When I was teaching at the University, I used to accompany student field trips to Chicago twice a year. We’d leave Green Bay at 6 a.m. and get back around midnight. Before leaving Chicago for the bus ride home we’d stop in the Clark/Belmont area, on the South edge of the Wrigleyville neighborhood, for dinner. Everyone was on their own for dinner – no restaurant, of course, could handle a bus full of college students en mass. Usually I would end up eating with my colleagues and whichever other adults were game for trying something different. Now, coming from Green Bay we didn’t have to go very far to find something “different”. Over the years we frequented Thai, Japanese, Indian, Moroccan, Ethiopian and Afghani restaurants.
The Afghani restaurant we found was called The Helmand. This was before our current involvement in Afghanistan and the name Helmand didn’t mean anything to me, so I couldn’t figure out why an Afghani restaurant would be called The Helmand – in my ear, the name seemed more connected to playwright Lillian Hellman than Afghanistan. Helmand, we now know, is a province in Southern Afghanistan on the border with Pakistan, one of the major opium-poppy growing regions in the world, and the site of much of the fighting between NATO forces and the Taliban.
The Helmand turned out to be a nice little restaurant and we went there a number of times until, eventually, it closed. I don’t know if it closed through that process of natural attrition in the restaurant world where neighborhoods change, tastes change, owners change and restaurants come and go. Or maybe our activities in Afghanistan shaded people’s impression of The Helmand to a point where negative feelings about Afghanistan due to the war overcame their desire for good tasty food.
One of my favorite dishes at the Helmand was potatoes dressed with a vinegary cilantro and mint sauce. Tonight I thought I would try to replicate that dish and find some other side dishes of Afghan origin or bent to go with the potatoes. A quick search of the net found an Afghan Rib Rub for sale. The ingredients were listed but with no proportions but I figured I could puzzle out my own blend that was close. I had some baby back ribs in the freezer, not exactly halal fare in a Muslim cuisine but close enough for Wisconsin. I’ll bet that this rub would be great on lamb, though. I had also bought some pea shoots and radishes at the farmer’s market that morning and another scan of the net revealed an actual recipe for pea shoot and radish salad. I was all set – protein, carbs and a salad all with at least some, strained Afghan authenticity.
Afghan Rib Rub
1/2 T. whole black pepper
1/2 T. whole cumin
3/4 t. whole cardamom, removed from the husks
1/2 T. whole coriander seed
1/2 T. turmeric
1 t. salt
1/2 T. sugar
Combine the whole spices in a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder and grind to a fairly even but slightly coarse powder. Add the turmeric, salt and sugar and blend.
Coat 1 rack of baby back ribs with the rub. Let set for 1/2 hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a shallow baking dish with cooking spray and put the ribs in the baking dish and cover tightly with foil. Put into preheated oven and reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees. Bake 1 hour.
Preheat gas or charcoal grill. Put ribs on grill to color and crisp a little – 3 to 5 minutes per side.
Potatoes with Cilantro and Mint
1 # small new potatoes, skins on, quartered
2 T. Olive oil
Cook potatoes in salted water until tender. Drain and dress with the olive oil. Set aside to cool.
1 C. chopped cilantro
1/2 C. mint leaves
1 or 2 scallions, coarsely chopped
1/2 C. vinegar, malt vinegar would be ideal but any simple (not flavored) vinegar will work
1/2 t. ground black pepper
1 t. salt
NOTE: Make the dressing at the last minute otherwise the acid in the vinegar will darken the green color.
Put everything into a blender and puree until smooth. Add a little more vinegar if it seems too thick – the sauce should be fairly thick but pourable. Add to the cooled potatoes to coat.
Pea Shoot and Radish Salad
Pick through the pea shoots reserving only the tips and blossoms. Slice radishes. Mix shoots and radishes and dress with a standard vinaigrette made from 1 T. lemon juice, 3 T. olive oil, salt and pepper.