International Meals – Canada

Happy shelter in place, everyone!

Part of the fun of this project has been visiting lots of random grocery stores, and hunting for exotic ingredients.  Since that’s not really a possibility during quarantine, it looked like we were going to have to postpone our sojourn to far off, exotic… (checks notes)

Oh wait.  No, we can do this.

We actually made so many different Canadian dishes that this one is going to be formatted a little differently than the others.  Instead of one big meal, this is broken up into two desserts and two main dishes, which will be presented in a culinarily logical sequence rather than the order we actually made them.

So first up – the dish that everyone EXPECTS us to do: Poutine!

There’s a million degrees of fancy that can be attempted here.  One of our usual reference sites (cookedearth.com) was so sarcastic about poutine that they actually used a stock photo to accompany a recipe that included the step, “Feel ashamed that you didn’t try harder.”

However, we felt no shame.  We made french fries from scratch, including the proper double fry technique. (Low temperature to cook, high temperature to crisp.) We made a delicious gravy, also from scratch.  And we opened a 30 year old bottle of champagne to go with!
Poutine and Champagne
A word about the champagne. For the first 9 years of our marriage, I didn’t drink alcohol at all, so Leigh didn’t open many bottles of wine, as she’d be drinking them by herself.  I’m still more of a beer drinker, but I do now enjoy a glass of wine very occasionally.  What that means is that we have a small collection of bottles that Leigh has had with her for a very long time, all of which are of highly uncertain degrees of preservation.

We call it “Heisenbooze.”

And poutine DEFINITELY called for Heisenbooze, because… we’re moving to Canada! Appropriately enough, we’re celebrating the food of our soon to be adopted homeland.

The champagne was actually pretty good.  I don’t drink enough to be a good evaluator, but it tasted like champagne and still had some fizz to it.  I used the rest to make a cream sauce to put over shrimp and pasta the next day.

And the poutine was delicious! To heck with you, Cooked Earth Guy who has done 95% of our research for us and provided us with lots of good recipes and basically made this entire thing possible… On second thought, we just won’t tell him.

On to the main event, food wise. There’s a traditional Canadian holiday meat pie called a Tourtière.  I checked with a number of my friends from north of the border, and they all had things to say about this.  We went with a recipe from Food Network – Canada as a reasonably good choice.

First – scratch pie crust!  We’ve been doing a lot of baking from “Sally’s Baking Addiction” during this shelter in place, including an excellent lemon meringue pie. Since the recipe didn’t specify the exact pie crust recipe, we used that one again.Pie dough being rolled.

Next, the filling – there’s a million different variants for this pie, but the most common elements are ground meat, potatoes, and warming spices.  This particular version used ground beef, grated potatoes, allspice, and Worcestershire sauce.

Meat Pie Filling

Also a bay leaf, but I think that’s there for religious significance, since I’ve never figured out what they actually do.  Still, I continue to use them to appease the bay leaf gods, who are quick to anger if you don’t make the appropriate sacrifice.

Assembling the pie:
Partially assembled pie

Fully assembled unbaked pie

Once assembled, the top is brushed with egg yolk, and then into the oven it goes.  The result is as pretty as one could hope:
Finished meat pie

And the result was delicious!  Sadly, the lighting wasn’t as good for the photo of the final product, but trust us – it was great.
Slice of meat pie

So – two entrees down.  What’s up next?  Dessert, of course!  If you ask Canadian people what the most quintessentially Canadian dessert is, they’ll probably tell you “butter tarts.”  At least, that’s what they told us. So more pie crust it is!

Butter tarts are actually really simple – they’re little pies with a filing that, at minimum, consists of butter, sugar, maple syrup, and eggs.  And that’s it.  There are, of course, a million variants, including raisins, nuts, and other additions, but we went for the dead simple version.  No “in process” pictures, but here’s what we ended up with:

Butter Tarts

Note: Butter tarts are really hot when they first come out of the oven.  Wait longer than we did to try them. (Narrator: “They didn’t.”)

And then one final dessert, which is my absolute favorite Canadian contribution to world cuisine: the Nanaimo bar. (Edit: Here’s a great video on the history of the bars.) These things are really, really dangerous.  They’re a multilayer no-bake cookie bar.  The bottom layer is chocolate, graham cracker, coconut, and nuts.  Middle layer is vanilla custard.  Top layer is a hard chocolate shell.  We weren’t thinking about the blog when we made these, so no process pictures here either.

Which is a shame, because the process is actually kinda interesting.  You have to make and chill each layer one at a time as you assemble the dish, including tempering chocolate.  It’s all very fussy.  But then once it’s assembled, all you do is shove them in the fridge.

And then try not to eat them all at once.  That’s the hard part.

Nanaimo Bars

And that’s Canada!  Still a foreign country, but not for very long!

Next up, a country we SHOULD have done sooner, but we didn’t notice it had changed its name… Cabo Verde.

Recipes:
Poutine
Tourtière (Pie Crust)
Butter Tarts
Nanaimo Bars

International Meals – Cameroon

We return to Africa this week, for a dish that seems to be universally acknowledged as the national dish of Cameroon – Ndolé, or bitterleaf stew.  Like most of these dishes (or, for that matter ALL dishes everywhere) there are a variety of recipes, but the key ingredient in this is… wait for it… bitterleaf.

Bitterleaf, or Vernonia amygdalina, is a member of the daisy family. It smells more like tea than anything else. Also, it is absolutely not to be found in Lansing, but fortunately isn’t too expensive on Amazon.

Other specialty ingredients this go-round include dried crayfish, slaked limestone, and a package which took pains to specify that the contents were not intended for people with fish allergies. Can you guess which ingredient in this picture is probably a poor choice for the poisson averse?

Cameroon ingredients

Clockwise from upper left – Bitterleaf, Dried Crayfish, Slaked Lime, and some sort of fish.

(hint – it’s the fish)

Fortunately, neither Leigh or I are allergic to fish, so into the pan our (checks package) milkfish would be going. So what if it’s not native to Cameroon – it’s a dried smoked fish. Close enough!

To start the process, three different things had to be soaked overnight, the leaves, the fish, and a quarter cup or so of peanuts. To start the cooking process on the day of, the leaves get boiled for an hour or so in a big pot with the limestone.  A word on the limestone – this is calcium hydroxide, and it’s the same ingredient used to make Mexican hominy, Chinese century eggs, and a number of other food processes.  I suspect we may need to come back to this bag later, and I doubt it’s going to go bad.

Once the leaves are boiled and drained, the next step is to to start onions and sliced beef cooking in one pot and the fish cooking in another.

Beef and onions in one pot, and chile/peanut sauce in another.

Top: sliced beef and onions. Bottom: Chiles and peanuts.

Dried fish being boiled

Fishie!


The third pot visible in the pictures is for the seasoning that goes into the stew, which consists of red palm oil (ubiquitous in our African meals thus far), ground peanuts, and habanero peppers. And the only reason we used habaneros is that their even deadlier cousin, the Scotch Bonnet, couldn’t be located. The resulting oily, spicy, peanut sauce was screamingly hot, but very tasty.

From here, the recipe just consisted of adding the various things into the stew at the right times for them to cook. So first the sauce, fish, and crayfish, then the leaves, and finally shrimp, which had the shortest cooking time. Incidentally, the English name for Cameroon comes from the Portuguese colonial occupiers’ word for “shrimp,” camarones.

Final cooking

In addition to the stew itself, we also made yet another cornmeal mush variant, and a delightful condiment called pepe. And by “delightful”, I mean “let’s toss in about 5 more habaneros to the mix.”  It’s super tasty, and I’ve been spreading it on sandwiches ever since… but only in very small quantities.

Pepe

And here’s the final spread:

Cameroon meal

From left – ndolé, baked plantains, and fufu.

The picture shows some baked plantains, but I don’t really want to talk about those – they were pretty scorched.

The stew, on the other hand, was delicious. Spicy, bitter, nutty, and hearty, with the bitterness of the leaves offsetting the richness of the beef and shrimp, and the spicy peanut sauce pulling everything together. I would absolutely make this again. (And we have two more fish in the freezer so it may be a necessity.)

Once more, the recipes come from the excellent “Cooked Earth” blog. Next up – far off, exotic… Canada.

Recipes: Cooked Earth: Cameroon

International Meals – Cambodia

Cambodia was our second or third foray to southeast Asia, depending on how you count Bangladesh.  As always, the question was, “What makes this country different from the one next to it?  What will make this a Cambodian meal rather than a Vietnamese or Thai one?”  And the answer in this case seems to be prahok. What is prahok, you ask?

Mud fish sauce.

Cambodian mud fish paste

If you’re familiar with standard Asian fish sauce, such as Oyster brand, this is not that.  Rather it is a thick paste, and is VERY aromatic.  For the big pot of stew we were going to make, only two tablespoons were going in, and that was plenty. But everywhere I read agreed – THIS is what makes a dish uniquely Cambodian.

That, and a spice blend called kroeung. Spice pastes are common in southeast Asian cuisine.  I’ve made any number for Thai dishes.  This one, however, called for an ingredient I’d never encountered before: fingerroot.  Fingerroot is a rhizome, like ginger or tumeric.  In fact, the package I found (at an Asian grocer over an hour away), was only labelled “rhizome.”  I had to google the Thai characters to verify that I was, in fact, holding the correct product.

From top to bottom – Garlic, Fingerroot, Gallangal, Lemongrass, Kaffir Lime Leaves, and Tumeric.

In addition to fingerroot, the paste called for a number of other ingredients familiar from Thai cuisine, including gallangal, lemon grass, and keffir lime leaves.  (If you’ve not tried using these leaves in cooking, they are amazingly potent, and worth seeking out.)

One of these days, we really MUST get a larger mortar and pestle, as our little one took a WHILE to reduce everything seen here to a mush:

Kroeung - Cambodian spice blend

So, now that we have our kroeung and our prahok, what’s for dinner?

A leading contender for “national dish of Cambodia” turns out to be a veggie stew called (with a MILLION different possible spellings) Somlor Kor Ko, which literally means “stirring soup.”  There are also as many different ways to MAKE it as there are to SPELL it.  I finally settled on a recipe (linked below) which had the advantages of a) using actual quantities, instead of phrases like “use a mix of vegetables” and b) NOT using random herbs that I can’t even figure out the English translation for, let alone figure out where to acquire them. (“Angkeadei?” “Mrum?”)

Instead, our vegetables are going to be eggplants, small Thai ones and large Chinese ones, green beans, and shredded green papaya, and our protein will be pork and tilapia. (Catfish would be ideal, but the store was out.)

Vegetables

First though, we have to toast some rice:

Toasting Rice

This is glutinous or “sticky” rice. Not so sticky when dry, but when roasted and ground, it becomes a thickening agent common to many southeast Asian cuisines.  It’s not hard to do, but it takes a while, and you have to stir the whole time so it doesn’t scorch.

After all this preparation of ingredients, the actual cooking was pretty anticlimactic.  It’s a stew, so you just throw everything into the pot and let it cook.  The only complication is that you pull the fish out as soon as it’s cooked through and then add it again at the end so it doesn’t overcook.

And the final result:

Cambodian Stirring Soup

Our version won’t win any beauty contests, but…

… it was really good.  The spice blend, while full of amazing aromatics, notably DIDN’T contain any chilies.  That just let all of the other flavors come to the fore and perfectly balance the incredible density of the fish sauce.  The toasted rice and eggplant thickened the broth to the point where is was more of a gumbo than a liquid.  The pork, fish, and vegetables soaked up all the flavors beautifully.

For desert, we made a traditional Cambodian wedding desert made with more sticky rice, red beans, tiny bananas, and coconut milk: (The chronology is a little misleading here – we started these things HOURS before the stew.)

Dessert Preparation

The rice and beans are soaked overnight, then blended with the coconut milk.  The mixture is then combined with bananas, wrapped in a banana leaf, and steamed.

It was… fine.  I didn’t take any pictures of the final product, sadly.  We steamed them for four hours, and it still seemed like we probably hadn’t cooked them long enough.  I suspect we may have made the individual packages too large, preventing them from cooking as thoroughly as one might hope.  They weren’t terrible, but I feel like had the rice and beans been cooked a bit more, or if there had been more coconut milk flavor, I would have liked it more.

Or I may just be a heathen American.

Pleasantly, we did have company, which is always nice for these adventures.  Sadly, we once again forgot to take a group photo, but one of Leigh’s colleagues joined us, and a good time was had by all.

Next up – Cameroon, and a chance to get that jar of red palm oil off the shelf again!

Recipes:

 

International Meals – Burundi

Burundi is a country without a lot of recipes on the internet.  Which is unsurprising, given that it is quite small. According to Wikipedia, it is the 142nd smallest country in the world at the time of this writing, coming in just larger than Lesotho, but smaller than Moldova.

In fact, just about every food blog that talks about Burundi refers to the same thing: a stew of plantains and kidney beans. In fact, while I assume this dish HAS a local name, I can’t even find it!  So beans and bananas it is.

The good news is that this dish is both vegan and gluten free, allowing us to invite our good friends Amanda and Christina over to share the meal.

The beans in this case are kidney beans, which I’ve had generally poor luck with in the past – getting them to an edible texture takes a lot of work.  So for this recipe, I soaked them a full day in advance.  Past that, the actual preparation is pretty simple: cook the beans for an hour, fry onions, plantains, and chilies in red palm oil, then toss them in with the beans to boil until thick.
Beans and Plantains Cooking

The recipe said you could use ripe or green plantains, so we used one of each for comparison.

For sides, we made lenga-lenga, which most authentically would use amaranth leaves.  we still don’t have a source of those, so spinach it was.  Lenga-lenga is actually pretty simple as well – just leaves, onions, and tomatoes sauteed in more of the ubiquitous red palm oil with chili pepper.  (I used Piri Piri chilies, since they are African and also delicious.)

Finally, yet another variety of starch paste.  So far we’ve had pastes made from sago palm, taro root, and corn meal.  This one used cassava flour, but the same basic preparation – boiling water, starch, and stir until you think you’re going to break the spoon.

Here’s the full meal:

Burundian meal

On the plate: Ubuswage and Lenga-lenga. In the bowl: Beans and Plantains.

The verdict? Well, if I ever make this again, I will definitely only be using ripe plantains.  The sweetness was really needed to balance the beans.  Also… even though they were soaked for nearly a day and cooked for over an hour – they were still too tough and bland for my taste.  Maybe I just don’t like kidney beans, but I’ll have to try really cooking the daylights out of them at some point to see if they get any better.

On the other hand, the Lenga-lenga was delicious – the piri-piri definitely made for a nice perky vegetable dish.  And this may be my favorite starch paste yet – it definitely had a nice chewy texture to balance the vegetables without being overly rubbery.

Here’s a group shot after the meal:
Group picture.

As you can see, the best part of these meals is always sharing new food with friends.

Next up, we depart Africa briefly for Cambodia, then right back for Cameroon.

Recipes:
Beans and Bananas and Lenga-Lenga

Cassava paste: Put about 1:2 ratio of flour into boiling water.  Stir until thick.  Is this authentic?  No idea – just took our best guess on this one.

New Orleans!

We haven’t done a lot of recreational travel recently, so this blog has been dominated by food. That changes with this entry – where we took a trip which had nothing to do with roller derby.

Which was dominated by…  well, food.

The impetus was that I was just short of Silver Medallion status on Delta, so I needed to drag myself over the line for the year without using up too much PTO.  Or any PTO.  So we flew out Friday afternoon, got back Sunday night, and spent the weekend in NOLA.

On arrival at Louis Armstrong International Airport, we discovered that getting to town was going to take a while – traffic flow at the terminal, which had opened less than a month prior, was incredibly poorly designed.  That, and Cher was playing at Smoothie King Center.

In other news, New Orleans has sold naming rights to a major arena to a business called “Smoothie King.”

Our preliminary research indicated that we were going to need to spend our 4 or so meals in the Big Easy at approximately 37 different restaurants, but we managed to narrow it down.  Our friend Dan insisted that we absolutely had to try Dat Dog. So once we finally reached town, since it was a block from our AirBnB on the eastern edge of the French Quarter, that’s where we started:

Leigh and some sausages overlooking Frenchman Street.

Leigh had a spicy andouille, and I had a crawfish sausage with crawfish etouffe.  Both were outstanding.  And we got to sit on a balcony overlooking Frenchman street, watching life’s rich paegant.  Not the REM album, although we could hear basically every other type of music from where we were sitting.

After we finished eating, it was time to wander around the French Quarter.  The architecture is just as unique and distinctive as it is always made out to be.  And a single block on Bourbon Street confirmed that we are both, in fact, too old for Bourbon Street.

The other thing you see walking around the French Quarter at night is ghost tours.  LOTS and LOTS of ghost tours.  At one point, we could actually count FIVE visible from where we were standing.  We did not do a ghost tour, because we are not credulous idiots. We did take some nice pictures, though:

Jackson Square at night.

A shadow cast on the back of St. Louis Cathedral

This picture’s not as good, but it shows a street band – one of a number we encountered while walking around.

Street musicians on Frenchman Street

Saturday’s highight was a bicycle food tour given by Confederacy of Cruisers.  If you’re in New Orleans, I cannot recommend this tour highly enough.  They did NOT just go to tourist spots, and the historical information was not even a little bit whitewashed.

We went to four places – Bennachin, an African restaurant in the French Quarter, St. Roche Market, a former fish market which has become an upscale food court, L’il Dizzy’s Cafe, a soul food restaurant in Treme, and Loretta’s bakery.  The food at each location was spectacular, and we learned a lot about the recent history of the city, as well as the origins.  Our tour guide was also a perennial 3rd place finisher in the “Salvador Dali” category in the national beard and mustache competition.  Make of that what you will.

African restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans

The outside of the African restaurant.

Dishes at the St. Roche Market

Shared plates at the St. Roche Market.

Beingets at Lorettas Bakery

Praline Beignets

One small detail from the tour: Earlier in the day, Leigh and I had made the obligatory stop at Cafe Du Monde for breakfast coffee and beignets, but our tour guide informed us that the pastries served there are not truly beignets.  Our final stop on our bike tour was at Loretta’s bakery for some true beignets.  Filled with pralines.  Magical.  (The ones at Cafe Du Monde may not be accurate, but they are ALSO pretty tasty.)

Selfie in front of the aquarium

After the tour was over, we walked around some more, and then met friends for drinks and dinner at Galliano’s, a midpriced seafood place in the warehouse district. And then it was time for taking part in the OTHER thing New Orleans is famous for – Music!  Leigh’s friend who recommended Dat Dog also suggested Tipitina’s as a great music venue, and since we only had one night available, we bought tickets for… well, whatever was playing.

We got lucky.

“Whatever was playing” turned out to be Dragon Smoke – an all star band made of musicians from different local groups who get together to turn up the juice once a year.  One of said leaders is also a Neville brother.  The concert was fantastic, although we didn’t quite make it to the end. (The headliner didn’t even START until midnight, and we’re old.)

Tipitinas stage prior to Dragon Smoke
Sunday was a day with not much planned other than brunch reservations.  We ended up joining a tour of St. Louis Cemetery #1, but had to leave early in order to make brunch.  The first half of the tour was still fascinating, and New Orleans cemetery construction is like nothing else in the country:

St Louis Cemetery #1

Statue used in Easy Rider

This statue, on the Italian Society Mausoleum, was featured in “Easy Rider.”

Amongst the famous tombs we did see were Marie Leveaux, Paul Morphy, Howard Plessy, and Nicolas Cage.

Yes, Nicolas Cage.  We’re aware he’s not actually dead yet:

Brunch was at a Vietnamese Creole fusion restaurant called Maypop.  We didn’t take any pictures, but the small plates were excellent – I especially recommend the Blue Crab and Head Cheese soup dumplings.

Finally, we took a streetcar to the approximate vicinity of Magazine Street, and just spent the afternoon people watching.  All in all, it was a fantastic little trip, and since there was no possible way to do everything in two days, we enjoyed not having the pressure to even try.  A+, would New Orleans again.

Streetcar in New Orleans

International Meals – Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso begins a run of a lot of African countries coming up – six of the next eight, including this one.  The variety of foods from the continent is stunning, but are we good enough researchers to make meaningful differentiations?  Probably not.

Fortunately, we’ll likely keep doing what we did for THIS meal, and just steal all the recipes from Cooked Earth. No shame in that, right?  We’re not pretending to be an amazing source of recipes for OTHER people, just documenting our own attempts for the three people that actually care.  (Hi mom!)

To be fair, I DID attempt to do some research on this one.  I discovered that Michigan State University has a cookbook collection, so I went to check out their one and only Burkinabe cookbook:

For starters – it’s in French.  This was a bit of a problem, as I don’t remember my two years of French from Ms. Carr’s class in 1988.  Second problem – as far as I can tell, this book is a SUPER colonialist attempt by a Canadian NGO to tell Burkinabe folks how to prepare their own traditional dishes in a way that’s more nutritional.  While that may or may not be a laudable goal, the whole thing comes across as horrifyingly patronizing.

And the third problem is the following:

Go ahead and Google translate “Chenilles” – I’ll wait.  Or you can just look at the picture.

*pause for Googling*

Even if I thought I could convince Leigh to eat caterpillars, I’m really not sure I can find a good local source of the edible kind.  And I’m not brave enough to just go out and scoop up wollybears and toss them into a pot.  You’d probably need to peel them or something.

So, back to Cooked Earth it was.  Fortunately, they had a set of very tasty looking recipes made with things we CAN find or order.

Starting with Zoom Koom, which is great fun to say.  Zoom Koom literally means “flour water” and is an extremely… hearty beverage served to start a meal.  It contains pineapple, ginger, tamarind extract, a pinch of hot pepper, and… (checks notes) a cup and a half of millet flour?  That’s pretty hearty, all right.

Zoom Koom ingredients. Not pictured – tamarind liquid.

We started by boiling whole tamarinds for a while to make tamarind liquid. We’ve used the paste before, but never the original fruits. They’re sticky and kind of a pain to work with, but the results are delicious. You strain out the solids, and then just mix all this stuff together. The final drink was very, very thick, but quite refreshing and tasty.

Our main course consisted of two dishes – a fried black eyed pea fritter called “boussan touba”, and a goat and rice stew.  For the fritters, we soaked and then boiled black eyed peas, mixed them with carrot and onion, and then fried them in peanut oil.  The recipe only called for one egg and no water as a binder, but they pretty much disintegrated like that, so we added some more water to get them to hold their shape.  Next time I might try another egg instead.

The main course was a basic stew – goat, carrot, cabbage, and onion simmered together for a long time, with the rice added at the end to cook in the liquid.  The new ingredient to us for this one was Carolina Gold rice, which is apparently significantly closer to the varietal found in West Africa than your basic supermarket long grain.  We ordered that on the internet, and it was definitely different – chewier and more flavorful, for sure.

Here’s some “in process” photos:

Upper right: black eyed peas. Upper left: goat stew. Lower right: tamarinds.

Fritters Cooking

The fritters also allowed us to use up the peanut oil we had purchased for Belgium, which was (checks notes)… even longer than last time ago.

With everything cooked up, it was time to eat!

Overall, a very tasty meal!  The goat stew was flavorful and delicious, the pea fritters were crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle, and the Zoom Koom was probably the highlight – what’s not to like about pineapple, ginger, and tamarind? It was, however, so thick that we actually had trouble drinking it around the ice cubes.

The next day, I made a peanut lime sauce to eat with the rest of the fritters.  Not authentic, but very tasty.

So Burkina Faso – we appreciate you!  Three dishes all suitable for preparation on a weeknight, and tasty leftovers for several days.  Next up, another African country – we finish up the “B”s with Burundi, and our first attempt at a meal that is both vegan and gluten free.  And not only free of vegans, but also safe for them to eat!

Recipes here:
Cooked Earth blog – Burkina Faso

International Meals – Bulgaria

We’re back in eastern Europe, which means it was time to once again consult my friend Walt.  He was a big help with Bosnia, and Croatia is on the horizon, so I’m sure we’ll be hearing from him again. (If you haven’t checked out his band’s page yet, you should!)

So, Bulgaria.  I had found a recipe or two, but Walt sold us on trying to put together a fairly substantial meal, consisting of a soup, two salads, bread, a main dish, and dessert.  The clock had also been started ticking by the fact that we found some Bulgarian style feta cheese at our local farmers’ market, and so had to use it while it was still fresh.

Bulgaria didn’t require a lot of exotic ingredients – no wacky chili peppers that take a month to arrive or cream that requires a drive to Detroit.  Lots of cucumbers, peppers, onions, and a pumpkin.  So without further ado, the dishes. (We didn’t take a lot of “in process” pictures this time.)

Bulgarian starters - red peppers, walnut soup, and salad.

Clockwise from top, Shopska Salata, Tarator, and roasted peppers.

To start the meal off, we had what I’ve seen repeatedly described as Bulgaria’s national dish – Shopska Salata… which turns out to be a pretty darn conventional salad.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, raw onion, and the Bulgarian feta.  The feta is what really makes it distinctively Bulgarian – it’s smoother and creamier than Greek feta, and made a nice starter for the meal. But it’s certainly not something that felt exotic.

On the other hand, the soup certainly was a little outside of our normal range – it was a cold yogurt soup with cucumbers and walnuts called tarator.  But not just any yogurt – Bulgarian yogurt!  OK, fine, Bulgarian style yogurt.  The good news is that you can find it at Whole Foods, and that really is good news, because the stuff is very tasty – smoother and tarter than Greek yogurt, it made a great soup when balanced with the crunchiness of the walnuts and the mildness of the cucumbers.

To complete our opening course, we roasted some sweet peppers on the gas range.  Shoving food directly into the fire is fun, but I needed to be a bit more aggressive about it – the pictures I looked at after the fact showed peppers that had been much more fully incinerated than ours had, which explains why the skins didn’t peel off as well.  Still, roasted peppers dressed simply with vinegar and oil were a good complement to the soup.

On to the main course, Gyuvetch. Literally, the word just describes a type of pot. Which, of course, we don’t actually have.  After Walt suggested this would be a good choice of main dish, I spent a lot of time trying to chase down a recipe that a) didn’t use beef, which I was assured wasn’t really authentic, and b) had quantities and cooking times.

I completely failed at b).

So, instead, I found a recipe from a tiny little EU government grant, accompanied by a video of a Bulgarian grandma saying things like “now put it in the oven until it’s done.” So we winged it.

The recipe also didn’t call for any meat at all, so I borrowed some guidance on pork from Walt and another recipe and tossed that in.  The final product consists of veg and pork that is first simmered on the stove until tender, and then topped with an egg and yogurt custard and baked.  It’s not quite a pie, and not quite a stew, but it’s very, very good.  We also made a nice loaf of bread to go with, although it did disintegrate a bit on removal from the oven.

Bulgarian main course - gyuvetch and bread.

Gyuvetch and bread. (Structural integrity optional)

Finally – dessert.  This was actually the FIRST dish Walt said we had to make, and he wasn’t wrong.  Tikvenik is what you’d get if you crossed pumpkin pie with baklava – a sweet, nutty, pumpkin filling rolled up in phylo dough. Yummy. It was so good we forgot to take a picture until we were boxing up the leftovers.

Tikvenik - Bulgarian Pumpkin Dessert

Tikvenik. Presentation by Rubbermaid

We ALSO forgot to take a picture of our dinner guest, but Laurie was nice enough to come over and share the experience with us, and bring a lovely Pinot Noir to go with.  These meals are always better with friends!

Next up, we have a whole run of African countries, starting with Burkina Faso.

Recipes:

    • Shopska Salata
    • Tarator
    • Roasted Peppers: Put peppers directly in the gas flame until they turn black all over. Let them sit in a paper bag for 15-30 minutes.  Peel, slice, and dress. Done.
    • Pogacha Bread
    • Gyuvetch (We added 1 lb of browned pork tenderloin to this otherwise vegetarian (but dear lord, not even remotely vegan) recipe.) Bulgarian grandma video here.
    • Tikvenik

 

International Meals – Brunei

I was nervous about this one.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not the first person to have had the idea to cook my way through the alphabet.  I follow several other blogs dedicated to the same project.  The most thorough of these is Cooked Earth – a site whose author is MUCH more rigorous than we are.  He won’t substitute ingredients, he does months of research, and his presentation is amazing.  Of course, he also lives in New York, and thus has access to a LOT more ethnic grocery stores than we do.

His opening sentence for his entry on Brunei was “Guys. This one almost broke me.”  He goes on to uses phrases like “fermented Durian.”

Needless to say, this did not inspire confidence.

But on we went.  Brunei is a very small country, so finding dishes which were uniquely Bruneian and not regional was a challenge, but there is one dish that everyone agreed was the national dish – ambuyat.  Ambuyat is boiled sago palm starch.  It’s apparently like nachos, in that there’s not much flavor to be had in the thing itself, but it serves as a vehicle for condiments. (Which can include the aforementioned fermented durian, but dear god, no.)

So, ambuyat it was, with a pair of dips.  In addition, I found a recipe for buttermilk chicken (which does not involve any buttermilk at all) which was described as the recipe that Bruneian college students abroad write home to ask their mothers to send them.

One thing that several sites made clear that sago is NOT the same thing as tapioca, so if we wanted the authentic experience, we needed to get sago, not tapioca.

I have no idea.

But we took the sago pearls and ground them up as fine as my battered old spice grinder would get them.  Meanwhile, Leigh was frying chicken:

We don’t do a lot of deep frying, but this seemed to work out OK.  We still had some peanut oil left over from Belgium, which was (checks notes)… oh dear ago.

Next, we assembled our two sambals. The first was a mango sambal which would traditionally have used a local variant, but we were assured was fine with any old mango we could find.  We mixed it with shallots, chiles, and garlic, for a very unfamiliar mix of flavors:

Colorful though, innit?

The other sambal involved shrimp paste, chiles, and calamansi lime juice. (An asian lime juice which is intensely sweetened.  This stuff is GREAT with tonic water – I recommend getting some if you can find it.) The intensly fishy, salty shrimp, combined with the hot chiles and sweet lime juice resulted a flavor which is probably one of the most… foreign to our palates so far in our trip.  It wasn’t bad, but it definitely had notes that my brain wasn’t used to processing as “this is food.”

Meanwhile, we finished the chicken and made the sauce. “Buttermilk Chicken” apparently actually means “Chicken with Butter and Milk.”  But that’s OK – we LIKE butter and milk.

Also chiles.  Because of course chiles.  Curry leaves as well, which is an ingredient I use all the time for Indian cooking.

Finally it was time to make the ambuyat, by pouring boiling water over the ground sago starch, and bring the whole thing to the table.

Clockwise from upper right: Buttermilk chicken, ambuyat, sambal belacan, sambal cacah, bog standard basmati rice.  (I don’t even know if basmati rice is reasonable for Brunei, but I had forgotten to soak the sticky rice that would probably have been more appropriate.)

The ambuat was.. fine.  The texture was a bit less smooth than it probably should have been but it reminded me of nothing so much as slightly stickier grits.  Dipped in the sauces, it provided a perfectly acceptable medium for moving sauce to our faces.

The buttermilk chicken, on the other hand, was delicious.  Would definitely eat again, if deep frying weren’t such a major pain.

So there you are – we survived Brunei, and it was much less terrifying than I thought it would be. Next time we’re back to Europe for Bulgaria.

Recipes:

International Meals – Brazil

Hold on to your eyeballs, folks, because we remembered to take LOTS of pictures this time.  This may or may not be a good thing.

Brazil is an enormous country, obviously.  Lots of people live there.  How many?  Like, a Brazillion people!

Sorry.

But the fact remains that this is one of the stops on our tour where any choice of dishes is obviously going to be absurdly reductive.  That said, there’s one dish that just about all my sources agreed would be a good choice for the national dish, and that is feijoada: a hearty stew of black beans and various forms of pig.  To accompany that, we would also make pao de queijo: a tasty cheese bread, farofa: toasted cassava flour, and sauteed collard greens.

So first, the stew.  This is for special occasions, so it uses many different kinds of pig, but it’s peasant food, so none of them are what you’d call fancy.  You would, however, call them hooves, ears, and tails.

In addition, we have some pork ribs, and two different kinds of honest-to-god Brazillian sausages.  Where the heck did we find those, you ask? At a store called “International Foods” in Sterling Heights, Michigan.  Despite sounding like a Mafia front, it is actually an amazing little grocery store, which will probably be seeing some return visits as we continue through the alphabet.

There’s also (just under the ear) a piece of what I’m fairly sure is NOT carne seca, despite what we thought when we bought it, but what the hell, into the pot it went.

I was a bit nervous when I read that the correct beans for this stew were “turtle beans”, but it turns out that just refers to the standard black beans that you can get anywhere in the US. So to start, let’s boil up some beans with an orange in the pot. Bay leaves added for some reason. (I’m not convinced they do anything in any recipe, frankly.)

Once they’ve cooked a bit, in go the pig parts:

And that is almost the entire preparation for the stew.  After 45 minutes or so, you pull out some beans, mash them up for texture, and throw them back in to cook some more. So while that cooks, let’s make some cheese bread.

The way we found International Foods in the first place was at the end of a long search for the appropriate type of cheese for the pao de queijo.  This cheese, called Queijo Minas Curado, is murderously hard to find online in English, and as was confirmed by our dinner guest, not even necessarily all that easy to find in Brazil outside of the Minas region where it is made. We had friends looking all over for this stuff, and then we found a store an hour away in Michigan that stocked it!  What are the odds?

I got about 20% of the way through grating the brick of cheese before I remembered we had a food processor:

Once you finish grating the cheese, you mix in egg, milk, some Parmesan, and two different kinds of cassava flour (thanks again, International Foods!) to make a gooey, sticky paste.

Said paste gets formed into balls and baked for a while. We’re now getting into the home stretch – just the farofa and the collards left. Both are trivially easy.  The farofa recipe is basically: cook bacon, cook flour in the bacon grease, then put scallions in the flour.

Which is Iron Chef level of complicated next to the traditional Brazilian preparation for collards: Slice into ribbons and sautee in oil for about three minutes.

With the pao out of the oven, the side dishes ready, and the stew smelling amazing, it was time to eat!

Sadly, this is where we UTTERLY FAILED in our documentation.  We had guests!  These meals are always better with guests, and our friends Alexis, Sandro, and Isla were delightful company.  They even brought dessert!  But did we take a picture with our friends?  We did not.  We didn’t even take a picture of the dessert until we had eaten half of it.

Sandro is himself Brazilian, and was able to confirm that we had gotten everything pretty close to right!  The stew was rich and porky, the toasty farofa soaked up the fattiness very well, the collards were a nice bit of actual greenery and the cheese bread… Oh man, the cheese bread.  The cassava flour gave it a much chewier texture than a standard American biscuit, and they were incredibly satisfying.

Here’s the desert they brought.  It’s called Manjar Branco, and it’s a coconut pudding made in a bundt pan, and usually accompanied by some kind of fruit.  It was so tasty we ate most of it before we even remembered to take a picture.

In summary, Brazil was definitely one of the better meals so far – all of the dishes were delicious, they worked well together, and the company was great.  You may notice that all of the recipes are from the same source on this one – I figure if this guy wants to do all my homework for me, why not let him?

Recipes: Cooked Earth – Federative Republic of Brazil.

Next up is Brunei, and I am vaguely terrified of this one…

International Meals – Botswana

We had been putting off Botswana, because everything I had read indicated that the national dish was extremely simple. Beef, water, salt.  Concerned that it might be a bit boring, I just hadn’t gotten around to making it.

And I was totally wrong.  This was definitely one of the simplest meals we’ve made, but was very tasty.  Complete ingredient list for all three dishes:

  • Beef
  • Water
  • Salt
  • Corn Meal
  • Spinach
  • Broth

And that’s it. You buy cheap beef, boil it for a few hours, then pound it down into individual muscle fibers. Throw it back in the drained pot to brown a bit, and you’re done.

It’s served with boiled cornmeal, which is basically grits. Fully traditional would have been amaranth greens as an accompaniment, but spinach was simple and tasty.

And there you are – simple, tasty, and filling. Nice job, Botswana!  Next up, Brazil!

Recipes:
Beef: Cooked Earth
Pap (Corn Meal Mush): Global Table Adventure
Spinach: OK seriously, you boil it in salted water for two minutes, then eat it.