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.

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Cooking Around The World: Ireland

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Let’s see, where are we? I see rocky crags, covered in green. I see sheep, fields and fields of clover. And castles. Castles, castles, castles.

Yes, we have arrived at Week 80 of my global-navigation-by-gastronomy-and-neurosis and … Ireland!

The Country

Well, as you probably know, there’s Ireland the island and Ireland the nation, officially the Republic of Ireland. There’s a history there which is bloody, long and impossibly complicated.

The island is located in the North Sea across the Irish Sea from Great Britain. And the Republic of Ireland covers five-sixths of this verdant, rocky isle.

Populated since prehistoric times by Celtic tribes, the island saw itself invaded by the English in the 13th century and, well, the Irish have been at odds with the English ever since.

After years of guerrilla warfare with the United Kingdom in the early part of the 20th century, the counties that comprise the Republic became independent in 1921. (Six counties in the north opted to remain part of the UK as the region of Northern Ireland.) In 1949, the Republic withdrew from the British Commonwealth. Since then, the nation has seen both good times and bad, moving from an agricultural economy to a thriving, diversified modern one focusing on technology and service industries.

The impact of Irish culture and cuisine on that of the world in general and the United States in particular simply cannot be understated. From the music of everyone from the Clancy Brothers and Enya to U2 and Van Morrison, from Irish step dancers to the literature of George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett, Irish culture is globally omnipresent. 

And you can go to even the most remote places on Earth and find an Irish pub in which you can down a pint of Guinness.

And potatoes. Always with the potatoes.

In fact, it is potatoes that may have presented the biggest challenge this week. Not that potatoes are hard to cook or find. The problem was that every dish I discovered used potatoes in some fashion. And I didn’t need potatoes served with potatoes with more potatoes on the side.

I remembered (as I do every St. Patrick’s Day stateside) that the most well-known “Irish” dish, corned beef and cabbage, isn’t a traditional Irish dish at all, but rather an Irish-American invention. (And St. Patrick’s Day is hardly a green-beer-and-beads event there. But that’s a separate discussion.)

So, I called out to my friends on Facebook for advice.

What suggestions came back? Potatoes.

Which led me right back to Plan A: Irish Stew. But which Irish stew? I found dozens upon dozens of recipes, but so many of them seemed to be of dubious origin and dressed up with a bunch of ingredients that aren’t found in what is historically an Irish stew.

And how would your gentle (Puerto Rican) blogger know such things? Well, those that know me know I have an Irish last name, owing to … let’s see … a paternal great-great-grandfather who lit out of Ireland for Spain (and later Puerto Rico) with his brothers in the 1800s.

Which really only means that I grew up staring at my parents’ framed version of An Old Irish Blessing, occasionally being bestowed a “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” button each March … and routinely eating off a placemat bearing a recipe for …  Irish stew.

After some research, I finally decided I’d make …

The Hunt

You’d think there wouldn’t be anything hard to find here. Well, you’d be right for the most part. Except for one thing.

See, I purposely opted to make this particular stew since it seemed to have some different and very detailed instructions, specifically regarding making something I’ve never made before: lamb stock.

I’ve purchased enough stock and broth to fill cupboards already, but have never tried to make it myself. And this called for lamb neck and lamb shoulder. Interesting.

I called the butcher shop figuring that if anyone had that, they would. But, no dice.

Hmmph.

Oddly, though — odd to me, anyway — the meat guy at the local fancy grocer said none of this would be a problem. And a few hours (and a lot of money later) I had three pounds of lamb shoulder and another pound of lamb neck

It’s here where I started to have a full-on anxiety attack about how much food I was going to be making and how many leftovers I’d have if this didn’t go well. I know that — in theory — I could have halved the recipe, but I’ve gotten really freaked out by how that doesn’t always work out flavor-wise. I gather that sometimes doing this throws off some key ratios, ratios which I simply do not understand.

The Cook

The Stew: The Lamb Stock

After talking myself down off the ceiling, I started the Day Before Dining (D-Day -1) by preparing the lamb stock.

Taking the lamb neck out of the package was easy enough. But it was in that moment that I understood that the recipe called for me to use the bones from the lamb shoulder as well.

Argh. Now I know why the meat guy was asking me all those questions I didn’t understand.

Have the butcher bone the lamb shoulder and give you the bones. 

Yeah, I should have read that line more carefully.

So, I chopped and sliced my way around the meat to crudely extract the bones from the shoulder.

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I tossed the neck and the shoulder bones into a pot. 

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And I prepared the rest of the ingredients, including peeling an onion and sticking it with two whole cloves.

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I covered the meat with water and brought it to a boil. After skimming off the scum, I added the bay leaf.

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Garlic cloves.

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Salt.

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Pepper.

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The onion-stuck-with-cloves.

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Thyme.

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And (mistakenly) the chopped parsley.

(I say mistakenly since I realize now that I was to have put in a whole sprig of parsley instead. I clearly didn’t understand this in reading the recipe.)

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I brought the whole thing to a boil again, reduced the heat and let it simmer for two and a half hours.

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Once that time was up, I strained the liquid and set that aside to cool.

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I dropped that into a container and put it in the fridge to sit overnight.

The Stew Itself

The next day, I took out the remains of the lamb shoulder and gamely attempted to cut off as much of the fat as I could without leaving the whole thing in meaty, meaty tatters.

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I prepped the rest of the ingredients, including the three leeks.

Having dealt with leeks once before now, this time I was already aware that I’d need to trim and clean those thoroughly. I shudder to think what I would have done had I attempted this without knowing that ahead of time. 

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I extracted the stock from the fridge and confronted the gross mess of lamb fat on top by scooping it all off and tossing it out.

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Once I had everything chopped and skimmed, I was ready to fire the stove.

I dropped the lamb pieces into the pot.

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I added in the sliced onions.

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Diced leeks.

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A bay leaf.

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Thyme.

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Nutmeg.

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And the virtually gelatinous lamb stock.

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The recipe said to add enough stock to come one inch above the meat, but I wasn’t really clear on if this would be enough. Of the twenty-odd stews I’ve made so far, most have ended up being far too much like soup. I wanted to avoid that this time.

Have I mentioned that I’m getting kind of sick of stews at this point?

I stirred the mess up.

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I brought it to a boil, lowered the heat and set it to simmer for an hour.

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Once time was up, I added in my three diced potatoes, hoping that my dice was small enough for the potatoes to dissolve into the broth as I assumed should happen eventually.

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I stirred that up and set it to simmer for another 30 minutes.

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When that time was up, I tasted everything, burned my mouth again and added in salt.

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Pepper.

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A dash of nutmeg.

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And the diced parsley which I had mistakenly added back when I was making the stock. (Adding it here, too, I figured wouldn’t hurt.)

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After another minute that was ready to serve.

The Bread

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that baking has constantly been my bête noire, with disasters baked from every corner of the planet. I’ve asked everyone I know for advice and have yet to figure out why I am the King Of Density.

In fact, I may have continued this trend had I not thought to reach out to a friend with the recipe I had originally intended to make. He took one look at it and determined it had an HFF (High Fail Factor).

Thankfully, he turned around and sent me the recipe I finally decided to use instead. Let’s see how that turned out, shall we?

I preheated the oven to 400º F and lined a baking sheet with parchment paper.

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I poured all-purpose flour into a bowl.

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And I added to that the whole wheat flour. 

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Some wheat germ (a new add to the Cabinet Of 1,000 Grains).

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Sugar.

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Salt.

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Baking powder.

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And baking soda.

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And I whisked them all together.

Into a measuring cup, I poured buttermilk.

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And I added melted butter to it.

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Once those were mixed up, I deftly poured the liquid mix into the dry mix.

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And kneaded it together until the dough formed.

I lightly floured the counter and turned the dough out onto it, kneading the dough into a firm ball.

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I popped that into an 8” round baking tin.

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I pressed that flat and I grabbed a serrated knife to cut into the dough …

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A five-inch cross a quarter inch deep.

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I put that on the baking sheet and placed it in the oven for about 50 minutes.

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Once time was up and the internal temperature was right, I set it to cool for an hour.

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Come dinner time, I took the bread out of the tin and plated it. It looked like this.

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I ladled the stew into bowls and that looked like this. 

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The Tasting

It’s really not fair to judge these separately, since the bread was intended to be used to sop up the liquid from the stew.

But I have to say one thing.

THE CURSE HAS BEEN LIFTED!

Jesus, Mary and Joseph! That bread was astounding! Sweet, sour and fluffy, it was the antithesis of the dense garbage I’ve made on the regular around here. And soaked in the juices of the stew? Huzzah!

It’s magically delicious.

And the stew itself was indeed rich and flavorful. The Husband (rightly) wondered why there weren’t carrots in this stew, but to be honest, I didn’t even think of them.

The meat was flavorful and tender. And the potatoes, while not dissolved in the broth, were small enough to make for a good mouthful of starchy goodness. In a world of stews, it stood up and stood out.

Color me gobsmacked.

Next Week: It’s back to the Middle East for … Israel!

Cooking Around The World: Iraq

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Let’s see, where are we this week? We’re on the letter “I” and … oh.

Yes, we’ve arrived at Week 79 of my neurotically-alphabetical, around-the-world, basic-culinary-eductation-in-a-home-kitchen-with-a-wonky-stove adventure and … Iraq!

Perhaps you’ve heard of it for some reason.

Unrelated historical aside with no seeming connection to Iraq: In the midst of the U.S.’s woeful economic situation in the 1970s, economist Alfred Khan decided than rather than use scary words like “inflation” and “recession,” he’d use a different, nicer word, instantly coining the term “double-digit banana.” End aside.

The Country

The old stereotype about Americans is that we only learn about a place when we go to war with it.

In that case, we know a whole lot about this place. You know, what with that whole eight-year, US-led … banana.

But, let’s go back a mite further, shall we?

Say, 8,000 years or so?

Located in Western Asia, Iraq is bordered on the east by last week’s nation, Iran (Week 78), on the south by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and on the west by Jordan and Syria. And near its center is the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the area known as the very birthplace of civilization.

What was once known by the Greeks as Mesopotamia has been the home to more ancient civilizations and empires than you can probably name. [Hey, Jeopardy contestants, here’s a cheat sheet. They are: the Akkadian Empire, the Third Dynasty of Ur (aka the Neo-Sumerian Empire), the Neo-Assyrian Empire and the Neo-Babylonian Empire. You can send me my cut of your winnings later.]

This is where the wheel was invented and, more pertinent to this experiment, the site of the world’s first cookbook and written recipes, found on ancient Sumerian clay tablets from 3100 BCE.

Oh, and what was the first recipe? Beer, of course.

Over the ensuing millennia, the area was conquered by a dizzying array of 15 (!) different peoples and empires, from the Romans and the Mongols to the Greeks and the Ottomans.

The region was under Ottoman rule at the end of World War I when it came under British administration. In 1920, the League of Nations drew up the borders to create what is now Iraq, throwing together the disparate populations of Sunni, Shia and Kurds into one makeshift country. The nation soon fell under the rule of dictators, including one particularly nasty one.

And, well, you know the rest.

Banana.

The Food

With a place this big and with a history so ancient (and the place so trampled-upon), you’d be right to think that the cuisine of Iraq is heavily influenced by the many, many, many peoples who have come to and through the region. This, however, made finding recipes unique to the place kind of tricky.

And again, I had my aversion to cooking kabobs. (Refresher: It involves having to marinate things a day before and risks grilling in nightly Florida thunderstorms which only seem to strike when I fire up the propane tank.)

I’d have even tried my hand at making my own pita bread, since I made such a mess of things back during Bosnia and Herzegovina (Week 32).

But, I figured I’d have more than enough chances to do that in the future.

So, I decided I’d make …

  • Iraqi Tabbouleh using this recipe,
  • Tepsi Baytinijan (Meat And Vegetable Casserole) using this recipe,  
  • And, as what I guess could be my first dessert, Pistachio Date Balls using this recipe.

The Hunt

Luckily, there was no hunt this week. I really wanted to make something that would employ the pomegranate molasses I bought and didn’t use last week, but the one thing I found with that was a soup and … well, I knew I’d have enough leftovers already.

The Cook

The Tabbouleh

Seeing as my cook day was going to be pretty crowded, I did what I normally avoid at all costs and prepped this one the night before. Considering how things timed out, I’m really glad I did.

First, I poured some bulgur wheat into a bowl.

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Covered it in water.

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And I let that sit for about two and a half hours.

Meanwhile, I took out a colander and lined it with two layers of cheesecloth. 

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Once the soaked wheat was ready, I strained it through the cloth.

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Gathered together the cloth and squeezed out all the liquid.

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Into the bowl with you!

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To that, I added my diced onion.

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Chopped scallions.

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And I mixed that together with my hands.

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Once suitably mixed, I added in chopped parsley.

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Chopped fresh mint.

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Extra virgin olive oil.

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And lemon juice.

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I seasoned with salt and pepper.

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And I stirred in the diced tomato.

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A couple stirs and that was ready to go into the fridge for the next day.

The Casserole

I allotted a certain amount of time for this. I was way off on that. As I’ve said before, I am the world’s slowest prep cook. Let’s just say I am so appreciative that The Husband was exceedingly patient as to when dinner time came this week.

After the eternal prep work, I sliced up my eggplant and placed the slices on a tray and gave them a good salting.

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I heated up the oil in the pan and fried the slices in batches “until golden brown.” (I’d like to thank the recipe writer for having the wisdom to say how long that would take.)

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I set the slices on paper towels to drain and moved on.

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Into the oil, I added in the sliced onions.

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And sliced potatoes. (The recipe said “medium carrots or potatoes,” so I took that literally.)

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And I sautéed them for ten minutes. Once done, I tossed those into a separate bowl.

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Next, I took the meat out of the fridge. (I chose to go with ground lamb for this.)

I added in the chopped garlic.

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Salt.

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Pepper.

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Ground cumin.

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And cayenne pepper. (The recipe suggested one could cut that down if it was too hot, but … well, I could have doubled it, since I’m nuts.)

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Next, I ran into what appears to be a recurring problem. Meatballs.

See, when the recipe says “form into small balls,” the recipe’s author didn’t realize that I have no concept of size.

[See entries Denmark (Week 47), El Salvador (Week 53), Finland (Week 59) and Iceland (Week 75). It’s a problem.]

Hence, since I can’t think spatially, this is “small.”

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Which I’m guessing was twice as big as the balls should have been.

In any case, I fried those up in the pan for ten minutes.

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And set them  to dry on paper towels.

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Next, I poured water into yet another bowl. To that, I added salt.

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Crushed garlic.

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Pepper.

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And ground cumin.

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And I mixed that up.

Finally, I got to assembling the casserole.

I spread the eggplant slices on the bottom of the casserole pan.

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Layered the onions and potatoes on top. (Technically, the recipe didn’t say when to add the onions, but I assumed that they should be added here, too.)

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On  top of that,I placed the tomato slices.

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And, comically, the meatballs.

The recipe said to “spread meatballs evenly between the tomato slices.”

As if.

As if I had a concept of size.

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Atop all that, I poured the liquid mixture.

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And I covered the whole thing with foil and put it in the oven at 350ºF for an hour.

The Date and Pistachio Balls

thought that one hour would be more than enough time for this amazingly simple, two-step recipe.

What I didn’t know was that it could take about that long to shell a cup of pistachios by hand.

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Seriously. The Patient Husband endured me grousing for an hour about how I should have shelled out (pun alert!) the extra $12 for the bag of pre-shelled pistachios.

When I finally had that done, I grabbed the container of ancient pitted dates from the cabinet and dropped them into the food processor.

How ancient? Well, to the best of my recollection, I may have bought them way back when I was cooking Azerbaijan (Week 11). Do the math yourself.

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I set the food processor going and … Oh. My. Gilgamesh.

Talk about LOUD! Not only did it send the cat running for cover, but The Patient Husband’s eardrums were exploding like it was a Night of Shock and Awe.

I figured the dates were too dry to really turn into a paste, but I tried to make that happen anyway, finally dropping the dates into the deafening din one by one until they were obliterated.

Once that was accomplished (enough that I could still hear), I added in the pistachios and made even more noise.

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Theoretically, this was supposed to be a “coarse mixture.”

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A “course mixture” which I could form into balls and then coat with ground pistachios.

Yeah, not so much. There wasn’t enough moisture in the dates to make anything hold together, so “balls” were simply not happening.

Well, if I was a Top Chef contestant, I’d know what to else call it to cover up the gross mistake, but I simply don’t have the vocabulary.

Hence, I just portioned out what would have been the balls into ramekins and gave them a dusting of the pistachios and called it a day.

That looked like this.

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I put the tabbouleh into bowls and dressed it with pine nuts. That looked like this.

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And, once the casserole was ready …

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I plated that as well. That looked like this.

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The Tasting

The Tabbouleh:Spectacular. Fresh, herbaceous and tangy, this would have to rank among the best vegetarian dishes I’ve made so far. It was filling and had just the right mix of acid, salt, sour and bitter with the pine nuts giving it a great crunch. I’d totally recommend that anyone (particularly my vegan friends) make this one immediately.

The Casserole:It was what I’d call “serviceable.” I enjoyed the flavors of garlic and cumin that were infused throughout the dish. And, for once, I made meatballs that were cooked all the way through. 

Still, despite following the recommendation to make the tomato and potato slices 1/2 inch thick, they seemed too thick, with the potatoes being just a smidge more al dente than I’d prefer. The Husband personally improvised by mixing in the dates and pistachios for a taste he really loved.

The Date and Pistachio Mix:Again, they weren’t “balls.” But that doesn’t mean they weren’t good. In fact, the mix was really delicious. Actually, I thought it tasted like a great cookie … if I had the wherewithal  to know how to form that into one.

So, yay! Despite a few hiccups, Iraq managed to be quite a success.

And not a banana.

Imagine that.

Next Week: It’s a one-off jump back to Europe for … Ireland!

Cooking Around The World: Iran

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Let’s get to this, shall we? 

Owing to travel the past few days, this week’s entry in my around-the-globe-by-stomach, learn-to-cook extravaganza is a day late. Whatcha gonna do?

So … welcome to this week’s entry, Week 78 of our culinary challenge and … Iran!

The Country

As if you’d never heard of this place. Really.

One of the oldest places on the planet, what is now Iran was for thousands of years the center of several different ancient kingdoms until 330 BCE,  when Alexander the Great conquered the land. For centuries after that, Persia was conquered in turn by Arab Muslims, Mongols and Turks among others.

And in the midst of this tortured story, Persia came to play a key role in Islamic history, particularly for Shiite Muslims who comprise the overwhelming majority in the state.

Come the 20th Century, British and U.S. … shall we say “involvement”? … brought forth a new Iran under a brutal, pro-Western leader, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The story after that is probably more than familiar.  In 1979, the world turned upside-down when the Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah, held U.S. citizens hostages for some 14 months, and ushered forth a conservative theocratic state (with all the angst that entails).

And so began the never-ending drama of “Death to America” vs. songs about bombing a people back to the Stone Age which has raged on for some 30-plus years. Not to mention the policies on each side seeking to advance these dueling premises. (At this writing, there may be some hope for a breakthrough between these sides. We’ll have to see how that works out.) 

Of course, things are actually a great deal more complicated than that. In fact, as complicated places go, Iran has to be one of the most complex. While its government is/has been … well, let’s just say “tricky,” its land and its people are so much more than the two-dimensional cartoon most Americans see.

By most accounts (like these from my favorite global blogger) the people are among the warmest, most hospitable anywhere on Earth. The beauty of the land, its history and architecture are also among the most breathtaking anywhere. In fact, with snow-capped ski towns and seaside resorts on the Caspian Sea, tourism there is quite a draw.

The Food

Well, it’s Central Asia. And, as with the food of its neighbors, including Afghanistan (Week 1),  Armenia (Week 8), and Azerbaijan (Week 11), Iranian cuisine features many of the fruits and grains of the region (rice, pomegranates, dried fruits and dates) and dishes both brought over by conquering peoples like the Turks and those developed in the region. (Think, “Kabobs! Kabobs! Kabobs!” … Pro tip: Don’t ever get into a discussion with a Central Asian about which nation invented meat-on-a-stick. You’ll lose your mind. You’ve been warned.)

Doing my research, I had two goals in mind.

Goal One: avoid kabobs. See, I kind of hate grilling on account of Murphy’s Law of Evening Grilling in Florida., i.e., ”If you plan to do so, a raging thunderstorm will drop on your head the moment you begin.”

Thank you, and please remember to tip your meteorologists!

Goal Two: make a dish (or dishes) that wouldn’t involve cooking/prepping the night before, since a few days of travel would interrupt this week’s extravaganza.

After some reading, The Husband and I headed out to a local greenmarket which also served many Persian favorites. A few hours later, I had sampled what things were supposed to taste like and had my various specialty items purchased.

Therefore, I decided that for Night One I’d make …

  • Persian Lamb in Pomegranate Quince Sauce using this recipe, and
  • Persian Dill and Lima Bean Rice using this recipe.

For Night Two, after our trip, I’d make  …

The Hunt

While I kind of lucked out at the greenmarket and found pomegranate molasses there, I quickly realized that that was not what I needed for the lamb shanks dish. I made that very mistake during Armenia (Week 8) and I didn’t want to make it again.

So, agreeing to stash my new purchase for future use, I bought your standard pomegranate juice and moved on to seeking out this week’s actual rarity, quince jam.

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The food boutique saved my bacon on this one. — Er, it’s Iran. Ix-nay on the axon-bay!

OK,the store had the (incredibly expensive) fancy marmalade. Happy now?

 The Cook (Night One)

I started with the lamb. I heated up some oil (which the recipe didn’t mention) and seared the lamb shanks for a few minutes.

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As the house filled with smoke, I started to wonder if my range tends to overheat, and I pulled the shanks off the fire and set them aside before they burned entirely on the outside.

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After pouring off the fat, I put the butter and onions in the pan and cooked those for a few minutes more. Again, I kept lowering the heat, but my range seemed to have other ideas.

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Once those were browning some, I added the shanks back in.

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I dropped in a cinnamon stick.

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Whole cloves.

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Sugar.

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Salt.

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Pomegranate juice.

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And water to cover the shanks partway.

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I covered that and let it cook on a low simmer for about and hour and a half.

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BUT WAIT!

INTERNAL MONOLOGUE ALERT.

I hate these damn recipes that tell you to prep certain ingredients and then never tell you when to add them!!

Like, where does the damn allspice go?

Well, it’s going in here. Phooey.

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After time was up, I checked the shanks and worried like hell that they would overcook. Or undercook. I tried testing them, tasting a piece, rotating them in the pan and, when I saw the rice wasn’t going to be ready for a long time, wrapping them in foil and sticking them in the oven to stay warm.

Closer to dinner time, I made the sauce, by adding the quince jam to the broth and simmering that for a while.

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Meanwhile …

The Lima Bean Rice

How many rice dishes have I done so far? Too many to count. Still, there’s always a slightly new wrinkle on some of these. This one would involve getting that crusty bottom-of-the-pan goodness the Persians call tahdig. (We Puerto Ricans call it “pegao" or "that which is stuck.")

Step one in this process would be to rinse the rice.

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And then let it soak in water for 90 minutes.

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Afterwards, I drained the rice and set it aside.

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I gathered together my saffron threads and added them to a mortar.

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I poured oil into that.

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And crushed the threads in it.

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While the oil soaked up the saffron, I got back to the rice.

I boiled that for eight minutes.

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With salt.

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And since these damn vague recipes are never proofread I stirred in my frozen lima beans here.

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I rinsed the rice and beans.

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And, into the colander, I added in the chopped dill.

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Then, in another bowl, I poured in canola oil.

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Half of the saffron mix.

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And my about three quarter cups of the rice and beans.

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A quick stir later, I scooped out that saffron-infused mixture and spread it over the bottom of the saucepan.

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This, I hoped, would become the crusty bottom. However, I could tell right away that the size of the pot relative to the amount of rice I had for the tahdig could present a problem.

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Alas.

Onto this, I mounded the rest of the rice and beans to made a lovely volcano of rice.

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As instructed, I made a hole in the center of the mound of rice.

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I covered the pot with a clean dish towel and lid.

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After about 10 minutes on what the range said was “medium” (but could actually have been low), I removed the lid. 

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And I drizzled the remaining saffron-oil mixture over the top.

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I replaced the towel and lid and let that sit on low (or was that too low, Mr. Stove?) for almost an hour.

When time was up, I removed the lid.

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And, in a feeble attempt to get that “cake of rice with crust on top” effect, I placed a plate on top of the pot …

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And flipped it over to reveal …

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Well, that.

I removed the shanks from the stove, plated them and poured the sauce over the top and scooped out servings of the crusty rice. And it all looked like this.

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The Tasting

The Lamb:

I’ve gotten spoiled. See, after the spectacular success that were the lamb shanks of Cyprus (Week 45), this just couldn’t compare. The taste of the sauce was pleasant enough, though as with the debacle of Armenia (Week 8) it was a bit on the sweet side. Maybe pomegranate just works that way?

Making matters worse, The Husband noted that the pomegranate sauce was pretty much the same flavor he had just had for lunch at the greenmarket. 

As for the lamb itself, given my lack of experience as a cook, coupled with the wildly unpredictable heat from the stove, it was done, but not in that great falling-off-the-bone way. Instead, it was more of a chore to cut and eat. Sad face.

The Rice:

Shrug. I can’t say I tasted saffron. Mostly, I tasted lima beans. Frozen lima beans. And too many lima beans in relation to the rice. The crust was kind of crusty, but that was about the most notable thing about it.

Let’s see how the rest of this goes post travel …

The Cook (Night Two)

The Salad:

This was going to be almost too basic, even for me. But, hey, I needed something to go with the stew.

I peeled, sliced and diced the cucumbers and threw them in a bowl.

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And added in the chopped tomatoes.

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Chopped onion.

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And I doused them liberally with salt and pepper.

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Added in the dried mint.

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Extra virgin olive oil.

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And lemon juice.

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I gently tossed the salad, covered it and threw it in the fridge to cool before dinner.

That would let me move on to …

The Herb Stew:

Here, I was sorely confused by the ingredient list.

4 bunches flat-leafed parsley
1 bunch cilantro

FOUR WHOLE BUNCHES of parsley? And a WHOLE BUNCH of cilantro?

That seemed insane.

Plus, I only had one bunch of parsley and there was no way I was running out for more.

I quickly Googled for other recipes for the same thing to see if somehow they meant “stalks” instead of “bunches.” I never found out for sure, but one recipe I found suggested a quarter cup of cilantro and a half cup of parsley.

So, that’s what I prepped. Oh, please let this work.

I heated up the oil and added in the chopped parsley.

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The chopped cilantro.

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Chopped scallions.

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And, seeing as I didn’t have/find/want to have to find fresh fenugreek, I added the recipe-allowed substitution of dried fenugreek seeds.

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And here’s where the blasted stove got all freaky again.

I sautéed the herbs for a few minutes on what I thought was a low medium heat, stirring constantly. But from one second to the next, the herbs started to burn.

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Quickly, I took it off the stove and prayed to the ancestors that this was how this was supposed to look. I set it aside and moved on to the next pot.

I heated up some more oil and proceeded to brown the chopped onion.

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After a while, carefully monitoring the freaky stove heat, I dropped in my cubed chuck chunks.

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I added the turmeric.

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Salt and pepper.

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And I set to brown the beef on all sides.

Once that was sufficiently browned, I added in the kidney beans. (I have to admit that I cheated here using canned beans since I couldn’t have soaked the beans overnight. Travel, remember?)

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I scooped in the prayed-over-herbs/burnt offerings.

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Lemon juice.

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And covered the whole thing with water.

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I set that to boil for a few and then let it simmer for an hour and a half.

After that, I tasted the liquid and added in some more salt before simmering for another 30 minutes. (I now know I should have tasted the meat here, since it really did need much more salt than I added in there.)

Come dinner time, I scooped the salads into bowls and that looked like this. 

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And the stew went into stew bowls. That looked like this.

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The Tasting

The Salad: 

Phenomenal. Embarrassingly simple, but spectacularly good. Crispy, fresh and firm, the salt and acid played off the flavor of the mint and crunch of the cucumbers. This one is definitely the next salad to bring to a potluck lunch.

The Stew:

Well, the first bite was tasty but bland. That’s the moment I remembered the edict you’d think I would have learned from the simple-but-amazing beef from Botswana (Week 23): Sodium is required to coax out these flavors.

And I was right. After I salted my dish, I was startled by how tasty this dish became.

I only wish I knew if it really did need 300% more herbs to be authentic.

Arrrgh. Or is that “Argo?”

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Photo taken during aforementioned travel days. Bonus.

Next Week: We hop over the once battled-over border to … Iraq!

Cooking Around The World: Indonesia

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No, your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you. That’s not a big red rectangle. 

It’s the half-red, half-white flag of the subject of this Week 77 of our around-the-world-in-obsessively-alphabetical-order-yet-somehow-still-learning-to-cook challenge and … Indonesia!

The Country

Straddling the Equator, just north of Australia (Week 9) and south of Mainland Southeast Asia, Indonesia is a vast nation of over 17,500 islands, 6,000 of which are inhabited. 

It’s all so hot and bubbly. By which I mean it has a tropical climate and … TONS OF VOLCANOES. Seriously. With 127 active volcanoes, the country has more active volcanoes than any other nation on the planet.

Talk about your Ring of Fire.

It is a big place. In fact, Indonesia is the largest island nation on earth and is the fourth most populous overall.

And, in places, it’s more densely populated than you could imagine. The island of Java, which contains the capital city of Jakarta, alone has roughly the same population of all of Russia. (In fact, Jakarta, with a population of some 28 million people, may be the most populous city in the world without a functional rapid transit system.)

As such a vast place, the nation has a vast and complex history. From Java Man some 1.5 million years ago, to the hundreds of different peoples that have made the archipelago home across the millennia, many have left traces of themselves on the nation’s culture and cuisine. 

Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists have all been represented across the islands going back centuries. Come the age of European colonization, the islands’ vast resources of spices — they didn’t call them “The Spice Islands” for nothing — led to the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Dutch all fighting mightily over the territory, with the Dutch laying claim on most of the islands until the end of World War II.

Since independence in 1945, things have been, er, complicated. The nation struggled under harsh dictatorship and military rule (sprinkled with the odd-attempted coup) until 1999. Since then, though, the nation has become the third most populous democracy and has a growing and varied economy.

The Food

With a place this massive and with a history this expansive you can imagine that the food of this nation is complex, too. Well, it is.

While most of the nation is Muslim — where pork is a no-no — the island of Bali is mostly Hindu and also heavily influenced by Chinese traditions. There, pork is A-OK. 

As in most of Asia, rice is the nation’s life’s blood. Also, as in most island nations, fish is a primary protein.

So, deciding what to cook was going to be rough. Thankfully, I have a dear friend and devoted reader who happens to hail from the South Sumatran city of Palembang, who months ago gave me her city’s favorite dish as a suggestion for this week’s meal.

Therefore, after deciding I’d cook across two nights, I decided I’d make a collection of pan-Indonesian favorites.

For Night One, I’d make …

  • Pindang Palembang (Hot and Sour Fish Soup) using this recipe, served with …
  • Nasi Kuning (Celebration Yellow Rice) using this recipe.

And, covering Bali and Java, for Night Two, I’d prepare …

  • Be Celeng Base Manis (Pork in Soy Sauce) using this recipe, served with …

  • Nasi Uduk Betawi (Jakarta Fragrant Coconut Rice) using this recipe.

The Hunt

Normally, here is the point I’d tell you about my crazy hunt for specific Southeast Asian ingredients. But, as luck would have it, most of the ingredients I already had, or at least knew where to get after the crazed hunt for stuff back during Cambodia (Week 29) and, most notably, Brunei (Week 25).

The only truly new item on the shopping list was pandan leaves. My friend suggested that I could get those frozen someplace. But I realized something interesting.

Pandan leaves are the leaves of the screw palm. And, hey, isn’t that the exact same plant that sits on the edge of the parking lot that I was asking Facebook friends, “What is this tree?” for a solid year?

Why, yes!

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A quick hop across the parking lot and a surreptitious snip-snip and … I’m a farmer! (Or a cultivator, anyway.) Woo hoo!

So, armed with everything I needed, I was ready for …

The Cook (Night One)

The Fish Soup

First I’d have to prepare what the recipe called the “ground spices.” I call it  ”spicy wet mush.”

Step one, address the issue of the “shrimp paste, roasted.”

See, we first met Mr. Shrimp Paste (not to be confused with "Shrimp Boy") way back during Brunei (Week 25). Basically, he smells like all get-out. Some have even compared the scent to that of a poopy diaper. Yuck.

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Hence, the jar of the stuff I have is kept tightly sealed in two layers of plastic. Just in case.

And now, to open it …

And roast it on low heat on the pan.

"Brace yourself," I hollered to The Husband.

Into the fire it went.

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While that did its thing, I took out the food processor and dropped in the shallots.

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Red chilies.

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Turmeric.

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The by-now-roasted shrimp paste.

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And salt.

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And off you go!

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"Ground spice" accomplished.

I prepped the remaining ingredients, including the fresh lemongrass.

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All these fiery bird’s eye chilies. (Yay spice!)

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And the uniquely Indonesian sweet soy sauce, aka kecap manis.

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Once the million ingredients were prepped, I got a-cookin’.

I boiled water.

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And added in the ground, wet spicy mixture.

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As this page suggested curry leaves could substitute for the Indonesian bay leaves, I added those in here.

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I mashed up the lemongrass and dropped that in.

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Along with the chopped ginger.

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Smashed galangal.

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Slit red chilies.

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And the fresh catfish.

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I mixed that up and then added in the tomato pieces.

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And the green tomato pieces, too.

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I stirred in the de-stemmed green bird’s eye chilies.

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And after diluting the tamarind paste that I bought last week for India (Week 76), the substance that I’ll just say is tamarind juice.

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I added in the Indonesian sweet soy sauce.

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The sugar.

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And I let it boil before lowering the heat.

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After a few minutes, I figured I’d just declare the fish “cooked,” and went ahead and added in my mountain of basil.

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I lowered it to simmer and let that sit on the stove for some five hours to let it soak up the spices.

The recipe didn’t say specifically about it being on the heat all that time, but I didn’t want a cold fish soup. My favorite global traveler’s blog suggests room temperature fish is a common thing in Indonesia and I didn’t want to “go there.”

The Celebration Rice

Following the instructions, I poured the rice into a pot.

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And covered it with water and drained it three times. (Seemed a long round-about way to rinse rice, but whatever.)

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I poured water into a bowl.

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And added in the turmeric.

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After mixing that up, I poured that over the rice.

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Poured coconut milk over that.

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And added in the salt.

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And a couple knotted stalks of lemongrass. (Doing this releases the flavor, I understand. I now know I should have removed the outer layer and crushed it, but … live and learn.)

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I crushed up the kaffir lime leaves [last seen way back during Cambodia (Week 29)] and threw those in.

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I made sure the greens were well submerged.

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And set it to boil and, afterwards, to sit.

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When it was all done, I removed the greens from the rice and scooped that into bowls. It looked like this.

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And I ladled out the fish soup into their own bowls. That looked like this.

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The Tasting

The Fish Soup: To be perfectly frank, I had really low expectations for this one. I mean, fish soup. And catfish has such a bad connotation for some people.

But … wow. I mean, WOW. The amazing, sweet, sour, salty, umami flavors all played off each other in such a way that I only wish I had the vocabulary to describe. As with the best Asian dishes I’ve done so far, I adored this. I only wish it wasn’t so much work.

Also, I wasn’t sure how to handle the chunks of lemongrass and galangal that I assume weren’t meant to be eaten. I’m going to assume one was supposed to take those out before serving. Still, an incredible dish.

The Rice: Equally astounding. Theoretically, this is just rice. But the flavors of turmeric and lemongrass along with the sweet coconut made this one of my favorite rice dishes so far (and I’m accumulating a few of those now).

The Cook (Night Two)

The Pork Dish

I heated up the oil and dropped in my million sliced scallions.

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The sliced garlic.

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And I sautéed those for a few minutes until it had some color.

Next, I cut up the pork into chunks and dropped those in.

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I raised the heat to high and sautéed all that for a couple of minutes.

Next, I poured in the Indonesian sweet soy sauce.

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The “thin” soy sauce.

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And crushed pepper.

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At this point, I looked back at the (horribly incomplete) recipe and saw that it had neglected to say when to add the garlic and whole bird’s eye chilies.

ARGH.

Well, I guess they go in here.

First, the ginger.

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And then the whole chilies.

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I poured in the chicken stock.

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And set that to simmer for about an hour.

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The Javan Rice

This was a new one on me. I didn’t mean to find a recipe that used a gadget over traditional methods, but that’s what I found.

Hence, I got to pull out a new toy that I got for Christmas. (Mamacita swears it makes life so much easier.)

Enter, the Rice Cooker.

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Ok, then.

But first

The pandan leaves. After scouring the interwebs, I found that most people just buy these frozen. So, attempting to make my fresh-plucked ones look like the ones in the Filipino YouTube videos, I cleaned, scrubbed and dried the leaves and chopped of the ugly ends.   

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Still, these suckers have sharp spines along the edges, so manipulating them was going to be interesting.

After some work, I managed to fold them over nicely and made two knots of the leaves. 

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And I bruised and knotted the two stalks of lemongrass that The Husband was so kind to go find for me at the last minute when I realized I had used up my first stash of them.

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I poured the rice into the cooker.

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Followed by the coconut milk.

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Water.

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The lemongrass.

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Pandan leaves.

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Bay leaves.

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And ground ginger. (I know the recipe called for fresh, but, drat the luck, I realized I was out of that just a moment before prep time. Alas.)

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I served up two small slices of galangal.

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Ground some coriander into powder and added that.

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And, well, I set that to cook.

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About 40 minutes later, everything was ready. I made mounds of rice. (No banana-leaf-created cone. Sorry.) And I ladled out the pork.

In the end, it all looked like this.

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The Tasting

The Pork: It was good. Tasty, even. It tasted just like something I’d get at any good Southeast Asian restaurant. I ate it all and liked it plenty.

But, after that fish soup, it paled in comparison. On any other week, I’d call it a home run. This week, a base hit.

The Rice:Kind of the same deal with the rice. I got the fragrance aspect of it, with the hint of lemongrass an that je ne sais quoi which I ascribe to the pandan leaves.

But, since I stupidly forgot to add in the salt during cooking, it lacked that key seasoning. And the coconut flavor, while there, wasn’t as  present as in the other rice dish.

Good show, though. 

Overall, a great victory. Enough to get you Bali high.

Hi, Bali!

Next Week: We’ll be a few days late owing to logistical issues, but, yes, it’s off to Central Asia for … Iran!

Cooking Around The World: India

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Oooohhhhmmmm.

I was at once looking forward to and totally dreading this week. So some deep meditation would be in order.

Oooohhhhmmmm.

But one thing I knew for sure, it would be fun, flavorful, and quite probably way out of my league.

Yes, we’ve arrived at Week 76 of my alphabetical, Earth-spanning, cook-learning experiment and … India!

The Country

Really, what can I say about India that would be in any way new? One of the world’s most ancient lands, India was home to a variety of ancient civilizations over millennia. A birthplace to a rich and varied culture which brought the world art, spices, science and music, the south central Asian land was eventually colonized by the British in the 19th Century.

And after a long and brutal British rule, the majority Hindu nation and its its predominantly Muslim neighbor, Pakistan, split and became independent nations in 1947. It’s fought a number of wars with Pakistan since then, including one which helped bring about independence for neighboring Bangladesh (Week 14).

India, the world’s most populous democratic nation, has gone on to become one of the world’s fastest growing economies as it continues to struggle with issues of widespread poverty, terrorism and overpopulation.

The Food

I knew this was going to be complicated. I just didn’t know quite how complicated.

I mean, I knew that the nation is huge. And from all the way back during  Andorra (Week 4) I realized that even the smallest nations have regional differences in what they eat.

So, it was no surprise to me that there would be geographical culinary differences here. From dining experiences at various Indian restaurants, I already knew there was a notable difference between the food of the northern and southern regions. But I wasn’t really aware that there are way more divisions aside from that. And that’s just in terms of where in the country you are.

Hell, the Indian cuisine entry on Wikipedia alone lists — get this — 35 (!) different regional cuisines.

Hold on while I catch my breath.

And that doesn’t even get into what I learned are the manifold culinary differences owing to dietary restrictions based on religion, sect within that religion, and caste.

For instance, did you know that strict Jains (followers of Jainism, an ancient relative of Buddhism and Hinduism) not only do not consume animals and animal products, they do not eat any plant life that lives under the ground, lest they disturb creatures living in the soil? (They also try not to go out at night, for fear they may accidentally step on something living.)

What I’m getting at is that my head was spinning at the thought of covering such a vast place in one or — in this case —  two dinners.

Within the first few hours of research, I threw up my hands and gave up. I’d just do our favorite Indian restaurant dish and call it a day.

Personal aside: If you may recall, your gentle blogger is Puerto Rican. And Puerto Ricans are notorious for having food that, while tasty, is about as spicy as boiled white rice. So, when in the mid ’80s a date took me to my first Indian restaurant, I was so startled by the spices that I hallucinated that my friend’s ear was sliding down his face.

Decades later, I’m thankfully not only attuned to the food now, it’s a weekly favorite for The Husband and me. I just had no idea I was still missing out on so much of its variety.

Now, where was I? Oh, yes, the dinner(s).

After deciding I’d just do one dish, a friend suggested her personal favorites. Now, at least, I had a challenge. One of them I gathered required equipment I didn’t have, so I steeled myself for the fight and decided that on night one I’d make her suggestion of …

  • Masala Dosa with Coconut Chutney (South Indian Savory Crepes with Filling) using this recipe.

And for night two, I’d go with my favorite from the Goa region, the Portuguese-influenced …

I just really hope all of the above are as close to authentic as I can get, since the Indian web sites tended to have much, much larger recipes with even more totally unfamiliar ingredients, some of which turned out to be familiar items with unfamiliar names.

I further learned (after I started cooking) that the Vindaloo isn’t the most representative of Indian dishes, but is rather one that is most popular with Indian restaurants in the UK, the US and elsewhere. Sigh.

The Hunt

Here, I was really grateful that I got India this week. Owing to the large American population of Indians and people of Indian origin, I knew I wouldn’t have to go too far to find a strictly Indian market. And I scored big time.

Accompanied by The Husband and another friend, we made something of an Amazing Race challenge out of locating the dozen rare items on my shopping list, not having any idea what kind of items these things were.

"Er, what’s ‘asafetida powder' anyway? Should I look over by the large spice jars or down the lentil aisle?”

That didn’t last long. The helpful clerk thankfully stepped in, grabbed a basket and bopped around the store grabbing things for me off shelves, racks and refrigerator cases. Score!

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The Cook (Night One): The Masala Dosa With Chutney and Fillings

If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s recipes that require work the night before. This week, I ended up with two of those.

I’ll deal.

Since I got back home late the night before Dinner One with all my Indian ingredients, this whole process had me cooking well into the wee hours of the morning. Oh, the things I do for the love of ghee.

I started out by cooking two cups of rice.

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And I set aside another cup of uncooked rice.

Meanwhile, I scooped out some of my newly acquired Urad Dal and added a few fenugreek seeds [originally acquired for Eritrea (Week 54)].

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I added water to that and watched it foam up.

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Once the rice was cooked, I set that aside.

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And added the uncooked rice to it.

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I poured water over the mixture and let the rice (and the seeds, separately) soak for three or four hours.

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Here’s where the wee hours of the night come in.

Around 1 a.m., I drained the water from the rice and put the rice in the blender.

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And after a loud session of middle-of-the-night rice-grinding, I had a creamy rice paste.

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I cleaned out the blender, drained the seeds and added those to the blender.

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And after more so-loud-I’m-amazed-I-didn’t-wake-the-whole-neighborhood blending, I had a paste of the seeds as well.

I poured the seeds paste into the rice paste.

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And I mixed that all up.

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And I let that sit, covered on the counter overnight in order to get it to ferment.

The next day, after prepping more than a dozen ingredients for the attendant parts of this, I was ready to cook.

Naturally, I fell on my face during step one. Badly.

See, this is supposed to be something like a crepe. I grabbed the closest thing I have to a crepe pan and ladled a blob of the rice-and-seeds batter onto the oiled pan.

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Things went downhill from there. I’d have taken pictures, but I was too busy crying. There was no way this batter was holding together. At all.

Crepe one went right down the drain.

Crepe two went a tad better. But it ended up being an ugly mess.

Crepe three almost worked. Until I tried to flip it. Another disaster.

Finally, crepe four produced something that was crispy and flat and round. Well, crispy, round and flat enough to photograph.

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I set that aside with the other abominations and moved on to the potato curry.

I heated up some oil in a pot and added mustard seeds.

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And, seeing as I forgot to buy what is called “gram dal,” I Googled to discover that, perhaps regular lentils are the same thing. I hoped so, anyway, since it was too late to run out now.

Into the pot went the lentils.

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I added the chopped onion.

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After sautéing that for a while, I added in the chopped potatoes which I had cooked earlier.

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After mixing that, I added in the (blurry) chopped cilantro.

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And lemon juice.

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And here’s where I got totally turned around.

See, going through all 28 (!) steps, I got a couple of them mixed up. 

So, rather than add it earlier as instructed,  I threw in the chopped ginger here.

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And the chopped curry leaves.

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And (mistakenly) the (totally wrong) uncooked chickpeas (which I gathered were a suitable substitute for the black gram dal). Oops.

You can guess why that was a mistake. Hint: Try biting into a raw chickpea.

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I then added the chili powder.

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And turmeric.

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I mixed that all up and I figured that part was done.

Next, I moved on to making the curry.

I heated oil in another pan and added to it the asafetida

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And the dried red chilies.

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And here I screwed up yet again, reading the recipe wrong.

Rather than add it in in the blender, I foolishly threw the grated coconut in here … if just for a moment until I realized my mistake.

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Well, I stirred up up and added salt first.

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Once I realized my mistake, I transferred that to the food processor and added in a spoonful of tamarind paste.

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I ground that up and declared it chutney.

Choosing to not display the worst of this to the world, I plated the one not-entirely-unpresentable crepe and spooned chutney over that, adding a layer of the potato filling and folding the whole thing up like an ugly burrito.

In the end, it looked like this.

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The Tasting

Well, if it looked icky, the taste certainly did not match the appearance. It was supremely tasty!

The fermented, slightly salty taste of the crepe(-like substance) bounced off the sour tamarind and coconut flavor of the chutney and the savory goodness of the potato filling. 

So, on the taste front, a total success (even if we had to pick out the uncooked chickpeas to save our dentifrice).

I could see myself making this again … only not with the crepe part. Not until I figure out why I am such an utter failure when dough (or batter) is involved.

The Cook (Night Two)

The Chicken Vindaloo

As with the other dish, this one was going to involve the hated process of work the night before. Thankfully, this was simple and didn’t take hours and hours.

First, to prepare the spices.

I gathered black peppercorns.

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Mustard seeds.

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Cumin.

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Fenugreek seeds.

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Coriander seeds.

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A new cinnamon stick. (We discovered last week that the jar we had just finished was originally purchased in … 1991. Seriously. This was fresh when “P-O-T-A-T-O-E” was a new punchline. Then.)

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And some whole cloves.

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I put that all in a pan and roasted it for a couple minutes.

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Afterwards, I dropped that all into my shiny new spice grinder. (Yay, Bed Bath & Beyond coupons!)

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Moments later, I felt the joy of knowing I had ground spices and didn’t have to break my right arm using the mortar and pestle for barely ground stuff again.

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Here, I realized that my shopping trip was missing yet another item, the palm vinegar which was out of stock at the Indian market. After a trip to Googlandia, I saw that I could approximate that with apple cider vinegar and a bit of cane sugar. So, I prepared that quickly.

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I dropped my spice mix into the food processor.

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And added in a quarter cup (!) of my recently acquired hot Hungarian paprika. [Oh, Hungary (Week 74) you served me well!]

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To that, I added in the vinegar concoction.

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Turmeric.

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Brown sugar.

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Chopped garlic.

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Chopped ginger.

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And I gave it all a WHRRRRR.

Moments later, I had my bright red paste.

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To which I added my boneless, skinless chicken thighs.

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I mixed that up with my hands until everything was well-coated.

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I covered that and threw it in the fridge until cooking day.

Come the moment of truth, I gathered together my components for the cook, including ten mouth-watering-yet-kinda-frightening Indian green chili peppers.

Can you believe my face is actually breaking out in a sweat just looking at those? 

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After seeding the peppers and (idiotically) thinking that might make the dish too mild for my now-mega-spicy tastes, I got moving on the stove.

I heated up some oil and added in the diced onions.

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Which were supposed to be able to withstand the medium heat for 25 minutes until caramelized.

Who knew I would turn my back for a moment and then turn around to see a charred mess?

Well, I didn’t.

Thankfully, I have a wonderful husband who ran out to the store to buy more onions.

After he got back, I massacred the new onions and got to caramelizing those as quickly as I could.

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Once they were brown-but-not-burnt, I added in the chopped garlic.

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Chopped ginger.

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Chopped chili peppers.

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And, after a few minutes, the wonderfully marinated chicken.

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I poured water over that.

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I set it to boil, reduced the heat, covered it, and let it simmer for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.

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The Indian Rice

Quickly, I poured two and a half cups of Basmati rice into a bowl and covered it with water to soak for 20 minutes. 

While the rice soaked, I took out another pot and heated some more oil in it. Into that, I added two cinnamon sticks.

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A couple newly-aquired green cardamom pods.

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A couple whole cloves.

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The rest of all the cumin in the house.

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And, after a couple minutes, a chopped onion. (Actually, I kind of cheated and used a scallion instead of a yellow onion since this is while The Husband was out making the emergency onion run and I wanted to eat sometime before 9 p.m.) 

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Once the onion was browned, I quickly drained the rice and added that into the pan.

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I let that get all toasty for a minute or two and then added in two and a half cups of water.

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And salt.

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I covered that and let it simmer for 15 minutes to absorb the water.

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Since dinner was running so late, that sat on low for longer than I hoped.

Eventually, I fluffed it with a fork, pulled out the two cinnamon sticks and was ready to serve.

I plated the rice and ladled out two hunks of chicken alongside.

In the end, it looked like this.

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The Tasting

The Indian Style Basmati Rice: Good stuff! Astonishingly, I felt this was far better and full of flavor than any rice I’ve had at any Indian restaurant. The subtle taste of the cloves, cinnamon and cardamom with the earthy cumin gave it a complex taste. The toasty texture further brought it out of “just another rice on the side” land. I will definitely stash this one for future reference.

The Chicken Vindaloo: The idea that I thought that seeding those chilies would render this too mild! Oh, to laugh!

The chicken was tender and totally imbued with the complex flavors of the marinade. The sauce was just as flavorful and as damn hot as I’ve had in any restaurant. (Again, I’m sweating just remembering this.)

In fact, to my shock, The Husband, a hardcore lover of Indian cuisine as it is found here, suggested that this one even surpassed the offering at our favorite place in town. Which totally blew my mind.

Thank you, India.

Next Week: We head off to the east to prepare the food of … Indonesia!

Cooking Around The World: Iceland

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Well, hello there! Or as they’d say in Iceland, “Halló!”

I’m guessing some folks are joining us for the first time here after this ran in today’s Palm Beach Post. So, velkomnir!

Yes, we have arrived at Week 75 of my alphabetical, globetrotting-by-stove learn-to-cook experiment and … Iceland!

The Country

Located in the North Atlantic about 900 some-odd miles west of Norway, Iceland is a mostly barren island of metamorphic rock that is home to amazing vistas, tiny horses, and both the world’s oldest parliamentary government and the world’s oldest known geyser.

Settled by travelers from Norway and Scotland more than 1,000 years ago, the land was ruled by Norway and Denmark before becoming an independent republic in 1944.

More recently, Iceland was famously rocked at the leading edge of the global economic collapse in 2008, elected the world’s first openly lesbian (or gay) head of state, and brought the world the musical maiden known as Björk.

The Food

We-e-e-e-ell …

Here’s the thing. You either a.) know nothing about Icelandic cuisine or b.) know about this one thing.

If you fall into the latter category, I’m guessing you’re kind of scared right now.

If it’s the former, allow me to inform you. Also, brace yourself.

See, as I mentioned earlier, Iceland is a rock in the far north. Not much grows there (as I personally witnessed during a visit there several years back). And after months and months of cold and darkness, the people of the land were reduced to eating, basically, what’s left.

It’s offal.

Called Þorramatur (pronounced THURR-ah-matrthis winter tradition consists of platters of foodstuffs that would more commonly be seen on Fear Factor than on American dinner tables. Seal flippers, horse, rams testicles, boiled sheep heads and … hákarl (pronounced how-KARR-t), fermented, putrified, Greenland shark.

Yes, you read that right. The shark is left to rot in the ground for three months before being set to wind dry for another three months before it gets that lip-smacking ammonia smell that tells the diner “You really shouldn’t eat this.”

It’s meant to be chased with a strong liquor called “Black Death.”

It’s no wonder Anthony Zimmern of the Bizarre Foods show has said that, of all the strange things he’s eaten, hákarl takes the putrified cake.

So, yeah, that wasn’t going to be on the menu.

Instead, check out this video of a guy trying some. Or this one.

Hungry yet?

The Menu

Since I didn’t really see myself splitting open a sheep’s head, nothing from the Icelandic Menu of Outré Substances was in the offing. (I did for a time consider some variety of recipes involving fish, um, parts? But I didn’t really think I’d be able to find and prepare cod stomachs and hearts.)

Drat.

Hence, I had to limit myself to more mundane, yet traditional Icelandic dishes. So, I deduced I’d make …

  • Tart Rhubarb Soup using this recipe,
  • Bakað Blómkál Beð Osti (Cauliflower Cheese Bake) using this recipe,
  • Brúnaðar Kartöflur (Caramelized Potatoes) using a traditional recipe found various places, but most easily accessed here.

And I’d serve that with …

  • Fiskibollur (Icelandic Fish Balls) using a traditional recipe which, again, is most easily read here

I should point out here that when I mentioned I’d be cooking Icelandic Fish Balls, The Husband was sure it was another kind of “fish parts” dish. He was mortified.

The Hunt

Having nixed the bizarre foods challenge, there wasn’t anything rare to hunt down this week. Fresh cod was found easily at the local market. And while fresh rhubarb was nowhere to be found, the frozen stuff was easily located … once I realized it was with frozen fruit pie fillings and not with the frozen vegetables.

The Cook

If you know a thing about me throughout this process, it’s that I started from having zero knowledge about how to cook. And that means that my anxiety level goes through the roof when confronted with recipes that suggest one should already have an idea how long things take and other vagueries. 

This week, I had three recipes like that.

Oh, just imagine a middle-aged Puerto Rican screaming at an iPad in Spanglish. There, you’ve got it.

The Rhubarb Soup

Since this could just sit in the fridge for the afternoon, I started here.

I poured out my thawed rhubarb.

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Added the water.

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Sugar.

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And lemon juice.

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I set it to simmer for 15 minutes.

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And once it was ready …

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I set it in the blender to puree.

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Boom! Into the fridge it goes. Nothing in this world could be easier.

The Caramelized Potatoes

Actually, at this point everything was happening at once, but for clarity’s sake, I’m separating things here.

About a couple of hours before dinner, I set to peeling the two pounds of small potatoes, delicately denuding the tubers, nicking my knuckles repeatedly and cursing in two languages. Something tells me these small ones aren’t normally cooked without skins.

I set them to boil for about 20 minutes.

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Drained them.

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And, seeing as one of the many recipes I found for this suggested that for the next step the potatoes are best chilled, I set them in the fridge while I did other stuff.

Eventually, I was ready to move on.

I poured the sugar into the pot.

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And after a while, as promised, the sugar melted into a brown, sticky, bubbly mess that I was certain was going to permanently destroy my cookware.

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As instructed, I took it off the heat and drop by drop added a teaspoon of water.

And, into that tar pit, I tossed the cooked potatoes and stirred and stirred until they were coated.

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The only challenge then was to keep the sugar from hardening while everything else cooked.

The Cauliflower Bake

OK, I know, I know. Cauliflower is about as common a thing as exists. And, of course I’ve eaten plenty of cauliflower in my life.

I’ve just never cooked it before. Sue me.

So, this was a new friend.

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I cleaned it and cut off the green parts and set it to boil for 15-20 minutes. 

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Meanwhile, I wondered how my hands were going to handle grating this much gouda cheese by hand.

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Thank goodness for the food processor.

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I poured out some breadcrumbs.

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Added in some grated parmesan cheese.

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And once the cauliflower was cooked (or so I thought), I put it in an oven-proof dish and preheated the oven to, er, 392º F. (That’s what 200º C converted to, anyway.)

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I coated the head of cauliflower with the breadcrumbs and parmesan.

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And I (sort of) sprinkled the grated gouda over that. (Well, I more “pressed it into” the thing.)

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I tossed that into the oven “until the cheese is melted and beginning to brown.” 

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Or something like that.

Finally …

The Fish Balls

Oh, sweet sassy molassy, I really screwed up when I decided to make the entire recipe I found on that site. Two pounds of fresh Icelandic cod is not only way, way too much for two people, it’s damn expensive.

Well, here we go anyway.

I started by mixing the fresh cod.

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Half a chopped onion.

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Nutmeg.

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Pepper.

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and salt.

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And, in batches, I passed them through the food processor until I had this fishy mess.

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Onto that, I added two eggs.

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And milk.

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After mixing that up with my hands, I added in the flour.

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And corn starch.

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And mixed that up with my hands, too.

Which made my (gloved) hands really, really messy.

Which meant the end of pictures for now.

See, once I had that mixed up and had my oil heated in the pan, I made balls out of the mixture.

One recipe I saw said, “form golf-sized balls.”

No one told me sports knowledge was part of the curriculum here.

Translation: I made the balls too big. Just like freakin’ Finland (Week 59).

In any case, once batch one was done, I  set it to dry on parchment paper and let the cooked balls warm in the oven drawer.

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Once the rest of them were ready, I was ready to serve.

I poured out the soup, which looked like this.

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And I cut off pieces of the cauliflower and plated that alongside the potatoes and a couple of the fish balls.

That looked like this.

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The Tasting

Sigh. I wish I could have better news here.

The Soup: Well, it wasn’t bad. But it was a.) much more of a dessert than a soup and b.) as The Husband and I remarked simultaneously, it’s pie filling in a bowl.

I really had trouble getting past the baby food texture. But I was able to finish mine. The Husband, not so much.

What I think I did wrong: Well, maybe not serving it with biscuits or something? Beats me. This one I’m going to suggest is the recipe’s fault.

The Cauliflower:Eh, it was fine. Ish. I don’t really get how the cheese coating is supposed to work, though, since it only gets on the outside of the head and has no effect on the rest of the vegetable.

What I think I did wrong: For one thing, the damn thing needed salt. I should have had the sense to salt the water. I clearly neglected this in my rush. Also, I didn’t boil it long enough, since it wasn’t cooked enough. Drat.

The Potatoes: Another dud. As simple as it gets and I get it wrong. They were edible, but that’s it.

What I think I did wrong: Again, in my rush, I totally neglected to salt the water when boiling the potatoes, since it wasn’t mentioned in the recipe. Stupid me.

The Fish Balls: Also, not great, sad to say. They were crispy on the outside and they did stay together. But the taste was way too fishy and onion-y.

And that’s probably owing to my making the balls too big, meaning they didn’t totally cook on the inside. This combination activated The Husband’s gag reflex, even.

I imagine that with some kind of sauce, the leftovers may work better. I hope.

But, hey, it’s no fermented shark.

Next Week: It’s off to the land of curries for one of our favorite dining destinations on earth … India!

Cooking Around The World: Hungary

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Oh, the joys of simplicity! After weeks and weeks of 101-ingredient meals, I can’t tell you what a relief this week was.

Yes, we’ve reached Week 74 of my alphabetical, globe-spanning, learn-to-cook experiment and … Hungary!

The Country

Located in Eastern Europe neighboring seven other nations, including prior challenge subjects Austria (Week 10) and Croatia (Week 43), Hungary has been trod over by more ancient and modern empires than you can count, from the Romans to the Ottomans in olden times to the Germans and the Soviets in the 20th century.

The people of Hungary, the Magyars, arrived in the area around the year 895 from way off in the Ural Mountains in what is now Northern Russia. (This explains why their language is closer to Finnish than it is to that of their neighbors.)

As for the food, it reflects the history of the oft-conquered land, featuring notable influences from the Turks, Austrians and surrounding European  nations. Hungary’s many national dishes highlight potatoes, cabbage, cherries and the ever-present Hungarian staple spice, paprika.

And — at least when I think of Hungarian food — there is one particular dish that comes to mind: goulash (or gulyás), paprika-spiced beef stew which is one of the national dishes.

But after some research (and finding that every recipe called for making enough food to serve an army), I decided to go another way. So I’d be preparing a different national favorite instead. (Actually, I would have probably made a goulash as well at some other point in the week, but, alas, I was away for most of it.

Therefore, I decided I’d prepare …

Instead of serving that on a bed of egg noodles, I decided I’d serve it on a bed of …

  • Galuska (Hungarian Dumplings) (aka Spaetzleusing this recipe.

And I’d start things off with …

Note: I know I keep pointing to the same great blogger’s global recipes, but since the Flash-based cookbook I often use (which contains some of the same recipes) is not readable on mobile devices, I use/post hers since they  are easier to access and follow.

The Hunt

Well, Europe rarely requires much of a hunt for specific ingredients. But this week there was one: paprika. Or, more specifically, Hungarian paprika.

See, not all paprikas are the same. And I wanted the real deal.

So, braving what is “high season” in Palm Beach County, Florida, I marched into the packed-to-the-gills local food boutique and squeezed my way around pairs of well-heeled, elderly Northeast-accented couples buying gourmet luncheon meats to find my authentic Hungarian spice. 

Only when I did find it, I found not one, but two choices. The recipe had called for “half-sharp” paprika and (I see now that) paprikash traditionally features a sweet paprika, but all I found were a basic Hungarian paprika and a Hungarian paprika labeled “HOT PAPRIKA.”

Guess which one I chose?

Whattayawant? I like spicy food. So, whatever I did, I hope it isn’t some grand offense. I did try to find actual Hungarian paprika, didn’t I?

The Cook

The Cherry Soup

Since this one was going to be served cold, I figured I may as well get it out of the way first.

I took out a pot and tossed in my two cans of tart cherries.  

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I added in the sugar.

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Dry red wine.

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And a cinnamon stick.

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And I let that simmer gently for about ten minutes.

Once that time was up, I drained off the liquid.

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And, removing the cinnamon stick, I put the cherries into the blender.

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Onto that, I poured most of the reserved liquid.

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And I puréed it until smooth.

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I covered it with plastic and set it in the fridge to cool until dinner.

Boom! That was easy!

The Paprikash

I had looked at about a dozen recipes for paprikash and discovered that, while popular and well-reviewed, most of them were deemed non-traditional, often to the point of being another dish entirely.

Therefore, seeing that the aforementioned global blogger was part Hungarian and had her mother overseeing her dish, I thought I was on safe ground here. And one feature of the blog post was that her mother kept telling her to not skimp on the paprika.

Therefore … 

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Get ready. (In fact, the pepper was so strong that when he came home, The Husband went on a 15-minute sneezing jag, which for some reason brought to mind the Pepper Pig from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.)

I started out by heating up some oil in a skillet. And I tossed on the chicken thighs. (I picked skin-on thighs, thinking it the best choice here, since last week’s parts choices [Honduras [Week 73)] were a bit too large and bony.)

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Again heeding the blogger’s Hungarian mom’s admonition, I browned the chicken pieces as brown as I could muster before fearing they’d actually burn. 

And, once off the fire, I set them aside.

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I poured out all but two tablespoons of grease and then tossed on my chopped onion.

Can I say how perplexed I got this week with so few ingredients? I mean, my chef’s knife was all kinds of confused, only having to chop one lonely onion the whole day. Poor thing.

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Onto the onions I tossed the two heaping tablespoons of my hot Hungarian paprika.

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And I stirred that all until it was nice and brown. Once it was, I added in my chicken broth.

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And I added in the reserved browned chicken and seasoned with salt.

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I covered it and lowered the heat to let things simmer for 45 minutes.

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Once that time was up, I removed the chicken from the pan and I set the parts on a plate.

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And into the remaining sauce in the pan, I added a huge mess of sour cream.

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And I whisked it thoroughly until I had a pinkish (OK, maybe it photographs as more “yellowish”) sauce.

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The Galuska/Spaetzle

Like I said, I decided that serving the paprikash on egg noodles would be too easy. And since my spaetzle went over so very well when I cooked Austria (Week 10), I thought I could do this one quickly and easily.

Well, the “quickly” part may have worked.

I started by pouring out my three cups of flour and adding salt. 

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After making a well in the flour, I gently beat two eggs into a cup of water.

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And, once frothy, I poured the egg mixture into the flour.

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I gamely attempted to whisk the flour without somehow “overworking” it, as the recipe said that made for rubbery dumplings.

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I let that set for ten minutes on the premise that after that time little bubbles would somehow magically appear on the dough.

No bubbles appeared. Hmph.

In any case, I started a pot of salted water boiling.

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Here’s where I had to improvise. Repeatedly.

First, I had no “spaetzle plane.” So I employed a tactic I used back during Austria week, attempting to drip the dough into the water through the slots of a colander. 

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Well, that didn’t work. Looking back at the Austrian recipe, I see that that one had milk as an ingredient (which I’m guessing made the dough runnier).  Lacking that, this time the dough just got clogged in the colander’s slots and holes.

And fearing that the colander would start melting, the dough would start cooking in the steam — and, oh yes, my hands would be scalded into red nubs — I grabbed two oven mitts and kept trying to press the dough through the holes.

And when that didn’t get me any further, I took the whole thing and slapped it onto of a metal grater and tried to cut off pieces of the dough to let it drip into the boiling.water.

Irony. I see now that the said “spaetzle plane” is basically (read: exactly) what I concocted, only with a metal ring to hold the dough while you push it though.

In any case, after scaring the cat with my shouts in the kitchen, I had the dough blobs bubbling in the water.

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But now I had another problem. Many of the blobs were way too big.

More improvisation. I grabbed a potato masher and started smashing the larger blobs into smaller blobs in the pot.

Success!

I drained the spaetlze and tossed it in a bowl.

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And I dressed it with some melted lard. (Yes, lard. Don’t judge. It’s a “sometimes food.”)

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Finally, it was dinner time.

I poured out the servings of chilled cherry soup and dressed each bowl with a dollop of sour cream. It looked like this.

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I plated the spaetlze and placed the chicken on top. And onto that, I poured the paprika-and-sour-cream sauce. It ended up looking like this.

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The Tasting

What a winner! Hooray!

The Soup: Tart, sweet and with just a trace of cinnamon, the soup was simple and delicious. Every recipe I saw for this said to go ahead and double the recipe since people would probably gobble it all up. They didn’t lie.

The Paprikash and Spaetlze: This was all kinds of great. The chicken was really well-cooked and the skin was just crispy enough. (I could have gotten even crispier with it if I had the nerve. But I’ll get there next time. And there will be a next time.)

The sauce was positively heavenly. The heaps of paprika made the dish wonderfully spicy, giving me the heat I crave. (I’m sure it would be just as good with less spicy paprika for less heat-craving folks.) Plus, the sour cream did its job of cutting the heat from the spice.

Oh, that was good!

It only leaves me to wonder one thing: Why was Lisa Douglas (Eva Gabor) on Green Acres such a lousy cook? I mean, if can do it …

Next Week: We head northward to one of my favorite countries (and a place I’ve actually visited) and … Iceland! 

Cooking Around The World: Honduras

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There’s an inherent problem with learning things on your own. And that’s the inevitable situation where you end up making big mistakes based on not knowing some basic facts.

It’s happened before. And it’s happened again.

But, fear not, not all is lost. Read on.

Welcome to Week 74 of my around-the-globe, seat-of-your-pants, culinary educational experiment-in alphabetical-ordinance and … Honduras!

The Country

Located smack in the middle of Central America, Honduras is bordered by Guatemala (Week 68) on the north, El Salvador (Week 53) on the southwest and Nicaragua on the south. The region was once part of the vast Mayan kingdom before the conquest by the Spanish.

In 1821, the nation claimed independence and struggled along with its neighbors to be part of a confederation of Central American states before everyone decided to go at it on their own. [The Honduran flag still reflects that onetime union, with the five stars representing the five states that would have been part of it: Costa Rica (Week 41), Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.]

Since independence, the nation has grown through fits and starts, with the occasional coup, constitutional crisis and hurricane having serious impact on the country’s people. And while it has been spared the bloody civil wars of some of its neighbors, development has been slow. One of the poorest nations in Central America, it further bears the terrible distinction of the murder capital of the world.

Honduras’ northeastern edge is the start of the fabled Mosquito Coast, which runs south through Nicaragua. Also along the nation’s Caribbean coast is (one) home of the Garifuna people, decedents of native Carib people and Africans escaping slavery whose unique food and culture is celebrated annually. 

The Food

The cuisine of Honduras is, as you’d imagine, very similar to that of its neighbors, relying heavily on rice, beans and fried meats. Along the coast, fish and coconut dishes are also found.

Insofar as my menu though, this presented a challenge. I didn’t want to make yet another rice and beans offering. And the tamales from Guatemala were very complicated and … well, I feel like I just made those.

After some investigating, I found a few dishes that are from the traditions of the Garifuna, such as tapado (literally, meaning “covered”). However, this seemed to be massive recipe for seafood stew involving — no lie — four fish, four crabs, four lobster tails per person (!) AND one large king crab, two pounds of conch, two pounds of squid, two pounds of shrimp  and who knows what else.

That was simply not happening. Ever. (Side note. Of course, if you’re Honduran, you know what you’re doing, and are having some kind of beachside fest with this, I’ll happily have some of yours.)

Nope,after much consternation, I decided I’d make what struck me as a smaller variant of that with chicken and two other dishes from the most complete global cooking blogger out there.

I’d make …

The Hunt

Well, here I got lucky by way of personal geography. And it’s not likely that I’ll get this lucky in this same way for some time (at least not until we hit the “M” countries). As I mentioned back during Guatemala, Central Americans from this part of the world are the one immigrant group living closest to me.

And, as such, I knew that certain ingredients used in these cuisines, rare elsewhere, are abundant in even the mainstream grocery store nearby. (Still, I chose to patronize the local Latin market and produce stand, on principle.)

So, finding jicama and chayote was no problem at all. And achiote paste I already had from Guatemala week.

The Cook

The Salad

First, meet my new friend, jicama.

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While I’ve never consciously had jicama before (to my knowledge), I’ve heard of it plenty, mostly from hearing it referred to on Top Chef.

After researching how to prepare this, I learned that I had to clean and then peel the sucker with a peeler before cutting it up. And, boy, that wasn’t easy, since the skin seemed to be more like the entire outer layer. And the warnings about how traces of the skin can make you a stomach ache didn’t help.

Eventually, I had my cut jicama “matchsticks.”

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Next, another new friend, chayote.

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This one was totally new to me and, after wrestling with the jicama, I was surprised that the peel on this one came off gently, more like an apple’s. Whew.

Matchsticks.

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I gathered my oranges and peeled and segmented those.

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And after prepping everything else, I got to assembling the salad.

Into the bowl went the jicama sticks.

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The chayote sticks.

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The sliced red onion.

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Orange segments.

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Lime juice.

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Extra-virgin olive oil.

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Salt.

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Pepper.

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And chopped cilantro.

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And at that point I had a salad that was way too much to toss. Somehow, though, I managed.

Into the fridge it went. One dish down.

The Chicken Stew

I started out by taking my chicken parts and salting them.

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I gave them a sprinkle of pepper.

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And some ground cumin.

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And I rubbed it all over. I let that sit for 30 minutes while I got to prepping the rest.

Later, I got to firing the dish.

I heated up the oil in a pot and added sugar to caramelize.

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Once that was nice and brown, I added in the chicken.

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And I stirred it around so that it all got coated in the sugar/oil glaze.

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After a few minutes, I added in the minced garlic.

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The chopped chili pepper. (Again, I went with a habanero, since we like things hot around here.)

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The chopped onion.

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And the achiote paste.

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I stirred that up and I added in the half cup of chicken stock.

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I lowered the heat to simmer and I let that sit for about 15 minutes.

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Once that time was up, I added in the chopped green and red peppers.

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And poured coconut milk over it all.

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I covered it (a mistake, I think) and I let that simmer some more.

I say that was a mistake since I was afraid it would over reduce and, again, it went the other way, being too watery. I must learn. Argh. 

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The Plantain Turnovers (?)

Seriously, in the year-plus that I’ve been doing this, I’ve made my share of disasters. But I don’t think there’s been a time before when I totally melted down and decided to completely abort the whole thing.

Weep for me.

You’ll see.

As per the instructions, I grabbed my four ripe plantains and set them to boil in hot water for 10-15 minutes.

And, my friends, there was my KEY mistake. See, when I think “ripe” plantains, I think of ones that are more black than not. That makes them sweeter. However, this makes them softer … which factors into what happened next.

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Once time was up, I drained the water and let them cool off.

I peeled them and placed them in the food processor.

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To that, I added the softened butter.

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And some salt and pepper, along with a quarter cup of flour.

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And I started pulsing. And pulsing, And mixing. And mixing. And whirring.

And pulsing more. And checking the recipe. And wondering why it wasn’t thickening.

And adding more flour. And pulsing some more. And more. And more.

And freaking. And whining. And crying. And adding more flour. 

And adding more flour. And screaming.

About four times through that process, I noticed that the “dough” was never going to get dry and “ropey” and would stay a sticky, plantain-y mess which bore ZERO resemblance to what was in the recipe.

There was absolutely no way this could come together. And it was already time for dinner.

More screaming.

Finally, rather than just pour the whole mess down the drain, I decided to just try to fry globs of the stuff with sprinkles of the quesadilla queso on top.

Whatever. At least I had something on the plate.

I’m so ashamed.

After I peeled myself off the ceiling, I put the salad in bowls, plated the pieces of chicken and pretended to pour “sauce” on top of that. And I placed onto the plate the plantain and cheese UN-turnovers.

In the end, the salad looked like this.

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And the chicken and plantain dishes looked like this.

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The Tasting

The Salad: A total win. Yay, me! It was fresh, crispy, crunchy, salty and full of amazing citrus flavor. I can’t say enough good things about this. I’m SO glad I have a bunch leftover. I just hope it holds up for another day.

The Plantain … Thing: It didn’t taste bad. It was basically fried sweet plantain with some cheese taste, It was fine, but felt like sorrow nonetheless.

The Chicken: It was pleasant, though I couldn’t stop tasting what I did wrong vis a vis the reduction. The chicken itself was tasty, but a tad dry. I liked that the flavors of the cumin and achiote came though, But the whole thing was under-seasoned. That’s kind of why The Husband said it tasted better along with the plantains, rather than by itself.

Alas, that will have to be as good as that gets. For now.

Headline: The Mosquito Coast Stings.

Next Week: After a long wait, it’s back to Europe and … Hungary!  

Cooking Around The World: Haiti

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Bonju! We’re back!

That’s what I was saying while eating this meal after last week’s train wreck wherein I did no great service to the food of Guyana (Week 71). And it’s so good to feel like I could accomplish something in the kitchen again.

Bon!

Yes, we’ve arrived at Week 72 of my voyage culinare dans le mond in order alphabétique and … Haiti!

The Country

There’s no easy way around this: Haiti is a troubled nation.

Taking up the western third of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean [(The Dominican Republic (Week 50) takes up the other two thirds],Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and has been plagued by political unrest, corruption, disease, hurricanes and a devastating earthquake in 2010. 

The land was once populated by the Taino people. But after the Taino were decimated by diseases brought over by the Spanish, the region was eventually taken over by the French who imported slaves from Africa to work plantations there. And after a brutal rule, the local population, inspired by the French Revolution, rose up and fought off the French to become only the second independent nation in the hemisphere in 1804.

Since then, things have been pretty tragic, I’m afraid, with dictatorships, coups, and assorted sorrows. There are/have been attempts at reviving what was once (in the 1950s) a thriving tourism industry and some manufacturing, but these have been complicated by issues of crime, corruption and, again, natural disasters.

Yet there is a rich Creole culture in Haiti, which is a blend of African, Native Taino, French and Spanish traditions. In addition to the lifelong work of native Haitian artists like Wyclef Jean of the Fugees and others, the Canadian alt-rock act Arcade Fire has sought to bring global attention to the nation’s music and culture (though not without controversy).

The Food

As with the rest of the Haitian culture, the cuisine is a melange of French, Spanish, African and Taino using ingredients found on the island and off its shores, relying heavily on plantains, beans, rice and fish.

After some review, I decided I’d forgo the plantains this week, since I’ve kind of done every variation on them already. The primary Haitian preparation method of plantains is smashed and fried.

Here, these are called bananes pésees. In the Spanish Caribbean, they are tostones. (As a Puerto Rican, I basically lived on these growing up and they are far from novel to me.)

And the only thing that makes the Haitian version different than anywhere else’s is that in Haiti they’re soaked in salt brine before frying. So, no.

Other popular dishes I vetoed were a fried meat offering (which I didn’t feel like trying after last week’s adventure) and a historically significant-though-heavy pumpkin soup.

Therefore, I finally opted to make just two dishes this week. I’d cook …

  • Lambi a la Creole (Conch in Creole Sauce) using this recipe, and

  • Diri ak Djon Djon (Rice with Black Mushrooms) using this recipe.

The Hunt

This week, there would be two tricky items, conch and these dried black "djon djon" mushrooms for the rice.

One would be easy; one would be hard. Guess which was which.

If you guessed conch was the easy one, you win.

Living in South Florida, finding conch wasn’t really the tricky part. It’s finding fresh, not-previously frozen conch that was the catch. Luckily, I live in what almost could be called a fishing village, so the local fishmonger hooked me up. But, boy was it expensive!

As for the mushrooms, here I had trouble. If I was still living in Miami (at least 90 minutes south), or if I had been visiting there over the weekend, I’d have been set. Since Miami has probably the largest Haitian immigrant population in the U.S., I’m sure I could have found them in one of dozens of places.

But, as it is, I live at least an hour away from any sizable Haitian population, and over a dozen local markets and grocers either looked at me funny or offered me at least six different mushrooms instead.

"That’s very nice, but that’s not what I’m looking for. Thanks anyway."

I said that a lot.

See, these are truly unique to Haiti and are actually inedible. You soak them in water and use that for your meal. You toss the mushrooms out.

Finally, I gave up and called the Global Market Of 1,00,000 Unfindable Ingredients. They insisted they had them.

"And where would they be located?” I asked.

"Aisle Five."

After making the long trip there, I ambled to Aisle Five and stood in dread. This is the massive Asian Dried Goods aisle. There may have been dried mushrooms there. But they were most certainly not the droids I was looking for.

I stood in line for ages to speak with the one person who may know if indeed they were somewhere in this massive space. Thankfully, she suggested she knew where they were.

And in case they weren’t there, she did have a MASSIVE box of djon djon bouillon cubes I could buy, too. Yeah, that’s a no on that.

At last, the clerk returned with the magic packet of ‘shrooms.

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Yay! (But what’s the deal with the different spelling?)

The Cook

The Conch

If there is one thing to know about conch is that it is T-O-U-G-H. Prepared improperly, it can be like eating rubber erasers. And having grown up in South Florida, I found myself eating said rubber erasers more times than I can count.

I last cooked conch back when I was doing The Bahamas (Week 12and I learned the trick of pounding the conch to soften it. (That’s pronounced “CONK.”)

This recipe called for the conch to be cut into pieces and soaked in water and vinegar for two and a half hours.

So, conch soakers we shall be.

After pounding and cutting and slicing the mollusk, I put them in a bowl and added the vinegar.

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And water.

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I set in the fridge to soak for the allotted time.

After prepping my ingredients — which always takes me an insane amount of time —I was ready to fire my meal.

I heated up some oil in a pot and added my sliced onions.

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Sliced shallots.

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And minced garlic.

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After sautéing those for a few minutes, I added in the (drained) conch.

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Chopped tomatoes.

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Thyme.

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Tomato paste.

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And chopped parsley.

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I set it to medium heat and for the next 45 minutes I kept stirring that until I thought my arm would fall off. (Oh, the things you do for conch!)

After all that, I seasoned with salt and pepper and it was ready.

The Mushroom Rice

I had had the good sense to soak the pigeon peas overnight. But, since I was starting with dried legumes, I didn’t want to risk them being tough. So, I also boiled them in salted water for an hour or so to tenderize them.

As I may have mentioned the last time I cooked with pigeon peas, these are a staple on Hispaniola and in Puerto Rico and have a distinct, smoky flavor that sets them apart from the various beans more commonly served with rice in many other Latin American nations. If you haven’t tried them, do so now.

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As the time to fire the rice drew near, I started soaking the mushrooms in water.

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You’ll notice how the water instantly turned inky black.

After ten minutes of that, I set them in a pot to boil for another ten minutes.

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And I strained out the mushrooms, reserving the liquid (and throwing out the inedible mushrooms).

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Oooh, black mushroom water!

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Then, I got to cookin’ up my dish.

I heated up oil in a pot and added the diced onion.

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Minced garlic.

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And sliced shallots. (Funny how these two recipes had the exact same ingredients as a base, no?)

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After a few minutes, I moved on. Only I got two steps from the recipe mixed up. I was supposed to add the rice in here and stir for three minutes. Alas.

Instead, here, I added the mushroom water.

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The cloves. (Again, it called for whole cloves, but I used dried.)

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The pigeon peas.

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And the rice (which should have been added earlier). 

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I set that to boil on high until most of the water had evaporated.

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Then, on top of that I tossed the sprigs of thyme and the whole pepper. (The recipe called for a Scotch bonnet pepper, which is typical in Caribbean cooking. The damn stores only had similar-looking-but-less-hot habaneros. Sigh,)

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I lowered the heat, covered it and let that cook for 20 minutes more.

Finally, everything was done.

I plated the conch and scooped the rice into ramekins and I was ready to serve.

In the end, it all looked like this.

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The Tasting

Me zanmi! I’m back!

The Conch: It wasn’t rubbery, and that in and of itself was a victory. While it was a little chewy, the meat was really delicious. And the creole flavors of tomato, thyme and shallots produced a dish that was packed with flavor.

The Rice: OK, go right now and find yourself a Haitian market or order the mushrooms online. They’re cheap. Because this came out as probably the best rice dish I’ve made so far. [The rice from Costa Rica (Week 41) is the runner-up.]

The mushrooms paired with the cloves gave the dish a deep, earthy, smokey flavor which was really unlike any rice dish I’ve had before.

I’m just glad I have leftovers!

Bon appeti!

(That’s Creole. For “Bon appetit.”)

Next Week: We hop back onto the North American continent for … Honduras!

Cooking Around The World: Guyana

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Let’s just get this out of the way now.

I’m sorry. So very, very sorry.

All tragic errors are entirely my fault and not indicative of the food of the fine people of this fine nation. I wish I knew more about what I was doing and didn’t succumb to what must be a curse that (most of) South America has placed on my brain when it comes to cooking its food.

Oh, you’ll see.

Yes, we have arrived at Week 71 of my you-think-I’d-have-picked-up-more-basics-by-now, around-the-world-in-alphabetical-fashion cooking experiment and … Guyana!

The Country

Located on the northern coast of South America, to the east of Venezuela and to the west of Suriname, Guyana was colonized first by the Dutch and later by the British, who ruled it for centuries.

Here’s where things get interesting, though.

If I were to ask you what makes Guyana so similar to Fiji (Week 58), I’d imagine the first guess would be “palm trees.”

While technically that’s right, there’s an odd historical similarity as well.

In Guyana, the British first brought African slaves to work in plantations. But after slavery was abolished, indentured servants from East India  were imported to the area, just as they were in Fiji. 

In Fiji the conflict (which has shaped politics and made for amazing fusion food) has been between East Indian and Melanesian citizens. In Guyana, it is the divide between East Indian and African descendants (and an Amerindian minority) that defines much of the political scene and the nation’s food. 

Also, because the Brits ruled here, Guyana is the only officially English-speaking nation in South America and, as such, adheres much more closely to the nations of the Caribbean than to its Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking neighbors.

As for the rest, well, you probably know the deep tragedy with which Guyana is most associated, that being the 1978 Jonestown indecent, which, until 9/11, was the largest single loss of civilian American lives.

But on the bright side, they play world class cricket and gave the world pop  stars Eddie Grant and, by way of her Guyanese father, Leona Lewis.

The Food

As I mentioned, when I was reviewing dishes for this week, I looked forward to the interesting blend of East Indian curries and spices with Caribbean ingredients.

But …

There’s one dish I knew to be the most Guyanese of them all, the national dish known as Guyanese Pepperpot. In fact, I’ve known about this for some time, since I came across island variations for it when prepping for Antigua and Barbuda (Week 6), Barbados (Week 15)  and Grenada (Week 67). 

And each time I examined the recipes’ calls for pounds and pounds of various parts of pigs and cows, I shuddered at the idea of making it for two people.

Plus, the key to making it was one vital ingredient that there was no way I was going to find: cassareep, a special molasses-like sauce made from cassava root.

So, approaching this week, I carefully planned my menu knowing I wouldn’t be making that. 

But then …

The Hunt

While we were down in Miami over the weekend, I thought to just see if by chance there was a Guyanese market in town. I mean, Miami’s the official melting pot of people from the Caribbean and South America, right?

 And, whattayaknow, there was one, smack in the heart of Little River, a Miami neighborhood that’s heavily Haitian and, ironically, where I used to work back during the era of the Crimean War. (I’m old, see?)

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What luck! They had the cassareep! And the Guyanese lady there was nice enough to give me tips. (Sadly, none of those tips prevented me from honking up my part, but that’s to come.)

She confirmed what I had read already, that cassareep contains a natural preservative that allows the dish to remain safely unrefrigerated for days and that the dish gains flavor days after its first cook as long as it’s boiled before each serving.

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Got it.

So, this required totally redoing my menu, since nothing I had chosen before involved cassareep. Therefore, after examining a dozen recipes and seeing people tear each other apart over the authenticity of the originally-Amerindian dish and how “real” Guyanese people prepare it, I decided I’d make …

And I’d serve that with the East Indian-but-now-totally-Guyanan-too …

The Cook

You know, normally when I make a massive mistake it’s somewhere halfway through the cook. This time, I think I made it at the grocery store. Sigh.

Well, here goes. Don’t shoot me.

The Pepperpot

I heated up olive oil in a pot and to it, I added …

A pound of ox tail …

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A pound of stew beef …

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And … (and here I’m almost certain I totally, totally should have researched this more) … a pound of pigs’ feet.

(Honestly, a few recipes I had seen called for “trotters” and such. And I was almost certain that this is what they meant. One suggested these dissolved in some fashion and made the stew “gooey.” … Looking at this now just makes me sad.)

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In any case, I browned them for about ten minutes.

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And I added in the cinnamon sticks.

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Orange peel.

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Cloves. (I used ground, because that’s what I had.)

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A de-seeded and chopped Scotch bonnet pepper for heat.

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Brown sugar. (It said to use “light brown sugar.” I only had dark brown sugar. Again, my fault.)

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Salt.

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And a cup and a quarter (nearly the entire bottle of) cassareep.

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I poured water over the whole thing.

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I mixed it and set it to boil and then simmer for two hours.

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The Roti

What is it with me and flour? I know I’m not making total disasters with it anymore [see Argentina (Week 7), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Week 23)Cuba (Week 44) for the Parade of Ugh], but I can’t seem to understand what it takes to make light, fluffy bread products.

In any case, here’s what I did.

Working off the recipe and having reviewed the 20 minute-long linked video (and a couple others), I gamely attempted to make the Indian bread.

I poured out the flour.

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I added in the baking powder.

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And the softened butter.

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And I mixed everything together by hand as I saw in the video. (Clearly, my technique was lacking.)

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I made a well in the middle and I poured in the cup of water. (Here’s where Google Glass would come in handy.)

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I kneaded it until it was soft.

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I marveled at the the next suggestion, as it seemed to be the answer to my regular problem of my dough getting crusty. As instructed, I covered the dough in a wet paper towel and let it rest for 30 minutes.

I probably should have waited another 30 minutes, but again, time was working against me.

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After 30 minutes, I broke the dough into three parts.

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I floured my surface and made a disc.

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I rolled it into a thin circle.

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And, using the cone method described in the recipe and video, I cut a line along the radius of the circle.

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I folded over triangles of the dough as instructed.

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Until I had a cone. I pressed in the wide end of the cone.

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And I folded the bottom end of the cone into the top.

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After completing this for all three, I set those to rest for another 30 minutes.

Here I kicked myself for having missed a step. I realized that I should have brushed oil over the dough during the last step. Drat! Well, hopefully this could come out OK if I did it next.

I melted my butter and added it to the olive oil.

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I retrieved my dough rolls from the bowl.

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And I flattened each one out.

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I brushed the oil and butter mixture over the top.

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And rolled them down flat.

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I placed each one in the hot pan and waited for the bubbles to appear.

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Once they did, I flipped them over to cook the other side.

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I flipped them into a colander to cool.

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And, rather than flip them by hand (and burn my hands nicely), I employed the technique I saw in one of the videos on this. I plopped the bread into a plastic container.

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And shook it up good in order to make it fluffy.

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Well, it got more fluffy. Or, rather, less dense.

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Sigh.

Finally, I plated the pepperpot into bowls and it looked like this. 

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And the roti looked like this.

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The Tasting

Sad trombone.

"I’m so sorry."

I just kept repeating that.

The Pepperpot: Well, the good news is that the ingredients in the stew did have a decent flavor. You could taste the cinnamon and the pepper and the curious taste of the cassareep.

The bad news was that the meat was pretty awful and nearly impossible to eat. The stew beef pieces were OK, though I’ve made much better. But the ox tail was mostly bone and the meat most definitely did not fall off the bone.

And the pig’s feet. Oh, I want to cry. I’m sure anyone with experience with these would know already, but I had no clue. They seemed to be all bone, fat and skin and I’ll be damned if I can figure out where there was meat there.

I’m so sorry. This is one of the problems I face when I encounter recipes that don’t have a ton of detail: Invariably, I do something horribly wrong that anyone with more knowhow wouldn’t.

Seriously, South America (for the most part) has been my downfall, particularly when it comes to the ubiquitous thirty-kinds-of-meat-in-a-pot dishes. [See Bolivia (Week 21) and Brazil (Week 24).]

The Roti: It was fine, as these things go, but clearly it wasn’t at all as it should have been. Once more I made a dense bread product and I’m wrecked about it.

My baking powder isn’t that old. I bought it when I last wondered about this and that was less than a year ago. Perhaps I didn’t let it rest long enough?

Or perhaps I am just cursed.

Again, my apologies to the fine people of Guyana. I really should have stuck to the curries, chicken and rice.

If I promise to head back to the market and eat their well-reviewed Guyanese food, are we square?

Next Week: We head just north into the Caribbean for … Haiti!