International Meals – Estonia

Estonia was interesting.  A few, well – not exactly failures – but not exactly blazing successes, either.

After our hilariously awful attempt at locating Danish bread a few months ago, I decided to take no chances and start a sourdough a week before the meal so we could bake the bread of Estonia ourselves.  We did have a sour going last spring, when everyone and their cousin was discovering how to bake without yeast. Its name was “Oscar.” Oscar did not make it to Vancouver with us.

And then on Friday, I found this:

Estonian bread in the package.

OK, so – we’ll make a loaf, and we’ll compare it to the real stuff, and that will be interesting.

Welp – it was that.

The recipe we had certainly sounded tasty – it used pumpkin, flax, fennel, and caraway seeds, in addition to molasses, coffee, and cocoa. It uses a standard sourdough rye technique, where you let the sour get a head start on rising before you add any other ingredients that might slow it down.

For whatever reason, though – the sour was too stiff, I didn’t mix it properly, wrong temperature, or something else – the dough never really… doughed.  It was more of a wet sticky blob that never came together. Between that and the fact that it was dark brown, it looked quite unsettling.

Estonian bread dough

It was at this point that we realized that we had missed just how long of a rise time the recipe called for, and that this bread wasn’t even going to be ready for dinner.  So we’ll come back to our bread, and just eat the commercial stuff.

For our appetizer, we were going to put some sprats on the actual Estonian bread from actual Estonia.  Since that involved opening a can and putting fish on bread with butter, we managed not to screw it up.

Sprats on bread

Our main course was a porridge called mulgipuder. The essential ingredients for this dish are pearl barley and potatoes.  If you’re not familiar with pearl barley, it looks like this before it’s cooked:

Pearl Barley

That goes into a pot with some potatoes to boil for an hour.

For some versions of the dish, that would be it. We wanted to get a bit more fancy, so we went with a recipe that also called for mushrooms and smoked pork hock.  That’s right – the giant hunk o’ pig is back, after making its last appearance for Croatia.

Pork hock

We sliced off enough for this recipe, and threw the rest in the pressure cooker the next night to make a very nice bean stew.

In addition to the pork hock, we fried up some mushrooms as well.

Frying mushrooms

Once the potatoes and the barley had finished cooking, in went the immersion blender.  There’s a lot of different versions of this recipe online, and the photos range from “extremely chunky” to “whipped smooth.”  We had enough water left in the pot that we ended up on the smoother end of the spectrum.

And here’s the final spread:

Overhead view of Estonian meal

And it was pretty good!  Bread and butter with oily fish made for a very hearty appetizer.  If you like sardines, you’ll like sprats.  In fact, unless you are very, very serious about sardines, you’ll have great difficulty distinguishing them from sprats. The bread itself was quite sour, and very dense and chewy. A delicious combination, which I did not hesitate to repeat for lunch the next day.

The barley definitely gave the mulgipuder a bit more personality by itself than simple mashed potatoes, and the addition of the ham and mushrooms made for a filling and satisfying dish.  Overall, it was exactly what one would expect from the Baltics – dark bread, ham, potatoes, and fish.  And that’s great, because we like all those things!

I’ll also point out that we managed to acquire an actual Estonian beer! It wasn’t a traditional beer by any means.  Probably a lot of alcohol would scream “the Baltic states” more than a Scotch Ale aged in port wine barrels.  But oh man was it good, and it was made in Estonia (“By Finns, Dan” “Shut up, internal monologue!”) so it counts.

Now let’s talk about partial success number 2.  (Don’t worry, we’ll get back to the bread) “Partial Success” is like “Partly Sunny”, in that it can also mean “Partial Failure.” Since we were having this meal on Easter, we decided to close the meal with a traditional Estonian dessert that is often served on that holiday – Pasha.

Pasha is NOT a dish for the lactose intolerant. It involves farmer’s cheese (we used Ricotta), sour cream, butter, AND heavy cream. Those are blended with butter, sugar, eggs, and vanilla to make what is essentially a cheesecake batter.

Pasha ingredients

The mixture is simmered for a bit to thicken it, and then the fun starts.

You put cheesecloth in a sieve.  You put the sieve over a bowl.  The batter goes in the cheesecloth in a sieve over a bowl, with their paddles in a puddle in a bottle on a poodle.  Sorry.  You pour the mixture into the cheesecloth, fold the cloth over, and then put a weight on the whole assembly.

Pasha with a weight on it

In theory, this squeezes out a bunch of moisture, and when you unmold it and tip it over on a plate, you get a beautiful dome of dairy.  That’s what all the pictures show, anyway.  Possibly because the Estonian Tourist Bureau doesn’t think anyone would want to eat a dessert that ended up looking like this:

Pasha

It did NOT hold its shape, suffice to say.  And a spoon was definitely more useful than a fork would have been at attempting to consume it.

But, just as “party cloudy” can also be “partly sunny,” this partial failure also succeeded at being delicious.  I mean – it’s a cheesecake.  Even just licking the batters was delicious, and so was the final product. (And lets be honest – there wasn’t a ton of difference between the two.) We topped it with some mixed peel, and the little bit of chewiness was a welcome textural contrast too.

And now we can’t put it off any longer, so let’s find out about the bread.  After four hours, it had barely risen.  But no harm in baking it to see what happens, right?  We cranked up the oven to the specified 480 F (yowzers), heated up the Dutch oven, and baked the daylights out of it, to end up with a “loaf” that could charitably be described as not looking completely like a meteorite.

Homemade Estonian Bread
Large pockets of unmixed sourdough were definitely visible in the final bake.  I think in hindsight I should have added the water to the sour at the very beginning and mixed that in thoroughly before adding any other ingredients.  After that point, the sour just didn’t want to break up.

However… despite everything, the bread was actually pretty tasty!  It was dense and chewy, but that’s OK in a dark bread.  All the toasted seeds gave it a great crunch, and the Dutch oven mean the crust was nice and crispy.  We probably won’t try to make it again, just because we’ve had actual pets that are less work than the sour starter, but I don’t regret this loaf.

And that’s Estonia.  Next time, because of a name change just three years ago, we are off to the country formerly known as Swaziland – Eswatini!

Recipes:
Estonian Black Bread
Mulgipuder
Pasha (Estonian Easter Dessert)
Sprat Sandwich – You put sprats on buttered bread. Add chopped green onion or sour cream if you like.

International Meals – Eritrea

This week, we cross Africa to the somewhat larger, but still not terribly large, country of Eritrea. We’ve had Ethiopian food many times, and so the challenge here was to determine what makes Eritrean food distinct from Ethiopian food.

And the answer seems to be… almost nothing, that we could find.  Eritrea and Ethiopia were even the same country for a while, until Eritrea fought a war to break away and gain their independence.  They’ve had the same president since independence in 1993, possibly because they haven’t troubled themselves with little annoyances like holding elections.

We’re going to make a meat stew called Tsebhi Sega and a lentil stew called Alitcha Birsen. However, you could call them by their Ethiopian names, Sega Wat and Misir Wat, and you wouldn’t have to change the recipes at all. We DID identify one recipe which DOES seem to be uniquely Eritrean – a type of pan bread called hembesha. We decided we had to make that, plus it let us put off screwing up injera again for another few weeks. (To be clear, Eritreans DO eat injera, and it would have been totally appropriate with the rest of the meal.)

Let’s start with this bread, shall we?  The dough involves normal dough stuff – yeast, flour, butter, eggs.  But it ALSO involves cardamom, fenugreek, coriander seed, and garlic.  What’s not to like there? We’ve been binge watching “The Great British Bake Off” to pass the apocalypse, so I feel like I’ve had quite a bit of practice watching other people knead bread by hand correctly. It seemed to go OK.  No pictures – it just looked like dough.

On the other hand, after the first rise, comes the shaping, and that IS a bit unique:

Unbaked hembesha bread

Apparently the traditional way to do this is with nails, and one blogger I consulted used a ravioli cutter.  I just stabbed it a bunch of times with a fork. Another rise in the pan, and then the pan goes into the oven.  You’re supposed to cover it, but we forgot that step.  Since we’ve only done this once, we don’t know what effect that might have had, but the bread still puffed up nicely in the oven.

Baked hembesha bread

OK, on to our stews. The primary reason that there’s not much distance between Ethiopian and Eritrean food is this stuff:

Bottle of berbere seasoning

This spice blend is fundamental to both countries’ cuisines. And as far as we can tell based on our internet research, there is no uniquely Ethiopian or Eritrean version – it’s the same blend both places.

Which is not to say that every Eritrean grandmother makes her blend the same – of course not.  It’s just that if you surveyed all the Eritrean grandmothers, and all the Ethiopian grandmothers, there doesn’t seem to be anything that one group is doing systematically differently than the other one.

What’s IN Berbere, you ask? LOTS of stuff.  Typical ingredients often include, according to Wikipedia, chili peppers, coriander, garlic, ginger, basil, korarima, rue, ajwain or radhuni, nigella, and fenugreek. Now, none of the online recipes we consulted for making the stuff included the more obscure ones on that list – korarima or rue.  But that’s OK, because we already HAD a bottle from Penzeys, so we weren’t planning on making it from scratch anyway.

First up is the lentil stew. A common characteristics of the two recipes is that the ingredients are added to the pot slowly, and each batch is allowed to cook at their own pace before adding the next one.  In this case, we start by frying some ginger:

Frying ginger
When that’s all pretty and golden, you toss in just the lentils and let them fry a little bit before adding ginger, chili, and salt and pepper.  Cover with boiling water, and that’s it for the lentils. (There ARE lentils in this picture, trust us.)
Cooking lentils

Those cook for an hour, so it’s time to move over to the beef stew.  Instead of garlic, this one starts by frying onions, and I feel at this point I should mention that we just bought an electric knife sharpener.  I HAD been sharpening our chef’s knife using a water stone, and I didn’t realize JUST how crap my sharpening skills were until I finally sharpened the thing properly.

My sharpening skills are CRAP, y’all.  Unless you’re prepared to spend years mastering the craft with a water stone, get yourself a sharpening machine.  The difference was miraculous.  Cutting the aforementioned onions was absolutely effortless.  And I didn’t even lacerate myself this time.

Ahem.  There was a reason we ordered the sharpener, after all.

Moving on.

In addition to berbere, the other distinctive ingredient in this stew is tegelese tesmi, or seasoned clarified butter.  Prior to starting these recipes, we cooked a whole pile of onions and garlic in some butter, and then I did a poor job of filtering out the solids.  Still – even if it’s not done perfectly, it’s onion and garlic flavored butter – nothing not to like.

So into the onions went some butter and a LOT of berbere, and then the onions cooked down even more.

Onions cooking

The long, long cook time on these onions really had an amazing effect – even though berbere is pretty firey, after 20 minutes of cooking, you could easily detect the sweet notes of the caramelization coming off the wok.

Wait – why are we using a wok here? Well, we only have two large frying pans, and at this point, one’s got the lentils and the other is in the oven with the bread. So wok it is.

Once the onions were ready, they were joined by some tomatoes, ginger, and garlic, and THAT was given some time to cook down as well.  Finally, in went the meat.  The site we got these recipes from is definitely very knowledgeable about Eritrean culture, but is somewhat unevenly translated.  The recipe calls for “beef or lamb, shredded”, and the recipe title is “Spicy minced meat.”  As such, we decided to go with ground beef rather than the chopped beef cubes, which we have seen more commonly at restaurants.

While the stews were finishing up, I made coffee. Coffee is an incredibly crucial part of Ethiopian and Eritrean culture.  There are ceremonies. It is often prepared with the beans being not only ground but ROASTED for each individual meal.

THAT sure wasn’t going to happen.

Instead, I used the Kylo Ren of coffee apparatus – an Aeropress.  At least the beans were from east Africa.

Coffee preparation equipment.

A few weeks ago, we showed off Leigh’s “PhDemon” glass from Flint Roller Derby, so here’s my “Adam Smasher” mug from Kalamazoo’s team.

After an hour, our kitchen smelled amazing and it was time to eat!

Eritrean Meal

And the verdict? Stunningly good.  We already knew we loved Ethiopian food, and this iteration did absolutely nothing to change our minds. (There was a reason we already had that jar of berbere, after all!) The lentils and beef stews were both spicy and delicious. You could taste the spices in the bread without their being overpowering, and the texture was soft and chewy, perfect for soaking up the juices.  These are definitely recipes to come back to.

So, nice job, Eritrea!  You make not like Ethiopia much, but your cuisine definitely matches everything we like about theirs.

Next time, we head back to Europe to visit Estonia!

Recipes:
This is an entire page of recipes from what seems to be an the web page of a Belgian(?) who goes to Eritrea a lot? I think? You can draw your own conclusions.

International Meals – Equatorial Guinea

There are no fewer than four “Guinea” countries in the world: Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Papua New Guinea.  Why?

Imperialism!  Also racism.

“Guinea” was the English form of the Portuguese word for the region on the west side of Africa.  No one’s really sure where THAT word came from..  But thanks to colonialism, there was a Portuguese Guinea, a Spanish Guinea, French Guinea, and even a German Guinea.

Those became, respectively, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, and Togo plus bits of Cameroon.  But what about Papua New Guinea, which is in (checks notes) not Africa? Welp, some super racist Spanish explorer decided that the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea looked like west Africans, and decided to give it the same name.  Great.

The subject of today’s meal, Equatorial Guinea, is a bit geographically improbable.

Map of Equatorial Guinea

Most of the country is on land, except for two islands, which are nowhere near each other, and in fact, have an entirely different country separating them. The capital of the country, Malabo, is located on the northern island.  Having your capital off on an island away from most of your landmass?  What a silly idea.  *mumbles in British Columbia*

Equatorial Guinea is the only independent country in Africa which is majority Spanish speaking. It’s also, in a continent full of governments left in bad shape by colonialism, one of the worst offenders in terms of human rights.  As in so many cases, the presence of substantial oil reserves has not helped the democracy situation much.  Heck – look at Texas.

But enough politics.  What about the food?  Well, the extended riff on politics and geography is going to help cover the fact that our Equatorial Guinean meal consisted of probably the simplest dish to make we’ve done so far, and so this entry is going to be pretty darn short.  The dish in question is a fish stew called “Pick a Pepper Soup.”

First – a trip back to our spice hookup for another new ingredient. Grains of Paradise.  These things are also known as Guinea Pepper, so that’s a good sign, right?  Except that Guinea Pepper is strictly speaking some OTHER random spice, also known as  “Grains of Selim.”  So we’ll stick with Grains of Paradise.

Grains of Paradise

These are the seeds of a plant closely related to ginger and cardamom. You treat them like you would black pepper – dump them in a spice grinder or mortar, and mash them up to make a powder.

Ground grains of paradise.

Then, you put them and literally every other ingredient in the pot all at once.

Stew ingredients
And you cook it for an hour.  After an hour, you put in a tiny, tiny, amount of oil, then cook it for another five minutes.  I have absolutely no idea why.  And that’s it.  That’s the whole recipe.

Here it is cooking:

Equatorial Guinean Stew Cooking

And here it is on the table, with a decidedly non-Guinean beer.

Equatorial Guinean Stew on the table.

And that’s it.  Just, dump it all in the pot, cook it all together, done.

So how does it taste?  Delicious, actually!  In addition to the Grains of Paradise, the stew also contains cayenne pepper, a scotch bonnet pepper, and black pepper, so it’s got some bite to it.  The snapper was firm enough to hold up to the seasoning and cooking time, and the vegetables soaked up the flavors nicely.

We’re definitely going to be looking for more ways to use the rest of this jar of Grains of Paradise.  However, I DON’T think Equatorial Guinea is going to be at the top of the destination list when *waves vaguely at everything* ends.

Next up, we remain in Africa, but cross to the east side to visit Eritrea.

Recipe:
Pick a Pepper Soup

International Meals – El Salvador

El Salvador… could have gone better.  It was fine, but certainly not our best effort.  It’s unclear to me whether that’s a result of not picking the best recipes, or not executing them well.  Y’all can judge for yourselves as we go along.

We’ve actually had Salvadoran food before, and it was a no-brainer to choose their best known culinary export – Pupusas. Pupusas are somewhere between a tamale and a stuffed pancake – they’re a griddled disk made from corn meal with a savory filling.  They’re great if done well.  To accompany the Pupsas, we made a side salad/topping called curtido, as well as horchata and a quesadilla.

“Ah ha!”, you may be thinking, “I am familiar with both of those last two.”  Well, if you’re familiar with the Mexican versions, the Salvadoran ones are just a bit and extremely different, respectively.

To start, I went to the Hispanic grocery store near my office, where they were quite helpful, but also pointed out that they had pupusas and Salvadoran horchata mix ready made, and was I sure I really wanted to try to do both from scratch?

Sure – how hard can it be?  After all horchata is just flavored sugar rice milk, right?

No, that’s Mexican horchata.  Salvadoran horchata uses juuuuust a few more ingredients.

Horchata ingredients

No seriously. From upper left, that’s coriander seed, rice, cinnamon, whole nutmeg, sesame seeds, morro seeds, pumpkin seeds, allspice berries, cocoa beans, and peanuts. (The little red tupperware is just more sesame seeds.)

Every single one of these ingredients except the cinnamon powder has to be toasted, and toasted one at a time, because they all cook differently. Fortunately, the peanuts and sesame seeds can be purchased already toasted. But one at a time, into the wok went coriander, nutmeg, allspice, rice, pumpkin seeds, and morro seeds.

“What the hell are morro seeds?”, I hear you asking.  Apparently, they are a seed that has no business existing any more, because they can only germinate if a large animal breaks their fruit open, and there are no longer any native animals capable of doing so.  Horses and humans are the morro’s best friend at this point.

And finally, we come to the cocoa beans.  Have you ever wondered why we don’t make chocolate at home from scratch?  Well, there’s a reason.  First, the beans have to be roasted like coffee beans.  And like coffee beans, there’s a thin margin between raw and burnt

The good news is that UNLIKE coffee beans, the fumes are a lot less nasty if you try to roast them in your oven.  Once you’ve done that, however, you’re still faced with the problem that the husk is inedible.  So you put the beans in a plastic bag and smash them a bit:

Cocoa beans.

Then you have to somehow separate the chaff from the tasty center bit.  The recommended tool for this job for home chefs appears to be a hair dryer, I kid you not.

Hair dryer and cocoa beans.

I’m pretty sure quite a bit of actual chocolate ended up on our patio, but after a while, we had a bowl of probably more-or-less pure cocoa nibs.

Cocoa Nibs

Note that if you actually want to make CHOCOLATE from this point, there are still like six more steps.  I actually did make a couple of very basic truffles with the extra beans, but it just drove home that no, making chocolate from scratch is not a good choice.

Now that we finally had all of our ingredients ready, everything went into the food processor to make a powder.  It made a LOT of powder. Not for the first time this evening, the recipe made a LOT more of the thing than claimed.  At 1 tablespoon per serving, this is way more than 15 servings of horchata powder.

Horchata powder

To actually MAKE the horchata, you put the powder in cold milk with some sugar and vanilla, let it soak for a while, then strain out the solids through a cheesecloth. (Ph.Demon mug courtesy of Flint Roller Derby.)

Horchata soaking

We discovered later on that a French press works much more easily than the cheesecloth.  Good thing, because we have A METRIC TON of horchata mix.  (It has to be metric – we’re in Canada.)

Backing up a bit in time, let’s talk about the curtido, which we made the night before.  It’s basically a tangy coleslaw made with cabbage and vinegar.  What distinguishes the Salvadoran version, according to most of the sources we consulted, is the addition of quite a bit of radish.  The fact that the particular recipe we were using DIDN’T call for radish might have been a red flag.  We added some in anyway.

Veggies for Cortido

Don’t those look pretty?  The final product looked good too, although I suspect it could have used a LOT more vinegar than the recipe called for.

Curtido 

OK, we can’t put this off any more – what about the actual pupsas? The method isn’t complicated.  Brown some pork butt with a mix of seasonings, braise it for a bit in some water, then cook the water off until the pork turns crisp.

Cooked pork 

Then, to make a filling, toss the pork in the food processor with tomatoes, onions, and green pepper.  The dough is even simpler – instant masa harina (corn flour) and some water.  Mix into balls, and you’re ready to cook.

Pupusa dough and filling.

And here’s where we went wrong. Or the recipe went wrong.  Or something.  The pupusas I remember having in restaurants were hearty items five or so inches across.

This recipe does NOT make enough dough for anything that substantial. And it makes waaaaay more filling than could possibly fill the amount of dough it does make.  But OK, let’s do the best we can.  You flatten the dough, put some filling in the middle, bring the dough over to surround the filling, then flatten it out again.

Not a single one of our pupusas fully enclosed the filling.  They were, to put it politely… rustic.

Pupusas cooking.

Still – they DID cook up nice and brown, with the small dark spots you expect.

And so this was our meal:

Salvadoran meal

Not very much pupusas, a MOUNTAIN of curtido, and a glass of horchata.

And as I said at the outset, the pupusas were… fine.  They tasted like pupusas.  They just didn’t necessarily taste like GOOD pupusas. Certainly more salt might have helped, but more seasoning in general would have probably been welcome.  The curtido was nice and crisp, but the vinegar to veggies ratio also seemed a bit off.

Fun fact: it turns out that one of the most common condiments in El Salvador is, for some reason, Worcestershire sauce, which is often referred to as “Salsa Inglés,” or “English Sauce.”  Not having any of that, I slopped some Costa Rican “Salsa Lizano” on my pupusas, and that was delicious.  Maybe not authentic, but delicious.

The best part was the horchata.  The flavor was subtle, but definitely present, and more complex than the Mexican version.

Wait a minute – didn’t I say we made a quesadilla?  Where was that?

It turns out in El Salvador, a quesadilla is a dessert. Back at the Mexican grocer, I showed the recipe to one of the employees.  It said that Salvadoran cheese is very hard to find outside of the country, and suggested Parmesan.  “Parmesan?” I thought?  Surely one of these Mexican cheeses would be a better fit?

“Nope,” confirmed the clerk.  “You’re better off with Parmesan.”

OK, Parmesan it is.  Into some milk it went to soak while I separated some eggs, screwed up the last one, got yolk in the whites, tried to beat them anyway, realized that you REALLY CAN’T beat egg whites with fat in them, realized I had used the last 4 eggs, and sent Leigh off to the store to get some more.

Ahem.

Egg whites correctly separated and whipped up, from this point, you’re just making a cake; dry ingredients in one bowl, wet in another.  Eggs, milk, butter, cinnamon, rice (!) flour, and baking powder. Mix it all together, trying not to knock the air back out of the egg whites.

Quesadilla batter

And grated Parmesan.  Unusual, to say the least.  After baking, the quesadilla had a lovely color.

Baked Salvadoran Quesadilla

And was very spongy and tasty.  It was DEFINITELY a new sensation getting chewy bits of Parmesan cheese in a sponge cake, but honestly, it worked.  Good thing, too, because we’re going to be eating this thing for a week.

Quesadilla interior.

And that’s El Salvador.  I have to say that we were a little disappointed.  We’ve had Salvadoran food in restaurants before, and this just didn’t live up to it.  I don’t know if it was a poor choice of recipes, ineptitude on our part (likely), or a combination of the two, but the whole meal seemed somewhat under seasoned.

Good thing we have a MOUNTAIN of leftovers.  Actually, that IS a good thing – leftovers are always a plus, and we still have a nearly full jar of Salsa Lizano, after all!

Next time, we’re off to Equatorial Guinea, to start a run where 4 of the next 5 countries will be African.  Stay tuned!

Recipes:
Salvadoran Pupusas de Chicharron with Curtido (This is the one we used, but I’m guessing you can do better.)
Salvadoran Horchata (Do NOT make this.  Just buy the premade powder.  Seriously. That is what actual Salvadorans in El Salvador do.)
Salvadoran Quesadilla 

PS – if you buy these chips at the Mexican grocer and try to eat them on the way home, be forewarned that even if you eat a lot of spicy foods, and love spicy foods, these things are still really, really spicy. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Spicy Chips

International Meals – Egypt

This week we visit one of the oldest continuous civilizations in the world – Egypt.  But what is Egyptian food like?  Turns out that it’s got a lot in common with other Mediterranean cuisines, like that of more familiar Lebanon.  However, in part due to the influence of the Coptic Christian community, there’s a higher proportion of vegetarian dishes.

The dish we picked is called Koshari. Alternately spelled Kushari or Koshary, it is essentially a vegan garbage plate.  While there are many variations, the basic idea is a huge pile of rice, noodles, and legumes, topped with several kinds of sauce.

None of the individual elements here are hard – the hard part is getting them all done without running out of dishes!

So, let’s get the rice and chick peas going on the counter.

Rice cooker and instant pot.

And the lentils, fried vermicelli, and boiled ditalini pasta going on the stove.

Noodles, lentils, and pasta water.

If we’ve fried spaghetti before, I don’t remember it. However, the end product turned out with the beautiful range of colors from light to dark that I remember from noodles served at Lebanese restaurants I’ve been to.

Only three more pots to go!  There’s two different sauces – a tomato and vinegar sauce, (not pictured) and a cumin garlic sauce.

Cumin garlic sauce

And if the phrase “cumin garlic sauce” doesn’t make you prick up your ears, then it should.  We’ve mostly encountered cumin incorporated into dishes as a whole, rather than condiments, but it really works.

One last thing to go – our old nemesis, deep frying.

Frying onions

Experienced deep fryers will know that this is way too many onions for this much oil.  (Or alternately too little oil for this many onions)  So they didn’t actually get all that crisp.  But we were too hungry to fry in small batches, and too out of oil to put any more in.

That accomplished, it’s time to gaze at our table of stuff, and begin the final assembly.

Egypt is majority Muslim, so the beer isn’t terribly authentic, but that’s OK, we didn’t pour it into the dish.

What we DID do, is pack our various element into bowls and then invert them.  According to the photos with the recipe, you should get a lovely, layered dome of rice and pasta.

Messy pile of food.

Nailed it.

Joking aside, a healthy splash of the two sauces, and this was genuinely delicious.  The lentils, in particular, had a fantastic flavor, even with relatively humble seasoning.

Koshary

So what’s for dessert?  Ali’s Mom, that’s what.

No seriously, the dish is called Om Ali, or “Ali’s Mother”.  The legend behind the name dates to the 12th century Ayyubid dynasty, or, you know, the day before yesterday on the scale of Egypt’s ludicrously long past.  The legend says after a caliph died, his second wife had his first wife, (Om Ali) murdered, and then commissioned a fantastic dessert to celebrate the occasion of the murder.  Neat, huh? Yeesh.

At any rate, the dessert is basically a bread pudding.  You puff up some puff pastry, then pour milk and walnuts over it and let it soak for a bit.

Puff pastry and walnut

Once it’s soaked in, you top it with whipped cream, stick it under the broiler, and then DO NOT TRUST the cooking time in the recipe, or else you get this.

Burned bread pudding.

Fortunately, it was equivalent to burned marshmallow – you pick the black bits off, and the rest is sweet and gooey and delicious:

Om Ali

You know I HAVE to say it, right?  There is literally no way I’m NOT going to say it.

Ali’s mom has got it going on.

Sorry.

Well – Egypt was tasty, and as our second vegan main dish, something to remember for future guests!  Next week, the first cuisine for a bit where we’ve been to the restaurants, and know exactly what we’re making – El Salvador!

Recipes:
Koshari
Om Ali

International Meals – Ecuador

This week, we visit the equatorial country of – wait for it – Ecuador. Ecuador gained its independence from Spain in the general wave of independence movements in Latin America in the early 1800s.  If you’re interested in learning about the period in detail, Mike Duncan’s “Revolutions” podcast did an entire series on it.  Highly recommended.

Ecuador has a number of distinct regions, from the Andes mountains to the coast, and out to the Galapagos islands.  We will NOT be preparing Guinea pig from the former, or endangered tortoise from the latter.  So how about a nice fish stew?

Specifically, we decided to make Encebollado – a fish stew topped with pickled onions.  In fact, the name literally means “in onions.” In addition to onions, the stew is frequently made with our old friend, cassava, or yuca root.  Ah, cassava – source of the flour for so MANY bland starch pastes we haven’t succeeded in imparting much flavor to.  Perhaps it will be better whole?

Well, that means we have to FIND one.  And, failing to learn my lesson from our hunt for chayote, I again drove all over Vancouver looking for it, only to discover that the ONLY store that had it was the Sav On Foods two blocks from our house.   Well, whatever, at least I found one.  I forgot to take a picture of it whole, but here it is mid-peel:

Yuca root

It’s actually not a tough dish to make, once you have the stuffs.  First, you make another sofrito by sweating onions and tomatoes in olive oil.  No garlic in this one.

Ecuadoran sofrito
Once the onions are nice and soft, you toss in some water, cilantro, and spices, and simmer it for a bit to make a broth.  And into that broth goes a lovely hunk of tuna to poach.
Poaching tuna

You can tell this is an action shot, because it’s got a hand.

Once the tuna is cooked, you pull it back out of the liquid and cook your veggies, which in our case were the aforementioned cassava and some corn on the cob.

Veggies stewing

Meanwhile, we need those “pickled” onions for the topping.  Whether or not you actually consider these pickled depends on your definition of the term – they’re soaked in lemon juice, olive oil, and salt for a bit to soak up the flavor.

Lemons and onions 

As a side dish, we decided to double down on the cassava, and make small cheese breads with cassava flour.  Because every OTHER thing we’ve made with cassava flour has been so great, right?

Then again, this recipe suspiciously resembles the pao de queijo from our Brazil episode, and those were absolutely delicious. So lets see what happens.

Flour, butter, eggs, baking soda, mozzarella cheese, blend.

Cheese bread dough

The dough turned out VERY dry when we followed the proportions in the recipe.  Like, “not so much dough as sand” dry.  So we kept adding water until it finally came together. Once together, the dough was rolled into small balls for cooking.

Uncooked cheese bread

The indicated cooking method was actually not one I’d used before.  You preheat the oven to “Volcano Heat” (500 F), but once it’s there, you stick the buns in and turn on the BROILER.  So they’re in a rippingly hot oven, but only being cooked directly from one side.

The results certainly looked tasty, with a nice brown on top.

Cooked cheese bread.

And with that, it was time to put the tuna in the stew, top it with the pickled onions, and dig in!

Ecuadoran meal

And it turns out the stew was another winner!  The tuna was cooked perfectly, the broth was delicious, with just the right amount of spice, and the acidity from the topping complemented everything beautifully.  And the cassava root rose all the way up to the level of “tolerable.”  It soaked up all the other flavors, and was a perfectly adequate means of conveying pickled onions to your mouth.  The cheese breads weren’t quite as amazing as their Brazilian cousins, but they were still quite tasty.  I mean – cheese bread.  What’s not to like?

Ecuador – we salute you.  Your soup is tasty, and you have managed to make cassava have a flavor.  Next time – Egypt!

Recipes:
Encebollado (Ecuadoran Fish Stew)
Pan de yuca

International Meals – East Timor

Welcome to the “E”s!  Since we filed “Ivory Coast” under “Côte d’Ivoire,” we will now be cooking Timor-Leste as our first “E” country.  Because why not?

East Timor is one of the newer sovereign countries in the world, having only been independent since 2002.  They were a Portuguese colony until 1975, and when the Portuguese bowed out, Indonesia took over for a bit.  So the cuisine is kind of a mix. It has a lot of similarities to Indonesian food, but also feijoada like we made for Brazil is a thing.

Doing the research to pick a recipe for this week, we discovered a number of sources claiming that the national dish is Ikan Pepes, or fish grilled in banana leaves.  However, while there were a number of recipes floating around for this, none of them gave much in the way of sources.  Another possibility would have been Batar Daan, which is a vegetable dish of corn, mung beans, and pumpkin.

However, we ran across a recipe in the Wall Street Journal, of all places, that described the author walking around Dili (the Timorese capital) picking up ingredients to make Tukir Na’an Karau, a beef stew that sounded delicious and inarguably authentic.

First step, as always, was to procure ingredients.  We figured an Indonesian grocer would be the best place to start, so we were off to find “Auntie Grace’s”. And “find” is right – it turned out to be a second floor walkup in the middle of an industrial park!  But it was a cheerly little one room store with a very friendly couple and shelves packed with esoteric ingredients and Indonesian snacks.  However, while they DID know what I was talking about, they didn’t have the ingredient we had come for: Long Pepper.

Long Pepper

That took two more stops, but we did finally find it. (At a touristy spice shop back on Granville Island, oddly enough.) Definitely a unique component – long pepper is a bit like black pepper, but with notes of menthol, Sichuan peppercorn, coriander, and … tobacco? But in the good way, if that’s possible.

At any rate, it turns out that driving all over Vancouver was the hard part of this recipe, and cooking it was the FUN part!  Why?

HULK SMASH!

First, let’s start with what the French refer to as Le Petit Smash (Note: not actually true) and grind up some spices in our brand new mortar and pestle, which we bought at the SECOND stop while driving all over Vancouver looking for long pepper.

Mortar and Pestle

We’d been meaning to get a bigger one forever, and it makes a huge difference over the little dinky one we had been using.  But that’s just the WARMUP smash.

This recipe calls for lemongrass.  But not chopped lemongrass, oh no.  This recipe calls for the lemongrass to be beaten into submission with a blunt object (we used a Pyrex measuring cup) and tied into knots.

Lemongrass

That accomplished, the lemongrass is tossed in with cubed chuck steak, kaffir lime leaves, the toasted crushed spices, and some salt.

Marinating beef

Oddly, this marinade contains no liquid, so you just mix everything up, and let the flavors sort of… waft? … into the beef.  Once it’s had a chance to absorb the flavor, it’s almost time to star cooking, but first:

MOAR SMASH!

Turmeric and Ginger

It really is a very therapeutic recipe. It is also worth mentioning that those orange strips are NOT carrots – they’re turmeric.  As such, after I finished peeling them and smashing them into submission, my hands looked like I’d murdered a canary with my bare hands.  That cutting board is never going to be NOT yellow again.

But from this point forward, the work is basically done.  You sweat your aromatics a bit…

Aromatics sweating

…then toss in the beef and let it cook forever. Half an hour in, you put in some tamarind. An hour or so later, once it’s falling apart, you take the lid off to cook off most of the liquid, then add some coconut cream to get a rich, indulgent stew that has an INSANELY tempting aroma.

Finished stew

Fish out the giant pieces of ginger and lemongrass, and it’s time to eat!

Timorese Beef Stew

Oh. My. Goodness.

Discovering recipes like this is WHY we do this. It is impossible to describe just how much flavor was packed into this curry.  And the beef was basically DISSOLVING, it was cooked so well.   It is absolutely a shame that the recipe is stuck behind the WSJ paywall, but it’s worth finding someone with access to get yourself a copy, particularly if you can source the ingredients.

We did also make a dessert which, while not UNIQUE to East Timor, is certainly eaten there – sticky rice in caramelized sugar and coconut sauce.  We used the dry caramelization method, which is literally just dumping a pile sugar in a wok, and cooking it until it turns to caramel sauce.

Sugar in a wok.

For the longest time, the sugar just sat there, and then we poked it and realized it had turned from a big pile of sugar to a thin layer of sugar sitting on a layer of delicious caramel.  We tossed in tome coconut milk, which caused it to solidify instantly.

Caramel in coconut milk.

But that’s OK – we didn’t actually want either a liquid caramel OR a solid one – we just wanted caramelized sugar dissolved in coconut milk.  And that’s what we got.  Once everything had dissolved, we dumped in what didn’t SEEM like quite enough cooked sticky rice.  But it turns out sticky rice will eagerly drink as much sugar milk as you give it, and the resulting dessert was heavenly.

Sticky rice dessert

The resulting breakfast was ALSO heavenly.

So – East Timor.  For being a young country,  you have a fantastic curry.  There is absolutely zero chance we will not be bringing this one back out at some point.  Next up, a country that inarguably starts with “E”, (instead of arguably, like this one) Ecuador!

Recipes:
Tukir Na-an Karau (Timorese Spice-Braised Beef) (Wall Street Journal Paywall)
Coconut Glutinous Rice Dessert

International Meals – Dominican Republic

Last week we made our best guess at a meal favored by DomiNEEcans, so this week, let’s see what we can manage for the DoMInicans, shall we?  The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, the only island in the Caribbean to be split between two countries.  (We are NOT getting into Guantanamo Bay right now.) It’s been an independent country since the 1860s, although that hasn’t stopped the US from doing lots of awful things to it since then.

There’s lots of resources for Dominican food online, and we chose to make the country’s national lunch dish “La Bandera.”  Literally translated as “The Flag,” this dish features rice, beans, and some sort of meat stew representing the three colors of the Dominican flag.  The rice represents white.  The beans represent red. The third color in the Dominican flag is blue.

Um.

There’s lots of handwaving on this point on the web:

“…and – with a splash of poetic and culinary license here – the meat – usually chicken or beef – represents the third color.

How does La Bandera represent the red, white, and blue? The meat represents the blue in the flag, which stands for liberty. As you may have guessed, the rice means white, which signifies salvation. The red beans represent the red or the blood of heroes.

Red beans, white rice and a side of blue meat, usually chicken or beef. It’s a simple dish beloved by many.

We’re going to do our best here to ensure that blue remains a FIGURATIVE attribute of the meat portion of this dish.

So let’s get started.  We’ve chosen to go with chicken for our stew, but beef would also be appropriate. The chicken is first marinated with a blend of onions, garlic, lime juice, and seasonings  Whole chicken parts on the bone would probably be more authentic, (as well as including the more challenging bits) but we decided to lazy out this time and just get boneless breasts.

Chicken Marinating

After a soak in the fridge, you brown a little sugar in oil in the pot.  This didn’t seem to do much at first, since it wasn’t that much sugar.  We picked the chicken parts out of the marinade, leaving the vegetables behind, seared the meat a bit, and then left it to braise for 15 minutes.

Seared Chicken

You’re supposed to keep putting in just enough water so it doesn’t burn. Like, a tablespoon at a time.  We mostly kept an eye on it, but with the lid closed, it was easy to miss that it had boiled off until it started to smell a little burny at 15 minutes.  I quickly poured in some more water….

…and that’s when the goddamned alchemy happened.  After fifteen minutes of braising, the chicken was the same color as the picture above.  Pour in half a cup of water at that point, and everything hissed, and suddenly:

Browned Chicken

It literally turned that color in under five seconds.  I think we had caught it just in time, so that the sugar was cooking on the bottom of the pot, but hadn’t quite burned. Just witchcraft, I tell you.

Well, with that, it was time to toss in our marinade vegetables, along with some friends, and let the whole thing cook down a bit more with some tomato sauce.

Vegetables in the pot with the chicken

So now lets jump back a bit in time and talk about the beans, which we were cooking at the same time.  (Which may have been how the chicken got away from us.)  We decided to use pinto beans, although pigeon peas are apparently also quite common. The Instant Pot once again proved miraculous for its bean-cooking abilities.  We would definitely consume fewer legumes without some sort of pressure cooker.

The recipe for this one is a pretty standard stewed beans procedure: sweat some aromatics, then dump in the beans with their water, and let them boil until soft.

Beans stewing

Seasonings were onion, garlic, thyme, cilantro, and a new one on us: celery leaves rather than stalks.  It didn’t seem to really add much one way or the other.

Finally, we were assured that this meal was always accompanied by a salad, so we made a quick one with cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions.  Here’s the whole package, with some fresh Vancouver snow to really accentuate the tropical meal.

Dominican Republic Meal

And it was pretty tasty!  The chicken, in particular, had a LOVELY flavor from the caramelized sugar.  The beans were fine, if not terribly exciting.  However, this raises a point – when we make these meals, we try not to put in a lot of extra condiments on the first bash through, so we can appreciate the food directly.  BUT – is that authentic?  Would Dominicans be donking hot sauce into these beans?  I honestly don’t know.

I can GUARANTEE that a heaping teaspoon of Spicy Chili Crisp is NOT authentic, but when we used it in the leftovers the next day, it sure did work.  By the way, if you haven’t already, get you some Spicy Chili Crisp.  Good stuff.

Finally, it was time for dessert.  We decided to go with an Arepa, or cornmeal cake.  The Dominican version we chose used cornmeal, coconut and regular milk, brown sugar, and raisins.  No raising agents at all, so a very dense bake.  It is apparently often baked in a pot with a rounded bottom, to give a dome shape when turned out.  We used a ceramic baking dish we had handy.

Baked Arepa

And turned out, it looked pretty good.  It was VERY tasty, especially with coffee or hot chocolate to cut the richness.  Since the lunch was very filling, we waited a few hours to cut a few slices.

Arepa out of the pot.

This was delicious, and served well as both breakfast and snack for the next several days, given that there are only the two of us.

So, Dominican Republic – nice job!  We appreciate your food, and the incredible color changing stew.

And that completes the “D”s!  Next week, we will PROBABLY do the southeast Asian country of East Timor, unless we decide to file that one under “T”.  Never a dull moment!

Recipes:
La Bandera Dominica
Dominican Arepa

International Meals – Dominica

Lets get this out of the way right off the bat – Dominica is NOT the Dominican Republic.  People from the former are DomiNIcans, and from the latter are DoMINicans. We’ll do the Dominican Republic next week, but this week we are at the much smaller country of Dominica. Dominica was colonized by first the French, and then the British, and has been independent since the late 1970s.

Until recently, the national dish of Dominica was “mountain chicken.”  And by “chicken” they mean “frog.”  Apparently these frogs were so a) easy to catch and b) tasty, that they are now critically endangered.

So we’re not making that.

The NEW national dish of Dominica is Callaloo soup.  Callaloo is a term used all over the Caribbean.  It always refers to a leafy vegetable, but past that, what it ACTUALLY refers to can vary. In Jamaica, you’re probably getting amaranth leaves.  Puerto Rico, likely Xanthosoma.  And in Dominca, if you order callaloo, the most likely possibility is dasheen, or Taro leaves.  Which are quite toxic if not fully cooked.  So even though we could probably get them, we decided to go with spinach.

Callaloo from Dominica (the term can refer to either the leaves or the soup) often contains some sort of salted meat or seafood.  We found a recipe that substitutes Dungeness crabs for the local Caribbean ones, and since those can be had easily in Vancouver, a trip to Lobsterman was in order.

Say hello to my little friends:

Bucket 'o crabs

These are actually the little friends of the person ahead of me in line – I only bought two, because these suckers are pricey. We had the store murder them for us, since it was simpler, and we planned on cooking them within an hour of getting them home.  A quick toss in the steamer, and we had this:

Steamed crabs

I grew up in Baltimore – steamed crabs are a genetic predisposition.  It’s quite weird to me to be making crab in my kitchen as part of another dish, rather than picking it apart at a picnic table covered in newspaper.  That said…

…I grew in Baltimore.  I know how to pick crab.

Picking crab

I’m not as fast as the pros, but I get the job done.

To make the stew itself, you start by sautéing aromatics, including celery.  The recipe calls for a tablespoon of celery.  Good thing you can’t buy it in quantities smaller than a whole bunch.

Celery

Once the aromatics are soft, you toss in the spinach, some coconut milk and water, and let everything wilt down.

Spinach going into the pot

Once it’s wilted a bit, you give everything a zap with the immersion blender to get it smooth, and a lovely green color.  You also toss in a bunch of thyme, salt, pepper, a Scotch bonnet pepper, the crab, and the dumplings.

Stew with thyme and pepper

Dumplings, you ask?  When did you make dumplings?

Oh right – in addition to crab and vegetables, this stew also typically contains simple flour-and-water dumplings, cooked right in the broth. Ours were messy, and a bit too large.

Dumplings before cooking

But they are dumplings, and when we cooked them, they dumpled.

To go with the stew, we made Mastiff bread, which is a simple yeast raised bread that uses shortening for fat.  It’s not dissimilar from the Cuban bread we made a few weeks ago with lard.  The picture in the recipe we used showed lots of little round buns with elaborate shapes carved on them.  So we made round buns with SIMPLE slashes in the top.  (shown here before baking)

Buns before cooking

Turns out that the more common shape for a Mastiff, or “dollar bread” in Dominica would be cigar shaped, but these came out fine and were tasty.

An interminable 45 minutes later, the bread was cooked, the stew was ready, and the quick mango smoothies we whipped up were on the table.  And since this was LUNCH, the light is substantially better than our usually pictures.  Isn’t this gorgeous?

Dominican meal

It was absolutely DELICIOUS, too.  If you come to our house, this is one of the international meals you should ask us to recreate, because this soup is fantastic.  It’s rich with crab and coconut milk, spicy from the black and hot pepper, and the spinach gives it a great vegetable freshness.  It was perfect for mopping up with the soft bread.

This was an excellent meal. Hands down in the top tier of our efforts so far. And believe it or not, we only have one more “D” country to go.  Next week, we hop over from the island of the Dominicans to the island of the Dominicans, and then it’s on to the “E”s!

Recipes:
Dominican Callaloo Soup
Mastiff Bread

International Meals – Djibouti

Sometimes, this blog has long stories about the hunt for ingredients, or the problems of authenticity and colonialism, or moving to a foreign country during the apocalypse.

And sometimes we just make a straightforward recipe or two with readily available ingredients.

Our biggest concern coming into this week is that we have four countries coming up soon that are all in fairly close geographic proximity: Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, and that it might prove challenging to differentiate them.  But – it turns out that each one has an acknowledged national dish, and, miracles and wonders, they are not even tiny variants of the SAME dish.  They also don’t seem to involve endangered species.  That’s NEXT week…

Djibouti is a small country in East Africa at the exit of the Red Sea.  Its present borders were established when France decided it needed a way to keep an eye on the Suez canal, and did the imperialism thing.  The country has been independent since 1977.

Less important than the political borders, however, is the fact that Djibouti is a seaport with easy access to Africa, India, and the Middle East, and the cuisine combines all of those influences.  The acknowledged national dish is a lamb and rice dish named Skoudehkaris, which bears a strong resemblance to an Indian biryani.

The cooking is pretty simple – first brown the lamb in a heavy pot.

Lamb going into the pot

Once it’s seared, add some onions, garlic, tomatoes and spices.

Lamb with onions and spices

This spices in this case are a pretty standard mix of “c” spices – cinnamon, cloves, cayenne, cardamom, and cumin.  There are different versions of this recipe online, and we kinda took an average between them.  One of the question marks was whether to cook it on the stovetop or put the pot in the oven.  We opted for the oven so we could use the stovetop to make bread. Everything got covered with water, and in it went.

So… bread.  The traditional Ethiopian bread is injera, which is a delicious sour, spongy flatbread.  We have also failed miserably every time we’ve tried to make it.  Fortunately, Djiboutian breads tend to be closer to the Sudanese laxoox style than the Ethiopian style, meaning they are slightly thicker, and use millet or sorghum flour instead of teff.

Millet and whole wheat flour

The recipe we used called for a mix of millet flour, whole wheat flour, and regular flour.  Since we already have WAY too many types of specialty flour cluttering up the cabinet, I was happy to discover that our local grocer had whole millet in the bulk section, so we just made our OWN damn flour, in a nice small quantity.

The flour gets mixed with yeast and left to rise overnight, until it’s nice and bubbly.

Bubbly batter.

This is definitely much closer to a batter than a dough.  It’s a little thicker than pancake batter, but not much.  The hard part was getting it to achieve the nice dry texture on one side without burning on the other side.  We had… mixed success at this.  Leigh definitely did better than I did.

Laxoox in progress

This is a pretty good “in progress” shot – the texture is bubbly, which is right, but you can see some of the dough is still raw.

As we were finishing up the flatbreads, the stew came out of the oven.  Unlike most Indian biryani recipes, this recipe does NOT call for precooking the rice at all – the raw rice just gets hurled into the pot and left to cook and soak up the liquid until it’s ready to eat.  On balance, we should have probably used a bit MORE liquid, as the final product didn’t have as much sauce as the illustrations in the recipes.

Djiboutian meal

And there it is – a one pot lamb and rice stew that took next to no effort to make, and some nice chewy flatbreads to eat it with. No drama this week at all.

And it turns out – no drama can be pretty darn tasty!  The rice soaked up all the spices and was very flavorful.  The lamb turned out perfectly cooked, and the flatbreads that weren’t either raw or burned (i.e., the ones Leigh made) were perfect for scooping everything up together.  I would heartily recommend this stew as a midweek meal, as long as you can wait the hour or so it takes to cook.

A note on the recipes – both of the version of this stew that we consulted come from slicker, more professional “Recipe around the world” blogs than ours.  There’s always a BIT of a concern going to “international food for westerners” sources that they’ve been dumbed down, but as far as we can tell, this really is the basic outline of the recipe.

Djibouti –  your food is tasty! And, we appreciate not having to drive halfway across Canada for obscure cooking supplies for a change.  Next week, the tiny island of Dominica, which is definitely NOT the Dominican Republic.

Recipes:
Skoudehkaris #1
Skoudehkaris #2
Laxoox (Djiboutian Bread)