Sunday, August 16, 2015

Week 31 - Represent Your Region

Week 31's theme, represent your region, was all about honoring and spotlighting the food from where you live. I wasn't really sure what to make. New York style cheesecake? Pastrami sandwiches? Black and white cookies? Bagels and lox? Knishes? New York pizza? A Coney Island hot dog? None of those really appealed to me and some I couldn't even make at home, since it's not like we own a brick oven. After thinking about it for a bit and wondering what people come to New York to eat, it hit me - street meat! People come from all over the world and line up at 53rd and 6th for a platter of their famous chicken over rice. That certainly would represent my region.

Street meat from the famous Halal Guys

I remembered that Serious Eats had published Kenji's recipe for halal cart-style chicken and rice with white sauce, and thought that would be a perfect starting place. I've always wondered how close that came to street meat, since it usually seemed to us like there were more seasonings in the chicken from the carts than just lemon, oregano, coriander, and garlic, but we're not expert tasters. What better time to test it out than for this challenge?

The ingredients for the chicken portion (slightly adapted from the original recipe because I wasn't going to go out for fresh oregano just for this) were:

- about 1 lb of chicken thighs ($5.88)
- 2 tbsp lemon juice ($0.20)
- 1 tbsp dried oregano ($0.05)
- 1/2 tsp ground coriander ($0.05)
- 4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped ($0.08)
- 1/4 cup olive oil ($0.75)
- salt and pepper ($0.05)
- 1 tbsp canola oil ($0.05)

The chicken was the part of dinner that took the longest to prepare, in part because you had to marinate it in advance. The first thing to do is to make the marinade by combining the lemon juice, oregano, coriander, garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Although the instructions said to do this in a blender so that the sauce would be smooth, I really hate dragging out the blender to use for 10 seconds to make a sauce. Our kitchen is really not that big. So I just mixed it together by hand. Maybe it wasn't as smooth, but it was fine.

Anyway, after you make the marinade, you put the chicken in a ziploc bag, add half of the marinade, coat the chicken with it, and then let it marinate in the fridge for a few hours. (I think I did 2 or 3.) The other half of the marinade gets stored in the fridge for later. I should also mention that before I put the chicken in the bag I tried to trim off as much of the fat as I could, since these were really, really fatty chicken thighs. (See all the fat in the photo with the package?)

After the chicken has finished marinating, you pull it out of the bag, pat it dry, add salt and pepper (I usually just do one side and then season the other while the seasoned side is face down in the skillet), and then it's time to cook. The canola oil gets added to the (not non-stick) pan and then the chicken gets browned and cooked through (about 5 minutes per side).

Once the chicken is cooked, it cools for a few minutes, and then you chop it up into small pieces. After that, you put it in a bowl with the other half of the marinade, cover it with plastic wrap, put it in the fridge, and let it sit until everything else is done and just about ready.

Also essential to a chicken and rice platter is the rice. The ingredients I used for the rice portion (again, slightly adapted) were:

- 2 tbsp butter ($0.40)
- about 1 tsp turmeric ($0.05)
- about 1/2 tsp ground cumin ($0.05)
- 1.5 cups Basmati rice ($1.23)
- 2.5 cups water ($0)
- 2 spoonfuls of chicken bouillon ($0.60)
- salt and pepper ($0.05)

Making the rice was pretty easy. You melt the butter, add the turmeric and the cumin for about a minute, add the rice, coat it with the butter sauce, toast it for a few minutes, and then add the chicken broth (water/bouillon in my case). Once it starts to boil, you reduce it to a simmer and cover it and cook it for 15 minutes covered. After that, turn off the heat and let it sit for 15 minutes. It actually came out pretty well in terms of texture with that water to rice ratio and had a nice yellow color from the turmeric.

Besides the chicken and rice, the other components of your usual street meat platter are white sauce, hot sauce, and a side salad. (Of course there are others we love, like Trini Paki Boys, which also give you chickpeas and other things, but this challenge was going to be about the famous street meat platters from the Halal Guys. Places like the Halal Guys also give you pita, but we had enough food already and I didn't feel like buying pita when we really didn't need it.) The only part of those that we made from scratch was the white sauce, for which we used:

- 1/2 cup mayo ($0.54)
- 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt ($1.25)
- 1 tbsp sugar ($0.05)
- 2 tbsp white vinegar ($0.10)
- 1 tsp lemon juice ($0.05)
- 1/2 bunch of parsley, chopped ($0.50)
- salt and pepper ($0.05)

Adding 2/3 of a head of romaine lettuce ($0.55) and 1 Roma tomato ($0.29) to the chicken ($7.11), rice ($2.38) and white sauce ($2.54), the total for our 2 dinner platters was approximately $12.87. (You could probably tack on a few more cents for some Cholula that we used, since we didn't have a harissa-based hot sauce, but that amount is negligible.) The price isn't that different from getting 2 platters from the Halal Guys, and both are filling. I guess the big difference is that with this one, I know exactly what's in everything.

For the sauce, I just had to wash and chop the parsley, and then combine it in a bowl with the mayo, yogurt, sugar, vinegar, lemon juice, salt and pepper. It was pretty easy to make. I also chopped up the tomato into smaller slices. I would have chopped the romaine then too but I did that the day before for the BLT salad and then just stored it in the fridge.

Once everything is done, it's time to finish off the chicken. You pull the bowl of chicken out of the fridge and add everything (sauce and all) back into the skillet, cooking until it's done. That part was simple.

The finished product didn't look exactly like the Halal Guys plate, but I wasn't expecting it to. For one, the salad portion was much bigger, but that was purposeful since I really hate going without a decently sized vegetable component for dinner. As for the flavors, as I tasted each individual component to see if any adjustments needed to be made, I wasn't sure if this was going to taste like your traditional street meat platter. The chicken tasted more Italian than anything else (perhaps from the use of the dried oregano?). The rice tasted fine and we love Basmati rice, but I couldn't remember much about the rice from our street meat platter to see if it was the same as we remembered. The white sauce on its own tasted vaguely like the cart's white sauce but also just kind of tasted like a creamy salad dressing.

But when we tried everything together, our opinion completely changed. When you got a bite with rice, chicken, and a good dollop of white sauce all together, it absolutely tasted like cart-style chicken and rice. It's hard to pinpoint the exact parts of each flavor that combined to make us think of street meat, but the flavor was absolutely there. We were pretty pleased with the results of this experiment.

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