Thursday, July 25, 2013

Call me a chicken; I don't give a rat's hat.

Last weekend turned out to be, not just a good weekend, but an awesome one. It all started with dinner and a movie on Friday. We decided to watch "Only God Forgives". It was quite the dude movie; among the audience there was not a single lady in sight. It literally felt as if we had crashed a massive guy's night-out party at the movies (I kept waiting for the strippers to pop out of somewhere). The film itself was a pretty cool, interesting, a la Tarantino movie, so think Kill Bill in Thailand with Ryan Gosling. Maybe the movie was that awesome, or maybe I liked it because I was already feeling happy since I had my Iskender kebab just minutes before. I love eating anything doner-ish, man; it’s my comfort food. I still happily remember how my love affair with Turkish food started and the many smiles that it had brought me since. 

It all started in a sunny September day. I had just moved to Spain and my friends and I just got to Madrid, without a place to stay, or any kind of realistic housing plan. Oh, the innocence of the 20 year olds... At the airport we were talked by the taxi drivers into taking 3 different cabs to reach the city center to try finding a hotel. I mean, what could go wrong? Well, we were dumped in different parts of the city. At least I learned the first lesson a traveler should be aware of: neither trust taxi drivers nor look like a lost tourist (even when you are one), under any circumstance. One of my friends, Eric, was lucky and had the chance to be with the non-douchy driver and together drove around the city trying to find us. When they finally found us, they picked us up and took us to different hotels until we found one with a vacant room we could actually afford.
People may say that I'm an angry driver, but I'm sure they have never been driven by that taxi driver. From him, I learned my favorite go-to curse "me cago en la leche" which is hilarious since it literary means "I poop in the milk" (which in turn it's a PG version of the real curse in which poor dear old God gets the chocolate treatment). Anyway, we stayed at the hotel for a night, and then wondered throughout the city trying to find a more affordable hostel we could stay for a bit longer; a place we could stay at until we could find an apartment. We did find one, and next to it we met this Argentinean guy who was working handing out fliers promoting a Turkish restaurant. We actually became good friends (and we are still friends to this day). I took the flier, and for the first time ever, I went to a Turkish restaurant, and had my, first "top notch, all-halal" doner kebab. It immediately became comfort food for me, and at 3€ including a drink it became my happy, happy meal. Since then, every time I eat a kebab I remember those days in Spain, and all the Turkish restaurant friends I made those days.

Comfort foods are dishes we associate with happiness, adventure, feeling safe, and feeling like being at home. I have collected an arsenal of comfort foods through the years. Through time, comfort foods had been the grilled cheese sandwiches and 7ups I had as a kid when I was sick, the pork-tasting roasted turkey my father would make for Thanksgiving, the potato balls stuffed with ground pork (rellenos) I had as a treat during a day in the town, the guanimes (boiled flour dumplings) my Grandma would make us for lunch, and the fried chicken my Mami would make us for dinner, breast always reserved for me. But as time passes, I have gathered comfort foods that have me-memories. These are foods that give me comfort in two ways. I really feel happy when I make them, and I feel happy when I eat them. So when I feel a bit down I go for my "coq au vin" (no pun intended), or if I’m feeling homesick I make the always perfect “arroz con pollo”.

Back to my super-fun weekend, I followed a good Friday with an even better Saturday. I went to my partner’s father birthday party and I had a blast, and Sunday we went hiking and grocery shopping. I was so happy by the end of the weekend that I decided to cook some comfort food to stretch that happy weekend feeling all the way to the end. I decided that I wanted to have a chicken that reminded me of my mother's. She fried her chicken without breading it. I wasn't going to bread, or fry, mine, either. So I took a whole chicken, cut as individual pieces, and seasoned each part with a spice blend (Morton's Nature's Seasonings) which resembles the Puerto Rican adobo the most, but without the MSG. Normally I mix the spices myself, but to be honest, I just wasn't feeling like it. I drizzled olive oil on a baking/roasting pan and placed the chicken in it. I added ground achiote (annatto) and dry thyme. I covered the chicken with pieces of lemon and added more thyme. I covered the pan with foil and into the oven it went, for an hour, with the last 5 minutes being uncovered. 

As my for my side dish I wanted to make a ratatouille, my “let’s survive grad school” comfort food. I do ratatouilles even with my eyes closed (bitch, please), and it makes me happy to prepare it (and it makes me even happier to eat it, I admit). I really wasn’t making a true “Ratatouille Nicoise” because I wanted to use more of the produce I had, while it was at its peak. I layered carrots (Mon Dieu!), eggplant, zucchini, yellow peppers (jaune?…Mon Dieu!), onions, canned (yes, canned) diced tomatoes and finely minced garlic (and then more onions...) in a casserole, added red wine, olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh oregano. Normally you would used marjoram, basil or/and thyme, but the animals have been messing with my basil and thyme, so I used only oregano, and prayed the French gods for forgiveness. I covered the casserole and instead of cooking it on the stove I set it in the oven (so the coq wouldn't feel so lonely) and cooked at 450F for an hour.

After an hour, I got my comfort eating all this food. The chicken was great. It was crispy on the outside, still juicy in the inside. I loved the refreshing flavor courtesy of the lemon - thyme combination. The adobo worked its magic bringing additional notes, salt and spice to the meat and the achiote, as always, added complexity with its nutty, yet refined taste. This was great chicken with a minimal amount of work and an hour to spend at my own leisure. What else can anyone ask for? The veggies were also great. They were not swimming in liquid (that was important to me). Had there been too much liquid I would have had to reduce some of the liquid on the stove and then add it back to the veggies. The fresh oregano added a very nice flavor and aroma to the dish, making me a very happy Frenchy-Rican. I love using tomatoes from a can to make this dish, and I feel no shame. I save my fresh tomatoes to eat on their own, which I really enjoy.

This meal feels very hearty, but it’s actually a low calorie sweetheart. The whole dinner is well under 500 calories for a generous serving (which is why I felt free to add some avocado and tomatoes on the side). I love dishes that use different veggies because I can make sure I get different nutrients,  giving me a more complete nutrition. The other great thing is that when I use all that fresh produce, all at their appropriate ripeness, it allows me to really enjoy the pleasure of eating vegetables. It isn’t fun to eat anything if you don’t really enjoy it. It makes a huge difference to eat fresh, local vegetables when you eat food that actually highlights the vegetables. To me, that’s comfort. Next, we re-define “soul food”, lol.

On the road shortcut
4 carrots
1 eggplant
2 zucchini
1 can tomato
2 large onions
2 teaspoons fresh oregano
1/4 wine
1 teaspoon oil
1 yellow pepper
1 taspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
4 cloves finely minced garlic

Peel and cube the carrots, eggplant, and zucchini and add to a casserole as layers. Add half of the sliced onions. Add the rest of the ingredients as layers (ending with the remaining onions). Cover and cook at 450F for an hour. 

1 whole chicken, in pieces
Adobo or other spice blend
Dry thyme
Lemon wedges
Olive oil

Drizzle olive oil on a baking or roasting pan. Season each chicken piece with the adobo or other spice blend and add them to the pan. Sprinkle achiote evenly and then sprinkle with dry thyme. Top with lemon slices and add some more thyme (optional). Cover and cook in the oven at 450F for an hour. Uncover during the last 5 minutes of cooking.

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