International Meals – Denmark

Denmark did not quite go as planned.

I mean, I’m sure the country is doing fine, but our Danish meal ran into a few snags.

One of the quintessential Danish foods is Rugbrød, a particular style of sourdough dark rye bread which is used to make open faced sandwiches.  Having it on the table would be at least somewhat of a guarantee that we were in the neighborhood of authenticity. But we don’t have a sour going right now, and we don’t need a new pet.

Still, Vancouver is an enormous, diverse city – how hard can it be to find Danish rye?  Quite challenging, as it turns out.  There was a Danish baker just a few blocks from my office, which closed in 2018 after sixty years in business.  So that’s a shame.

And then I found La Charcuterie.  Their website lists a HUGE array of Scandinavian products.  Rugbrød! Spiced Herring! Medisterpølse! (A coiled Danish sausage.) And they have a deli attached.  Awesome, right?  It’s an hour drive away, but we can get some great Danish sandwiches, buy the products we want, maybe have a browse around for other things that would work well, and be all set for our Danish meal.

Our first clue should maybe have been that “La Charcuterie” ain’t exactly a Danish spelling.

When we got to the store, which is in a run down industrial park between a motorcycle shop and an auto parts store, there was a line of people out the door.  OK, this is a good sign, right?

Well, no.  Apparently the owner of this shop is a local legend, to the point that there has been an entire documentary made about him.  What he is legendary for is a constant, CONSTANT stream of vulgar stories, and enormous, cheap sandwiches. Turns out we had arrived in the domain of “The Sandwich Nazi.”  Seriously – that’s what it said on the door and on his Facebook page.

The store itself contained almost nothing of the bounty of Danish products advertised on the website – lots of tinned fish, but pretty much nothing else.  No Danish bread. (The sandwiches are on standard sub rolls.) No medisterpølse. No spiced herring.  Heck, not even a choice in what you are being served past “How many sandwiches you want?” (There was a menu on the wall, but it’s apparently just there for decoration.)  You have to pay cash, and you have to make your own change from the huge pile of loose bills sitting on a table behind the counter, because apparently he got busted for not washing his hands between handling money and food.

Oh, and the Sandwich Nazi is apparently Lebanese.

The sandwiches are enormous and overstuffed, but otherwise completely average.  Just a big pile of cold cuts on bread.  Dirt cheap, though – easily four servings from one 10CAD sandwich.

However, we were left with no Danish products whatsoever.

So we went home and bought some Russian Dark rye at Sav On Foods, which is not right, but as close as we could get, and some local pickled herring.

Oh well.  Let’s move on to the actual COOKING portion of the program, shall we?  Denmark had a survey for the official national dish in 2014, and the winner was stegt flæsk med persillesovs, or grilled pork belly with parsley sauce.  Accompanied by waxy potatoes, this is actually a pretty simple dish to make, and represents the third technique we’ve used to cook pork belly in the last two months.  (We also fried it for Colombia, and braised it for Dong Po Pork, which was not part of this blog series.)

To cook the pork belly, it is simply sliced into relatively thick slices and then roasted in a hot oven for 40 minutes until crisp.

Before:

Uncooked pork belly

After:

Roasted Pork Belly

Meanwhile, you make a parsley sauce.  It starts with a butter and flour roux, into which you add milk.  This is cooked until it is thick, and then you season it and add a whole pile o’ parsley.

Parsley sauce

I am relatively certain we did not get this quite thick enough.  It was tasty, but runnier than in the video we watched.

This was accompanied by nicely boiled new potatoes.  Here’s the whole spread:

Danish meal

Denmark also has the advantage of being one of the few countries that we can simply walk down the street and easily buy beer from.  We know where to get Estonian beer in Vancouver, but the next time it’s going to be EASY isn’t going to be until Germany. (France?  Maybe?  I don’t know any French beers, but I don’t drink a lot of pilsners.)

But let’s not distract from the meal at hand!  How was stegt flæsk med persillesovs? Quite tasty!  Roasting the pork belly made it deliciously crispy, and drowning it in the parsley sauce (I put a lot more on after taking this picture) was a fantastic flavor enhancement.  The potatoes turned out perfectly, and also soaked up the sauce quite well.  And while the herring and bread weren’t the right herring and bread, they were still delicious.

I will mention dessert, which, while not Danish, was funny.  Nigella Lawson’s recipe of the day for inauguration day was, for some reason, “Bitter Orange Tart.” Can’t imagine why. But since I found some Seville oranges at the Granville Island Market, here it is.

Bitter Orange Tart

Next up, we head to eastern Africa for the first time since Burundi with the small nation of Djibouti.

Recipes:
Stegt flæsk med persillesovs (pork belly with parsley sauce)
Bitter Orange Tart

 

International Meals – Democratic Republic of the Congo

It’s been a year, but it’s time to start a new letter!  There’s only five “D” countries, so this will probably take a little less time.  This week, we start with the other “Congo” country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Which was renamed “Zaire” from 1965 until 1997.)

As we pointed out a few weeks ago when we did the Republic of the Congo, the DRC was principally oppressed by Belgium, rather than France who did the oppressing across the river. However, there are a lot more similarities than differences, to the point that they two countries share the same national dish, which we have chosen to prepare for this meal, rather than last time.

That national dish is Poulet à la Moambé, a chicken stew made with palm nut cream.  We’ve encountered palm nut oil repeatedly in African recipes, but this stuff is a bit different.  For one, it comes in a can, rather than a bottle:

Can of palm nut cream

For a second, the actual product looks very different, but we’ll get to that in a second.

First, let me talk about the exact recipe we chose to use.  There’s a number of versions of this recipe online aimed at western cooks.  It’s not surprising, because (spoiler) this stew is REALLY GOOD.  So we started by reading those.

Unsurprisingly, nearly all of them call for peanut butter rather than palm nut cream, because it’s a much more readily available ingredient in North America.  We would likely have picked one of those until I ran across this simple comment in response to one of the more promising:

“That’s a lovely recipe but not moambe.”

To their credit, the blog authors (I’ll link the whole post below) respectfully entered a conversation with the commenter, who ended up sharing their full recipe for authentic moambé chicken made with palm nut cream.  And THAT’S the one we’re making today – one we literally transcribed from a comment thread.

We start the recipe by sweating some onions and garlic in red palm oil. (We haven’t gotten to the cream yet.)

Onions being sweated

Once those are translucent, we add some cumin, water, thyme, a scotch bonnet pepper, and the cream which, as it turns out, has the consistency of natural peanut butter.

Moambé going into the pot.

(Not the best picture, sorry.)  After the moambé has melted, the sauce is left to simmer for a LONG time. All of the timings in this recipe are somewhat vague, but 90 minutes seemed a good approximation.  At the end of that period, a thick layer of oil has separated, and is floating on the top of the sauce.

Oil separating from moambé sauce

The next bit was rather annoying – we had to skim off the oil without bringing too much of the very thick underlying sauce with it.  This oil was used to sear our chicken pieces on both sides.

Chicken pieces searing

Once they have a good color, they get thrown back into the pot of sauce, and left to simmer for as long as you can possibly stand it, while your apartment fills with the impossibly delicious smell of this stew.

Cooked stew

Note the happy little Scotch bonnet pepper floating around in there.

While we’re pretty comfortable with the authenticity of this dish, the next one is a bit more of a question mark.  Lots of African recipes call for chopped leaf vegetables. There’s always a question, however, as to which ones are the best choices.  In the past, we’ve used spinach. However, for this one, we wanted to try amaranth, which is also a staple vegetable in Africa.

However, we ended up with a version we bought at a Chinese supermarket, marked “Xian Cai”.  Is this the same amaranth that is grown in Africa?  Is it authentic to the DRC? I must confess, we really don’t know. The recipes calls for “wild spinach”, which the African grocer MIGHT have had in the freezer, but we decided we’d rather sacrifice certainty for taste.

But let’s get on with it.  We’re making a variant of a dish called “Fumbwa”, which would normally involve dried fish.  We varied it by leaving out the fish, but otherwise left it basically the same.

It’s a pretty simple preparation. First, you chop the leaves.  The Chinese amaranth we bought has pink streaked through the leaves, and is quite attractive:

Chinese amaranth

You can see why we decided to go with these rather than frozen spinach leaves!

The leaves are simmered in water with a bit more palm oil, scallions, garlic, tomatoes, and a stock cube.

Stew simmering.

It is then finished with either peanut butter or ground peanuts.  If peanut butter, you have to wait for it to melt, but ground peanuts just need to cook long enough to heat through.  Here’s the final product.

Finished amaranth stew

And finally, we made fufu. Again.

Fufu.  Again.

Fufu is an incredibly important subsistence food throughout Africa.  It’s hard to understate how critical it is for meeting basic caloric requirements for millions of people. Very few Congolese could afford to make the chicken stew we are making here on a regular basis – fufu is truly a critical part of the food ecosystem on the continent.

But man – am I terrible at making it appetizing.  We tried adding butter and salt to the cassava flour and water paste this time.  It didn’t seem to help.  As always, it functioned as a reasonably adequate way to move sauce from plate to face, but since we ARE privileged enough to have chicken available, we mostly stuck with that and the amaranth stew.

Here’s the final assembly:

DRC Full Meal

Doesn’t that look pretty? It’s not JUST about appearances, of course, but it doesn’t hurt that the colors on this plate are gorgeous.

And you know what?  It doesn’t just look good – it’s delicious! The chicken was fall-apart tender, and had absorbed the deliciously not-quite-peanut flavor of the moambé and the other seasonings.  And as tasty as the chicken was, the amaranth almost stole the show – the peanuts, tomatoes, and greens together made for a tart, salty, and crunchy combination that was just dynamite.  The one change I would make for next time would be to slice the Scotch bonnet, rather than leaving it whole, to try and kick the heat up another notch or two.  (It was great as it was, but it would ALSO be great spicier.)

This is definitely one of our favorite African national dishes so far, and we certainly hope DRC can find the stability and development it needs for more of the population there to be able to enjoy it on a regular basis.

Next up, we return to Europe to visit Denmark!

Recipes:
Moambé Chicken (This is the blog from which we copied the recipe out of the comments.  I’ve transcribed the version we used in a more traditional format below.)
Fumbwa (Congolese Spinach Stew)

Moambé Chicken
(Per “e” in the comments of the blog above)
2 large onions
3-4 cloves garlic
1/2 tbs ground cumin
1 can tomato paste
handful of fresh thyme, tied with twine
800g can of Palm Nut Cream
2 cubes stock
1 hot pepper (optional)
2 lbs chicken

1. Sweat onions in palm oil with a good amount of salt at medium high in a heavy pot, such as a Dutch oven.
2. Once the onions are translucent, add garlic and cumin.  Cook until fragrant.
3. Add tomato paste and allow to darken
4. Lower heat, add thyme, entire can of Palm Nut Cream, stock cubes, and about 3/4 L water until cream is completely covered.
5. Cook, stirring, until the cream has melted.
6. Add water until the mixture has the consistency of brown soup.
7. Add hot pepper if desired. (Dan: consider slicing for maximum effect.)
8. Allow to come to boil and cook for ~45 minutes until thickened a bit.
9. Lower the heat, partially cover, and cook for a further 45 minutes, adding water as needed to prevent it becoming too thick. This would be a good time to take your chicken out of the fridge so it comes up to room temperature.
10. Apply a little salt to the chicken and cut breasts into large pieces. Remove skin if present.
11. The moambe should change smell somewhat, oil should be visible on top.  Be careful, as the hot oil can spatter, burn, and stain.
12. Carefully skim the oil from the sauce.
13. Using the oil, brown the chicken on all sides.
14. Taste the sauce for salt and pepper, then add the chicken.
15. Cook until breasts have fallen apart and other cuts are done. (ideally, simmer as long as possible here.)

International Meals – The Czech Republic

And so, we come to the end of the “C”s!  Amazingly, it has taken almost precisely a year of calendar time – Cambodia was February 9, 2020.  Of course, February 9, 2020 was  A BILLION YEARS AGO.  Remember Australian wildfires? Or, you know, other people?

Le sigh.

But we’re going out with a tasty meal, anyway.  We’ve both actually BEEN to the Czech Republic, which makes it only the third country on the list for which that is true. (The other two being Belgium and Canada; Leigh but not Dan has been to Austria.) If you would like to read about our exciting adventures in the land of Smetana and Pavlov, you can start here.  Our trip included a food tour, and we’d definitely recommend it to visitors to Prague once the apocalypse concludes.

The national dish of the Czech Republic is pečené vepřové s knedlíky a se zelím, or Roast Pork with Dumplings and Cabbage. We are NOT going to be using the Czech spellings for things more than once, because diacriticals are HARD, y’all.

So there’s three things here – dumplings, cabbage (in the form of saurkraut), and pork.  Let’s start with the dumplings, since they were the most work.  Right off the bat, we run into the only new-to-us ingredient this week: Instant Flour!

Instant Flour

Sold under the brand name “Wondra” in the US, this is apparently flour which has been pre-cooked and has a coarser texture than regular flour.  The Czech person who made the video we were following was insistent that all-purpose flour would NOT give the right texture for the dumplings.  And who are we to argue with a Czech person on the internet?

The interesting thing is that apparently this stuff is regularly available in just about any supermarket, and we just never noticed it, because we never needed it.

So using the instant flour, you make an otherwise standard yeast dough, and then leave it alone to rise.

Dumpling Dough

Once it’s risen, you divide it into three parts and shape them into cylinders:

Dumplings before baking.

Not super pretty, but then I never actually claimed we knew what we were doing.  And at any rate it doesn’t matter.  Because the next step for these dumplings is to be steamed, and they only JUST barely fit in our steamer.  Which means that AFTER steaming, and the concomitant volume gain, they were going to be shaped EXACTLY LIKE the steamer:

Steamed dumplings

However, while the appearance won’t win any prizes, the texture turned out just about perfect – just the right mix of chewy and bouncy.  You’ll see them sliced up down below.

Next up, sauerkraut!  We made another trip to Granville Market, not because it was necessarily the CLOSEST place to get sauerkraut, but because we like going to Granville Market.  We also bought some Czech salami that didn’t actually make it into the meal.

The Czech take on cabbage is actually quite different from a lot of other places.  We STARTED with a tub of pickled cabbage that we could very easily have just donked out on a plate and eaten as is.  We then added salt, caraway seeds, and a surprising amount of sugar.  This got cooked for a good 30 minutes or so.

Sauerkraut Cooking

While the sugar was soaking into the cabbage, in another pan we browned some onions in oil.  And the recipe is not kidding about browning – you cook them for a good 15-20 minutes.

Browned onions

One the onions are cooked, they get thickened with (regular) flour to make a roux, and that gets dumped back in with the cabbage.  The whole mixture is then cooked for a bit longer so it becomes a thick, sweet, cabbagy sauce.  Very different from the sharp kraut that gets put on hot dogs at the ballpark.

Finally, let’s talk pork.  It is a running joke between Leigh, I, and… well pretty much anyone who, you know, likes food, that any time a recipe calls for a single clove of garlic that there must be some mistake.  Surely they must mean a head of garlic, right?

Well, this recipe DOES call for a head of garlic.

Garlic

We do love us some garlic.  Maybe not PEELING an entire head of garlic, but it’s a small price to pay, right?  In addition to the garlic, the only other seasonings going into the pan with the pork are an onion, some salt, and caraway seeds. Cover with water, and you’re done with prep.  The pork is by far the simplest dish on the menu tonight.

Pork before cooking.

The only fussiness is that you have to flip the pork chunks a few times during cooking.  Which, honestly, is not that fussy.

And that’s it! Pork, sauerkraut, and dumplings!  This is ALSO the first country we’ve done since Belgium (and Canada, of course) where we’ve been easily able to run down to the neighborhood liquor store and pick up beer from the country in question. Although we did learn on our food tour that the Pilsner Urquel that gets exported is NOT really the same as what you get if you order it in the coutnry.

Still – ain’t that purdy?  Honestly, this plate should have had more cabbage, and it shortly DID.  This is not a meal for people who want carefully delineated zones of food on their plate.  This is a meal for slopping everything together, and trying to get some dumpling, pork, and cabbage in each bite.

And the cabbage really was the star of the show – the sweet, thick, saucy cabbage mortared the pork and dumplings into a whole that was definitely greater than the sum of its parts.  The meal would definitely be one I would prepare for guests who I LIKED, and wanted to FEED, not necessarily impress with artsy presentation.

And – there was desert!

Kolaches are a traditional Czech pastry that consists of a puffy dough with a variety of possible fillings.  This was actually the fussiest of all the things we made – some versions of this recipe (not the one we used, of course) can require up to five separate rises! The dough itself is quite rich and reminiscent of challah, using milk, butter, and eggs. It’s also very soft.

Kolache Dough

After the dough has risen, you shape it into little balls, put them in a pie tin, and then let them rise again.

Dough balls before risingDough balls after rising

The holes in the “post rise” picture are not some weird artifact of the rise – we pushed those in on purpose.  Why did we do that?  Fillings! Tasty, tasty fillings!  There were a number of possibilities, but we went with three very traditional ones – sweetened cream cheese, apricot, and plum.

Kolache fillings

Fine, Czech pedants – we are aware that PRUNE, not PLUM is the traditional filling.  Close enough, and this plum jam (also purchased on our market trip) is amazing. A quick egg wash and bake, and this was the final result:

Finished Kolaches

And seriously – what is not to like here? Soft, chewy, pastry, and sweet gooey stuff in the middle.

Czech Republic – your food is tasty, your statuary is very weird, and we salute you for both.

A note on the recipes for this week – the recipes for everything but the Kolaches are extracted from videos on the website “czechcookbook.com”.  Since videos are really annoying to cook from, I transcribed them, and will include both the transcribed text and the original videos.

Next time, we start the (much shorter) list of “D”s with the Democratic Republic of the Congo!

Recipes:
Roast Pork, Dumplings, and Sauerkraut. (Video)
Czech Pork and Cabbage Text
Czech Dumplings Text

Kolache

 

International Meals – Cyprus

I guarantee we will NOT be maintaining an average pace of an international meal every 4 days for the entire year.  But it’s tasty while it lasts…

Today we head to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which has had a long and checkered history. It has at various times been conquered by Alexander the Great, Cato the Younger, Richard the Lionheart, the Republic of Venice, and the Ottoman Empire. It has also been sold outright to the Knights Templar and leased to the British. The twentieth century history of the island is ugly.  The northern third has been occupied by Turkish troops since 1974, and Turkey is the only UN country which recognizes it as a separate state.

But you can’t eat politics, so what makes Cypriot food different than Greek or Turkish food?  In a word: halloumi. What is halloumi, you ask?

Haloumi Cheese

That label ain’t kidding, either – halloumi is indeed unique and delicious. It will turn up in two of our three dishes today, and there’s absolutely no reason we couldn’t have put it in the third one. A traditional preparation, as can be seen on the package, would be to grill slices of this, and it’s also frequently used in saganaki, where it is set on fire.

Wait, why didn’t we set this on fire?  That sounds AWESOME!

Anyway.

We’re making three dishes – a cheese filled pastry, a ground pork and pasta bake, and a side salad.  Another unquestionably Cypriot choice would have been a type of sausage called sheftalia, made with caul fat. Not finding it for sale in our local Mediterranean grocer, and not wanting to go down the road of making sausage from scratch, we opted to skip that one.

Let’s start with the salad.  Apparently the one unique ingredient that would make this an undoubtedly Cypriot salad, rather than just your basic Greek salad, would be caper leaves.  Couldn’t find those, so this is a Greek salad, Feta cheese and all.  This is where we could have tossed in halloumi if we wanted to, but we decided to opt for variety.  While there’s nothing particularly Cypriot about this in its current incarnation, it’s certainly something you could easily eat while you were there.

Greek salad

Moving on, our next ingredient was a cheese filled pastry called flaounes. According to the apparently Irish person in THIS video, neither Google translate nor he has the slightest idea how to pronounce it. According to the actual Cypriot person in this video, it’s pronounced “FLAU-neighs”.  But do watch the Irish guy, he’s funny.  He also points out that this pastry was a technical challenge in a Season 6 episode of the Great British Baking Show. More on that later. They are eaten at Easter by Orthodox Cypriots, and as a Ramadan fast breaker by Muslim Turkish Cypriots.

So how do you make these things? First off, you need to make your dough and give it time to rise. This is a yeast raised pastry, interestingly enough.  It’s a pretty standard dough – flour, water, salt, yeast, and olive oil for fat:

Dry ingredients for dough.

The recipe was a bit vague on quantities.  “Add enough water to make it firm.”  mmkay… Well, we all know variable hydration is a thing in baking recipes anyway, so we took our best guess. It ended up a bit too wet, and we had to add more flour when we were rolling it out to keep it from being a blobby sticky mess.

While the dough was rising, we made our cheese filling.  Traditional flaounes have a traditional mix of traditional cheeses in addition to traditional halloumi that we were NOT able to locate in Vancouver. Other alternatives that are suggested online are havarti, pecorino Romano, and cheddar.  Our recipe called for cheddar, so that’s what we did – grated with the Halloumi, a bit of flour and mint, some baking powder for leavening, and some eggs. Raisins are also SUPER common in these things, but we decided to make the perfectly acceptable raisinless version. (Yes, spell checker, I am sticking with “raisinless” as a word.  Go away.)

Unmixed cheese filling

This photo is obviously pre-mixing and pre-eggs. Once the dough had risen and the filling had cooled off in the fridge, it was time to assemble our pastries.  Another point of controversy, in addition to raisins or raisinless (now I’m just screwing with the spell checker on purpose), is the shape in which to fold them.  Triangular and square both seem to be a thing.  We made a few of each.

Unbaked Flaounes

And here’s what they looked like after a quick egg wash and a fifteen minute bake:

Cooked Flaounes

Aren’t those pretty?  And they were VERY tasty.  The dough ended up with the approximate consistency of a pretzel, which makes no sense, because we did none of the things you would do to achieve that consistency in an ACTUAL pretzel. But who cares?  We LIKE pretzels, and we LIKE cheese, and man oh man do we love flaounes.

On to the main dish, Makaronia tou Fournou. Literally, “Oven Baked Pasta,” it’s the Cypriot version of a Greek casserole called Pastitsio. Ground meat, pasta, lots and lots of mint, and a Bechamel sauce on top.  The Cypriot element comes from once again putting in lots of halloumi cheese.

This one’s a bit of a timing challenge, because ideally you want to have your meat, your pasta, and your Bechamel all done at about the same time. This also resulted in somewhat fewer PICTURES of this process.  But here’s all three pots going at once in all their glory:

Let’s talk about these one at a time.  Upper left is penne pasta. Salt, water, pasta. Bam. No more talking.

At right is the meat.  Ground pork, in this case, which means this ISN’T the version the Turkish Cypriot Muslims are making. In addition, the recipe calls for onions, cinnamon, a LOT of mint, black pepper, cumin, and white wine.  As I am writing this up, I see it ALSO calls for parsley.  Which we did buy.  Probably should have used that.  Oh well. Maybe I’ll make tabouli this week.

Meat for Cypriot pasta bake

Seriously – this uses a LOT of dried mint. Finally, there’s the sauce.  Bechamel is one of the classic French sauces – it’s a cheesy white sauce thickened with flour.  It can be insipid if you’re not careful.  But we’re using really GOOD cheese here.  No in process pictures, sadly, but the process is “stir continuously for fifteen minutes,” so between that and trying to time the meat and the pasta, we didn’t remember the document this one.  That’s OK – just imagine a pot filled with featureless white sauce and you’re there.

The final assembly is just like a lasagna – layers of pasta, meat, and cheese (more haloumi, of course) topped with a thick layer of sauce and a sprinkle of nutmeg.

Unbaked pasta bake

And after 25 minutes in the oven, hellloooo beautiful!

Baked pasta bake

The instructions said to let it cool for… an hour? That can’t be right, we’re hungry NOW.  Well, let’s start with some salad and flaounes.

Salad and flaounes

Upon further consultation, the recipe said we COULD go ahead and eat our pasta sooner, it would just be a bit messy. That’s cool, we’re hungry.

Serving of pasta bake.

This was very good.  NOT a meal for the lactose intolerant, but with a nice Mediterranean spice palate of mint, cinnamon, cumin, and nutmeg. And tasty, tasty cheese.

Since there were lots of leftovers, here’s a shot from the following evening’s dinner that shows what a slice of this stuff is supposed to look like if you actually let it set up properly.  For starters, it’s supposed to come in units of “slices” not “piles.”

Slice of pasta bake.

Cypriot food is pretty dang tasty, and we could definitely see making either of these dishes for other people in the future, once other people become a thing again.

A word on flaounes and The Great British Baking Show. A sad void in our pop-culture education was that neither of us had ever watched a single episode.  So, wanting to see what TV bakers would do with these things, we watched the episode in question.

A few observations:
1. GBBS is awesome, and we would like to watch more of it.
2. It is utterly unfair to judge someone for their pastry not looking right when the directions are SUPER VAGUE as to what is “right” and have no pictures.  I loved the show overall, but that part was REALLY mean, and it made me sad.

Next time, our final “C” country, the Czech Republic!

Recipes:
Makaronia Tou Fournou (Cypriot Pasta Bake)
Easter Flaounes
Cypriot Village Salad

International Meals – Cuba

It’s been less than a week, but it’s the holidays!  Lots of free time, lots of rain outside, and a pandemic still going on, so why not cook?  Today we head to Cuba, land of cigars and pig bays.  We will NOT, however, be making tobacco-infused pork.

Instead, it’ll be the national dish of Cuba, ropa vieja.  This literally means “old clothes,” and originated in the Spanish Canary Islands. There’s a whole depressing legend around the name and a dude eating his clothes, but it’s actually a delicious stew of shredded beef and tomatoes. (The shredded beef is said to resemble torn clothing.)

But let’s start with some bread.  Last week’s Croatian meal marked the first appearance of lard in this blog, and oddly enough, it reappears this week.  (Good thing, too – we’ve still got quite a bit left.)
Lard and flour

This recipe starts by melting the lard, and slowly, slowly mixing it with a blend of regular and bread flower.  But not as slowly as last week’s 30 minute mixing time for the nut roll!  Just regular slowly.  Once the dough has come together, you let it rise for an hour, roll it out, and then roll it into a long, baguette shaped loaf.

 

Cuban bread being made

After another rise, it goes in the oven and comes out… gorgeous.

Cuban bread

This loaf was incredibly soft, and super rich.  Lard may have to become a regular addition to our bread arsenal.  It made fantastic sandwiches the next day, too.

On to the main event!  The traditional cut of meat for ropa vieja in Cuba would be flank steak, but only because it shreds nicely.  Source after source pointed out that it’s actually a poor choice of meat for a long, slow braise, because it’s got very little fat.  Chuck and brisket are suggested as much better choices, and since brisket was somewhat less bonkers expensive, we went with that.

There are a million recipes for this online, and a million people with strong opinions that any given recipe is either excellent or terrible.  I went with one from Bon Appétit that seemed a happy medium, but we did make a few changes, which I’ll point out as they come up.

First the meat is given a nice sear on both sides.  (Our Dutch oven couldn’t quite handle the whole brisket, so we chopped it in half.)

Brisket searing

Sorry the picture’s a bit blurry.  I promise the actual meat was in much better focus.  We hadn’t gotten to the rum yet.

Once the meat is colored, you pull it out of the pot, and soften up some onions, peppers, garlic, and tomatoes with spices to make a base.  Our first change at this point was to replace the sweet paprika in the recipe with achiote, for two reasons.  One, it’s probably more authentic, and two, we didn’t HAVE any sweet paprika.  (See last week’s error in that regard with the cabbage rolls.)

Sofrito for ropa vieja

Once the sauce is ready to go, you tuck the beef back in for a nice long soak in a low oven. Like, three and a half hours long.  There are lots of recipes for doing this in a pressure cooker, and we’ll likely use one of those next time.

After an impossibly long wait, the stew is super aromatic, and the beef is ready to be shredded.

Ropa vieja after cooking.Shredding beef

Finally, the shredded beef is tossed back into the pot, along with white vinegar for finishing and some sliced olives.  I imagine some sort of citrus, like orange juice, would also be fine instead of vinegar here.

Finished ropa vieja

We departed from the recipe here by NOT adding cilantro, as it seemed to be universally scorned as a garnish by every Cuban person who commented on the recipes we looked at.

We also made a side dish and a drink to accompany our meal.  For our side, the obvious choice was Cuban style rice and beans.  The beans are cooked for almost as long as the meat, and topped at the end with a mix of sautéed onions, peppers, and spices.

Beans at start of cooking

Beans at the START of cooking. The water was NOT this color at the end!

Seasoning mix for the beans

And finally, I believe I mentioned rum?

“American Chopper” a few weeks ago, Jack Sparrow now.  We’re going to be a meme blog before you know it.

No.  No we are not.  However, we ARE going to make Batidos! One of the things I miss  about Michigan is a little Cuban restaurant in Ann Arbor, “Frita Batidos.” They have AMAZING burgers.  Eat there if you have a chance.  But the SECOND part of their name refers to a traditional Cuban drink made with milk, ice, and fruit.  And possibly rum.

While almost any kind of fruit is possible, we decided to go with an inexplicably Pixar-branded pineapple.

What does Nemo have to do with pineapples?

Our blender decided to die halfway through making these, but that’s OK, because we had also forgotten to refill the ice cube trays, so there wasn’t much ice for the food processor to deal with.  Final product, after the obligatory splash of rum:

Batido!

And here’s our full tropical Cuban meal, in the middle of our rainy Vancouver December:

Cuban meal

Doesn’t that look amazing?  It totally was.  Leftovers for days, too.  The beef was sour and tangy and delicious, the beans were rich and flavorful, and the soft bread was perfect for soaking everything up.

Also, there was rum.

Next time, it’s another island – Cyprus!

Recipes:
Ropa Vieja
Pan Cubano (Cuban Bread)
Cuban Beans
Batidos

 

International Meals – Croatia

We have something a little different this week, but very special.  I’ve mentioned our good friend Walt earlier on this blog – he’s been our go-to expert for things Balkan, and even contacted a local mayor to help us find the best ingredients for our Bosnian meal.  He’s a member of the musical ensemble “Harmonia,” which you should definitely listen to.  Possibly even while reading the rest of this entry.

Walt’s family background is Croatian, and in particular, inland Croatian, away from the coastal regions. And as we were heading into the holiday season, he generously sent us a whole stack of his family’s holiday recipes, and offered tons of suggestions for shopping and preparing a Croatian holiday feast!

So welcome to the first Christmas edition of “Everything But A Mule.”  (That title really makes less and less sense for what has turned from a vacation into a cooking blog…)

As always, let’s start by going shopping!  While things like potatoes and onions can be had anywhere, we made a trip to “Jovo the Butcher” to procure an assortment of the smoked or pickled items that help make Balkan cuisine unique.

Ingredients for Croatian Meal

Clockwise from upper left: Pickled Cabbage Leaves, Lard, Sauerkraut, Salt Cod, Smoked Pork, Hungarian Paprika, Kulen Sausage, and a smoked ham hock. (center)

Christmas was on a Friday this year, but when I told Walt I had acquired the ingredients, he suggested making the cabbage rolls as soon as possible.  “They’re really best if they’ve been reheated at least twice.” So Tuesday night, our Croatian meal got underway!  However, as usual, we’re going to talk about the dishes in the order we ate them, rather than the order we prepared them.

At about the same time, we looked at the amount of food we intended to make, (lots) and the number of people available to consume said food, (two) and decided it was going to need to be TWO meals, one on Christmas Eve, and one on Christmas Day. This, of course, will scramble the chronological sequence even further.  Fortunately, it doesn’t affect the actual quality of the food (excellent) or the writing (poor) much at all.

So what ARE we starting with?  Well, according to Walt, it’s just not Christmas Eve in his family without a dish of “Bakalar”, or salt cod with potatoes.  This is more or less the same word as “Bacala” in Italian, “Bacalao” in Spanish, etc. To start, the cod is soaked for three days to draw the salt out.  Then you simmer the cod in one pan, and waxy potatoes in another one, until the one is flaky and the other is tender. (I’ll leave which is which as an exercise for the reader.)

Cod and potatoes cooking.

It’s hard to see in this picture, but there IS water in the pan with the cod.  Once the fish and potatoes are done, you slide the skins off the potatoes under cold running water. Not NEAR the cold water, idiot, UNDER the water.  It’s there for a reason!

One lightly burned thumb later, the potatoes are chopped and tossed with the flaked fish in a bowl.  However, there’s one more key ingredient here – garlic oil!  You brown a few cloves of garlic in oil until it takes on all the lovely flavor, then pour the oil over the fish / potato mixture and let it marinate for an hour to soak up all the garlicky goodness!

Oil being poured over fish and potatoes

The recipe didn’t actually specify any particular use for the fried garlic itself, so we spread it on bread with some kajmak, which you may remember as the heart attack in a jar from our Bosnian meal.  It’s still delicious. (Although I have no idea what your average Croatian grandmother would think of this particular appetizer, waste not want not.)

Garlic and kajmak on toast

Although Walt said that typically his family eats this dish by itself, we had some leftover sauerkraut left over from the cabbage rolls, so we served that alongside.  Yes, we served leftovers from a dish we technically hadn’t actually eaten yet. I told you the chronology on this one got weird.

Bakalar, sauerkraut, and sausage

We also sliced up some smoked sausage, which the butcher assured us was Croatian style.  It was quite spicy, and very good.  The whole meal was absolutely delicious, and I can certainly see how a family tradition could develop around salt cod on Christmas Eve.

OK, you ask, but what about those cabbage rolls you’ve now teased twice?

Well, let’s talk about Christmas day!  (Then we’ll go back and talk about the nut rolls we made on Christmas Eve.  Take that, attempts to wrestle the post back to linear time!)

Our Christmas day feast was going to consist of the cabbage rolls we made on Tuesday evening, and a green bean soup.  Since we’ve beaten that particular horse to death, let’s start with the cabbage rolls.

Stuffed cabbage is a dish with a lot of regional names and variants, but the Croatian name for this dish is “Sarma.”  You start by making a filling from ground pork, rice, sautéed onions, garlic, salt and pepper, and lots of spicy Hungarian paprika. (Note – turns out this was supposed to be SWEET paprika. The amount of hot we used definitely made the dish a bit less authentic, but we sure liked it!)  We were lucky enough to find some great smoked pork at the butcher, which is an optional but very desirable component to the filling.

Next you roll the filling in the cabbage leaves, and layer the stuffed leaves in the pot with sauerkraut, onions, and ham hocks.

Which is where we must pause for a moment.  Several of these recipes call for smoked ham hocks.  In the past, when I’ve purchased ham hocks for cooking, they have consisted of very thick (1″ or more) slices of bone in ham.  When I asked for SMOKED ham hocks at Jovo, they told me “Sure!  We have smoked ham hocks!”

By which they meant ENTIRE HOCKS.  This is a BIG hunk o’ ham:

Smoked pork hock

In the interest of getting something that would fit in the pot, I shaved off some slices and used those.  As a result, we didn’t get any of the interesting marrow and/or tendon based flavors that you usually get from bone-in meat, but the ham itself was smoky and definitely came through in the final dishes.

Here’s our final pot of sarma, before we added the cooking liquid.  I wish to apologize to Croatian grandmothers everywhere – this was the first time I tried making these, and they’re not terribly aesthetic.

Cabbage rolls in a pot

The recipe calls for them to be covered by a weighted plate.  We improvised by putting a normal plate on top, and then jamming a measuring cup between the heavy lid of the Dutch oven and plate to hold everything down.  It seemed to work, and for the next three hours, the rolls happily bubbled away on low heat, and made our apartment smell heavenly. (Some people don’t like the smell of cooking pickled things.  I feel sorry for those people.)

Once they were finished (remember, this is Tuesday night) they were popped into the fridge to cool.  Except for the one that fell apart while cooking.  We ate that one right away.  For science.

Let’s hop forward again to Christmas day, and our other dish to accompany the cabbage rolls, Čušpajz od zelenog graha or Green Bean Soup.  This one starts off by making a stock with some more of the ham hock and some quartered onions.

Ham and onions making stock.

After that’s had an hour or so to reduce (longer would have been even better), we added our green beans, some more peeled waxy potatoes, and a whole bunch of dill.

Green beans and potatoes cooking

While those cooked, it was time to make a roux.  And this roux used as its fat an ingredient I’m actually sort of surprised we’ve never used for this project until now:  lard.

The recipe doesn’t actually specify how MUCH roux to make, but we used about a third of a cup each of water and flour, and that seemed to work, so if you try this yourself (HIGHLY recommended), that seems a reasonable quantity.

If you have never made a roux before, the instructions are basically – “Combine fat and flour. Stir forever. DO NOT STOP STIRRING.”

Roux being stirred.

This picture is the initial stir.  It quickly became homogeneous in color, and VERY VERY SLOWLY got darker. We tried to split the difference between overcooking the vegetables and undercooking the roux, and got something that probably wasn’t QUITE dark enough, but nonetheless thickened and flavored the soup beautifully.  The other major flavor that goes in at the end is vinegar, making for a sour, rich stew redolent with ham and dill.

Green bean soup and cabbage roll.

Absolutely phenomenal.  We reheated some for dinner, and it was still phenomenal then too. And the cabbage rolls were out of this world as well – they had a SUPER bite from the spicy paprika, and lots of smokiness from the smoked pork.

Finally, dessert!  And by “finally”, I mean, “we made it the day before.”  Yes, I know…

At any rate, we made nut rolls, which are a treat I’ve had many a holiday season at Walt’s place, so I knew approximately what I was shooting for here.  We start by chopping walnuts.  The recipe specifies a meat grinder, but absent one of those, the Cuisinart was pressed into service.  The walnuts are then cooked with milk (evaporated and regular), sugar, and a touch of salt and almond extract to make the filling.

Nut roll filling

Next you make one of the most labor intensive doughs I’ve worked with to date.  You start by scalding milk and adding eggs, shortening, salt, sugar, and yeast to make a starter.  If you’re following the recipe at home, I recommend melting the shortening into the scalded milk FIRST, because it takes a long time to cool, and you can proof your yeast and start your nuts while that’s happening.  (As opposed to standing around glaring at the thermometer, which was our approach.)

Dough starter

Once you’ve got the starter made, it goes into the bowl of a stand mixer, and you add in four and a half cups of flour…  over the course of half an hour.  Getting the consistency of this dough right takes patience. Once it’s mixed, you let it rise, then roll it out and spread filling all over it.  Try to do a better job rolling it into an oval shape than I did.

Nut roll, pre-rolling.

Once the filling is smeared, you roll up your nut rolls and stick them in the oven.

Uncooked nut rolls

These are the uncooked rolls. They poof up and brown beautifully in the oven, and then you have to wait an AGONIZING two and a half hours for them to cool before you can eat them.  And agonizing it was, because these things are magical.

Sliced nut rolls

Obviously they’re supposed to be a little more even in thickness, but they still tasted just as delicious as I remembered.

And that’s our Croatian holiday meal!  I can’t thank Walt enough for transcribing his family recipes and sending them to us, and I also can’t thank his family enough for handing down these traditions in the first place.  He has generously allowed me to share the recipes in the links, and the recipe for the nut roll includes a description of their source, which I’ll quote here.  (You should also read them even if you don’t plan to make the recipes – they include some wonderfully opinionated comments about, for example, parsley, and the express lack thereof, due to the fact that the author is not Italian.)

Next time we head back to the Caribbean for the first time in a while, and visit the island of Cuba!

Recipes:
“NOTES ON THE SOURCE: Annie Mahovlich DeNoble was born in Benwood, WV in 1926 to Emil and Ana Mahovlich. Her cooking and baking was in great demand her whole life. At every holiday she would make many of these nut rolls, sending them around the country as family members moved away. Although the formal name for the dish is “povitica” Aunt Annie, her siblings and parents always called it “gibanica”.”
(While these comments specifically relate to the nut rolls, all of these recipes are from Walt’s family.)

Sarma – Stuffed Cabbage – Croatian Style
Bakalar – Croatian Style for Christmas Eve
Croatian Green Bean Soup
Croatian Nut Roll

 

International Meals – Côte d’Ivoire

This week we return to west Africa, and the country of Ivory Coast, or Côte d’Ivoire.  (That diacritical is going to give me fits.) And for some reason, we’ll be using the local name for the alphabetization.  We’re still not doing Germany under “D”, so consistency is not our strong suit.

This week’s meal wasn’t terribly complicated, and only required two exotic ingredients.  Let’s meet them:

Attiéké and a Scotch Bonnet Pepper

On the right is a pepper that we’ve been looking for for ages – a Scotch Bonnet.  Habaneros make perfectly acceptable substitutes, and that’s what we’ve been doing, but because they’re common in both African and Caribbean cuisines, this makes something like the eighth recipe we’ve done that calls for them.

We finally found a source in the same small African grocer that provided the cassava leaves for Congo two weeks ago.  And bonus – they had the national dish of Côte d’Ivoire: Attiéké!  Attiéké is so iconic to this country that there’s been a recent move to have it designated a DOP (protected name), like Prosciutto di Parma. (Did you know that if it’s not actually from Parma, then it’s just sparkling ham?)

At any rate, what IS Attiéké?  It’s couscous, but instead of being made of… (Google, Google, Google) seminola flour like regular couscous, it’s made of cassava starch.  This gives it a pleasantly sour bite, and is without question my favorite thing I’ve eaten so far that is made of cassava.

But just because it’s the national dish, doesn’t mean that it is dinner by itself.  As a main dish, we made a chicken stew called Kedjenu. And here is where I failed you, dear readers, in the photography department.

We bought an entire chicken.  Whole.  This is not a thing we normally do, and would have made a lovely photograph, don’t you think?

Anyway, here’s a picture of all the ingredients in the pot, sadly taken AFTER I dismantled the chicken.

Uncooked chicken stew

Turns out, there’s nothing terribly unusual here: chicken, ginger, garlic, tomatoes, thyme, bay leaves, bell pepper, white and green onions, and one of them there Scotch bonnets.  Take note – that’s a ratio of ONE Scotch bonnet to ONE entire chicken.

Kedjenou (probably) literally means “shaken”, so the idea is that you’d put all these ingredients into a tightly sealed, heavy pot, and then instead of opening it and letting all the moisture escape, you’d shake the pot periodically during cooking.  And that’s what we did – this Dutch oven is pretty heavy and has a tight fitting lid, so a quick stir, and then everything just went in the oven for an hour.  Easy.

The attiéké was even simpler.  This dried version (you can also get it frozen) just required a 1:1 ratio with water and a quick zap in the microwave.  That’s probably not the most traditional method, but it’s what the box said to do, and who am I to argue with packaging?  (The box also said this product really was made in Côte d’Ivoire, so bonus authenticity points there.)

After a while, the kitchen smells amazing, and out comes the stew:

Finished Kedjenou

The paprika and tomatoes have turned the sauce a lovely red color.  Here’s the whole package:

Kedjenou and Attiéké

I like to think we’re getting better at the food porn here.

This dish was delicious, and the chicken was extremely moist after being sealed in the pot the whole time.  It was also SPICY. Scotch bonnets are not fooling around y’all. (And since we both love spicy food, that’s fine with us!)

Not every one of these international meals has to be a big project!  This one was simplicity itself, and could easily be made on a weeknight.  There’s no rule that says you couldn’t just buy a package of chicken parts if you didn’t want to bother slicing it up yourself.  And while attiéké may be a bit challenging to find, it would also work just fine with rice or standard couscous.  (That said, since WE know where to find it, we’ll be making it more in the future.)

With the holidays coming up, we may defer our next country until Christmas itself, since we have a real expert advising us on our next entry – Croatia!

Recipe:
Kedjenou

International Meals – Costa Rica

This week, we travel to Costa Rica!  Lots of good news for us on this one.

First off, there is an acknowledged national dish of Costa Rica, so that potential ambiguity is settled off the bat.  Next, there’s a definitive way to separate Costa Rican cuisine from that of its neighbors, which is often a challenge in this project.  In this case, that definitive way is Salsa Lizano!

What is Salsa Lizano, you ask? It’s a delightfully tangy vegetable based sauce that I would describe as “Like Worcestershire sauce, but less fishy and more citrusy.” In more good news, the Latino grocer that sold us the Colombian sausage two weeks ago had this stuff in stock.  And that really IS good news, because this stuff is SERIOUSLY tasty.  We got the bottle a few days before our Costa Rican meal, and had already started cooking with it, because it’s that good.  (Also, the bottle is huge, so there was no risk of running out.)

Finally, there’s plenty of Costa Rican recipes online in English, so we weren’t reduced to the only available recipe from a country in a machine translation from French.  Like last week.

To balance the ease of acquiring the obscure sauce, we had a hell of a time finding our veg.  The recipe we picked out called for chayote squash, which I didn’t think was all that weird.  So we stopped at a few fancy grocery stores around Vancouver to pick one up.  No luck at any of them. We went to the large public market on Granville Island.  No dice.

Welp.  Guess we’ll need a different vegetable dish.  So I walked up to the Sav On grocery store in our neighborhood to get some carrots and green beans…

…where they had chaoyte in stock.  OK, back to plan A.

So here’s our haul of unusual ingredients for this week, conveniently in one picture:

Salsa Lizano, Chaoyte Squash, and Ox Tails

The meat in this case is oxtail, which will be going into a stew.  That’s the Chayote on the left, and you’ll never guess what’s in the large bottle marked “Lizano Salsa.”

So lets get this party started.  First off, what is the acknowledged national dish of Costa Rica?  Why Gallo Pinto! The literal translation is “Spotted Rooster,” but no roosters were harmed in the making of this dish.  Rather, it’s a rice and beans combination that is often eaten for breakfast. Our other side dish will be Picadillo de Chayote, or “Chopped up stuff with Chayote in.”

Both dishes start with a sofrito, which is a fancy way of saying “cook some onions and stuff in fat first.” There are a million different approaches to sofrito around the world, as evidenced by the fact that even these two recipes from the same country had different bases.  The one on the left is the sofrito for the Gallo Pinto, and is made with onion, red pepper, cilantro, and salt in cooking oil.  The one on the right is for the picadillo, and involves onion and garlic in butter. (Margarine would apparently be more typical in Costa Rica, but the recipe author and we shared an “ick” on that one.) Both should probably have been chopped more finely, but whatever.

Sofrito number 1Sofrito #2

After the two sofritos have… um… sofrited? sofried? soffragated? you toss in the remainder of the ingredients and let them cook.  For the Gallo Pinto, that’s cooked black beans, rice, and Salsa Lizano, and the cooking time is basically just “until it’s warm.”  For the picadillo, it’s chayote and some corn, cooked it down until it’s tender, and then finished with some heavy cream. (not pictured)  What IS pictured is that we scorched it a little.  Oops.

Gallo PintoPicadillo de Chayote

OK, what about our meat dish? We’re going to use a pressure cooker so these oxtails don’t take forever. In they go with a few aromatics that, oddly enough, are not actually in the ingredient list for the recipe in question.  Fortunately, it was all stuff we had on hand, like onion and garlic, but it’s a weird omission.  After the pressure cooking, but before any other seasoning, the meat looked like this:

Cooked oxtail

For seasoning, we pulled out a few cups of the broth from the beef, and mixed it with tomatoes, onion, cilantro, garlic, soy sauce, more Salsa Lizano, sugar, and ersatz ketchup.  (The recipe calls for it, we didn’t have any, so we used tomato paste and little more sugar.)  All this gets combined in a blender.  Or at least, it would, if we had a blender.  Instead, we demonstrated once again why a food processor is NOT THE SAME THING, at least for liquid ingredients.

Sauce for beef stew

But it didn’t make THAT big a mess, and after we mixed up the sauce (and cleaned up), we put it and the beef into a pot for a quick warm-up.

The final meal is what is known as a casado in Costa Rica.  Literally it means “married man,” and the origin is either that restaurant patrons asked to be fed like their wives cooked for them at home, or that the rice and beans are married to the other dishes, since they are always served together. A casado most often has the beans and rice separate, but serving Gallo Pinto instead is apparently fine, and weren’t NOT going to make the national dish.

So here is our happily married casado:

Casado

And the verdict on taste?

This meal is the bomb. Or maybe it slaps. Or it slaps a bomb? I don’t know, what are the kids saying these days?

We need some sort of metaphor at this point, because this was simply too good to just say “it’s really good.” All of these recipes could make there way into our regular rotation, and the oxtail stew in particular was f-ing amazing. The combination of spices in the sauce were tangy and tomatoey and citrusy and sour and rich and incredible, and the oxtail just soaked it right up.  The Gallo Pinto is probably one of the best versions of beans and rice I’ve ever made, and even burned, the chayote was creamy and delicious.

And while each of these dishes was fantastic individually, they also blended into a whole that was greater than the sum of the parts.  We used the toritillas in the background of the photo to wipe up every drop on the plate, and the leftovers are NOT going to end up in the compost after a week, that’s for sure.

So, Costa Rica, y’all have some amazing food.  We’ll be making this stuff again, and that bottle of Salsa Lizano is not going to go bad on the shelf, either.  Next up, Côte d’Ivoire!

Recipes:
Estofado (Oxtail Stew)
Gallo Pinto (Spotted Rooster – Rice and Beans)
Picadillo de Chayote

International Meals – Republic of the Congo

A project like this is all about tough decisions. For example: “Do we really want to drive halfway across Michigan for an obscure Brazilian Cheese?” (yes) “Do we want to make fermented Durian?” (Jesus Christ, no.) “Where does the Republic of the Congo go in the alphabet?”

We have decided that it goes under “C”.  And Democratic Republic of the Congo goes under “D”.  However, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea goes under “N”, the People’s Republic of China, goes under C, and the Republic of China is… you know, we’re not even touching that one.  If you disagree with any of these choices, feel free to start your own blog… we’ll be waiting for you somewhere in the Fs, probably. (Fiji, Finland, and France)

Coming back to the critical distinction between the Republic of the Congo (henceforth “Congo”), and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (henceforwardely, “DRC”), the Congo is the one on the WEST side of the river that was oppressed by the French and is sometimes referred to as “Congo-Brazza,” after the capital, Brazzaville.  The DRC is the one on the EAST side of the river that was oppressed by the Belgians and is sometimes referred to as “Congo-Kinshasa”.

Unsurprisingly they have VERY similar food traditions, which are also not dissimilar from other nearby countries we’ve already covered, such as the Central African Republic and Cameroon.  They even share the same national dish.  So we’ll be following the lead of the “United Noshes” blog, and making that for the DRC. Over on the west bank, we’ll be making two dishes, a cassava leaf stew and grilled quail.

First up, as always – shopping!  There turns out to be a tiny African grocer near my office, and that’s where I picked up a frozen, rock-hard block of grated cassava leaves and a bottle of this stuff:

Bottle of Red Palm Oil

It’s our old friend, Red Palm Oil! Ubiquitous in African cooking, this is a pretty large bottle, but it’s the smallest one they had. Well, DRC, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eretria, and Eswatini (which we could, I suppose, file under “S”) are all coming up soon.

So what about the other ingredient, the cassava leaves? Well, we’re making Saka Saka, which is a Congolese stew involving the leaves, mixed vegetables, and mackerel.  There’s a number of recipes for this online, most of which are in French, and the one we’re using claims to be specifically local to Congo Brazza, so that’s good.  It also has sort of vague quantities, and serves thirty.  So that’s… well, let’s see how it goes.

First off, it calls for the leaves to be boiled for HOURS.  Six hours the night before, and then on a low heat pretty much the entire day of.  They look more or less like chopped spinach, and filled the apartment with a not at all unpleasant vegetal aroma.

Cassava Leaves

Saturday, we headed over to Granville Market to acquire our remaining ingredients.  Six frozen quail, some natural peanut butter, a lovely haul of vegetables…

Fresh Vegetables

…and this bad boy:

Whole Mackerel

I meant to take a picture of the mackerel BEFORE I decapitated it, but, then I had the cleaver in my hand, and I just couldn’t control myself.  It’s still pretty isn’t it?  You cook the veggies in the leaves for about two hours, then put the whole fish on top to steam for fifteen minutes.  (Or as much of the fish will fit in your pot.)

Mackerel on top of stew.
After fifteen minutes, the meat just flakes right off the bones, and you get boneless fish you can mash into your stew with very little effort.  It’s kind of a genius technique.  You finish the stew with the peanut butter, palm oil, and probably more salt than we actually used.

Meanwhile, what about the little birds?  Well, those get marinated in ginger, garlic, onions, oil, and a red pepper.  Except – reading the recipe more carefully, it’s clear that it was actually supposed to be a HOT pepper, not a red bell pepper, as Google translate rendered it.  We didn’t have any of those, but we did have a Jalapeno, meaning that this marinade was a lot less colorful than it should have been.  But we slathered it on the little fellas anyway.

Quail and marinade

It also turns out that although this recipe called for salt, it forgot to mention when to add it.  If you make this recipe for yourself, the answer to that question is definitely “when you make the marinade” and not “never.”

It was a fair evening, if only about 40 degrees out, so we fired up the grill.  (Since we’re in Canada now, I should probably be reporting temperatures in Celsius, or Kelvin, or Moose per furlong or something.)

At this point, we learned a valuable lesson on the topic of “Gas Grill Bypass Mode,” and how you don’t want your gas grill getting stuck in said mode.  Turns out if you try to start it too fast in cold weather, a safety device kicks on and the grill only runs at 10% capacity.  So that was fun.  A little Googling to identify the source of the problem, and we had the grill up to a nice roaring temperature in no time.  And look how purty these quail turned out!

Roasted Quail

And here’s a shot of the stew with some rice.

Cassava Stew

And… it was pretty good.  Once we added a bit more salt to both the stew and the quail to make up for the recipes failing to specify a quantity, and failing to to add it at all, respectively, they were both quite flavorful.  The addition of the fish definitely was a nice increase in complexity above some of the other “greens and peanut” stews we’ve had. And the quail were just yummy.

So – Republic of the Congo, you have tasty food.  We’ll be back in the neighborhood in a bit to try your national dish from the other side of the river.  Next up, Costa Rica, followed by either Côte D’Ivoire, (unless we put that under “I”), or Croatia!

Recipes:
Saka Saka (Congolese Cassava and Mackerel Stew)
Roasted Quail in a Chili Ginger Marinade

International Meals – Comoros

It’s pretty easy to see why this blog has been updating a lot more recently of late – after the world ended in March, we aren’t spending every weekend officiating roller derby.  With everything shut down, there’s just a lot less to do.  The upside is that roller derby is a very expensive hobby.  With less money going to travel and gear, it’s easier to justify splurges in other areas.

On a possibly related note, the national dish of Comoros involves lobster and fresh vanilla.

For those who don’t play a lot of Sporcle quizzes, Comoros is a tiny island nation off the east coast of Africa.  It’s been settled and/or colonized at various times by Africans, Arabs, southeast Asians, Europeans, and possibly Shriners, who knows?  It gained independence in the 1970s. Since then has suffered through over 20 coups, and has the highest income inequality in the world.

On its face, a dish of lobster and vanilla would seem to be something that only a very tiny proportion of such a divided society could enjoy.  Then again, both are local ingredients in Comoros, unlike in the Pacific northwest.  Ultimately, we just don’t know to what extent this is food that the average Comoran could enjoy on any sort of regular basis.  But it is unanimously agreed to be the national dish, so let’s do this.

Before we get to the main dish, however, let’s make our sides.  First up, Mkatra Foutra, a traditional bread frequently eaten with breakfast.  Which is not surprising, because it’s basically indistinguishable from a pancake.  You proof some yeast, then mix it with flour, egg, and salt to make a shaggy dough. You then turn that dough into a batter using (this is the distinctive part) coconut milk, rather than water.

And here we ran into our FIRST seeming recipe error of the evening.  Folks,  when the recipe calls for yeast, but has no rising time at all, you should probably at least CHECK to see if there’s an error in the recipe.  Some post-facto Googling reveals that pretty much every other version of this besides the one we used calls for letting the dough / batter rise for an hour before cooking.

But we didn’t do that, so into the pan they went!

Comorran bread cooking

Sure looks like a pancake, doesn’t it?  Tasted like one, too, although the sesame seeds on top gave it a slightly different crunch.  Didn’t stop us from putting maple syrup on the leftovers the following morning. (Pictures of the fully cooked version down below.)

Our other side dish uses much less expensive ingredients than the main dish. Beans, tomatoes, cumin, coconut milk… wait, HOW much saffron?

Never mind.

This curry actually calls for pigeon peas, which we’ve used on previous occasions.  But we have reached peak legume storage capacity in our kitchen.

You can decide for yourself if this is an argument we have between the two of us, or if this is just my inner monologue.  Either way, “cook the beans you have” won this time, and we decided to use black eyed peas, which are a staple in many African dishes, and therefore ruled by the judges (our cats) to be a valid substitution.

The peas get a quick cook in the instant pot, and then somewhat mushed up with the back of a ladle.

Next they get tossed into a pot with coconut milk, cumin, tomatoes, and… how much saffron?

It’s quite a bit – that’s the ONLY source of the color in this picture, and you can see it’s a really stunning shade of yellow.

The ingredient list also calls for a tomato, but completely neglects to mention when to toss it in.  Since we didn’t notice until we were ready to eat, we just tossed it in raw.  This is probably not authentic, but it was actually really tasty that way – the acidity was a nice contrast to the richness of the beans and coconut milk.

Time for the main event!  Leigh’s one request was that I NOT bring home a big live lobster and murder it in the kitchen.  While I personally believe I have it in me to do the dirty deed, it turns out not to be the right choice for this dish anyway.

There’s two kinds of lobsters you can generally find for sale in North America – whole North Atlantic lobsters, and lobster tails from rock or spiny lobsters.  The whole ones are what you think of when you think about New England lobster dinners – big suckers with claws full of meat.

Well guess what?  Those things aren’t native to the Indian Ocean. Instead, the lobsters you find there are much closer to Pacific spiny lobsters.  When you buy those, you only ever get tails, rather than whole lobsters.  Why?  Why are we denied spiny lobster claws?

Spiny, Slipper, Regal and Rock: The Secret Lives of Lobsters | Scuba Diving News, Gear, Education | Dive Training Magazine

Because they don’t have any, that’s why. (Photo by Marty Silverman, from his article in Dive Training Magazine.  Used without permission. Marty, if you have an issue, let me know, and I’ll take it down.)

Marty’s a much better photographer than I am, but here’s what our Pacific lobster tails looked like before cooking:

In case you weren’t aware, the only turn red AFTER they’re cooked.  But since that only takes about 5 minutes under the broiler, we better get cracking on the sauce!

First we sautéed shallots in butter, then added white wine, the seeds from a vanilla bean AND vanilla extract.  Scraping vanilla beans is fussy work, but oh so worth it.  After this has reduced a bit, in goes heavy cream.  The sauce reduces until the lobster is ready, then you strain out the shallots and pour the liquid over the lobster.   The whole thing is served over wilted spinach.

Here’s our best attempt at food porn for this meal:

Probably not up to Marty’s standards, but it still looks tasty, doesn’t it?  Here’s the full spread, with some more of the white wine.

This was a luxurious meal, no two ways about it.  Vanilla cream sauce over lobster, accompanied by beans with saffron.  We are well aware that we are super privileged to be able to do this, and we certainly wouldn’t do it every day.

But man… it sure was good. Vanilla and lobster are both amazing flavors, and neither one makes the other worse, that’s for sure.  And the beans were rich and delicious.

So what about dessert? Well, that turned out to be yet ANOTHER case (three out of four, if you’re keeping track at home) where the recipe seems to have failed us a bit. We decided to make an Indian inspired sweet called a Ladu, which is made with rice flour on the continent.  THIS version, on the other hand, called for ground raw rice. ?? OK, let’s go with it.  First, you cook the rice in ghee “until it is cooked well.”

I’m not sure how long that is, but I’m also not sure it’s actually achievable without, you know, water.  I don’t think rice can become fully cooked with just fat.  This rice certainly didn’t.  Other commenters on the internet have made the same observation.  The problem is that while there are a number of sites that have a recipe for Comoran Ladus, they all have the same recipe, clearly cut-and-pasted from some Platonic ur-recipe only glimpsed by the people in the cave in the story of the cave by the Greek guy. (no one knows my plan…)

Anyway.

Moving on, the rest of the ingredients aren’t too complicated – powdered sugar, cardamom and a surprising amount of black pepper. Mix into balls, and refrigerate, because there’s nothing else holding them together but ghee and prayer.

Taste-wise, we have to admit they’re pretty good.  Cardamom and sugar are a winning combination, of course, and the black pepper adds a fun biteyness. However the texture was… well, it was ground up, uncooked rice.  We ate them, because they were tasty, but it was “lose a filling” Russian Roulette each time we did.  So far, we’ve won, but we probably won’t play again after this batch is gone.

And that’s Comoros! We hope they enjoy a bit more political stability soon, because their food is delicious, if unevenly documented.  Next off we’re off to the Republic of the Congo, which is more or less equally as democratic (i.e., not terribly) as the Democratic Republic of the Congo next door.

Recipes:
Broiled Lobster Tail With Vanilla Sauce
Mkatra Foutra (Comoran Flatbread)
Pigeon Peas in Coconut Milk (In French)
Ladu