Cooking Around The World: Honduras
There’s an inherent problem with learning things on your own. And that’s the inevitable situation where you end up making big mistakes based on not knowing some basic facts.
It’s happened before. And it’s happened again.
But, fear not, not all is lost. Read on.
Welcome to Week 74 of my around-the-globe, seat-of-your-pants, culinary educational experiment-in alphabetical-ordinance and … Honduras!
Located smack in the middle of Central America, Honduras is bordered by Guatemala (Week 68) on the north, El Salvador (Week 53) on the southwest and Nicaragua on the south. The region was once part of the vast Mayan kingdom before the conquest by the Spanish.
In 1821, the nation claimed independence and struggled along with its neighbors to be part of a confederation of Central American states before everyone decided to go at it on their own. [The Honduran flag still reflects that onetime union, with the five stars representing the five states that would have been part of it: Costa Rica (Week 41), Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.]
Since independence, the nation has grown through fits and starts, with the occasional coup, constitutional crisis and hurricane having serious impact on the country’s people. And while it has been spared the bloody civil wars of some of its neighbors, development has been slow. One of the poorest nations in Central America, it further bears the terrible distinction of the murder capital of the world.
Honduras’ northeastern edge is the start of the fabled Mosquito Coast, which runs south through Nicaragua. Also along the nation’s Caribbean coast is (one) home of the Garifuna people, decedents of native Carib people and Africans escaping slavery whose unique food and culture is celebrated annually.
The cuisine of Honduras is, as you’d imagine, very similar to that of its neighbors, relying heavily on rice, beans and fried meats. Along the coast, fish and coconut dishes are also found.
Insofar as my menu though, this presented a challenge. I didn’t want to make yet another rice and beans offering. And the tamales from Guatemala were very complicated and … well, I feel like I just made those.
After some investigating, I found a few dishes that are from the traditions of the Garifuna, such as tapado (literally, meaning “covered”). However, this seemed to be a massive recipe for seafood stew involving — no lie — four fish, four crabs, four lobster tails per person (!) AND one large king crab, two pounds of conch, two pounds of squid, two pounds of shrimp and who knows what else.
That was simply not happening. Ever. (Side note. Of course, if you’re Honduran, you know what you’re doing, and are having some kind of beachside fest with this, I’ll happily have some of yours.)
Nope,after much consternation, I decided I’d make what struck me as a smaller variant of that with chicken and two other dishes from the most complete global cooking blogger out there.
I’d make …
Well, here I got lucky by way of personal geography. And it’s not likely that I’ll get this lucky in this same way for some time (at least not until we hit the “M” countries). As I mentioned back during Guatemala, Central Americans from this part of the world are the one immigrant group living closest to me.
And, as such, I knew that certain ingredients used in these cuisines, rare elsewhere, are abundant in even the mainstream grocery store nearby. (Still, I chose to patronize the local Latin market and produce stand, on principle.)
So, finding jicama and chayote was no problem at all. And achiote paste I already had from Guatemala week.
First, meet my new friend, jicama.
While I’ve never consciously had jicama before (to my knowledge), I’ve heard of it plenty, mostly from hearing it referred to on Top Chef.
After researching how to prepare this, I learned that I had to clean and then peel the sucker with a peeler before cutting it up. And, boy, that wasn’t easy, since the skin seemed to be more like the entire outer layer. And the warnings about how traces of the skin can make you a stomach ache didn’t help.
Eventually, I had my cut jicama “matchsticks.”
Next, another new friend, chayote.
This one was totally new to me and, after wrestling with the jicama, I was surprised that the peel on this one came off gently, more like an apple’s. Whew.
I gathered my oranges and peeled and segmented those.
And after prepping everything else, I got to assembling the salad.
Into the bowl went the jicama sticks.
The chayote sticks.
The sliced red onion.
Extra-virgin olive oil.
And chopped cilantro.
And at that point I had a salad that was way too much to toss. Somehow, though, I managed.
Into the fridge it went. One dish down.
The Chicken Stew
I started out by taking my chicken parts and salting them.
I gave them a sprinkle of pepper.
And some ground cumin.
And I rubbed it all over. I let that sit for 30 minutes while I got to prepping the rest.
Later, I got to firing the dish.
I heated up the oil in a pot and added sugar to caramelize.
Once that was nice and brown, I added in the chicken.
And I stirred it around so that it all got coated in the sugar/oil glaze.
After a few minutes, I added in the minced garlic.
The chopped chili pepper. (Again, I went with a habanero, since we like things hot around here.)
The chopped onion.
And the achiote paste.
I stirred that up and I added in the half cup of chicken stock.
I lowered the heat to simmer and I let that sit for about 15 minutes.
Once that time was up, I added in the chopped green and red peppers.
And poured coconut milk over it all.
I covered it (a mistake, I think) and I let that simmer some more.
I say that was a mistake since I was afraid it would over reduce and, again, it went the other way, being too watery. I must learn. Argh.
The Plantain Turnovers (?)
Seriously, in the year-plus that I’ve been doing this, I’ve made my share of disasters. But I don’t think there’s been a time before when I totally melted down and decided to completely abort the whole thing.
Weep for me.
As per the instructions, I grabbed my four ripe plantains and set them to boil in hot water for 10-15 minutes.
And, my friends, there was my KEY mistake. See, when I think “ripe” plantains, I think of ones that are more black than not. That makes them sweeter. However, this makes them softer … which factors into what happened next.
Once time was up, I drained the water and let them cool off.
I peeled them and placed them in the food processor.
To that, I added the softened butter.
And some salt and pepper, along with a quarter cup of flour.
And I started pulsing. And pulsing, And mixing. And mixing. And whirring.
And pulsing more. And checking the recipe. And wondering why it wasn’t thickening.
And adding more flour. And pulsing some more. And more. And more.
And freaking. And whining. And crying. And adding more flour.
And adding more flour. And screaming.
About four times through that process, I noticed that the “dough” was never going to get dry and “ropey” and would stay a sticky, plantain-y mess which bore ZERO resemblance to what was in the recipe.
There was absolutely no way this could come together. And it was already time for dinner.
Finally, rather than just pour the whole mess down the drain, I decided to just try to fry globs of the stuff with sprinkles of the quesadilla queso on top.
Whatever. At least I had something on the plate.
I’m so ashamed.
After I peeled myself off the ceiling, I put the salad in bowls, plated the pieces of chicken and pretended to pour “sauce” on top of that. And I placed onto the plate the plantain and cheese UN-turnovers.
In the end, the salad looked like this.
And the chicken and plantain dishes looked like this.
The Salad: A total win. Yay, me! It was fresh, crispy, crunchy, salty and full of amazing citrus flavor. I can’t say enough good things about this. I’m SO glad I have a bunch leftover. I just hope it holds up for another day.
The Plantain … Thing: It didn’t taste bad. It was basically fried sweet plantain with some cheese taste, It was fine, but felt like sorrow nonetheless.
The Chicken: It was pleasant, though I couldn’t stop tasting what I did wrong vis a vis the reduction. The chicken itself was tasty, but a tad dry. I liked that the flavors of the cumin and achiote came though, But the whole thing was under-seasoned. That’s kind of why The Husband said it tasted better along with the plantains, rather than by itself.
Alas, that will have to be as good as that gets. For now.
Headline: The Mosquito Coast Stings.
Next Week: After a long wait, it’s back to Europe and … Hungary!
Cooking Around The World: Haiti
Bonju! We’re back!
That’s what I was saying while eating this meal after last week’s train wreck wherein I did no great service to the food of Guyana (Week 71). And it’s so good to feel like I could accomplish something in the kitchen again.
Yes, we’ve arrived at Week 72 of my voyage culinare dans le mond in order alphabétique and … Haiti!
There’s no easy way around this: Haiti is a troubled nation.
Taking up the western third of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean [(The Dominican Republic (Week 50) takes up the other two thirds],Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and has been plagued by political unrest, corruption, disease, hurricanes and a devastating earthquake in 2010.
The land was once populated by the Taino people. But after the Taino were decimated by diseases brought over by the Spanish, the region was eventually taken over by the French who imported slaves from Africa to work plantations there. And after a brutal rule, the local population, inspired by the French Revolution, rose up and fought off the French to become only the second independent nation in the hemisphere in 1804.
Since then, things have been pretty tragic, I’m afraid, with dictatorships, coups, and assorted sorrows. There are/have been attempts at reviving what was once (in the 1950s) a thriving tourism industry and some manufacturing, but these have been complicated by issues of crime, corruption and, again, natural disasters.
Yet there is a rich Creole culture in Haiti, which is a blend of African, Native Taino, French and Spanish traditions. In addition to the lifelong work of native Haitian artists like Wyclef Jean of the Fugees and others, the Canadian alt-rock act Arcade Fire has sought to bring global attention to the nation’s music and culture (though not without controversy).
As with the rest of the Haitian culture, the cuisine is a melange of French, Spanish, African and Taino using ingredients found on the island and off its shores, relying heavily on plantains, beans, rice and fish.
After some review, I decided I’d forgo the plantains this week, since I’ve kind of done every variation on them already. The primary Haitian preparation method of plantains is smashed and fried.
Here, these are called bananes pésees. In the Spanish Caribbean, they are tostones. (As a Puerto Rican, I basically lived on these growing up and they are far from novel to me.)
And the only thing that makes the Haitian version different than anywhere else’s is that in Haiti they’re soaked in salt brine before frying. So, no.
Other popular dishes I vetoed were a fried meat offering (which I didn’t feel like trying after last week’s adventure) and a historically significant-though-heavy pumpkin soup.
Therefore, I finally opted to make just two dishes this week. I’d cook …
This week, there would be two tricky items, conch and these dried black "djon djon" mushrooms for the rice.
One would be easy; one would be hard. Guess which was which.
If you guessed conch was the easy one, you win.
Living in South Florida, finding conch wasn’t really the tricky part. It’s finding fresh, not-previously frozen conch that was the catch. Luckily, I live in what almost could be called a fishing village, so the local fishmonger hooked me up. But, boy was it expensive!
As for the mushrooms, here I had trouble. If I was still living in Miami (at least 90 minutes south), or if I had been visiting there over the weekend, I’d have been set. Since Miami has probably the largest Haitian immigrant population in the U.S., I’m sure I could have found them in one of dozens of places.
But, as it is, I live at least an hour away from any sizable Haitian population, and over a dozen local markets and grocers either looked at me funny or offered me at least six different mushrooms instead.
"That’s very nice, but that’s not what I’m looking for. Thanks anyway."
I said that a lot.
See, these are truly unique to Haiti and are actually inedible. You soak them in water and use that for your meal. You toss the mushrooms out.
Finally, I gave up and called the Global Market Of 1,00,000 Unfindable Ingredients. They insisted they had them.
"And where would they be located?” I asked.
After making the long trip there, I ambled to Aisle Five and stood in dread. This is the massive Asian Dried Goods aisle. There may have been dried mushrooms there. But they were most certainly not the droids I was looking for.
I stood in line for ages to speak with the one person who may know if indeed they were somewhere in this massive space. Thankfully, she suggested she knew where they were.
And in case they weren’t there, she did have a MASSIVE box of djon djon bouillon cubes I could buy, too. Yeah, that’s a no on that.
At last, the clerk returned with the magic packet of ‘shrooms.
Yay! (But what’s the deal with the different spelling?)
If there is one thing to know about conch is that it is T-O-U-G-H. Prepared improperly, it can be like eating rubber erasers. And having grown up in South Florida, I found myself eating said rubber erasers more times than I can count.
I last cooked conch back when I was doing The Bahamas (Week 12) and I learned the trick of pounding the conch to soften it. (That’s pronounced “CONK.”)
This recipe called for the conch to be cut into pieces and soaked in water and vinegar for two and a half hours.
So, conch soakers we shall be.
After pounding and cutting and slicing the mollusk, I put them in a bowl and added the vinegar.
I set in the fridge to soak for the allotted time.
After prepping my ingredients — which always takes me an insane amount of time —I was ready to fire my meal.
I heated up some oil in a pot and added my sliced onions.
And minced garlic.
After sautéing those for a few minutes, I added in the (drained) conch.
And chopped parsley.
I set it to medium heat and for the next 45 minutes I kept stirring that until I thought my arm would fall off. (Oh, the things you do for conch!)
After all that, I seasoned with salt and pepper and it was ready.
The Mushroom Rice
I had had the good sense to soak the pigeon peas overnight. But, since I was starting with dried legumes, I didn’t want to risk them being tough. So, I also boiled them in salted water for an hour or so to tenderize them.
As I may have mentioned the last time I cooked with pigeon peas, these are a staple on Hispaniola and in Puerto Rico and have a distinct, smoky flavor that sets them apart from the various beans more commonly served with rice in many other Latin American nations. If you haven’t tried them, do so now.
As the time to fire the rice drew near, I started soaking the mushrooms in water.
You’ll notice how the water instantly turned inky black.
After ten minutes of that, I set them in a pot to boil for another ten minutes.
And I strained out the mushrooms, reserving the liquid (and throwing out the inedible mushrooms).
Oooh, black mushroom water!
Then, I got to cookin’ up my dish.
I heated up oil in a pot and added the diced onion.
And sliced shallots. (Funny how these two recipes had the exact same ingredients as a base, no?)
After a few minutes, I moved on. Only I got two steps from the recipe mixed up. I was supposed to add the rice in here and stir for three minutes. Alas.
Instead, here, I added the mushroom water.
The cloves. (Again, it called for whole cloves, but I used dried.)
The pigeon peas.
And the rice (which should have been added earlier).
I set that to boil on high until most of the water had evaporated.
Then, on top of that I tossed the sprigs of thyme and the whole pepper. (The recipe called for a Scotch bonnet pepper, which is typical in Caribbean cooking. The damn stores only had similar-looking-but-less-hot habaneros. Sigh,)
I lowered the heat, covered it and let that cook for 20 minutes more.
Finally, everything was done.
I plated the conch and scooped the rice into ramekins and I was ready to serve.
In the end, it all looked like this.
Me zanmi! I’m back!
The Conch: It wasn’t rubbery, and that in and of itself was a victory. While it was a little chewy, the meat was really delicious. And the creole flavors of tomato, thyme and shallots produced a dish that was packed with flavor.
The Rice: OK, go right now and find yourself a Haitian market or order the mushrooms online. They’re cheap. Because this came out as probably the best rice dish I’ve made so far. [The rice from Costa Rica (Week 41) is the runner-up.]
The mushrooms paired with the cloves gave the dish a deep, earthy, smokey flavor which was really unlike any rice dish I’ve had before.
I’m just glad I have leftovers!
(That’s Creole. For “Bon appetit.”)
Next Week: We hop back onto the North American continent for … Honduras!
Cooking Around The World: Guyana
Let’s just get this out of the way now.
I’m sorry. So very, very sorry.
All tragic errors are entirely my fault and not indicative of the food of the fine people of this fine nation. I wish I knew more about what I was doing and didn’t succumb to what must be a curse that (most of) South America has placed on my brain when it comes to cooking its food.
Oh, you’ll see.
Yes, we have arrived at Week 71 of my you-think-I’d-have-picked-up-more-basics-by-now, around-the-world-in-alphabetical-fashion cooking experiment and … Guyana!
Located on the northern coast of South America, to the east of Venezuela and to the west of Suriname, Guyana was colonized first by the Dutch and later by the British, who ruled it for centuries.
Here’s where things get interesting, though.
If I were to ask you what makes Guyana so similar to Fiji (Week 58), I’d imagine the first guess would be “palm trees.”
While technically that’s right, there’s an odd historical similarity as well.
In Guyana, the British first brought African slaves to work in plantations. But after slavery was abolished, indentured servants from East India were imported to the area, just as they were in Fiji.
In Fiji the conflict (which has shaped politics and made for amazing fusion food) has been between East Indian and Melanesian citizens. In Guyana, it is the divide between East Indian and African descendants (and an Amerindian minority) that defines much of the political scene and the nation’s food.
Also, because the Brits ruled here, Guyana is the only officially English-speaking nation in South America and, as such, adheres much more closely to the nations of the Caribbean than to its Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking neighbors.
As for the rest, well, you probably know the deep tragedy with which Guyana is most associated, that being the 1978 Jonestown indecent, which, until 9/11, was the largest single loss of civilian American lives.
But on the bright side, they play world class cricket and gave the world pop stars Eddie Grant and, by way of her Guyanese father, Leona Lewis.
As I mentioned, when I was reviewing dishes for this week, I looked forward to the interesting blend of East Indian curries and spices with Caribbean ingredients.
There’s one dish I knew to be the most Guyanese of them all, the national dish known as Guyanese Pepperpot. In fact, I’ve known about this for some time, since I came across island variations for it when prepping for Antigua and Barbuda (Week 6), Barbados (Week 15) and Grenada (Week 67).
And each time I examined the recipes’ calls for pounds and pounds of various parts of pigs and cows, I shuddered at the idea of making it for two people.
Plus, the key to making it was one vital ingredient that there was no way I was going to find: cassareep, a special molasses-like sauce made from cassava root.
So, approaching this week, I carefully planned my menu knowing I wouldn’t be making that.
But then …
While we were down in Miami over the weekend, I thought to just see if by chance there was a Guyanese market in town. I mean, Miami’s the official melting pot of people from the Caribbean and South America, right?
And, whattayaknow, there was one, smack in the heart of Little River, a Miami neighborhood that’s heavily Haitian and, ironically, where I used to work back during the era of the Crimean War. (I’m old, see?)
What luck! They had the cassareep! And the Guyanese lady there was nice enough to give me tips. (Sadly, none of those tips prevented me from honking up my part, but that’s to come.)
She confirmed what I had read already, that cassareep contains a natural preservative that allows the dish to remain safely unrefrigerated for days and that the dish gains flavor days after its first cook as long as it’s boiled before each serving.
So, this required totally redoing my menu, since nothing I had chosen before involved cassareep. Therefore, after examining a dozen recipes and seeing people tear each other apart over the authenticity of the originally-Amerindian dish and how “real” Guyanese people prepare it, I decided I’d make …
And I’d serve that with the East Indian-but-now-totally-Guyanan-too …
You know, normally when I make a massive mistake it’s somewhere halfway through the cook. This time, I think I made it at the grocery store. Sigh.
Well, here goes. Don’t shoot me.
I heated up olive oil in a pot and to it, I added …
A pound of ox tail …
A pound of stew beef …
And … (and here I’m almost certain I totally, totally should have researched this more) … a pound of pigs’ feet.
(Honestly, a few recipes I had seen called for “trotters” and such. And I was almost certain that this is what they meant. One suggested these dissolved in some fashion and made the stew “gooey.” … Looking at this now just makes me sad.)
In any case, I browned them for about ten minutes.
And I added in the cinnamon sticks.
Cloves. (I used ground, because that’s what I had.)
A de-seeded and chopped Scotch bonnet pepper for heat.
Brown sugar. (It said to use “light brown sugar.” I only had dark brown sugar. Again, my fault.)
And a cup and a quarter (nearly the entire bottle of) cassareep.
I poured water over the whole thing.
I mixed it and set it to boil and then simmer for two hours.
What is it with me and flour? I know I’m not making total disasters with it anymore [see Argentina (Week 7), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Week 23), Cuba (Week 44) for the Parade of Ugh], but I can’t seem to understand what it takes to make light, fluffy bread products.
In any case, here’s what I did.
Working off the recipe and having reviewed the 20 minute-long linked video (and a couple others), I gamely attempted to make the Indian bread.
I poured out the flour.
I added in the baking powder.
And the softened butter.
And I mixed everything together by hand as I saw in the video. (Clearly, my technique was lacking.)
I made a well in the middle and I poured in the cup of water. (Here’s where Google Glass would come in handy.)
I kneaded it until it was soft.
I marveled at the the next suggestion, as it seemed to be the answer to my regular problem of my dough getting crusty. As instructed, I covered the dough in a wet paper towel and let it rest for 30 minutes.
I probably should have waited another 30 minutes, but again, time was working against me.
After 30 minutes, I broke the dough into three parts.
I floured my surface and made a disc.
I rolled it into a thin circle.
And, using the cone method described in the recipe and video, I cut a line along the radius of the circle.
I folded over triangles of the dough as instructed.
Until I had a cone. I pressed in the wide end of the cone.
And I folded the bottom end of the cone into the top.
After completing this for all three, I set those to rest for another 30 minutes.
Here I kicked myself for having missed a step. I realized that I should have brushed oil over the dough during the last step. Drat! Well, hopefully this could come out OK if I did it next.
I melted my butter and added it to the olive oil.
I retrieved my dough rolls from the bowl.
And I flattened each one out.
I brushed the oil and butter mixture over the top.
And rolled them down flat.
I placed each one in the hot pan and waited for the bubbles to appear.
Once they did, I flipped them over to cook the other side.
I flipped them into a colander to cool.
And, rather than flip them by hand (and burn my hands nicely), I employed the technique I saw in one of the videos on this. I plopped the bread into a plastic container.
And shook it up good in order to make it fluffy.
Well, it got more fluffy. Or, rather, less dense.
Finally, I plated the pepperpot into bowls and it looked like this.
And the roti looked like this.
"I’m so sorry."
I just kept repeating that.
The Pepperpot: Well, the good news is that the ingredients in the stew did have a decent flavor. You could taste the cinnamon and the pepper and the curious taste of the cassareep.
The bad news was that the meat was pretty awful and nearly impossible to eat. The stew beef pieces were OK, though I’ve made much better. But the ox tail was mostly bone and the meat most definitely did not fall off the bone.
And the pig’s feet. Oh, I want to cry. I’m sure anyone with experience with these would know already, but I had no clue. They seemed to be all bone, fat and skin and I’ll be damned if I can figure out where there was meat there.
I’m so sorry. This is one of the problems I face when I encounter recipes that don’t have a ton of detail: Invariably, I do something horribly wrong that anyone with more knowhow wouldn’t.
Seriously, South America (for the most part) has been my downfall, particularly when it comes to the ubiquitous thirty-kinds-of-meat-in-a-pot dishes. [See Bolivia (Week 21) and Brazil (Week 24).]
The Roti: It was fine, as these things go, but clearly it wasn’t at all as it should have been. Once more I made a dense bread product and I’m wrecked about it.
My baking powder isn’t that old. I bought it when I last wondered about this and that was less than a year ago. Perhaps I didn’t let it rest long enough?
Or perhaps I am just cursed.
Again, my apologies to the fine people of Guyana. I really should have stuck to the curries, chicken and rice.
If I promise to head back to the market and eat their well-reviewed Guyanese food, are we square?
Next Week: We head just north into the Caribbean for … Haiti!
Cooking Around The World: Guinea-Bissau
It has more countries than any other continent. And, owing to a variety of historical and lingual quirks, a bunch of them sit right next to each other both on the map and in the (English) alphabet. (We’ve cooked 21 of them already!)
And so we have arrived at Week 70 of my global circumnavigational, learn to cook-ical, alphabetical experiment and … Guinea-Bissau!
Not to be confused with its formerly French neighbor, Guinea (Week 69), or the nation south of the Equator known as Equatorial Guinea (Week 54), or the Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea, this small nation is roughly the size of Maryland and was once a Portuguese colony.
Largely a series of archipelagos on Africa’s far western coast, this part of the continent was originally part of the Mali Kingdom. After European contact, it became part of the Slave Coast under the Portuguese. In the late 1950s the guerrilla war for independence began, culminating in the nation’s independence in 1973 (recognized in 1974).
Since then, it’s been one of the most tumultuous countries on the continent (and that’s saying something) with no elected leader ever completing a term of office without dying, being assassinated or being overthrown in a coup. At present, there is only an interim government in place and it is considered something of a narco-state, since its geography makes it the perfect transit point for drugs smuggled from South America en route to Europe.
Elections which were scheduled for last November were postponed until sometime this year … due to lack of funds.
It’s all really sad. But here’s hoping for some stability and peace for what seems otherwise like a place of rare beauty and culture.
Well, we’ve been down this road quite a bit, haven’t we?
So, yes, Guinea-Bissau’s food is much like that of the nations around it. Its cuisine is heavy on the use of starchy tubers like yuca (cassava) and peanuts (groundnuts). Since it’s largely a series of islands, fish is a dominant protein, though chicken, beef and mutton are eaten. And since it’s largely (though not exclusively) a Muslim nation, pork isn’t really a thing there.
Which means it was going to be tough to find something distinctive to the place. What makes it in some way unique is the Portuguese influence, but what I found on that front had more to do with baked goods than anything else.
And I don’t do desserts.
Therefore, after much consternation, I decided I’d make …
Either I’ve gotten really complacent on this front or I’ve just learned that (some) things I thought were rare are actually found nearby. So, now that I know that yuca can be found around the corner, I’m a happy camper.
Also, nothing called for the common-in-West-African-recipes cassava leaves, which have eluded me thus far. Yay that.
This should be easy. And for a recipe from the notoriously vague Celtnet website, it was strangely not a total mess.
After prepping the various ingredients, I got started.
Step one was going to be a problem. I don’t have a mortar and pestle the size of an oil drum and a canoe paddle. And I didn’t feel like a heavy cardio workout mashing ingredients into a paste.
Enter, the blender.
Into that, I dropped the chopped onion.
And the two chopped habanero peppers.
(Explanation: The recipe called for “hot chillies, to taste” and, as such, I picked the ones I like. And I like it hot. Also, I have yet to find here what is specifically called a piri piri pepper. It’s common in Africa and I’d love to finally get to try one. Someday!)
I added one bay leaf.
And I set it to blend. Or mix. Whatever. It was loud and it took a LONG time to complete.
About this time I was thanking myself for not attempting to mash that by hand.
Once it was pasty, I seasoned with salt and pepper.
And I added in almost a half cup of red palm oil.
(At this stage, red palm oil is no longer a novelty for me. I know it’s really environmentally un-PC and not the healthiest thing in the kitchen. But its smell, taste and texture make it the most authentically West African thing I’ve ever had. … I’ve just never used this much at once. Oof.)
After blending that up, I took out my broken-down whole chicken (!!) and poured the mixture over the pieces.
Time to smear!
Once the pieces were all suitably coated, I placed them in a large pot.
And I poured the remains of the mixture over it. (I added in some water, too, since I didn’t see how the chicken would cook if it wasn’t submerged in liquid.)
I set that to boil and then simmer for 15 minutes.
When time was up, I added in my bunch of shredded spinach.
I mixed everything into the pot and I set it to simmer again for another 20 minutes.
The Yuca Fries
Since I didn’t want to get all boring and serve the chicken with rice, I opted to make these yuca fries. I had seen them in this online cookbook as a lunch favorite in Guinea-Bissau and I thought, “Hey! If I’m using this as an opportunity to get over my longtime distaste for some ingredients, here’s another shot at that.”
So, hello Mr. Yuca!
That’s YOO-ka, not YUCK-a. YUCK-a is yucca and is from the desert and The Beast of Yucca Flats. This is a root vegetable also known as cassava. … See, now I know things!
We last met yuca on our culinary trip to Gabon (Week 61) and I got to build from that experience. So, I quickly cut off the ends and peeled the waxy tuber.
I quartered the demon and deftly tried to cut out the woody center strip, which I gather is not only inedible but potentially dangerous.
So, in order to cook it properly (and make it, er, not dangerous), I boiled the not-looking-at-all-like-wedge-fries chunks for 20 minutes. (It said ten in the recipe, but I added time to be on the safe side.)
Once they were suitably soft, I drained them.
And I dropped them into the deep fryer which was set at 375F. (The recipe called for doing this in a pan, but I figured, “Hey, I have a deep fryer. Why bother with the mess if I don’t have to?”)
In minutes, I had crispy cassava fries! I salted them up and they were ready to eat.
I plated the chicken (and poured lemon juice over it) and it looked like this.
And the fries I put in a bowl, since I didn’t want them getting all soggy on the plate with the chicken. Those looked like this.
Again, Africa scores high on unexpected deliciousness.
The chicken had a wonderful acidic taste thanks to that lemon dousing. And the heat of the peppers crept up on us after a few bites. My only complaint was that I should have let it cook for just a few minutes more, since it was just barely ready. When I went back for seconds, the pieces that had been stewing longer tasted even better.
Also, it’s kind of awkward eating chicken on the bone with utensils when it’s doused in sauce. Let’s just say I have to clean more things than I expected I’d need to.
And the fries? Oh my, that was great. Sweet, salty and oh-so-slightly sour, I couldn’t get enough of these. I gather they’re not so great the next day, but I’m going to risk it. Why don’t people eat these everywhere? Because they are seriously yum.
Thanks, G-B! It may be a while before we get back to Africa (alphabetically), so thanks for leaving me with this taste in my mouth!
Next Week: We rock on down to South America again with … Guyana!
Cooking Around The World: Guinea
Confession: I was about as unmotivated as I could be when I came to approach this one. I mean, I’ve come to love African dishes, but after 20 African meals already, how could this one be distinct?
Well, I don’t know how distinct it got, but, oh boy, was it good!
Yes, we’ve arrived at Week 69 of my world-spanning, ordinal-oriented, culinary educational experiment and … Guinea!
If you’re having trouble keeping up, you’re not alone. Guinea is one of four UN nations with “Guinea” in its name, the other three being next week’s subject, Guinea-Bissau, the previously covered Equatorial Guinea (Week 54) and, way over in Oceania, Papua New Guinea.
As for why the name is so popular, it’s hard to tell past the point that Europeans named parts of Africa this after bastardizing native words for other parts of the region.
(And that Pacific Island nation? European settlers thought the natives there looked sort of like the ones in that “Guinea” place in Africa and, well … I guess that’s just how things worked then.)
This Guinea is sometimes referred to as Guinea-Conakry (for its capital, Conakry) in order to distinguish itself from its neighbor, Guinea-Bissau. Unlike its onetime-Portuguese neighbor, this Guinea was once a French colony.
Located on the west coast of Africa, it is bordered by six different nations, including previous subject Côte d’Ivoire (Week 42).
Guinea has been plagued by despotic dictatorship and military coups for most of its time since independence from France in 1958. The nation finally held its first free and fair elections in 2011 and, since 2012, has had its first all-civilian government. So, there’s room for hope.
Still, despite its vast mineral reserves, the nation is the second poorest on the continent, and human rights abuses are still a serious problem, as the nation stills reels from mind-bending massacres suffered in 2009 (among other things).
As for the food, I can’t say there is a whole lot that makes this particular nation stand out from its neighbors. As with most of West Africa, the nation’s dishes are dominated by the use of bananas, cassava and peanuts.
Shrug. I mean, I like that well enough, but, you know, I’ve done that already.
The curious wrinkles I found are that since it’s a Muslim nation, there is a hint of the Arabic in the ingredients (and no pork). Also, since it was a French colony, there is also an influence of that nation’s culinary traditions in the dishes as well.
But what could I pick to make? This presented a problem for a couple reasons.
For one thing, there is no one clear national dish. And the one thing that came close, Jollof Rice, is specifically Senegalese in origin, even if there are quite popular Guinean versions. (One source suggested that Guinean chefs are sought-after in the region for their versions of this.)
Oh, you noticed the plural there? Yeah, as with most traditional meals around the world, versions vary from nation to nation, town to town and home to home. In fact, the best recipe I found for it (a version with chicken) engendered angry and vociferous debate in the comments section as to what was authentic and what wasn’t.
Damn, people get really testy about things like this.
Nope, I wasn’t going to go there. Not after being kicked three ways from Sunday across all of Tumblr for how my dish from El Salvador (Week 53) came out.
Instead, I’d just punt and pick the one doable dish I found which seemed strictly Guinean.
I’d make …
- Kansiyé (Guinean Lamb and Beef Stew In Peanut Sauce) using this recipe, with
- Gouiki (Plantain Mash) using the recipe found on this page.
Nope. No hunt this week. No odd cassava leaves to lead me on a fruitless chase across the state. No rare pepper to leave me frustrated yet again in the produce aisle.
And before you ask, no, I wasn’t going to go on another search for Guinea Fowl as with Equatorial Guinea (Week 53).
And don’t even think about suggesting Guinea pigs. We’ve discussed this. [See Colombia (Week 37).]
After the fastest and briefest shopping trip yet, I was ready to go.
I’d start with …
I browned the lamb in some peanut oil.
And added in the cubed beef. (I used chuck, in case you’re asking.)
After those were browned, I added in the chopped onion.
And ground cloves.
I added water to the tomato sauce.
And I poured that into the mix.
Next, I added some water to the ubiquitous-in-Africa peanut butter.
And, once that was dissolved, I added that in, too.
Here’s where the recipe got really stupid. (At least that’s the way I saw it.)
See, it suggested letting that cook at medium heat for an hour. That simply was not going to work. If I did that, I’d end up with burnt offerings.
No, instead I minded the stove carefully, simmering it on low heat and covering it when I thought it was reducing too quickly. Even then, I was just on the edge of the meat being overdone.
Ah, it’s so good to know even the most basic things now. (Reminder: When I started this project 17 months ago, I was known to actually burn water.)
The Plantain Mash
Well, you see, I know that from time to time I have to make plantain dishes, either for this project or for everyday meals. And seeing as how ripe and overripe plantains are not sold in the market (so far as I have found), I now make sure to keep a few lying around to have ripe ones when I need them.
Therefore, these are the two that I found sitting on my counter when I started cooking.
If you’ve never cooked with plantains before, be advised that there are entirely different dishes for green, ripe and overripe (read: “What do you mean you’re not throwing that out?” black) plantains. The greener, the drier; the riper, the sweeter.
And these two were a.) ripe and b.) on the road to Overripeville.
You do what you can.
So, I peeled the two, and threw them in a pot of boiling water for 30 minutes.
I drained them.
And I put them in a bowl.
I added melted butter.
And chili powder. (That’s what takes this out-of-the-totally-snore-inducing category.)
I mashed that up good.
Then, I returned it to the heat as instructed.
However, for the life of me, I didn’t understand why that would be required unless the mash had gotten cold in the mashing process.
When everything was ready, I spooned out the plantain mash and scooped up the stew and plated.
When I was done, it looked like this.
I’m so sad.
I’m so sad I didn’t make more. Because I desperately wish I had leftovers.
I don’t understand why I’m always amazed by how much I love (most of) these African dishes. Maybe it’s the peanut butter. But, damn.
The lamb and beef were succulent. One more second and it would have been burnt. But the flavors of the meat and peanut butter with the cloves and thyme gave it a taste I couldn’t love any more if I tried.
And the plantain mash was delicious as well, even if it was basic as basic can be. The mash was semi-sweet owing to the one almost overripe plantain, but, hey, it kept things interesting. Buttery and just the slightest bit spicy, it completed yet another great African meal.
Now, how to explain that I have to go out and buy more ingredients to make it again in a few days?
Next Week: We cross the border to the north to cook … Guinea-Bissau!
Cooking Around The World: Guatemala
Oh, I was looking forward to this one. And you’ll never guess why.
Is it because I’ve failed spectacularly on most if not all of my attempts at Latin American food? (This, despite being Puerto Rican myself.)
Is it because I secretly worship Itzamná, the Mayan god of agriculture?
Nope, it was because, owing to the strange, Balkanized nature of neighborhoods in South Florida, and the specific area where I live, this week’s nation is the homeland of most of the Latinos who live close to me.
And that means … every ingredient will be available nearby! Yay!
Yes, we’ve arrived at Week 68 of my alphabetical globetrotting, cooking/learning-yet-not-dying experiment and … Guatemala!
This Central American nation is located just south of Mexico and is bordered by Honduras on the south and by previous challenge subjects Belize (Week 18) on its northeast and El Salvador (Week 53) on its southeast.
Once part of the great Mayan empire, the region was conquered by the Spanish in the 16th Century and eventually gained independence from the Spanish in 1821. What followed were decades upon decades of dictatorship, coups and an epic civil war.
Oh, and did you know that this was all helped along by the U.S. and a banana company now known as Chiquita?
It’s kind of where the term “banana republic” originated.
In any case, since a peace accord in 1996, the nation has been struggling to recover, yet it remains one of the poorest nations in the hemisphere with a median age of 20.
I’ll let that sink in.
You can see why a sizable part of its economy is based on remittances sent from Guatemalans living abroad.
Aaaaanyway, how’s the food?
Based on traditional Mayan cuisine, the food of Guatemala is varied, focusing on a number of chilies and beans.
And, tamales. Oh, boy, tamales.
Would you believe there are hundreds of different varieties of tamales in Guatemala? And, traditionally, different foods are eaten on different days of the week and (as elsewhere) on special occasions.
So, what to make?
After realizing yet again that I had too many interesting entrees and not enough side dishes, I opted to again cook over multiple nights.
Therefore, for Night One I’d make …
- Hilachas (Shredded Beef in Red Sauce) using this recipe.
And for Night Two I’d prepare …
- Guatemalan Tamales with Ancho Chile Sauce using this recipe, and
- Picado de Rábano (Radish and Mint Salad) using this recipe.
Oh, joy! Oh, rapture!
Yes, while all the Guatemalan recipes I found said things like “since you won’t be able to find tomatillos (or ancho chilies, or whatever), you can replace those with this,” I rejoiced in knowing that all of these “rare” items are all found in abundance less than a mile away.
The Cook (Night One)
I started out by taking my pound of blurry beef and putting it in a pot of boiling, salted water. And then I let it simmer for an hour and a half.
Meanwhile, I started in on the sauce.
I mixed together chopped onion.
And my new friend, the tomatillo.
I found it curious that my Puerto Rican parents both remarked that they had never seen this item in their lives. What a difference 1,569 miles make.
I chopped those up and threw them in.
Next, was another regional specialty, the Guajillo chili.
Yay, it’s dried! That means I can keep it around for a long time without fearing I’ll have to toss it after it goes bad (before I get to Honduras in a few weeks).
I cut a couple of these open and de-seeded them.
I chopped them up and put the whole mess into the food processor.
I heated some oil in a pot and added in the sauce mixture.
And I let that simmer for about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, the beef was finally ready. I drained it and set it aside.
And I set aside the water from the beef for later as well.
Once the beef had cooled, I shredded it as best I could. (I kind of cheated and used a spoon since I was in a hurry and the beef wasn’t quite cool enough to shred by hand.)
I added the beef to the sauce mix.
And added in some of the broth.
And a random amount of onions. (I picked half of one onion, since the recipe was really helpful in not explaining this.)
And after another 20 minutes of simmering, I stirred in breadcrumbs to thicken the sauce. (I like this trick! I’ve used corn starch before, but this makes for a much faster thickening, so far as I can tell.)
Finally, I stirred in the chopped cilantro.
And minutes later, it was all ready.
I made my little mounds of white rice and ladled on the beef mix. In the end, it looked like this.
Oh, that was good. Damn good.
Savory and flavorful, you could taste the mildly acidic tomatillos along with the unique tang of the Guajillo pepper behind the oh-so-tender beef. The carrots gave the dish a little texture and, mixed with the rice, the whole thing was hearty and delicious.
The Cook (Night Two)
I knew this one was going to freak me out to no end. Not only was I going to go all out and make the entire recipe, which called for 10 tamales, but I knew the cook and prep time would take up at least four solid hours of work.
After taking myself down off the ledge, I got started.
I seasoned my pork and then put it in a skillet with some heated oil for a few minutes. (Of course, I realized at this moment that the pork was to have been browned as one piece. But, alas, I had the butcher cut it up for me earlier.)
After about 12 minutes, it was sufficiently browned.
I pulled it off the heat and moved on to the sauce.
First up, another dried chili pepper, in this case the Ancho chili, which is actually just a dried poblano pepper.
I pulled a couple out of the bag and got to cutting them open and removing the seeds and stems.
After prepping the sauce ingredients, I started putting them in the blender.
First, the chopped, cored plum tomatoes.
Then, the chopped garlic.
The chopped Ancho chilis.
The chopped onion.
And a little water.
And I set the whole thing to puree until smooth.
I heated some oil in a pan and slowly poured in the tomato mixture.
Some white vinegar.
I set that to boil, lowered it to simmer and I let it cook for 40 minutes.
Once it was thickened, I pulled that off the heat, too.
Next came the really complicated part. Prepping the banana leaves.
Let me tell you, if you told me 16 months ago that I’d be an old hand at working with these things at this stage, I’d have said you’ve been chewing too much ancient Mayan hallucinogenic tobacco.
Yes, since first encountering this item back during Cambodia (Week 29) I’ve used them several times, most notably for Congo (Brazzaville) (Week 39) and Congo (Kinshasa) (Week 40).
In fact, I was able to skip this recipe’s more time-consuming skillet-browning suggestion by doing what I’ve done before by passing the leaves over the heating element in order to make them pliable.
I felt further validated when I saw a Mexican-American contestant on Top Chef performing the same trick for his tamales a week back. … You don’t know the glee it gave me to say, “I know what he’s doing!” for once.
So, with my leaf segments and aluminum foil squares ready, I got a preppin’!
Cut, rinse, dry, soften, layer, repeat.
Next, to make the dough.
I’d start with the achiote paste, another otherwise rare-but-ubiquitous-here ingredient.
I put a tablespoon of the stuff in a bowl.
And added in the water.
After dissolving the stuff, I whisked in the masa harina (corn meal flour).
And a cup of rice flour (procured from my now-slightly-less-crowded cabinet of 101 flours of the world).
I whisked in the canola oil.
And whisked like mad.
I poured that into a pot with oil and stirred like a madman until I was pretty sure my arm was going to break off.
Eight minutes later, I needed an Advil. And I had this.
And I started to assemble the tamales.
First a scoop of the dough.
Molded into a 2” by 2” square.
I added a couple pieces of the pork.
A couple olives.
A couple slices of red bell pepper.
Two tablespoons of the tomato mixture.
A few capers.
And I folded each one into a neat, rectangular package.
I folded each one up in foil and, after much ado, ended up with ten foil packets.
I prepped the steamer with an inch of water at the base.
I put the three remaining banana leaves at the base of the steamer.
And I packed the pot with the tamale packets. (It was a TIGHT fit.)
Oh, and how thankful am I to realize that the leaves at the base help keep the packets from falling in the water as they did on earlier recipes? And why is it just now that I’m figuring out that you’re supposed to put things in vertically?
I covered the pot and set it to summer for about 50 minutes.
The Radish Salad
Thankfully, this was going to be quick.
I started with another of those ingredients that I kind of hate, or at least have always hated: radishes. As part of this project I’m purposely using ingredients that I’ve never liked and am learning to actually like them. Growth.
I trimmed the radishes and cut them into circles.
I chopped up some fresh mint and threw that on, too.
I poured on the orange juice.
And the lemon juice.
I seasoned with salt and pepper.
And I threw it in the fridge to chill.
Before long, it was all ready.
I scooped out the salad and plated that. I carefully extracted the tamales from the pot and unwrapped them.
Here’s where I didn’t know what to do. I saw on the same, aforementioned Top Chef episode that the leaves aren’t meant to be plated, since the leaves aren’t edible.
But I couldn’t figure out how to plate the thing in a way that didn’t look like a giant mess. (I suppose I could have placed them on the plate upside down, but it was too late by the time I took the picture.)
So, it ended up looking like this.
Another pair of aces!
The radish salad was crispy, simple and refreshing. Crunchy and acidic, the taste of the mint versus the tang of the orange was really simple and fun. And it played great against the softness of the tamale.
The tamales, despite the messy, messy appearance, were also fantastic.
I felt kind of bad that I didn’t know if the “toppings” were meant to be more fully integrated into the dough, since that wasn’t really clear. Still, the flavor was there in spades.
If I had a complaint, it would be one directed at myself, since I wasn’t really consistent from one tamale to another. This led to some having more capers than others, resulting in some bites being far more salty than they should be.
But, boy, were they good!
Now I’m glad I have a bunch frozen for future use!
Guatemala? No, Guatabuena!
Next Week: It’s back to Africa yet again for the first of a pair with … Guinea!
Cooking Around The World: Grenada
After last week, I really needed a rest. And a tropical island in the Caribbean was going to be just what I needed.
Yes, we’ve arrived at Week 68 of my around-the-world/around-the-stove/around-the-alphabet cooking challenge and … Grenada!
Located off the northeast shore of Venezuela, the nation of Grenada is an archipelago of seven islands and is one of the smallest nations in the Western Hemisphere, covering only about twice the land area as does Washington, D.C.
Having earned its independence from Great Britain in 1974, the nation has gone through quite a bit in its relatively short existence.
To Americans though, Grenada is known primarily for the Cold War era, 1983 US-led invasion which aimed to prevent the island nation from aligning more closely with the Soviet Union and Cuba. (The whole complicated mess was ostensibly set in motion after a bloody coup of the leftist government by more-leftist forces. As you’d imagine, these events still loom large there.)
Originally inhabited by Carib indians, the islands were “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in the 15th century. But they weren’t settled by Europeans until the 17th century when the French established sugar plantations and imported African slaves there.
The British took control of the colony in 1762 and expanded agriculture to include cacao and, eventually, nutmeg.
Yes, there’s a reason there’s a nutmeg pod on the flag. Known as the “Island of Spice,” Grenada was for a long time the world’s top exporter of that condiment (and others). In 2004, however, Hurricane Ivan, the first hurricane to hit the area in nearly 50 years, devastated the place.
Since then, though, it’s been coming back strong, attracting visitors with its sunny beaches and thriving eco-tourism industry.
The cuisine of Grenada is, as you’d imagine, quite similar to that of the neighboring islands of the Caribbean. But there is one particular offering which is unmistakably a national favorite.
A one-pot dish called Oil Down (pronounced either “ile dung” or “oil dung”) is cooked on the beach and recipes vary from home to home. So, picking that dish was going to be easy.
And while I’d have liked to have done more than one dish, there were a few issues with doing that.
One, I was still exhausted from the EPIC three-night, six-dish extravaganza last week that was Greece (Week 66).
Two, the only other major dish I found for Grenada was a massive (if-reportedly-delicious) roast pork offering that was hardly a side dish.
And, three, the other best option was a soup made of (my Great White Whale) callaloo (amaranth greens). As I’ve discovered on way-too-many weeks, whenever this globally common/here exotic green is called for, fresh greens are nowhere to be found.
Someday, I will eat you, fresh callaloo!
Oh, and what of nutmeg, you ask? Surely a place that brings the world so much flavor would have dishes just brimming with the stuff!
You’d think so. But, no. All I found was a nifty recipe for nutmeg ice cream, which I handed off to a friend who makes tons of cool ice cream recipes.
Nope, this week I’d just make …
- Breadfruit Oil Down using this recipe.
Perhaps you noticed that first word in the name of the dish I’d be making?
I’d probably guess that either you’ve had it and are quite familiar … or it’s something you’ve never even heard of before.
A staple in the the islands of the Caribbean and Oceania, breadfruit is a starchy fruit that is a regular feature of cuisines in the tropics.
And it’s my Puerto Rican mother’s favorite food item ever.
Which makes it particularly odd that, despite hearing about it all my life and even seeing it growing in the backyards of family members, I can’t say I ever remember tasting it before last month.
Plus, where was I even going to find it in Florida?
I knew I had only one option for this: the dreaded International Market Of A Million Ingredients Unfamiliar To Its Own Work Force.
I marched into the place and asked the clerk in one part of the produce section, “Tienen pana? Do you have breadfruit?”
"Um … ask that (points to the far side of the section) … er … er … no.”
I scanned the entire section until I found the other produce worker who was busy labeling Chinese cabbage.
“Con permiso, tienen pana? Do you have breadfruit?”
"Um … um … no."
A millisecond later, a woman shopping in the same section reached over the man’s shoulder and pointed at the case directly under the man’s nose.
"It’s right there."
"BREADFRUIT," said the sign in big bold letters.
Well, the first thing I was going to have to do was figure out how this whole breadfruit thing works. And who better to ask than my mom.
After being surprised I was able to find it at all (and being startled as to how much it cost), she told me to be sure it was hard. They get ripe (and overripe) from one day to the next, she warned. And I’d had it in the fridge for two days now.
I squeezed it.
Well, it’s a little soft in places.
I could hear her shaking her head.
Seeing as there was no plan B, I forged ahead, scanned a few YouTube clips for tips on how to cut and slice it, and got to cooking.
I stuck my one pound-plus ham steak into water and set it to boil off the salt.
After three rounds of bring-to-a-boil-and-drain, I had the pork sufficiently desalinated.
Then, it was time for the dreaded breadfruit.
This sucka is BIG.
Like two-and-a-half pounds-big. Big-as-a-Great-Dane’s-head big.
I started by cutting off the stem and then slicing it open to reveal the pod-like center.
After that, I gamely attempted to create melon-like slices from which I’d peel/carve/chop off the tough-as-shoe-leather skin.
And that’s not easy when it’s not hard as a rock, but rather mushy as an unripe banana.
So, I ended up with more “chunks” than “slices.”
Once that grunt work was done, it was time to cook.
I sautéed my onions and garlic.
And once those were translucent, I added in the chopped chives.
And ham. (I was not going to go whole hog and get pig snout and tails as suggested in the recipe.)
I sliced and de-seeded a habanero pepper and threw that in.
And I poured in my coconut milk.
A few stirs later, I dropped in the sliced breadfruit.
And realizing the damn recipe didn’t say when to add in the remaining ingredients, here I tossed in the chopped pimento peppers.
And … DAMN.
in reviewing this, I, in this moment, realize I neglected to add in the chopped celery, since the recipe didn’t say to add it here.
Double damn. That was truly the one thing that was missing from the dish, flavor-wise.
In any case, I stirred the whole mess, covered it, and set it to simmer for 45 minutes.
When time was up, I removed the habanero pepper from the pot and I ladled the creamy goodness into bowls.
And it looked like this.
We both agreed it was really quite good. The breadfruit has a sweet-starchy-sour taste which is sort of reminiscent of bread, sourdough perhaps.
The ham gave the dish a salty/meaty taste and the peppers helped bring the heat, which was balanced by the oh-so-creamy coconut milk.
It was hearty and filling and really hit the spot. The only thing it really needed, we both thought, was texture.
It needed crunch. We imagined what it would be like with walnuts.
But, of course, now I know what was missing. That damn celery.
Well, at least now I know where to buy breadfruit!
Next Week: We return to the North American mainland for … Guatemala!
Cooking Around The World: Greece
Fair warning. This is going to be epic. It may or may not involve fighting a minotaur, but it will be a long time before we’re back where we started.
Still with me? Good. It’s just the two of us now. You’ll thank me later.
Yes, welcome to Week 66 of my alphabetical-geographical-learn-to-cookical challenge and … Greece!
Geez, what can you say? The freakin’ cradle of Western Civilization. Thousands and thousands of years of history. Beautiful islands and beaches. Crushing debt crisis. Yanni and Nana Mouskouri.
The rest you can look up yourself.
As for the food, Greece arguably has the original Mediterranean cuisine, with influences from the ancient Greeks as well as the Ottomans who ruled the area for centuries. Olives, olive oil, feta cheese and lamb abound.
And owing to 20th century immigration patterns, it’s one of the five to ten international cuisines you can be assured to find in any American city.
This means that, unlike most of the global cuisines, I already had an idea of what there was to make. And that was a loooong list.
In fact, even after vetoing a host of dishes for various reasons, I still had more options than I had room for on my stove (or in my stomach).
The solution: Cook over three different nights.
- Spanakopita (Spinach & Feta in Phyllo) using this recipe.
- Alevropita (Feta Tart) using this recipe,
- Piperies Gemistes me Feta (Peppers Stuffed with Feta) using this recipe, and (finally)
- Keftedes me Saltsa Domata (Meatballs in Tomato Sauce) using this recipe.
Seeing as Greek food is generally pretty common, I didn’t anticipate having to do a major hunt. However …
Who knew Fresno chilies were so damn hard to find?
They showed up in a recipe last week [Ghana (Week 65)] and I struck out then. This week, I needed them for the stuffed peppers recipe (a dish particular to Greek Macedonia). And again I struck out.
What am I missing here? They don’t seem that uncommon. I’d even guess that these are the ones seen on the logo of the chain restaurant Chili’s. Are they just out of season?
In any case, I lost. And even with the help of a culinary friend who gave me four (count ‘em four) adequate substitute chili suggestions, I ended up striking out on those too. So, I ended up using poblano peppers. I’m sure it’s way wrong, but it was the only pepper that size I figured was on the same heat scale. Shrug.
The Cook (Night One):
Before you say anything (in case you looked), yeah, I know it’s a Bobby Flay recipe. I find that bizarre. But, hell, it got good reviews. That has to count for something, no?
Oh, and why did I pick such a complicated dish? Well, for one thing, I had the time that day. And for another, I’m still determined to use this project to get over my historical distaste for certain foods, eggplant being one of them.
In fact, I made a point of ordering moussaka at a Greek restaurant over the holidays so I could have a clue as to what it was supposed to taste like. But did it work?
After organizing the 1,001 recipe ingredients, I got started.
Damn, that took well over the 30 minutes prep time listed in the recipe — more like an hour and change.
I soaked the currants in water for 30 minutes.
And I started browning the ground lamb in olive oil.
I added the cinnamon.
I seasoned with salt and pepper.
And I browned it for about five minutes.
I strained out the liquid and set the meat aside.
After draining the pot, I put it back on the stove and added more olive oil.
To that, I added the sliced onions.
And the sliced red pepper.
Once those were soft, I added the chopped Serrano pepper.
And the chopped garlic.
After a minute, I added in the tomato paste.
And a minute later, I was ready to add in the lamb.
Oh, and the cup of red wine.
Once the liquid was evaporated, I added in the tomato puree.
And the drained currants.
And I brought the whole thing to a boil.
I reduced the heat on that and let it simmer for 30 minutes or so.
Afterwards, I stirred in the chopped parsley.
The chopped oregano.
And I seasoned with salt, pepper and … honey!
And I removed the mixture from the heat.
Meanwhile, I had peeled and sliced up the eggplant.
(It didn’t say to peel the thing, but I figured that was one of those things that’s left off recipes since most people know to do that without being told. I’ve gotten burned that way before. A lot.)
I seasoned the eggplant slices with salt and pepper and fried them in some canola oil.
Once I got through all the slices, I put them on paper towels and moved on to the next phase of this massive project. The béchamel sauce.
I melted the butter in a pan.
And I stirred in the flour.
A couple of minutes later, I added in the milk.
And the bay leaf.
Whisk! Whisk! Whisk!
After a couple of minutes, I discarded the bay leaf, and added in salt, pepper and nutmeg.
And I let that cool.
Elsewhere, I added the eggs and goat cheese to a bowl.
Added in the lemon zest.
And whisked that into a frenzy.
I added that mixture to the sauce.
And I whisked it until smooth.
Finally, I was ready to assemble the dish.
I put down a layer of eggplant slices.
Added half the meat sauce.
Added another layer of eggplant slices.
And another layer of meat sauce.
I poured the béchamel sauce over the whole thing.
And I smoothed it out.
I sprinkled the grated Romano cheese over the top.
I put it on a baking tray. (A recipe suggestion I realized later was to save my oven from being covered in bubbly overflow. My oven thanks you, Bobby!)
I set it to bake at 400F for 50 minutes.
When It was done, it looked like this.
I let it cool for 20 minutes and it was ready to serve.
The Greek Salad
I only decided to do a second dish this night because it was easy. Also, having done a variation on a Greek salad before for Albania (Week 2) oh so long ago, I thought it was time.
Interesting side note. Traditional Greek salads do not have lettuce. Now you know.
I gathered together my pepper, cucumber and tomatoes.
So, to the chopped tomato …
I added the cucumber.
Sliced red onion.
Extra virgin olive oil.
And crumbled feta cheese. (I noticed that you pay a good deal more for pre-crumbled feta at the grocery store. And while crumbling my own was an easy way to save, I foolishly over-crumbled the stuff. Phooey.)
I added in the Kalamata olives and mixed the whole thing up.
I garnished the dish with picked hot peppers and was ready to serve.
In the end the salad looked like this.
And the moussaka looked like this.
The Tasting (Night One)
The Salad: Fine. Very fine. But The Husband was right when he commented that the over-crumbled cheese got lost in the liquid of the salad which kind of messed it up texturally. Well, I know for next time.
The Moussaka: OH MY FREAKIN’ GAWD. That was astoundingly good! Unlike any moussaka I’ve had before (which could say something right there) this was arguably the best dish I’ve made so far.
Normally, I wouldn’t make a dish with that many servings since it’s just the two of us eating, but I decided I’d carve out a couple servings for leftovers the next night and a couple for the Parental Units whom we were visiting the next day.
A day later, I got a phone call in which my mother was just about screaming about how good this was … and how she had to almost elbow my father when he finished his portion and wanted to start in on hers.
My only critique (and it’s a mild one I direct at myself): I could have used just a smidge less honey in the seasoning. The recipe didn’t say how much to use and I may have made it just a hair too sweet. But that’s stretching to find something bad to say about this AMAZING dish.
The Cook (Night Two)
As with most Greek dishes, over years of Greek dining and Greek festivals and friends and acquaintances with names ending in -ades and -opolos, I’ve had most of these at least once before. I have a vague memory of liking spanakopita … but not a strong enough one to remember if I really liked it much. That’s about to change.
I started by doing what my stupid, stupid, uneducated and generally dumb self didn’t do the last time I was to use phyllo dough back during the bloodbath that was Belgium (Week 17): I defrosted the damn phyllo dough.
Have I mentioned yet that I came into this with all the cooking experience of a flock of barn owls?
While that defrosted, I sautéed the chopped green onions in olive oil for a few.
And I added in the chopped spinach. (I opted for fresh spinach, as opposed to frozen. But, I’ll be damned if that didn’t take a million years to clean and chop.)
Once that was all adequately wilted and the pan was dry, I added in the nutmeg.
I took it off the heat and added in the beaten egg.
And the feta cheese.
Next, it was time to address the now-thawed-thank-you-very-much dough.
I spread out the thin layers and buttered them until I had a buttery three-ply base.
I placed a spoonful of the spinach-and-cheese mixture on the dough.
And I got to folding triangles.
As I did this, I started to feel I didn’t have enough melted butter for this.
So I melted more.
Which means I probably used more than would be wise.
But … butter.
Since my folding, wrapping and packaging skills are on par with the aforementioned barn owls, my triangles looked like they were … um, I’m going to say Picasso-esque?
I put them down on the baking sheet.
And I placed them in the oven for 30 minutes at 350F..
When they were done, they looked like this.
I plated them (alongside the moussaka leftovers) and they looked like this.
The Tasting (Night Two)
The Spanakopita: Again … wow! Flaky, cheesy and oh-so-buttery. I not only inhaled these, but I risked eating the next day’s leftovers.
If I had a criticism, I’d say it was that I added too much butter. While that was rich, it seemed just a bit too sinful. I’ll definitely be doing this one again. And I’ll be more restrained with the butter brush next time.
The Cook (Night Three) My Traditional Cook Day
The Feta Tart
If you’ve been playing along, you’ll know that any attempt at baking tends to end in tears with me. Shall this end differently? Let’s find out.
I started by heating up a baking tray in the oven at 500F.
Meanwhile, added some oil.
Vodka. (Yes, VODKA.)
And water to a bowl.
I whisked it into a froth.
In another bowl, I sifted flour.
And added salt.
And baking powder.
And I whisked that together.
I added the liquid to the flour.
And I whisked “until smooth.”
I pulled the hot tray out of the oven and brushed it with olive oil.
And this is where I started to curse a blue streak.
See, there was no way I was making the entire recipe here. But I don’t have a tray that would be half the suggested size. I thought that would just mean that my “tart” would be thinner than recommended.
I thought wrong.
As I tried to spread the dough over the tray, it kept clinging together and clawing its way back into a doughy mass in the center of the tray.
After being quite certain that the tray was had gotten quite cool again, I gave up and decided to punt.
I added about half of the cheese I had set aside for this on top of the mix.
And I dotted it with the softened butter.
I put it in the oven for 20 minutes, rotating about halfway through.
When it came out, it looked like this.
The Stuffed Peppers
I washed the (substituted for the ones I wanted) poblano peppers and put them on a baking tray under the broiler for five minutes, flipping them once halfway through.
Once they were softened, I took them out and let them cool.
Meanwhile, I added the feta cheese to a bowl.
Added in the olive oil.
Salt and pepper.
Oh, and the yogurt I just realized I missed.
I whisked that up and set it all aside.
Next, I sliced the peppers open, scooping out the seeds and core.
And I spooned a bit of the cheese mixture into each pepper.
And I put the tray in the fridge for 30 minutes as instructed.
Once I was ready, I sprinkled grated Parmesan cheese on top.
And I broiled them for about six minutes.
I really am a sucker for punishment. I mean, after all the above, why did I decide to add a dish that was THIS complicated? Just look at the prepped ingredients.
Well, we gotta get started.
I added the dried mint to a bowl.
Added the olive oil.
Grated red onion.
And salt and pepper.
After mixing that up, I poured the milk over the bread. (No, I was not able to find “stale country bread.” Yes, I totally forgot to cut the crusts off the bread as instructed. I’m a moron.)
After five minutes, I squeezed out the milk and added the bread to the mixture.
Along with the ground lamb.
And I made another attempt to make meatballs.
I am. Not. Good. At. This.
Last time I tried to make meatballs doing Denmark (Week 47).I made the balls too big and they didn’t cook all the way through. I was kind of afraid this might happen again, especially since I found myself pressed for time. (Did you SEE that table of ingredients to prep?)
I dredged the balls in flour and set them to fry in oil.
And I placed them on paper towels as the batches were ready.
Next, it was time for the tomato sauce.
I started by heating up the rest of the oil in a pan.
And I heated the garlic in it for a minute.
I added the bay leaves and tomato paste.
And a couple of minutes later, I added in the oregano, cinnamon and nutmeg.
And the can of tomatoes.
And the beef broth.
Wait, I thought to myself. How is that going to reduce if the tomatoes are whole like that? (Runs to re-read recipe and reads that the tomatoes are to have been pureed.)
(Pulls tomatoes out of the pot, runs to puree them quickly and reintroduces them to the pot.)
After the sauce thickened, I added the meatballs to the mix and let it simmer for about five minutes more.
And, at long last, it was time to serve.
I plated the bread, the peppers and the meatballs and in the end it looked like this.
The Feta Tart: Feh. At least it wasn’t the unmitigated disaster I thought it would be. Still, it was hard and unleavened and kind of a bear to eat. At least it had feta cheese in it to make it something other than a roof shingle.
The Stuffed Pepper: Actually kind of delicious. For a bite or two, I was thinking it was going to be too spicy hot. But, no, It was pretty amazing. Cheesy and spicy and all kinds of wonderful. I can only imagine what it would taste like if I had been able to find THAT DAMN FRESNO CHILI.
The Meatballs: Not bad. Just not very good. Especially considering all the work that went into it. It had a lot of flavor, so the recipe was fine enough. But the problem was in the execution, since the meatballs were too moist and mushy, creating something of a texture problem. But at least they were cooked all the way though. Kind of?
Well, for the zero of you who made it this far without skipping to the end, that’s the EPIC tale of Greece. If you skipped past it, go back and check out the moussaka and spanakopita. Wowsers.
And now that I’ve found my way back to Ithaca, it’s off on my next culinary adventure!
Next Week: It’s back to the Caribbean for the spice island of … Grenada!
Cooking Around The World: Ghana
AND WE’RE BACK!
After two weeks off for the holidays, I’ll admit I had been itchin’ to get back in the kitchen. A year ago, I was stressing about how I was going to remember the little I had learned so far while, after the break, I was cooking Barbados (Week 15).
This year, with more experience under my belt, I fared better.
Still, with three weeks to obsess over what to make — and with the additional pressure of knowing a friend was eagerly anticipating this country’s dishes — I did (again) have a bit of performance anxiety.
So, how’d I do? Let’s see.
Yes, welcome to Week 65 of my epic-around-the-world-learn-to-cook-and-scratch-an-obsessive-alphabetical-itch project and … Ghana!
Prepare yourself; There Will Be Puns.
Located on the southern border of West Africa, Ghana is neighbors with a couple of nations we’ve already covered here, Côte d’Ivoire (Week 42) and Burkina Faso (Week 27) as well as a couple which we have yet to cover, Togo and Guinea.
Naturally, its history is somewhat similar to that of its West African neighbors, being home to various tribes and a few kingdoms before European contact. Afterwards though, thanks to the area’s mineral reserves, various European powers — the Swedes, the Portuguese, the Danes, the Dutch and the Germans — all built forts and castles all across the Atlantic coast there. (They didn’t call it the Gold Coast of Africa for nothin’.)
In 1957, after years of British control, Ghana declared independence, becoming the first sub-saharan African nation to do so. However, the nation suffered a string of military coups until 1981 when the last coup stuck and all political parties were banned.
Democratic rule was restored in 1992 and the nation has seen peaceful transitions of power since. And while there are still serious issues of corruption and narcotrafficking, the nation has had one of the most vibrant economies in the area and has a plan to become a fully developed country in the coming decade.
Also, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan hailed from Ghana, as have dozens of famed international figures.
(And, just for that Trivial Pursuit bonus round, erstwhile child star Shirley Temple was appointed U.S. ambassador to Ghana in 1974. You’re welcome.)
Being one of the more developed nations in the area, the cuisine of Ghana is more well-documented than that of some of its neighbors, a fact that I always find a mixed blessing. That is, I like having options, but not too many.
Most of the dishes I found involved a starch with a soup or stew. And since it’s Africa, as always, peanuts (or, as they are known there, groundnuts) abound. Also, I discovered that tilapia is a primary protein there.
So, with so many choices (and that performance anxiety I mentioned before), I decided I’d actually cook on two separate nights. This would allow me to cover more dishes (and to be sure at least one would be a success).
After much deliberation I decided I’d make the following:
Meal Night One:
And for …
Meal Night Two:
- Spicy Chicken Peanut Soup (Groundnut Soup) using this recipe, and
- Gari Foto (Savory Cassava Grits) using this recipe.
Here’s where the puns come in. Brace yourself.
See, that recipe for the grilled tilapia? It calls for a “hot pepper sauce for dipping.” Notice it doesn’t specify what that means.
From my research, though, I learned that there is a hot pepper sauce that (I gather) is like mother’s milk in Ghana, with recipes handed down from parent to child with jars of the homemade concoction sent off to school with children.
It’s called shito.
Yeah, that’s going to be a fun hunt, I thought. Oh, I could try to make it myself, I figured. But seeing how the recipes I found called for items found easily enough in places with different ethnic populations than my oh-so-white community — dried shrimp and/or herring — I thought I’d just as easily find the pre-made stuff.
So, realizing I’d be wasting my time (not to mention getting hung up on) if I called local grocers asking if they carried “shito,” I dialed direct to the local International Mega Market Of A Million Global Products (Where Zero Employees Know Where Said Products Are Located).
"Er, hi. I’m looking for a particular item …"
"Well, it’s a West African hot spice—"
"Yeah, we have it."
"Let me spell it for you, it’s ‘S’ …"
"Yeah, we have it."
(Pause) “OK, then. I’ll be right over.”
I’ll point out here that the place is hardly nearby. It’s actually quite a haul to get there. But since it’s the only place within a 90-minute drive that has anything African, it was my only chance.
And did they have it?
No. No shito.
So, I guess I’m cooking up my own, then. Good thing I was already in one of three places in the county that sell dried shrimp.
So, one more recipe …
- Shito using this recipe. (Yes, the page is called “Eat Shito.” Enjoy.)
The Cook (Night One)
I’d start with the marinade for the fish.
Rather than go with dried goods, I thought I’d grate fresh. (Please tell me that was the right choice.)
I grated up the garlic.
A small onion.
I seasoned with salt and pepper.
I took out my tilapia fillets.
And I lathered the marinade over them.
I placed the fillets in a plastic bag with the marinade and set it in the fridge for a few hours, as directed.
Once time was up, I put the fish in grilling baskets …
And I went outside to the grill where, despite the polar vortex affecting the rest of the country, I was still in flip-flops in Florida hoping it wouldn’t rain on me.
Meanwhile, I had to prepare the …
Seeing as it wasn’t my usual cooking day, I got all lazy and decided I’d let the wand blender do all the work here.
I tossed some chopped onions in the cup.
I threw in some sliced ginger.
And set that to whirrrrr.
I heated up some canola oil in a pan.
And started sautéing my onion/ginger/garlic mix.
After a while, it was … well, something.
So, it was time to add in the tomato paste.
And pureed tomatoes.
After a few minutes of simmering, I greeted my new friend, Ye Olde Bag O’ Dried Shrimp.
(I was advised that these were probably already salty, so I knew not to add salt to this dish.)
I ground up the dried shrimp (since I just kind of guessed that’s what I was supposed to do here) and tossed that in.
I added in paprika.
Hot chili flakes.
And I let that simmer. After a while, I figured it was ready and I set it to cool off the stove.
Next, there were the …
Yeah, “chips” is a relative term.
Feeling lazy (and not having ever made chips before), I was kind of stumped as to how one slices a hard tuber thinly. I know I could have had the sense to use the mandoline for this, but, like I said, I was wasn’t thinking clearly.
So, they were more “slabs” than “chips.”
After frying them in peanut oil, I placed them in the only paper bag in the house and absent-mindedly chucked in a handful of sea salt.
As instructed, I put the bag in the oven for ten minutes, ostensibly to let the “chips” get crispy.
Yeah, “slabs” don’t get crispy.
In the end, I plated and it looked like this.
Well, the fish was tasty. Although in retrospect, using fresh ginger and leaving it on the fish was probably a mistake, since it gave the fish an odd texture.
The shito, though, was a curious addition. It gave the fish a really interesting flavor with enough heat to make things interesting. And the dried shrimp taste was quite pronounced. I rather liked it, but I’d steer clear if that taste isn’t your thing.
Oh, and they were right about it not needing salt. Hoo boy, it had (almost) more than enough.
Speaking of salt, the yams. I’d say it’s hard to mess up that dish, but I kind of did. Like I noted, I didn’t cut them thinly enough and threw in way too much salt. So, they were (shall we say) flawed. At least I know if I were to try that again, I’d know what not to do next time.
The Cook (Night Two):
For my money, this was the one that would count, if for no other reason than I knew from reading various reviews that the peanut soup was Ghana be delicious. (I warned you about the puns, right?)
The Peanut Soup
I heated up some distinctively flavored red palm oil. (I love how The Husband says he doesn’t like the stuff, likes a dish made with it and doesn’t find out until he reads this.)
I set the boneless chicken thighs to brown in the oil.
After 15 minutes, I added in the chopped green bell pepper.
And grated fresh ginger.
I seasoned with salt and pepper and let that simmer for a few, until the onions and peppers were softened.
(I’ll point out here that I totally misread the recipe and neglected to add in the other pepper as well in at this point. Thankfully, I caught it later.)
Afterwards, I added in the full quart of seafood stock.
The chopped tomatoes.
And the minced jalapeño peppers I had forgotten earlier.
(The recipe called for Fresno peppers, but I couldn’t get those. Oh, I so wish we had a decent variety of peppers available here, but considering the folks in the area consider “ketchup” as being “spicy,” I should be grateful I can get even these.)
And I set that to simmer for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, I mixed up the peanut butter and water. (The recipe suggested doing this with my fingers, but … no, thanks.)
Once it was time, I poured the peanut butter mixture into the soup.
And I let that simmer for another 15 minutes or so.
Lastly, it was time for the …
Here’s our old friend, Gari (or Garri.) *Not Gary.
If you’ve been playing along, you know we first met during Côte d’Ivoire (Week 42). Since then, he’s been taking up space in the Cabinet of 1000 World Flours.
He’s happy to be of use again.
And the recipe also called for a Scotch bonnet pepper, which (again) the Grocery Store To The Aged And Not-Inclined-To-Heat did not have. And since I didn’t feel like making a special trip to the produce stand for one five-cent pepper, I opted for the suggested Hungarian wax pepper. (The produce guy said that that could be just as hot, though I don’t know if I can trust him.)
I got started by sautéing a sliced onion in peanut oil.
Once those were browned, I added in half of my pepper. (I was afraid it could be too hot, since the pepper seemed rather large.)
To that, I added in chopped tomato.
And a couple teaspoons of tomato puree.
As that simmered, I threw in some cilantro leaves.
And here’s where the huge improvisation came in.
See, the recipe called for a cube of shrimp bouillon. Since I searched for that in vain two times before, I knew to be prepared for disappointment.
And disappointed I was. I had no desire to travel back to the Global Maze again for such a small item, so I went ahead and took the fish counter guy’s recommendation to just throw a few fresh, wild shrimp into the mix to get the shrimp flavor.
Well, who knows? It could work.
In they went.
I scooped out a cup of the gari and added in the suggested two teaspoons of water. But “mix until fluffy”? Fluffy was not happening. Ever.
Oh dear. Did I miss a step somewhere where I wasn’t supposed to start with dried gari? Last time, I remember I ended up using a YouTube recipe for the stuff and steaming it. But I didn’t have time for that now.
"Honey," I yelled into the living room, "just to let you know. This could totally suck.”
"Oh, that’s comforting."
I went ahead and tossed it in and mixed it all together.
And after a while its as all done.
I didn’t know what to do with the shrimp. I had only added them for flavor. And now they were cooked, unpeeled and in the dish.
So, after some wise skepticism from The Husband, I plucked the shrimp out and proceeded to burn my fingers, peeling the hot shrimp with my bare hands.
Have I mentioned I don’t know what I’m doing?
Finally, its as all done.
The Gari Foto looked like this.
And after garnishing with peanuts, the soup looked like this.
The Gari Foto: Surprisingly good. Actually, I shouldn’t have been surprised, since I really liked the gari when I made it before. It has a really cool sour taste (like sourdough). Mixed in with the shrimp and tomatoes and with the heat from the peppers, it was really tasty.
The zonker though came when The Husband bit into something hard and gritty — I have no real idea what, to be honest — and was put off from having more after really enjoying it at first. (I’m going to guess that some of the gari burnt in the pan, since that’s all that makes sense.)
The Peanut Soup: As advertised, a serious wow moment.
"You have to make that again,” said The Husband.
Rich, creamy and all-kinds-of-good peanut buttery with just the right amount of heat from the peppers, the whole thing was a home run. And with the great texture from the peanuts, it was one for the repeat list.
But honestly, I kind of knew that was Ghana happen.
Sorry, I had to meet my pun quota.
Next Week: Another biggie! It’s back to Europe for … Greece! Opa!
Cooking Around The World: Germany
There are two particular pleasures I get out of cooking and eating all this food. One, I expect; the other I don’t.
One is being pleasantly surprised by the previously unfamiliar food of an obscure nation; the other is being pleasantly surprised with the results of making totally familiar food from a totally familiar nation.
Guess which one I got this week.
Yes, we’ve arrived at Week 64 and the final entry of 2013 on my around-the-globe-learn-to-cook-and-satisfy-a-neurotic-need-to-complete-lists and … Germany!
Really? You need me to tell you something you didn’t know about Germany?
Er, it’s the most populous nation in Europe after Russia?
It has the largest economy on the continent?
About a quarter of US citizens are of at least partial German ancestry?
OK, then; they have more museums than Italy and the United Kingdom combined, including one dedicated entirely to bread.
The rest you can look up for yourself, thankyouverymuch.
Well, as it’s a large country, you can probably already guess that the cuisine varies from region to region. And I wasn’t really going to try to get various dishes done from different parts of the country.
Plus, as with France (Week 60) a few entries back, I figured that a large country’s cuisine with that much range will be reflected in the smaller bordering nations as we go along.
In a manner of speaking, I feel I already approximated certain German regions’ food earlier when I cooked Austria (Week 10) and Denmark (Week 47). A few others will be coming up in the coming year, too. (I’m looking at you, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein!)
So, what would I make? Was there some national German food that I hadn’t already encountered in annual trips to Oktoberfest and assorted German festivals in Florida and in Columbus, Ohio’s famed German Village?
To pick a menu, I took advantage of the fact that I was traveling up to Disney for my birthday last week. And for my birthday dinner, I decided I’d eat at the Biergarten there.
Not that it’s that much different from any other Biergarten closer to home, but, hey, this one’s guaranteed to be staffed by all-German nationals. That has to count for something.
And since it was all buffet-style (something I personally detest under ordinary circumstances), it let me sample a little of everything they had to offer.
Dutifully, I tasted everything there that wasn’t what I already cooked for Austria.
I enjoyed and vetoed all the desserts, since I’m simply not doing those. (You’d be surprised how many countries’ main culinary offerings are desserts.)
I nixed all the dishes that, for whatever execution reason there, were bland at best.
And I ended up with pretty much what I thought I’d be cooking in the first place.
Making a sausage dish was a no-brainer. And since The Husband has used his Golden Power Of Veto on any mention of sauerkraut, red cabbage was going to have to do. And the restaurant did have a really delicious warm potato salad. So, that was that.
But would I have the wherewithal to make my own sausage?
(Stops to research some more. Notices that the recipes start with FIFTY pounds of meat and range down to SIX pounds at the smallest.)
And, while I’d have loved to make my own pretzels, I didn’t think the timing would allow me to add that to what I was already making.
Therefore, I’d make …
- Grilled Bratwurst with German Potato Salad using this recipe, and
- Rotkohl (German-Style Red Cabbage) using this recipe.
I had at one point considered making Sauerbraten to go with all of this, but the fact that it would require a three-day marinade and exactly five juniper berries, I decided I didn’t need that kind of snipe hunt over the Christmas shopping season.
But what about the sausage? Certainly, I could put in some effort to find the genuine article here in the vastness of South Florida.
As luck would have it, I found myself down in Miami (hardly a hotbed of German-American culture) and needing to travel north back home. And there was something I remembered about the long stretch of concrete I’d pass on the way home. I knew that there are entire communities of Germans in them-thar condos!
It is there that I discovered a specialty store that is apparently the sine qua non for German sausage in the area. Little old men and little old women all speaking German stood around and ordered their authentic Teutonic delights.
When it was my turn, I asked the lady behind the counter about the differences between the various types of brats in the display case. I knew that that was one of those questions a busy clerk doesn’t have the time to answer thoroughly, but since I only needed a one-sentence answer, I was happy with the one she offered.
"These five all have different spices and flavors. Those are pre-cooked. This one is fresh."
I’ll take it. And that fancy German mustard, too.
Also, sann wollen wir mal!
I was a mite flabbergasted by how cooking the potato salad, the sausages and the cabbage were all going to require action simultaneously. Somehow, I’d make it work. I’d start with …
I prepped my various ingredients, including the unfiltered apple juice that I had to run out and get at the last minute since I’m incapable of reading an ingredients list properly the first time.
I started with frying the chopped bacon.
Once it was softened, I pulled it out of the pot and left the fat behind.
In that, I sautéed the sliced onion.
And once it was slightly browned, I added in the cloves.
And the pinch of caraway seeds.
After a minute, I added in the apple juice.
And shredded red cabbage.
I stirred it up and let it simmer for 30 minutes.
Once that time was up, I added in the sliced apples. (Yes, I know; the slices are way too big and I probably should have peeled them. I didn’t realize this until they were in the pot … and I was in such a hurry … and, you know.)
I added back in the reserved fried bacon.
And I let that simmer for another 30 minutes until it was ready.
This one was a bit odd, since there were in essence two recipes in one. I’d start with the sausage portion of the dish.
And to start that, I’d have to sacrifice four — count ‘em, four! — entire cans of German beer.
I wept a little, knowing that I’d be pouring this all down the drain in a few minutes, but I dutifully emptied all four cans into a pot and set it to simmer.
And I pulled out my hand-crafted bratwursts from the fridge.
I popped them into the bubbling beer.
And I let them boil in there for about six minutes. When I pulled them out, they looked like this.
I know what you’re thinking.
Hey, Cliffie! That recipe was clearly calling for pre-cooked sausage, not fresh! You’re going to end up serving a plate of raw pork product!
I got ya covered. Thankfully, I (for once) had the foresight to ask the clerk at the sausage haus about how to best cook the links.
"Slow and low," she said. "About 20 minutes a side on very low heat. If it’s too hot, it’ll burn the casing, it will split and it will still be raw inside."
Good to know.
So, after going through the usual annoying heat up and cool down procedure on the grill outside, I brought the heat down to the lowest BBQ setting, brushed the links with oil and threw them on the grate.
I just really hoped that it was low enough (and that I had remembered the advice correctly) so I wouldn’t end up with two charred sticks at the end of the cook time.
The Potato Salad
In between cooking everything else, I started this out peeling and dicing the potatoes.
I set them to boil in salted water for about 15 minutes.
Afterwards, I drained the potatoes and kept them warm while I did the rest.
Meanwhile, I fried up more chopped bacon until it got all cripsy. (Boy, Germans do like their bacon!)
Once I got to the desired crispiness, I added in the chopped onion.
And I seasoned it with lots of fresh-ground black pepper.
After a bit, I took that off the heat and added the onion and bacon mix to the potatoes.
I added in the apple cider vinegar.
That fantabulous German mustard.
Chopped green onions.
And two hard-boiled eggs.
And I stirred it all up, mashing all the way.
Once everything was ready I plated the sausages next to the potato salad and red cabbage and it all looked like this.
Boy, I really picked the right recipes. It was all amazingly good.
The Bratwurst: I was afraid they would turn out overcooked. And maybe they were a tad overdone. But, thankfully, that’s just how The Husband likes his brats. So, score. I’m so glad I went for the fresh, authentically German real deal here. I only wish I had bought more.
The Potato Salad: Num num num. Oh, this was so damn good. Warm and supple, the potatoes and the green onions and the bacon … oh, my. I wasn’t intending on finishing off what was supposed to be lunch the next day. But I did. Yes. Yes, I did.
The Red Cabbage: If I hadn’t just had red cabbage at the German pavilion, I would have totally forgotten how this tasted. I don’t tend to eat red cabbage much. But this particular red cabbage recipe was far, far superior to the pleasant-but-not-spectacular dish I had at Disney a few days earlier.
This was sweet and vinegary and bacon-y … and entirely familiar for a reason I didn’t really remember. Not until The Husband reminded me, that is. The dish was exactly the “Oh, this is now my favorite restaurant in town!” red cabbage that we would get almost weekly at our favorite Columbus restaurant back when we lived there.
And when German food makes a Puerto Rican get all homesick for food from somewhere else, well, you’ve got something!
In Three Weeks: After the holiday break, we welcome 2014 with another trip back to Africa) and a nation I know at least one friend is eagerly anticipating) … Ghana!