Thursday, October 28, 2010


Mexico, like most countries, has great regional variation in its cuisine. (I, of course, ignored this while choosing recipes.) In general, corn, rice, and beans are widely used. Common seasonings include chile peppers, cumin, and oregano. Many dishes consist of some sort of grain (flour or corn tortillas, or cornmeal batter called masa) filled with some combination of beans, meat, vegetables, cheese, and sauces. Sauces tend to be flavorful rather than blindingly spicy. Chocolate was first grown by the Aztecs, and was originally not sweetened. Even today, "Mexican" hot chocolate is bitter and spicy rather than sweet.

I'm pretty sure I decided it was time to make Mexican food because I found ancho chile powder at Penzey's (for those who are unaware, I'm afraid of chiles. I know I'll have to get over it at some point, but for now I like my paste, and was thrilled to find the right kind in powder form!). Since it was Sunday lunch in a packed weekend, I decided to make it a relatively simple meal: chicken with mole sauce and Mexican rice. Aside for the chicken needing to be poached and shredded to make it delicious, and deciding to make enchiladas instead of just plain chicken, it wasn't too bad. The mole sauce was sweeter than I had imagined it would be, and possibly could have used more chile powder (or - perish the thought - actual peppers), but I really liked it. The chicken was flavorful and delicious, and I loved the enchiladas. I'll definitely be making more, although probably with different fillings and sauces. The rice was, I thought, the weak link in the meal. I don't think it was quite done and I definitely didn't salt it enough while it was cooking; also, I used basmati instead of regular white rice because that's what I happened to have laying around and I don't eat so much rice on a regular basis that I want to have tons of different packages in my cupboard. But all in all, I enjoyed the meal and the leftovers.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


From my recipe searches, Swedish cuisine appears to be centered on meat, cookies, and sweet breads, with some potatoes thrown in for good measure. Wikipedia tells me that traditional Swedish cuisine includes local ingredients such as berries as well. I guess the latitude is a good reason for the lack of vegetables other than potatoes. There are also fish dishes such as pickled herring, but I'm definitely not adventurous enough to touch that yet. I am REALLY not adventurous enough to try Lutfisk, fish cured in lye. As one of my coworkers told me, friends don't let friends eat Lutfisk.

In case you needed proof that there's no particular order to these countries, I picked Sweden this past weekend because I read the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last weekend and the bacon pancake sounded good. Unfortunately, I got to the bacon pancake after I'd left my parents' house outside Philadelphia - and the Ikea I drive past to get back to DC. Consequently, I was worried about finding lingonberry anything, especially after the red currant jam issues. And I definitely couldn't make Swedish food without lingonberry! So my plan was to try World Market first, then Harris Teeter and Whole Foods, and settle for the boysenberry I used for Austria if I couldn't find it. Luckily, World Market came through!

While I was traipsing all over NoVA, I decided to check out Penzey's Spices in Falls Church to pick up white pepper. Great decision! They had almost everything I could have wanted (no vanilla beans that I saw, but they did have vanilla sugar), and I'll definitely be heading back there. Everything was cheaper than the supermarket, there was way more variety, I could usually get smaller quantities, and I'm pretty sure the quality is higher. As a bonus, they have descriptions of many of the more exotic spices or varieties posted so you know what you're buying.

My parents have been making Swedish meatballs since I was little, but theirs are just basic meatballs in a simple beef gravy. I wanted to see what the real thing was like. The recipe I used had all this stuff like roll the meat carefully into balls, dip in flour, freeze so that they stay together better. I didn't want to deal with all of that, so I made little patties using spoons. They're not the most baller meatballs I've ever made, but they were also fast, and I fried them in so much butter that they were in no danger of sticking to the pan and coming apart. I also knew I wanted to make that bacon pancake, but the recipes I found were for a large souffle like the Salzburger Nockerl, and souffles do not make good leftovers. So I made a third of the recipe and baked it in two personal-sized ramekins until they were golden brown and delicious. It worked well, although the actual pancakes were a little eggy for my taste, and I didn't think the bacon flavor was as integrated as I wanted it to be. I was at a loss for a vegetable recipe - I'm trying to eat a little healthier, and potatoes do not count as vegetables. Finally I found a creamed mushroom recipe from Jamie Oliver Does Sweden. I don't know how authentic it was, but it worked. It was supposed to be made with chanterelles, which are allegedly common in Sweden, but I had shiitakes. The meatballs and mushrooms were really tasty, if incredibly fattening from all the sweet, sweet butter.

The first recipe I found that I decided I wanted to make was glogg, a mulled wine. This recipe was unique because it also included white rum and bourbon, and was supposed to be SET ON FIRE. Unfortunately, my landlords are not fans of temperature moderation, so between the blasting heat and slaving over the stove, oven, and skillet, I was just not in the mood to mull anything, much less set it on fire.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


I love Ethiopian food. I love eating with my fingers and the bread, I love the flavors, I love telling the server I don't love spicy food and leaving the choice of what I'm eating in his or her hands. But making Ethiopian food was more than a little intimidating. Ethiopian cuisine is based on stews of vegetables, lentils, and meat served on and scooped up with flatbread called injera. Chicken, beef, and lamb are common, especially on special occasions, but pork is never eaten. The two most prevalent flavoring agents are niter kibbeh, or spiced ghee, and berbere, a hot pepper-based paste. Most dishes contain cardamom and ginger; garlic and onions are common as well. Many Ethiopians drink a honey wine called tej on special occasions. I didn't have this, but I did have a bottle of mead sitting around!

If I knew of a place to buy injera, the flat, spongy bread, I probably would have. I definitely didn't plan on making as many dishes as I did! I split up the work over several days: I made the niter kibbeh and started the injera on Friday (it had to sit for three days before being cooked), made the two lentil dishes on Sunday night because I knew they'd reheat well, and made everything else on Monday. Altogether, about 5 or 6 hours of active cooking time. I cooked for Ben and his dad, who was in town to help him move (to my neighborhood, yay!). Luckily, Papa Ben isn't a picky eater! I ended up making sega wat (beef in a zesty-ish sauce), mesir wat (stewed red lentils), kik alicha (yellow split peas), atakilt wat (stewed vegetables), alicha doro wat (chicken in a mild sauce), and kitfo (seasoned raw beef). Even though the injera didn't come out quite right (probably because I used all purpose flour instead of teff), everyone seemed to enjoy it, and the leftovers are fantastic. I'll probably make one or two of these dishes at a time in the future to just eat with a fork or over rice.

Local Butcher

I knew that for my Ethiopian feast I wanted to make kitfo (raw ground beef in butter and other seasonings). But even though I've seen my grandmother munch on raw ground beef out of the package, I wasn't that brave. So I turned to Steve, my local butcher. He owns Let's Meat on the Avenue in Del Ray, Alexandria. I sent him an email explaining what I wanted to do and asking whether he knew of any ways to make that safer, and he said that if I met him when he opened, he'd grind the beef for me in a freshly sanitized grinder, and that should be just fine. I didn't get sick, so I guess he was right! While I was there, I also saw signs that if you want something he doesn't have, he'll order it and have it within a couple of days. It's not cheap, but I'll definitely be going back! I also saw signs for wild boar and KANGAROO. No lie.

Steve posing next to my pile of freshly ground beef.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

South Africa

South African cuisine is influenced by many different cultures. One very popular dish, from the indigenous people of the area, is called pap, similar to grits or polenta served with flavorful sauces. Indo-Malaysian cuisine is common as well, since the people frequently served the European colonizers of South Africa. Finally, the Dutch (Boers) and English colonizers had a strong impact on the cuisine as well.

One tradition particularly dear to the descendants of the Boers is the braai, or barbecue. Families and friends get together and cook on a grill over an elaborate charcoal fire - the braai. One's braai is typically a point of pride. Common dishes include skewered meat and vegetables, grilled sandwiches with cheese, other grilled meat, and skillet breads. Men in particular frequently cook a pot of stew over the fire, called a potiejko.

My original plan had been to break out my own charcoal grill and have a braai of my own. But my dinner partner had to cancel, there are still mosquitoes, and it got a little chilly for me to want to grill alone. So I ended up just roasting most of the food and skipping the griddle cakes in favor of leftover bread from Trader Joe's, and skipping the beans entirely. This left me with braised peri-peri chicken livers, marinated vegetable skewers, and ribs.

I'd only had chicken liver once before, and while I wasn't a big fan of the experience, I thought a flavorful sauce and more adventurous palate would make a difference. It didn't. I also learned that buying the peeled and sliced butternut squash from Trader Joe's is more than worth the extra couple of dollars, which was extra unfortunate because the squash was definitely the weakest part of the vegetable skewers. But on the plus side, the ribs are delicious - I'm looking forward to eating them all week with the rest of the vegetables. And my apartment smells pretty fantastic. Finally, I remembered to put foil down on the pans before putting the racks on, so clean-up should be pretty simple. Thank goodness!

Monday, October 4, 2010


Afghan cuisine is diverse, as is the culture, but there are some things that are close to universal. Flatbread and yogurt seem to be consumed all over the country. Lamb is common, when meat is available. Common seasonings include onions, garlic, and mint. Meals are typically consumed communally, with each person dipping into a big bowl of stew or similar food.

My first exposure to Afghan food was at Friends Kebab in Vienna, VA, from which my department ordered lunch on my first day at my company. Meat on a stick, rice, tomatoes, bread..what's not to love? Months later, I finally tried the lentil soup, and was totally blown away. I decided that when I made Afghan food, that soup was going to be the first thing I did. While I was looking at recipes, a former coworker who's now on his way to becoming an Afghanistan subject matter expert told me I had to make these dumplings called Mantus. I also planned to make some fried kebabs.

Unfortunately, I got busy. I was going to be eating alone, and cooking around a lot of other activities in a packed day. The kebabs didn't make it. I couldn't find ground lamb. I bought bread instead of making it (although it was good). I left the garlic out of the yogurt sauce for the Mantus because I was going dancing, and I just spread the beef-and-yogurt mixture over a piece of bread and ate it like a pizza on the run instead of really sitting down and enjoying it. The dumplings were fine, but only that. Overall, the meal was not a success. Fortunately, the lentil soup I had for lunch was excellent, although not the same as Friends Kebab. I want this blog to be a mixture of meals that take hours to prepare and meals I could just make for dinner after work (and eat before 9!), but I guess I need to put a little more thought into how to do that.