Friday, August 31, 2012

Street Food, Spicy Tunisian Chicken Kebabs

Something wonderful happens when we eat food on a stick.

It is my last day in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia and the smallest country in northern Africa. Tunisia sits on the coast of the Mediterranean with influences of the Ottoman, Christians, Arabs and French. I have done my sight seeing. Visited the Unesco World Heritage sites, the Mediana with the narrow streets that create cooling shade from the African sun, the Zaytouna Mosque and the different medina markets (souqs) which are  organized into different commercial areas. Today is mine as I return to the Central Market.

It is nearly September and the morning temperatures are a comfortable 73 degrees as I slip on my gauze skirt and top, knowing that the heat will climb into the nineties before the day is done.  Grabbing my market bag, camera and purse I walk through the hotel's iron gates and heading down the few blocks of the Avenue de France and toward Rue Charles de Gualle. Finally turning on to Avenue de Paris. The sun is bright against the white stucco walls and the wailing traffic. But today is mine as I am determined to bring home the taste of Tunisa. The peppers, harissa and spice that epitomizes the cuisine of this North African country. 

The covered market looms large in front of me as I enter the arched pathway.  A market that dates from the nineteenth century, colorful, resplendant with an incredible selection of cheeses, fresh bread, spices--especially peppers and harissa, olives and pickles.  The space is abuzz with merchants selling fresh produce, fish and wares while locals make their daily purchases. An old market that dates back in history, this was named Fondouk El Ghalla, the Central Market, known as the largest food and vegetable market in Tunisia. Not only am I shopping for spices. I know I will want a last chance to savour the market foods, kebabs, and scented waters with dark rose or blossom petals, so similar to agua fresca with flowers. Leaving room for a dessert of my favorite Baklawa, layers of thin pastry interspersed with ground pine nuts, almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios.

Perhaps I will have time to visit the Souz el-Berka to find a gold bangle as a treasure from my visit. From a dark past this market specializes in the goldsmiths trade. We shall see what can be found and negotiated.

After a day at the market, rest and quiet back at the hotel. The fan spinning rhythmlically as it cools. A leisurely nap and lie-in before my darling one and I head to the marina. One last grilled fish, sunset, and a toast to Northern Africa.

Or so I would have imagined.

A celebration of adventure in far-a-way places, foreign cuisines and cultures. A musing until made real. A part of Street Foods Monthly Mingle.

Tunisian Spicy Chicken Kebabs
Serves 4-6
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes

1 Red Bell Pepper, chopped
½ cup Peppedew Peppers
¼ cup Peppadew Pepper Juice from Jar
½ cup Raisins
¼ teaspoon ground Cayenne Pepper
¼ cup Olive Oil
¼ cup Pomegranate Molasses
4-5 Boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1” chunks

Place all marinade ingredients in food processor blender and puree until smooth.
Pour ½ of the marinade over cut up chicken thighs, turn and rub all over.  Marinate for at least 30 minutes or longer (up to overnight.) Reserve other half of marinade for dipping. Soak your bamboo skewers in water while the meat is marinading. This will help prevent burning on the grill.

After marinating chicken, place on bamboo or metal skewers. Grill over high heat until done about 5 minutes per side. Serve with couscous or rice and for a special treat and heat add harissa on the side for dipping.

A little adventure, a little spice. What are you waiting for ?
Inspiration: Susan Feniger's Street Food

 A virtual potluck since 2006 from Meeta K. Wolff What's for Lunch Honey? and an August theme from Zizi's Adventures. 

And, as luck would have it, my friend Jeanne at is having a Braai (South Aftrican Grilling over hot coals) contest and this is my entry. See Braai, the Beloved Country for all the information.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Table Hopping -- Alma Cocina, Atlanta

Alma Cocina is part of a rebirth of downtown dining as an alternative to chains like Planet Hollywood and Hooters and an easy choice for me as one who is looking for something more in a dining experience.  Open less than a year, the Fifth Group with Chef Clevenger at the helm has created a modern Latin escape in the middle of the south where the city population is less than six percent Hispanic. While the current audience may be conventioneers like myself, office workers, a few tourists, this is a destination that Atlantans may want to put on their must try list.

Latin Elegance. Warm woods, sleek and modern and a decor that reflect "Latin" without yet another stucco and tiled environment. Friendly southern hospitality exudes from the staff who are knowledgeable about the menu and make even a solo diner feel comfortable. Even I felt hip sipping my vanilla hinted mojito while waiting for the Salsa Sampler (fire-roasted tomato, tomatillo-avocado, salsa negra and roasted mango-charred with chicharrones, plantain, malanga coco, corn chips.) Honey, this is today and bold flavors with a counterpoint of textures take us out of all that is ordinary.

Alma Cocina, Salsa Sampler
What lengths you would take to get the recipe you wanted? I often wonder about those who write in to Bon App├ętit requesting recipes for favorites or dishes so special they are compelled to write in.  Let's just say I am a little more impatient. Why not just ask the Chef directly, "would you share this recipe?" With that I scheduled a phone call.

I've learned long ago, that to ask the question is to be willing to hear no, but hope for yes. With such a mindset, there is little risk in asking. After all, it is just a question. My travels may take me near or far, but the human element remains the same. If you are interested enough, polite, enthused and sincere, people will respond in a like manner. Or not. My current record favors the former rather than the latter and my darling dear just chalks it up to his perception that, "people just like to do things for you."

And so, I engaged in a conversation with Chef Chad Clevenger, Executive Chef of Alma Cocina in Atlanta about cantaloupe soup -- gazpacho rather, with lump crab and cilantro micro greens. Earning the best taste award at the annual A Taste of the Highlands,  a favorite food festival of the area. By popular request Clevenger's concoction made the summer seasonal menu. It may be that "Every one's palate is different," according to Chef Chad but this dish is a runaway winner. Creamy texture, surprisingly savory and a touch of fruity heat. The tender crab plays well with the bright cilantro microgreens and the drizzle of avocado oil brings in a bit of butteriness.

Cantaloupe-Harbanero Gazpacho from Alma Cocina, Atlanta

Chef Chad is surprisingly humble and modest considering the bold and textured dishes that make up the menu of Alma Cocina and attributes his success with constantly learning and searching out what the industry has to offer. "After culinary school, I pushed myself to learn as much as possible, read a lot of cookbooks, cook at home, working to better my technique and palate. I eat out to see why chefs are doing different things." His efforts are playing off too, with an invitation to be the Host Chef of 2012 Atlanta Rising Stars, scoring high on flavors and plating at this event put on by StarChef's, an online magazine for culinary insiders. Not bad for the new guy in town with less than a year in Atlanta.

From wacky combinations to micro gastronomy, he's watching it all and blending up his own inventive fusion of modern Mexican in Atlanta.  Chef Chad is inviting patrons to experience the depth and differences of Latin cuisine beyond the burrito and enchiladas they might be used to, all the while incorporating fresh seasonal locally sourced ingredients. Which brings us to the gazpacho.

Originally created for the Taste of the Highlands, an annual food festival held in April and knowing it would be hot (it is Atlanta after all) he devised an easy to prepare dish that could be served to hundreds of festival attendees. I asked him about featuring habanero chilies and if he finds people more accepting of this pepper or scared of it?

"I  think a lot of people are timid about peppers, when tasting chili or trying them. They think it is all heat based.  It is flavor-based too, harbanaros have quite a bit of fruity flavor which tends to blend well. In this gazpacho there is just enough. We don’t want to blow out your palate, you need to be able to finish eight ounces of soup."

Chef Chad specializes in Andalusian style gazpacho, pureed versus chunky and throughout the summer will make up fresh batches of watermelon, red or yellow tomato and tomatillo versions along with this crowd pleasing cantaloupe version. He makes a base which takes it cue from the colors of the primary ingredient, then by adding a variety of garnishes he increases the complexity of the flavors and textures in the creamy base. Even though he did not give me the exact recipe (which would have meant converting restaurant quantities down to 4-6 servings) he did give me these tips.

Yellow Onion
A little bit of Garlic
Yellow Bell Peppers
A little bit of Sherry Vinegar
Orange Juice
Olive Oil
Lots of Cantaloupe

Directions: Blend it all together.
Tip: Start out with just a little bit off the side of the harbanero, without the seeds. Taste and adjust if you need more. "Try to make it as savory as possible and still have a little of the sweet cantaloupe in it.” Chef Chad said one of the most important thinks he learned from Chef Mark Miller was the importance of tasting the food before it is served. This is the best of habits a cook can have.

When I asked him if he was always this creative, he said,  “My dad was a guitar player. I don’t know if that rubbed off on me any at all." My guess, when guests taste Chef Chad's creations the music comes from the "hmmms and awwws." Vocal notes of appreciation for this symphony of flavors.

I will do my best to recreate this fabulous dish and will share my efforts in a future post.

Alma Cocina
Pros: Bold, Fresh and Modern Latin Flavors, Excellent Service, Affordable Pricing, Gluten-free and Kid's Menu available.
Cons: Sorry, I didn't have any on my Thursday night visit. I heard it gets busy on game days and it is a downtown location.
One Ninety One Peachtree Tower (adjacent to downtown Ritz-Carlton)
191 Peachtree Street NE
Atlanta, GA 30303
Prices: Small Plates $6-$10, Large Plates $19-$28. Full Bar.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

International Food Bloggers Conference 2012

I'm off!

What will I discover?

Lots to experience, learn, network and connect. And with a side bonus of visiting my darling nephew and wife in Portland, Oregon. More to come my friends!


Conferences have a natural rhythm. Registration, name badges and coffee. Lightweight mingling and eye contact as we slowly connect with those sitting at the round table covered in white cloth  and exchanging business cards. Sessions to be attended and immersion into the topics at hand. A full agenda with PR, Branding, Niche, Voice, SEO, Photography all the while intermingled with coffee, gift bags, gourmet taste treats, exquisite dinner, wine receptions and after parties. All of which were artfully choreographed by Zepher Adventures and Foodista. These were the best of times.  Each of the sessions were informative, pertinent and often entertaining.

Highlights from this year's conference include:

Book Fair - where I met the incredible Kathleen Flinn (The Sharper the Knife the Less you Cry) and gracious Lynne Curry (Pure Beef) ) securing autographed copies of their books. Kathleen would later hold a writer's workshop, "Hungry for Words: The Devil is in the Details, God is in the Framework," that would challenge a room full of bloggers to go beyond cliches. "You can do better!" Kathleen would repeat, over and over.

SEO for Recipe and Food Blogs - Rand Fiskin ran us through the technical and cultural impact of how to best position our content for the world of social networking and search engine optimization. Geeky stuff for sure, but priceless information for those who are both seeking audience and traffic to entice publishers and PR firms to monetize their sites. Highly candid and entertaining. Rand pulled no punches.  Likewise was the incredibly personable Marissa Brassfield who made us look playfully at blog titles.

Meeting a friend of a friend - Somehow with Twitter, Facebook and such I managed to capitalized on having my friend's friends to become suddenly approachable. There is nothing better than a little name dropping in the world of personal networking to get your foot in to door, or an opportunity to be more than just a fan to persons of note. Case in point, meeting the lovely Kate McDermott, Art of the Pie who happens to be a friend of Jamie Schler of Life's a Feast on the very day that USA Today featured her Pie Camp on National Pie Day. Talk about celebrity gold dust emanating from her whole being. She was just so thrilled and it was wonderful to see her bask in her notoriety.

Similarly meeting Chef John @foodwishes during the Cooking and Photography Demo on our last day.  A perfect pairing with Andrew Scrivani as they bantied wisecracks and tidbits during the action packed session. Very entertaining, enlightening and incredibly warm and approachable.

Andrew Scrivani and Chef John at IFBC 2012 Portland
 Meeting Chefs - Getting to know Chef Gregory Gourdet and the incredible food at Departure.
 After the conference I was able to take some extra time and visit with my nephew Ryan and his lovely bride Jackie while dining alfresco on the 15th Floor of Departure. I am still trying to figure out some of the taste combinations, they were that wonderful and different.

Watermelon, radish, grilled citrus, dill
 Making New Friends - So many new friends and blogs to be inspired by. The casual art of exchanging cards become so much more as I jot down notes that make each meeting something special. Social networking, in the flesh. Yea, you just can't beat it.

Next year:  IFBC Seattle!
Can't wait to attend!

IFBC 2012 International Food Blogger Conference

Friday, August 3, 2012

Israeli Couscous with Golden Beet Greens and Crisps

Sometimes, the side is the star.

Rosemary, garlic lambchop with Isreali Couscous

Do you discard the tops of beets and turnips without a thought? If so, you just might be missing something. I know many people shy away from greens, or just don't quite know what do do with them. In spite of that, if you are comfortable with spinach or swiss chard you might just like this less bitter relative from their plant family. I know we often only see beets in the market with the tops are trimmed to serve the root, but in season at farmer's markets and even grocery chains like Raley's and Whole Foods, you an see these beautiful full bunches of greens perched on top of the itty-bitty golden orbs with the gangly root tail. Why not give them a whirl in your next meal?  Easily switched up with bok choy or kale, the taste and health benefits are worth the effort. (See link at the bottom for nutritional information on beet greens.)

Golden Beets with Greens.

With this in mind, challenged myself to use the whole of the beet in one meal. A simple marinated and grilled lamb chop and a side that was clearly the star.  What was a creative challenge resulted in a winning idea that will be repeated.   I say, have fun with your vegetables!

Fried Beet Crisps

Israeli Couscous with Golden Beet Greens and Crisps
Serves 4
Prep Time 25 minutes (estimated)
Cook Time 30 minutes (estimated)

1 bunch golden beet greens, rough chopped (from 3-4 golden beets, equals about 4 cups)
3 golden beets, thin juliennes
3-4 tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 cup vegetable oil
½ cup pine nuts
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 ½ cups Israeli couscous
¼ tsp cinnamon
1 bay leaf
1 ¾ cup low salt chicken broth
½ tsp fine ground black pepper
Kosher salt to taste
1 tsp lemon zest

Wash beet greens thoroughly, remove center ribs and rough chop. It will look like a huge mound, but relax. It will reduce significantly when you cook it down.
Peel and slice beets wafer thin, then julienne. Pat dry with paper towels. Heat vegetable oil in a heavy bottom pot so that the oil is shimmery (about 350 degrees). Cook beets in small batches until crispy all the way through (time depends on batch quantities) about 2-3 minutes.
Remove from oil and transfer to paper towel to drain off excess oil, sprinkle with a little fine sea salt. Reserve crisps.

  1. heat 1 tbs olive oil over medium high In a large saucepan, add pine nuts and toast until fragrant and golden, about 5 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside in a small bowl
  2. Add 2-3 tablespoons olive oil to pan and cook chopped shallot until translucent, add beet greens and a pinch of salt. Continue cooking until completely wilted and reduced down. Stir often during this process.
  3. Add couscous, bay leaf and cinnamon to pan, stir to combine and tan couscous.
  4. Add low salt chicken broth (or vegetable broth if you prefer) bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 10-15 minutes until all the liquid is absorbed and couscous is tender.
  5. Remove bay leaf and take pot off heat.
  6. Add lemon zest, pine nuts, salt and pepper to taste, stir to combine thoroughly.
  7. Serve with beet crisps on top.

Cook’s Tips
I used a box of Trader Joe’s Israeli Couscous, but you can purchase Israeli couscous in the bulk bins at many grocery stores.

Nutritional Information about beet greens - because, of course you would like to know! From Self Nutrition Data. 

What wine would you pair with this meal?