Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Amicable Alimentation: DR-Style Spatchcock Chicken with Mojo Criollo

Mosaic at 191st Street Subway Stop; kids heading to school.

I swear this is the longest blog ever.  I do have to apologize for my prolonged silence, though.  I feel completely derelict of my duty to write entirely random blog posts on entirely self-interested subjects for a group of entirely selective people who have probably by now entirely given up on this blog being a reliable source of news and amusements regarding my entirely singular little life.  That said, I have been thinking a lot lately about writing on here and coming up with my latest notion - one I've been toying with since I started this blog, actually.

When I was brainstorming for posts last I realized that time after time I relate recipes and food to friends and family.  There are foods I love and eat that I associate inextricably, almost synesthetically, with someone I love.  Thus I am starting my "Amicable Alimentation" segment, which will be random, at best, in its appearance, but nevertheless a piece-meal string of semi-thematic blog posts.

From now on, from time to time, I will as usual be posting recipes and stories regarding some of my favorite foods, but now dedicating each post to a different friend or person who has left some imprint on my life and whose essence I feel is reflected in that particular dish.  (Yet another tantalizing reason to check back here on occasion, I know!)  I suppose it's not much different from my unofficial "flashback" segment which kind of aims to do the same thing but with regards to physical places.  Anyway, there you go - my creative catharsis of the past month. :)

* * *

To My Ex-Students

There is no particular reason I chose to start with DR-Style Spatchcock Chicken with Mojo Criollo other than a severe bout of NYC-sickness I've had lately.  I inevitably go through it every year: a desperate and unrealistic longing for what I still consider to be the most dynamic, amazing, delightful city in the world - New York. 

We only lived there for short of 3 years but I can remember feeling mesmerized from start to finish of every minute.  The food, the people, the boundless culture and class.  The dirty smells of the subway and rotting trash outside the diners.  The hot air of the AC units outside the restaurants as you walk by.  Coffee stands the size of phone booths, hot dog stands of gourmet quality, and art (art everywhere!) like you can never imagine.  Shoebox apartments that you delighted in arranging just-so, with beautiful old rickety fire escapes, run-down elevators and Broadway has-beens living upstairs.  A million threads of ethnicity, life, love and determination, thriving on a small strip of land, bridges stretching out like arms to the rest of the world from every possible end...New York is, to me, almost beyond words.  It is vibrant impressions that never stop.

While in NYC I had the pleasure of working as a teacher of the inner-city persuasion (by default, I guess), a job I started with little thought, zero experience and only the foolish idealism a new college graduate from the suburbs can have.  I was placed as an ESL teacher in a majestic high school - George Washington High School, actually - in northern Manhattan.  And by "northern Manhattan" I don't mean 86th and Lexington.  We're talking 192nd and St. Nicholas Avenue - just shy of the Bronx - a territory avoided like the plague by tourists and never even acknowledged by stupid yuppies ("What? "You go above 96th street?").  The school boasts alum ranging from Maria Callas to Alan Greenspan to Henry Kissinger to Harry Belafonte to Manny Ramirez (and frankly, that pretty much tells the story of the neighborhood in a nutshell).

The neighborhood used to be predominantly Jewish  but now it's a little slice of the Dominican Republic on American soil.  When I got off the subway the first time I was blown away by the smells and sights: dirty streets, "gangsters" (probably future MLB players) on every corner dancing to Reggae-ton blasting from four directions, old men sitting at fold-up tables playing cards and checkers and backgammon on the sidewalk outside a million Dominican eateries, women chatting from their dilapidated fire escapes, and men taking cars apart and putting them back together in front of buildings, intermittently cat-calling at some terrified white woman rushing by, clutching her designer purse.  The grocery stores were suddenly stocked with endless supplies of offal, a dozen varieties of bananas, yucca, and full-lines of Knorr and Goya products.  I almost felt at home, actually. 

The next two years of baptism by fire into two worlds I'd never known (teaching and Dominican-ness) but grew to love with every fiber of my being, were some of the happiest I can remember.  I was being teletransported into different universes courtesy of the MTA at 7am - from the Upper East Side to Washington Heights, and by God, beam me up Scotty!  My colleagues and school were amazing, but it was the students that, in the end, taught me most.  I didn't really know anything about the Dominican Republic when I started teaching them, but being Mexican I assumed we'd have some similarities.  I was, of course, pathetically naive to think so because other than the language being the same, those kids made me feel more like a "gringa" than I ever have in my life.

* * *

Top 5 Things I Lived & Learned at George Washington High School
Or, "My name is Brenda, and I Can't Cook Mangu."
Or, "Hola Melgozita! Como tu ta'?"

George Washington High School:
a surprisingly historic spot in Upper Manhattan.

5. Mangu, Mangu - out the whazoo!
The first day of school I had my students fill out a little "getting to know you" survey, the way a good new teacher always does.  I wanted to know stupid things like their favorite colors, their birthplaces, their favorite food.  You know, get them talking.   In a suburban school - mainstream English or not - you'd get straightforward, semi-varied answers.  You might have a child whose family is hispanic, or black, and there would be the ubiquitous white kids of Anglo or Germanic ancestry but all with nothing but American tendencies.

Imagine my surprise when I start reading through the surveys and realize that not only did half the kids not know how to write their own birthdays (and when asked why they left the year off they just shrugged and said it didn't matter!), but they ALL had the exact same favorite food - a dish I'd never even heard of - Mangu.

Mangu? Mangu? What the hell is Mangu?  We spent the better part of the class discussing Dominican food (because pretty much everyone except for one poor little Mexican kid was fiercely Dominican) and what it was.  Nothing like Mexican food, that's for sure.  It seemed to me all these kids liked to eat was chicken, rice, beans and mangu.  And, come to think of it, two years later, I actually still thought the same thing.

Mangu, though, was almost like a sacred cult-food.  Everyone ate it and loved it.  And yet I'd never even seen it much less tasted it.  I went home and looked it up online - there were few recipes - most written in the informal "a pinch of this" or "several of those" type language by people in the DR.  One sad Saturday morning I took out the "platano'" (or Plantains) I'd bought at the locale "Fine Fare" and proceeded to massacre the unofficial National dish of the DR.  My poor brother-in-law happened to be visiting that weekend and to his credit ate his entire plateful.  To this day Matt says it was the worst thing I've ever cooked.  It was awful.  It was mashed up plantains with butter and salt but it was nothing like the Ambrosia I'd heard stories of.

A few weeks later I finally ventured into one of the many Dominican eateries on my lunch break - and I bought some Mangu.  It was buttery and smooth and almost like polenta made of plantains.  Could I eat this three times a day every day for forever?  Hells no.  But could I kinda see why my kids liked it?  Yes.  And you should have seen their faces when I told them about the fiasco and redeeming experience thereafter - totally got me some street cred.

4. Trying to be "All White."  And succeeding.
One of the shocking things I quickly learned about myself through the 32 mirrors staring back at me in the classroom was how white I was, despite not being white.  To my students, deep in the thick of an ethnic neighborhood, I looked white, dressed white and, worst yet, TALKED white.  This, in their world, was not only a sure sign of someone who felt they were vastly superior, it was also nothing short of wearing a "kick me" sign on your head.

I fought in vain for two years to teach my students to pronounce their "s" at the end of words - a losing battle with Dominicans, whose accent drops "s"s in every word.  They used to greet me with "Hola Melgozita! Como tu ta'?" instead of "Como estas."  They called little cakes "patelito'" instead of "pastelitos" and they calld fried plantains "totone'" instead of "tostones."  I used to correct them every time - in both English and Spanish - and hope it would catch on.

Then one day I got on someone's case about the "s" thing again and suddenly someone yelled out: "Miss, why you always talk all White when you ain't White?"  I was really shocked.  I didn't know what to say.  So I asked the only question I could after insisting I wasn't doing it on purpose (hilarious): "What is wrong with acting White?"  Needless to say, the list of consequences was long, but among them the most salient were the fact that you'd probably "get beat up on the street," and the fact that you probably weren't being true to your "pai'" (your "pais" or country).  I think I had a mini-existential crisis after that for a while, in the best possible way. :)

3. The Roach that Broke the Rules.
Also in the first week of school, in the desperate throws of trying to keep my classes under control before they realized I was shaking in my shoes, something truly ridiculous occurred that helped me gain a strong-hold over the minds of what I was starting to believe were a class of feral children.

The first week as a new inner-city teacher there are a lot more "don'ts" then "dos" in your vocab:  Don't chew gum, don't talk without raising your hand first, don't get up from your seat, don't be an annoying pain in the butt because I'll call your mom (even though I know she won't care).  There are also a lot of don'ts for the teacher: Don't Smile (or they'll think you're weak).  Don't laugh (or they'll KNOW you're weak).  Don't give in.  Don't let down your guard and don't be nice.

I was determined to control those kids with every fiber in my being, without coming off as an ice-queen (though I was told this was impossible) but had let a smile slip here and there throughout the first day - and every time that had happened the kids had pointed at me and yelled "SEE!  SEE!  She's SMILING!" as if they'd "gotten" me somehow.

It was my last class of the day and the group was tired and rowdier than the rest had been.  I was going through the getting to know you rigmarole but not very successfully, and I was starting to lose ground to a particularly annoying, loud Senior who was probably 21 years old and had nothing to lose but another credit.
At that moment a gigantic NYC roach scurried across the entire classroom in full visibility and hid under a desk near me.  The entire class erupted in shreaks and screams with several boys and girls jumping on top of desks (as if they'd never seen a roach!).  I took this as a sign from God.

I immediately got them under control, shouting and forcing everyone to sit.  Then I grabbed the trash can, walked over to the roach (who had all but signed a suicide note when it entered my room anyway), and dramatically smashed it as hard and loud as I could with my foot.  The students were horrified.  Screams of "Come on Miss, why you gotta hate?!" filled the room. They all gasped in horror and stared at me.  I picked the carcass up with a tissue and flung it in the trash, then I tossed the trashcan to the side with a devil-may-care look on my face, one eyebrow raised no doubt.

"Do you know why I killed that roach?" I said, trying desperately to keep from laughing.

They looked at me imploringly, "Why?"

"Because it interrupted my class."

I swear to you, I never had trouble with that class again.

2. Getting Egged like a Pro.
One thing I can say with confidence about my experience as a teacher is that my students loved me, almost without exception.  I can't say exactly what it is I did to endear myself to them, though I did work my butt off for them and expect them to succeed rather than fail, but those kids loved me.  When I left I was overwhelmed at the displays of affection, the gifts, and the tears.  And almost always it was the kids I was sure hated me most that were the saddest to see me go.  I still keep in touch with several of them to this day, four years later.

But all the love aside, there were some real buggers at that school.  And whether they loved you or not, there was one day of the year when all bets were off - all was fair: Halloween.  We teachers dreaded it.  Half the kids skipped school anyway that day, and the other half set numerous stink-bombs off at every passing period.  The dress code went straight out the window - in a shockingly Un-Halloweeny way, and even if the kids weren't in school harassing you to give them candy, you could be sure they were still in the area, carton of eggs close at hand. 

Washington Heights is an almost uninterrupted series of 5-6 story apartment buildings made of brick with repetitive windows and fire escapes on every surface available.  One looks exactly like the other and it's almost impossible to see where a voice or person is calling from.  There was a street we had to talk down to get to the subway after school and on Halloween we might as well have been Thanksgiving Turkeys on an open field.  My friend Sarah and I walked out together one year, she a seasoned veteran with the additional benefit of being Irish and therefore far more witty and collected than me, and me being entirely unprepared for what was about to happen next.

The eggs started flying at us almost as soon as we passed the first building.  I stopped in horror, an egg having narrowly missed my head.  But Sarah kept walking, strutting her high heels, red lipstick in perfect order, puffing her cigarette like a Parisian femme fatale, a 10-mile stare in her eyes.  

"Keep walking, Brenda."  

"But, but but....! An egg --"

"I know.  Just keep walking."

Whizz! Whizz! Whizz!  Another three eggs.  And I can't swear to it, but I'm pretty certain one hit my bag.  And I started yelling and shaking my fists in the air and threatening to expel and call parents and uncles and even revoke Athletic privileges.


In life sometimes you are the hunter, and sometimes you are the hunted.  Even in your own species group.

1." Pollo Con Arroz... y Habichuelas"
I can't tell you how many times I heard that phrase in answer to "what did you eat yesterday?" or "what are you eating tonight?"  Besides mangu, chicken with rice and beans is what Dominicans love most.  There are lots of variations on how to make the rice and how to make the beans and how to make the chicken but in its essence that's all it is: chicken, rice, beans.

My students simply couldn't understand why people would eat anything else.  They hated salads and most vegetables, and the only exotic food most had had was take-out Chinese from the local shop.  This drove me insane.  How could they willingly refrain from participating in the vast and varied eating-ground that is New York City?!  Throughout my time as a teacher I made it my mission to introduce these kids to as many different cuisines as I could - and I did succeed to some extent.  We had Ethiopian food, Indian food, real Italian food, and I even made a couple of them sit through my own cooking once.  It helped, but in the end, they always went back to what they knew - kinda like Italians and pasta.  They just never get sick of it.

So one day I decided to see what all the fuss was about.  I headed to the local place to have chicken in Washington Heights.  It is regarded with great respect by any Dominican who knows how to appreciate good chicken, rice and beans.  And it is a favorite with Major League Baseball Players in New York (as many of them are of Caribbean, specifically Domincan, backgrounds and grew up in the area: check out this article).

El Nuevo Caridad is clean and efficient, decorated in baseball memoribilia combined with Dominican kitsch and a million pictures of the owner with various MLB players.  The menu is impossible to figure out if you're not familiar with Caribbean food, and forget about deciphering the accent either - Dominicans speak faster than any other nationality I've met. The specials change every day.  But one thing always stays the same and it's what draws the crowds: grilled, spatchcock chicken with a sauce called "Mojo Criollo."

Believe me when I tell you this is the juiciest most deliciously spiced chicken I've ever had, and the sauce elevates it beyond description.  I have tried several times now to make this chicken but it wasn't until I learned to spatchcock that it really came together.  If you are in NYC, do yourself a favor and check this place out, but don't be surprised if you suddenly feel Whiter than  you ever have in your life, no matter what color you really are.

El Nuevo Caridad
1618 St. Nicholas Avenue
Corner of 191st Street
New York City
(212) 781 5782

* * *

DR-Style SpatchCock Chicken with Mojo Criollo

Serves 2 

1 - 2lb Chicken, spatchcocked

For Mojo Criollo:
1 head of garlic, cloves crushed and minced
1 large onion, chopped finely
2 tbsps ground cumin
3/4 cup lemon or lime juice (or a mix)
1/4 cup orange juice
2 tbsps oregano (preferably dried)
salt & pepper to taste
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup water 
NB: This sauce is meant to be sour, but I like mine especially sour so just increase the OJ if you're not as much of a fan.

1.  Spatchcock the chicken as this method allows the whole, bone-in chicken to cook evenly on a grill all at one time.  Using kitchen shears is the best and easiest way.  Here's a good video:

2. Make the marinade / Mojo by combining all the ingredients in a large bowl EXCEPT THE WATER.  Mix well.  Remove 2-3 tablespoons and reserve in a small container; store in the fridge for use on the cooked chicken.  Then add the water to the rest of the marinade in the large bowl and mix well. 

3. Place the chicken in the marinade bowl and make sure it is smothered in the marinade.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave to marinate in the refrigerator overnight.

4. The next day, prepare the grill, and when it is at medium-high heat, place the chicken on the grill.  Cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until completely cooked, turning halfway through.

Chicken in the Marinade.

5. Service with extra Mojo sauce on the size and rice and beans, of course. :)  Although I also loved it with a good salad!

¡Buen Provecho!
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  1. Long overdue rat. I've been checking your blog rather religiously and still don't know what's the hold up. Good blog though, and I am really glad you took me to that restaurant when I went to visit you. The food was truly delicious.

  2. Love the roach story. I wish I could have been there to see that.

  3. Love the stories, the entire post, and it was not long enough in my opinion, just too far in between posts. But I bet you are day dreaming of Rome. =)

  4. Thanks guys.

    Caaa: yes, I think you were the only one of my kin that I actually took there (besides Matt, obviously) which makes you one lucky midget.

    Krista: Many would pay (but none more than I) to relive that glorious moment.

    Louann: Thanks. And yes, I totally am daydreaming of Rome.