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Mouthfuls of Culture

Polpette
by Sally Daverse

Food is the most elemental way we engage with the world. It's how we begin to understand and experience our culture as well as other cultures and people. There's a very natural correlation between the appetite to experience new foods and the desire to travel to new places. When you bit into a croissant in Paris, didn't you feel you'd become cosmopolitan and worldly? When you tasted café au lait and beignets at Cafß du Monde, didn't New Orleans become a part of who you are forever?

When I travel, I devote considerable time and energy to where I'm going to eat, creating a dining strategy that the US military would find impressive. I like to make sure that the experience is authentic and memorable. Once, my husband and I drove miles out of our way on St. Helena Island in South Carolina to eat at the Shrimp Shack, a place I'd read about in a magazine. When we arrived, it was clear the restaurant was accurately named. And when we tasted their shrimp burgers - shrimp molded together, dipped in battered and fried - we knew it was worth the drive. I can hear the cicadas buzz and smell the marsh like I did when we sat out on the picnic tables enjoying that delicacy. Every trip I take is marked by where and what I ate; and all my memories of travel tend to make me hungry.

So when I was eating an eggplant polpette, I began to think about how every culture has its own palette of flavors. And those flavors evoke the place, the people and the culture, much as they communicate something about the cook's preferences. While food ways and cultures may differ, they usually have similar techniques, like that Italian polpette made of eggplant, Parmesan cheese, pignoli and breadcrumbs.

Meatballs and other 'balls' are a one-bite experience of a region's food. They usually start with meat or vegetables, and other ingredients are added to stretch the food a bit and feed a few more mouths. After adding onion, garlic, herbs and spices the ingredients are usually bound together with breadcrumbs and eggs. After baking or frying, the balls are served either as an appetizer or an entrée, depending on their size. One or two the size of golf balls make a good appetizer. Three or four make an entrée. You can make balls bigger than a golf ball, but not too much. If they're too big - like tennis-ball sized - they cook unevenly, lose their tenderness and the flavors begin to diminish. Personally, I prefer the smaller ones because of their versatility as a snack, appetizer, side dish or entrée.

Greek Food

Strongly influenced by the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Balkans, Greek food is typically characterized by the briny, earthy flavors of black olives and the saltiness of feta cheese. Olive trees were first cultivated in the Mediterranean region around 3000 B.C. The Oxford Companion to Food describes olive trees as being slow to mature, long-lived, and hearty enough to endure Greece's hot, arid climate. In ancient times, the most ruthless act of war was to destroy an enemy's olive trees. Olive trees are of utmost importance to Greek culture, growing in valleys and on terraced hillsides. Harvested in the late autumn and in winter, olives require curing in oil, brine or salt to create their unique flavor.

Feta cheese is one of the best known of Greek cheeses, although it is also made in Bulgaria, Denmark and Australia. Given Greece's rocky mountain terrain, goats and sheep are favored over cattle. Therefore, feta is traditionally made from sheep's milk, or a combination of sheep's and goat's milk. The feta is formed into large blocks that are salted, sliced, salted again and packed into containers for a month-long maturing process. [Source: The Oxford Companion to Food]

Along with olives and feta cheese, Greek cooking depends on fresh vegetables like potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, and onions, enhanced with lemons, thyme and oregano.

One or two the size of golf balls make a good appetizer. Three or four make an entrée.

Caribbean Food

Due to its long association with the spice and slave routes, Caribbean food is a creole of Spanish, French, African, Indian and Native American cuisines that slaves and slave traders brought to the region. These cultures influenced the foods that the people native to the region were cultivating long before it was discovered by the Europeans.

Of South American origin, the sweet potato was cultivated in the last centuries BC, and grown by the Native Americans across the southeast United States. Sweet potatoes were introduced to Africa by slave traders, and from there the sweet potato became an essential carbohydrate source for tropical Africa and the Caribbean Islands. Members of Columbus' expedition to the Americas were the first Europeans to taste sweet potatoes when they arrived in Haiti.

Thought to have originated in southern Mexico and Central America over 7,000 years ago, the black bean is widely used throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Black beans are popular in Caribbean cuisine due to their being brought there via the Spanish and Portuguese explorers. These travelers introduced black beans to Europe in the 15th century, subsequently spreading to Africa and Asia. Given that black beans are an excellent source of protein, they are an important ingredient in Caribbean, Mexican, Cuban and Brazilian cuisine.

The chilies used in Caribbean cuisine are a natural addition to Caribbean cuisine. Their spiciness perks up the sweetness of the sweet potatoes and the nuttiness of black beans. Together, these flavors make a satisfying whole. Also like sweet potatoes and black beans, wild chilies were gathered and eaten Central America and the Caribbean islands when Columbus arrived there. They were yet another food product carried back to Europe and spread throughout the world by Spanish and Portuguese traders.

As Americans, our cuisines are a diverse brew of flavors and ingredients. These 'ball' recipes demonstrate one American's idea of how to marry Greek influences and Caribbean influences with an American idea taken from Italian cuisine - meatballs. In the end, each bite delivers a mouthful of culture.

Greek Opa Balls

  • 2 cups Russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped onion
  • 1 teaspoon salt, divided
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
  • 1/4 cup crumbled Feta cheese
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped ripe olives, preferably Kalamata
  • 1/4 cup dry breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • Black pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 egg white
  • Vegetable cooking spray
Preheat oven to 400°F.

Place potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil. Cover and let cook for about 10 minutes, until potatoes are soft, but not breaking apart. Drain and set aside.

Heat 2 teaspoons of the oil in a saucepan. Add the onion, potatoes and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Cook, covered, for 3 to 4 minutes without disturbing. Then, turn the potato mixture, cover and cook another 3 minutes. Place potato mixture in a large mixing bowl and mash with the back of a fork until pulpy; do not over mash.

Add the feta cheese, olives, breadcrumbs, parsley, lemon juice, garlic, oregano, salt, and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Add the egg white and mix well.

Coat a baking pan or cookie sheet with cooking spray. Make about 2 dozen golf-ball sized balls and place on baking pan. Drizzle with a teaspoon or so of olive oil, rolling the balls around to coat them lightly. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes at 400°F, until balls are firm and have a bit of a crust.

Black Bean Pelotas

Goes well in a corn tortilla with a squeeze of fresh lime.
  • 2 cups sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1teaspoon olive or canola oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt, divided
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cumin, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon coriander
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 16-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 3 corn tortillas, processed in a food processor until grainy
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon hot sauce (such as Tabasco) or more, to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 lime, sliced into wedges for serving
Preheat oven to 400°F.

Place cubed sweet potato in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil. Cover and let cook for about 3 minutes, until potatoes are still slightly firm. Drain and set aside.

Heat 2 teaspoons of the oil in the saucepan, add onion and garlic. Cook for about 1 minute, then add the drained sweet potatoes. Add the salt, cumin, chili and coriander, and 1 to 2 tablespoons of water. Cover and cook on medium low heat for 5 minutes.

Place sweet potato mixture in a large mixing bowl and mash with the back of a fork until pulpy; do not over mash. Add the black beans, ground corn tortillas, bell pepper, cilantro, Tabasco, salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste. Add egg white and mix well without smashing the black beans.

Coat a baking pan or cookie sheet with cooking spray. Make about 2 dozen golf-ball sized 'pelotas' and place on baking pan. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes at 400°F, until balls are firm and have a bit of a crust.

Serve with wedges of lime.

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