International Meals – Cuba

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

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

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

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


Cuban bread being made

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

Cuban bread

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

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

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

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

Brisket searing

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

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

Sofrito for ropa vieja

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

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

Ropa vieja after cooking.Shredding beef

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

Finished ropa vieja

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

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

Beans at start of cooking

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

Seasoning mix for the beans

And finally, I believe I mentioned rum?

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

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

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

What does Nemo have to do with pineapples?

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


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

Cuban meal

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

Also, there was rum.

Next time, it’s another island – Cyprus!

Ropa Vieja
Pan Cubano (Cuban Bread)
Cuban Beans


International Meals – Croatia

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

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

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

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

Ingredients for Croatian Meal

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

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

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

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

Cod and potatoes cooking.

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

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

Oil being poured over fish and potatoes

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

Garlic and kajmak on toast

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

Bakalar, sauerkraut, and sausage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smoked pork hock

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

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

Cabbage rolls in a pot

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

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

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

Ham and onions making stock.

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

Green beans and potatoes cooking

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

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

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

Roux being stirred.

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

Green bean soup and cabbage roll.

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

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

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

Nut roll filling

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

Dough starter

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

Nut roll, pre-rolling.

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

Uncooked nut rolls

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

Sliced nut rolls

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

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

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

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

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


International Meals – Côte d’Ivoire

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

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

Attiéké and a Scotch Bonnet Pepper

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncooked chicken stew

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

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

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

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

Finished Kedjenou

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

Kedjenou and Attiéké

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

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

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

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


International Meals – Costa Rica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salsa Lizano, Chaoyte Squash, and Ox Tails

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

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

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

Sofrito number 1Sofrito #2

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

Gallo PintoPicadillo de Chayote

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

Cooked oxtail

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

Sauce for beef stew

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

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

So here is our happily married casado:


And the verdict on taste?

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

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

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

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

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