International Meals – France, Part 2

We decided that France simply couldn’t be just one meal, so we planned one more.  This one was substantially less complex than the first one, but still consisted of dishes that (we hoped) were quintessentially French.

For our entrée, we decided to go with Magret de Canard, or “Duck Breast.”  As we’ve mentioned in the past, we are far from the first people to have the “cook the world in alphabetical order,” idea.  There’s a number of blogs dedicated to similar projects, probably the most famous of which is “United Noshes.” We consult the various blogs for ideas, but try hard not to simply copy any one of them.

That said, when that blog describes a dish as “I’m not sure I’ve ever made anything this delicious before”, we decided it was definitely worth a try.

So we headed back to our favorite butcher where we got the demi-glace and the ostrich, and bought ourselves a duck breast.  The recipe calls for first scoring the fat in a crosshatch pattern:

Duck breast with fat scored

Next a marinade in honey, orange juice, and thyme.  A quick trip outside to the planter box for some fresh thyme, and the duck was ready for its overnight soak.

Duck in plastic bag with marinade

The next day, the duck was dried off, and then tossed into a skillet to render off much of the fat. One duck breast produces a LOT of fat.  This picture is still early in the process – there was plenty more coming.

Cooking duck breast

Which is fine – duck fat is amazing, and we used it to make potatoes later in the week.

What is SUPPOSED to happen at this point is that you flip the duck breast over, and the other side is a lovely golden color.  What ACUTALLY happened is that the other side was pitch black.  Oops.  The good news is, we’re moving soon, and our new place has a gas range, which should allow for better heat control.

Either way, once flipped, the duck gets seared briefly on the meat side, then tossed into a hot oven to finish.  Once again, a thermometer is your friend.

Wireless thermometer

This is a Bluetooth grill thermometer we picked up last year, and let me tell you, it’s amazing.  Especially when your oven sucks and takes three times as long to get things to the proper temperature as the recipe says it will.  Did I mention we’re moving?

At any rate, once the duck came back out and was sliced, it was absolutely gorgeous inside, and the slightly (ok, very) singed crust didn’t hurt the flavor at all.

Sliced duck breast

For a side dish, we went with a very simple mushrooms provençal. What makes something unambiguously provençal?  Well, obviously, Herbes de Provence.

Herbes de Provence

I’ve made various versions of this blend in the past, but they had it at the duck store, so we decided to just get it pre-made.  The actual recipe couldn’t be simpler – sauté mushrooms in butter and herbs until done.

Sauteeing mushrooms

And here was the meal, including a cheese plate that probably looks awfully familiar if you read last week’s entry. We also bought a nice French Pinot Noir, since that’s the wine everyone says you should drink with duck.

Second French meal

And it was pretty darn good.  Not life-changing like last week’s meal, but better than a lot of things we make.  The duck, in particular, while it didn’t pick up as much of the flavor of the marinade as one might hope, was a lovely texture.  The herbs did a nice job of accenting the mushrooms.

We did also make a classic French dessert, tart au citron. The crust for this is a pate sucrée, or “sugar crust.”  It’s got a LOT of butter, so it gets rested for a while in the fridge before you roll it out, and then rested for ANOTHER half an hour afterwards, because you don’t want the butter melting out too soon.  It needs to be COLD when it goes in the oven.

We didn’t take any pictures of mixing the dough, because it’s not very exciting, but here’s the crust all rolled out and ready to bake:

Unbaked pie crust

And here it is filled with random desi chickpeas, because we don’t have any pie weights.  Sorry, chickpeas, but you were rendered inedible for a good cause!

Pie full of chickpeas.

The chickpeas are part of a process called “blind baking”, where you weigh down the crust and bake it first in order to stop it puffing up too much.  You also want to bake it before you put the filling in so it doesn’t get soggy.

About that filling.

The filling for this tart is technically a custard, so it used eggs.  LOTS of eggs.  Four whole eggs, AND four more yolks to boot.  Plus butter, a metric ton of lemon juice, and the zest from two whole lemons. (It’s French, it HAS to be metric.)

Lemon filling cooking.

This gets cooked until it’s thick, and then poured into the tart crust for a final bake.  And here’s the final product.

Lemon tart

It was SUPER tart and delicious.  If you’re looking for a dessert to impress people once it’s safe to once again impress people in your region, this is an excellent choice.  Also, it looks like Pac Man once you’ve cut a few slices out, so there’s that.

And that’s it for France!  We could obviously cook for months and never finish exploring the whole country, but we do need to move on.  The pace may slow a bit here as we get ready to move, but we HAVE finished the Fs, so next up, Gabon!

Magret de Canard
Mushrooms Provençal
Tart au Citron

International Meals – France Part 1

I have to admit – we were intimidated by France.  It’s hard to think of a food culture with more of a reputation for being challenging.  To some extent, that’s definitely Western bias – Thai food, for example, is easily as complicated in terms of balancing of different types of flavors.  But hey – we’re westerners.  We grew up with French cooking held up as the epitome of sophistication and precision.

How to even know where to start?  Well, two weeks ago we consulted with Puppy Shredder.  This week, it was clearly time to call Princess Beetch.

She was gracious enough to make a lot of great suggestions, and based on her input and some other research, we decided to make two meals.  No particular sorting by region or type of food – just two collections of dishes that sounded good to us.

So to start out this week’s adventure, we went shopping!  Unlike for Asian cuisines, we don’t need to visit a specialized “French” store for any special ingredients.  Instead, we visited a number of stores specializing in the ingredients themselves: a cheesemonger, a meatmonger, a chocolatemonger, and a coffeemonger. (I choose to assume that you can mong anything, not just a short list including iron, war, and whores.)

French shopping booty

From left to right, top to bottom – cheese, chocolate, coffee, cheese, cheese, demiglace, and cheese.

Our first dish was to be Entrecôte à la Bordelaise, a pan fried steak topped with Bordelaise sauce.

French sauces are, of course, a large part of the terror (not terroir) associated with the cuisine.  Bordelaise, for example, is a reduction of Bordeaux wine with shallots and bone marrow.  So far, so good, right?  Then you look more carefully at the ingredient list, and there’s one line: demi glace. Well, OK, let’s make demi glace.  What’s that?

Demi glace, is a mix of Espagnol sauce and part brown stock.

OK – what’s Espagnol sauce?

Espagnol sauce is made from brown stock and roux.

But what’s brown stock in particular?

Brown stock is made from veal bones, ham knuckles, pork rind, aromatics…

…oh my god.

Proper demiglace involves boiling pounds of bones and gallons of liquids for hours, as it turns out.  And there is just no shortcut to getting that extreme depth of flavor.

Except – we did find a shortcut: we just bought some.  Turns out our friendly neighborhood butcher where we bought the steak and the beef marrow bones (and the ostrich a few weeks back) makes their own and sells it in frozen cubes.

The other key ingredient in a Bordelaise sauce is, of course, Bordeaux.  Hilariously, we found one called “Château Canada.”  Yes, it’s from France.

Chateau Canada Wine

OK, let’s make some sauce.  Once you have the demiglace in hand, the sauce itself isn’t too bad.  You start by extracting the marrow from a few beef bones.

Beef marrow
This gets boiled for just a little while, until it turns a really unattractive shade of grey.  Who cares? Marrow is delicious.

Cooked beef marros

In a pan, you sauté some shallots in butter, then add the wine and some thyme.  Happily, our little garden box has been producing thyme like crazy, so we had some right off the stalk.

Bordelaise sauce in progress

I promise the actual sauce was less blurry.  We’ll just call this an action shot and move on.

And move on we do – after this cooks most of the liquid off, you add the demiglace, cook some more, and finally add the bone marrow and cook THAT together.  You’re left with a dense, dense sauce, full of shallots and luscious flavor.  It also foamed a bit yellow for some reason – no idea why. The final sauce didn’t stay that color when it was taken off the heat.

Almost finished Bordelaise sauce.

What are we PUTTING this sauce on, anyway? Well, a steak!  The cooking process is so simple and so fast, that I didn’t remember to take a picture of it before it was done.  Just sear the heck out of a good quality ribeye steak for a few minutes on each side, use a damn thermometer instead of guessing, and you’re done.  Here it is topped with the sauce.

Steak with Bordelaise sauce

One dish down.  What else did we make?  To go with our steak, we decided to make tartiflettte, which is a potato dish made with cheese and bacon.  Traditionally, the cheese to use would be Reblochon, which is usually pretty hard to come by in North America.

The good new is that the cheese shop we visited did have authentic Reblochon in stock.  The bad news is that it was $40 a kilogram, and the recipe called for a full wheel’s worth.  Cheese is EXPENSIVE in Canada, y’all.  We opted to sacrifice authenticity in the name of not paying more for the cheese than for the steak, and got a lovely Quebecois cheese called Fou du Roy instead.

The tartiflette is not too tough to assemble.  You boil some potatoes, and while they’re going, you also fry some lardons, which is a fancy way of saying chopped bacon.


The bacon fat (never waste bacon fat) is then used to fry some onions and garlic, and the pan is deglazed with vermouth.  Then you just stack everything up in a casserole – potatoes, bacon, onions, potatoes, bacon, onions.

But now then the magic happens.  First you pour on heavy cream:

Cream going onto tartiflette

And then the cheese.  So much cheese.

Unbaked tartiflette 

This gets baked in the oven until… well, words don’t suffice.

Baked tartiflette

Please do not lick the screen.  It sure does look delicious though, doesn’t it?

So this was our main course – Entrecôte à la Bordelaise and Tartiflette. Served with the remainder of the Bordeaux, of course.

French main course

Rather than render a verdict yet, I’m going to continue to describe the rest of the meal, and give our overall impressions at the end.  Next up – cheese course! (A traditional French meal might have been preceded by a soup, and followed at this point by a salad, but we only had so many brain cells available.  Cheese involves nothing more complicated than unwrapping cheese.)

Cheese plate

Upper left, Roquefort de Papillon, described by cheese expert Steve Jenkins as “The reason god invented caves.”  Lower left Tomme de Savoy, and right side Bouche de Lucay.  We were COMPLETELY full at this point.  So of course it was time to eat dessert.

And for dessert, it was time at last to turn to Julia Child, who we had managed to avoid consulting up to this point.  (I mean, technically, we made this first, but let’s not break the narrative flow here any worse than this parenthetical already has.)

Julia Child’s chocolate mousse recipe is complicated, but worth it.  Step one: butter, good chocolate, and coffee.

Butter, coffee, and chocolate

Melt in a double boiler, set aside.  Step two: egg yolks, sugar, and rum.

Egg yolks, rum, and sugar.

Whip over a double boiler, then continue to beat in an ice bath. We’re at three bowls and a saucepan and counting so far.

Next step – egg whites, vanilla, and a pinch of salt. (Didn’t get a separate picture of those.) Fold everything together, being extremely careful not to knock the air back out of the egg whites.

Mousse in progress

That’s two more bowls, one for the egg whites, and one for the folding.  Finally, the whole mixture gets transferred back to the fridge to set up.  Returning to our meal already in progress, we pulled the mouse out of the fridge to see if we had succeeded…

Chocolate Mousse

We had.

So what was our overall assessment of this meal?

This is not only one of the best meals we have ever made, this is reasonably high on the list of the best meals we have ever eaten, full stop.  There is, as it turns out, a reason French food is held in such high esteem.  All the steps are overwhelming, but there is a purpose behind each and every one, and that purpose is maximizing deliciousness.

The Bordelaise sauce was dark and rich and fruity and intense.  It perfectly complemented the steak, which we managed to cook to perfection.  The tartiflette was cheese, potatoes, bacon, and cream – just heaven on a plate.  All of the cheeses were amazing.

And the mousse was so good I may actually cry just remembering it.

We’re may not do this very often, but we’re definitely going to do it again.

Cat and tartiflette

No cheese for you, Wren!

Next up, more France!

Bordelaise Sauce
Chocolate Mousse

International Meals – Finland

Finland was fun.  By which I mean, our actual trip to Finland was fun.  Leigh had a conference there in 2009, and I tagged along. We have LOTS of pictures of that trip – we should really write it up for this, our alleged vacation blog, one of these days. But for right now, I’ll just give you this and let you wonder.

Finnish art of some kind.

For the present project, Finland turned out not to be a single meal, but a bunch of stuff spread out over several days.  Since one of the recipes called for vanilla sugar, that meant we would have to use up the contents of a vanilla pod for some other purpose. Difficult as it was, we made the ultimate sacrifice and forced ourselves to consume a crème brûlée.  It was awful, let me tell you – the things we do for this blog.

Crème Brûlée

So what was the vanilla sugar for, you ask?  One of my fondest food memories of our time in Finland was of a ubiquitous pastry – the cardamom bun.  They come in lots of different shapes, but what they all have in common is a lovely soft dough with lots and lots of cardamom in.

The version we picked, by virtue of it seeming to have been posted by an actual Finnish person, looks like a traditional cinnamon roll. First you make an enriched yeast dough with lots of cardamom in it, then after it’s had time to rise, you roll it out flat, then coat it with butter, sugar, and cardamom, cinnamon, or some combination of the two.

Rolled out cardamom bun dough

This is then rolled up and sliced into rounds.

Unbaked Finnish rolls.
An egg wash and a bake later, and we were rewarded with these beauties:
Baked cardamom buns

They may not be as beautiful as a cookbook, but they tasted amazing.  When we make large batches of stuff for this project, I often take the extras into work for my colleagues. NOT THIS TIME – the cardamom buns were ALL OURS.

Next up, we had planned to make two traditional dishes from Karelia – a stew and some pies.  However, two things prevented this from coming off according to the plan.  The first is that I got my COVID-19 shot the day before we had planned to make all the pies, and the attended soreness diminished my enthusiasm for doing much besides lying on the couch binging Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and complaining.

The more important thing, however, is that we realized that the stew and the pastries bake at COMPLETELY DIFFERENT TEMPERATURES, and so better planning would have been required to have them both ready at once.

Lets get the stew made, anyway.  Karelian Stew was recommended as a good choice for an archetypal Finnish dish by my local friend Puppy Shredder.  Karelia is a region of Finland which….

Yes, I have a friend in Finland who I refer to as “Puppy Shredder”.  Roller derby, right?

Anyway, Karelian stew is an astonishingly simple dish – it’s basically just meat, onions, salt, and some combination of peppercorns, allspice berries, and bay leaves.

Karelian Stew Ingredients

We chose to go maximally fancy and used three kinds of meat – lamb, pork, and beef.  Apparently the pork and beef version is so common in Finland that at many stores you can just buy “stew mix” which consists of pork and beef cut to appropriate size.  Not having that option, I had to manually cut the pork shoulder in to pieces myself! AND I had to cut up the onion.  SO MUCH WORK.

I kid, because cutting up the onion and the pork was literally the only work involved in making this dish.  You then just donk it all into a pot with some water, put it in the oven, and walk away for three hours.  The only other direction in the recipe we used is to put the lid on the pot “towards the end of cooking.”  Super helpful, that.

You’d think with all that extra time, I’d have remembered to take an “in process” shot of the stew, but I didn’t.  Thanks, AstraZeneca!  (No seriously, thank you – I am SO ready for this pandemic to be over.)

We did make what was ostensibly a Finnish version of mashed potatoes to go with.  It wasn’t terribly different from any other mashed potato recipe – peel, boil, mash with cream and butter.  The one interesting step was that it called for putting these potatoes back in a casserole, covering them with bread crumbs, and then baking them for an indeterminate length of time.  (One recipe I found called for a SIX hour bake!)

We didn’t have that length of time, and we only had Panko bread crumbs, which are from (checks notes) not Finland.  So they weren’t terribly authentic in any case.  But they were mashed potatoes with cream and butter, so what’s not to like?  They made a great base for the stew.

Karelian Stew

Before I talk about how things tasted, lets talk about the pies.  We made them the following evening, and since we had leftover stew, we WERE able to have more or less the whole meal as intended on the second evening.

The Karelian pies are a savory unleavened dough filled most often with rice porridge.  They are NOT sweet – the filling is just rice, milk, and salt for the version we made.

Rice porridge

That gets cooked down for an hour and then put in the fridge overnight (or two, in our case) to cool down.  The dough is equally simple – rye flour, all purpose flour, salt, and water.  Mix it together and roll it out:

Karelian pastry dough

Being a rye dough, it’s not the most exciting color in the world. But we had a TON of rye flour left from Estonia, so it’s good to keep using it.  We punched out little rounds of dough, and then formed an assembly line of rolling, filling, and shaping.

Karelian pies being made

You can see some in-progress pies top center.  The shape is certainly unique, and that’s not JUST because we are terrible at making them.  They’re SUPPOSED to be a unique shape.  The pies are baked for 15 minutes or so at the hottest temperature your oven can achieve.  (Spoiler: not all that hot, for ours)

Karelian pies

Definitely not quite the shape in the picture we were going from, but still identifiably the thing we were trying to make. Authentically, these would be served with a spread consisting of butter and hardboiled eggs, but neither of us LIKES hardboiled eggs, so even though we used authentic Finnish panko on the mashed potatoes, we decided to skip that extra detail here.

So here’s the whole Finnish meal, consisting of leftover mashed potatoes and stew, and piping hot pies.

Finnish meal

I gotta say – for only having six ingredients, the stew had an amazing depth of flavor.  The long cooking time drew all the flavor out of the bay leaves and allspice, and the broth was super deep and complex by the end. The flavor to effort ratio for this stew is just ridiculously excellent The pies were quite good too – a nice mix of chewy and crunchy on the outer layer, and a hearty filling from the rice porridge. .

In fact, the broth was SO good that we kept the extra, and two nights later used it to make the traditional beef noodle soup of Finland, pho.

Wait a minute, let me check my notes again…

Faux Finnish Pho

Finland is great.  You should go, and in the meantime, you should try some of these recipes.  Next up, a country with no discernable food history whatsoever. Frank? Francis?  Something like that.  That should be easy, right?

Finnish Cardamom / Cinnamon Rolls
Karelian Stew
Karelian Pies
Finnish Mashed Potatoes

International Meals – Fiji

We have reached the Fs!  And we won’t be here long, as there’s only three of them.

First up is our first country in Oceana – Fiji!

Unsurprisingly, Fijian cuisine uses a lot of coconut milk.  For this meal, we used a full liter of the stuff, which is like half a bald eagle or something – we’ve lived in Canada for long enough I don’t remember any more.

We made three dishes, starting with a coconut bun called a “Lolo bun.” There’s a number of different recipes for this online, most of which look very different from this one.  However, this recipe was accompanied by a video of an actual Fijian grandmother type making this in her kitchen, and anyone who remembers our Bulgarian meal knows that we’re a sucker for grandma videos.

So these were a bit more, as they say on the GBBO, “rustic”.  You start with a basic yeasted flour dough, and then knead in some butter and brown sugar. This is then formed into balls and placed in a pot.

Uncooked Lola buns

Oddly, this recipe does not call for any rise time at all – you make the dough, shape the buns immediately, and then get ready to put the pot on the stovetop. (Other recipes for this bun call for baking rather than stovetop cooking, but once again – grandma.)

There’s just one more tiny step.

Buns cooking in coconut milk

You DROWN the things in coconut milk. They cook for half an hour or so, and in that time they puff up and get huge, and soak up all the liquid.  Here’s the final product.

Lolo buns

They got huge!

For our main dish, we’re making the Fijian national dish – Kokoda! Kokoda is essentially ceviche, or fish “cooked” by submerging in acid for a few hours.  First, therefore, we’re going to need to juice one or two citrus fruits.

Limes and lemons

Or six.  Fortunately, one of Leigh’s favorite snacks is citrus corpses, so that worked out well for her.  There’s not much more prep here – the fish (tuna steak, in this case) is chopped up and tossed into the juice to marinate for a few hours, and that’s really it.

Tuna marinating

After a few hours, you drain the liquid, toss the fish with some tomatoes and onion, and then pour, you guessed it, a whole bunch of coconut milk over the bowl.


And that’s basically it for kokoda.  Only one more side dish to go.

A few months ago when we did Dominica, we noted that a) Taro leaves are a staple part of the cuisine there and b) Taro leaves are toxic if not fully cooked.  So we chickened out on that one.  (But we didn’t Mountain Chicken out, because that’s an endangered frog, apparently.)

This week, we gathered our courage, and decided to boil the crap out of some Taro leaves to make the traditional Fijian dish, Roro. (or rourou) Here’s what they look like whole:

Taro leaves

The cooking process is simple – you sauté some onion, garlic and chilis, wilt the taro into the pan, and then boil the whole mess until it doesn’t give you anaphylaxis.

Boil it in what, you ask?

Why, coconut milk, of course!

Taro leaves in coconut milk.

And here’s all three dishes in one place:

Fijian meal

This meal was great!  The fish was bitingly tangy from the citrus, but the sharp onions balanced that out well.  The taro greens had a really nice deep flavor, and are definitely NOT the same as the spinach we’d been substituting. (And as a bonus, didn’t kill us.) The buns were soft and chewy, and great for soaking up all the liquid from the other two dishes.  The leftover buns were a hit at my office the next day, too.

Next up, we return to a country that not only have Leigh and I both visited, we’ve actually visited it TOGETHER, albeit slightly too early for it to have made it into this blog back when it was just vacation photos.  Remember vacation photos?  Remember vacations?


Anyway, Finland awaits!

Lolo Buns
Kokoda (Fijian ceviche) (Note that we used this as a starting point, but left out some of the less typical ingredients like bell peppers.)
Roro (Steamed Taro Leaves)

International Meals – Ethiopia

We had been looking FORWARD to this one.

Leigh and I have VERY diverse food tastes, but the nature of this project is that more often than not, we’re researching recipes from countries whose food we have not specifically tried before.  Sure, we’ve had pupusas, but when was the last time you saw a specifically Belizian restaurant?

Ethiopia, on the other hand, we were familiar with.  There’s a fantastic Ethiopian place in Lansing called “Altu’s.”  If you find yourself in Lansing, we’re really, really sorry.  But at least you can go and STUFF yourself on Ethiopian food.

The absolutely essential component of an Ethiopian meal is a spongy flatbread called injera.  It’s slightly sour, and is used to scoop up the thick stews that are the cornerstones of the cuisine.  An Ethiopian meal will typically not be served with cutlery – just tear off some bread and scoop up the stew.  Then try to STOP eating before you make yourself ill.

Good luck with that.

So we had to try to make injera.  Problem: We have tried before, and it Did Not Go Well. ™  The dough has to ferment for a few days to build up the requisite tang and texture, and the last time we tried it, the dough got blue and fuzzy.  This is NOT the correct color. (or fuzziness level)

But we had to try.  So into a bowl went two cups of teff flour.  Teff is a tiny grain that mills down to a silky soft flour.  That gets mixed with some water and for the recipe we chose, a tiny amount of yeast.  Traditionally, this is a wild sourdough – no additional leavening would be added.  But traditionally when Dan and Leigh make injera it turns blue and fuzzy, so we’re going to duck tradition this time.  The dough is left to do its thing for two days.  Longer would have produced a tangier flavor, of course.

Injera dough

Two days later, the dough was definitely not fuzzy, and it was very active, to the point where it would fizz if you poked it. That was fun, and a bit unnerving.  Toss in some more flour for it to chew on, along with some baking powder and salt, and it’s time to start in on the butter.

In addition to berbere, the other fundamental ingredient in just about every Ethiopian dish is Niter Kibbeh, or seasoned clarified butter.  We made some for Eritrea, and it was OK, but not special enough to include in the post.  THIS time, it went a lot better.  A truly LUDICROUS variety of spices get boiled in butter for an hour to make this stuff. And we didn’t even have everything the recipe called for.

Ethiopian seasoned butter

A quick strain through cheesecloth and we were left with a sadly fairly small quantity of amazing smelling butter.

Finished seasoned butter

Also, East Van Jam’s Plum Jam is great.  Get some if you run across it.  We used it for the Czech kolaches.

Butter in hand, it was time to start the fairly length process of making Doro Wat, the chicken stew that is frequently referred to as the national dish of Ethiopia.  The way Ethiopian stews get their incredible depth of flavor is from a base called kulet.

First you puree some onions in a food processor to get them down to a paste.  They’re cooked in the butter for 45 minutes.  Seriously – this recipe calls for doing nothing but cooking the onions for the better part of an hour.  At that point, they had started to caramelize, and we tossed in some ginger, garlic, and a bit more butter.

Twenty more minutes.

Onion base cooking

At this point you throw in a quarter cup of berbere and some more butter.  “Cup” is definitely not a unit of measure we’re used to associating with spice blends, especially one as bitey as berbere.  We’re here for it.

Thirty more minutes.

Onion base continuing to cook.

At this point, we have been cooking onions with some seasoning for the better part of two hours.  The kitchen smelled unbelievable, and dinner was still a ways off.  Into the pot goes the chicken, some stock, and in theory, T’ej, or Ethiopian honey wine.  Not having any T’ej, we threw in a tablespoon of honey and some Sauvignon Blanc.

Let’s leave that to cook for a bit – we have two more recipes to make.

First, while we wanted to have a side dish to the doro wat, it was so labor intensive that we went looking for a shortcut for the other dish.  Enter the Instant Pot, and a bowl of red lentils, to make misir wot.

Red Lentils over the Instant Pot

The liquid here is more clarified butter, along with another ludicrous dollop of berbere and some tomato paste.  The instant pot  directions were the usual “Put everything in, close the lid and go do something else.”

In this case, “something else” consisted of making ANOTHER spice blend for the chicken stew. If you’re following along at home, you’ll notice that the recipe we’re using does NOT mention this, but it was common enough in other versions of the dish that we wanted to include it.  This blend is called mekelesha, and is the second most widely referenced Ethiopian blend after berbere. It is used as a finishing blend, similar to garam masala in some Indian curries.

So we toast a few spices:

Toasted spices

This particular version calls for cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg, and black cardamom seeds.  Into the spice grinder, and we get a dark, dark powder.

Mekelesha spice blend

A bit of that goes into the doro wat for the last ten minutes of cooking.

Doro wat nearing completion.

I am drooling just LOOKING at that picture.

We can’t put it off any longer – let’s try to make some injera.  (This actually happened a bit earlier in the day, but is placed here in the narrative to build suspense.)

Could we achieve the requiste spongy texture, with lots of air bubbles?

Injera cooking

We sure could!  This one’s a bit thick (and not finished cooking), but it turned out pretty great.  Since we were warned they would glue themselves together into a sticky blob if we tried to stack them before they were cool, we worked out an assembly line, where Leigh would ferry each one to towels spread out across the kitchen table as I started the next.  By the end of the process, we had a table full of lovely, spongy injera!

Cooked injera

By design, the lentils finished up at about the same time as the chicken, and had reduced to a thick, creamy consistency.

Cooked Ethiopian lentil stew

And now for the final sexy shot:

Ethiopian meal

Hello gorgeous.  Get in ma belly.

This meal was stunning. The sheer density of flavor in the chicken stew is impossible to describe – it turns out cooking onions by themselves for the length of Monsters, Inc. makes them incredibly delicious. The lentils were excellent, and the injera worked! It tasted good, and was the perfect texture to scoop up all the lovely, lovely stew.

We gorged ourselves, just like at Altu’s.

Next up, our first trip to Oceana, and the island nation of Fiji!

Doro Wat (Ethiopian Chicken Stew)
Misir Wat (Ethiopian Red Lentil Stew)
Mekelesha Spice Blend
Niter Kibbeh (Spiced Clarified Butter)

International Meals – eSwatini

“Yeah, since the pandemic, it’s almost impossible to find ostrich.”

I’ll take “Sentences I would have a very difficult time explaining to my past self” for $800, Alex.

Of course, my past self wouldn’t be trying to source ostrich at this point ANYWAY, because eSwatini only changed its name three years ago, so past me wouldn’t have hit this particular snag until they reached “Swaziland.”

But change it they did, and so we found ourselves trying to find recipes and source ingredients for one of the very few countries in the world that routinely uses camel case in their name.  Not ACTUAL camel, as far as we know, but that’s probably coming at some point….

At any rate, there are very few recipes that purport to be from eSwatini online, and most of them are the same ones cut and pasted back and forth.  The national dish is allegedly Ostrich Steak, and another possibility would be “Samp and Beans.”

We spent a solid week trying to source ostrich.  We called a LOT of butchers, including ones that advertise exotic meats.  They all told us the same thing – their supplies dried up about six months to a year ago.  So after that, I moved on to trying to locate samp.  Samp is cracked dried yellow hominy corn.  Shouldn’t be that hard, right?

I did find it, but only in a ten pound bag, and we do NOT need that much samp.  I went to every Latino and African grocery store I could find, and other than that one giant bucket o’samp, no one had it.  Were we going to have to make just an avocado salad and nothing else? I had just checked the last two stores on my list when I walked past a butcher shop, and on a lark walked in and asked “Say, you don’t have ostrich, do you?”

“Sure!  One piece left, right here.”

Ostrich meat

And you don’t even want to know what it cost.  But at this point, we were ready to buy SOMETHING so we could get going with this meal.

Ostrich is super lean, so after we sliced it thinly, it got an overnight marinade in red wine with some crushed juniper berries to tenderize and flavor it.

Ostrich marinating in red wine

For accompaniments, we DID make that avocado salad.  Pretty straightforward – avocados cubed, tossed with lemon juice, ginger, peanuts and salt. (The peanuts were added after this picture was taken)  The avocados we had were a bit under ripe, but still tasty.

Avocado salad

Our other side dish was cornbread.  Ideally, this should have been made with a specifically South African product called “mealie meal,” but at this point we were just done looking for ingredients, so ours was made with normal cornmeal. We also ran into the problem that the recipe said to add “enough milk” at one point, without giving any indication as to how much that was, or evening listing milk in the ingredient list.

Still, it turned out fine.  You’ll see it in a bit in the final picture.

So back to the ostrich. The recipe calls for it to be served over a mash of pumpkin and cornmeal.  In addition to the aforementioned mealie meal substitution, we ALSO couldn’t find a pumpkin in April in Vancouver, so we used a Japanese squash called a kabocha.

Kabocha squash

At least on the inside, LOOKS like pumpkin, and it tastes like pumpkin, so we’re going to call “close enough.”  I would not be embarrassed to make tikvenik with this, and that’s a good enough test as any.

Kabocha gets diced up and boiled with cornmeal until tender:

Uncooked kabocha

Once it’s soft, you drain off some portion of the liquid (the recipe was vague) and mush it up until you get a soft mash.

Pumpkin mushed up. 

We also needed to make a quick sauce for the ostrich, by sweating onions, and then cooking them with white wine (South African, of course), heavy cream, and green peppercorns.

Cream sauce for the ostrich

Finally it was time to flash fry the ostrich itself, which took almost no time, given how thinly we’d sliced it.

Ostrich cooking

And here’s everything all together, including the promised shot of the cornbread:

eSwatini meal

It all turned out kinda pretty – the avocados were various shades of green, the cornbread and pumpkin mash were orange, and the ostrich was wine-dark.

So now for the most important question – how did it taste? It was pretty good!  The avocado salad actually stole the show – peanuts and avocado are a great combination that we shall have to remember.  The cornbread needed a bit more salt, but was very good at soaking up things.

The pumpkin mash was kind of bland by itself, but the creamy texture went well with the chew of the onions and the slight acidity of the white wine sauce.

And everyone knows what ostrich is like, so there’s really not much point in describing that, right?

OK, fine.  The ostrich was good, but honestly it mostly just tasted of the wine.  The texture was definitely unique – not chicken, not beef, but somewhere in between the two.  I don’t think I’d buy it again at that price.

And that’s our trip to eSwatini, which is the first country in a while that has taken us two weeks to accomplish.  Next up, we have our final “E” country, as we remain in Africa for one more week to visit Ethiopia, and a chance to once again botch making injera.

Karoo Ostrich Steak
Swazi Cornbread
Slaai (Avocado Salad)

International Meals – Estonia

Estonia was interesting.  A few, well – not exactly failures – but not exactly blazing successes, either.

After our hilariously awful attempt at locating Danish bread a few months ago, I decided to take no chances and start a sourdough a week before the meal so we could bake the bread of Estonia ourselves.  We did have a sour going last spring, when everyone and their cousin was discovering how to bake without yeast. Its name was “Oscar.” Oscar did not make it to Vancouver with us.

And then on Friday, I found this:

Estonian bread in the package.

OK, so – we’ll make a loaf, and we’ll compare it to the real stuff, and that will be interesting.

Welp – it was that.

The recipe we had certainly sounded tasty – it used pumpkin, flax, fennel, and caraway seeds, in addition to molasses, coffee, and cocoa. It uses a standard sourdough rye technique, where you let the sour get a head start on rising before you add any other ingredients that might slow it down.

For whatever reason, though – the sour was too stiff, I didn’t mix it properly, wrong temperature, or something else – the dough never really… doughed.  It was more of a wet sticky blob that never came together. Between that and the fact that it was dark brown, it looked quite unsettling.

Estonian bread dough

It was at this point that we realized that we had missed just how long of a rise time the recipe called for, and that this bread wasn’t even going to be ready for dinner.  So we’ll come back to our bread, and just eat the commercial stuff.

For our appetizer, we were going to put some sprats on the actual Estonian bread from actual Estonia.  Since that involved opening a can and putting fish on bread with butter, we managed not to screw it up.

Sprats on bread

Our main course was a porridge called mulgipuder. The essential ingredients for this dish are pearl barley and potatoes.  If you’re not familiar with pearl barley, it looks like this before it’s cooked:

Pearl Barley

That goes into a pot with some potatoes to boil for an hour.

For some versions of the dish, that would be it. We wanted to get a bit more fancy, so we went with a recipe that also called for mushrooms and smoked pork hock.  That’s right – the giant hunk o’ pig is back, after making its last appearance for Croatia.

Pork hock

We sliced off enough for this recipe, and threw the rest in the pressure cooker the next night to make a very nice bean stew.

In addition to the pork hock, we fried up some mushrooms as well.

Frying mushrooms

Once the potatoes and the barley had finished cooking, in went the immersion blender.  There’s a lot of different versions of this recipe online, and the photos range from “extremely chunky” to “whipped smooth.”  We had enough water left in the pot that we ended up on the smoother end of the spectrum.

And here’s the final spread:

Overhead view of Estonian meal

And it was pretty good!  Bread and butter with oily fish made for a very hearty appetizer.  If you like sardines, you’ll like sprats.  In fact, unless you are very, very serious about sardines, you’ll have great difficulty distinguishing them from sprats. The bread itself was quite sour, and very dense and chewy. A delicious combination, which I did not hesitate to repeat for lunch the next day.

The barley definitely gave the mulgipuder a bit more personality by itself than simple mashed potatoes, and the addition of the ham and mushrooms made for a filling and satisfying dish.  Overall, it was exactly what one would expect from the Baltics – dark bread, ham, potatoes, and fish.  And that’s great, because we like all those things!

I’ll also point out that we managed to acquire an actual Estonian beer! It wasn’t a traditional beer by any means.  Probably a lot of alcohol would scream “the Baltic states” more than a Scotch Ale aged in port wine barrels.  But oh man was it good, and it was made in Estonia (“By Finns, Dan” “Shut up, internal monologue!”) so it counts.

Now let’s talk about partial success number 2.  (Don’t worry, we’ll get back to the bread) “Partial Success” is like “Partly Sunny”, in that it can also mean “Partial Failure.” Since we were having this meal on Easter, we decided to close the meal with a traditional Estonian dessert that is often served on that holiday – Pasha.

Pasha is NOT a dish for the lactose intolerant. It involves farmer’s cheese (we used Ricotta), sour cream, butter, AND heavy cream. Those are blended with butter, sugar, eggs, and vanilla to make what is essentially a cheesecake batter.

Pasha ingredients

The mixture is simmered for a bit to thicken it, and then the fun starts.

You put cheesecloth in a sieve.  You put the sieve over a bowl.  The batter goes in the cheesecloth in a sieve over a bowl, with their paddles in a puddle in a bottle on a poodle.  Sorry.  You pour the mixture into the cheesecloth, fold the cloth over, and then put a weight on the whole assembly.

Pasha with a weight on it

In theory, this squeezes out a bunch of moisture, and when you unmold it and tip it over on a plate, you get a beautiful dome of dairy.  That’s what all the pictures show, anyway.  Possibly because the Estonian Tourist Bureau doesn’t think anyone would want to eat a dessert that ended up looking like this:


It did NOT hold its shape, suffice to say.  And a spoon was definitely more useful than a fork would have been at attempting to consume it.

But, just as “party cloudy” can also be “partly sunny,” this partial failure also succeeded at being delicious.  I mean – it’s a cheesecake.  Even just licking the batters was delicious, and so was the final product. (And lets be honest – there wasn’t a ton of difference between the two.) We topped it with some mixed peel, and the little bit of chewiness was a welcome textural contrast too.

And now we can’t put it off any longer, so let’s find out about the bread.  After four hours, it had barely risen.  But no harm in baking it to see what happens, right?  We cranked up the oven to the specified 480 F (yowzers), heated up the Dutch oven, and baked the daylights out of it, to end up with a “loaf” that could charitably be described as not looking completely like a meteorite.

Homemade Estonian Bread
Large pockets of unmixed sourdough were definitely visible in the final bake.  I think in hindsight I should have added the water to the sour at the very beginning and mixed that in thoroughly before adding any other ingredients.  After that point, the sour just didn’t want to break up.

However… despite everything, the bread was actually pretty tasty!  It was dense and chewy, but that’s OK in a dark bread.  All the toasted seeds gave it a great crunch, and the Dutch oven mean the crust was nice and crispy.  We probably won’t try to make it again, just because we’ve had actual pets that are less work than the sour starter, but I don’t regret this loaf.

And that’s Estonia.  Next time, because of a name change just three years ago, we are off to the country formerly known as Swaziland – Eswatini!

Estonian Black Bread
Pasha (Estonian Easter Dessert)
Sprat Sandwich – You put sprats on buttered bread. Add chopped green onion or sour cream if you like.

International Meals – Eritrea

This week, we cross Africa to the somewhat larger, but still not terribly large, country of Eritrea. We’ve had Ethiopian food many times, and so the challenge here was to determine what makes Eritrean food distinct from Ethiopian food.

And the answer seems to be… almost nothing, that we could find.  Eritrea and Ethiopia were even the same country for a while, until Eritrea fought a war to break away and gain their independence.  They’ve had the same president since independence in 1993, possibly because they haven’t troubled themselves with little annoyances like holding elections.

We’re going to make a meat stew called Tsebhi Sega and a lentil stew called Alitcha Birsen. However, you could call them by their Ethiopian names, Sega Wat and Misir Wat, and you wouldn’t have to change the recipes at all. We DID identify one recipe which DOES seem to be uniquely Eritrean – a type of pan bread called hembesha. We decided we had to make that, plus it let us put off screwing up injera again for another few weeks. (To be clear, Eritreans DO eat injera, and it would have been totally appropriate with the rest of the meal.)

Let’s start with this bread, shall we?  The dough involves normal dough stuff – yeast, flour, butter, eggs.  But it ALSO involves cardamom, fenugreek, coriander seed, and garlic.  What’s not to like there? We’ve been binge watching “The Great British Bake Off” to pass the apocalypse, so I feel like I’ve had quite a bit of practice watching other people knead bread by hand correctly. It seemed to go OK.  No pictures – it just looked like dough.

On the other hand, after the first rise, comes the shaping, and that IS a bit unique:

Unbaked hembesha bread

Apparently the traditional way to do this is with nails, and one blogger I consulted used a ravioli cutter.  I just stabbed it a bunch of times with a fork. Another rise in the pan, and then the pan goes into the oven.  You’re supposed to cover it, but we forgot that step.  Since we’ve only done this once, we don’t know what effect that might have had, but the bread still puffed up nicely in the oven.

Baked hembesha bread

OK, on to our stews. The primary reason that there’s not much distance between Ethiopian and Eritrean food is this stuff:

Bottle of berbere seasoning

This spice blend is fundamental to both countries’ cuisines. And as far as we can tell based on our internet research, there is no uniquely Ethiopian or Eritrean version – it’s the same blend both places.

Which is not to say that every Eritrean grandmother makes her blend the same – of course not.  It’s just that if you surveyed all the Eritrean grandmothers, and all the Ethiopian grandmothers, there doesn’t seem to be anything that one group is doing systematically differently than the other one.

What’s IN Berbere, you ask? LOTS of stuff.  Typical ingredients often include, according to Wikipedia, chili peppers, coriander, garlic, ginger, basil, korarima, rue, ajwain or radhuni, nigella, and fenugreek. Now, none of the online recipes we consulted for making the stuff included the more obscure ones on that list – korarima or rue.  But that’s OK, because we already HAD a bottle from Penzeys, so we weren’t planning on making it from scratch anyway.

First up is the lentil stew. A common characteristics of the two recipes is that the ingredients are added to the pot slowly, and each batch is allowed to cook at their own pace before adding the next one.  In this case, we start by frying some ginger:

Frying ginger
When that’s all pretty and golden, you toss in just the lentils and let them fry a little bit before adding ginger, chili, and salt and pepper.  Cover with boiling water, and that’s it for the lentils. (There ARE lentils in this picture, trust us.)
Cooking lentils

Those cook for an hour, so it’s time to move over to the beef stew.  Instead of garlic, this one starts by frying onions, and I feel at this point I should mention that we just bought an electric knife sharpener.  I HAD been sharpening our chef’s knife using a water stone, and I didn’t realize JUST how crap my sharpening skills were until I finally sharpened the thing properly.

My sharpening skills are CRAP, y’all.  Unless you’re prepared to spend years mastering the craft with a water stone, get yourself a sharpening machine.  The difference was miraculous.  Cutting the aforementioned onions was absolutely effortless.  And I didn’t even lacerate myself this time.

Ahem.  There was a reason we ordered the sharpener, after all.

Moving on.

In addition to berbere, the other distinctive ingredient in this stew is tegelese tesmi, or seasoned clarified butter.  Prior to starting these recipes, we cooked a whole pile of onions and garlic in some butter, and then I did a poor job of filtering out the solids.  Still – even if it’s not done perfectly, it’s onion and garlic flavored butter – nothing not to like.

So into the onions went some butter and a LOT of berbere, and then the onions cooked down even more.

Onions cooking

The long, long cook time on these onions really had an amazing effect – even though berbere is pretty firey, after 20 minutes of cooking, you could easily detect the sweet notes of the caramelization coming off the wok.

Wait – why are we using a wok here? Well, we only have two large frying pans, and at this point, one’s got the lentils and the other is in the oven with the bread. So wok it is.

Once the onions were ready, they were joined by some tomatoes, ginger, and garlic, and THAT was given some time to cook down as well.  Finally, in went the meat.  The site we got these recipes from is definitely very knowledgeable about Eritrean culture, but is somewhat unevenly translated.  The recipe calls for “beef or lamb, shredded”, and the recipe title is “Spicy minced meat.”  As such, we decided to go with ground beef rather than the chopped beef cubes, which we have seen more commonly at restaurants.

While the stews were finishing up, I made coffee. Coffee is an incredibly crucial part of Ethiopian and Eritrean culture.  There are ceremonies. It is often prepared with the beans being not only ground but ROASTED for each individual meal.

THAT sure wasn’t going to happen.

Instead, I used the Kylo Ren of coffee apparatus – an Aeropress.  At least the beans were from east Africa.

Coffee preparation equipment.

A few weeks ago, we showed off Leigh’s “PhDemon” glass from Flint Roller Derby, so here’s my “Adam Smasher” mug from Kalamazoo’s team.

After an hour, our kitchen smelled amazing and it was time to eat!

Eritrean Meal

And the verdict? Stunningly good.  We already knew we loved Ethiopian food, and this iteration did absolutely nothing to change our minds. (There was a reason we already had that jar of berbere, after all!) The lentils and beef stews were both spicy and delicious. You could taste the spices in the bread without their being overpowering, and the texture was soft and chewy, perfect for soaking up the juices.  These are definitely recipes to come back to.

So, nice job, Eritrea!  You make not like Ethiopia much, but your cuisine definitely matches everything we like about theirs.

Next time, we head back to Europe to visit Estonia!

This is an entire page of recipes from what seems to be an the web page of a Belgian(?) who goes to Eritrea a lot? I think? You can draw your own conclusions.

International Meals – Equatorial Guinea

There are no fewer than four “Guinea” countries in the world: Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Papua New Guinea.  Why?

Imperialism!  Also racism.

“Guinea” was the English form of the Portuguese word for the region on the west side of Africa.  No one’s really sure where THAT word came from..  But thanks to colonialism, there was a Portuguese Guinea, a Spanish Guinea, French Guinea, and even a German Guinea.

Those became, respectively, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, and Togo plus bits of Cameroon.  But what about Papua New Guinea, which is in (checks notes) not Africa? Welp, some super racist Spanish explorer decided that the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea looked like west Africans, and decided to give it the same name.  Great.

The subject of today’s meal, Equatorial Guinea, is a bit geographically improbable.

Map of Equatorial Guinea

Most of the country is on land, except for two islands, which are nowhere near each other, and in fact, have an entirely different country separating them. The capital of the country, Malabo, is located on the northern island.  Having your capital off on an island away from most of your landmass?  What a silly idea.  *mumbles in British Columbia*

Equatorial Guinea is the only independent country in Africa which is majority Spanish speaking. It’s also, in a continent full of governments left in bad shape by colonialism, one of the worst offenders in terms of human rights.  As in so many cases, the presence of substantial oil reserves has not helped the democracy situation much.  Heck – look at Texas.

But enough politics.  What about the food?  Well, the extended riff on politics and geography is going to help cover the fact that our Equatorial Guinean meal consisted of probably the simplest dish to make we’ve done so far, and so this entry is going to be pretty darn short.  The dish in question is a fish stew called “Pick a Pepper Soup.”

First – a trip back to our spice hookup for another new ingredient. Grains of Paradise.  These things are also known as Guinea Pepper, so that’s a good sign, right?  Except that Guinea Pepper is strictly speaking some OTHER random spice, also known as  “Grains of Selim.”  So we’ll stick with Grains of Paradise.

Grains of Paradise

These are the seeds of a plant closely related to ginger and cardamom. You treat them like you would black pepper – dump them in a spice grinder or mortar, and mash them up to make a powder.

Ground grains of paradise.

Then, you put them and literally every other ingredient in the pot all at once.

Stew ingredients
And you cook it for an hour.  After an hour, you put in a tiny, tiny, amount of oil, then cook it for another five minutes.  I have absolutely no idea why.  And that’s it.  That’s the whole recipe.

Here it is cooking:

Equatorial Guinean Stew Cooking

And here it is on the table, with a decidedly non-Guinean beer.

Equatorial Guinean Stew on the table.

And that’s it.  Just, dump it all in the pot, cook it all together, done.

So how does it taste?  Delicious, actually!  In addition to the Grains of Paradise, the stew also contains cayenne pepper, a scotch bonnet pepper, and black pepper, so it’s got some bite to it.  The snapper was firm enough to hold up to the seasoning and cooking time, and the vegetables soaked up the flavors nicely.

We’re definitely going to be looking for more ways to use the rest of this jar of Grains of Paradise.  However, I DON’T think Equatorial Guinea is going to be at the top of the destination list when *waves vaguely at everything* ends.

Next up, we remain in Africa, but cross to the east side to visit Eritrea.

Pick a Pepper Soup

International Meals – El Salvador

El Salvador… could have gone better.  It was fine, but certainly not our best effort.  It’s unclear to me whether that’s a result of not picking the best recipes, or not executing them well.  Y’all can judge for yourselves as we go along.

We’ve actually had Salvadoran food before, and it was a no-brainer to choose their best known culinary export – Pupusas. Pupusas are somewhere between a tamale and a stuffed pancake – they’re a griddled disk made from corn meal with a savory filling.  They’re great if done well.  To accompany the Pupsas, we made a side salad/topping called curtido, as well as horchata and a quesadilla.

“Ah ha!”, you may be thinking, “I am familiar with both of those last two.”  Well, if you’re familiar with the Mexican versions, the Salvadoran ones are just a bit and extremely different, respectively.

To start, I went to the Hispanic grocery store near my office, where they were quite helpful, but also pointed out that they had pupusas and Salvadoran horchata mix ready made, and was I sure I really wanted to try to do both from scratch?

Sure – how hard can it be?  After all horchata is just flavored sugar rice milk, right?

No, that’s Mexican horchata.  Salvadoran horchata uses juuuuust a few more ingredients.

Horchata ingredients

No seriously. From upper left, that’s coriander seed, rice, cinnamon, whole nutmeg, sesame seeds, morro seeds, pumpkin seeds, allspice berries, cocoa beans, and peanuts. (The little red tupperware is just more sesame seeds.)

Every single one of these ingredients except the cinnamon powder has to be toasted, and toasted one at a time, because they all cook differently. Fortunately, the peanuts and sesame seeds can be purchased already toasted. But one at a time, into the wok went coriander, nutmeg, allspice, rice, pumpkin seeds, and morro seeds.

“What the hell are morro seeds?”, I hear you asking.  Apparently, they are a seed that has no business existing any more, because they can only germinate if a large animal breaks their fruit open, and there are no longer any native animals capable of doing so.  Horses and humans are the morro’s best friend at this point.

And finally, we come to the cocoa beans.  Have you ever wondered why we don’t make chocolate at home from scratch?  Well, there’s a reason.  First, the beans have to be roasted like coffee beans.  And like coffee beans, there’s a thin margin between raw and burnt

The good news is that UNLIKE coffee beans, the fumes are a lot less nasty if you try to roast them in your oven.  Once you’ve done that, however, you’re still faced with the problem that the husk is inedible.  So you put the beans in a plastic bag and smash them a bit:

Cocoa beans.

Then you have to somehow separate the chaff from the tasty center bit.  The recommended tool for this job for home chefs appears to be a hair dryer, I kid you not.

Hair dryer and cocoa beans.

I’m pretty sure quite a bit of actual chocolate ended up on our patio, but after a while, we had a bowl of probably more-or-less pure cocoa nibs.

Cocoa Nibs

Note that if you actually want to make CHOCOLATE from this point, there are still like six more steps.  I actually did make a couple of very basic truffles with the extra beans, but it just drove home that no, making chocolate from scratch is not a good choice.

Now that we finally had all of our ingredients ready, everything went into the food processor to make a powder.  It made a LOT of powder. Not for the first time this evening, the recipe made a LOT more of the thing than claimed.  At 1 tablespoon per serving, this is way more than 15 servings of horchata powder.

Horchata powder

To actually MAKE the horchata, you put the powder in cold milk with some sugar and vanilla, let it soak for a while, then strain out the solids through a cheesecloth. (Ph.Demon mug courtesy of Flint Roller Derby.)

Horchata soaking

We discovered later on that a French press works much more easily than the cheesecloth.  Good thing, because we have A METRIC TON of horchata mix.  (It has to be metric – we’re in Canada.)

Backing up a bit in time, let’s talk about the curtido, which we made the night before.  It’s basically a tangy coleslaw made with cabbage and vinegar.  What distinguishes the Salvadoran version, according to most of the sources we consulted, is the addition of quite a bit of radish.  The fact that the particular recipe we were using DIDN’T call for radish might have been a red flag.  We added some in anyway.

Veggies for Cortido

Don’t those look pretty?  The final product looked good too, although I suspect it could have used a LOT more vinegar than the recipe called for.


OK, we can’t put this off any more – what about the actual pupsas? The method isn’t complicated.  Brown some pork butt with a mix of seasonings, braise it for a bit in some water, then cook the water off until the pork turns crisp.

Cooked pork 

Then, to make a filling, toss the pork in the food processor with tomatoes, onions, and green pepper.  The dough is even simpler – instant masa harina (corn flour) and some water.  Mix into balls, and you’re ready to cook.

Pupusa dough and filling.

And here’s where we went wrong. Or the recipe went wrong.  Or something.  The pupusas I remember having in restaurants were hearty items five or so inches across.

This recipe does NOT make enough dough for anything that substantial. And it makes waaaaay more filling than could possibly fill the amount of dough it does make.  But OK, let’s do the best we can.  You flatten the dough, put some filling in the middle, bring the dough over to surround the filling, then flatten it out again.

Not a single one of our pupusas fully enclosed the filling.  They were, to put it politely… rustic.

Pupusas cooking.

Still – they DID cook up nice and brown, with the small dark spots you expect.

And so this was our meal:

Salvadoran meal

Not very much pupusas, a MOUNTAIN of curtido, and a glass of horchata.

And as I said at the outset, the pupusas were… fine.  They tasted like pupusas.  They just didn’t necessarily taste like GOOD pupusas. Certainly more salt might have helped, but more seasoning in general would have probably been welcome.  The curtido was nice and crisp, but the vinegar to veggies ratio also seemed a bit off.

Fun fact: it turns out that one of the most common condiments in El Salvador is, for some reason, Worcestershire sauce, which is often referred to as “Salsa Inglés,” or “English Sauce.”  Not having any of that, I slopped some Costa Rican “Salsa Lizano” on my pupusas, and that was delicious.  Maybe not authentic, but delicious.

The best part was the horchata.  The flavor was subtle, but definitely present, and more complex than the Mexican version.

Wait a minute – didn’t I say we made a quesadilla?  Where was that?

It turns out in El Salvador, a quesadilla is a dessert. Back at the Mexican grocer, I showed the recipe to one of the employees.  It said that Salvadoran cheese is very hard to find outside of the country, and suggested Parmesan.  “Parmesan?” I thought?  Surely one of these Mexican cheeses would be a better fit?

“Nope,” confirmed the clerk.  “You’re better off with Parmesan.”

OK, Parmesan it is.  Into some milk it went to soak while I separated some eggs, screwed up the last one, got yolk in the whites, tried to beat them anyway, realized that you REALLY CAN’T beat egg whites with fat in them, realized I had used the last 4 eggs, and sent Leigh off to the store to get some more.


Egg whites correctly separated and whipped up, from this point, you’re just making a cake; dry ingredients in one bowl, wet in another.  Eggs, milk, butter, cinnamon, rice (!) flour, and baking powder. Mix it all together, trying not to knock the air back out of the egg whites.

Quesadilla batter

And grated Parmesan.  Unusual, to say the least.  After baking, the quesadilla had a lovely color.

Baked Salvadoran Quesadilla

And was very spongy and tasty.  It was DEFINITELY a new sensation getting chewy bits of Parmesan cheese in a sponge cake, but honestly, it worked.  Good thing, too, because we’re going to be eating this thing for a week.

Quesadilla interior.

And that’s El Salvador.  I have to say that we were a little disappointed.  We’ve had Salvadoran food in restaurants before, and this just didn’t live up to it.  I don’t know if it was a poor choice of recipes, ineptitude on our part (likely), or a combination of the two, but the whole meal seemed somewhat under seasoned.

Good thing we have a MOUNTAIN of leftovers.  Actually, that IS a good thing – leftovers are always a plus, and we still have a nearly full jar of Salsa Lizano, after all!

Next time, we’re off to Equatorial Guinea, to start a run where 4 of the next 5 countries will be African.  Stay tuned!

Salvadoran Pupusas de Chicharron with Curtido (This is the one we used, but I’m guessing you can do better.)
Salvadoran Horchata (Do NOT make this.  Just buy the premade powder.  Seriously. That is what actual Salvadorans in El Salvador do.)
Salvadoran Quesadilla 

PS – if you buy these chips at the Mexican grocer and try to eat them on the way home, be forewarned that even if you eat a lot of spicy foods, and love spicy foods, these things are still really, really spicy. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Spicy Chips