So I don't know how long this has been going on but I’ve been noticing an annoying little trend in ethnic recipes lately. I first noticed it a few years ago in a cookbook I bought from a terrific Spanish restaurant in St. Augustine called The Columbia and in watching the countless cooking shows that I do the trend seems to be popping up more and more. This trend is the watering down or flattening of a recipe.
Now for the average person who just wants to imitate a recipe but has guests, family members etc. who can’t handle intense flavors, spices etc. or doesn’t like anything foreign (which I think defeats the purpose of making the dish to begin with but I digress) this kind of thing might be ok. But for Foodies like me who are aiming for an authentic culinary experience or who want to recreate a dish that’s as close to something that was enjoyed while visiting a restaurant, a foreign land or might be having a foreign visitor for dinner, having an authentic recipe to follow is very important.
Being Puerto Rican and knowing the look and smell of a dish while it’s cooking and when it’s ready and being familiar with the seasonings and ingredients involved, when I come across a recipe for a familiar dish and the recipe itself looks a little off, it makes me wonder do all people of different backgrounds go through this or is it just a few select nationalities who have fallen victim?
Case in point, let’s go with one of my all time favorites, Relleno de papa. This is a fried potato ball filled with savory beef (also known as picadillo) and MAN is it good:-D However, on three occasions I’ve come across a recipe and procedure and the only thing all three seem to agree on is the ball should be fried in oil. I’ll show you what I mean:
According to The Columbia Restaurant Spanish Cookbook, you make mashed potatoes and allow them to rest at room temperature (this is so you don’t burn the hell out of your hands when forming the balls). Then you make 3 inch potato balls, make a well in said ball with a spoon, fill with a tablespoon of picadillo and then reshape, sealing the meat inside. Then coat with eggs and bread crumbs like when making something like chicken tenders or nuggets, cover and refrigerate for an hour. Then fry until golden brown on all sides. The picadillo (pronounced peek ah deeyoh and is not the Mexican cousin of an animal in Texas thank you) involves sauteing onions and peppers, adding tomatoes and garlic, then adding meat, oregano, bay leaves and cumin. Once you stop seeing red on the meat you add salt, pepper, vinegar, raisins, olives and wine and simmer for 15 minutes.
So as mentioned, I’ve got real problem with this. First, I HATE when people decide to add fruit to meat! I don’t know if it’s a thing done in Spain or the restaurant is trying to appeal to its non-Spanish consumers but I’ve never in life eaten, cooked or ever heard of RAISINS going into picadillo! This burns me as much as encountering raisins and grapes in curried chicken. I don't know if it's authentic but the resulting clash in texture, especially when unexpected, makes me want to punch kittens! I also wonder at the use of burgundy, cumin, oregano and garlic as the seasonings involved. Tasting the meat as I went along (I did NOT add raisins, sorry I just refuse, nyah), I found it to be flat and tasteless and only when I added sazon and beer (Budweiser not Heineken, it adds more of a kick) did the meat start to sing. I'd encountered this same problem with their Ropa Vieja recipe. What really got to me was the food at The Columbia is not flat and tasteless and the smells wafting through the restaurant are just phenomenal. It made me wanna cry:) So what was with the craptastic meat dish I kept getting? Is this common practice among eateries and chefs who put out cookbooks? Is it a fear of giving out trade secrets or that people will get so good at replicating the recipe they won’t come in and eat there anymore? If this is the case then fine, either don’t put out a cookbook, publish only recipes you're discontinuing if you do, or let us know this is only a variation of recipes used at the restaurant!
Anyway, whenever I make a dish, any dish, I tend to research it for various methods, spices, flavors etc. and possible history in an attempt to make it as authentic, and tasty, as possible. I royally suck at chicken teriyaki, yes I admit it, hell I can't even spell the thing never mind make it but I will persevere! So after a couple of battles with my favorite cookbook I started googling and came across a recipe that looked and felt more like what I was used to and aiming for and I found it on a great site called El Boricua.
According to El Boricua.com, picadillo is ground beef or pork seasoned with sofrito (if you’re like me you love making it fresh but tend to be a bit lazy or don’t have time, resulting in a large jar of the Goya stuff finding a home in the fridge) but when preparing picadillo for the relleno you lessen the amount of liquid so that the meat is dry but still a bit moist. For the potato balls they suggest making mashed potatoes from potato flakes and the mixture should be thick, dry and sticks to a spoon before mixing in a slightly beaten egg. Once again it’s suggested you shape the balls (oiling up your hands first so the mixture doesn’t stick to them), making an indentation and sealing up a tablespoon of picadillo inside. Then the balls are rolled in cornstarch so as to not fall apart during frying.
Now, I know the purists and old school readers out there are balking at the idea of using instant mashed potatoes instead of making it from scratch and I agree, if you have the time you absolutely should do it from scratch. Nothing tastes better than a meal that’s made completely fresh. However, in a pinch, I have used instant mashed potatoes and flakes and depending on the type you use (I REALLY don’t suggest going generic on this one) it doesn’t come out too bad.
Finally there’s Food Network’s Sunny Anderson who has some fairly decent ideas but she comes across to me as someone who’s trying SO hard to be the next Rachel Ray that she turns me off completely. Anyway, she recently attempted Relleno de Papa, calling them “Chicken Stuf’t Potato Puffs” and suggests combining butter and sazon in a glaze, making mashed potatoes with potato flakes, chips or panko, egg, cornstarch, chili powder, garlic powder, and salt and pepper. The filling, which no longer qualifies as picadillo, blends peppers, rotisserie chicken, oregano, and salt and pepper. To make the balls she agrees on rolling the mixture by hand and making an indentation, however, she then suggests making a second ball to sandwich the filling in between and pinching the seams betwixt the two. Then you roll the ball again between your hands before coating it with egg and more potato flakes (repeat egg and flake coating if you didn’t cover it completely the first time) before frying.
Now, other than the obvious no-no of cross contamination by repeatedly dipping the ball between the egg and flakes (why not just make sure you get it right the first time?), the biggest challenge when cooking relleno de papa is keeping it together during frying. This is why you cool the potato mixture down, make the deep well, don’t overstuff, seal it off correctly by rolling just right and finally dipping. By sandwiching two balls together you run a real risk of the whole thing falling apart and causing a hot burning mess that no one can eat. Oil flies everywhere, things burn and before you know it you’re so discouraged you toss the whole thing away and vow never to make anything ethnic or unfamiliar again thus losing out on a truly terrific epicurean experience.
I’d just like to take a moment to advise anyone attempting Relleno de Papa, especially for the first time, to be sure to have lots of time on your hands as we’re easily talking a 3 hour process. Most people suggest assembling and refrigerating them the night before and leaving the frying until right when you need them to avoid the hassle and chaos that could ensue if you don’t. One final note, as you’re bringing the temperature of the oil up for frying, I highly suggest allowing the balls to get as close to room temperature as you can or at least taking the chill off and keep the kids away from the stove as the impact with the hot oil could be fairly volatile to start with.
Anyway, I’ve gone off track. In my attempts to duplicate dishes from the various ethnicities on this great planet of ours I ask my fellow Foodies for assistance. What pitfalls are there to avoid when cooking certain dishes? What rookie mistakes are made that can be avoided? Have you noticed ingredients or methods being substituted or sacrificed in the interest of time and modernization that just shouldn’t be? What is that the books aren't saying? Share with us won’t you?
El Boricua’s Picadillo recipe
The Columbia Restaurant
Sunny Anderson’s chicken stuffed potato balls