After our second themed pop up dinner, Unhinged, we decided that creating meals around a specific subject was not only a really fun way for us to approach our pop ups, but also a way for us to distinguish ourselves from the other pop ups around town. Thanks go out to my mom for suggesting the theme for our third dinner, Sanctioned.
Sanctioned featured dishes from countries that the U.S. has economic sanctions, or embargoes, against. We did quite a bit of research and recipe testing for this dinner because we wanted to maintain the integrity of each dish (most of which were unfamiliar to us when we started,) and at the same time put our own twist on things.
The meal began with a little bite of Americana. The amuse was a bite-sized, apple-caramelized onion-thyme pie, with a scooplet of sharp cheddar cheese ice cream on top.
The first course was a dish from North Korea called naengmyeon, a chilled, buckwheat noodle soup. Typically this soup consists of buckwheat noodles, chilled broth, hard boiled egg, kimchi, vegetables and ice cubes to ensure that the soup is served quite cold. We stuck with the basic components, but glammed the dish up a little bit, both in terms of flavor and presentation. For the broth, we made a heavily reduced chicken stock that we clarified, and then fortified with shiitake mushrooms. The buckwheat noodles were topped with nests of marinated carrot and golden beet threads and crowned with kaiware (spicy radish) sprouts. Sliced asparagus, plums and scallions were placed in the broth, along with shards of white kimchi-ginger ice, added to both chill the soup, and to infuse it with another level of flavor. We garnished the rim of the bowl with pickled cucumber threads, smoked egg yolk, kimchi watermelon rind and spicy pepper threads. What made this dish really memorable, was how each bite varied depending on what ended up on your spoon. I think the people who enjoyed it the most, were those who tossed all of the garnishes into the soup and got a different burst of flavor with every spoonful.
The next course in the meal featured a dish from Lebanon called kibbeh, often referred to as the national dish of Lebanon. Typically, kibbeh is made from ground lamb, bulgher and pine nuts, but we felt that our meal would be too meat-heavy if we made ours with lamb, and we wanted to do a fish course anyway, so we came up with a recipe for a seafood kibbeh. We stayed with tradition and used bulgher as the base for the outer layer, which also contained fish and shrimp. We shaped that into little balls and stuffed them with more shrimp, lemon zest, cilantro and onions. We served the kibbeh with a variety of accompaniments that added complementary flavors and textures to the dish. There were two sauces, tarator (a walnut-garlic puree) and a roasted pepper puree. We topped each piece of kibbeh with compressed cucumber slices and then garnished the plate with oil cured olives, tomato confit, sprouted lentils, fresh peas, mint oil, radishes, labneh and edible blossoms. It was an explosion of colors and flavors and seemed to delight all of our guests.
In researching the food of Syria, sour cherries kept coming up, so we decided that this course should include them. Then, tucked away in a Jewish cookbook by Cladia Roden, I discovered an interesting recipe for Syrian stuffed onions with tamarind sauce. This recipe called for ground beef, but I figured that ground chicken would work equally as well, so we went with that to lighten the dish up. And while there was was no mention of sour cherries in the recipe, I knew that anything made with the fruity-tart flavor of tamarind would lend itself to tart cherries as well. This recipe turned out to be one of those dishes that sounds pretty good when reading about it, but is absolutely fantastic once you taste it. The onions, once stuffed, are cooked for three hours in the tamarind-cherry sauce. The juices from the chicken melded with the reducing sauce and the end result was divine! Many guests told me that this was their favorite dish because it had such a deep, rich flavor and was also so unexpected and unusual. We served the onions with a bitter frisee and walnut salad with a tangy creme fraiche-balsamic dressing, and breadsticks decorated with Syrian Aleppo pepper and za’atar.
Cuba, believe it or not, turned out to be the most difficult course of the meal to plan. Not only were there just a few dishes that were recognizable as specifically Cuban, but of those few, none seemed particularly appropriate for the entree in a multi-coursed meal. They were all very meat and carbohydrate loaded, and quite heavy, but we worked through it. The main part of the dish was pork shoulder that was marinated and braised in mojo, an orange-garlic-lime sauce. We added caperberries and green olives to this to brighten it up and give it a bit of bite. We knew that a classic torta Cubana, a Cuban pork sandwich, was recognizable and a no-brainer, but when we read about medianoche, basically the same sandwich, only smaller and served on a petite sweet roll, we decided to go with that. We roasted pork loin for the medianoche, and then layered the sweet rolls with whole grain mustard, sliced ham, Jarlsberg cheese and homemade pickles and pickled onions, and then griddled the whole thing like a decadent grilled cheese sandwich. We also found a really interesting sounding recipe for bacan, a green banana tamale that comes from the eastern, more African influenced provinces of Cuba. For this, we shredded green banana and green plantains and mixed that with coconut milk and shredded coconut. We then stuffed the banana mixture with a wild hare (hunted by Adam,) pork and veal stew and fresh sweet corn. Each tamale was wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. For the vegetable part of the dish, and as a little tongue in cheek nod to Cuba, we made a giant stuffed collard green cigar with breadcrumb ashes.
The dessert course for Sanctioned featured Iran. An ice cream terrine made for a nice, not too heavy dessert and presented the distinctive flavors of Persian sweets beautifully. To make these, homemade rose-raspberry and pistachio ice creams, and yogurt sorbet, were layered into terrine molds and frozen solid, and then sliced into individual portions. The terrine slices were then topped off with a mound of Persian fairy floss, a cotton candy-like delectable, made from pistachio halvah. The terrines reminded Adam of the spumoni ice cream of his childhood, and thus, we called the dessert Persian spumoni.
When we had decided that the dessert course was going to feature Iran, Adam became a bit obsessed with the idea of purchasing mini Persian rugs for the occasion. After a bit of searching, he found these adorable rugs (meant for doll houses) online, and bought them up, unsure of how we would use them, but determined to do so- I think that we featured them in a perfect way. In planning the mignardises, I wanted to make sure that the the last few bites of the meal would be memorable, and, because I never seem to know when to stop, I came up with five different treats- a cardamom-walnut cookie, semolina-orange blossom cake, cumin seed salted caramel, rose-chocolate truffle and white chocolate-barberry bark. Each had a unique, intense flavor, and provided a lovely, flavor-packed finish to the meal.