Cliffieland: The Global Cooking Challenge

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

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Cooking Around The World: Libya

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

And since then … well, chaos. Basically.

The Food

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

 The Menu

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all so very “meta.”

The Hunt

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

 The Cook

The 7 Spice Mix

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

The black pepper.

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Paprika.

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Cumin seeds.

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Coriander seeds.

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Ground cloves.

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Ground nutmeg.

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Ground cinnamon.

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And ground cardamom.

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

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

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

The Bzaar Spice Mix

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

I spooned in the turmeric.

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The caraway seeds.

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More coriander seeds.

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And a dose of the previously prepared seven spice mix.

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

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

The Chicken in Tomato Stew

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

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

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

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And dropped in the bzaar spice mix.

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The salt.

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And the cayenne pepper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I added more boiling water.

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And the pasta.

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

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

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The Tasting

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

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

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

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

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

Also, keep your head low.

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

Cooking Around The World: Liberia

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

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

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

 The Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Food

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

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

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

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

So, I decided I’d make …

The Hunt

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

The Cook

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

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I did the same with the chicken breast.

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

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

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And, in batches, I browned the beef chunks.

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And the chicken cubes.

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

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

Then, I added in the chopped onion.

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And the chopped yellow and green peppers.

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I sautéed those for about five minutes.

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

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And I mixed in the tomato paste.

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

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The chicken bouillon powder (instead of cubes).

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The black pepper

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

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The ground ginger.

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The curry powder.

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And the thyme.

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Next, I added in the rice.

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And six cups of water.

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

Finally, I added in the shredded head of cabbage. 

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

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

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The Tasting

We have another winner!

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking Around The World: Lesotho

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It’s a hat.

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

It’s a hat.

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

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

The Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s one to dotho?

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

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

The Food

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

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

The Menu

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

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

So, I decided I’d make …

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

The Hunt

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

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

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

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

The Cook 

The Pounded Beef

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

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

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

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

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

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I heated up the oil in the pot.

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And added in the chopped onions.

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

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And the beef broth.

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And I let that simmer until the broth was reduced.

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The Greens and Potatoes

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

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

Into another pot I dropped the cubed potatoes and water.

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The chopped spring onions.

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

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

When time was up, I mixed in the butter.

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And the peanut butter.

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

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

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

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

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The Tasting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cooking Around The World: Lebanon

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

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

The Country

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

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

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

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

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

The Food

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

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

But what to make?

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

Hence, I decided I’d prepare the following.

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

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

The Hunt

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

The Cook

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

So, I started with that.

The Baba Ghanoush

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

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

Er, how’s that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And then I placed the chunks in the food processor.

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To that, I added the tahini sauce.

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Lemon juice.

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And crushed garlic.

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And I set that to mix for about three minutes.

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

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The Pita Bread

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

So, here goes.

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

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

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

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I added in the packet of yeast.

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The salt.

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The sugar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Cabbage Rolls

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

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

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

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

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I salted the mixture and mashed it all together.

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

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And I added salt to that.

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

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

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

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

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I lined a pot with the rolls.

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

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

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To that, I added some lemon juice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the end it looked like this.

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

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The Tasting

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

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

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

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

I figured wrong. 

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

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

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

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

Cooking Around The World: Latvia

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Sometimes you just need a break.

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

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

The Country

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

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

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

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

The Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not doing desserts.

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

Zzzzzzz.

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

Hey, I needed the rest.

The Hunt

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

This is so not Southeast Asia. 

The Cook

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

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

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

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

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And minced onion.

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

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

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And I added the halved, pitted dried prunes.

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The chopped celery.

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Chopped carrots.

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Shredded cabbage.

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And the chunks of boiled potatoes.

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

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And added in the red wine vinegar.

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And sugar.

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I whisked that all together.

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And I poured the mixture over the potatoes.

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

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

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

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The Tasting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Priekā!

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

Cooking Around The World: Laos

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

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

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

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

The Country

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

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

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

The Food

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

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

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

So, for Night One, I’d make …

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

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

The Hunt

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

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

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

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

Or not.

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

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The Cook (Night One)

The Sandwich

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

I heated up the oil in a pan.

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Added my sliced shallot.

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

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

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

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

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I added in the sugar.

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

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Added in the Thai fermented fish sauce.

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And a bit more oil.

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

On to the sandwich!

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

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

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

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And here comes the assembling!

Looking at the recipe, I did as follows.

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

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

I spread the mayonnaise over that.

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I placed the watercress on top.

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Added the shredded carrot.

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The sliced tomato.

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And the sliced chicken breast.

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In the end, the sandwich looked like this.

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The Tasting

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

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

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

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

Oh, I am so very sorry.

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

The Cook (Night Two)

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

The Papaya Salad

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

I greeted my new friends, green papaya …

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And snake beans.

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

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

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Into the bowl, I added the salt.

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Red Thai chiles.

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Sugar.

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A garlic clove.

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

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I mixed that all up.

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And I added in the shredded green papaya.

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Chopped snake beans.

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Sliced cherry tomatoes.

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Lime juice.

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Fermented Thai fish sauce.

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(Conventional?) fish sauce.

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And smashed and mixed like crazy,

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

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The Sticky Rice

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

First, the ingredient.

Meet,  glutinous rice.

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

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

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

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

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I spread the rice over the top of that.

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

When it was done, it looked like this.

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The Fish Laap

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

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I dropped the pieces into a bowl.

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And I added the sliced lemongrass.image

The sliced green onions.

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Crushed garlic.

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Salt.

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Lime juice.

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Fermented Thai fish sauce.

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And chopped red Thai chilies.

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

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

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

I added to the mixture some chopped sweet Thai basil.

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Chopped cilantro.

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Chopped mint leaves.

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And the rice powder I had just made.

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I mixed that all up.

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And it was dinner time.

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

In the end, it looked like this.image

The Tasting

Oh no, we have a split decision. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alas.

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

Cooking Around The World: Kyrgyzstan

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Look, it’s a yurt!

No, really. The flag. Look at it.

It’s a yurt.

As seen from above.

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

The Country

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

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

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

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

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

The Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Therefore, I decided to make …

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

The Hunt

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

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

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

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

The Cook

The Sauce

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

So, cook day, I started early on this.

I spooned the Greek yogurt into a bowl. 

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Added in the crushed garlic.

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And diced mint.

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And I mixed it all up. Ta dah.

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I covered that and placed it in the fridge.

The Stuffed Pasta

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

I scooped the flour into a bowl.

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Cracked a couple eggs into it.

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

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I kneaded that for an age and made a ball.

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

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

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

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

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

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Added in the chopped onion.

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

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I added salt and pepper and mixed that all up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After an hour, it appeared to be done.

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

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The Tasting

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

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

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

Now if only there had been more of it.

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

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

Cooking Around The World: Kuwait

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

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

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

 The Country

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

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

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

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

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

The Food

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

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

Ergo, I decided I’d just make …

The Hunt

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

The Cook

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

And this was one of those recipes.

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

Anyhoo …

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

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

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

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

I cleaned and soaked those for a while.

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

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

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

Hint: They’re limes that are dried.

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

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Finally, it was time to fire up the stove.

I dropped my chicken thighs into a pot.

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And I added in the onion quarters.

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Whole cloves.

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Cinnamon stick.

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

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Crushed dried lime lemon.

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Bay leaves.

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Turmeric.

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And salt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The cooked split peas.

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Allspice.

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Black pepper.

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(Ground) dried lime lemon.

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And salt.

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I sautéed that for a while and set it aside.

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

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

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And four diced tomatoes.

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I stirred that until everything got soft.

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

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And the cooked chicken thighs.

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

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

I added in the water.

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Salt.

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Black pepper.

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Cayenne pepper for heat.

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And tomato paste.

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And I let that simmer for about ten minutes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When it was all done, it looked like this. 

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The Tasting

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

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

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

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

Just sorry you had to Ku-wait for it.

*rim shot*

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

Cooking Around The World: South Korea

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Annyong!

It feels like we were just here. Or, then again, no. Really, not.

Yes, we have arrived at Week 90 of my around-the-world, alphabetical learn-to-cookical challenge and … South Korea!

The Country

Well, we kind of covered this last week when we cooked North Korea (Week 89). Yes, Korea is, in a manner of speaking, one country with one cuisine and one history. Only the 20th Century, Japanese occupation, the Cold War, the bloody Korean War and the subsequent armistice since have led to two very distinct political states separated by one very tense Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

Since the truce with the North in 1953, South Korea has undergone radical changes from being a mostly agricultural state with a military government in  the 1950s to the robust,democratic,thriving economic powerhouse of the 2010s.

So, what else is there to say?

Er, the nation has some of the most educated citizens on the planet … and a toilet-centric theme park? And a phallus-centric one, too?

The Food

As I mentioned last week, the cuisine of Korea is derived from its long history and relies heavily on rice, vegetables and fermented chili paste. It is influenced by the cuisines of China (Week 36) and Japan (Week 84), as well as, oddly, Mongolia. It is set apart by its liberal use of garlic, sesame oil, green onions and hot chili.

And, as I mentioned last week, the differences between the dishes of the North and South are subtle, with the South’s being more developed owing to its not being cut off from the rest of the world politically.

The Menu

Since there are so very many Korean dishes from which to choose, I opted to do this one over two nights. But, even that would be a problem for one reason: kimchi.

Pickling cabbage takes time.

So, the menu worked out like this.

Night One:

  • Bibimbop (Mixed Beef, Rice and Vegetables) using this recipe(Note: It seems anglicized spelling can be either ”bi bim bap or bi bim bop.”) 

Night Two:

  • Bulgogi (Grilled Marinated Meat) using this recipe, served with 
  • Kimchi (Fermented Cabbage) using this recipe, and
  • Short Grain Rice prepared using this method.

The Hunt

Lucky for me, any hunting that was required this week was accomplished last week.

Unlucky for me, this week featured one of my few total strike outs, since I was totally unable to find doraji (dried bellflower root)  at the local Asian market. And I didn’t feel like going on a wild root chase at the Massive Market of 1,000,000 Unfindable International Ingredients.

Call me lazy.

So, I did without it. Phooey.

The Cook

Night One: The Kimchi

Wait! Didn’t you say that the kimchi was for the second night?

Technically, yes. But since the dish takes three days to ferment, I had to start this sucker waaaay ahead of time. (For the record, I loathe dishes that make me do work a day or more before eating. But, you know … learning.)

After having to go to no fewer than three grocery stores to track down Napa cabbage — (If you see me in person, ask me to tell you that story!) — I was ready to go.

I greeted my huge head of leafy greens.

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And I divided and chopped it into bite-sized chunks.

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I dissolved some salt in water.

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And I poured it over the mountain of chopped cabbage.

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I stirred it up and let it sit for four hours overnight. (What? You expected me to be blending things in the processor at 2 a.m.?)

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When I was finally ready to proceed, I drained the cabbage.

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And put it back in a bowl.

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I mixed a ridiculous amount of red chili flakes with water.

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And I poured that over the cabbage.

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To that, I added chopped garlic.

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Chopped ginger.

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Chopped green onions.

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And fish sauce.

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Then, I took out the blender.

I dropped in my onion.

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Half a ripe apple.

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And half a ripe pear. (The market was out of Asian pears this week, so I had to resort to a Bosc pear. Boo.)

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After I devoured the remaining halves of the pear and apple over the sink — Waste not, want not and all — I poured in some water.image

And I blended that mess up good.

I poured the sweet mixture over the cabbage.

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And, donning rubber gloves, I mixed the whole thing up, blending everything together.

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Finally, I took handfuls of the mixture and crammed it into a jar, topping it off with the remaining liquid.

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I sealed that up and let it sit on the counter for three days until dinner.

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The Cook: Night One, The Bibimbop

Now, for a dinner I actually ate right after cooking.

The first thing I noticed with this one was that the preparation method for the rice was, er, somewhat different that what I’m used to. After some research, I realized this must have to do with the fact that short grain and long grain rice are different.

So, I blindly forged ahead.

I took out my (brown) short grain rice and soaked it in water for 30 minutes.

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Meanwhile, I got out my little bit of ground beef (a quarter pound) and cooked that in a skillet.

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When that was done, I set it aside.

Next, I chopped up some cucumber, carrots and a lettuce leaf. I salted the carrots and cucumber and tried my best to squeeze out the water from the cucumber.

(About this time I realized the recipe was kind of vague. In fact, I realized too late that it didn’t even say when or where to add the bean sprouts from the ingredient list. They’re now just as I bought them safe and sound in the fridge.)

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Once the rice’s time was up, I drained it and put it in a pot. Following the directions I added only one cup of water and I set it to boil.

Note: I now see what I did wrong. I should have used a much smaller pot for this. Had I done so, half of the rice wouldn’t have burned. But you’ll see that in a moment. Fun.

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While the rice cooked, I continued with the vegetables.

I heated up some sesame oil in a pan.

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And I dropped in the cucumber sticks.

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After sautéing that for a bit, I put those aside on a plate.

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I did the same thing with the carrots.

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And the shiitake mushrooms (which The Husband was kind enough to run out and buy when I realized I am a dolt and again forgot to purchase a key ingredient).

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Next, I pulled out the red chili paste I purchased last week and scooped out a scary amount of the stiff into a bowl.

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To that, I added sugar.

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And sesame seeds. (Ed. - I noted after posting this that, while the recipe called for sesame seeds, my muddle brain pulled mustard seeds out of the cabinet. Oops. Thankfully, it worked anyway,(

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And I mixed it up.

About this time, I realized that the rice I had boiling, and which I then had left on low for 10 minutes, had actually burnt quite badly. 

This would explain the nutty smell of … burnt rice.

Well, fewer leftovers, I figured.

I scooped out what rice wasn’t ruined and placed that in an earthenware casserole which I had coated with sesame oil.

Note: In an attempt to be traditional, this casserole was made insanely hot on the stove, since I gather the concept is that the dish continues to cook once on the table. This also meant I’d have to be careful not to burn my hands … and my table.   

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I fried an egg.

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And I started to assemble the casserole-type thing.

I placed the cooked vegetables on the rice.

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Added on the ground beef.

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And chopped lettuce.

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And deftly placed the fried egg on top.

The hot sauce is traditionally served on the side so as to allow the diner to pick his or her own heat level, so that’s what I did. When it was all done, it looked like this.

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The Tasting

Weeeeell … after mixing it all up it was actually quite tasty. However … the rice.

Al dente? Underooked? Chewy? Burnt? All of the above?

Still, I rather enjoyed the whole thing. The sesame oil really is the star of the show, since it imbued the vegetables and the meat with a rich flavor. And the nutty flavor of the brown rice (cooked badly as it was) played nicely off the egg.

I really should try this again. Only not screwing up the rice next time.

The Cook: Night Two, The Marinated Beef with Sushi Rice

Again, we had a dish that required work hours before dinner. At least this one wasn’t the night before.

So, the morning of dinner, I gathered together the thinly sliced sirloin and placed that in a bowl.

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To that, I added sugar.

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Chopped garlic.

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Salt.

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Mirin (sweet sake).

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Sesame oil.

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Sesame seeds. (Ed. - Again, I goofed and grabbed mustard seeds instead and didn’t realize this until now. Double oops.)

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Blurry chopped green onions.

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And I mixed it all up, coating the meat entirely.

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I covered the bowl and placed it in the fridge to marinate for a few hours.

Hours later, I got to prepping the rice. This time, I went with white short grain rice and the instructions listed here. I didn’t want more burnt offerings this night.

I washed the rice until the water was clear and I set it to boil, covering it and letting it sit off the heat for the final ten minutes. 

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In a new twist, I took out a bowl and added some rice vinegar to it.

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I mixed in some sugar.

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And salt.

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And I zapped that in the microwave for 20 seconds.

When I had cooked rice and a heated up paste, I blended the two and set the rice aside.

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It was finally time to cook the beef.

I took the marinated meat out of the bowl and placed it in a heated skillet. 

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And when it looked like the meat was almost ready, I added in the chopped carrots.

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Dinner time!

I placed a mound of the rice on each plate, scooped the beef onto the plates and added a serving of the kimchi on the side.

In the end, it all looked like this. 

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The Tasting

Instantly, The Husband declared this one of the better dishes I’ve made. Which was a relief after the mess of the previous night.

The rice was just what I’d expect and I could taste the little something extra in it, even if The Husband missed it.

The Beef: Thankfully, the beef was indeed tender and fell apart just as it should. This was a relief since the last time I cooked beef [Kenya (Week 87)] things didn’t go so well. It had a sweet and herbaceous flavor and the carrots gave it a nice bit of texture.

The Kimchi: I’ll say it worked, even if it could have used another day to ferment more. And, boy, oh boy, was it hot! Those chilies are really some powerful stuff! Still, what amounts to Korean cole slaw was a great compliment to the otherwise sweet dish, balancing out the flavors nicely.

The only problem is that now I have so much leftover that I don’t know how I’m going to eat that all over the next few months.

Who wants leftovers?

Next Week: Due to the holiday this week, next week’s dinner and blog will be a day late, but … we’ll be going back to the Middle East for … Kuwait!

Cooking Around The World: North Korea

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It’s one of those weeks.

It’s one of those weeks where the demons of the alphabet decree that I’m cooking food from a country that is deeply depressing. And it doesn’t help that that sadness is because so many people of said country don’t have reliable access to food.

Yes, we have arrived at Week 89 of my around-the-globe, learn-to-cook-and-satisfy-a-neurotic-need-to-follow-lists challenge and … North Korea!

The Country

If the politics of this place weren’t tricky already, for my purposes there was the additional issue of … the alphabet.

Last night, I explained to a friend that for this challenge I have been going off the list of United Nations member states (easy enough) and going alphabetically. This, though, is a problem in the case of a few nations, being as they have a long formal name that throws off any logical order.

Hence, while known formally as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), I’m following Wikipedia’s simplified and more logical order. So, Korea, North comes after Kiribati (Week 88) and before Korea, South.

And, of course, there is the larger issue that — in one way of looking at things — historically, there really is only one Korea.

Taking up the upper portion of the Korean Peninsula, North Korea is bordered on the north by China (Week 36) and Russia and is separated by the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) from its sister state (?), South Korea.

Korea was the center of a series of empires for centuries before being occupied by Japan (Week 84) in 1895. At the end of World War II, the peninsula was divided, with Soviet forces occupying the North and US forces taking the South.

The Korean War raged from 1950 to 1953 and, well, there’s been something of a truce since then, because, technically, the two states are still at war.

And in the North? Well, take a totalitarian, Stalinist state, mix in a succession of crazed dictators and paranoia and you have the makings for 1,001 late-night  jokes, sketches and standup routines … and oppression, famine and such for the people who actually live there.

In fact, just this week news came down the pipeline about …

The Food

So, you can see how discussing the food of the place is awkward.

In any case, my research into the food of North Korea suggested that there is very little difference between the food of the two political states. But as I learned way back at the start of this, even a tiny nation like Andorra (Week 4) has regional differences within its cuisine.

What makes North Korean food distinct(ish) is that owing to its political isolation and its proximity to China, its preparations are more traditional and (in theory) less spicy. And due to the less-hospitable terrain in the North, the ingredients used may vary as well.

The Menu

As luck would have it, I have a friend who — for a variety of reasons — is my source for all information about the hermit state of DPRK. And many, many weeks ago he advised me on what is the preeminent dish of North Korea.

And after doing my own research, I discovered that that dish (in its two variations) was indeed the offering most associated with the North along with another one I chose not to make

So, I decided I’d make …

  • Bibim-naengmyeon 비빔냉면 (Cold, Spicy Mixed Noodles) using this recipe.

The Hunt

This week’s choice meant I’d have to seek out buckwheat noodles (a Korean staple), hot mustard powder, hot chili flakes and hot pepper paste (since I was definitely not making my own vat of that).

Oh, now you’re wondering how North Korean food is “in theory” less spicy? Yeah, I’m wondering the same thing.

Luckily, the Vietnamese-leaning Asian market in town had everything I needed.

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The Cook

The first step was to make the mustard paste. So, I took some of the mustard powder …

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Added some water to it.

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Mixed it up and I set it in a warm oven to ferment for a few minutes.

Next, I sliced up some cucumber and added salt.

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Sugar.

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Rice vinegar.

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And I mixed it all up and set it aside.

Next, I greeted a new friend, the Korean/Chinese/Asian pear.

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When I  re-read the recipe the night before my cooking, I realized that part of the pear would be needed for the hot sauce and part for dressing the final product.

This meant that I wouldn’t be able to make the hot sauce the night before as recommended, since keeping half a sliced pear from going black overnight would be a mean feat.

But for a few minutes? I could swing that.

It involved adding some sugar to water. 

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And, after peeling and slicing the pear, I kept the slices in the water until I needed them.

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It also wouldn’t hurt to keep the other half of the pear in water meanwhile.

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Next, I hard-boiled an egg.

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And, after screwing up the first one and making another, I peeled it and set that aside as well.

Finally, it was time to make the hot sauce.

Into the food processor, I dropped the peeled pear.

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Chopped onion.

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Crushed garlic.

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Sliced ginger.

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Corn syrup.

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An insane amount of hot chili flakes.

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And an equally insane amount of hot chili paste.

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On top of that, I added sesame seeds.

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Chopped green onions.

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Salt.

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And soy sauce.

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And I puréed that until smooth.

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I poured the (potentially gut-burning) liquid into a plastic container and set that in the fridge to do its burn-through-the-plastic-down-to-the-core-of-the-Earth thing. I may have imagined that last part.

Closer to dinner time, I got to making the cold noodles.

I put about half the packet of noodles into a pot of water.

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 And I set that to boil for about five minutes, stirring all the way to keep the noodles from clumping together.

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When they were ready, it was time to “wash” the noodles. I poured cold water into the pot and, repeatedly, kept draining out the water and replacing it with more cold water.

Finally, I added in a bunch of ice cubes to cool them down.

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And I was ready to assemble and serve.

I placed a mound of the noodles in a bowl. I placed pear slices, cucumber slices and some of the mustard on that. I cut the boiled egg and placed the slices on top and drizzled oil over the whole thing.

(Confession: I was supposed to use sesame oil for that last bit, but, seeing as I had neglected to buy any, I settled for sunflower oil. I suspect that may have been a mistake.)

In the end, it looked like this.

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The Tasting

The first thing The Husband asked was, “How do you eat this?”

I wanted to answer, “Wearing a hazmat suit.”

But instead I suggested that you just mix everything up and use a fork.

Somewhat surprisingly, The Husband reported that he quite liked it. As for myself, I wasn’t so enthused.

I’ve said before how now I’ve become crazy for spicy food, and I stand by that. But not all “heat” is equal, I’ve learned. And this was … something … else.

It wasn’t so much hot in my mouth, though it was, but it burned all the way down my esophagus. Which kind of distracted me from enjoying the meal. Also, there was an unusual flavor that I wish I could pinpoint. I assume it came from the ingredients in the hot pepper paste, because it had this oily umami (?), almost fishy quality that reminded me of the shrimp paste from dishes from Brunei (Week 25) and Indonesia (Week 77).

But, hey, it wasn’t so bad that i wanted to send it in a rocket into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. So there’s that.

Next Week: We cross the DMZ to … South Korea!