Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Spamarind Dinner

Spamarind = Spam & Tamarind

How did I end up cooking a Spamarind dinner? Think Iron Chef or similar challenges where you are challenged to cook with specific ingredients.

But let's start with the group first. You see, I belong to a gourmet dinner group that has been going for about three years. The group consists of some Sacramento foodies and the object is to have a rotation of six households that host a fine meal for the rest. Our members include a couple of other food bloggers, a couple of leaders of dining groups, and a whole bunch of food lovers.

The first two years we cooked whatever we wanted. This last year we started by pulling ingredients out of a hat, two per household. Most of the ingredients were common enough - tea, ginger, cherry. The most unusual ingredient was mesquite meal. I had the idea to throw in Spam because I had read an article about famous chefs adding dishes with Spam at some of their restaurants. In the end, my teammate, Chris, pulled the Spam and I pulled tamarind. And so our Spamarind dinner was formed.

The requirement was that one or both ingredients had to be in each of the four courses. Luckily our turn was late in the rotation, so I've had over six months of contemplation for this dinner and time to test some of the dishes. Chris was responsible for the entree and I pretty much figured out the rest.

Two diners did have food accomodations. One eats gluten-free and luckily almost everything was so. The other preferred to only eat chicken and so we got her a chicken breast instead of the pork loin. In the end she did try every Spam item and was pleasantly surprised.

Let's start with Spam. The word 'Spam' is supposedly derived from either 'pork shoulder and ham' or 'spiced ham'. Either way, it's a pork meat product that has been shoved into a can since 1937. It became an important staple during World War II because here you had a meat protein packaged in a can that therefore had a long shelf life and was easily transportable. Since then there have been many different Spam products as it has gone in and out of favor. Often there is an increase in popularity during bad economic times. Such is the case now. My coworker went back to his home state of Minnesota this fall and said that the local Spam factory was working 24/7 because of the increase of demand.

Tamarind, our other ingredient, is a tree and the fruit from it is what is used in many dishes throughout the world, most commonly in Asia. It is usually found in a paste form that is a purplish brown in color and the flavor is an acidic sweet/sour.

So the challenge was to see if I could get both ingredients into all four courses. In the end I only skipped tamarind in the soup course and was able to use Spam in all courses!

My thought process was that Spam was just pork. Any recipe that had pork or bacon could surely be substituted with Spam, right? And so my menu was born. (I've opted to link to the recipes as separate pages in order to concentrate on an overview of the dinner here.)

* Chickpea ceviche with tamarind
* Spam lumpia with spicy tamarind dipping sauce
* White bean soup shooters with crumbled Spam
* Pork loin with tamarind BBQ sauce and roasted vegetables with Spam
* Spam truffles and tamarind macarons

I knew this dinner would be a perfect candidate for Foodbuzz's 24-24-24. To make it more interesting for all, I decided to create a scorecard for each diner to record their rating and comments for each item. I asked them to give a 1-5 rating for three categories: taste, appearance, and creativity. Then there was a spot for thoughts/comments. There were ten raters and I did not rate. Also, the chickpea ceviche was a last minute addition and so it wasn't on the rating form.

Chickpea Ceviche with Tamarind

Chris added this contribution and had found the recipe on the internet. We set it out while we were busy getting everything else ready. You can definitely see and taste the Indian influence of this dish. Chris dislikes cilantro and wanted to put it on the side but was outvoted. In the end he admitted that it was much better with the cilantro (after he'd been eating it all week without). I'm not a fan of chickpeas but did enjoy the freshness of it. Not sure I would have called it a ceviche when it's more akin to a salsa. It was served with flatbread.

Spam Lumpia with Spicy Tamarind Dipping Sauce

Taste - 4.5 Appearance - 4.5 Creativity - 4.5

Lumpia is the Filipino version of an eggroll. The difference is that Filipinos put meat in theirs along with vegetables. Most commonly it is a mixture of beef, pork, and shrimp. Vegetables can be anything non-juicy like cabbage, potatoes, peas, etc. At work we had a lumpia fundraiser and I was surprised to find frozen vegetables (you know, the carrot, corn, pea, lima bean combo) in them. I used the Spam and shrimp and then cole slaw mix, water chestnuts, and onion. A couple of my diner comments said that my mixture of meat to vegetables was "well balanced".

I provided both the tamarind sauce and the more commonly known sweet chili sauce. In the end everyone agreed that the tamarind was the better one. I believe it works particularly well with the saltiness of the Spam in the lumpia, which was agreed on by this comment - "The tamarind sauce with lumpia was spicy and rich and added to the salty fried goodness."

White Bean Soup Shooters

Taste - 4 Appearance - 4 Creativity - 4

This recipe I found in Food Network Magazine - even the serving of it as shooters. Again, I substituted Spam for bacon - although I did put in a lot more Spam than would have equaled the called for half strip of bacon. This soup is very flavorful thanks to the saltiness of the Spam and the good amount of fresh sage. It is garnished with a bit of goat cheese. The comments reflected an enjoyment of creaminess and flavor, but said the color was "a little off-putting" and unappetizing.

Pork Loin with Tamarind BBQ Sauce and Roasted Vegetables with Spam

Taste - 4 Appearance - 3.5 Creativity - 4

For our entree Chris chose pork loin and used the tamarind barbecue sauce from Perfect Puree. I prepared the side of roasted vegetables with Spam chunks instead of bacon. All agreed that Chris prepared a beautifully cooked, moist loin, but it needed additional sauce to dress the plate. He had doubled the recipe, but still ended up using it all on the glazing and for the chicken for our one diner. I'm sure our entree score would have gone up if we had more sauce. The pork "looked naked" and we "could have used garnish" were some of the comments.

The roasted vegetables consisted of cubed parsnips, turnips, sweet potatoes, and regular potatoes that were tossed in oil. I cubed up the Spam and threw those in there, spread the veggies on a couple of baking sheets, and the roasted at 375 for an hour. I also parboiled a pound of Brussel sprouts, tossed them in oil, and then added them to the roasting pans at the half hour mark. What I heard most was that there needed to be more parsnips and Spam. "Negligible amount of Spam in veggies" and "would have loved more Spam in the vegetables" demonstrate this.

Spam Truffles

Taste - 4.5 Appearance - 5 Creativity - 5

The Spam truffles were the "winner" of the evening. I stole the idea from Garrett over at Vanilla Garlic. He had made bacon truffles and so I just switched the Spam for bacon again. I wanted to do something a little different than just rolling them in cocoa powder and so I used edible gold to decorate them.

There were the great comments like, "Loved em. Texture and gold took it over the top!" and "Wow!" The saltiness of the fried Spam was perfect with the dark chocolate, but it was the chewiness of tiny bits of Spam that threw off people a bit. This comment sums it up: "Taste fabulous. Texture a little weird. Chocolate melts away but the Spam is still in your mouth".

Tamarind Macarons

Taste - 4.5 Appearance - 4.5 Creativity - 4.5

I had made macarons back in December for the Daring Bakers' Challenge. I decided that these light, little cookies would go well beside the Spam truffles. I made a plain macaron cookie and then made a tamarind cream. I whipped up some whipped cream and added some tamarind paste to flavor it. Although I added a full tablespoon, I think it could have used even more. To stabilize the whipped cream I also mixed in some gelatin.

There were many "very good" comments. They weren't my best macarons though. I had made them almost a week in advance and stored them in the fridge. On Friday they were too crispy when I added the filling. I took them out to get a little moisture exposure and they went too far the other way. But the diners were mostly forgiving and enjoyed them as "light and delicate".

I'll sum up this whole Spamarind dinner experience with a quote I took from one of my diner's Facebook posts when she got home.

"Just home from the Spamarind dinner. I was a little scared but the results were fabulous! My favorite, Spam lumpias with a spicy Tamarind dipping sauce. Yummy!"

P.S. Foodbuzz 24-24-24 has the other 23 participants for January. Check out the other culinary adventures that took place the same time as my Spamarind dinner.