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Stews The World Over

Pork braised to tenderness in cider and beer takes on a Latin accent with chocolate mole sauce. Photo courtesy of national pork board. Inspiration for slow-cooked flavor and technique has roots in diverse global cuisines

By Christopher Koetke

Slow-cooked, moist chunks of meat, seasoned with local flavors, gelatinous and meltingly tender… Is your mouth watering yet? Across the globe, stewed meats are among the most beloved dishes. Every country has its own unique way of cooking tough cuts of various meats to yield exquisite tastes and textures. In the United States, think of regional barbecue, New England pot roast, Texas chili and Southern burgoo. While dishes like these from around the world could fill several books, I have chosen a few favorites from recent travels that were an inspiration to me.

As soon as I arrived in Jordan and the locals learned I was a chef, I kept hearing the same refrain, “Have you had mansaf?”  While I sampled an inordinate amount of delicious food at restaurant tables overflowing with mezes, it was obvious that mansaf was the Holy Grail. On the last day of my stay in Amman, I was invited to a friend’s home for this national dish of Jordan, which has been made by desert Bedouin tribes for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years.

To make mansaf, a freshly slaughtered lamb is cut into large pieces.  (In the hot climate of the Middle East, meat was often cooked pre-rigor due to the lack of refrigeration.) The meat is simmered for a couple of hours in water flavored with black pepper and bay leaf before jameed, the defining ingredient, is added. Jameed, often referred to as “rock cheese,” is a shelf-stable, rock-hard piece of salted, dried sheep yogurt that is grated into the poaching liquid, which then turns milky white and takes on an assertive tartness.

The presentation and actual eating of the mansaf were as memorable as the flavor. A three-foot tray was lined first with flatbreads, then with a 2- to 3-inch layer of fragrant rice, followed by an impressive mound of tender lamb pieces and, finally, a generous sprinkling of toasted pine nuts and almonds.

When the tray was placed in the middle of the table, all the men gathered around, rolled up their sleeves, and started eating with their fingers, using only their right hands.  (Traditionally, women would eat at their own table.)

To eat mansaf, first you sprinkle the rice with some poaching liquid.  Then you form a ball in your hand, along with a piece of lamb that you rip from the bones. This rice ball and lamb chunk are then shot into your mouth at very close range, so your fingers do not touch your lips. It is like shooting a marble and takes some practice to look graceful.

As Middle Eastern food grows in popularity in the United States, mansaf could become a great menu item, served in all its glory on a platter sized for the number of guests at the table. And eating with your fingers really enhances the experience. Everyone smiles, as there is something wonderfully shocking about it in our culture. It is not only fun but also adds to the overall sensory enjoyment of the meal.

Braised pork belly in dashi atop steamed greens makes for a succulent addition to Asian-inspired menus. Photo courtesy of kikkoman. Children know how to have fun with their food,  and so do some of the greatest culinarians of the world. The chef of a two-star Michelin sushi restaurant in Tokyo instructed me that great sushi is eaten with the fingers rather than chopsticks, as it adds to the dining experience.  He’s right, as were the Bedouins of old.

Every time I am in Ecuador, I search out guatita, a rich dish of stewed tripe.  While less common here, tripe is a frequent ingredient around the world, as in the famous French Tripes à la mode de Caen.  I do not have any illusions about tripe being the next big trend.  What is unique about this version from Ecuador is the flavoring.

Like most tripe dishes, it is stewed along with different seasonings (vegetables, garlic, onions, peppers, achiote, etc.). But once the tripe is tender, it is uniquely flavored with peanut butter. At first bite, it’s an unexpected flavor combination.  But peanuts have a long history in Ecuador, both chopped into empanada fillings and ground into soups and stews as a flavoring and thickener. The peanuts’ richness and complexity add tremendously to dishes like guatita. Peanuts and other nut butters would be an enhancing addition to braised chicken or veal dishes.

Another common dish in Ecuador is seco de chivo. This stew (seco) is made most commonly from lamb or goat, depending on the region. While most of the ingredients are familiar to us — garlic, onion, celery, tomato —  the addition of an acidic element makes this stew unique. But, instead of wine or vinegar, seco de chivo relies on naranjilla (a semi-sweet acidic fruit) or chicha (a fermented corn beverage) for acidity.

The result is a traditional stew with a flavor twist. Chefs have experimented with acidic ingredients like verjus; why not incorporate other acidic exotic ingredients, like Belgian gueuze, unusual citrus fruits, passion fruit, or diverse Amazonian fruits?

When I lived in France a couple of decades ago, I met a retired chef who made the best coq au vin of my life. He explained that two things are needed for great coq au vin: an old rooster and blood. The old rooster brings the flavor and holds up to the acid in the red-wine marinade. The blood is a thickener and contributes to the particularly savory and velvety sauce.

In Natal, the part of Brazil in the north that sticks out the farthest into the Atlantic, galinha de cabidela is the local version of a blood-thickened braised chicken. There, the dish starts with a flavorful country chicken that is braised along with cumin, garlic and onions.  Once the meat is tender, it is finished with a slurry of vinegar and blood.  At the end of the recipe, the chicken is sprinkled with a mixture of chopped green onions and cilantro, known as cheiro-verde.

While blood has been making a reentry into fine-dining restaurants in the form of charcuterie, its role in sauce-making has been largely abandoned. Having made many blood-thickened sauces, I believe it is time to start looking both to the past and around the world for the inspiration to reintroduce this superlative thickener.

In Mexico, slow cooking traditionally goes underground with a cooking method dating back centuries to pre-Colombian times. The result is dishes like barbacoa and cochinita pibil. Making an oven out of Mother Earth proved to be an excellent method for slow cooking tough meats, as the ground is a great insulator.  It is also a technique that deserves more attention here in the United States.

To better appreciate the genius of the native Mexican populations, a brief explanation of the technique is warranted.  To make the oven, called a “pib,” a large hole is first dug in the ground. The sides are lined with white-hot bricks (originally these would have been river stones).

Lower-grade cuts of any meat can become a sumptuous main course with a thoughtful approach to flavoring and technique. Four stones are then placed on the bottom of the pit so that there is circulation below the item to be cooked. This also releases humidity from the ground during cooking to keep everything moist.

For barbacoa, which originates in the center of Mexico, maguey cactus leaves line the sides of the pit, directly touching the hot bricks. The cactus provides moisture, and the charred leaves are essential to the final flavor of the meat.

A large, shallow pot of water, complete with garbanzos, vegetables and some additional seasonings, is balanced on the stones at the bottom of the pit. The pot is covered with a grate that is topped with pieces of mutton, a stomach stuffed with innards, and the head. The meat can be seasoned with salt only or rubbed with a more complex adobo paste.

The entire preparation is then covered with the maguey leaves, a large metal plate and, finally, dirt moistened with some water.  After about 10 hours, the meat is very tender, and the pot is filled with fragrant soup. Like mansaf, it is traditionally eaten right out of the hole with fingers — and hot tortillas, of course.

For the Yucatan equivalent, cochinita pibil, large chunks of pork are rubbed with an adobo of achiote, acidic orange, oregano, onion, garlic and salt.  They are cooked in a pib that is lined with banana leaves and without the pot of water on the bottom.  (Banana leaves are traditionally used instead of maguey as the Yucatan is too wet for cactus.)  Pork, being more tender than sheep, needs to cook only around three hours.

Cooking in an earth oven is a tradition practiced in other parts of the world and even in some U.S. regions. It deserves a greater place in the current culinary repertoire and could be quite a showpiece. However, the delicious flavors of the pib can be simulated by wrapping meat in banana leaves, placing white-hot bricks on top of the leaves for flavor, and slowly cooking everything in a combi. Chef Fernando Malpica de la Vega, executive chef of the Lomas Verdes campus of the Universidad del Valle de Mexico, advises that the meat first should be wrapped in dried avocado leaves and then banana leaves to best approximate the flavor of the maguey in a true barbacoa.

When I talk with chefs across the United States, I am continually amazed that the most inexpensive cuts of meat illicit the most passionate responses. Chefs know that slow cooking these pieces of meat is intrinsically more interesting and flavorful than cooking the most expensive and most tender cuts of meat. What makes these preparations even more special is the pride in culture, terroir and heritage each represents through ingredients, cooking methods and indigenous flavors.


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