International Meals – Iceland

Not only is Iceland a place we’ve been, Iceland is even a place we’ve documented on this very blog! It’s true. You can read about our misadventures across the island starting with this post.  We saw lots of geology, ate lots of food, and failed to correctly pronounce a LOT of words.

While we were in Iceland we did NOT try their perhaps best known delicacy: hákarl, or fermented shark.  So after a bit of discussion (spoiler: this is not true), we decided that it was essential that we ALSO not try it for this meal.  Why break a streak?

Instead, it seems the most quintessential Icelandic dishes we WERE willing to have a run at all involved either fish or lamb.  And after discovering a delightfully tounge-in-cheek recipe site called “The Icelandic Food Centre” (actual motto: “Please read them, we beg of you.”) we decided that their recipe for Plokkfiskur would be just the thing. Accompanied by Rúgbrauð, of course.

First, a quick trip to the grocery store for some ingredients.  We were going to need several different types of dairy, some spice cookies, and something called golden syrup, which apparently sometimes comes in a can with a dead lion on it.

In the immortal words of the folks at the Icelandic Food Centre – “What the hell, Lyle?”

Amazingly, our local grocer had both Kefir and Skyr, neither of which we had ever purchased before, but there they were.  In researching spice biscuits, I also learned that “Biscoff” is actually short for “Coffee Biscuit.”  Who knew?

So let’s start with Rúgbrauð.  What’s Rúgbrauð? It’s a very dense, sweet, dark rye bread.  In Iceland it would traditionally be cooked in a geothermal hot spring.  If you don’t have one of those in your basement, (we don’t, I checked) then there’s two ways to make this bread – you can either steam it for a long time, or bake it for a VERY long time.  Since the latter method had less room for the undesirable failure mode of cooking off all the water and then setting off the fire alarm, we went with that one.

The recipe is simplicity itself – mix a LOT of rye flour with a little wheat flour, add in some baking soda and kefir for leavening, and golden syrup for flavor and color. Done. When we purchased this bread in Iceland, we were warned not too eat TOO much of it at one time, due the QUITE high fiber content.  With a 2:1 rye to wheat ratio, I can see why.

You bake it in a Dutch oven for 400 degrees F for half an hour, and then lower the heat to 200 degrees for the rest of the day.  It turns a lovely color by the time you pull it out.

Bread accomplished, let’s make our Plokkfiskur! Plokkfiskur, it turns out, is a traditional cod and potato stew, seasoned with just white pepper and salt. However, according to the nice folks at the Icelandic Food Centre: “Feel free to do whatever you want. Like putting Szechuan peppers in, using cream or grilling a T-bone steak instead.”

We appreciate the freedom, but we decided to stick with the traditional approach.  So we started by boiling some potatoes and (in a separate pot) cod fillets.

Not the most colorful of ingredients, but let’s see what else we’ve got. Hmm… butter, onions, flour, salt, and white pepper.  Quite the monochromatic dish.  Once the cod and potatoes are ready, you make a quick béchamel with onions, butter, and flour.

As soon as the onions are translucent, you pour in some milk, and then add your cod and potatoes.  Everything gets mushed up together.

Finally, you season with white pepper, which we should really get a GRINDER for one of these days, since we use it so much.

And that’s the meal! Fish stew and rye bread, with a nice Icelandic stout (Alcohol content: rather a lot) on the side.

Simple food, but SO good!  Fresh cod and pepper make the stew really pop, and the bread was sweet and chewy, and perfect covered in butter. This would be a good weeknight meal, and a less good meal heated up in the office microwave the next day.  But it turns out it’s delicious cold, too, so I was able to spare my coworkers that experience.

“But wait,” those of you keeping score at home may be asking, “What were the skyr and the biscuits for?” I’m glad you asked me that, fictitious narrative device person!

Actually, not all that glad, since although we made a cheesecake, it could have turned out better.  To make the crust, we ground up a whole bunch of spice biscuits with butter.  So far, so good.

Next, we whipped sugar, and double cream.  And here’s where we went wrong.  I’m always afraid I will overwhip cream, but in this case it was absolutely essential to go full glossy stiff peaks.  Unlike a traditional cheesecake with cream cheese, which is solid at room temperature, the ONLY structure in this cake comes from the whipped cream.  Once the cream is beaten, you fold in the skyr, and spread that over the crust.

And that’s it – you chill the cake for a few hours or overnight, release the spring form, and then like an idiot, attempt to remove a slice of what turns out to be a runny sweet cheese blob BEFORE you snap a picture.

It still tasted great, but trust me – if you make this one, don’t underwhip.

Iceland, your food was great in person, and it was great at home.  Who needs trees, amirite?

Next up, a tiny, tiny country, with a basically monolithic food culture.  Shouldn’t be any problem at all, really.

Recipes:

Plokkfiskur – Cod and Potato Stew
Rúgbrauð – Icelandic Rye Bread
Skyrterta – Skyr Cake

International Meals – Hungary

As the world slowly returns to – well, not normal exactly, but at least begins providing us with more options for things to do OTHER than cooking, these meals are probably going to slow down to something closer to their pre-pandemic pace.  We’ll see.  With Guyana still on hold for the time being, next up was Hungary, which meant it was time to return to my friend Walt, our expert on all things eastern European.

Because this is so tightly in his wheelhouse, there weren’t actual recipes, per se.  Rather there was a long phone conversation where Walt described his process for making these dishes, and I tried to take careful notes.  Then there was some more back-and-forth via Facebook.  And maybe a panicked phone call or two.   Maybe.

At any rate, we started the day with some baking.  I found a recipe online for a Hungarian country loaf.  Fairly simple – yeast, flour, water, salt.  But it turned out to be a monster of a product:

Hungarian bread

I don’t know what caused that line around the bottom, other than possibly steam from the shortening we greased the pan with.

Baking takes a while – by the time this loaf was done, it was already early afternoon, and we had another baked good to produce.  Our Hungarian dessert was a roll similar to the one we made for Croatia, but with a poppyseed, rather than walnut, filling.  Which segues nicely into our trip to the deli.

Walt was very adamant that high-quality paprika was critical for our main dish, so we found an incredibly long and narrow European deli that had paprika that met with his approval.  While we were there, we picked up a can of poppyseed filling.  Also pictured, lard.

Those of you who know your flags may have twigged that this poppyseed filling is actually Polish.  I’m sure it’s fine.

The dough process was the same as the Croatian one – a very slow addition of flour to the fat and liquid that took half an hour to eventually come together.  Since we ended up with more dough than filling, we made two small rolls that were DEFINITELY not authentic – one with butter, sugar, and cardamom, and one with cloudberry jam.  (Thanks, IKEA!)  Authentic or not, they were tasty.

For some reason, the rolls puffed up a LOT more than the Croatian ones did:

With our baked goods out of the way, it was time to finally start in on our main dishes -chicken paprikash, dumplings, and a cucumber salad.

The last was quite simple.  Slice a cucumber paper thin, then combine with an onion, vinegar, and a little paprika.

Sliced cucumber
But that one onion was just a tease.

Walt’s recipe for paprikash involves… rather a lot of onions.

To start, you brown bone-in, skin-on chicken in lard or smoked bacon fat.

Browning chicken

Then, you combine the chicken with an equal weight of onions. We had about 3 lbs of chicken, so here’s what an equal weight of onions looks like.  Rice cooker for scale.

I was NOT a happy camper after chopping up that many onions, but we got it done.

The really amazing thing about this recipe is that there is no other liquid OTHER than what sweats out of the onions and the chicken.  Most paprikash recipes you find online call for stock, tomatoes, or other additional liquid.  Not this one!

Onions, chicken, a single bell pepper, and seal the pot.  Fortunately, we had a Dutch oven with a nice heavy lid to hold everything in.  Halfway through cooking,, it was time to dump in a whole bunch of paprika.

By this point, there was plenty of liquid in the pot, but the eventual goal was to have the onions completely dissolve.  After an hour, they kinda hadn’t, so I called Walt.  He gave me two suggestions.

1. Pull the chicken out so it doesn’t overcook.
2. Use an immersion blender to cheat.

So that’s what we did.  Chicken to one side, we went in with the immersion blender to deal with the remaining solid pieces of onion.  To finish the sauce, we tempered some sour cream, by mixing in some of the hot onion liquid, then poured that back into the pot.

Pretty, innit?

For our side dish, we made nokedli – simple egg and flour dumplings.  After you mix up a batch of batter and let it rest for a bit, you donk it a half tablespoon at a time into boiling water to get irregular little chewy tasty bits.  It’s a similar technique to spaetzle, but a bit more irregular.  Then again, our spaetzle were pretty dang irregular too.


And with the dumplings done, we had our meal – paprikash, nokedli, cucumber salad, bread, and a nice Hungarian wine we found at our neighborhood liquor store.

This was REALLY tasty.  Allowing the sauce to come entirely from the onions gave it a much richer flavor than it would have had if we’d tried to hurry things up with stock.  The dumplings were great at soaking up the sauce, and the cucumber salad was a lovely contrast.  Overall, a delightful meal.

For dessert, the poppyseed roll, which also turned out delicious.

We’re so grateful to Walt for sharing his expertise.  Our next trip to the area is for Kosovo, so that’s not for a little while.  But it’s always great to be eating family recipes from a friend!

Next up, either Guyana or Iceland!

Since the recipes were basically notes I typed up from a phone conversation, I’ll just include them here rather than linking. The bread we made was this one.

Chicken Paprikash

* 1.5 kg or so whole chicken legs or thighs (with skin & bone)
* ~2 tbs Smoked bacon fat, chicken fat, or lard (sufficient for browning)
* 1.5 kg or so of yellow or Spanish onions (same weight as chicken)
* 1 clove garlic, mashed
* 1 red bell pepper or long sweet red pepper, thinly sliced
* 3 heaping tbs Hungarian sweet paprika
* 1 cup sour cream
* Salt to taste

* Season chicken with salt (not black pepper)
* Brown chicken in fat. (Skin side down ~6 minutes, skin side up ~3 minutes)
* While browning, thinly slice onions pole to pole.
* Add onions and chicken to pot. Cover tightly, cook on low.
* Halfway through (about 25 minutes), add garlic and red pepper.
* Remove from heat, add paprika
* Return to heat on low
* Cook until chicken is done. (45 minutes or so)
* Remove chicken from bowl and cover to keep warm
* Add 1 cup sour cream to some of the liquid to temper it, then pour back in.
* Simmer on low heat until onions are completely dissolved, or use an immersion blender to hurry things up.
* Return chicken to pot, taste and adjust salt

Nokadly dumplings

* 2 eggs
* pinch salt
* water
* All purpose flour

* Beat eggs with a pinch of salt, using a fork.
* Add a little water, then flour by the tablespoon to make a soft dough – closer to bread dough than pancake batter.
* Cover and let sit for a while.
* When chicken is ready, boil salted water.
* Using a wet teaspoon, dip 1/2 tsp of dough into water.
* Cook for a few minutes until done.

Uborka Salata

* 1 cucumber, sliced very thin
* 1 yellow or Spanish onion, sliced paper thin across equator
* salt
* paprika
* Dressing:
* White vinegar
* Water
* pinch of sugar
* small amount of sour cream (optional)

* Peel and very thinly slice cucumber
* Sprinkle with salt and allow to sit for about half an hour to draw out water
* Drain, and mix with onion
* Dress and top with paprika

 

 

International Meals – Honduras

“Did we… did we just make tacos?”

A recurring theme of this project is trying to figure out what makes a country’s cuisine unique.  What can we make that is uniquely Albanian, rather than Macedonian?  What separates Eritrean food from Ethiopian?  Where can we get the right kind of caterpillars for Burkina Faso?

Wait, no – ignore that last one.  We didn’t make caterpillars for Burkina Faso, and we’re not making fermented shark in two meals from now.  We’re adventurous, but there are definitely limits.

So for Honduras, we instituted our usual stringent research program of making half-assed internet searches. And in this case, we found recipes that claimed to absolutely be Honduran.  Some were even from an official government tourism website.

But… they didn’t seem to be dramatically different from the food of other central American countries.  Costa Rica has Salsa Lizano.  El Salvador has pupusas.  Honduras has… refried beans?  Well, OK – we LIKE refried beans, let’s see how this goes.

For our main dish, we’ll be making carneada, which is grilled flank steak marinated in bitter orange juice.  For our last country, Haiti, we managed to snag the last of the season’s fresh bitter oranges from Granville market.  This week, I realized we needn’t have gone to QUITE so much effort:

Bitter orange juice

Turns out you can just BUY the stuff in a bottle.  Still, I’m sure fresh juice didn’t hurt, and the Haitian meal was delicious.  Let’s see how flank steak soaked in the stuff turns out. The marinade also contains garlic, olive oil, cumin, and Worcestershire sauce.  Not having any of that last, we just pulled out the aforementioned Salsa Lizano.

Marinating meat

Next up, beans.  First, the all-important sofrito.  This one is bell peppers, garlic, and onion.

Sofrito

Next, after blending up cooked kidney beans in a blender, they get dumped into the pot and, well, re-fried.

Refried beans

It was at about this point that we realized I had cut the meat into pieces too small to grill. “Cubed steak” means something different than “steak cut into cubes”, as it turns out.  Fortunately, there’s a device invented for the express purpose of cooking small pieces of meat on a grill.

Steak on skewers.

This is pre-grilling – that color is entirely from the marinade.

Just two more things to make – tortillas and chimol, which seems to be another word for salsa.  Tortillas are in principle simple – masa flour, water, and a little salt.  Roll out, and dry fry.  We got about six done before we set off the smoke alarm, so that was about it for that.  Living in a high-rise as we do now, the last thing we wanted to do was trigger an evacuation of the whole building.

The chimol was onion, pepper, tomato, cilantro, lime juice, and salt.  So yeah – salsa.  But, you know, we like salsa.

And here’s the final meal:

Honduran meal

Beans, meat, salsa, tortillas.  What’s not to like?  The meat, in particular, was extremely flavorful.  I do wish that I had realized that “cubed” means “hit repeatedly with a spiked mallet,” because a) that sounds AWESOME, and b) the meat was still a bit chewy. The combination was, however, delicious.

And yet…

It still bothered me that we had basically grilled steak, and made salsa and refried beans.  Wasn’t there something more… Honduran we could do?

After some more reading, I discovered that one more dish that is strongly associated with Honduras is baleadas. The urban legend is that this dish is named for the corner where a street food vendor was shot. “Adonde la baleada” means “where the shots were fired,” so “baleadas” is basically “bullets.”

And what is this dramatically named dish?

Refried beans.  In a tortilla.

Well, we still like refried beans, so let’s give it a shot.  The version we’re trying this time is from the blog of a Honduran immigrant to the US, and starts by charring the daylights out of some onion:

That’s blended with the beans and some cumin and refried, and that’s it.  The other two mandatory toppings are cotija style cheese and Honduran crema, which we made by mixing sour cream with heavy cream and salt. They are served on the fluffiest available flour tortilla, as distinct from the corn tortillas from the first dish.

Baleadas

So – beans, cheese, crema, hot sauce.  Again, what’s not to like?  This dish actually DID seem a bit more unique, if for no other reason than you really could taste the charred onions, and the salty crema was a bit different.

And to be 100% clear – the fact that these dishes don’t seem super unique is down to OUR shoddy research.  I’m sure there are more distinctive elements of Honduran food culture that we just didn’t find.  Also – this stuff is DELICIOUS, so who cares if it’s not caterpillars and shark?

Honduras, you make tasty food, and don’t let anyone tell you different.

Next up, either Hungary or Guyana, depending on stuff.

Recipes:

International Meals – Haiti

It’s ironic – in 2020 and 2021, we started making a lot MORE international meals because the pandemic meant we has lots of free time on our hands.  But we’ve been on pause for a bit BECAUSE of the pandemic.  Or maybe that’s not ironic – that may only apply to black flies on your wedding day or something.

Next up was supposed to be Guyana, and we were looking forward to sharing the meal with one of my coworkers from that country.  However, Omicron came along and shut everything back down again.  At which point we just threw up our hands and took a break.

But we’re back now. We’ve stuck a pin in Guyana for the time being, and we’ll come back to it when we are able to get together with my friend, but for today, let’s talk about Haiti!

Haiti is a country which featured the first successful slave revolt in world history, and has then been systematically screwed over by the world community, the natural environment, and in some cases, its own leaders ever since.  The “No Reservations” episode on Haiti is particularly gut-wrenching.

On the other hand, the MEAL we made from Haiti was anything but. To start, we had to plan a week or so ahead and make pikliz.  Pikliz are apparently THE absolutely ubiquitous condiment on Haiti. They’re very simple – shred some veg, pack in vinegar and wait.

Oh – and make sure to include a truly dangerous quantity of Scotch bonnet  peppers.

Pikliz in process

These are going to be a recurring theme, contained as they were in literally every dish on the table.

A week later, we were ready to.. well, start marinating things for the following day.  The two leading contenders when you search for “Haiti national dish” are Pork Griot and a version of rice and beans called Diri Kole. Marinating for the latter just involved putting beans in a bowl of water overnight.  (not pictured)  Not having any small red kidney beans on hand, we used Adzuki beans.  I’m sure it was fine.

Next up, the pork!  Pork Griot is a recipe that involves marinating pork in citrus and spices, then boiling it to cook the pork, and finally either deep frying (traditional) or baking (for those who hate deep frying) the chunks to crisp them up.

So lets start with the marinade, at which point we immediately have to back up a step and make green sauce.  Haitian green sauce, or Epis, is similar to the green sauce we bought for Grenada, but substantially spicier.  What with the Scotch bonnet peppers and all.

Green sauce ingredients

And here’s the green sauce ingredients – scallions, thyme, olive oil, parsley, shallots, celery, red pepper, and don’t think we don’t see you hiding there, hot pepper.  We see you.  This just goes in a blender.

Next up, the actual marinade, which includes a bit of the green sauce along with all this stuff:

Pork marinade ingredients

So here we have oranges, limes, parsley, thyme, and scallions. But we need to talk about those oranges.  Those are Seville, or bitter oranges, used primarily for making marmalade, and only available fresh a small part of the year.  We were lucky enough to catch the very tail end of the season and raid the last of the stock at Granville Island. Juice, chop, stir, soak.  Here’s a picture of the marinated pork chunks ready for boiling the next day.

Marinated pork chunks

The recipe doesn’t call for any additional liquid.  I was certain we’d have to add more to keep it from drying out, but nope – with the lid on, more than enough liquid sweated out to keep everything nice and hydrated.

While the pork was boiling, we made rice and beans.  First, the beans get a nice long boil with a little garlic.

Boiling beans

Next, and this is definitely a first for me, you SAUTEE the cooked beans in oil.

Sauteeing beans

Once that’s been going for a bit, you go in with onion, garlic, and some seasoning, including a very healthy dollop of green sauce.

Seasoning the beans

The final mixture, once cooked a bit, smells amazing.  The next step, according to the recipe, is to mix this with rice and cooking liquid (reserved bean water), and then very carefully cook just until all the water is absorbed.

Pfft.  Who needs careful?  We have a device that has literally no other purpose than to shut off when all the water is absorbed.

Rice cooker

I will never apologize for using this thing.

At this point, the pork was nice and tender, so it was time for deep frying!

No, just kidding. To hell with deep frying. Time for baking!
Baked pork chunks
Just LOOKING at this picture is making me hungry again. The smell was amazing.  By now, the rice, which was JUST BARELY contained by the cooker, was also done.

Cooked Hatian rice and beans

Yes, that’s another whole Scotch bonnet.  Did we forget to mention that? Anyway, here’s the final plate:

Hatian meal

Rice and beans, pork, and a big pile of pikliz.  How was it?

It was unreal.  As long as you could handle the heat, this was a stunning meal.  The pork was crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, and had just the right amount of fat to be delicious without being too greasy. The beans and rice were extremely flavorful, and the pikliz were amazing.  But, and I can’t stress this enough, this is one of those plates where you really want to get a little of everything in each bite.  At that point, the spicy / sour / salty / meaty combination just blows the doors off.

Haiti, you been done dirty your whole life, but you still have some amazing food.

Next up, Honduras!

Recipes:

International Meals – Guinea-Bissau

I think I need to apologize a bit.  Last entry we referred to the “tiny” African nation of Guinea.  Guinea is the size of Michigan.  That’s not really tiny.  Guinea-Bissau, on the other hand, is the size of Connecticut.  I’m prepared to call this one “tiny.” The first part of the name, as previously discussed, comes from imperialism, and the second part is the name of the capital city. (Similarly to how the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are sometimes referred to as Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa, respectively.)

The colonial occupier of today’s country was Portugal, and so today’s dishes are named in Portuguese.  We’re making an appetizer and a main, so lets get started!

The appetizer is Abate Recheado com Atum, which has a bunch of flavors that you might not, at first, think would work together.  We start by slicing and mashing an avocado.

Avocado

Mashed avocado

Next, we need some tuna.  The recipe calls for canned tuna, but to heck with that – it’s readily available around here in nae-so-canned form.  Still, if you want to throw this together at home, you could do it that way.  But we decided we’d rather toss a nice piece of fresh tuna into the cast iron briefly.

Tuna cooking

Cooking it through might be more authentic, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to do that, so it was just lightly seared when we were done.

Further ingredient prep: hydrating some coconut and peppers.

Hydrating coconut and peppers

We still have some piri-piri chilies left from Benin, which is long enough ago that it’s not even ON this blog.  But they’re dried, and whoo doggies, they are still pretty darn potent.  The bigger concern is that I’m not actually certain they’re native this far west in the continent.  Still, they’re tasty, so we’ll run with it.

Only one more ingredient to prep, and you’re probably not going to guess it.  Let’s whip some cream!

Cream being whipped
Yes, that is a billion-year-old Hamilton Beach hand mixer.  It still works fine, so don’t knock it.

Now we just mix ALL this stuff together. To recap, that’s tuna, avocado, heavy cream, coconut, and hot pepper, and we also add some tomato sauce, lemon juice, salt, and pepper.

Avocado filling

What do we DO with this unholy mixture, you ask?  Just wait until the end for the denouement picture.

But for now, lets get started on our main dish, Cafriela de Frango.  This is a not terribly complicated chicken dish that involves first steaming, then grilling the chicken.

The steaming part involves chopping peppers, onions, garlic, and grinding some black pepper.  I used grains of paradise in addition to black pepper, since we had them, and they seem to be from approximately the right part of the world.

Vegetables for Guinea-Bissau chicken

All this just gets tossed into a pot with some stock, oil, and butter, and left to steam until the chicken is cooked.

Chicken cooking

Once the chicken is done, you grill it and…

… did I say grill?  We live in Vancouver, and it’s the monsoon season right now, so this got popped under the broiler instead.  It only took a few minutes to get some nice color on the outside, and it was time to serve our two dishes.

Guinea-Bissau meal

The chicken was served over rice with the vegetables and the steaming liquid as sauce.  The avocado-tuna-coconut mixture was stuffed back into the empty peels as a serving display.

How was it?  Well, the stuff avocados were amazing.  Seriously – I would never have predicted tuna + avocado + coconut + whipped cream + hot pepper + tomato sauce would be a combination any sane person would dream up, but together it totally worked. Salty, creamy, spicy, sweet, all together in one nice package.  And the just-seared tuna is definitely something I prefer to fully cooked.

The chicken dish was also pretty tasty, even if it wasn’t a rock star like the appetizer.  Lots of flavor cooked into the broth, and the black pepper gave everything a nice zip.

These are both recipes we would pull out again, one to wow people, and one because it’s just plain simple and tasty.

Next time, we return to South America for the first time since Ecuador to visit Guyana!

Recipes:
Abacate Recheado com Atum (Tuna stuffed avocado)
Cafriela de Frango

International Meals – Guinea

Back when we did Equatorial Guinea, we pointed out why there are so many “Guinea” countries, and the answer is essentially: because imperialism. We’re now on to the second of the four, the tiny west African country of Guinea. This one was formerly French Guinea, so we’ve got some French influences here.

We decided to make a drink, a desert, and a main dish, so lets start with the drink.  There’s really not much to photograph – it’s a TON of grated ginger, which you soak in boiling water with cloves, cinnamon, and sugar.  Then you strain it and mix in some orange and lime juice.  Here it is in a pitcher:

Ginger Drink

However, what it lacks in photogenicness. Photogenesis? Photogenicism? it makes up for in being SUPER DUPER TASTY.  Ginger, cinnamon, and sugar – what’s not to…

hey… is this a pumpkin spice orange juice?

Never mind, don’t care, it’s good.

Next up was the main dish.  We’re making Konkoé Turé Gbéli, or smoked catfish in sauce.  Obviously, our first ingredient needed to be smoked catfish, so I picked up a whole bag of these bad boys from the local African grocer.

Smoked catfish

They were very, very intense smelling when we opened the bag.  They are also not in any way deboned – as far as we can tell, you’re just supposed to crunch right through them.

You toss the fish into a big pot of boiling water to start softening up, and then make a sauce by blending garlic, onions, scallions, tomatoes, and a hot pepper of some sort.  We used half a Scotch bonnet, on the theory that that was vaguely authentic to the region. This all gets pureed, then added to the cooking pot:

Blended sauce

Next up, veg!  This recipe called for a mix of okra, eggplant, carrot, and potatoes.  Into the pot with them as well!

Veg.

After cooking for a while until the potatoes are done, the dish is finished with a bit of red palm oil.

Red palm oil

Also shown – rice cooker making okra rice.  We did this wrong, as it turns out – the recipe called for cooking the okra separately and mixing it in at the end, but we just tossed the okra in with the rice while it was cooking.  It didn’t seem to cause any problems.

Back to the subject of the palm oil, however – this is a ubiquitous ingredient in west Africa, but we’ve had a very mixed relationship with it.  The recipe called for a “glass” of the stuff, and having no idea how much that represented, we put in maybe a tablespoon or two.

And here’s the final stew!

Guinean fish stew

So how was it?

It was not really to our taste.  Now I want to be clear – any time we make a dish that we aren’t terribly fond of on this project, we are adamant that there’s two possible explanations – we didn’t do it right, or our palates just aren’t attuned to this flavor palette. We will NEVER say – “This is a bad recipe.”  We WILL say “We probably didn’t do this right,” and “This is just not something we are accustomed to.”

In this case, I think it was a bit of both.  On the flawed execution side, the potatoes were definitely undercooked – we probably cut them a bit too big.  On the personal preference side – the catfish was really, really smoky.  Combined with the intense flavor of the red palm oil, you have a very dark, somewhat oily personality to the dish, which was further pushed in that direction by the eggplant.  I can understand how this dish could be a real treat if your preference is for those kind of flavors – it is definitely not an understated meal.

Speaking of flawed execution… For dessert, we decided to follow the French influence and make a mango and banana tarte tartin.  That’s a dessert cooked upside down – you make a layer of caramel, layer in fruits, top with a short crust pastry, bake until done, and then flip over.

Those last two words hide a multitude of ways to go wrong.

Here’s the hot caramel in the pie dish:

Fruit on top: (there’s banana under the mango)

Fruit in pie dish

Add the pie crust and bake until it is nice and bubbly around the edges:

Baked pie crust

At this point, you theoretically just wait for it to cool a bit, and then flip the whole pile over, as the caramel solidifies into a nice gooey tart.

Yeah, about that.  Our caramel never set.  The recipe was a bit short on detail, and didn’t say exactly when to add the butter to the caramel.  Turns out, you DON’T do that at the beginning, or you just get toasted buttery sugar syrup, not caramel.  It was still TASTY, of course, but we had to just leave it in the pan and scoop slices out with a spoon.

Tarte tartin (sort of)

The crust was tasty, and you definitely don’t get a soggy bottom if it just stays on top.  And really – tropical fruit soaked in sugar syrup isn’t NOT going to be delicious.

So that’s Guinea.  We’re sorry we didn’t find the main dish more appealing, but we polished off the tarte and the drink, and next time we’re staying right next door for the Portuguese colonized Guinea-Bisseau.

Recipes:

 

 

International Meals – Guatemala

I have to admit, I’m not very good at Central American geography.  I can pick out Panama on a map, and Belize, for some reason, but the rest I have to check.  The irony is that having typed that first sentence, and on looking at a map, I discovered that that Guatemala actually claims ownership OF Belize. Interesting.

But for today we’re talking about Guatemalan food, which is an interesting combination of indigenous food traditions and colonial influences.  There’s no officially designated national dish, but we’re going to be making a likely candidate – a chicken stew called pepián.

So to start, we need chicken.

Chicken

Look! Chicken!

Moving on.

What differentiates this stew is the thick, red sauce, the preparation of which is ninety percent of the effort in making this dish.

First we toast a bunch of stuff.  In separate batches, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and a cinnamon stick:

Toasted seed

Then a bunch of veg – onions, tomatoes, and two different kinds of dried chilis:

Charred vegetables

Then a couple of corn tortillas:

Corn tortillas toasting

Finally, EVERYTHING goes in the food processor, along with some cilantro. (The chicken does not go in the food processor.)

Pepian sauce

While we aren’t pureeing a bird, the sauce IS supposed to get some stock at this point, and the recipe calls for mixing it in the food processor, but we had definitely reached capacity, so instead we mixed everything in the cooking pot and tossed in the chicken to continue cooking.

The recipe also calls for the helpfully unspecific “vegetables.”  There are many possibilities, but we decided to go with our old central American friend, the chayote.

Chayote

That get cooked separately so it doesn’t go mushy in the stew.

Cooking chayote

And finally, everything gets put together and served with corn tortillas:

Pepian de pollo

This was delicious. The sauce was very thick and textured, and had a great flavor from the seeds and the charred vegetables.  It’s somewhat reminiscent of a molé sauce without the dark ingredients like chocolate.  In theory, it would have been typical to serve it over rice but… well, we forgot to make rice.  It was still excellent, and we ate the leftovers with nice crusty bread.

We did make a dessert as well, a sesame seed cookie called Champaduras. For this, we got to buy one new-to-us ingredient, Piloncillo sugar.

Piloncillo sugar

It turns out to be somewhat difficult to work with, and I don’t think we got it crushed down as fine as we were supposed to.

In terms of method, it’s a pretty standard cookie.  Mix dry ingredients.

Dry cookie ingredients

Decide sugar bits are too big, remove to mortar and pestle to mangle for  a bit.  Return to bowl.  (This definitely was NOT in the recipe.) Cream in butter and sugar to make a dough.  After resting, roll out dough and cut cookies.

Cookies being cut out

Bake in the oven and top with sesame seeds, and you have a delicious, not terribly sweet cookie.

Champurradas cookies

They were a nice crispy/chewy shortbread.  I took them into work the next day, and my coworkers claimed to like them too.

And that’s Guatemala!  A tasty Mayan influenced stew and some cookies – what’s not to like?  Next up, we travel back to west Africa to explore Guinean cuisine.

Recipes:
Pepián de Pollo
Champurradas

International Meals – Grenada

“The pig tails are in the bucket on the trolley.”

I have to be honest, that is NOT the response we were expecting.  “Sorry, we don’t have that,” was probably at the top of the list, followed by, “Oh, they’re in the freezer.”

What we were NOT expecting was to be informed that the, you know, MEAT, was in a ten gallon bucket of room-temperature liquid in an extremely rusty old shopping cart at the back of the store.  But there it was.

To be fair, said meat was salted within an inch of its little piggy life, so there was probably not any more to worry about than a ham sitting on a stand at a deli.  Let’s hope, anyway.

We were at the Caribbean market (store name: “Caribbean Market”) to purchase ingredients to make the national dish of Grenada, a country most Americans know (if they know it at all) as the target of an invasion by Ronald Reagan in 1983.  Grenada now has their version of the Thanksgiving holiday on October 25th to celebrate that occasion.  Coincidentally enough, we were planning to make our Grenadian meal a few weeks early on CANADIAN Thanksgiving, despite the fact that Canada publicly condemned the invasion.

It’s all very complicated.

In addition to the pigtails, pictured later, we also bought a breadfruit and some other veg:

Veg with googly eyes.

The breadfruit is the one on the upper left.  Carrot, lemon, and banana (BANANA!) are hopefully obvious.  The small pumpkin-looking object is actually a Kuri squash, standing in for actual pumpkin because a full sized pumpkin produces WAY more pumpkin than we were prepared to commit to.

Many recipes we’ve made from both Africa and the Caribbean thus far have called for amaranth or calalou, a leaf which is similar to, but not quite the same as, spinach.  At the Caribbean Market, we finally found some! Canned, but authentic nonetheless. We also got bottle of a green seasoning called (checks notes) Green Seasoning.

OK, so, fully stocked now, what are we making?  A stew! Because we’re stocked up!

Stocked up! Get it?

Never mind.

The national dish of Grenada is something called an “Oil Down”.  I got distracted doing the research for this by just how much of the Wikipedia article for the dish was unsourced copyright violations and went on a bit of a deletion spree there.  That’s an important part of cooking, right?

The gist is that “Oil Down” is a stew that can contain a wide variety of ingredients, but the items which are generally common to most iterations are: some kind of salted meat or fish, breadfruit, and coconut milk seasoned with “saffron.”  The scare quotes are there to point out that what Grenadians refer to as saffron, the rest of the world calls turmeric.

Past those basics, you can put almost anything in an oil down.  Oil Down can also refer to the neighborhood party where the stew is assembled, simmered and consumed.  It appears to be a dish where the history of the gender roles is similar to that in the US around barbeque – women have historically primarily been expected to do the cooking, but for a weekend Oil Down, the men take over the pot.  Sigh.

At any rate, lets get cooking.  First, we boil the living daylights out of the pigtails to make them marginally  less scary, and also to try to extract some of the salt.

Boiling pigtails

While that’s going, we marinate chicken thighs in the green “Green Seasoning” seasoning.

Chicken with green sauce

We also chop up a LOT of veg.  Most of them are pretty straightforward, but here’s what a breadfruit looks like on the inside:

Halved breadfruit

You carve out the middle bit and throw it away, then peel the skin and discard that, which still leaves you with a LOT of breadfruit.  It’s got a pleasantly citrus-y smell, and  tastes like a very, very slightly acidic sweet potato.

With all the mise en placed, the actual assembly is just a question of layering. And with that, we give you the first animated .gif in the history of this blog:

Stew layering

In order, those layers are:

  • Chicken with green sauce
  • Pig Tails
  • Breadfruit
  • Banana
  • Carrot
  • Pumpkin
  • Okra
  • Calalou
  • Dumplings (these were actually added about half an hour into the cooking time)

The entire pot is then filled with turmeric laced coconut milk, and left to simmer for a very long time, interrupted by the addition of the simple flour-and-water dumplings part way through.

The reason the dish is called “Oil Down” in the first place is that by the end of the cooking, most of the coconut milk and oil has been absorbed into the rest of the ingredients, resulting in a rich, tasty stew dyed yellow by the turmeric.

The verdict was that this was pretty darn good!  All the flavors had blended together to produce something with the smoothness of the coconut milk, the salt and umami from the pigtails, and the diversity of textures from the various vegetables. Interestingly, there was basically no trace of the pumpkin left – it had more or less completely dissolved. We salute its sacrifice to the hearty texture of the broth!

It was a great meal to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving.  Don’t ask us why.  At least we’re not celebrating Reagan sending in the Marine Corps.

Next time, we stay in the western hemisphere for Guatemala!

Recipe:
Oil Down

International Meals – Greece

Greece is the first country on this list since France that we’ve both actually visited.  In fact, writing up our trip to Greece was the reason we started this blog in the first place.  You can read all about our adventures there starting from this post. It’s a fun ride – we go lots of interesting places and eat lots of stuff.

But speaking of eating stuff, what’s on tap for THIS meal?  When you look up “National Dish of Greece,” you get a number of possibilities, but one which scores surprisingly high is Fasolatha, which is a white bean stew.  (Another one is Moussaka, but neither of us are huge fans of eggplant, and there were plenty of other options.)  We decided to make that, grill some souvlaki, and make a dish of braised green beans, Fasolakia, as another vegetable.

Our original plan was to follow this with custard filled pastries for dessert, but those turned out to be too much to squeeze in after we returned from a grueling hike in the morning, so we made a pie called melopita instead, which we will talk about in due course.

This meal did require a bit of forward planning, as both the beans and chicken for the souvlaki had to soak overnight.  The beans just in plain water, but the chicken was in a yogurt based marinade that also included olive oil, oregano, lemon, garlic, and paprika.  Welcome to Greece!

Marinade ingredientsSouvlaki marinating

The day of, we had two different bean dishes to cook, both of which had rather long cooking times, but fortunately, the schedules overlapped such that we could get one cooking before we started the second.  So for our first trick, the white bean stew.

After soaking the beans overnight, they get a 30 minute or so boil in water to soften ’em up a bit.  Wouldn’t want those beans getting too complacent.  Um.

That accomplished, the stew starts with onion, carrot, and celery, your classic mirepoix, although probably not diced finely enough to really warrant that term, cooked in a whole lot of olive oil.

 

Mirepoix

Next up, beans, tomato sauce, salt, and pepper.  We found GREEK tomato sauce, so we were proud of ourselves!

Tomato sauce

Yeah, about that.  A) that’s not sauce, as it turns out – it’s paste. B) It’s also Turkish, not Greek.  Oh well – into the pot it went, with a bit more water to balance the fact that it’s paste and not sauce.  And this then just cooks for a long time while we move on to the green beans.

Sadly, we didn’t get a bunch of pictures of this one cooking, but that’s because it was so little WORK there was almost nothing to photograph. Cook more onions in more olive oil (seriously, we used like half a bottle of olive oil for this meal) Add garlic, green beans, a large can of crushed tomatoes, and some red pepper flakes and dill.  Cook until tender.

With those both going, and timed to be ready at roughly the same time, it was time to fire up the grill for the souvlaki.  Sadly, it was pretty gloomy outside, so we didn’t take any pictures.  In fact, we have no more “in process” pictures at all.

But we put meet on sticks and grilled it.  It smelled like grilling meat on sticks, i.e. AMAZING. Finally, we fried up some grilling cheese (apparently setting it on fire is more of a Greek-American thing), and put everything on plates, topping the souvlaki with a lemon juice / olive oil dressing.  They looked like this:

Greek Meal

Doesn’t that look delicious?  It really, really was.  The real star of the show, to my surprise was the green bean dish: fasolakia.  Everything was good, but that to me was the dish that stood out the most – the dill and the garlic just did something magic to the tomato sauce.  The souvlaki was tasty grilled meat, and the soup was hearty and filling. We would make any of these again in a heartbeat.

For dessert, since we decided the pastries would take too long to sort, we made a honey pie, which may be the easiest desert we have ever made.  Here’s the method:

Mix five ingredients in a bowl.  Put the batter in a pan.  Bake it.

That’s it.  The ingredients are nothing more than ricotta cheese (this would be a different, but similar cheese in Greece itself), honey, sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Mix, pour, bake, done.

Melopita

The edges are a little rough because we ran out of cornstarch, so the sides stuck to the pan.  But it was heavenly, and it set up nicely.

We have not yet shared the very best part of this meal yet, however.  The very best part of this meal was that we SHARED IT WITH OTHER PEOPLE!  For the first time since BULGARIA, we actually cooked for more than just the two of us, and it was fantastic to finally have friends over for a meal and a board game. They brought cocktails, too!

FRANDS!

Pandemics are stupid, and you should get vaccinated if you aren’t already.

As a postscript, we DID make those pastries a few nights later when we had time. Bougatsa are custard filled phyllo pastries, giving us the chance to remind ourselves once again that phyllo is a harsh mistress.

They start with a custard made from butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, and semolina flour, which you are supposed to add a LOT earlier in the process than we remembered to.

Custard cooking

If you add the semolina too fast or too late (we did both) it gets lumpy.  On the other hand, if you just leave it out, it never thickens at all.  So we had a slightly lumpy custard to spread on our phyllo sheets.

Custard on phyllo sheets

These get wrapped up into perfectly, 100% regular packets, covered with a completely uniform brushing of butter.  No differences or irregularities whatsoever.

Unbaked pastries

Nailed it.

Still, as long as you considered them individually, and don’t think about the second one from the bottom on the left, they turned out fine – crispy and sweet, and what’s not to like about a custard pastry?

Baked pastry

And that’s Greece!  It was tasty, took us back to our blogging roots, and let us HAVE DINNER WITH ACTUAL OTHER PEOPLE! YAY!

Next up, we take a culinary adventure to Grenada, hopefully unaccompanied by Marines.

Recipes:
Souvlaki
Fasolatha
Fasolakia
Melopita
Bougatsa

International Meals – Ghana

“How do you know our food?”

The nice lady at the African grocery store was VERY confused.  Why was this clearly non-African person asking for kenkey and shito?

When I explained about our little “cook the world” project, she seemed skeptical, but on the other hand, when I asked again for kenkey, she said “Oh, you must be doing Ghana now!”  So at least we think this dish is authentic.

Why did we choose to buy kenkey this time?  Because the internet said it was a Ghanaian staple.  Why are we going to drive BACK to that store to buy MORE kenkey?  Because it’s f-ing DELICIOUS, that’s why! Kenkey is GOING AWAY my favorite African starch so far.  Like, it’s not even close.

So what IS kenkey?  It’s fermented corn dough, steamed in a corn husk. Here’s what it looks like still frozen, along with the rest of our haul from the grocery store:

Kenkey, shito, and tiger nuts

If “corn dough in a corn husk” sounds like a tamale to you, you’re right – the textures are VERY similar. But the other key word here is “fermented.” As in sour.  That’s right – this is a sourdough tamale.  If that sounds awesome to you, then you’re right! (We’ll talk about the other ingredients in this picture in good time.)

Fully steamed, the kenkey looks like this:
Steamed kenkey
Sadly, we didn’t realize that “fully steamed” takes about two hours, so we didn’t get to try these until an hour or so AFTER we’d eaten the rest of the meal.  But that’s fine – they were great as leftovers, too.

When I told the lady at the African grocer that we were planning to make Jollof Rice for our main dish, she harrumphed a bit at that.  “We’re Nigerian – our version is better than the Ghanaian version.” After I got home, we did a little reading, and realized that there’s a HUGE rivalry over this dish between the two countries, which is hilarious, because it’s originally from Senegal.

But today’s project is Ghana, so here we go.  Ghanaian Jollof Rice is a tomato rice dish, which can be made with or without meat.  We decided to go with a chicken version, so we started by browning some chicken in oil. (With some onions, of course, because EVERY recipe starts with cooking onions.)  We probably should have used red palm oil, but the cookbook called for peanut, so we went with that.

Chicken browning

After that, you brown off some aromatics and thyme in the same pan.

To finish the preparations, you pour in some tomato paste, tomatoes, and stock and cook that down a little.  Finally all of this gets tossed into a heavy pot with long grain rice.  Apparently, one difference between Ghanaian and Nigerian versions of this dish is that Nigerians will parboil the rice first.  (Or use a precooked rice like Uncle Ben’s.)

And that’s it – the pot goes into the oven to simmer for a while until the rice is cooked and the chicken is tender.  At the end, you stir in some veg.  (I am embarrassed to report that we used frozen mixed veg, but it worked OK.) And what comes out is not at all unlike jambalaya, which is of course, not surprising, given the origins of jambalaya.

Finally, this is served with the second ingredient from the photo above – shito sauce.  Shito is a condiment made with chili peppers and shrimp.  It’s hot and fishy and salty and a giant umami bomb.  The recipe for making it says that your house will smell like fish for DAYS afterward, so we decided to just get it out of a can.  No regrets at ALL – it was excellent.

Deserts other than fresh fruit are apparently not a huge thing in Ghana, but one recipe caught our eye, and since the grocery store had it, we decided to give it a go – tiger nut pudding.

Tiger nuts are the tuber of the Yellow Nutsedge plant, which is cultivated specifically for this purpose in many parts of the world, and cursed as an invasive weed in many OTHER parts of the world.  Wikipedia specifically mentions its affinity for golf courses, oddly enough.  If you’ve had horchata anywhere BUT Latin America, it was probably made from tiger nuts.

To make tiger nut pudding (or horchata, it’s basically the same process), first you grind them to a fine paste with some water in a food processor.  These suckers are HARD, so it does take a while.

Ground Tiger Nuts

Once they’re ground, you add a bit more liquid, then put the whole mess into some cheesecloth and strain the liquid back out.

Tiger nut paste being strained

You soak the nuts with a little more liquid and strain that too. And then you take the nuts and… throw them away.  It’s the liquid we’re after.

At this point, you’ve got your drink – you could stop there, but we’re trying to make pudding.  So in goes the sugar, and onto the heat goes the pot.

Tiger nut pudding cooking

After a few minutes of stirring, the mixture thickens.  This always amazes me when it happens.  Chemistry is magic.  The thickened mixture goes into some ramekins, and after we finished our rice, we had tasty pudding. (And an hour left to go on the kenkey.)

Tiger nut pudding

In terms of flavor, it was subtle – reminiscent of cinnamon or clove, but not really either.  It was definitely its own thing, and a tasty thing it was.

And that was our Ghanaian meal!  We are DEFINITELY going to be going back to that grocery store in the future – after all, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau are both on the horizon.  But even if they weren’t – I’d want to toss some kenkey in the freezer and get a few more cans of shito.  Ghana’s definitely got it going on in the food department.

Next up, a country that we’ve not only visited, but we’ve even documented right here on this blog – Greece!

Recipes were from The Ghana Cookbook, by Fran Osseo-Asare & Barbara Baëta.  Here’s a link to some similar recipes from the internets:

Ghanaian Jollof Rice
Tiger Nut Pudding
Ga Kenkey (although our recipe was “buy from store, then steam.”)
Shito Sauce (us: “open can, eat”)