International Meals – Jamaica

really don’t like eggs.

It’s weird – I’m fine with French toast, crepes, custard, even tamago, but for whatever reason, I find eggs as eggs completely unpalatable.  It doesn’t matter what form they are in – scrambled, poached, benedict – I just don’t care for the taste.  Which seriously limits my options at brunch restaurants.  I really wish I DID like eggs – that 80% of the menu looks very interesting!  But there you are.

So anyway, this week we’re making the national dish of Jamaica – saltfish and ackee.

What are ackee, you ask? They are a fruit which can be quite toxic if not prepared correctly.  For that reason, they are only available in the US and Canada canned. So off we went to the Caribbean market for a few cans of this stuff, along with a package of salted cod.
Canned Ackee
Huh.  That’s kind of a funny looking fruit on the can.  I wonder what it looks like when we open it up?

Opened cans of ackee
Oh.  Oh dear.  Did I mention I have an absolutely visceral dislike of scrambled eggs?

Now to be absolutely clear – ackee tastes absolutely nothing LIKE scrambled eggs. Honestly, it doesn’t seem to have much of a flavor at all.  If anything, I would describe it as being like an extremely mild, buttery cheese.  Maybe it’s different fresh?

But oh my goodness did this tweak something in my lizard brain. (“EGGS!” the lizard shouted.)

Let’s press on.  Like any dish involving salted fish, the first step is to soak the fish for as long as possible to draw out the salt.  We had about five hours, and I suspect more would have been better.

Salted fish
Once the fish has been soaked in a few changes of water, you boil it and then shred it up.  Meanwhile, in a pan, you cook onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, thyme (we used something labelled “Jamaican thyme,” but it didn’t seem any different from the regular kind), and a Scotch bonnet pepper.

Vegetables cooking
Once those have softened up a bit, you toss in the fish and the ackee and let it all heat up.  We found two recipes for this dish which were nearly identical, except one said to cook the ackee for absolutely no longer than three minutes, and the other said at least fifteen.

Fine.  This is like that time we found one set of directions that said we had to set our hot water heater absolutely no higher than 115 F to avoid burning ourselves, and another that said absolutely no lower than 130 F to avoid Legionnaire’s disease.


Anyway, to go with the saltfish and ackee, we made coconut rice, which is literally just rice cooked in coconut milk, with some green onions on top.  And here’s the two of them together:

Saltfish and ackee
My goodness, it REALLY looks like scrambled eggs, doesn’t it?

I will reiterate again, however, that it doesn’t TASTE like eggs.  Mostly it tasted like salt.  I think we needed to soak the cod overnight, or change the water more, or something, because the salt flavor was really overpowering.  The buttery fruit was quite rich, as was the coconut rice – I can see why this is frequently eaten for energy in the morning.

That said – it wasn’t really our favorite international dish we’ve made, and that was probably our fault.  If you asked me to tune it to my own parochial tastes, I would probably add quite a few more tomatoes for acidity, or perhaps some lime juice.  Just something to cut the richness. But again – that’s my taste, not a comment on the quality of the dish itself.

As always, we want to stress that if one of these dishes turns out not to our taste, we are NOT making any judgements on the quality of that country’s cuisine.  Rather, the fault lies either in our taste, or in our own uninformed execution of the dish.

We also made a coconut toto, which is almost certainly not named after the small dog that wrote the soundtrack for the original Dune movie.  Instead, it’s a standard cake, made by creaming together butter and sugar, and then adding flour, rum, desiccated coconut, and a LOT of nutmeg.

Coconut toto
Not super exciting to look at, but absolutely delicious for dessert.
Slice of coconut toto
So that’s the national dish of Jamaica.  Everyone thought we were going to make jerk chicken, curry goat, or oxtail for this one, and frankly, we probably still will sometime soon.  Not necessarily as an official addition to the blog, but just because we LIKE those things, and this go-round has reminded us of their existence.

Next up, Japan!

Saltfish and Ackee
Coconut Toto

International Meals – Italy, Part 3: Sicily

This meal seemed to be cursed.

We decided to celebrate the land of approximately 25% of my ancestors with a dish called Pasta con le Sarde, or “Pasta With Sardines.” So naturally, we needed to acquire some sardines.

The FIRST time I went to get sardines, my car battery died.  So not only did I not get sardines, I also missed a brass band rehearsal, and eventually had to pay a LUDICROUS amount of money to have the thing replaced.  Thanks, supply chain!

Take 2: Got in my car several weeks later to drive to Granville Island.  Car started right up, got to the fish counter, and found out that fresh sardines are no longer a thing in Vancouver.  Something about currents.  The curse then kicked up to high gear when I LEFT Granville Island, and discovered that a race course had been set up such that I couldn’t get back within half a mile of our apartment. I had to park a long way off, go get my horn, walk back to the car before my parking ran out (in the pouring rain, of course) and go sit in a library for the next two hours.

On the other hand, if I HADN’T gone to fail to get fish, I would have been trapped INSIDE the race route, so that’s something, I guess.

Sooo…. canned it is, I guess. Not the ideal choice, but better than nothing.  (We later found out that frozen can be had if you know exactly which specialty grocery store to hit, but the ones I tried didn’t have them.)

We ALSO managed to buy the wrong size pasta, but at that point we just wanted to EAT, darnit.

OK, so what even IS this recipe?  Well, it’s a somewhat similar flavor mix to the salad we had last time, but with the addition of this bad boy:


But lets not get ahead of ourselves.  Our mise en place starts with soaking raisins and saffron in hot white wine.  Sicily really has been a crossroads for a LOT of cultures over the years.

Raisins soaking in white wine

Next up, let’s fry some bread crumbs in olive oil.

Bread Crumbs

And then chop up a buncha other stuff, including the inevitable onion.

Mise en place

That package of pine nuts has now made an appearance in all three Italian meals, so they’re pulling their weight, for sure. In addition to those, onion and fennel fronds on the cutting board, and the aforementioned raisins and breadcrumbs up top, you can also see the jar of anchovies from last week coming back out for another appearance, and the chopped fennel BULB at upper right.

Everything ready, it’s time to start cooking. You start by softening up the onion and fennel, then you add in the anchovies.

Onions, fennel, and anchovies 
This gets cooked until the anchovies have basically completely dissolved into the oil, which is kind of amazing.  Next up, in with the raisins and wine, which get cooked until they reduce away.

Raisins going into the sauce
Finally, in go the sardines and pine nuts.

Meanwhile, the pasta gets cooked separately until just this side of done, and finally everything gets tossed together with a little bit of pasta water.

It’s not actually all that complicated a dish.  Did I mention we did this one on a weeknight?

The breadcrumbs go on at the end when the dish is served, along with the fennel fronds.  And here it is!

Sicilian PastaNot my best food porn, which is a shame, because this was actually delicious.  The sweet raisins, salty anchovies, toasty pine nuts and bread crumbs, fishy sardines, and pungent fennel, all combined to make something that really felt of a place – there wasn’t any question of “isn’t this the same as what you can get across the border in the next country over?”

It was also delicious.  If I ever spot fresh sardines on a counter, I’ll snap them up so we can try this again with the not canned kind.

And after a solid year… that’s the “I”s done!  It’s been a long trip.  Next up, Jamaica!

Pasta con le Sarde

International Meals – Italy, Part 2: Southern Italy

We really tried to resist it as being too obvious, but the fact of the matter is that the most iconic dish of southern Italy is the pizza. So let’s do this.  One pizza, coming up.

But we’ll at least try to do it right.

Fancy flour:
00 Flour

Fancy capers, fancy anchovies, fancy cheese, and fancy tomatoes:
Capers, anchovies, cheese, and tomatoes

The capers and anchovies are for the salad, not the pizza, but I can’t be bothered to clip this into two separate pictures.  So we’ll get back to those.  The cheese is Fior di Latte, which is Mozzarella made with cows’ milk. Apparently fancy Mozzarella is made with buffalo milk. Pretty sure the shredded stuff in bags you get at your local Safeway is NOT made with buffalo milk, but who knows?

Anyway, this stuff DEFINITELY isn’t.  And the tomatoes are San Marzano tomatoes, regarded as the finest canned tomatoes that ARE available at your local Safeway.

Fancy diastatic malt powder:

Diastatic malt powder

Don’t ask me what this does, I have no idea.  I wasn’t able to find a DOP diastatic malt powder from the Diastia region of Italy, so we just went with this.

For the dough, I was recommended a fancy recipe, which I followed to the letter, but in hindsight, I have serious doubts about the wisdom of that.

First, the flour to water ratio seemed QUITE off.  I know pizza doughs can be fairly dry, but this just crumbled. But aggravating that was the problem that the knead time for this recipe was, in hindsight, just absurdly, laughably low.  One minute in the stand mixer and three by hand is NOT going develop anything LIKE enough gluten, and in hindsight, it really, really didn’t.

Dough before fermentation
This went into the fridge for two days to ferment, and then it was pizza night!

When I attempted to make the pizza, it was clear something had gone seriously wrong with the dough – it was brittle and crumbly, and there was no way to stretch it out to the desired size.  We baked it off for the (far too short) length of time specified in the recipe, and it was basically raw.

However, we were HUNGRY at this point, so we ate the salad (which I will talk about in a minute) and tried again – the dough recipe made three portions.  This time we used a rolling pin to get it as thin as possible and just cut the excess off to make a circle.  We dropped the amount of sauce from “not much” to “really, really not much”, and cooked it for three times the length of time called for in the recipe.  This one wasn’t too bad.


Still not the best pizza we’ve made, but at least over the line into “edible.”  What’s madding is that we’ve made much better pizza on numerous occasions with far less effort, but when we tried to pull out all the stops, it seemed to make things dramatically worse.

The tomato sauce was delicious, anyway.  As was the salad.  So let’s talk about that!

We made Escarole alla monachina, which is a warm salad made with bitter greens (obviously escarole for preference, but we didn’t find that), anchovies, capers, pine nuts, and raisins. (Olives too, but we left those out.) And boy howdy, did the fancy anchovies and capers make a difference. Here’s the salad still cooking:

Salad cooking

And here’s the final product with the sad failed pizza cropped out:

This was REALLY the standout of the evening.  The second pizza was fine, but the umami blast from the anchovies, combined with the sweet raisins, tart capers, and crunchy pine nuts, was just stunning.  Would make for guests, if I didn’t have to buy a 50 gallon drum of greens to wilt down to more than two servings.

So that’s our southern Italian attempt – an excellent salad, and a not great pizza. We know it’s not you, Naples, it’s us.

Next time, Sicily!

Recipe: (not going to bother linking the pizza one)
Escarole alla monachina

International Meals – Italy, Part 1: Northern Italy

When Leigh was in college, some of her friends had a really dumb game called “Tour de Beer.”  They would go to the crappy campus bar, and attempt to work their way all the way across the taps, having one of each beer.  This being a crappy college bar, the taps started easy – Budwiser, Miller Lite, etc.

But in the middle, there was a bit of a roadblock… Guinness, followed by Bass.  Not exactly Pappy Van Winkle, but definitely tough to just power through.

I bring this up, because we started the “I”s on this blog last MAY, and it seems likely they’ll take a full year. The “I”s have a LOT of countries that can’t be easily condensed – India, Indonesia, and now Italy. But I’m sure the “J’s will… Oh right – Japan.

We are ONLY making one meal for Kiribati, no matter what, OK?

Let’s get started.  There’s some broad generalizations you hear about Italy – the north has more butter, the south has more olive oil; the north has more beef, the south has more pork; the north has more Ligurians, the south has more Sammites.  My notes may be a little out of date.

For the north we decided to make a Lasagna Bolognese, a version of this dish characterized by a slow simmered meat sauce with very little tomato.  We would accompany this with a loaf of Tuscan bread, some Genoese pesto, and a few different antipasti.

Let’s start with the bread, since that had to be started the night before.  Tuscan bread is notable for containing no salt, for historical reasons that I have no idea if they are made up or not.  In order to break down the gluten a sponge is made by soaking flour in water overnight, to make a bit of a mush:

Once it’s had a nice long soak, you add in the rest of the flour, and the water that I’m PRETTY sure should have been called for in the recipe, but wasn’t.  Also a LOT of yeast.  (garlic for scale)

Turns out if you break down the gluten overnight, even though you no longer have any salt to slow the yeast down, you still need a lot of it to overcome that lack.  It’s a weird balancing act.  It also has a VERY long knead time, which was not aided by the fact that our Kitchenaid overheated after the first minute.  Arm day!

A few rises and shapings later, we had some nice loaves. The final product will be at the end.


Next up, Bolognese sauce!  You start by making a soffritto consisting of carrots, celery, and onions, processed pretty fine.

Once that’s cooked down, in goes half the meat.  This is a trick to allow you to get some nice browned flavor without drying out ALL of the meat.  Since I had gone to an Italian grocery store with an excellent deli counter, we went with the fancy option of 1/2 beef, 1/4 pork, and 1/4 veal.


The meat does get a LITTLE tomato paste.
Tomato sauce on meat

It also gets wine.  When I went to the liquor store to look for something Italian that wasn’t too expensive to put in a sauce, but wasn’t too cheap to drink the rest of, the associate recommended a nice Chianti.
In conversation, they also mentioned that the movie “Sideways” had caused sales of Merlot to drop measurably.  I just hope that “Silence of the Lambs” did NOT have a corresponding positive effect on sales of Chianti.

Anyway, let’s finish this ragu. It should ideally be hydrated with homemade stock, but failing that, we used store bought with a few packets of gelatin added.  And with that, it just goes on the stove to simmer for three hours.

However, there is another sauce in a classic lasagna Bolognese, and that’s a creamy Béchamel.  Frankly, ours never thickened, and I’m not sure it actually added anything to the final dish.  But we made an attempt.

For the final assembly, we had purchased fresh lasagna noodles, and then had to contend with the massively contradictory opinions as to whether they should be cooked or not.  We opted to boil them very briefly and then shock them in ice water.


This seemed a reasonable middle ground between the package directions of “4-6 minutes” and the more common internet consensus of MAAYBE put them in the same room with some lukewarm water.

And then it was time to build the thing. Sauce, noodles, béchamel, Parmesan and on and on…
Lasagna under construction

Lasagna in the oven, it was time to make pesto.  It was brought to my attention last time that we made an incorrect characterization of the price of pine nuts, by comparing them to Neodymium.  Although it depends on where you source the Neodymium, and what form you get it in, it does appear this was a bit excessive.

Pine nuts, in fact, ONLY cost as much by weight as Holmium.  Glad we got that sorted out.

Anyway, here’s the pesto in process.
Making pesto

And here’s the pesto, the bread, and the rest of our antipasti:


Not a bad spread, huh?  In addition to the bread and pesto, the plate on the right contains mortadella, Prosciutto Di San Danielle, Parmigiano Reggiano, mozzarella, and olives.  The olives are from Peru, but we had them lying around, and they were a perfectly reasonable thing to add.

The bread was just as unsalted as advertised, but the texture came out perfect for soaking up the pesto.

And what about the lasagna?

Finished Lasagna
Gotta say, we were pretty happy with that.  And the actual Italian person we invited over confirmed that this was a reasonably authentic approach to a Bolognese style Lasagna.

Said Italian person ALSO provided us with dessert!

English Soup
This is an ancestor of Tiramisu called Zuppa Inglese or “English Soup.”  “Soup” was apparently a relatively generic term in Italian cooking at one point that just referred to things soaked in other things.  This particular trifle contains sponge cake or ladyfingers dipped in a liquor that originally got its bright red color from insect wings.  And then the “English” part may or may not have been a dedication to Lord Nelson.  Take that, Napoleon!

And that’s our first Italian meal!  The plan is two more – the south, and then back to my Sicilian roots.  Thanks to our guests for coming out and bringing dessert!

Basic Ragu Bolognese
Lasagna Bolognese
Genoese Pesto

International Meals – Israel

Israeli cuisine is a bit of a difficult subject.  The sovereign state of Israel as it exists today was only established in 1948.  But the area has been continuously inhabited for just about as long as we have evidence that humans have existed at all.

So what IS Israeli food?  Is it the food of the region in general? Israel has a simmering argument with Lebanon over who can lay claim to hummus. The argument, is of course, nonsense – hummus is substantially older than either Israel or Lebanon, and is ubiquitous throughout the middle east.

Is Israeli food the food of the diaspora, brought back to the region by returning Jews?  Should we perhaps focus on the food of modern Israeli chefs like Eyal Shani, whose whole roasted cauliflower can be found all over the internet?

In the end, we decided these questions are above our pay grade, tried to pick a few recipes that we believe would be reasonably typical in a modern Israeli household, and got on with it.

We ARE making hummus, but from a recipe which claims to be “Israeli style.”  This is another somewhat dubious claim, since there’s not actually a lot to vary here.  The basic ingredients of hummus everywhere are chickpeas (soaked and cooked), lemon juice, salt, and tahini. This version also includes quite a bit of garlic, which is not at all unusual.

A word about tahini, however.  Tahini has only one ingredient – sesame seeds.  In principle, we could have made it from scratch, but we decided to just get a jar of ground up sesame seeds.  At which point it occurred to me – I already HAD a jar of ground up sesame seeds.

Jars of sesame paste

Did I really need to buy the one on the left?  As it turns out, yes.  While both jars contain nothing but ground sesame, the one on the right contains ground TOASTED sesame, which has a slightly different flavor profile. Great for Dan Dan noodles, which is why we have it, less good for hummus.

Once you’ve cooked the chickpeas, the process for making hummus is: “blend everything together.”


Bam. Hummus.  For our main dish, we’re making a lamb kebab with a tahini sauce.  Let’s see what the ingredients for this sauce are.

Lemon juice, tahini, garlic, salt….

Tahini sauce

….waaaait a minute.  This sauce is just hummus without the chickpeas.  Oh wait – it gets some mint and parsley too.  Thank goodness.

The actual kebabs are seasoned with mint and parsley as well, in addition to pine nuts which, at the time of this writing, are roughly twice as expensive (by weight) as neodymium.

I am not making this up.

Kebab mixture.
We live in Canada, and it’s winter, so clearly grilling would be out of the question.

I’m kidding, of course – we live in Vancouver, so it was in the 40s F, or… some other temperature C.  Perfectly fine for grilling, anyway.

Grilling kebabs.

For our final dish, we DID make cauliflower, although we decided to eschew the trendy “whole cauliflower” thing for a battered and fried version.  The cauliflower got a quick blanch in boiling water, and was then put through a rigorous dunk in three separate stations.

Cauliflower cooking process
First flour, then egg, and finally breadcrumbs and spices.  (“spices” in this case means turmeric, chicken bullion powder, and pepper.) These are then fried up in olive oil until crispy and brown.  Wouldn’t want the cauliflower to be HEALTHY, after all.

To accompany the meal, we bought the only Israeli wine (other than Manischewitz) available at our local liquor store.

Israeli wine

And here’s the final spread.

Israeli Meal
Full confession, the pita was also just purchased off the shelf.

And… it was pretty darn good!  The cauliflower, in particular, was excellent – crunchy on the outside, not too soft in the middle, with a nice bite from the pepper and the bread crumbs.  The kebabs were tasty, and hummus is always great.

Was there anything on this table that is uniquely Israeli? Probably not.  Is this a meal that would be absolutely normal to see on an Israeli table?  Probably.  Was it delicious? Yes.

And that’s probably the most important thing.

Next up, our fifth country that’s going to need to be split into multiple meals, and then we’re out of the “I”s!

Extra garlicky “Israeli style” Hummus
Ground Lamb Kebabs with Pine Nuts and Tahini Sauce
Fried Cauliflower


International Meals – Ireland

I had four different possible ways to start this entry.  Rather than choose one, I’ve decided to just include them all, and you can pick which one you prefer. If this were an actual recipe blog, this would be infuriating, since it just delays getting to the actual recipe.  But this ISN’T a recipe blog – it’s just me babbling about our cooking. So here are your babble choices:

A. In 2011, within the space of a week, we saw two different Irish bands named after classified aircraft.  U2 we saw at Spartan Stadium, with 70,000 of our closest friends.  Bell X1, on the other hand, was at a tiny venue in Ann Arbor.  Both shows had their appeal, and neither leant us the slightest insight into Irish food…

B. “I am so sorry.”  I have an Irish coworker, James, who is aware of our food project.  I’ve shown him the blog, and pictures of our efforts, and he was aware that his homeland was approaching.  And for some reason, all he wanted to do was apologize…

C. “Raw scallops taste a bit like lamb testicles!” was NOT a phrase I expected to encounter while shopping for this (or frankly, ANY) meal.  But there it was, floating around the butcher shop where I acquired the lamb roast for this stew…

D. At some point, I swear I am going to go back through this blog and do actual statistics on what fraction of the recipes start with chopping an onion.  I will be SHOCKED if I find that the number is less than 80 percent…

E. When I was in college, my friend Ethan had a running gag of “jokes without punchlines” and “punchlines without jokes.” For example – “A nun, a priest, and a rabbi are walking down the street. The nun bends over to pick up a quarter, and the priest says to the rabbi…”

That last one has nothing to do with Irish food, but serves to make the point that NONE of those ellipses are going to get resolved, sorry.

So anyway, Ireland.  First off, Irish food is NOT the same thing as Irish-American food, and as such there will be no corned beef and cabbage, nor will there be any green beer.  That’s not even Irish American food, that’s just drunken idiots at 8 am on St. Patrick’s Day, and let me tell you I do NOT miss living in a college town.

Instead, we’re going to go with a basic lamb stew, which as far as I can determine absolutely IS traditional Irish food.  We will start, as always, by chopping up some onions. Also potatoes, carrots, and lamb.

Once we’ve mised our en place, we need to render some bacon.  If I had read the directions more carefully, I would have chopped up the bacon BEFORE cooking it, but at least we managed to NOT set off the fire alarm this time.

Bacon cooking
Bacon fat rendered, it was time to brown the lamb.  No, first it was time to transfer the fat over to our Dutch oven, where I should have just rendered the bacon in the first place.  THEN we browned the lamb.
Browning lamb
Once the lamb is seared, it comes out, and the veggies go in to soften up a bit. then you return the lamb to the pot with some stock (I used beef – who has time to make stock?) the veg, and some pearl barley.
Veggies, lamb, and barley

And at this point, you may ask yourself, “Self?” (you may ask) “don’t we still have six potatoes to add to this pot?  How are we going to stir those in without making a colossal mess?”  (Admit it – you thought I was going to make a “Once in A Lifetime” reference there, didn’t you?)

Fortunately, the recipe says to simply layer the potatoes on top to steam, so no further stirring was required.

This was supposed to go in the oven for a few hours, but we just kept it on the stovetop on low heat, because we needed the oven at a completely different temperature to make the one dish that James actually DOES concede is pretty good – soda bread!

“Soda” in this case means baking soda, not Faygo.  I don’t know where I’d even GET Faygo around here, but if I could, it wouldn’t be a good choice for making this (or probably any) bread.  Soda bread uses baking soda and something acidic (usually buttermilk) for leavening.  It requires no kneading, no rise time, and only has four ingredients.  It is the most absurdly simple loaf of bread I have ever made.



Bam. Done.

And here’s the full meal, with a Guinness for me, and a Guinness lager for Leigh, who does not particularly care for stouts. Also some nice Kerrygold cheese.

Irish meal

And frankly – it was good!  Not a bonkers complicated spice palate like some countries, but just hearty comfort food.  We got a good cut of lamb, and I suspect that made a big difference in the quality of the dish, since the meat could speak for itself.

Oh, and the bread was absolutely bangin’.  I am literally making another loaf as I am typing this.

Irish food is tasty, and there’s no doubt we’ll finish the big pile of leftovers this meal produced.  Next up, Israel!

Irish Stew
Irish Soda Bread

International Meals – Iraq

Despite having NAMES that are only one letter off, Iraq and Iran are actually quite different countries.  They have different primary languages, for starters, and were actively at war as recently as the 1980s.

Iraq has an acknowledged national dish, masgouf. We are going to have to approximate this rather than making a fully accurate version, for a number of reasons.

Reason 1 – no access to apricot logs.
Reason 2 – no ability to (legally) set things on fire in downtown Vancouver.
Reason 3 – no access to carp.

In case you haven’t inferred it by now, masgouf is carp, grilled for 1-3 hours over apricot wood.  Traditionally, the carp would be harvested directly from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but given the amount of bloodshed in the country, combined with the fact that carp are bottom feeders, there’s actually now a fatwa in effect prohibiting the consumption of wild caught carp from much of Iraq.

Fortunately, carp are pretty easy to farm. Saddam Hussein had a private pond stocked, so he could indulge his masgouf craving.  Of course, locating this pond was part of the trail that lead to his capture, so maybe don’t do that if you’re a bloodthirsty dictator on the run from the authorities.

Possibly as a result of this advice, this type of carp are not easy to locate in Vancouver.  You can find grass carp, but that’s a different fish entirely. So we opted for tilapia, another mild, freshwater fish that is readily available in Asian markets.

Since I’ve been going to aforementioned Asian markets more often, I’ve gotten better about walking right up to the live fish tank and saying “please murder that one for me.”  The staff at these places is also great about scaling and filleting the fish if you ask, and they are MUCH better at it than I am.  However, I did encounter a bit of incomprehension at first when I asked for the fish to be butterflied, rather than simply gutted.  I’m not sure if the clerk truly didn’t understand me, or just didn’t WANT to understand me, since butterflying a fish is a lot more work, but he eventually agreed to do it, and I came home with this bad boy.

Butterflied Tilapia
Before I talk about what happened next with the fish, I need to talk about the salad.  We had picked out a simple sumac salad, consisting of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, parsley, and a LOT of ground sumac.  This is an ingredient I am accustomed to adding by the teaspoon.  The recipe called for half a cup.

Salad ingredients

That’s a LOT of sumac.  That’s also an ENGLISH cucumber, but the Persian market I went to for the sumac didn’t have any other kind.  Neither did anyone else.  Supply chain issues?  Who knows.

But why did I need to divert here from our fish story? Well, because before putting the fish in a 500° F (!!!) oven, you’re supposed to squeeze some lemon juice and salt over it.  And that’s a lemon in the picture.  Right?  It must be a lemon.  It’s yellow, innit?

So I cut it in half and squeezed it over the fish, then gave the lemon carcass to Leigh, who likes to eat limes and lemons out of hand.

At which point we discovered there’s such a thing as a sweet Persian lime.

Sweet Persian limes aren’t all that sweet, but they definitely AREN’T sour, either, so the fish was hastily yanked back out of the oven and doused with some lemon juice out of a bottle.

OK, fish back in Hephaestus’s forge, it was time to make a topping. For this, we start with onions and garlic, because of course we do.  I’m not even going to include the picture – please see the other 50 entries on this blog that include a picture of onions and garlic cooking.  I’ve decided the absolute most unusual food practice in the world isn’t Sardinian maggot cheese or live crickets – it’s the Jainists in India who don’t eat onions and garlic, because my goodness everyone else does.

Also, Sardinian maggot cheese is a real thing.  We’re not making it.

Anyway, in addition to onions and garlic, we need to return to that big bag of dried limes we bought for Iran, and break them up for the black pulp inside.

Dried limes in a mortar

Smashy smashy!

The last thing we need is parsley, tomato paste, and curry powder.  Now, when a recipe only says “curry powder” it makes me sad, because there are a MILLION possible curry powders.  Fortunately, there are a bunch of recipes for Iraqi curry powder online.  Unfortunately, they are all the SAME recipe cut and pasted a bunch of times, and we absolutely could not determine the source or authenticity of the recipe.  Still, gotta use something.
Iraqi(?) curry powder

That’s coriander, cumin, turmeric, cayenne pepper, and paprika.  Tasty, anyway.

All together, our fish topping now looks like this:
Fish topping being cooked

The fish cooks for a surprisingly long time, given the surface of Venus temperature.  The recipe calls for 20 minutes with just the fish, and then another 15 with the topping spread on top. I was REALLY concerned we’d set off the smoke detector as a result of this, but we got away with it, and this was the result:

Finished grilled fish

Trust us, there’s still a fish under all those onions.

For our sides, we had the salad, topped with an oil and vinegar dressing with another insane dollop of sumac powder, and vermicelli rice.  This is made by first crushing up a handful of noodles and frying them like we did for our Egyptian kushari.Frying noodles

The noodles are then added to rice which is carefully cooked on the stove.  No, who am I kidding – we used the rice cooker.  Authentic? No.  Do we care? Also no.

And here’s the final spread:
Iraqi meal
This was phenomenal.  WELL worth the risk of an appearance by the Vancouver Fire Department.  (And I’m sure if we’d given them some of the fish, they’d have agreed.) The topping was spicy and delicious, and the fish really benefited from its roasting in the depths of the inferno.  The buttery rice and sour salad also acted as the perfect balancers.

But we did not stop there – we also made dessert! Kleicha are rolled cookies made with a sweet date filling.  So first off, we needed dates.  The Persian market had dates.  Oh boy, did it have dates.  The clerk found me staring at a WALL of at least seven different kinds of dates with a dazed look on my face trying to Google “best kind of dates for cookies.” She pointed me to a box of Mazafati, and those seemed to work.

Once you have your dates, you pit them and cook them down into a filling along with cardamom, cinnamon, and a little salt and water.

Date filling
Then you make a soft dough with almond and rice flour, more cinnamon and cardamom, and some milk and coconut oil for fat. This gets rolled out.

Rolled out cookie dough.

The ruler is from a production I conducted of “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?”  It’s… fine.  There are better shows.  The ruler is also fine, but it doesn’t have metric, sadly.

At any rate, the filling gets spread on the dough, and then rolled into a log, which is chopped into cookies, topped with sesame seeds, and then baked.

Iraqi cookies

They’re not perfect, but the spirals aren’t bad, either. And appearance aside, these are TASTY little suckers.  Would make again.  (Had better make again – still have half a box of dates.)

So, the cradle of civilization (well, one of them, anyway) turns out to have excellent food.  They’ve certainly had lots of time to work it out, and they seem to have put it to good use.

Next up, Ireland!

Masgouf (oven baked fish)
Vermicelli Rice
Sumac Salad
Iraqi Curry Powder
Kleicha (date cookies)


International Meals – Guyana

Since we did Iran last week, next up in alphabetical order is (checks notes) Guyana!  Wait, hang on.  Oh right, we’ve had a pin stuck in Guyana for over a year, because I have a coworker from there, and we wanted to have her over to judge our efforts.  And then, well – things just kept happening.  But the grand day has finally arrived, and we can share our efforts with you, our hypothetically existing readers.

First off, a bit of background.  Guyana is a country in South America that shares a border with Venezuela, Suriname, and Brazil.  While Brazil and Guyana seem to have a pretty firm agreement on where their border lies, the border with Venezuela has been disputed since before there even WAS a Venezuela, and the Suriname border has been contested for nearly as long.  The result of this is that more than half of the area marked “Guyana” on a map may or may not be part of the country.

Guyanese food is a mix of Caribbean, British, Indian, and indigenous influences.  A strong contender for the national dish is a stew called “pepperpot,” which is based on a difficult to source sauce called “Cassareep.”  Fortunately,  Saf, my Guyanese coworker, was able to provide us with a bottle.

Cassareep sauce

As indicated in the picture, cassareep is made from Cassava root.  It is dark brown in color, and simultaneously sweet and bitter.  If only we had some sort of word that combined sweet and bitter.  Oh well.

Pepperpot is a stew that can be made with whatever meat you have available.  We chose beef, as our guests keep halal, and headed back to the same butcher where I got the lamb last week.  You first steam the beef to make it easy to remove the fat, then it goes into a pot with the cassareep.

Cassareep going onto beef.

In addition, you also add cinnamon, orange peel, cloves, brown sugar, salt, and wiri wiri peppers.

Wait, WHAT was the last?  Not to be confused with piri piri peppers, which we had to hunt down for Benin, these are small, not dried, and incredibly fragrant.  These were also provided by Saf. Seriously, this meal wouldn’t have been possible without her generous contributions. You’ll see a picture of one of these things a bit later on.

Ingredients added, the stew just stews for as long as you can possibly let it.  We went for about three hours.

Pepperpot cooking.

Trust us, there’s beef in there.  After three hours of cooking, it had reduced to the point where you no longer have to trust us.

Reduced pepperpot.

The traditional accompaniment to pepperpot is a plaited, soft bread.  Never having made plaited bread before, our effort was… a bit of a chonky boi, compared to the longer, thinner shapes you see online.

Plaited bread
It was also a bit denser than it should have been, which is probably down to underkneading.  Seems it takes more than just WATCHING a million episodes of “Great British Bakeoff” to make one an accomplished baker.

For our other side dish, we made a channa fry. First, you boil some chickpeas, hopefully after remembering to soak them first, but if not, a pressure cooker is your best friend.  Then you fry them with this nice pile of stuff.  Upper right is the aforementioned wiri wiri pepper.

Channa fry ingredients

Also visible are toasted cumin seed, garlic, onion, paprika, black pepper, and salt.  Fried up together, you get a delicious, spicy dish.

For OUR final contribution, we also made limewash, which is perhaps an unsettling name, but is essentially just limeade with a little added seasoning, either “mixed essence”, which we didn’t have, or vanilla, which we did.  And we used fresh limes.

So. many. limes.


To finish the meal, Saf brought dessert – a delicious confection made from evaporated and condensed milks, agar-agar, and a little bit of food coloring.

Guyanese dessert

And here’s the final meal!  (We forgot to take a picture before we ate, so this is a slightly staged photo taken after dinner.)

Guyanese meal

First off, I’d like to add a confirmation that we rarely get with these meals – we actually seem to have done this one correctly. Saf confirmed that the pepperpot, channa, and limewash were all more or less bang on.  The bread was a bit dense, but still great for soaking up the sauce with.

So given that we got it RIGHT, how does it taste?  Delicious!  The sauce on the pepperpot is like really nothing else we’ve had so far on this project.  It’s an umami bomb, but also quite sweet and thick. Definitely perfect for soaking up with bread.  The channa was quite spicy, thanks to the peppers, and was a great compliment to the sweetness of the stew.  Vanilla makes a great addition to limeaid, which I will have to remember in the future, and the dessert made for a nice refreshing finish to the meal.

All in all, Guyana was DEFINITELY worth waiting for, and we’re very grateful to Saf and her friend for joining us, and for making the meal even possible in the first place!

Next up, we return to your regularly scheduled alphabetical order with Iraq, unless we decide to wander off and do the Marshall Islands or something else inexplicable like that…

Guyanese boil & fry channa
Guyanese plait bread

International Meals – Iran

It’s been a busy few months since our last international meal.  A few roller derby tournaments, professional travel, and a nice round of bronchitis have delayed our return to the cooking project.  But we’re finally back on track, and this week we’re making one of the leading contenders for “national dish of Iran” – gormeh sabzi.

Gormeh sabzi literally means “braised herbs”.  This is a stew which usually contains meat, but meat is definitely not the focus of the dish.  Rather, it’s centered around the amazing quantities of herbs in which the meat is cooked.

There’s a million versions of this, of course, and the best one is the one your grandmother makes. However, not having a Persian grandmother (we checked), we’re working out of a cookbook by Maryam Sinaiee, From the Land of Nightingales & Roses. This particular version calls for lamb, and specifically lamb neck.

“Lamb neck?”, you say… At least, that’s what the nice man at the first butcher shop I called said; “Lamb neck. Hmm. Nope.”  But he was able to refer me to a halal butcher down the street that DID have lamb neck. an unlabeled bag in the freezer, surrounded by lots of OTHER unlabeled bags, all containing meat parts of wildly varying levels of identifiability.  The recipe specifically calls for lamb neck fillet, which would be much simpler to deal with than what I actually got which was an entire, bone-in, lamb neck.  Then again – I shouldn’t complain. The staff at the butcher were cutting up a whole sheep carcass behind the counter while I was there. I only had to extract the meat from this:

Lamb neck
Definitely quite fiddly, but at least if we were responsible chefs we could have saved the bones and make a delicious lamb stock.  Let’s pretend we did that.

The other ingredient I picked up at the grocer was a bag of dried Persian limes.  Out of the bag, these puppies are hard as a rock, so we soaked them in hot water for a few hours before we got started.

Dried limes

So – limes soaked and lamb… delaminated? …it was time to start cooking, and this being a recipe that exists in the world, it clearly needed to start by frying some onions. (Seriously – I’m curious as what total fraction of the world’s dishes start by chopping and frying onions.  I’m guessing north of 40 percent.)

Once the onions are golden, in goes some turmeric and the lamb.  Once the meat is brown, you add some water, and everything gets to braise for an hour or so.

Lamb, onions, and tumeric

And that time is necessary, because it’s time to prepare our dish’s namesake herbs!  Specifically, this version of the recipe calls for cilantro, parsley, spinach, leeks, and a little bit of fenugreek, which we had, but forgot to add.

So much green stuff.  Once everything is blitzed up fine, you toss it into a pan with some oil, and you cook it low and slow for a LONG time.  This is apparently the key, unskippable step, which separates the quality grandmas from the bad ones.  (I’m kidding – there are no bad grandmas.)  These herbs need to get fried on low heat for something like half an hour to take them from this:

Herbs at the start of cooking.

…to this:
Herbs after frying

The aroma coming off of this pan was amazing.  When the herbs are ready, they go into the pot with the lamb and it’s also finally time to fish those dried limes out of their soaking liquid.
Rehydrated limes

You cut the tops off to make sure the cooking liquid can circulate through the limes and get all the limey goodness out. Limes follow the herbs into the pot.

The observant among you will notice that there’s also a bunch of ginger peel on that cutting board, but I haven’t mentioned ginger at all in this recipe.  That’s because there isn’t any.  Instead, while we were cooking, we tossed the cut off tops of the limes in a tea strainer with ginger, mint, and a little sugar, and just steeped them to make tea.  Not necessarily a particularly Iranian combination, but it sounded like it might be tasty, and it certainly was!

With half an hour left to go in the cook time, we added the last ingredients – a can of kidney beans, and a surprisingly small amount of salt.

Stew with limes, herbs, and beans.

The key accompaniment to this and many other Iranian meals is rice cooked to have a caramel brown, crispy crust, or tahdig, which is offered first to guests as the best part.  We did not get this right. Dunno if we had the wrong kind of pan or just didn’t cook it long enough, but our crust was pale, not very crunchy, and also firmly welded to the pot.

Grandma is weeping in her grave, I’m sure.  It was still TASTY, but it wasn’t what tahdig is supposed to look like.

Finally, we tossed together a quick side dish of yogurt with cucumbers, dried mint, and just a hint of garlic.  And here’s the final meal.

Iranian meal

Like so many of the national dishes we’ve made for this project, this is clearly given pride of place for a reason.  It is sensational.  In addition to the sourness from the limes, you dress it with a little lemon juice at the very end to balance the deep, deep herby flavor from the braised greens.  The lamb is super tender after cooking for several hours, and the tangy yogurt was the perfect accompaniment.

I showed the pictures to my two coworkers from that part of the world, and they said that as far as they could tell, we got the stew right.  They also refrained from laughing TOO loudly at the rice, which was kind of them.

It’s great to be back in the swing of recipes, and we have the next country lined up for this weekend. And for those who have been anxiously waiting – we’re finally going to swing around and do the country we’ve been skipping for almost a year, Guyana!

Although we cooked out of a book this week, here’s a very similar recipe for ghormeh sabzi.

International Meals – Indonesia, Part 3: Bali

One more Indonesian meal to go, this one from the smaller island of Bali.  Although it’s taken a little bit longer to do this write up, we actually managed to make all three Indonesian meals in the space of a week.

For Bali, a dish that was suggested to us was a whole roasted and stuffed duck.  But there’s only two of us, so we decided to used the modified version that just used duck breasts instead.  And here they are, after a little bit of stabby-stabby:

Duck breasts

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves… this is Indonesian food, so obviously the FIRST thing we need to do is make a spice paste.

Spice paste

This was similar to the other Indonesian pastes we’ve made, but definitely the most complex so far.  It included shallots, shrimp paste, cinnamon, cloves, coconut milk, coriander seed, garlic, lemongrass, nutmeg, cumin seed, cardamom, galangal, tamarind paste, and white pepper. Once it was ground up, it ALSO needed to be fried for a bit.

Frying spice paste

The smell was, once again, fantastic.  We smeared this all over the duck and left it to marinate overnight.    Once the duck was marinated, the cooking process was simplicity itself – wrap in aluminum foil, and slow roast at low temperature for three hours.  You hold back a little bit of the paste to mix with coconut milk and spinach to make a sauce.

Where the cassava leaves from Sumatra were probably ground a bit too fine, I suspect this Spinach was actually supposed to be chopped a bit finer.  Oh well.

But spinach sauce does not by itself a vegetable dish make, so let’s turn to our second dish for this meal – water spinach with hot and sour dressing.  Water spinach is something we’ve seen before on this blog – cooked with fermented red bean curd, we used it in our Chinese meal from the costal southeast.

In this case, however, we’re going to be cooking it with… wait for it…

A spice paste!  But not a super complicated one this time.  Just chills, garlic, shrimp paste, salt, and peanut oil.

Still, the little chopper is earning it’s keep this week.

The spice paste gets fried for a bit.

And then you cook the water spinach until it wilts and toss in some lime juice at the last minute.

Water spinach cooking

At this point, it’s time to pull the duck breasts out of their little foil saunas.

Cooked duck breasts

Look at all that tasty flavor.  Let’s get this on the table.

Balinese meal

And there we are.  Not a lot of drama for the writeup this time, just duck with spices and veg with spices.

But let’s not bury the lede here – the duck was so damn tasty. Slow cooking made the duck just melt, and the spice blend was utterly magical.  The water spinach held up nicely to the assertive duck as well.  This was a GREAT meal, and Indonesia is definitely high on our list of favorite countries so far.

But we’re moving on now, to either Iran, or.. we may finally loop back around to hit the country we’ve missed.  Do you remember which one that was?  It will be on the quiz…

Balinese Duck Breasts (The recipe we made was from Sri Owen’s “Indonesian Kitchen“, but this one seems reasonably similar.)
Water Spinach with Hot and Sour Dressing