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: