Today was international buffet day at work. It was organized by a colleague as a mini-competition that would showcase food from all over the world, a fairly easy task given our very diverse company. I knew I would definitely enter in a dish, but the question was what to make. It didn’t take me long to decide on making a Latin dish to showcase my that part of my heritage, but I couldn’t decide on what to make.
My mother had shown me how to make a bean dip which would be easy to do. During last week’s cooking class, we learned how to make carne asada. That also seemed like a good choice and a way to put into practice what I had learned. Another option was to create tostones, a form of friend bananas which I saw Alton Brown make on an episode of Good Eats which I had saved on my DVR. My last option was arroz con leche, a rice pudding dessert. As the day approached I could not make up my mind so I resolved to make a cena típica (a typical dinner) which would include all of the dishes and something to drink.
I woke up this morning deciding to work from home so I could prepare my dishes for the 12 noon deadline. I have never made this many dishes at once before and really needed to think about the cooking order and counter space. The steak would take the least amount of time and so I knew I would cook it last. The arroz con leche would need some time for the rice to cook and since I had never made it before it would need some guidance from mom over the phone. The bean dip was something I could make easily and keep warm in the oven so I would make that second. After the bean dip I resolved to make the tostones since they needed to be fried twice.
Arroz Con Leche
I started with two cups of rice in a big pot with enough milk to cover the rice by an inch. I also added a teaspoon of vanilla and 2 large cinnamon sticks broken up into pieces to increase their surface area and distribution. I set the stove on high heat to bring up the temperature and then lowered the heat to medium as my mom advised. The key I was told is to watch the pot so as not to burn the rice and the milk at the bottom. I stirred occasionally and as the mixture reduced and with the rice absorbing the the milk I added more milk and some water to keep the level of creaminess that I wanted while maintaining an appropriate amount of moisture.
While I stirred I noticed that the bottom was getting hard in some places. I hadn’t been paying enough attention as I cooked my other items and I could tell the bottom was burning and giving the pudding a burnt flavor. The rice was still hard after45 minutes and I had to continually add milk. In the end after more than an hour of cooking as the rice began to soften I added my last bit of milk. I stirred in 2 cups of sugar and a bit more vanilla to sweeten the pudding and packed it into a serving dish to go.
This was the easiest dish. I added a bit of olive oil to my pan an put in two cans of refried beans. I added both cumin and chili powder, salt and pepper and stirred.
Once everything was combined I put it into a Pyrex baking pan and put it in the oven to stay warm. As I neared the completion of my other dishes, I added medium salsa and mixed shredded cheese on top with a few dollops of sour cream and put the dish back into the oven so the cheese could melt. Everything was covered with tin foil for transport. I prefer small lightly salted tortilla chips for dipping so I brought in a bag for everyone.
I would have to say this was my least successful dish. The flavor was there, but the crispiness was not. In a pan I placed about a half an inch worth of corn oil and heated it up over medium heat. While the oil was warming up I cut up three ripe plantains into one inch thick segments which were placed in the oil for one minute on each side.
I took the plantain slices out and put them onto a baking pan and flattened them out with my knife. They were soaked in water briefly which had salt and garlic for added taste. I believe this is where my problems came from. They were soaked for too long and became mushy. Also as anyone familiar with frying would know, when placed back in the hot oil they splattered all over the place as the water literally exploded causing the oil to spray and burn my hands. I cooked them forever in the oil but they would not get crispy no matter what. With time running out I placed them on cooling racks and then into a traveling container to take with me.
This was the best received dish of all no doubt due to style points and the very fact that it was marinated steak. Last night I created my marinade using the juice of two whole limes, 2 teaspons of white wine vinegar, 3 cloves of garlic, pepper, chili powder and enough orange juice to fully submerge my steaks in a zip lock bag.
I heated up my pan on high heat and dropped my steak onto it one at a time for 3 minutes on each side to get a nice sear. I placed them into a casserole dish and covered them with foil for the trip to the office.
At the office I setup a portable grill and finished the steaks on it. Grilling in the office was quite the spectacle drawing lots of ooohs and ahhhs and eager anticipation. The steaks were very moist and tender and were cut into stripes against the grain for serving. The marinade definitely added a nice subtle flavor and tenderness to the meat that everyone enjoyed.
Everything was setup on a table that was empty and displayed with each course placed in the order it would be served. I also had some mango juice to serve along with my dishes to enhance it’s Latin flare. Unfortunately I did not win. A member of my team at work, Jose won with a duo of roasted chicken and turkey which were I must admit, perfectly cooked. All of my cooking effort was mistimed or miscalculated. The rice and tostones took way longer to cook than I thought they would, causing me to be 45 minutes late to the hour event, meaning that many people had already eaten voted and left! I’d like to think that if I had arrived on time I would have recieved more votes. The experience was great, providing my first experience with cooking multiple dishes at once for a multi-course meal. I was surprised at how comfortable I felt cooking everything at once; granted not everything went smoothly or turned out as I had hoped, but that is the nature of learning and I am truly happy that I challenged myself.