Monday, August 5, 2013

Be not afraid, little ones

I’m almost certain that everyone who knows me knows how much I LOVE going grocery shopping. I love farmers markets, supermarkets, supercenters, you name it. If they sell food, chances are that I'm interested in at least seeing what they have and spend a few hours browsing. When I was unemployed and lived with my parents, I used to go to the small market a block from our house, or to the multiple vegetable stands around town, every single day to buy ingredients to make lunch for them. The source of my entertainment during those days of personal financial crisis was to go out and buy food. Unfortunately my parents were more interested in picking up fried chicken with fries somewhere or in having leftovers... At least I would entertain my aunt and grandma with whatever “crazy thing” I ended up making.

When I moved to Cleveland, OH, I moved to the Little Italy neighborhood, right next to my University. Little Italy has a very busy restaurant scene, my best friend lived there, but sadly, there were no supermarkets close by back then. I had to resort to mass buying and freezing stuff when I had the chance to make it to the grocery store (which was hard since I was car-less, too). I eventually moved to an apartment where the neighborhood’s supermarket was within a 5 minute walk, so my “bad” habits kicked in again. I would go grocery shopping almost every other day, partly because I liked doing it, and partly because my apartment had the smallest fridge I’ve seen in my life. It wasn’t a compact fridge per sé; it was a retro fridge close to 5 feet tall, 2 feet wide at the most and barely 2 feet deep. It was bizarre. So I really didn’t have much of a choice. I had to shop almost daily. 

As fun as grocery shopping can be, one has to be aware that the more often you go to the supermarket the more potential there is to overspend. Last week we went to our go-to market and got so much fresh, and tasty produce, that we had plenty to last us through this week. So as "treat" this week we went to Aldi instead of going to the farmer’s market to pick up some pantry items and to see what the special sale items were for the week. I really like Aldi’s products, but I hesitate on buying their fresh produce and meats. But if you know your veggies and your meats well enough, you can always find hidden gems almost anywhere, so I rolled up my virtual sleeves, and got the shopping started. We must be totally insane, and we must lack any kind of self-restrain, because that shopping experience was totally out of control. We bought a cart-full (and I really mean it) of food and items, after we got carried away by their “low prices” and “double guarantees”! I knew I better start cooking everything we bought, or else the supermarket gods were going to force me to shop in hell next time.

As I was wondering what our menu of the day would be, I realized that even though I have eaten Romanian food fairly often, I have never actually attempted preparing a single dish. What the hell? I’ve had it with my own tyranny of Puerto Rican, French, Spanish and American dishes. It was time for me to take a leap, and give it a try. I decided to dip my toes in the waters (the Black Sea, I’m thinking) and start by making uncased sausages. These sausages are very popular in Romania where they were invented after a famous chef ran out of sausage casings in his Bucharest restaurant (says wiki, so it must be true). They are grilled and served with mustard. Their names, "mici" or "mititei", both literally mean "little ones", but don't be fooled; they might be small, but they're packing some serious flavor. The only problem with these sausages is that they are so damned good, that I always end up eating one too many (Who am I kidding? I have at least 4 too many). I decided to man-up, and give them a try. Of course, this is some ballsy chef-ing around since there is a Romanian in da house, and he won't be shy in telling me if the little ones turn out to be big failures. So Ángel, chop, chop; get to work, and for the love of God, don't mess it up.

I was a bit hindered when I started.  Since I was working with what I already had, I was not going to be using any lamb or pork as I should for these kids. I used only sirloin and made up the rest by seasoning like there was no tomorrow based on the flavors I thought were supposed to be there (“Fereascā Dumnezeu” -God forbid- I would just go and follow a recipe). I added cumin, thyme, coriander, Hungarian paprika and black pepper. I also used salt, baking soda (rise baby, rise) and beef broth. Then I mixed everything, and shaped them as 3 inch long sausages of about an inch in diameter. I grilled them on the grill (duh... seriously?) for about 10 minutes to well done, and "gata", they were done. All I needed was some mustard and a side dish.

I paired them with corn on the cob. I just boiled the corn for about 5 minutes, and then grilled them for about 5 more minutes. I had some Swiss chard I wanted to eat before it spoiled, so I made that too. I blanched them for 2-3 minutes; drain them, and then sautéed with olive oil and garlic.

It was now time for the judge's critique. "Mmm... Ce buni sunt!"... Ok, I’m making that up; he didn't go into ecstasies and started speaking in Romanian or in tongues. He did like it, though (or so he said...). I liked them a lot. The flavors were well balanced. First I felt the garlic taste, and then it mellowed as I could feel the notes of cumin and the rest of the spices. I loved the fact that there was no garlic aftertaste. I did realize there were some mistakes, though. I should have added some lemon juice to react with the baking soda. I did add some beef stock, which is oniony so it has some acid, but it probably doesn’t work nearly as well. I’ll make sure to add some lemon next time. The baking soda/lemon combo also helps tenderizing the meat when it stays in the fridge overnight, improving the texture of the sausages. Also, although I liked them cooked well done, medium or medium well would have probably been better temperatures, and would've had allowed me to reheat the leftovers more efficiently the next day. My little ones will probably never beat the family recipe, but at least I know I can improvise and make them whenever I feel like having them.

The mici were also very calorie efficient. They were just about 200 calories per serving. They were so packed with protein and flavor that they gave chicken breasts a run for their money. The corn added roughly 100 calories and about 100 more from the Swiss chard (plus 100 of the beer I had...). Not bad at all for a nice summer treat. I’ll keep an eye on the food during the Romanian festival later this month to have an idea of what might be the next Dacian dish I’ll try to make. I’ve been eyeing a beer soup recipe for a while, that's just begging to be made! Why not? It has two things I love, soup and beer!  

Pofta buna!                                                                            

On the road shortcut
1lb ground sirloin
teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon Hungarian paprika
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon baking soda
4 tablespoon beef broth

Mix everything, and shape the sausages as 3 inch long sausages of about an inch in diameter. Grill them on the grill for about 10 minutes to well done, less if desired to medium or medium well.

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