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  My notes may be a little out of date.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.

Bread

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

SoffritoSoffrito
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.

Meat

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.
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.

Bechamel

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:

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!

Recipes:
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.”

Hummus

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!

Recipes:
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.

Dough:
Dough

Bread:
Bread

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!

Recipes:
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!

Recipes:
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.

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…

Recipes:
Pepperpot
Guyanese boil & fry channa
Guyanese plait bread
Limewash

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.

..in 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.

Rice
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…

Recipes:
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

International Meals – Indonesia, Part 2: Java

Two meals in three days?  Madness!

But we had purchased a bunch of fresh ingredients for our Sumatran meal that we wanted to make use of before they went off, and I’m going to be off playing board games all weekend. So here we go.

The meal will feature two dishes – gado-gado, which is mixed vegetables in peanut sauce, and soto ayam, an aromatic chicken stew.  Also shrimp crisps, which have a complicated process that we’ll get into later.

So first up, we’re making a peanut sauce, or sambal kacang.  The main ingredient for this is… well, peanuts.  Surprisingly, unsalted peanuts are a perennially challenging ingredient to source.  Our local grocery store has peanuts in chili-lime, barbeque, and possibly yak, but not, you know… plain.  As such, the only ingredient that we didn’t already have on hand for this recipe was something that in theory we should be able to get at the corner store, but couldn’t.  Back to the Asian grocer.

Peanuts acquired, so into the oil with them!

Frying peanuts

Those get ground up in a blender.  You can see how much the color changed in just a few minutes of frying.

Ground peanuts

To this, you add ground up shallots, garlic, and spices, and cook it down with some liquid until you get a nice thick sauce.

Peanut sauce cooking

Finished peanut sauce

Our other main dish is the chicken stew.  We’re going to start this dish by… wait for it… making a spice paste. This is definitely a recurring theme in southeast Asian cuisines.  Any evening where we have to bust out both food processors AND the mortar and pestle is a party, let me tell you.

Soto spice paste ingredients

Lots of the usual suspects in there – shallots, garlic, ginger, turmeric, and a bunch of spices.  I STILL haven’t gone to get candlenuts, but given how many recipes called for them, I probably should have. That paste gets fried for a bit with lemongrass, lime leaves, and galangal pieces.

Spice paste frying

We also dry roast some whole spices.

Dry spices cooking

Finally everything gets combined into one pot (and seriously, WHY didn’t I fry the spice paste in the same pot, to save one step in cleanup?) along with “good quality chicken broth.”  At least, that’s what the recipe said.  This is labelled in French, so that’s classy, right?

Chicken broth

It is unclear to me why “Western Family” a brand which as far as I know, only exists thousands of miles from Quebec, labels its products in French. Whatever. You can really taste the poulet.

Moving on, the chicken breasts get poached in this liquid until cooked, about 10-15 minutes for normal chicken breasts, and a little bit longer for the mutant monstrosities sold in north American grocery stores.

Meanwhile, we boil some veg to go under the peanut sauce.
Boiled veg

Everything I’ve read about gado-gado says that the exact veg aren’t really important, just that you have a good mix.  At the risk of being insensitive (like that’s ever stopped us), I would compare this, one of Indonesia’s national dishes… to nachos.  The point is that whatever’s on the bottom is mostly there as a vehicle to convey the topping into your mouth. Nachos exist to shove cheese and salsa into your face, and these veg are here to be something you put the peanut sauce on.

The other thing happening at this point is cooking some rice vermicelli.  Here’s the method for cooking rice vermicelli:

1. Pour boiling water on it.

That’s basically it. Ten minutes later, you drain the water.

With the chicken done, and now a lovely shade of yellow, it gets pulled out of the stock and shredded.

Shredded chicken

The stock is drained to get rid of the aromatics and whole spices, and boiled down to concentrate a bit.  Finally, the chicken and noodles are returned to the pot and warmed back up, and dinner is ready to be served.

Oh, except for the shrimp chips.  Every recipe I looked at for both gado-gado and soto ayam mentioned two things. 1. Here is a recipe to make shrimp chips. 2. Seriously, just get them out of a bag, though.

Shrimp chips in a bag

At least it’s an Indonesian bag, right?

It was finally time to plate everything up and have dinner.

Javanese meal

Doesn’t this look good?  Gado-gado on the left and soto ayam on the right.  Shrimp chips in a bowl and peach bellini beer in the glass.  That latter is probably not traditionally Indonesian, so let’s just talk about the first three.

The first three were great.  That soup is DEFINITELY what I want served to me the next time I have a cold. Unlike a lot of other dishes from Indonesia, this one is generally not spicy in and of itself, but is often served with spicy toppings.  But it really doesn’t need them to be appreciated – the flavor profile is complex and delicious. For the gado-gado, what’s not to love about a spicy peanut sauce?  (The vegetables were fine.  They did their job of moving the peanut sauce to our faces.) And no one opens a bag of shrimp chips the way we do.

Indonesia is continuing to make us very happy.  One more meal to go, from Bali, and this one will likely also follow in quick succession.

We cooked out of a book again this week, but here’s some recipes that are roughly similar to the ones we used:

 

International Meals – Indonesia, Part 1: Sumatra

We really do want to finish this project some day.  Honestly.  And there’s countries later in the alphabet that I’m eager to get to.  There’s also North Korea, but we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it. BUT…

When we consulted our friends with expertise in Indonesia, they gave us a LOT of ideas.  And it turns out that Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, after India, China, and the USA.  We did four meals for India, and five for China, so why not at least three for Indonesia?  At least it’s broken up into discrete units, known as (checks notes) “islands.”

So for our first meal, we are starting with the island of Sumatra, and what is arguably the national dish, beef rendang. To accompany, we’ll be making a cassava leaf curry.  But first, to the library!

Indonesian Cookbooks

Not pictured – the eBook we also checked out.  The Vancouver Public Library has an excellent cookbook selection at the central branch, and it’s walking distance from our apartment.  This represents quite a few pounds (sorry, kilograms) of culinary expertise.

After the trip to the library, the next obligatory trip was to our go-to grocery store for southeast Asian stuffs.

Produce

Frozen ingredients

In the top picture, produce, including whole turmeric (upper left), because our cutting board, depressingly, is still the color it was when we bought it.  In the lower picture, frozen ingredients in their natural habitat – the sink.  Observant viewers may notice the first unforced error in that picture – ground cassava leaves.

This dish is supposed to use chopped or pureed leaves, and we do know where to get those, but I spaced and didn’t see that what you have in that bag is almost the consistency (as well as the color) of matcha.  Oh well, too late now, let’s power on and see what it tastes like.

First, we need to pre-cook some stuff.  In the top pan, the cassava powder is blanching. (Blanching?  Can you blanch a powder?) In the bottom pan, dried anchovies.

Cassava and anchovies cooking separately.

Next, we need to make a spice paste, so out comes the immersion blender. A mortar and pestle would be traditional, but the recipe literally does call for a blender.

Spice paste ingredients.

This paste contains red chilies, shallots, garlic, whole turmeric, ginger, whole coriander seed, and powdered cumin.  It does NOT contain candlenuts, because I didn’t want to make a separate trip just to get those.  Sorry.

Once our paste was ground, it gets fried with some whole aromatics – lemongrass, galangal, and lime leaves.

Frying spice paste

I think it goes without saying that this smelled amazing.  Next, you toss in some coconut milk and your cassava leaves, and let it simmer.  The final dish is SUPPOSED to be stewed leaves in a broth, but in our case it ended up with a texture closer to baby food.

Simmering cassava leaf curry

Still, if baby food tastes like this, sign me up for some sort of uncomfortable role play, because it was REALLY tasty. More on the final dish below.

Next up, beef rendang. “Rendang”, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have a literal translation aside from this dish.  It has an incredible amount of cultural significance in the region, which I encourage you to go look up, because I’m not going to be able to do it justice here. So what is it?

It is beef cooked in coconut milk and spices for a LONG time.  No, longer than that.  You cook it until ALL the liquid has either evaporated or been absorbed into the beef.  Over the course of the cooking process, there are a number of discrete stages, all of which look totally different from each other.  I was referring to it as going through phase transitions, but that was too nerdy, and I wanted Leigh to stop hitting me.

But to start, let’s make another spice blend!

Beef rendang spice blend

This one is shallots, garlic, ginger, turmeric root, chilies, and galangal, with a little coconut milk for lubrication.

And now, let’s just watch the magic happen.  For the first two hours, it looked like this:
Beef rendang, first stage.

A big pot of seasoned coconut milk with beef under the surface.  Once it had cooked for several hours and reduced a bit, it gets transferred to a wok to increase the surface area. And from here on in, I’m going to include the time stamps so you can follow the evolution.  It’s really magic:

6:26

Beef rendang in a wok

6:32
Beef rendang at 6:32

7:02
Beef rendang at 7:02

7:18
Beef rendang at 7:18

My photography skills are not increasing commensurately with the quality of the rendang, obviously.  But still – compare this color to the first picture.  And now compare it to the finished product, from 7:40.

Sumatran meal.

My goodness, LOOK at that color.  At this point just about all of the liquid was gone, and you are left with a thick, delicious seasoning coating the meat.  We abuse the term “depth of flavor” on this blog a lot, but… just LOOK at it! The cassava puree also turned out very nicely, and the tartness and creaminess was a good contrast to the beef, especially with the added textural contrast of the friend anchovies on top.  Also pictured, sticky rice.

And so that was our Sumatran meal.  Beef rendang is EVERYTHING that was promised, and although it takes a while to make, it is something I would absolutely serve to guests. The leftovers the next day were even better, as is often the case with stews

Next up – Java!

Recipes:

International Meals – India, Part 4: Eastern India

For our fourth Indian meal, we’re concentrating on dishes from the eastern part of India, in the areas near Bangladesh. I still haven’t transferred our pictures for our Bangladeshi meal from Facebook over to this blog, but for that meal we made a spicy fish dish, a red lentil curry, and a rice pulao.

Since I hadn’t looked this up before I planned this meal, we ended up making a spicy fish dish and a red lentil curry.  Welp.  The two recipes aren’t QUITE identical, and they were both tasty, so we’re cool.  Plus, we continued our bread-lentil-main-other pattern here, so there were two other dishes to make.

Let’s get started!  First off, our flatbread.  This is the one I’m least certain about the authenticity.  The best known bread from this region is luchi, but it’s deep fried, and we’re on record as being somewhat deep-fry averse.  So instead we found a recipe for a flatbread made with rice flour.  The actual method is pretty simple – first you cook rice flour and water in a pot, then once it’s cooled, you knead it into a dough.

To my astonishment, this powdery mess:

Cooked rice dough

did, in fact, come right together into smooth dough balls.

These then needed to be flattened out as thin as possible, without allowing them to fall apart.  While I never got pretty round shapes, I did at least get somewhat better as we went along. (That would obviously be left to right.)

Rice roti ready for cooking

Back to the cast iron on the grill.  They never got a LOT of color, but some of them DID puff up, so we were clearly doing something right.

Next up, lentils.  We’re using split red lentils for this one, or masoor dal. These things are great – we use them all the time for weeknight cooking, because they don’t need to be soaked, and they come together in a nice thick texture that’s delicious with rice.

Indian cooking can involve making really complicated spice blends.  Toast this, grind that, mix in the other thing, for upwards of as many as twenty ingredients.  But for THIS region, the dominant blend is called panch phoran, and couldn’t be simper.  Take five whole spices, and mix them together without cooking them.  The five spices are fenugreek, nigella, cumin seed, mustard seed, and fennel seed.

We have this adorable little container that I just keep refilling as we run out.

Panch phoran

This lentil dish uses the standard process of “cook lentils in one pot until done, make seasoning in second pot, put seasoning in lentils.”  Seasoning in this case consists of the aforementioned spice blend, along with onions, tomatoes, ginger garlic paste, and chilis.

Lentil seasoning

Finally, let’s talk fish.  There’s two ingredients that required a little planning here.  First is the fish itself.  Rohu is a type of carp, which swims around in solid rectangular blocks of ice, and frankly, seems to be trying just a LITTLE hard to ingratiate itself.

Packaged rohu fish.

WE’LL be the judge of what we like, fish.

The other key ingredient for this dish is mustard oil.  Now, while people in Bengal have been cooking with mustard oil for millennia, it contains high levels of erucic acid, which is potentially linked to heart disease when consumed in large quantities.  As such, it is illegal to sell it for cooking purposes in the US and Canada.  On the other hand, it’s perfectly legal to sell exactly the same oil as hand lotion.

Mustard Oil
“External use only.”  Nudge nudge, wink wink.

Figuring that making the occasional dish with this stuff will likely not kill us, we decided to go ahead and make macher jhol, a tasty fish curry.

The fish steaks, once freed from their icy tomb, were rubbed with salt and tumeric, then quickly seared in the oil. Once they’re ready, you make a sauce with tomatoes, onions, garlic, and spices.

Fish curry in progress.

After the sauce has reduced for a while, you put the fish back in to finish cooking, and it’s time to bring the whole meal to the table!

Eastern Indian meal
You may notice four place settings here – that’s because we once again had friends!  Leigh’s colleague Laurel and her husband were kind enough to join us and bring a lovely bottle of wine.

And the meal was excellent, if we do say so ourselves.  The dal was creamy and super flavorful, the fish had a lovely bite to it without being overwhelmed by heat.  The bread had a bit of an unusual texture from the rice flour, but it was a perfectly good scoop for shoving food into our faces.

And finally, it was time for desert.  We made chhena poda, a type of cheesecake that can be made with either chhena, a fresh curd which we didn’t want to make, or paneer, which we could just buy. The cheese is blended together with jaggery (palm sugar) and a little cardamom and rice flour.

Chhenna poda in process

To bake, you line a tin with banana leaves and brush them with ghee.

The final product has some of the “squeak” of fresh cheese curds, and is sweet and delicious.

This thing is also so ludicrously easy to make, we’re going to have to bear it in mind for future potluck situations.

So – that’s our whirlwind tour through India.  For blog purposes, anyway – it’s going to continue to be one of our staple cuisines for regular cooking.  (We literally made another dal recipe in the three days between the time of this meal and when I got around to writing it up.)

Next up, Indonesia, and we have friends with THOUGHTS and FEELINGS on that topic. Can’t wait!

Recipes:
Bengali Masoor Dal
Apas (Rice Roti)
Macher Jhol (fish curry)
Chhena Poda (cheesecake)