Sunday, 28 August 2011

Discover a Taste of the Caribbean for about $1 a Person... and for Another Dollar, Try Some Salted Caramel (/Bacon) Brownies

Unlike past weekends on campus, this particular weekend has started out exceedingly well. Perhaps it has to do with the fact I had absolutely no work obligations to attend to or because I spent the majority of my day cooking... or perhaps it is a bit of both. In any case, I just returned back to my apartment on campus (and with a parking spot during move-in weekend!) from a colleague's housewarming party, having spent many hours prior in the comfort of my kitchen. On Thursday evening, I asked her what type of regional cuisine may be of interest; Friday morning, I got a response back which loosely abbreviated to Caribbean and anything with sweet potatoes. I don't think I felt any more removed from my culinary comfort zone as in the moment I read her response. Alas, if it weren't for challenges such as this, how else can one learn? As I aimlessly searched for what it meant for a dish to be "Caribbean," I was able to find this site which in the end taught me there is no distinct flavour (apart from the use of spices) within this rather larger regional cuisine. And indeed, this is certainly true elsewhere. I continued searching until I found a very well-received and well-rated recipe from the November 1999 issue of Cooking Light hosted on myrecipes.com. In reading the recipe, I noted the use of hot Italian turkey sausage which begged the question of whether or not I should be taking a vegetarian spin on this dish. The answer, as I should have expected, was yes. As a self-proclaimed and apparent carnivore, I must say that cooking vegetarian food is not exactly my forte, but I am certainly up for such a challenge. With a dessert already in mind (which also necessitated a protein subtraction), I tested my culinary and impromptu skills on Caribbean sweet potatoes and black beans served over yellow rice, as well as salted caramel brownies... all for about $2 a person.

I actually began the morning at the grocery store with two students and upon arrival to campus cooked them some baked pasta for lunch. As they ate (and took a break from their fall, moving-in cleaning), I set off to work on preparing the more complex component of the Caribbean dish: the sweet potatoes. More specifically, the sweet potatoes called for by the original recipe linked above are supposed to be maple-glazed. To add more complication than necessary, the maple-glazed recipe calls for four times more sweet potatoes than is needed in the Caribbean dish, yet I was cooking for two times the Caribbean dish recipe to feed at least 10 people (within the context of a potluck). All of this math is to say that the quantities I provide below are for the Caribbean dish twice over, using my take on the corresponding recipes.

And so, begin by bringing one pot of water and unsalted butter to a boil, following the quantity of water and butter required to cook two 8-oz packages of yellow rice (I used Zataran's New Orleans style which required 4 tbsp in total). As that water is heating up, peel and cube three medium-sized sweet potatoes (about 2 lbs). In a large sauce pan, bring 2 c water, the sweet potatoes, and 1/2 lemon quartered (squeeze the juice on top of the sweet potatoes) to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cooked covered for about 20 min. By the time your sweet potatoes are simmering, you should be ready to cook your rice and any flavourings which may have come with it; follow the cooking instructions provided with the package. As both of those components are cooking, melt 4 tbsp unsalted butter and then sauté 1/2 a large white onion (about 1 c) and 2 minced garlic cloves on medium heat. While the ingredients are sautéeing, and if you do not already have these ingredients in ground form, grind together the spices that should add the Caribbean flare: 1 tsp cumin, 1/4 tsp cinnamon, and (because I didn't use the hot Italian turkey sausage), 1/2 tsp red pepper and 1/2 tsp paprika. Set this ground spice mix aside. After a few minutes, your onions should have wilted a bit and along with the garlic should have browned. Reduce the heat on the onions at this point, as your sweet potatoes should still be cooking.

Once the sweet potatoes are fork-tender, carefully transfer them with a slotted spoon or hand colander to a bowl (I say carefully because they can easily become damaged, i.e., smashed). Take the lemon wedges out and then bring the cooking liquid to a boil, allowing the liquid to reduce to about 1/3 c. To the reduced liquid, add one heaping tablespoon light brown sugar, one tablespoon unsalted butter, a dash of cinnamon, and a dash of crushed red pepper flakes. Stir this all quickly together before the cooking liquid completely evaporates, and then add this to the bowl of sweet potatoes. Essentially, you'll have created a sweet and simple caramel. Do not worry if the caramel clumps up; especially as you are working quickly and there is still leftover moisture from the sweet potatoes, the caramel should melt to a more manageable state. [Note that if you are following the original recipe exactly, I did not use any maple syrup (primarily for both cost and taste reasons; indeed, one of the comments thought the sweet potatoes became too sweet, and in my opinion, against the entire dish, I did not think 1.5 tablespoons of syrup would be missed).] By the time the sweet potatoes are ready, so too should your rice. When the rice is cooked, simply turn off the heat source and keep the rice covered until ready to serve.

Now that the sweet potatoes are cooked, bring back the pot of butter, onions, and garlic to medium heat, and add the sweet potatoes, along with one 15.9 oz can vegetable stock (2 c) and your ground spices. Cover the pot and let the flavours mesh together for about 10 min. In the meantime, slice across the bias (i.e., diagonally) enough green onion (i.e., the hollow leafy part of the scallions) to yield about 1.5 c. [Most grocery stores sell green onions in bunches; one bunch yields the amount you'll need for this recipe.] After this is done, rinse and drain two 15 oz cans black beans (I went with organic ones). By this point(ish), your sweet potato mix should be ready for the green onions and black beans. Add these to the pot, give it all a nice stir, reduce the heat, and cover the pot, allowing everything to cook for about 3-5 min. When your black beans have both cooked and still have a bite to them, you're all done! Serve the Caribbean sweet potatoes and black beans over the yellow rice, and enjoy! And for those of you who may care, click here to find out the differences between the often interchanged sweet potato and yam.

A few days ago, I received a message directing me to a list of bacon-inspired dishes, one of which was for bacon caramel brownies. Naturally, I just had to try them, and today's cooking adventure provided the opportunity to do so. In deciding whether or not I should make two separate batches, I ended up dividing the brownie batter and caramel in half to accommodate a non-bacon version. In the future I would advise sticking to one over the other in a single batch to avoid any confusion down the line. Take five whole eggs out of your fridge, set your oven now to 350 °F, and butter the sides and bottom of a glass baking dish (13"x9" for a full batch; use smaller dishes if you plan to divide the batters in half). If you are making a full batch of bacon caramel brownies, begin first by cooking four strips of bacon to a crisp and after giving them time to cool before giving them a fine chop. With that said, begin the process by setting up a double boiler system and bring a pot of water to a boil; rest a bowl big enough to sit atop the lip of the pot on top of the pot. In the bowl, add two sticks (1 c) unsalted butter and allow the heat to melt them. In a sauce pot, bring 1/4 c water, 1 c granulated sugar, and 2 tbsp light corn syrup to a boil. [As I have noted in previous posts, please be careful when working with melted sugar; at the point of caramelisation, the sugar will be around 350 °F!]

As the sugar begins to boil, your butter should have melted; add to this one 10 oz package of 60% (bittersweet) chocolate baking chips and allow this to melt into the butter. Have a towel on hand for your use when needing to hold onto the bowl as you stir in the chips. While the chocolate is melting, it is imperative you set your mise en place for the rest of the caramel. Have at the ready 1/2 c heavy cream, 1/4 c sour cream, and your salt. [The original recipes--both for the bacon and non-bacon versions--call for fleur de sel, the most expensive of the salts and not one of the most accessible. Coming specifically from Guérande, it happens to be the by-product of further refined sel gris, which I happened to already have from another colleague and have used in a previous post as a finishing salt. The most suggested substitution for fleur de sel, however, is kosher salt. For more information on types of salts, click here.]

When your caramel has turned a walnut-coloured amber, turn off the heat, and slowly whisk in the heavy cream, followed by a large pinch of salt. Do not be surprised if the caramel seizes and clumps into a pseudo-solid mass. Be sure to whisk quickly and continue to whisk until the caramel has returned to a smooth, liquid form. Then, whisk in the sour cream and set this aside to cool. If you planned to make the bacon version, this would be the time to add half your bacon bits to the caramel. Set the caramel(s) aside to cool.

By now, the chocolate should have already melted; give this and the butter a stir with the spatula. Keeping the bowl on top of the pot, turn off the heat and whisk into the bowl 1.5 c granulated sugar and 1/2 c packed light brown sugar. Remove the bowl from the pot (which should be at room temperature) and whisk in three eggs. Be sure to break up the eggs and work quickly to prevent the eggs from cooking in any residual heat. If it is easier, pre-scramble the eggs before adding them to the chocolate mix. Next, whisk in the remaining two eggs, followed by 2 tsp vanilla extract. With the liquid mix now prepped, sift on top 1.25 c all-purpose flour, 1 tsp salt, and 2 tbsp dark unsweetened cocoa powder. So that you do not over beat the batter, use a scrape-and-fold method to combine the wet and dry ingredients.

The batter now ready to use, carefully spread a layer of batter to cover the base of the baking dish. Next, add your layer of caramel, making sure to reserve about 1 tsp of caramel if you are making the bacon version. [Though the original recipes forewarn you not to get the caramel to touch the sides or else it will burn, I found no issue with the caramel touching the sides.] Then top of the dish with the remainder of your batter. Bake the brownies for 30 min.

As soon as the brownies are out of the oven, finish them off appropriately depending on the version of brownie you are making. For the non-bacon version, immediately sprinkle the top with more salt and a pinch of granulated sugar. For the bacon caramel brownies, add the rest of the bacon to your caramel reserve, mix together, and then sprinkle (do whatever works for you as this is a deliciously sticky mess) the caramel-covered bacon over the brownies. If you can help it, let the brownies cool completely before cutting and serving.

Once cooled, cut the brownies into bite-sized pieces (I got about 4 dozen pieces from my smaller baking dish) or larger if you prefer, and enjoy! [A group sitting next to me certainly did and actually helped clean off the dish, making it much easier to wash in the end.] For other photos from this delicious day of culinary experimentation, click here.

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