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: Madagascar

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What IS that?

Is that a square, two-toned flag that somehow got pushed over to the right?

Nope, it’s the white, red and green banner of the nation that is the subject of Week 103 of my four year, around-the-world, alphabetical, learn-to-cook experiment, Madagascar!

The Country

First off, we’re talking about a country here, not an animated movie. (I hear the movie is cute, but as it’s not really my groove, I haven’t seen more that a couple clips from it. You know, in case you were wondering.)

Comprising the Earth’s fourth-biggest island — sometimes referred to as the “eighth continent" for its biodiversity — Madagascar is located in the Indian Ocean, off the southeastern coast of Africa, east of Mozambique. It is roughly twice the size of the state of Arizona, somewhat smaller than the state of Texas. Its closest sovereign neighbors are the island nations of Mauritius to its east and Comoros (Week 38) to its northwest.

The island was one of the last places on Earth to be inhabited by humans, having first been populated by travelers coming all the way from the south of Borneo [in what is now Indonesia (Week 77)]somewhere between the years 350 BCE and 550 CE. Centuries later, Bantu-speaking people migrated from the southeast of Africa, leading to present-day mix of the Malagasy people.

Owing to its ancient geographical formation, the island is (or was) home to some of the most diverse flora and fauna on Earth, with 90 percent of its plant and animal life being found here uniquely. However, since the arrival of humans, a great number of these life forms have gone extinct and many more are threatened, including the creatures most associated with the island, the lemurs.

Politically, the land was home to a number of smaller kingdoms before being united as one in the early 1800s. The French conquered and colonized the nation in 1897. It was granted independence in 1960.

Since then, the nation has gone through four constitutions, one coup and one assassination. While this poor country had been making some inroads in developing its economy through the 2000s, the latest political conflict in 2009 set the place back once more, something that has had tremendous impact on its people and its rapidly disappearing rainforest. A new government was put in place at the beginning of 2014, which one would hope should help stabilize things.

Still, there is a notable niche market in eco-tourism in Madagascar as people make the journey to see its (remaining) natural wonders.

BONUS TRIVIA:

  • The name “Madagascar” did not originate there. It came from a mistake made by Venetian explorer Marco Polo who confused what he thought was the name of Mogadishu (the capital of Somalia) and this island. Since the islanders didn’t have one name for the place themselves, this one stuck.
  • In the 1930s, the Nazis fancied Madagascar as the place they would send all the Jews.
  • Most of the world’s vanilla, cloves and ylang-ylang (an herb used in aromatherapy) come from Madagascar.
  • When the Bantus came to the island, they brought with them the zebu (a relative of the cow). The island’s beef and dairy come mostly from this animal.

The Food

Let me tell you, this place has a cuisine. A HUGE one. With influences from Southeast Asia, Africa, China, France and India, it has a  huge variety of dishes. Rice in many different forms and styles is central to virtually every Malagasy dish.

Food varies from the highlands to the coasts, with zebu meat being a primary protein in the center of the island and seafood being more prominent along the coast.

After some consideration — and  after consulting my favorite global traveler* who spent a great deal of time in Madagascar on his way to a Guinness record for visiting every country on Earth without flying — I decided I’d cook four dishes over two nights.

For Night One, I’d make …

  • Akoho sy Sakamalao (Garlic and Ginger Chicken) using this recipe (among others).

And for Night Two, I’d prepare …

  • Coco Crevettes (Prawns in Coconut Sauce) using this recipe,

  • Mofo Sakay (Spicy Fritters) using this recipe, and

  • Koba Ravina (Kobandravina) for dessert — MY FIRST DESSERT — using this recipe. (Don’t get too excited. I don’t imagine that will become customary for me.)

* Not that it matters, but the preferred dish of my favorite globetrotter was a lobster offering that sounded great, but was quite similar to what I made for nearby Comoros (Week 38). It’s really great, though. Check it out.

The Cook

Night One: The Chicken

I retrieved my chicken legs (with thighs).

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I scored them and gave them a good rubdown with salt and pepper.

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Onto that, I rubbed the grated ginger and lemon zest.

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I crushed a couple garlic cloves and rubbed those in, too.

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I gave the chicken a dose of lemon juice for good measure.

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And I let that marinate in the fridge for a few hours.

Meanwhile, I prepped the rest, greeting a new friend, coconut oil.

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Come time to cook, I heated up the oil in a pan.

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And I dropped in the now-marinated chicken parts.

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I let them fry for about seven minutes a side to get the skin nice and crispy.

Once they were crispy enough that I feared they would be burning, I pulled them out and set them on a plate.

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Then, into the oil, I dropped the sliced onion. 

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And sliced red pepper.

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Once those were softened, I returned the chicken to the pan.

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I covered it, lowered the heat and set it to simmer for 45 minutes. 

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Meanwhile, I prepped some rice (a medium grain risotto rice, since that’s what I had handy).

When everything was ready, I plated the rice, placed a piece of the chicken on top and dressed it with the onions and peppers. In the end, it looked like this.

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The Tasting

Absolutely phenomenal. The chicken was falling off the bone and the hint of coconut along with the ginger and garlic sauce over the rice made for a fantastic meal. If I had one quibble it’s that I may have slightly over-salted the dish (for once), having added salt a second time when I didn’t have to.

Still, The Husband loved it and we were on our way to wanting to book passage to Madagascar.

The Cook: Night Two 

The Dessert

I figured I’d start with making the dessert thing (a banana, vanilla and peanut concoction in a steamed plantain leaf), since I could prep those first and steam them while everything else cooked.

Oh, and I only decided to make a dessert since I had most of the ingredients already and I could divide the recipe by five to make two servings. Plus, I needed to use vanilla in at least one of this week’s dishes!

The recipe called for glutinous rice flour. But I didn’t want to go find that. Plus I had a lot of glutinous rice left over from when I cooked it for Laos (Week 93).

So, after some research, I figured I could just grind that and achieve “glutinous rice flour.”

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After prepping my ingredients, I got started.

I mashed a banana with a fork.

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I mixed in the (makeshift) glutinous rice flour.

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And brown sugar.

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I added in a little vanilla extract (since I didn’t want to have to go buy a whole, expensive vanilla bean again). I know, I know.

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Having perfected the use of the plantain leaf over many African and Latin American dishes by now, I knew just how to prep those. I trimmed them and passed them over the stove’s burner until they were dark green and pliable.

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Once they were good to go …

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I spooned about three tablespoons of the mixture onto the center of the leaf.

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I dusted it with the ground peanuts.

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Spreading that evenly over the mixture.

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And I folded the leaf babies, tying them off with the ribs I had cut off the leaf earlier. (Tradition in Madagascar has these tied with a palm leaf, but I didn’t feel like going outside and cultivating the landscaping again.)

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Come time to cook, I lined the bamboo steamer with parchment paper and placed the bundles in it.

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I set a pot of water to boil and I placed the steamer on top of it.

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And after 20 minutes of steaming, it was ready …

The Fritters

This one would take some time, so I decided I’d actually cook these first and let them keep warm in the oven in case I finished them off before having to move on to the shrimp.

I took out a large bowl and poured the flour into that. I added in the salt.

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Curry powder.

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Baking powder.

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Black pepper.

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Chopped watercress.

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Chopped tomatoes.

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Chopped green chilies.

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Chopped green onion.

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And, finally, the water.

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I mixed that up into a smooth batter and I was ready to start frying up these puppies.

Considering the last few disasters with the deep fryer (and fritters in general), I opted for pan frying this one as suggested in the recipe.

I heated the oil up in the pan and dropped the heat to medium low. (I think I may have finally figured the wonky stove’s heat settings.)

Into that, I dropped spoonfuls of the mixture.

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I made the fritter shapes with the spatula and fried them until they were golden brown on both sides.

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I drained those on a plate with paper towels and I kept them warm in the oven until time to plate.

The Shrimp in Coconut Milk

I say “shrimp” here, since, once again, fresh water prawns are seemingly not to be found easily in this, my seaside fishing community in Florida.

Someday, I guess.

Also, the recipe called for prawns (or shrimp, in my case) that were cooked and shelled. While I now understand that cooking shrimp in the shell and peeling them afterwards provides a better taste, I still can’t get past the idea of having to personally de-vein them. Hence, I had the fishmonger take care of that ahead of time. Sue me.

So, I set about cooking the shrimp first, boiling them in salted water for about three minutes.

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I drained those and set them aside until it was time to cook the entire dish.

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When it was time to get crackin’, I melted the butter in the pot. 

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And added in the chopped onion.

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And I cooked that for about six minutes.

Next, I added the crushed garlic.

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And the grated ginger.

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And cooked that for another couple of minutes.

I stirred in the cooked shrimp.

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And doused that with lemon juice.

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I poured in the coconut milk.

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And spooned in the tomato purée.

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And, finally, I added in the brown sugar.

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I brought the mixture to a boil and then let it simmer for five minutes.

Meanwhile, I had been cooking some long grain rice in the conventional fashion.

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Amazingly, I finished everything exactly on time.

I placed mounds of rice on the plates, set a couple fritters next to that and spooned on the shrimp and coconut milk mixture. In the end, that looked like this.

I quickly realized that I had neglected to dress the shrimp with chopped parsley, but I did that after I took the pictures.

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I retrieved the desserts from the steamer and unwrapped the plantain leaves and plated those separately. That looked like this.

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The Tasting

The Coconut Shrimp and Rice: Positively stupendous. The shrimp were cooked perfectly with the coconut, ginger and garlic making for a classic combination. The sauce worked well with the rice and even made for a great pairing with the fritters.

The Fritters: Finally! A fried dish that really worked for me! It’s been too long! Not since I made those great conch fritters for The Bahamas (Week 12) have I felt I made a good fritter. Normally when I tell The Husband that I’ve made way more than we could eat, he imagines seeing the extras go down the disposal in short order.

But these fritters, delightfully spicy, with the tang of green onion, tomatoes and watercress were just right and — for once — not all dense and chewy.

Guess who even went back for more, probably for the first time?

And guess who gets great leftovers for lunch the next day?

The Dessert: Well, it wasn’t bad. The dish was had an almost caramelized element which we both called “candied peanut-covered banana.” Adding in the vanilla flavor and the essence of the plantain leaf (you don’t eat the leaf, by the way), it was a lovely way to end a great meal from a truly one-of-a-kind place.

Now everyone do the lemur dance!

Next Week: We move back to the mainland of Africa for … Malawi!

Cooking Around The World: Macedonia

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So, what’s the name of where are we now?

Well, I’d say that depends on whom you ask.

Yes, we have arrived at Week 102 of my around-the-world-in-alphabetical-order-to-learn-to-cook challenge and … Macedonia!

The Country

This Balkan, landlocked nation was once a part of the nation of Yugoslavia  and is roughly the size of the state of Vermont. It is bordered by Kosovo*, Greece (Week 66), Serbia, Bulgaria (Week 26), and Albania (Week 2).

* In case you were wondering, Kosovo, a sovereign state, is not included in my challenge owing to it not being a U.N. Member State. The reasons for that are complex. But for my purposes, I may cover it and other sovereign states after I’m done with this primary challenge … in about two years.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming …

If I’ve learned anything about this part of the world in the past 23 some-odd years, it’s that someone’s going to be pissed off about the use of the name “Macedonia.”

It’s like this:

The nation is formally known as the Republic of Macedonia. In order to (attempt to) satisfy neighboring Greece (Week 66), which is home  to the majority of the historical region of Macedonia, the nation was admitted to the United Nations under the moniker “the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.”

The fact that this came at about the same time that a certain musical performer was being referred to as “The Artist formerly known as Prince” just gives it that certain ’90s retro je ne sais quoi.

Seriously, this ongoing conflict has ancient roots and has had lots of real-world effects, from the symbolic (see any Olympics opening ceremony since 1994) to the the nation being blocked from entry to NATO in 2008.

This also explains why every time I’ve gone to a Greek Festival (or a Greek Orthodox church any other time), I’ve seen at least one “MACEDONIA IS GREEK” bumper sticker in the parking lot.

There is no short way to explain the long and impossibly twisted history of what is this modern nation, save to say that it was once home to a number ancient peoples, was conquered by every kingdom and empire within arm’s reach over the past few millennia, and, after World War II, it ended up as part of the communist state of Yugoslavia.

At the close of the Cold War in 1991, the nation of Macedonia declared independence. And, despite that pesky cross-border issue, the nation has managed to transform its economy greatly, although it still faces tremendous challenges. One bright spot is tourism, which has been growing thanks to the nation’s many remarkable natural and cultural sites.

The Food

At this stage, I’m familiar with the truism that whenever you have a country that’s been conquered by a variety of peoples over the years, you get a cuisine that has that same variety of influences. And Macedonia is no different.

The food of Macedonia is a mixture of Middle Eastern, Turkish, Bulgarian and Greek cuisines, with a touch of German and Hungarian for good measure.

This, though, left me with an long, odd list of dishes from which to choose. One primary dish, shopska salad, I already cooked for nearby Bosnia and Herzegovina (Week 22). And the thing that is considered the “national dish,” tavče gravče (translation: “beans in a skillet”) wasn’t going to work for me either, since it would require a separate main dish (and every recipe  I found seemed to serve 20).

So, after some consideration, I decided I’d prepare …

  • Polneti Piperki (Stuffed Capsicums) using this recipe. (That website is SUPER wonky and more often than not results in an error message on most browsers. If you try often enough, you may get to see it. Sorry about that. I didn’t realize that until cooking day.)

The Cook

First to greet the peppers.

Hi, peppers. I’m gonna eatcha.

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I removed the stems and membranes from the peppers and set them aside.

For the next hour — have I mentioned that I’m the world’s slowest prep cook? — I prepped the various ingredients for the dish.

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Finally, I was ready to go.

I sautéed the minced onions in a pan.

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And I added salt.

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After a couple of minutes, I turned up the heat a smidge and tossed in the finely chopped bacon (since I wasn’t going to be hunting down “speck,” aka blubber).

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Three minutes later, I was ready to drop in the quality ground beef.

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And I stirred that, chopping it into small pieces for about three minutes.

Next, I dropped in the minced garlic.

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The minced sun-dried tomatoes.

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And the (ground) long grain rice. (I realized quite quickly that a chef’s knife and uncooked rice don’t really get along — unless your goal is to scatter ant food to every corner of your kitchen. All I’ll say is, thank goodness I have a spice grinder now.)

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I stirred and cooked that for a couple of minutes more and then added in the mild paprika.

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And the blurry, blurry tomato paste.

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I cooked that for a three minutes more before taking it off the heat. Then I stirred in the chopped basil.

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White pepper.

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Black pepper and salt.

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And I stirred it all up well.

Finally, it was time to stuff the peppers.

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Using a teaspoon, I shoveled the mixture into each pepper and made a “topper” of sorts with a quarter of a tomato.

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Once I had all the peppers stuffed, I placed the potato quarters in between the peppers.

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And I moved on to making the sauce.

I heated up the olive oil in a pan.

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And I added the flour.

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After heating that for a few, I got a mite confused and added the entire amount of hot (not boiling) water. (The recipe actually called for that to be added in stages.)

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After whisking that thoroughly, I added in the mild paprika.

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The white pepper.

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And the Vegeta spice mixture [which has been waiting for another use since way back when I was cooking Croatia (Week 43)].

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As that bubbled, I added in the tomato paste.

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And, moments later, I had my sauce.

I poured that into and around the peppers.

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And I set the baking dish in the oven which had been pre-heated to 220F.

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I cooked it on high heat for ten minutes, then lowered it back down to 220F for another 20.

I extracted the baking dish from the oven and flipped the peppers and potatoes over.

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And I cooked that for another 20 minutes.

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When it was all done, I plated the peppers and potatoes, spooning the sauce over the entire dish. When its as ready, it looked like this.

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The Tasting

Oh, that was great! I believe the word The Husband used was “delightful.” And that it was.

The dish was well balanced and satisfying, with the spicy and herbaceous meat mixture playing off the pepper and tomato. And the starchy goodness of the potatoes, infused with the flavorful sauce made for a complete meal.

All in all, I declare Macedonia a winner.

I just wish I had made more.

Next Week: It’s back to Africa (after too long away) as we head towards the Indian Ocean and … Madagascar!

Cooking Around The World: Luxembourg

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It’s not just a duchy, it’s a GRAND duchy.

Yes, here we are at Week 101, starting off Year Three of my around-the-world, learn-to-cook experiment-in-obsessive-list-following and … Luxembourg!

The Country

Slightly smaller than the state of Rhode Island — which we all know is the global unit of measurement for breakaway glaciers and oil spills —  Luxembourg is a landlocked nation, tucked between Belgium (Week 17)France (Week 60), and Germany (Week 64).

A constitutional monarchy, Luxembourg is headed by a Grand Duke. And as such, is the world’s only Grand Duchy.

Independent since 1815 (from the French Empire), the small nation has had a long history of being caught between its neighbors through centuries of European conflict. It managed to maintain self-rule though World War I. But in World War II the Nazis annexed the country, leading to a government in exile and, eventually, a contingent of Luxembourger soldiers participating in the Normandy Invasion

These days, Luxembourg is one of the two richest countries on Earth (as measured by per capita GDP). And just last year, the nation became the first country to have both an openly gay prime minister and an openly gay deputy prime minister. The prime minister — who will be marrying his partner in January, 2015, as soon as the recently enacted marriage equality law goes into effect — is the third openly gay person to serve as a national head of state anywhere.

The Food

As you’d imagine, the food of Luxembourg is very similar to that of its neighbors, Belgium, France and Germany. Yet, it does have its own dishes and culinary traditions which have made it a dining destination for food tourists. Dishes range from peasant dishes to sophisticated restaurant offerings.

One such peasant dish which I found most curious was billed as “almost unable to be replicated in an urban environment,” since it involved fetching a large quantity of fresh, organic hay and steaming a ham atop it.

So, after some research, I decided that this week I’d be cooking over two different nights.

For Night One, I’d be preparing what is considered the national dish , making  …

And for Night Two, I’d make …

The Hunt

Well, there was one item on my shopping list that looked like it was going to be hard to find: chervil, an herb similar to parsley.

Thankfully, it was listed an an “optional” ingredient in the trout recipe, since no one at the one market I visited this week had the first clue about it.

Hey, I wasn’t going on a vast reconnaissance mission for “a pinch” of something “optional.”

The Cook

Night One: The Green Bean Soup

Since this recipe called for some German sausage, I purchased some fresh bratwurst. But this meant I’d have to cook them first, since I was having fever nightmares of accidentally serving up uncooked/undercooked sausage.

So, after some research, I decided I’d grill  them first. And since (for once) the skies didn’t decide to dump buckets of rain on my head as soon as I went to turn on the gas, I grabbed the links … 

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And I grilled them until I felt they were ready. Then, I set them aside.

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Meanwhile, I greeted a new friend: a huge sack of fresh green beans.

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At this point you may be asking what’s “new” about green beans?

Well, it’s like this. I kind of hate green beans. Probably the most pedestrian vegetable in American cuisine, green beans have been (or at least were) a school lunchroom cafeteria staple for as long as I can remember. And I grew to hate them because of this.

But, as with eggplant and yuca, I’ve decided that this project is partly an effort to get me to change my mind about such things.

And after Greece (Week 66) and Guinea-Bissau (Week 70) I officially changed my mind about those two ingredients. So, green beans, here’s your chance!

After spending a crazy amount of time snipping the ends off and chopping the green beans, I was ready to go.

I started out by browning the diced bacon in a pot. 

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Once that were nice and crispy, I took the bacon out of the pot and placed it on a plate, leaving behind the bacon fat.

Then, into the pot, I added the diced carrots.

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The diced shallot.

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And, after a while, the diced garlic.

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I let that get fragrant for a minute or so and I was ready to add the green beans.

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The water.

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And about half of the bacon.

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I brought that to a boil and then covered it, letting it simmer for about 30 minutes.

Once that time was up, I added in the diced potatoes.

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And salt and pepper.

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And I let that simmer for another 40 minutes.

When that time was up, I buried the cooked sausages in the soup to let them heat up again.

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I added the sour cream to thicken the whole thing.

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After a few gentle stirs and a few minutes, I was ready to serve.

I extracted the sausages and carved them up. I ladled the soup onto bowls and topped each one with sliced sausage and chopped chives.

In the end, it looked like this.

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The Tasting

After a few bites, I wasn’t impressed at all. That is, until I realized that I had really undersalted the dish. (I had tasted it, but considering the bacon and sausage, I was afraid it would be too salty and was skimpy with the seasoning.)

After I seasoned it properly, though, the flavors jumped out and it went from ho-hum to oh wow. The rustic flavors of potatoes and green beans with the bacon and sausage made for a really hearty soup that, indeed, was a meal all by itself.

It’s a good thing I didn’t have to serve it the same day as …

The Cook: Night Two

The Baked Applesauce

I figured I’d make this dish early, so I could have it cold and ready come dinnertime.

I plucked my apples from the shopping bag and washed them.

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I halved and cored them and placed them, face down, in a greased baking pan.

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I covered that with foil.

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And baked it at 350F for 40 minutes.

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Once those were cooled off enough that I could touch them, I pulled off the skins.

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And I added in brown sugar.

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Cinnamon.

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Salt.

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And water.

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And I mashed it up with a fork until it was ready. (A quick taste suggested that this would be a spectacular addition to the night’s dinner.)

I put that in a bowl and set it to cool in the fridge until dinner.

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The Potato Fritters

I started out like last week with Lithuania (Week 100): I peeled potatoes and set them in water. (I also utilized a tip I found online to dissolve a Vitamin C pill in the water to keep the potatoes from browning.)

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I cut and grated those with the food processor.

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And, following the instructions, I plopped those on paper towels and pressed and pressed and squeezed the water out of them.

As it turns out, I may have not gotten enough water out of them, considering how they turned out.

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Onto the potatoes, I added the chopped onion.

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Diced shallots.

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Chopped parsley.

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And the four beaten eggs.

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And I mixed that all up.

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And that’s when I realized that this dish was NOT going to be a raging success.

See, the whole thing was REALLY liquid and there was no way this was going to be able to turn into balls I could form with my hands, sprinkle with flour and drop into the deep fryer.

So … I added flour. And I added more flour. And more flour. And more flour. And some corn starch. And more flour.

At this point, I was quite far from the original recipe and I was afraid I was making some kind of dumpling instead. Oh dear.

Well, considering dinner time was nearing, I punted, plopped some of the mixture onto a mound of flour and placed the blobs into the fryer. A few minutes later, I extracted them — or more accurately, the top halves of them — from the fryer. I repeated that with the next few batches until I called it a day and tossed the rest of the batter.

So much for leftovers.

The Trout

I melted the butter in a pan.

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I cleaned and dried the trout fillets.

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Sprinkled them with salt, pepper and flour.

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And I fried them for a couple of minutes on each side.

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When they were ready, I took them out and set them aside.

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Then, into the pan, I added the diced shallot.

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Chopped parsley.

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Diced tarragon.

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And chopped chives.

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I poured in the Riesling.

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And after a few minutes, I put the fish into a baking pan and poured the mixture over it.

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I covered that with the crème fraîche.

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I sprinkled some salt and pepper and paprika over it.

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And I set that to bake for 25 minutes.

When time was up, I plated the fish and spooned sauce over it. Next to that, I ladled some applesauce and plated two of the potato fritters.

In the end, it looked like this.

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The Tasting

The Trout: That was positively spectacular. Without question, this fish was one of the two or three most impressive dishes I’ve made so far. Creamy and perfectly seasoned (with just a smidge of a kick from the paprika), this was a dish I would expect to get at a fine dining restaurant. And that’s not something I’d ever have expected to have said about something I prepared.

The Potato Fritters: Shrug. They were OK, if a bit dense, owing to the ladles of extra flour. I got a sense that they could have been great, had they come out as originally intended. But they didn’t.

The Applesauce: Yeah, I know. It seems about as basic as a thing gets. But WOWZERS that was something else. Just about as good as the best applesauce I’ve ever had anywhere.

And now I have something I can bring to my next potluck dinner!

Well, that’s it for the “L” nations! Now it’s on to the “M”s, where we’ll be spending the rest of the year (and most of the next)!

Next Week: It’s time for another jaunt south (and east) for … Macedonia!

Cooking Around The World: Lithuania

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It can’t have been two years already!

But it has.

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

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

The Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Food

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

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

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

Therefore, I decided I’d make …

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

The Hunt

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

The Cook

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

The Cold Beet Soup

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

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

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Meanwhile, I hard-boiled a couple of eggs.

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

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

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And I got to assembling the soup.

Into a bowl, I dropped the grated beets.

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And the sliced cucumber.

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And I poured in a quart of buttermilk.

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I tossed in the chopped scallions.

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The water.

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The sour cream.

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

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And I mixed that all up.

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

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

The Potato “Zeppelins”

This is FIVE POUNDS of potatoes. 

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

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

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

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

So ….

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

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

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

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

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

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Once i had the fresh-squeezed grated potatoes …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into a skillet, I dropped the ground pork.

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And added the diced onion.

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Salt, pepper and marjoram.

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

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

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

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

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

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And I prepped five more of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And I got going on making the gravy.

I diced the bacon and threw it in a pan.

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And I added in another chopped onion.

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While that was cooking, I prepped the sour cream.

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Added pepper to the pan.

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

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At long last, it was time to serve.

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

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

Oh crap.

I. Am. So. Stupid.

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

COMPLETELY.

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

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

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

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The Tasting

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

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

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

Marvy.

Now the good news.

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

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

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

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

Cooking Around The World: Liechtenstein

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

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

The Country

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

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

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

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

Other curious facts about the place:

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

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

The Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, then.

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

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

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

Enter Google Translate.

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

The Hunt

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

The Cook

The Goulash

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

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

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And water.

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I mixed that up and brought it to a boil.

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

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I salted the dish.

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And added in the rest of the water.

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The lemon zest.

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And the lemon juice.

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

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

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I mixed together the flour and sour cream.

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And I added it to the remaining liquid.

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

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

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

The Spaetzle 

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

I started out by pouring the flour into a bowl.

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To which I added salt.

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And I mixed that up.

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

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To the eggs, I added water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I mixed that up thoroughly and added the caramelized onions.

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

In the end, it looked like this.

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The Tasting

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

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

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

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

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

Still learning, people.

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

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

Cooking Around The World: Libya

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

And since then … well, chaos. Basically.

The Food

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

 The Menu

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all so very “meta.”

The Hunt

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

 The Cook

The 7 Spice Mix

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

The black pepper.

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Paprika.

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Cumin seeds.

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Coriander seeds.

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Ground cloves.

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Ground nutmeg.

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Ground cinnamon.

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And ground cardamom.

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

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

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

The Bzaar Spice Mix

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

I spooned in the turmeric.

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The caraway seeds.

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More coriander seeds.

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And a dose of the previously prepared seven spice mix.

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

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

The Chicken in Tomato Stew

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

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

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

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And dropped in the bzaar spice mix.

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The salt.

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And the cayenne pepper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I added more boiling water.

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And the pasta.

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

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

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The Tasting

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

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

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

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

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

Also, keep your head low.

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

Cooking Around The World: Liberia

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

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

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

 The Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Food

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

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

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

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

So, I decided I’d make …

The Hunt

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

The Cook

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

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I did the same with the chicken breast.

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

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

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And, in batches, I browned the beef chunks.

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And the chicken cubes.

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

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

Then, I added in the chopped onion.

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And the chopped yellow and green peppers.

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I sautéed those for about five minutes.

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

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And I mixed in the tomato paste.

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

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The chicken bouillon powder (instead of cubes).

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The black pepper

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

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The ground ginger.

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The curry powder.

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And the thyme.

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Next, I added in the rice.

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And six cups of water.

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

Finally, I added in the shredded head of cabbage. 

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

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

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The Tasting

We have another winner!

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking Around The World: Lesotho

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It’s a hat.

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

It’s a hat.

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

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

The Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s one to dotho?

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

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

The Food

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

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

The Menu

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

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

So, I decided I’d make …

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

The Hunt

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

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

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

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

The Cook 

The Pounded Beef

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

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

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

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

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

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I heated up the oil in the pot.

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And added in the chopped onions.

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

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And the beef broth.

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And I let that simmer until the broth was reduced.

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The Greens and Potatoes

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

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

Into another pot I dropped the cubed potatoes and water.

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The chopped spring onions.

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

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

When time was up, I mixed in the butter.

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And the peanut butter.

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

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

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

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

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The Tasting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking Around The World: Lebanon

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

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

The Country

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

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

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

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

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

The Food

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

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

But what to make?

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

Hence, I decided I’d prepare the following.

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

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

The Hunt

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

The Cook

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

So, I started with that.

The Baba Ghanoush

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

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

Er, how’s that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And then I placed the chunks in the food processor.

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To that, I added the tahini sauce.

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Lemon juice.

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And crushed garlic.

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And I set that to mix for about three minutes.

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

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The Pita Bread

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

So, here goes.

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

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

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

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I added in the packet of yeast.

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The salt.

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The sugar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Cabbage Rolls

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

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

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

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

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I salted the mixture and mashed it all together.

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

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And I added salt to that.

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

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

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

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

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I lined a pot with the rolls.

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

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

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To that, I added some lemon juice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the end it looked like this.

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

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The Tasting

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

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

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

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

I figured wrong. 

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

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

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

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

Cooking Around The World: Latvia

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Sometimes you just need a break.

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

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

The Country

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

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

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

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

The Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not doing desserts.

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

Zzzzzzz.

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

Hey, I needed the rest.

The Hunt

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

This is so not Southeast Asia. 

The Cook

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

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

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

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

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And minced onion.

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

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

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And I added the halved, pitted dried prunes.

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The chopped celery.

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Chopped carrots.

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Shredded cabbage.

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And the chunks of boiled potatoes.

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

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And added in the red wine vinegar.

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And sugar.

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I whisked that all together.

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And I poured the mixture over the potatoes.

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

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

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

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The Tasting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Priekā!

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