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)