Cliffieland: The Global Cooking Challenge

The guy who couldn't cook to save his life is now working his way through learning to cook by doing a different dish from a different UN nation each week.

Feel free to follow me here on Tumblr.
Or, if you wish, you can follow the posts over on Facebook at facebook.com/cliffieland.
Or on Twitter at @cliffieland.

Cooking Around The World: Lithuania

image

It can’t have been two years already!

But it has.

Yes, it was two years ago this week that I set out on this mad attempt to finally learn to cook — after more than 30 years of being scared to even turn on a stove — by satisfying my neurotic need to follow lists and my love of geography.

So it is that we have arrived at Week 100 (!!) of my global culinary adventure and … Lithuania!

The Country

Located in Northern Europe on the shores of the Baltic Sea, Lithuania is bordered by previous challenge subjects Latvia (Week 94) and Belarus (Week 16) as well as Poland and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast. And while the country would appear to be on the northern side of the continent, curiously, the geographical center of Europe is just north of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.

Lithuania has a long and twisted history dating back millennia, having once been the center of a large kingdom, a nation which for a good part of the 14th Century was the largest one in Europe.

Since then, the country joined a union with Poland, was conquered by the Swedes and was dissected into various parts before becoming part of the Russian Empire. It was in this period in the late 1800s that many native Lithuanians fled famine in their homeland to emigrate to the U.S.

In the 20th Century, the nation claimed independence, only to then be ruled by Poland. And then came World War II, when the country was taken over by the Soviets and then the Nazis, who sent off more than 91% of its Jewish minority to die in the Holocaust.

After a brief period of independence after the war, the nation was annexed by the Soviet Union, but later distinguished itself by becoming the first former Soviet Republic to break away from the USSR in 1990.

Over the past 15 years, the nation has become a member of the European Union, has boasted one of the fastest growing economies on the continent, and, in 2011, had the fastest internet speeds on the planet.

The Food

The food of Lithuania is much like that of its neighbors, with a heavy emphasis on dairy, potatoes, mushrooms, beets and dill. And, as with every other country, its food is also heavily influenced by the foreign forces that ruled the nation for years. Hence, there are noted German, Russian, Scandinavian and Polish notes.

As for what I’d make for dinner, there, again, I was flummoxed, having just recently cooked Latvia (Week 94). There was, though, one item that came up again and again as a Lithuanian favorite, cepelinai, or zeppelins, a football-shaped potato dumpling filled with ground pork.

So, despite reading less-than-stellar reviews for the dish around the web, I decided to go for it. And since I’d need a vegetable of some sort to go with this, I decided to pair it with a cold beet soup. [Never mind that I did a somewhat similar one back when I cooked Belarus (Week 16).]

Therefore, I decided I’d make …

  • Lithuanian Cepelinai (Riced Potatoes with Minced Meat) using this recipe (with an assist from this one), and
  • Šaltibarščiai (Cold Beet Soup) using this recipe from the same page.

The Hunt

No hunt this week. That is unless you count having to now add marjoram to the spice cabinet.

The Cook

Since I hate having to make things the night before, I normally shy away from selecting dishes that necessitate that. But, since I had time this weekend, I decided I could make the soup a couple nights in advance and just store it until needed. So …

The Cold Beet Soup

I greeted the vegetable that once scared the bejesus out of me, a pair of beets.

image

And I set the beets to boil for about 40 minutes.

image

Meanwhile, I hard-boiled a couple of eggs.

image

And after those were ready, I ran the beets through the food processor, grating them quickly. I sliced up the cucumbers and scallions and cut open the two eggs.

image

I separated the yolks from the whites and mashed the yolks up as instructed.

image

And I got to assembling the soup.

Into a bowl, I dropped the grated beets.

image

And the sliced cucumber.

image

And I poured in a quart of buttermilk.

image

I tossed in the chopped scallions.

image

The water.

image

The sour cream.

image

Salt and pepper, and — since the recipe didn’t say when else to add them — the crushed egg yolks. 

image

And I mixed that all up.

image

I chopped up the fresh dill and sliced the cooked egg whites and set everything in the fridge until dinner.

Yes, I know chopping fresh herbs days in advance is a stupid move. Bad on me for not realizing that the ingredient was for dressing the soup right before service. Boo.

The Potato “Zeppelins”

This is FIVE POUNDS of potatoes. 

image

And have I mentioned that there I’m cooking for just TWO people?

And have I mentioned that this leads to a great deal of consternation and worry about waste?

Week after week (after week after week), I have wrestled with how to address this ongoing problem, since every recipe on the planet is made to serve an entire family (or military encampment).

And I’ve learned (the hard way) that simple division generally doesn’t work.

So ….

This is what five pounds of peeled potatoes look like (an hour later).

image

I separated out potatoes for boiling and potatoes for grating and stuck the ones to be boiled in a pot to cook for about 20-25 minutes.

image

And I cut up and ran the remaining taters through the grating tool in the food processor (since I don’t have a week to do this by hand).

image

Once the boiled ones were ready, I drained them and set them out to cool.

image

And, working in hand-sized batches, I placed bunches of the diced potatoes in cheesecloth and squeezed the water out into a bowl.

image

Once i had the fresh-squeezed grated potatoes …

image

I feebly attempted to separate the water from the potato starch that collected at the bottom of the bowl.

And I set about adding the starch back into the bowl of grated potatoes.

image

Next, I made my move with the boiled potatoes. But, not having a potato ricer (and not being sure I even needed one), I attempted to smash them with a hand masher.

image

When I felt the cooked potatoes were adequately mashed, I added them into the bowl with the uncooked taters.

image

I salted the bowl and mixed everything up well. Or as well as I could, anyway.

image

Next, it was time to get to work on the filling.

Into a skillet, I dropped the ground pork.

image

And added the diced onion.

image

Salt, pepper and marjoram.

image

And once that was all cooked, I put it into a bowl.

image

And I was ready to start assembling the “zeppelins.”

I scooped a cup of the potato mixture into my hands and formed a thick six-inch disc.

image

And, onto that, I scooped a quarter cup of the meat mixture.

image

I closed up the potato patty and rolled the dumpling into what was, more or less, a lemon/football/rugby ball/zeppelin/dirigible/Goodyear blimp-shaped thingy.

image

And I prepped five more of them.

image

Internal monologue: Good gravy, we’re never going to be able to eat all that. 

So, I wrapped four of them in foil and threw them in the freezer in hopes that we’ll want to have those at some point in the future.

Finally, it was time to get to cooking the zeppelins.

I added corn starch to a pot of water, understanding that this was supposed  to help these stay intact in the cooking process.

We’ll just see how that worked out, now won’t we?

image

Once the water was boiling, I delicately lowered the starchy offerings into the pot.

image

And I got going on making the gravy.

I diced the bacon and threw it in a pan.

image

And I added in another chopped onion.

image

While that was cooking, I prepped the sour cream.

image

Added pepper to the pan.

image

And, once I felt the bacon and onions were ready (SPOILER: They weren’t.) I added the mixture to the sour cream and mixed it all up.

image

At long last, it was time to serve.

I ladled the soup into bowls and dressed it with the chopped dill and sliced egg whites. That looked like this.

image

And when I I turned to the pot to retrieve the “zeppelins” …

Oh crap.

I. Am. So. Stupid.

Looking in the boiling water, I discovered that the “zeppelins”  had COMPLETELY disintegrated in the water.

COMPLETELY.

And since I didn’t have another hour or so to spare to try again with a couple of the reserved ones, I decided I’d just have to make do with what I had.

So, I scooped the remains of the dumplings out onto plates and made a vague attempt to make “zeppelin” shaped (read: shapeless) mounds of taters and minced meat.  Onto that, I spooned a serving of the gravy.

As wholly ashamed as I am, here it is. Have at it. 

image

The Tasting

I’m just going to start with the bad news.

The (Non)-Zeppelins: Urgh. No. Just no. Bland and almost metallic, the remains of the dumplings were watery and awful. The only way I could eat it was by adding more salt and mixing it up well with the gravy.

And while I thought the gravy was the saving grace of the dish, The Husband noted that the bacon and onions weren’t really completely cooked either.

Marvy.

Now the good news.

The Beet Soup: Well, this one’s a winner, at least! The soup was creamy, flavorful and with enough texture to be really interesting.

In fact, The Husband was so enamored of the soup that he was more than happy to eat all of his, feeling it was a filling, satisfying meal by itself.

Which, considering what else was on the table, was a good thing.

Next Week: We close out the “L” countries and commence Year Three with nation 101 and … Luxembourg!

Cooking Around The World: Liechtenstein

image

This past week I was asked again about how this whole project came to be. While that’s a long story (which may someday see publication here), part of it is that I’ve had an OCD-fueled obsession with geography since childhood. And nowhere was that felt stronger than when it came to those tiny nations that most folks rarely consider.

So, I was kind of enthused to get to Week 99 and the subject of my around the world, learn-to-cook, alphabetical experiment and … Liechtenstein!

The Country

A tiny principality high in the Alps, Liechtenstein sits between Austria (Week 10) and Switzerland and is one of only two doubly landlocked nations on Earth. Yes, Liechtenstein and Uzbekistan are the only landlocked nations that are landlocked by other landlocked states.

Oh, we’re learning all kinds of things today!

At slightly less than 61 square miles, Liechtenstein is smaller than the District of Columbia. And being only 14 miles long and four miles wide, it’s small enough to be the host of an Amazing Race challenge where the racers were to ride mopeds to measure the country from end to end.

Yet, it’s only the sixth smallest independent nation by land area.

Other curious facts about the place:

  • Along with Switzerland, Liechtenstein was officially neutral during World War II.
  • The princes for whom the nation was named didn’t even visit the nation for at least 100 years after the principality was created.
  • Owing to its status as a banking center with low corporate taxes, the nation is home to more corporations than people.
  • The country is so small that it doesn’t have its own airport, with the closest one being in neighboring Switzerland.
  • A crown (representing the principality) was added to the blue-and-red flag in 1937 in order to distinguish it from the flag of Haiti (Week 72).
  • The nation also has the odd distinction of being the last European state to give women the right to vote, only doing so by a narrow national vote … in July, 1984.

Oh, and make sure you spell it correctly. Liechtenstein is a nation; Lichtenstein was a world famous pop artist.

The Food

As you’d expect with a place this small, it’s hard to define a specific cuisine; but it’s there. Heavily influenced by the neighboring cuisines of Austria (Week 10) and Switzerland, the food leans heavily towards dairy, with cheeses, creams and milk being used extensively.

And, as it is an exceedingly wealthy European nation, it has a highly evolved restaurant cuisine, with top chefs creating international dishes there, often employing French techniques.

All of this made finding recipes for this week really complicated. Every place I looked, I kept running into the One Particular Recipe.

One Particular Recipe Syndrome (OPRS) tends to strike nations with relatively small populations and is most acute in nations where the primary language is not English, since any wealth of national recipes online are in the native language and haven’t been translated and scattered across the interwebs for an English-speaking audience. I know, the nerve of some countries! (Irony.)

In this case, the One Particular Recipe was for their version of spaetzle.

Grand. But what was I to make for a main course?

This site had some general suggestions, but the following line didn’t give me a whole lot of hope.

As for meat people from Liechtensteiner prefer pork butt, penis and pork products such as smoked bacon or ham and schnitzels.

Well, then.

Finally, I landed on a (supposedly easy-to-try-at-home) recipe for a venison dish. But after wondering if I’d be able to find juniper berries and pig’s blood …

Well, let’s just say I nixed that one, too.

Luckily, though, I did discover, tucked at the end of that page, a link to a 58-page PDF offering nearly three score recipes from chefs across the nation … somewhat vague recipes … written entirely in German.

Enter Google Translate.

After much hemming, hawing and a request to a German-speaking friend for some help with fine-tuning the automatic translation, I decided I’d make the following.

The Hunt

Since I wasn’t needing to hunt down venison, pig’s blood or (gasp) pork penis, veal wasn’t going to be that hard to find. (And for those with problems with eating veal, well … I don’t know what I can tell you. I don’t make a  practice of it, having had it when I made this same combination of ingredients a year and a half ago for Austria.)

The Cook

The Goulash

I started by heating up some oil in a pan and sautéing the diced onion.

image

Once it was softened, I aded in the (crazy loads of) paprika.

image

And water.

image

I mixed that up and brought it to a boil.

I lowered the heat and I added in the chopped cubes of veal shoulder.

image

I salted the dish.

image

And added in the rest of the water.

image

The lemon zest.

image

And the lemon juice.

image

I covered the pot and let it simmer for 50 minutes.

Once the veal was cooked, I extracted it with a slotted spoon and set it aside.

image

I mixed together the flour and sour cream.

image

And I added it to the remaining liquid.

image

I took an immersion blender to the pot and blended that all well.

image

I let that simmer for four minutes or so and then poured it over the veal chunks.

image

I let it sit for a few minutes until I was ready to plate.

The Spaetzle 

Actually, this would be my third go-round with spaetzle, since I did it first (well) for Austria and then again (not so well) for Hungary (Week 74). Here’s hoping I found a happy medium here.

I started out by pouring the flour into a bowl.

image

To which I added salt.

image

And I mixed that up.

Next, in another bowl, I placed three eggs. (Well, the inside parts of the eggs, really.  It’s just hard to crack eggs and take pictures at the same time.)

image

To the eggs, I added water.

image

And I whisked that up and added it to the bowl of flour.

image

I whisked that madly, occasionally adding extra water to make sure it would end up runny enough to drip through the holes of the colander. (I didn’t want a repeat of the near scalding I got back during Hungary.)

image

I covered the bowl with a towel and let that sit for 30 minutes.

image

Meanwhile, I chopped an onion into thin rings and got to sautéing them in a pan of oil until they were well caramelized.

image

Once the time on the batter was up, I pulled out the trusty colander and poured the batter into it so it could drip through the slats to the pot of boiling, salted water below.

image

Oh, and I made sure to wear an oven mitt while I did this this time, since I again nearly burned the heck out of my hands.

Since I had added enough water this time, I was able to press most of the batter through the holes.

image

Moments later, the delightful dumplings were floating merrily, merrily to the top of the pot.

image

I strained the spaetzle with another colander and set it aside in a bowl.

image

And, to that, I added the mounds of Gruyère cheese which I had so deftfully grated earlier.

image

I mixed that up thoroughly and added the caramelized onions.

image

I scooped the spaetzle onto the plates. I pulled out chunks of veal from the sauce mix and drizzled some of the liquid on top of those.

In the end, it looked like this.

image

The Tasting

The Spaetzle: Much, much better than last time. My Hungarian version of it was really dense, but this time the dumplings were light and airy. And the cheese and onions made for a really hearty, delicious mouthful.

The Goulash: Of course, I kept finding myself wondering if this was Liechtensteiner at all, since I associate goulash with Hungary. But, hey, maybe they’re close enough that it works as a local variant?

In any case, the veal was tender, which goes a long way around here, since beef chunks in my hands tend to come out chewy and tough. The sauce, I felt was (again) too runny to be a sauce and came out more like a broth.

Still, the dish was spicy and really tasty. I had neglected to taste and salt it before it landed on the plates, so it wasn’t until I gave it an extra dose of sodium that the flavors really emerged.

But, oddly, the thing that most struck me was that, had I gone ahead and also made applesauce (recipe) to go alongside this, the entire dinner would be perfectly balanced.

Still learning, people.

But, hey, it’s always great to find big flavor in a tiny country!

Next Week: Our ever-northward tour continues as we head back to the Baltics for …  Lithuania!

Cooking Around The World: Libya

image

I wish I had something witty or amusing to say here. Sadly, events in the real world do not allow.

I said it last week; and again it’s true: When you decide to travel the Earth by alphabet, you just know you’re going to have a week where tragedy and a project defined by obsessive compulsive disorder crash right into each other.

Such, again, is this week where we have arrived at Week 98 of my around-the-globe, learn-to-cook thingamajig and … Libya!

The reason for my gloom — as with last week’s jaunt to Liberia (Week 97) — is that the week I cooked this week’s nation, more and more tragic news was reported about the place. This time, it’s not the rapid spread of disease, but an expanding civil war.

I suppose — for me — there’s a macabre synchronicity to this whole thing, considering that the very night I started this whole project was also the night a notorious tragedy was unfolding in Libya.

But, we carry on … and hope that somehow the citizens of this place will someday have some peace.

The Country

Located on the northern coast of Africa, Libya is the world’s 17th largest nation, roughly the size of Alaska. The sparsely populated country is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea and six other nations, including previous challenge subjects Chad (Week 34)Egypt (Week 52) and Algeria (Week 3).

Populated since the Stone Age, over the past couple millennia what is now Libya has been conquered by the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Persians,  the Arabs, the Ottomans and, eventually, the Italians in the early 20th Century.

In fact, some of the world’s most remarkable ruins, those of the ancient city of  Cyrene, can be found on Libya’s north shore in Shahhat. (Really, go check out these photo tours. You can thank me later.)

BONUS TRIVIA: This area was also the site of the first war(s) the United States ever fought over foreign territory, the First and Second Barbary Wars.

What is now Libya was also the site of several pivotal battles in World War II. And once the war was over, Allied Forces took control of the area. Finally, in 1951, the nation declared independence as a kingdom.

That, of course, didn’t last too long, for, in 1969, a certain totally not insane fashionista dictator took charge of the now-petroleum producing state and ruled with an iron fist until 2011 when he was deposed and summarily executed.

And since then … well, chaos. Basically.

The Food

As a very large nation, the food of Libya varies from region to region, with fish dishes being popular along the coast, Italian-influenced pasta dishes dominating in the West, and rice-based dishes being more popular in the East. Camel meat is a popular protein from the Bedouin tradition, as most of the interior is desert. And, since Libya was once ruled by far-reaching kingdoms, a wide range of global spices are used.

 The Menu

Well, there’s what I kind of wanted to make: a national lunchtime favorite called bazeen, a communal , eaten-with-the-hands dish where a large barley dumpling sits on a plate surrounded by a moat of tomato sauce and lamb, potatoes and hard-boiled eggs.

But as that would probably serve eight (and would stain every article of clothing in the process) I had to reluctantly veto it.

Instead, I decided I’d employ the unusual local tradition of cooking pasta in the same water with meat and make a different national dish …

  • Macroona Imbakbaka (Libyan Chicken and Pasta in A Tomato Stew) using this recipe.

This, however, required a particular ingredient. So, to make the main dish, I’d have to prepare …

But wait! That spice mix required another spice mix! Soooooo, before that I’d have to prepare …

It’s all so very “meta.”

The Hunt

Nope. No hunt. Camel meat wasn’t even an option, so this week had one of the smallest grocery lists yet. (Bonus: I got to make more headway into the extant, bulging cabinet of spices. Yay!)

 The Cook

The 7 Spice Mix

Well, this should be quick. I pulled out the spice grinder and added to it …

The black pepper.

image

Paprika.

image

Cumin seeds.

image

Coriander seeds.

image

Ground cloves.

image

Ground nutmeg.

image

Ground cinnamon.

image

And ground cardamom.

image

I set them to spin for a couple seconds in the grinder. Moments later, I had a (very!) fragrant spice mix.

image

I roasted the mix in a pan for a couple of minutes.

image

I funneled the powder into an airtight bottle and I was ready to use the mix for this (and future) dishes.

The Bzaar Spice Mix

After cleaning out the spice mixer, I started adding spices to it again.

I spooned in the turmeric.

image

The caraway seeds.

image

More coriander seeds.

image

And a dose of the previously prepared seven spice mix.

image

A quick WHRRRR and …. voila! A colorful and equally fragrant second spice mix!

image

That went into a second bottle and I was ready to get started on dinner.

The Chicken in Tomato Stew

I heated up the olive oil and added to that the diced onion.

image

After sautéing that for a few, I dropped in the chicken pieces. (I went for thighs and a couple of breasts.)

image

I browned those evenly and, once ready, I spooned in the tomato paste.

image

And dropped in the bzaar spice mix.

image

The salt.

image

And the cayenne pepper.

image

I mixed that all up well and lowered the heat, letting it cook for about four minutes.

I added in some boiling water (doing my best to guess the right amount, since I was, theoretically, halving this recipe).

image

I set it to boil, lowered the heat and let it simmer for about a half hour.

image

Meanwhile, I opened a box of spaghetti and broke it into two-inch pieces.

image

Once the chicken was ready, I dropped into the pot the crushed garlic.

image

And a whole, unbroken scotch bonnet pepper (since the recipe mentioned a jalapeño pepper here, having neglected to feature that on the ingredients list). 

image

I added more boiling water.

image

And the pasta.

image

And I let that boil uncovered for some 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the pasta was ready and more of the water had boiled off.

When it was ready, I pulled out the pepper and scooped the dish into bowls,. And in the end, it looked like this.

image

The Tasting

Now that’s some flavor! Spicy and unctuous, the dish had that distinct flavor of olive oil and garlic, and the pasta and chicken were infused with the varied tastes of the many, many spices.

Oh, and it had a kick! (We like the kick.)

Yet, since this was a pretty basic dish, it wasn’t what you’d call particularly well-rounded, since it really lacked any textural variety. To remedy that, The Husband ran to toss a couple pine nuts into his dish.

I, though, chose to stick to the dish as presented. I did notice, however, that a couple other rejected Libyan dishes featured whole (instead of ground) coriander seeds just for the crunch. Now that makes sense.

Anyway, thanks, Libya. That was one tasty dinner.

Also, keep your head low.

Next Week: We move further north, crossing the Mediterranean to return to Europe and … Liechtenstein! 

Cooking Around The World: Liberia

image

First off, the good news. Because we seriously need some good news.

And while it’s the teeniest. tiniest, most personal bit of news in this wide world of tragedy — in this week of awfulness — it’s all I’ve got. Yes, with this week we are officially more than halfway done with my 193-nation, alphabetical global experiment in learning to cook.

Yes, we’ve arrived at Week 97 of this challenge and … Liberia!

 The Country

Well, I kind of knew going into this thing that there’d be weeks where I’d be cooking a country where that very week a particularly excruciating tragedy would be in the news. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before. [See, Egypt (Week 52).]

And this week we have been witnessing the ongoing horror of Ebola hemorrhagic fever as it has claimed hundreds and hundreds of lives in West Africa, particularly in this week’s nation.

Again, if you are so moved to help in this difficult time, I strongly encourage you to donate to Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders here.

Now, aside from what’s gripping this nation at this moment …

This week’s nation is a relatively small country, roughly the size of Ohio, on the western coast of Africa, bordered by Sierra Leone, Guinea (Week 69) and Côte d’Ivoire (Week 42). And, for a nation in West Africa, it’s probably the one with which Americans have at least a passing familiarity.

That would be because of how the nation came to be.

The area was first populated around the 12th Century by peoples from the region around Sudan. When Europeans made contact on the coast centuries later, they named different parts of the West African coast for the different commodities they traded there. Hence, this part of the coast was named the Pepper Coast by Portuguese traders.

Then, in the early 1800s, the American Colonization Society sought to create an African homeland for freed American slaves. Rather than take them to their various original homelands, it was determined that these individuals would be returned here. (Earlier, at the close of the American Revolutionary War, the British similarly returned escaped slaves to neighboring Sierra Leone.)

And in 1822, the nation of Liberia was established, with an American-style constitution, a capital (Monrovia) named for American President James Monroe and place names like Maryland and Mississippi-In-Africa. (Curiously, while the nation was established by the US interests in 1822, it wasn’t recognized by the US until 1847 when it had its own Declaration of Independence.)

During World War II, the US relied heavily on Liberian rubber to get the Allies through the conflict and, through the middle of the 20th Century, Liberia was one of the most prosperous black republics on Earth. 

But with Liberia’s unusual genesis, there is, of course, a catch. See, there was already a native population in Liberia when it was founded, though mostly inland from the seaside American establishments.  And the conflict between the Americo-Liberians (who had political power) and native African Liberians (who did not) helped fuel resentment and, eventually, two brutal civil wars in the 1980s and 1990s.

However, the recent tragic developments aside, Liberia did manage to hold free and fair elections in 2005, wherein they elected the first female president in Africa. And they have initiated a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help heal the wounds of the two civil wars.   

The Food

The cuisine of Liberia is a pretty basic one with a few interesting quirks. In large part, the food here is really very similar to that of its neighbors, two of which we’ve already cooked so far. Rice and stews and plantains and coconuts are common in dishes.

However, Americo-Libereans also bring to the table — if you will — a number of dishes and ingredients that they brought back from America, including corn bread and a number of breakfast and dessert items.

But, for me, this one was going to be a challenge, and not for the reasons other places are a challenge. My problem here was that I’ve done so much food from this general part of the world already and I’m not that keen to repeat anything.

As luck would have it, though, there is a dish I had wanted to do back when I was cooking Guinea (Week 69): jollof rice, a spicy one-pot dish of rice and various meats and vegetables, a West African staple (of Senegalese origin, reportedly) that has localized versions where it’s eaten.

So, I decided I’d make …

The Hunt

Well, this one didn’t invoke a hunt at all. Of course, had I gone with my first dinner choice, a chicken palava, I’d have been tearing up all of South Florida for a vegetable known as Jew’s mallow (or, mulukhiyah, or another dozen different names). That wasn’t going to be happening.

The Cook

After prepping my various ingredients, I cut up the beef into one inch cubes and coated it with salt, pepper and flour.

image

I did the same with the chicken breast.

image

Then, I diverged a bit from the recipe. Although it called for vegetable oil, other recipes I had examined honed closer to the West African tradition and used red palm oil. Although it’s (a lot) higher in cholesterol and such, it’s been sitting in the cabinet just waiting for another jaunt to the region and this was my chance.

So, I heated up some of the fragrant stuff in a pan.

image

And, in batches, I browned the beef chunks.

image

And the chicken cubes.

image

I set those aside to drain on paper towels and, in a pot, I got to frying the cut bacon pieces.

image

Once those were done, I scooped them out and added them to the plate of meat.

Then, I added in the chopped onion.

image

And the chopped yellow and green peppers.

image

I sautéed those for about five minutes.

Next, I added back to the pot the various meats.

image

And I mixed in the tomato paste.

image

The chopped  tomatoes (since the damn recipe didn’t say when to add them).

image

The chicken bouillon powder (instead of cubes).

image

The black pepper

image

The red chili flakes. [NOT the Thai chili flakes that about killed me during North Korea (Week 89) and Laos (Week 93).]

image

The ground ginger.

image

The curry powder.

image

And the thyme.

image

Next, I added in the rice.

image

And six cups of water.

image

I set the whole thing to boil and then lowered the heat.

Finally, I added in the shredded head of cabbage. 

image

And I set it to simmer, uncovered for about 25 minutes.

image

When it was ready, I scooped it into bowls and it looked like this.

image

The Tasting

We have another winner!

It may have been a simple dish, but it was heartily satisfying. Flavorful and just the right amount of spicy, the dish was just what we needed.

The rice and chicken and bacon were well cooked and scored well on our imaginary judging ballots.

And the beef was fine enough, still The Husband felt it could have been a bit more tender. And I didn’t disagree. In fact, one recipe I had seen had called for using meat tenderizer on the beef first. But not ever having done that before, I didn’t know if that was really a good idea. More research will be required, since this seems to be a recurring theme here whenever I need to use stew beef in dishes.

Still, the hearty plate of food was a warm hug that we’ll all need to get though these trying times. And for that, I thank Liberia.

Next Week: We continue our culinary tour of cheer and joy as we travel further north(east) to … Libya!

Cooking Around The World: Lesotho

image

It’s a hat.

You’re asking yourself, “What’s that thing on the flag?”

It’s a hat.

Specifically, a mokorotlo, its shape inspired by the Qiloane mountain.

And it’s also the symbol of the nation which is the subject of Week 96 of my globe-trotting-by-stovetop, learn-to-cook-and-scratch-an-OCD-powered-alphabetical-itch challenge and … Lesotho!

The Country

About the size of the state of Maryland, the Kingdom of Lesotho is wholly surrounded by the nation of South Africa. I tell people, picture the map of South Africa. You see those holes in it? Lesotho is one of them.

And how to get there? Well (ironically) I’d say, go to South Africa and go up. Vertically.

See, Lesotho is the only independent nation on Earth that is entirely over 3,281 feet in elevation, with its lowest point being 4,593 feet over sea level. It is the southernmost landlocked country on the planet and, as you’d expect, its economy is closely tied to South Africa’s.

A note about the name: The nation is called Lesotho. It’s pronounced Li-SOO’-too, not Leh-SO-toh. It means “Land of the people who speak Sotho.”

But, wait! There’s more!  (Much more here.)

Individuals from the place are Mosotho, while things and people (plural) from the nation are Basotho. Oh, and most people speak Sesotho.

What’s one to dotho?

An independent kingdom for centuries, what is now the modern nation spent about a century and a half caught up in conflicts between British and Boer/Dutch forces fighting for land in the area. The nation was granted independence by the British in 1966 and, after years of turmoil and military rule, now have a stable, constitutional monarchy. In a 2012 election, it saw one party oust a 14-year incumbent and peacefully transfer power for the first time in its history.

This poor nation relies heavily on remittences sent by its citizens living and working in South Africa and abroad, though it has been making inroads in the textile industry and is now the largest sub-Saharan nation to export textiles to the United States. (Translation: Look on the tags of clothes purchased at Wal-Mart, Foot Locker, The Gap and Sears. Now you’ll know what “Made In Lesotho” means.) 

The Food

The cuisine of Lesotho is a simple one often featuring a corn meal mush (known as nsima here and pap or ugali in other parts of Africa). [See Kenya (Week 87).] Locally grown vegetables and grilled meats are common features of Basotho dishes as is a slight British influence (reportedly).

As the number of cattle owned by a family indicates status here, beef is very important, though usually it is only consumed on special occasions.

The Menu

One problem I have with cooking the food of smaller, lower profile countries is that there are very few recipes out there to sample. In the case of Lesotho I found, oh, about four of them. And none of the common ones involved a protein. (I guess, one would just grill meat alongside … or just go vegan?) 

Eventually, I landed on a site that offered a full meal of two Basotho dishes and I decided I’d just cook those … and not just because the corn meal mush was a serious dud with The Husband last time.

So, I decided I’d make …

  • Lekhotloane (Tender Pounded Meat) using this recipe, served on top of
  • Morogo With Potatoes using this recipe (on the same page).

The Hunt

I was reminded of my great experience cooking the food of nearby Botswana (Week 23) in that it was a simple, delicious and amazingly inexpensive dish. I was determined to have the same kind of success this time.

The recipe called for beef brisket and, since I still know very little about food, I wasn’t really sure what that meant in terms of flavor or cooking. Some research indicated it was a somewhat tough cut of meat and it would take a long time to tenderize.

Yes, this was reminding me of Botswana more and more.

So, I got my cut of brisket at the store and I was set.

The Cook 

The Pounded Beef

I decided it would take about three hours to boil the beef to its desired tenderness, so I got started early on that. I put about four cups of water in a pot and set the beef to simmer in that all afternoon.

image

Meanwhile, I prepped the rest of the ingredients, including dissolving a couple beef bouillon cubes in some water.

image

After the three hours were up, I extracted the meat from the water.

image

I cut it into portions and, one by one, pounded them with the mortar and pestle into meaty shreds.

image

I seasoned that with salt and pepper and mixed it all into a meaty mess.

image

I heated up the oil in the pot.

image

And added in the chopped onions.

image

I sautéed them until they were translucent and then added the shredded beef.

image

And the beef broth.

image

And I let that simmer until the broth was reduced.

image

The Greens and Potatoes

For this one, I got to greet a relative stranger, the ever-elusive spring onions which have been called for on regular occasion over the past two years. (Usually I’ve had to just substitute scallions/green onions, but I got lucky discovering that the produce strand had these babies on hand this week.)

image

Once the beef was well underway, I got started on this dish.

Into another pot I dropped the cubed potatoes and water.

image

The chopped spring onions.

image

And the chopped spinach — since goodness knows I was never going to be able to locate morogo (wild African spinach) in South Florida.

image

I set that to boil and then lowered the heat to let it simmer for about 30 minutes.

When time was up, I mixed in the butter.

image

And the peanut butter.

image

And here’s where my personal limitations came in. See, time after time after time I’ve ended up serving dishes that are awash in runny, watery broth when they should have actual sauces.

But I worried that if I let these dishes cook uncovered for too long, they’d burn. And come dinner time, I was miffed that my decision to cook them covered for so long left me with another watery mess.

So I took off the lids and cranked up the heat for a few minutes to see if I could boil off some of the water in just a few minutes. Finally, it dawned upon me that I could strain the potatoes and greens to get a less watery dish.

Once I had done that, I plated the potatoes and greens on the dish and scooped up a serving of the beef on top. In the end, it looked like this.

image

The Tasting

Gamonate! (That’s “tasty” in Sesotho.)

Man, that was all kinds of delicious! The meat was absolute perfection, tender and moist and with just the right amount of salt and flavor from the onions and bouillon.

And the potatoes and greens were great, too, being tender and herbaceous, with just the right amount of peanut butter goodness. (The Husband did run to add some cayenne powder to it for some kick.)

And people wonder why I always look forward to cooking the food of African countries!

Now, how do I I get down off this mountain?

Next Week: We travel north across Africa to … Liberia!

Cooking Around The World: Lebanon

image

Well, we’re back in the Middle East again. For whatever linguistic reasons, most of the nations of this part of the world are bunched up in the middle of the alphabet.

Hence, I’ve reached Week 95 of my around-the-world-in-193-plates, learn-to-cook-experiment-in-obessive-compulsive-disorder and … Lebanon!

The Country

Located on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, Lebanon is the smallest nation on the land continent of Asia, covering roughly one-third the area of Maryland. Bordered by both Syria and Israel (Week 81), it is a diverse state with a history as ancient and complicated as any in the region.

Not only is it the nation with the oldest name on Earth, it is said that the first alphabet was developed there.

Lebanon was home to the Phoenicians in ancient times and, for the next few centuries, it was conquered by about a dozen different empires in turn before ending up part of the Ottoman Empire, in 1299. At the end of World War I, the nation fell under French control and it achieved independence in the middle of World War II, in 1943.

After the war, the nation prospered and it gained a reputation as the “Switzerland of the East” for its relative prosperity and peace in a troubled region. That all came to an end in 1975 when a 16-year civil war broke out. Since then, the nation has gone through a series of internal struggles as well as bloody conflicts involving its neighbors.

Still, the nation has managed to bounce back, becoming once again a prime tourist destination and banking center. (Sadly, the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq (Week 79) do continue to have a serious effect on the nation.)

The Food

As you’d expect, the cuisine of Lebanon is as complex as its history, with strong influences from the French, Turk and Arab traditions. Olive oil, garlic and lamb abound.

And, as such, I was rather looking forward to doing this one. In fact, my favorite global blogger — a man who earned the Guinness World Record for traveling to every nation on Earth without flying — declared Lebanon one of his favorite nations when it came to food.

But what to make?

I had already made a tabbouleh (a dish which originated in Syria, but has localized versions throughout the Levant) back when I cooked Iraq. And grilling meat (kabobs) is always out for me, since any plan to do this immediately results in scary South Florida thunderstorms appearing right over my head as I cook.

Hence, I decided I’d prepare the following.

  • Lebanese Pita (my third try at making pita bread) using this recipe,
  • Baba Ghanouj (Roasted Eggplants With Garlic and Tahini) using this recipe, and

  • Malfouf (Stuffed Cabbage Rolls With Meat and Rice) using this recipe.

The Hunt

Gloriously, there was no hunt this week. In fact, I managed to avoid seeking out some ingredients since I still had cabbage left over from last week’s stew from Latvia (Week 94).

The Cook

The catch with this week was that each dish seemed to take a crazy amount of time, meaning I’d be cooking all afternoon. Luckily though, the baba ghanoush (alt. spelling) could sit in the fridge while I made everything else.

So, I started with that.

The Baba Ghanoush

The first step here would be … decoding the first step.

Roast the eggplants in the oven on medium heat, or on a BBQ grill for about 30 minutes.

Er, how’s that?

I mean, I was about to stick the entire eggplants in the oven and just wait. Which may or may not have worked.

Instead, I retreated to YouTube and reviewed this guide for roasting the eggplant for help.

I cut the eggplants and scored them with a knife. Afterwards, I salted them to leach out the water.

image

After letting them rest for 30 minutes, I squeezed out the water and brushed the  halves with olive oil. 

image

I lined a baking tray with parchment paper and placed a few sprigs of thyme down as recommended by the video.

image

I placed the halves on the sprigs and set them to roast in the oven at 400º F for 40 minutes.

image

Once they were roasted, I took them out of the oven.

image

And, after letting them cool, I peeled the halves and made a vague attempt at scooping out as many seeds as I could.

image

I set the eggplant meat in a colander for ten minutes to drain out the water.

image

And then I placed the chunks in the food processor.

image

To that, I added the tahini sauce.

image

Lemon juice.

image

And crushed garlic.

image

And I set that to mix for about three minutes.

image

I scraped out the paste and I put it in a bowl to cool in the fridge until it was time for dinner.

image

The Pita Bread

At this point, I’m almost resigned to knowing I’ll never master anything with flour. Especially if it involves yeast. My first attempt at pita bread back during Bosnia and Herzegovina (Week 22) was a serious failure. And a different take on it for Israel (Week 81) didn’t involve yeast or baking.

So, here goes.

Oh, one more thing. Considering the yeast dough disasters of my personal experience, I’ve come to realize that halving a recipe doesn’t work. This involves the Baker’s Percentage, And I didn’t feel like remembering math.

Therefore, after an emergency message to a friend, I decided that the best course of action here would be to make the full recipe and to just freeze half of the dough.

I started out by pouring out the flour (all all-purpose, since that’s what this one called for). 

image

I added in the packet of yeast.

image

The salt.

image

The sugar.

image

And I passed it all through a sifter, making sure to strengthen the muscles of my forearm along the way (and risking repetitive stress injury).

image

I made a well in the center and added in the tepid water.

image

And … what’s happening here? I mixed and mixed, but the dough was way, way, way too wet. After cursing a blue streak (and scaring the cat), I tossed more and more flour at the problem until I finally had a ball of dough.

This really took a ridiculous amount of time and, since my hands were completely glued to the stuff, no pictures for you!

I kneaded the dough for about 15 minutes and finally had my ball.

image

I set it in a bowl and covered it in plastic for about an hour and a half.

image

Actually, it was more like two hours. And when I got the plastic off the stuff, it had indeed doubled, but it fell like a bad soufflé the moment I touched it. And it was again super sticky.

So, throwing more and more flour at the problem, I kneaded the dough, saved half of it in the freezer, and separated the rest into four pieces. (The recipe suggested I’d have six, but I don’t know how that would be possible. Unless I made them too big, which was probably the case now that I think about it. Oh, why can’t I possibly ever learn to think spatially?)

I rolled the mounds into flat pita dough circles (?) and placed them on wax paper so they wouldn’t all stick together again like my gnocchi for Italy (Week 82).

image

I preheated the oven to 500ºF, also heating up my fancy, new toy, a pizza stone.

Attempting to invent new gymnastic moves, I dropped the dough circles onto the stone in succession and let them cook and “rise” for five minutes apiece.

My contortions resulted in some that looked less like circles and more like positions of the Kama Sutra, but I’m not showing you those.  

image

Once they were done, I placed them in a makeshift warmer I made out of my steamer and some parchment paper.

image

The Cabbage Rolls

I started out by extracting the half a head of cabbage I had sitting in the fridge and placing it in a pot of water to simmer for a lot longer than the recommended 10 minutes.

image

As it simmered, I separated the leaves with a pair of forks (and somehow managed not to burn my hands or face with the steam).

image

As the leaves simmered, I rinsed the rice and mixed it together with the ground beef in a bowl. (I know now that lamb would have been more traditional, but, hey, it’s all good.)

image

I added in the allspice (since Lebanese “7 spice” wasn’t on the agenda today).

image

I salted the mixture and mashed it all together.

image

Next, in another bowl, I mixed lemon juice and water.

image

And I added salt to that.

image

Once the cabbage leaves were ready, I drained them in a colander.

image

Now it was time to assemble my cabbage rolls. Since the recipe suggested cutting out the ribs of the leaves to make them more flexible, I did so.

image

Onto each leaf, I added a spoonful of the meat mixture.

image

And I rolled each one up to make 11 little cabbage babies. (Truly an Anne Geddes moment.)

image

I lined a pot with the rolls.

image

And in between the rolls I placed ALL OF THE GARLIC.

image

Then in a skillet, I heated up some olive oil and added EVEN MORE GARLIC, this time crushed. (Seriously, I have no fear of vampires ever attacking my town now.)

image

To that, I added some lemon juice.

image

And I sautéed that until it was just slightly starting to brown. I dumped that over the top of the rolls.

image

And I poured the lemon water mixture over the top of that.

image

Since the recipe said to “cover” the rolls, I poured even more water atop that.

I foraged through the kitchen to find a plate that would fit inside the pot to cover the rolls as indicated in the recipe and found only a rather small one.

image

But when looking for a lid for the pot, I found the wrong lid and —whattaya know! — it did the job perfectly. I placed that atop the rolls to press them down. (An Inception moment.)

image

And I put the actual lid on the pot and let it simmer for about an hour and a half.

image

Come dinner time, I retrieved the baba ghanoush from the fridge and spread it on a serving plate. I poured some extra virgin olive oil in the center, dressed the edges with parsley and salted pickle slices and sprinkled chili power over the top.

In the end it looked like this.

image

I placed the cabbage rolls on the plates and I cut the pita into triangles and plated those alongside. In the end, that looked like this.

image

The Tasting

Well slap my ass and call me Danny Thomas, that’s good!

You don’t know how great I felt to have a home run after so many weeks of failures and (at best) base hits.

The Pita Bread: Oh, it was pita bread all right. It didn’t balloon up as it should have and I couldn’t have stuffed anything in it, but it was pita bread, which is a success for me.

The Baba Ganoush: Man, oh man, was that great! Scooped up with the pita, the garlicky, roasted eggplant mix played off the sweet and salty flavor of the pickles and the parsley and chili powder to make an irresistible mouthful. I had figured there would be leftovers.

I figured wrong. 

The Cabbage Rolls: I only wish there were more of them. Each roll was a hearty bite, with the flavors of garlic and lemon dousing the meat and rice perfectly. And it was surprisingly filling, too.

Still, I wish I had made more, since they were all so damn good.

Now, about the global garlic shortage which I’ve created …. 

Next Week: It’s back to Africa again for a stab at … Lesotho!

Cooking Around The World: Latvia

image

Sometimes you just need a break.

Such is the case this week. After slogging through the Asia-heavy last few weeks — and last week’s insanely hot meals from Laos (Week 93) — a return trip to the calmer waters of Northern Europe was most welcome.

So, we have arrived at Week 94 of my planet-spanning, alphabetical, learn-to-cookical experiment in OCD and … Latvia!

The Country

Slightly larger than the state of West Virginia, Latvia is located on the Baltic Sea, bordered by Estonia (Week 56), Russia, Lithuania and Belarus (Week 16). Originally populated by several Baltic tribes, what is now the nation of Latvia was ruled by foreign powers for most of the time since the 13th Century, going back and forth between German and Russian control (for the most part).

While Latvia did achieve independence after the end of World War I, the outbreak of World War II put a long hold on that when the nation was overrun by the Nazis. After the war, Latvia — along with the other Baltic states —  fell under Soviet control and was made a part of the Soviet Union until its breakup in 1991.

Since then, relations with Russia have remained a sore point as a the nation has moved closer to relations with its Western neighbors and has become part of the European Union. Making this especially touchy is the fact that about a quarter of Latvia’s population is made up of ethnic Russians, many of whom were moved there in Soviet years in attempts to dilute the Latvian population. (The fact that many thousand Latvians were shipped off to Siberia in the process kind of smarts, too, I’m sure.)

On the cheerier side, Latvia is the site of Europe’s widest waterfall (the Venta Rapid). And Latvians both inspired the character of Crocodile Dundee (allegedly) and invented the copper rivets you probably have on your jeans right now.

The Food

Naturally, the food of Latvia is much like that of its Baltic neighbors, heavily influenced by the cuisines of Germany and Russia, leaning heavily on both potatoes and beets. What’s curious is that it is not particularly similar to the food of its northern neighbor, Estonia (Week 56), as that nation’s food is more Nordic-based.

And, having been ruled by various foreign peoples for so long, the cuts of meat eaten by Latvians historically were the lesser ones, as the better cuts were to be reserved for their German, Russian and Polish rulers.

But what did this all mean for me in preparing my menu?

Well, researching recipes for Latvia presented a couple of problems I’ve had since I started this whole thing nearly two years ago: 

  1. Too damn many recipes for savory items say they serve more than four people, with some dishes this week making 60 (!) of something.
  2. Some countries’ best culinary offerings are desserts and/or breakfast/lunch dishes.

Such was Latvia. I would have loved to prepare Pīrāgi (Bacon Pies), as in this recipe. But there was no way I was figuring how I could divide a recipe by ten (and still have the right ratios of some ingredients). And crepes sound lovely — if I was doing desserts.

I’m not doing desserts.

So, I was left with a couple of snoozers, a basic preparation for breaded pork chops and another for boiled potatoes.

Zzzzzzz.

So, knowing we’re headed back to this general vicinity in a few weeks for Lithuania, I decided I’d just make …

Hey, I needed the rest.

The Hunt

Yeah, I had to hunt down the rare Yukon potato, celery and pork shoulder. It took all weekend. /sarcasm.

This is so not Southeast Asia. 

The Cook

I cut and prepped the various ingredients for the stew (a process that still takes me a ridiculous amount of time).

image

I heated up the oil in a pot and, after seasoning the boneless pork shoulder with salt and pepper, dropped it into the pot to brown for about ten minutes.

image

Once I sensed they were browned adequately, I took them out of the oil and put the pieces aside in a bowl.

image

Then, into the remaining oil (and pork fat), I dropped the minced garlic.

image

And minced onion.

image

As you may be able to tell if you have a keen eye, I think the heat was too high since I started to burn the garlic almost immediately. Bad thing. I tried to address that right away by taking it off the heat while I turned things down. I may or may not have waited too long.

Once the onions and garlic were softened, I dropped the pork back into the pot.

image

And I added the halved, pitted dried prunes.

image

The chopped celery.

image

Chopped carrots.

image

Shredded cabbage.

image

And the chunks of boiled potatoes.

image

Next, in a bowl, I mixed the tomato sauce and water.

image

And added in the red wine vinegar.

image

And sugar.

image

I whisked that all together.

image

And I poured the mixture over the potatoes.

image

And, without stirring a thing, I placed the lid over the top and set it to simmer for an hour, only occasionally coming back to the pot to lift and shake it.

There was an African country I cooked that employed a similar method of occasionally shaking a pot without releasing the steam. But I can’t quite remember which one it was now.

image

Come dinner time, I ladled out the stew into bowls and it looked like this.

image

The Tasting

Well, that was a relief. Both The Husband and I liked it quite well.

But it was so simple. Maybe too simple. If I’ve learned one thing watching Top Chef and Project Runway it’s that you can do simple things, but, if you do, they have to be done perfectly.

And this wasn’t done perfectly. I could taste that the proportions of some of the ingredients were a bit off, since I halved the recipe. And having probably burned the garlic and having not shaken the pot enough, it felt a tad overdone.

Also, after eating it, I kicked myself when I realized that I totally forgot to dress the dish with a dollop of the sour cream which I had purchased just for that purpose.

(I did manage to add the sour cream to the leftovers the next day, and that, indeed, made it a better dish.)

Still, that was me just being picky. In the final analysis, the dish was delicious and heartwarming. And that, by itself, was a victory.

Priekā!

Next Week: It’s back to the Middle East for one more nation there and … Lebanon!

Cooking Around The World: Laos

image

It’s been quite the run, Asia. But this last bit may have been a bit much for such an unprepared soul.

See, owing to the vagaries of the alphabet, there are spots along this journey where nations from one region are bunched close to each other. As it was with so many the “C” nations in Africa, Asia has been having quite the go at me between “J” and now “L.”

Hopefully my system will have time to recover before coming back.

Yes, we have arrived at Week 93 of my obsessively alphabetic culinary educational experiment and … Laos! 

The Country

A poor, landlocked nation located in Southeast Asia, Laos is bordered by China (Week 36), Vietnam, Cambodia (Week 29and Thailand. Once the seat of the Lan Xang kingdom in the 14th Century, the land that is now Laos has seen tumultuous change over the centuries, having been controlled by the Burmese, Siamese, Chinese and, eventually, the French.

The nation has been officially independent since 1953, but has seen more than its share of hardship with civil war, American bombardment during the Vietnam conflict and accusations of genocide and major human rights violations since.

One of the five remaining Communist states in the world, Laos has struggled to make a go of it in the world economy, though of  late it has been opening up with tourism being an larger part of its plan. And with a deep history and two UNESCO World Heritage sites in Luang Prabang and Wat Phu, outsiders seeking to connect with this region’s history may be helping  the impoverished nation move forward.

The Food

The long, violent history of the area actually illustrates a curious feature of this nation’s food. That being that the food of the Lao people (one of the many ethnicities that call this region home) is spread far beyond the political boundaries of Laos. In fact, much of what is considered Thai food —or, more specifically Northern Thai food — is actually Lao, only renamed for (let’s say) political reasons.

In picking my menu, this led to an interesting problem. See, most of the most popular Laotian dishes are also Thai favorites, sometimes simply with different ingredients, sometimes just with different names. And finding recipes that were strictly Lao (and not too outré) was quite a feat.

In the end, I decided I’d cook over two days. And since we love Vietnamese, French-influenced banh mi sandwiches, I wanted to give the Lao version of this a shot, too.

So, for Night One, I’d make …

  • Lao-Style Chicken Baguette Sandwiches with Watercress using this recipe. 

And for Night Two (my regular cooking night), I’d make …

The Hunt

Yeah, this week was going to involve a serious scavenger hunt, as most every East Asian nation has involved seeking out many previously unfamiliar items. The upside is that since Laos is right next door to Vietnam and Thailand, the Asian markets here in South Florida would probably be well stocked in these items.

Well, except for one of them: padaek, a Lao fermented fish paste.

During our visit to a large Asian market in Ft. Lauderdale, we explored the aisle which was entirely devoted to fish pastes, sauces and such and found no such item.

But I could get an entire snakefish in urine in a jar if I was in the mood for something interesting.

Or not.

In the end, I figured Thai fish sauce would do the job just as well. I hoped.

image

The Cook (Night One)

The Sandwich

Before I could get to making the sandwich, though, I’d have to make the chili garlic sauce for it. (I used this recipe for that.)

I heated up the oil in a pan.

image

Added my sliced shallot.

image

And, once golden, I set that aside in a bowl.

image

Into the same oil, I added the chopped garlic and sautéed it until golden as well.

image

I extracted that and then dropped the chopped ginger into the pan.

image

After a couple of minutes, I added in the ridiculous amount of Thai red chili flakes. [You may recall that this ingredient did a job on me a few weeks back during North Korea (Week 89).]

image

I added in the sugar.

image

And I stirred it for a few minutes. Once ready, I poured the mixture into the bowl with the shallots and garlic.

image

Added in the Thai fermented fish sauce.

image

And a bit more oil.

image

And, after stirring everything together, the sauce was ready.

On to the sandwich!

I extracted my chicken breast from the fridge and placed it, skin down, on a pan for about four minutes.

image

I flipped it and cooked it for another seven minutes or so until it was ready. I set it on the cutting board to rest for five minutes before carving.

image

Meanwhile, I sliced open the baguettes I had purchased and toasted them in the oven under the broiler.

image

And here comes the assembling!

Looking at the recipe, I did as follows.

Spread the chil garlic sauce on the cut sides of the baguettes …

image

(MESSAGE FROM CLIFF AFTER CONSUMING THIS: See, that’s what you did wrong. You halved the damn recipe since you’d only need two sandwiches, but you didn’t halve the recipe for the sauce. You should have had half of the hot sauce left over. You didn’t. You fool. You did this to me.)

I spread the mayonnaise over that.

image

I placed the watercress on top.

image

Added the shredded carrot.

image

The sliced tomato.

image

And the sliced chicken breast.

image

In the end, the sandwich looked like this.

image

The Tasting

I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Oh man, am I sorry.

This is how one stupid mistake completely destroys everything. Honestly, the sandwich was actually quite good in that the chicken was moist, the bread was crispy and the vegetables were crunchy and delicious.

But the heat. Oh holy Kahn Souphanousinphone, was that painful!

Midway though eating the thing, The Husband and I were both off blowing our noses. This cleared my sinuses, his sinuses and the sinuses of the people next door.

Oh, I am so very sorry.

Seriously, I spent the next three days apologizing and cursing myself. Boo.

The Cook (Night Two)

Having declared the foul-up of the previous dinner a mulligan, I gamely soldiered forth with night two of this. For the most part nothing would involve heat (the electric kind) and those damned Thai red pepper flakes were off the menu, so I thought things would go well.

The Papaya Salad

Even though the recipes for the salad and the laap both insisted they be served immediately, there was no way I could do this without making one first. So, the papaya salad would be refrigerated, whether I liked it or  not.

I greeted my new friends, green papaya …

image

And snake beans.

image

And after prepping the ten ingredients, including shredding the papaya as seen in the video included in the recipe, I decided that my little mortar and pestle would not hold all this stuff.

Hence, I made the executive decision to use a metal bowl and the business end of my wooden rolling pin to smash everything up.

image

Into the bowl, I added the salt.

image

Red Thai chiles.

image

Sugar.

image

A garlic clove.

image

And the (smelly, smelly) shrimp paste. [We first met this odiferous substance way back cooking Brunei (Week 25).]

image

I mixed that all up.

image

And I added in the shredded green papaya.

image

Chopped snake beans.

image

Sliced cherry tomatoes.

image

Lime juice.

image

Fermented Thai fish sauce.

image

(Conventional?) fish sauce.

image

And smashed and mixed like crazy,

After a good ten minutes of this, I figured it was ready and put in a bowl for the fridge.

image

The Sticky Rice

This one was about as simple as it could get. Only it involved a new ingredient and a new method.

First, the ingredient.

Meet,  glutinous rice.

image

While I’ve had what I thought was sticky rice before, this I understood to be a whole other level of sticky. In fact, normally it’s eaten with the hands.

I started by pouring out the rice the night before and soaking it in water until the next day.

Come time to cook, I took it out of the fridge and it had nearly doubled in size.

image

I drained the rice and prepared the bamboo steamer by lining it with cheesecloth.

image

I spread the rice over the top of that.

image

And I set some water to boil in a pot. Once it got to steaming, I lowered the heat and set the steamer on top. I let that cook for about 25 minutes.

When it was done, it looked like this.

image

The Fish Laap

I took the tilapia fillets out of the fridge and got to chopping them into small pieces.

image

I dropped the pieces into a bowl.

image

And I added the sliced lemongrass.image

The sliced green onions.

image

Crushed garlic.

image

Salt.

image

Lime juice.

image

Fermented Thai fish sauce.

image

And chopped red Thai chilies.

image

At this moment, I realized I hadn’t prepared the rice powder that I’d need next. So, I quickly tossed some rice into a pan and got to heating that for a few minutes until toasted.

image

Once they were just turning golden brown, I pulled them off the heat and let them cool for a second before pouring the rice into the spice grinder.

image

A quick grind later, that was ready and I could turn back to my laap.

I added to the mixture some chopped sweet Thai basil.

image

Chopped cilantro.

image

Chopped mint leaves.

image

And the rice powder I had just made.

image

I mixed that all up.

image

And it was dinner time.

I scooped out and plated the rice. I ladled out servings of the papaya salad and the laap and placed those alongside.

In the end, it looked like this.image

The Tasting

Oh no, we have a split decision. 

A few bites in, I sensed The Husband was being unusually quiet. This was not a good sign.

Basically, he found both the laap and the papaya salad to be too spicy, having not yet recovered from the previous dinner’s gastronomic apocalypse. Also the high sodium level of the laap was a bit intense.

As for myself, I rather enjoyed both the papaya salad, which I found crunchy and flavorful, and the laap, which I found fresh and bright, even if it was indeed very salty. (I now realize that there was salt in the dish and in both fish sauces.)

It’s the super fishy smell/flavor of the dish that was the most notable feature of the laap. And that’s something I can only call an “acquired taste.” (When I first encountered  shrimp paste back during Brunei week I was knocked backwards by the scent. Now, though. I’ve come to appreciate it when mixed in with other flavors.)

And thanks to the combined fresh flavors of the sweet basil, cilantro and mint, I really enjoyed the mix of tastes.

As for spice level, it was indeed very spicy, but it didn’t wound me like the Thai red chili flakes did. Instead, I felt a radiating heat which I could see helping keep one cool on in the tropical heat of Laos (or South Florida).

As for the rice, the sticky rice was really sticky, so much so that it was almost difficult to eat it with a fork. But it did a nice job of soaking up the liquids from the other two dishes.

But, sadly, for The Husband it was just all … can I say Laos-y?

Alas.

Next Week: We get a break from the heat of Asia for a while as we travel back to Europe for … Latvia!

Cooking Around The World: Kyrgyzstan

image

Look, it’s a yurt!

No, really. The flag. Look at it.

It’s a yurt.

As seen from above.

Yes, that’s the flag of the subject of Week 92 of my alphabetical, around-the-globe, become-the-proud-owner-of-a-millon-rare-ingredients, learn-to-cook challenge and … Kyrgyzstan!

The Country

Located in Central Asia in the Tian Shan mountain range, Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked nation nestled between China (Week 36), Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan (Week 86). [In case you’re wondering, this makes this make Kyrgyzstan the third of seven ‘stans.]

It’s the one that sort of looks like Switzerland … which kind of helps explain why it’s called “The Switzerland of Central Asia.”

Once home to forty clans (note the forty sun rays on the flag), the Kyrgyz were united as a people in the 9th Century. Since then, the area has been controlled by the Uyghurs, the Mongols, the Uzbeks, the Chinese (Manchu) and, in the late 1800s, the Russians. Kyrgyzstan eventually became a republic within the Soviet Union and, after the dissolution of the USSR, an independent state.

Since then, the rather poor country has experienced its share of political turmoil and continues to face serious issues of corruption and inter-ethnic conflict.  

BONUS TRIVIA: The mountainous nation is also home to the world’s largest walnut grove AND the second largest saltwater lake on Earth.

The Food

The history and geography of an area generally defines the food of any country. But Central Asia is particularly curious in that for millennia the peoples of this region have moved back and forth across vague national borders as political and agricultural conditions have changed. And that means that the food of one of them is, to a degree, the food of all of them.

And I just did Kazakhstan (Week 85) five weeks ago.

Which means I’m fresh out of horse meat jokes.

So, basically, the food of this nation is that of its nomads. And — aside from Trigger and Friends — the cuisine  is heavy on mutton, fat and lots and lots of starches.

And, if the recipes online are any guide, dishes are made to serve the visiting Mongol hordes. (Hmm. Do I have place settings for 60?)

After some research, I realized that just about every dish involved making dough and some kind of pasta/noodles/dumplings with meat and maybe one or two other ingredients. And I wasn’t about to make the Kazakh “five fingers” dish I did five weeks ago, which also seems to be the national dish here.

Hence, I opted to punt and do the same dish that this excellent global cuisine blogger made, something I try not to do.

Explanation: While I came up with the idea for my challenge independently, I learned a few weeks into my process that there were several other people out there who were attempting the same thing in some fashion. And since I’m relentless, this one amazing blogger may be the only other person who has made it this far in the alphabet without getting bogged down/quitting, etc.

Therefore, I decided to make …

  • Oromo (Kyrgyz Stuffed & Rolled Pasta) using this recipe, served with …
  • Mint Garlic Yogurt Sauce using this recipe.

The Hunt

Well, one thing you can say for the simple dishes of Central Asia, they don’t need a whole lot of ingredients. But for this one I’d need a new accessory: a bamboo steamer.

See, I had this sense that if I tried to make this dish using the steamer attachment I used for my pot, I’d end up with a total disaster on my hands.

[I have pretty strong memories of how I nearly destroyed everything when I was using this attachment way back during Cambodia (Week 29)].

But, of course, I had no idea how to use the damn thing. Thankfully some chatty YouTube videos filled me in.

The Cook

The Sauce

If I had read the recipe for the sauce more closely I’d have seen that it recommended making this the day before. That was not happening.

So, cook day, I started early on this.

I spooned the Greek yogurt into a bowl. 

image

Added in the crushed garlic.

image

And diced mint.

image

And I mixed it all up. Ta dah.

image

I covered that and placed it in the fridge.

The Stuffed Pasta

Since I was cribbing this blogger’s notes for the rest of this, I decided to go whole hog and make the pasta using her recipe for that, too.

I scooped the flour into a bowl.

image

Cracked a couple eggs into it.

image

Added some water and kneaded that into dough. (I needed a good deal more water than she suggested, even though I halved the recipe for my purposes.)

image

I kneaded that for an age and made a ball.

image

I covered it in plastic for a half hour to let it rest.

Meanwhile, I got to preparing the filling. For this, I chose lamb loin.

image

I knew I’d have to chop that myself since (for the first time) the (new) meat guy wasn’t too enthused at cutting open a package of leg of lamb for my small purposes.

And while every Kyrgyz recipe I found involved adding in vast quantities of mutton fat, I made the executive decision to cut out the fat and only use the meat for this. (Aside from the health implications, I worried that I’d end up with fatty chunks in the food which wouldn’t go over too well. )

image

And then I got to mixing. I placed the chopped lamb into a bowl.

image

Added in the chopped onion.

image

And chopped sweet potato (since pumpkin is out of season now).

image

I added salt and pepper and mixed that all up.

image

Once the dough was ready, I divided that into two parts and rolled one out into a thin layer. (Look, ma! I managed to do make thin dough … for once!)

And I spread half of the meat mixture out onto that.

Yes, I know, there seems to be waaay too much dough for the amount of meat. I blame the recipe. 

image

I distributed the sparse meat mixture across the pasta and rolled it up into a tube. 

image

And, after lining the steamer with parchment paper, I coiled the tube into the middle of the cooker.

image

And after repeating the process with the rest of the dough and meat mixture, I added that to the first coil.

image

I added water to a pan and placed the steamer on top of that and set it to cook for about an hour.

image

Disclaimer: I rather foolishly took the guidance of another recipe and added oil to the water for some reason I don’t understand. This made for a somewhat dangerous, sloppy mess. Also, I didn’t realize I had to wait for the water to start steaming before placing the steamer down first, so I had to start over on that, too. Boo me.

After an hour, it appeared to be done.

image

I sliced up the savory “Swiss roll” and served it alongside a bowl of the sauce. In the end, it looked like this.

image

The Tasting

Curiously, The Husband rather liked this one. And it wasn’t bad. For me, though, it seemed to be a dish that had potential rather than one that was really good.

I was glad that — probably for the first time — I had confidence that what I made with dough actually came out as intended. But the recipe seemed to really be messed up in terms of the ratio of filling to dough. That meant there was much too much chewy dumpling and not nearly enough meat.

What was great though was that oh-so-basic-I’m-surprised-I-didn’t-realize-it-until-it-was-in-my-mouth combination of lamb, onion, Greek yogurt and mint. (OHAI, gyro!)

Now if only there had been more of it.

Well, at least we have … FOUR (?!) more ‘stans where I can get that right.

Next Week: It’s back to Southeast Asia for … Laos!

Cooking Around The World: Kuwait

image

It’s been a week. Let’s just say that. What with the July 4th holiday,  travel and a whole bunch of unexpected … let’s just say “stuff,” I could hardly concentrate on cooking this week.

Which is just my weaselly way of explaining why I’m a day late with this week’s dish.

Yet, here we are at Week 91 of my Earth-spanning, alphabetical, learn-to-cook thing and … Kuwait!

 The Country

A relatively small petroleum-powered nation on the Persian Gulf, the State of Kuwait is bordered by Saudi Arabia to its south and Iraq (Week79) to its north. Populated since ancient times, Kuwait is the site of the world’s first sailing vessels and has gone through many centuries of ups and downs.

Originally a series of fishing villages, Kuwait grew into a key shipping port in the 1700s, enabling trade between India (Week 76), the Arabian Peninsula, east Africa and China (Week 36). By the early 20th Century, Kuwait had become known as the “Marseilles of the Persian Gulf” for its thriving economy and diverse mix of peoples.

At the end of World War I, Britain drew borders in this part of the world, and after the Great Depression, the discovery of oil reserves set the nation on its present course toward economic prosperity (for Kuwaiti citizens, anyway).

Who qualifies as a Kuwaiti citizen is a whole other discussion. With roughly 69% of the population not qualifying as Kuwaiti citizens, this sort of matters. It’s kind of what happens when the monied few really don’t need to take low-paying jobs and those imported to do those jobs don’t really get a say in things.

Also, of course, aside from oil, Kuwait is probably best known for the first Gulf War/the Iraq-Kuwait War, when, in 1990, Iraq overran the nation and was pushed back by the U.S.-led, United Nations coalition in 1991.

The Food

Owing to its location on the Persian Gulf and with its history as a fishing and pearling capital, seafood is quite a thing in Kuwait. And with its trade with India and the Middle East, its food is a mix of flavors from the Mediterranean, India and Persia.

But, considering the nature of the week’s events, I decided I’d go with the one-pot dish which is the nation’s signature dish.

Ergo, I decided I’d just make …

The Hunt

I hinted at it before, but the events of the week really didn’t make me enthusiastic about searching all of South Florida for rare ingredients. Thankfully, I already had some of them sitting around. And thanks to a visit to the Mystifying Market of Myriad Meal Makings, I was able to lay hands on the dish’s requisite dried limes (or dried lemons) and split peas. Go me.

The Cook

Lemme tell you (again), few things make me as jittery as vague recipes. To recap: I had zero cooking know-how coming into this. And while I’ve had a year and a half of experience now, seeing recipes that say things like “cook until done” still makes me crazy.

And this was one of those recipes.

How is a person supposed to know when to serve dinner if every step is totally up in the air in terms of time? Grumble.

Anyhoo …

I started out by cleaning and then soaking the basmati rice in water for an hour or so.

image

While that sat, I went about prepping the 101 other ingredients for the various components of this.

And after using up every bowl in the house, I was ready to move on to the split peas. 

image

The recipe didn’t specify what kind of split peas, so I hope chick peas would work.

I cleaned and soaked those for a while.

image

I moved on to making some saffron rose water. Thankfully, I had these ingredients sitting in the cabinet already, having last used the rose water waaaaay back near the start of this whole thing for Algeria (Week 3).

image

I dropped the (damn expensive) saffron into the rose water and let it sit out on the counter — and make the kitchen smell quite exactly like an old lady’s powder room in the process.

image

Next, to address the dried limes. Well, maybe they’re dried lemons. Or maybe they’re the same thing. A Google search seemed to indicate that. Plus no one at either the Persian market nor the Global Superstore of Unfindable Ingredients seemed to even know what “dried limes” are.

Hint: They’re limes that are dried.

image

But seeing this ingredient used in two different places in this recipe, I had to wonder how it is they’re used. After a web search, I guessed that in part one of this recipe I’d use one lime crushed. And for part two, I’d grind up the requisite amount using a spice grinder.

image

Finally, it was time to fire up the stove.

I dropped my chicken thighs into a pot.

image

And I added in the onion quarters.

image

Whole cloves.

image

Cinnamon stick.

image

Green cardamon pods (which I had the foresight to crack first).

image

Crushed dried lime lemon.

image

Bay leaves.

image

Turmeric.

image

And salt.

image

I set that to boil, lowered the heat, covered it, and let it simmer for about 25 minutes.

image

Meanwhile, I dropped the split peas in water and set them to boil and simmer for about the same time, constantly checking  it to be sure it was “tender but not mushy.”

image

I whipped out the meat thermometer and checked the chicken for doneness. I seemed to have gotten there after 25 minutes and I pulled the thighs out of the broth and set them  aside.

image

And, as I had had the good sense to check other recipes for this information, I strained the reserved stock, so as not to end up with a dish full of inedible items like cinnamon sticks and such.

image

Into another pot, I dropped in the chopped onions and sautéed them until golden and translucent.

image

When they finally got there, I poured in the golden raisins.

image

The cooked split peas.

image

Allspice.

image

Black pepper.

image

(Ground) dried lime lemon.

image

And salt.

image

I sautéed that for a while and set it aside.

Then, I got started in on the sauce for this dish.

I heated up some oil in a pan and added the crushed garlic cloves.

image

And four diced tomatoes.

image

I stirred that until everything got soft.

Meanwhile, I moved back to the pot and added in some oil.

image

And the cooked chicken thighs.

I let the thighs get crispy(ish) by letting them fry for a few minutes on each side.

image

Back at the pan, the tomatoes had gotten soft and I was ready to continue there.

I added in the water.

image

Salt.

image

Black pepper.

image

Cayenne pepper for heat.

image

And tomato paste.

image

And I let that simmer for about ten minutes.

Finally, it was time to get to the rice. I drained it and placed it in a fresh pot.

image

And I added in the requisite amount of the reserved broth from the chicken.

image

And I let that cook for about 15-20 minutes. When it looked like most of the water had been absorbed, I poured in the rose water/saffron mixture and gave it a good stir.

image

I covered the pot (realizing that the recipe hadn’t originally said to do this earlier) and I waited about ten minutes.

When it looked like the rice was ready and most of the water had been absorbed, I made a hole in the center and scraped in the chicken and other stuffing ingredients. 

image

I mixed that up and let it cook for another five minutes and, ta da, it was ready!

I ladled the chicken and rice out into dishes and (guessing how this is done from a Google Images search) served the tomato sauce on the side in bowls.

When it was all done, it looked like this. 

image

The Tasting

Comfort food. Fragrant and flavorful, the dish had a wonderful variety of tastes from the spicy, tomato sauce to the sweet from the raisins. The split peas gave the dish a little bite and the chicken was cooked well.

The Husband enjoyed the dish plenty as well, and while he was grateful for the heat provided by the sauce, he felt it was a bit too heavy on the tomatoes.

I only wish I had had the wherewithal to cut the meat off the bone before frying it. Also, it may have been a better idea to fry the chicken separately so as to actually accomplish a crispy chicken skin (something I have yet to do right).

Still, it was a score. And for a week like I just had, that’s a victory.

Just sorry you had to Ku-wait for it.

*rim shot*

Next Week: We travel north to the third of the seven ‘stans and … Kyrgyzstan!