sure what the best orgs would be — a quick search turned up Panas en Chicago (https://panasenchicago.org), but I haven’t vetted them, so if anyone knows more and wants to suggest orgs, please do feel free to leave the details in the comments:
I admit, I haven’t been really paying much attention to the Venezuelan refugee situation. I don’t always follow the news, and especially in the summer, when I’m not teaching, I’m not generally listening to NPR on a commute, etc.
I’d seen a few comments on local community groups, but it was only when I saw that someone had set up a meal train for a group of about 42 migrants currently being housed at a police station just a few blocks away (locals: on Madison, just over the border at Austin, PS 15), that I noticed that there was a crisis happening nearby. So, without knowing much except that there were refugees that needed food, and I had time to cook, I signed up for a slot in the meal train.
I wasn’t sure what I would make at first — the organizers give some guidance, but there’s a lot of leeway in there. (You can even order pizza to be delivered, if you’re not up to cooking, but want to help.) At first I was thinking Sri Lankan would be easiest, and a nice sort of bridge between my culture and theirs — but then I thought, no.
They’re refugees. They’re tired and scared and trying to entertain small children on the little stretch of concrete in front of the parking pad. They can’t go far for work because when a refugee org. manages to find housing for them, the buses come to pick people up, and if they’re not there when the buses come, at irregular and unpredictable times, they’re out of luck.
They have to be exhausted and frustrated and there isn’t much I can do about any of that, but I know if I were in that situation, one thing I would want is home food. Not necessarily every meal, but at least once in a while? Something familiar, something delicious, something that tastes like what I used to eat when I had my own kitchen, access to my pots and pans and spices. Something comforting.
So that simplified my decision — I’d make Venezuelan food for them. Not that I’ve ever cooked Venezuelan food before, but surely some dishes would be easy enough. At first, I thought I could try to make stuffed arepas, and then I thought, hm, let’s not set ourselves up with a hard task that might lead to failure. I’ve never made arepas before — maybe trying to make them for 42 for the first time isn’t the smartest plan.
I settled on Venezuelan chicken stew for my main dish, pollo guisado. Reasonably affordable (I used two packages of Costco chicken — and my groceries for the meal overall were about $100, which is not bad for feeding 42 people) and straightforward to cook. Much like any chicken stew I might make, though the addition of olives lent an interesting note.
The trickiest part was figuring out how to cook a giant batch with the pots and pans I had on hand. I was quadrupling the recipe — thankfully, it turned out that a double-batch fit in each of the bigger pots I had, so that was pretty manageable in the end.
I seared all the chicken (tossed in salt and pepper) first, then set it aside. Then in one pot, sautéed the onions & garlic, added canned tomatoes and spices and chopped olives, let that cook for a little bit.
Then I took my big ladle and spooned half of that mixture into the other pot. Which made room to add the chicken in, and the potatoes, and the carrots. Then it was just cooking it down, checking the salt (no need for more salt with those olives, it turned out!) and pepper. I thought the end result tasted pretty good — not as good as abuela makes, I’m sure, but not bad for a first try!
All very straightforward, maybe 90 minutes of cooking total? I put the finished dish into two foil half-trays. Kevin had already made a big batch of seasoned black beans, filling another foil half-tray, so I was pretty confident that we had a good amount of main dish protein on hand. But there was going to be more, of course. I couldn’t stop there… (see next post)
(Continuing from previous post) It’s nice to have accompaniments to the meal, and one dish I know I love is fried plantains, platonos maduros. I figured at least some of the refugees would love them too. Platonos maduros is eaten all over South and Central America, with regional variations — in Venezuela, they like to add cinnamon, it turns out.
This was the easiest to do, although it helps that I could just haul out the deep fryer, pour in the corn oil, and set it to the right temperature. Kevin helped with peeling (with a knife at times — they don’t peel quite as easily as bananas) and slicing up the plantains.
I got the ripest ones they had at Pete’s (you want them yellow with lots of black on them for this dish), but some of them were not quite as ripe as I’d have liked, so the end result on those pieces was a little closer to tostones, which are also delicious.
But mostly it was just frying it up — 8 plantains ended up being 3 batches in the deep fryer, so maybe 30 minutes of active cooking time overall. Dry briefly on paper towels, then toss with cinnamon and a little lime juice, filling most of a half-foil tray. (In retrospect, I wish I’d gotten 2 more plantains — oh well!)
I also got a big container of Utz pork rinds (which seemed at least sort of similar to chicarrones?) at Costco, and some candied papaya at Pete’s, both of which are popular in Venezuela. I was, of course, tempted to try cooking them both myself, but I was trying to be reasonable with my time and not exhaust myself. Sometimes it’s better to throw a few dollars at the problem…
…oh, and speaking of which, I am really glad I Instacarted the Costco groceries, because delivery was free, and it saved me probably two hours (counting driving time) and a lot of tiredness (from lugging lots of water bottles, etc). Totally worth the delivery person tip, in terms of my energy and sanity!
(Continuing from previous post.) This was an easy dish to make for the refugees — I wanted a Venezuelan salad to go along with the pollo guisado, rice, and beans. (Oh, I’m not going to detail making the rice, except to note that I used both of my big pots AND a rice cooker. )
Salsa Carioca is a simple salad with a slightly spicy dressing — I was figuring the main dishes shouldn’t be spicy, but a little spicy accompaniment would be nice for them’s that like it. (When I visited Switzerland, I was CRAVING spicy food after the first week…)
First I hard-boiled the eggs and shelled them. (You could also skip those if you don’t like eggs, it looks like, based on the comments.)
This is just chop and toss together — another quadruple batch, which fit nicely in to a half-foil tray. One red onion, several tomatoes, four hard-boiled eggs, four serrano peppers (seeded), four ripe avocados. And then the dressing couldn’t be simpler: olive oil, white vinegar, hot pepper sauce, salt and pepper. Whisk the dressing together, toss it over, and then set aside for the flavors to blend.
Yummy and quick — 15 minutes to boil the eggs (while you can do other things, like chopping veg or having a nice glass of wine), a few minutes to shell them, and maybe 15 minutes to chop and put it all together?
I don’t really think of myself as an inventive chef — most of what I do is just trying to find and share great recipes, with perhaps a little refining to my tastes. But I admit, I’m pretty proud of the flavor combination in the Dragonfruit Nebulae chocolates.
Kavi and I both find these addictive, and have been known to eat up every little bit of leftover chocolate in the bowl, on the cutting board, etc. White chocolate, dragonfruit, citrus, and white pepper.
If I were actually going to start a real candy-making business (not going to happen!), I’d kick it off with bars of this.