Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Vacation Smackdown

 OR, How to Eat Your Way to a Holiday
Sri Lankan Pork Curry and Curried Green Beans

There are many ways to choose a vacation, but few (at least that I’ve heard of) involve a weekend-long smackdown.  Needless to say, John and I have never been the types to take travel lightly.  Our holiday destination this year wouldn’t just present itself in the form of a friend’s wedding, or family reunion.  No, our vacation location would have to work for it. 

Several months ago we had been tossing a few ideas back and forth for a late June holiday.  We knew some serious discussions would need to be had, and fast, if we were going to book flights and rooms before prices turned astronomical.  After batting around a few locales (Burma- monsoon season, Peru- winter, Nepal- too hot) we whittled the global list of possibilities down to a surviving two.  Sardinia has long loomed in our gustatory and beach fantasies and yet never had either of us set foot on those fabled sandy shores.  On the other hand, both of us had been to Sri Lanka, but we had such a good time on our last visit, we considered visiting for a second time in just two years.

With no clear champion between the finalists, John decided the best way to form a conclusion was to have the countries face off in a weekend-long analysis of the pros and cons.  We were having a vacation-off. 

Geographically and culturally Sri Lanka and Sardinia fall on opposite ends of the spectrum.  So to measure these against each other we decided on some clear categories for comparison- logistics (flight times, number of legs), cost (flights, hotels, in-country transport, expected food prices), and (obviously) food.  It is worth mentioning that because Sri Lanka and Sardinia are both blessed with the sort of fairy tale beaches one thinks only exists in the glossy pages of travel magazines, we called the beach requirement a draw. 

Surprisingly, even though Sri Lanka is a full 4000 miles further away from New York than Sardinia as the crow flies, it was not necessarily quicker to get to.  Limited flight times and the number of connections meant total travel time to either destination was about the same. 

As for cost, Sri Lanka would be the more expensive plane ticket.  However, we read enough travel blogs to know that we should expect to pay handsomely for mere decent accommodations during the Sardinian high season.  And food, well, even if a plate of pasta in Sardinia is cheap for Italy, nothing can beat the $6 per person curry and rice specials in Sri Lanka where dishes emerge from the kitchen in quantities no person in their right mind could finish.

Cookbooks used for reference in the cooking smackdown
That just left the cuisine.  Since we are not the types to travel to Thailand and end up eating at a German schnitzel restaurant, the local foods would need to be meals we not just tolerated but loved.  So it was we started the weekend with the Sardinian specialty, fregola, and finished the smack down with a Sri Lankan pork curry. 

The fregola I cooked slowly with diced tomatoes, sweet sausage, and chorizo.  I stirred in parsley at the end for a good herbal kick.  John lapped up his dish and declared that it should be a permanent additional to our household dinner rotation. 

Two days of research and debate later I was working on our pork curry lunch when it hit me.  I’d made up my mind where we should go this summer.  But first we needed to eat. 

Fregola with sweet sausage and chorizo
John had been out running errands and walked back into our apartment to find the powerful aromas of cinnamon, ginger, and lemongrass wafting from a wok where the aromatics were simmering away with cubes of lean pork shoulder.  I stood back from the stove as he leaned over to inspect my work and dip his finger in the sauce for a taste.  

“I think I know what we should do.”

He cocked an eye.  “Really?”

“Yep.”  I handed him a fork and he speared a cube of meat.  He tipped his head back and closed his eyes. A look of blissful meditation passed over him while he chewed.  He let out a slight groan and slowly fluttered open his lids.  “Want to guess?” 

A smile crossed his face.  “Well, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking right now….” 

The aroma of cinnamon, fiery heat of the curries, beauty of the white sandy beaches, and smiling faces of the people on this Pearl of the Indian Ocean were all calling our names.  For this year at least, the smackdown was settled and Sri Lanka declared the victor.

Sri Lankan Spiced Pork
(adapted from “The Exotic Tastes of Paradise” by Felicia Wakwella Sorensen)

2 lb. lean, boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1 inch cubes
3 T. vegetable oil
3 shallots
1 inch piece of ginger
3 cloves garlic
6 curry leaves, or 3 bay leaves
2 inch piece lemongrass
2 inch piece cinnamon
1 T. paprika
1 T. ground coriander
1 T. ground cumin
1 tsp. chili powder
¼ cup white vinegar
1 ½ c. water

Pat pork cubes dry.  Season on all sides with salt and pepper.  Heat oil in a large wok over medium high heat.  Working in four batches, brown pork on all sides.  Remove browned pork to a platter using a slotted spoon and repeat with remaining uncooked pork.  While pork is browning, peel and thinly slice shallots. Peel ginger and julienne.  Peel garlic and finely chop.  Once all pork is browned and resting on the platter, add shallots, ginger and garlic to the wok (if wok is dry, add additional 1 T. vegetable oil).  Stir fry garlic and ginger for two minutes until fragrant.  Add curry leaves, lemongrass, cinnamon stick, paprika, coriander, cumin, and chili powder. Stir-fry for another 60 seconds until fragrant.  Add vinegar, water, and browned pork to the pan.  Bring to a simmer then cover with a lid and reduce heat to medium low.  Cook covered until pork is very tender, about forty-five minutes.  Remove lid and return heat to medium high.  Simmer until liquid has reduced to a thick sauce.  Taste and adjust seasoning with additional salt and pepper if desired.  Serve with rice. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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