Thursday, December 31, 2009
The Dominican Republic is the second largest nation in the Caribbean and it has everything from rainforests to deserts. Of course, it also has white sand beaches and beautiful blue water for those looking to escape to a tropical island. It’s Caribbean’s largest tourist destination and known for its golf courses, baseball, and merengue, the national dance and song. Yes, the word merengue actually comes from the word meringue, a dessert made from whipped egg whites and sugar.
Here in Canada, my friends seem to go to two places to escape the winter blahs: Cuba and the Dominican Republic. From what I am hearing it’s cheaper than going to Mexico or some other Caribbean island. From the little research I’ve done about the island nation it seems like quit a nice place to bath in the sun and forget about life for a while.
My only connection with the country is a memory I have of a friend’s mother. When I was five and six I was living in Lagos, Nigeria and my best friend was a little boy named Tico. His sister Desiree was also my friend and the three of us often played together. Their father was an American diplomat and their mother was from the Dominican Republic.
One story I remember about Tico’s mother was one my mother told. When we first moved to Lagos I was at home with the servants and apparently not being watched too closely. I wandered outside and found a stray dog and decided to take it into our house. I locked our cat and the dog together in one of our bathrooms upstairs, with me in there with them. Our cat went ballistic and bit me on the wrist. The poor dog was so distraught that our cook had to carry him down the stairs.
I got blood poisoning from the cat bite on my wrist. To remedy it I had to have a series of shots. Being that I was five this was the most horrible thing in the whole world. Two people had to keep me still while the doctor administered the shots. Tico’s mom happened to be working at the doctor’s office and helped my mother hold me down. While I screamed and cried my mother looked over at Tico’s mom and saw she had tears streaming down her face. My mother never forgot that.
We all loved our Dominican Republic meal (and we had it with our Dominica soup). It was Asopao de Mariscos, a shrimp and rice dish. It was wonderfully flavored with tomato paste, green peppers, garlic, olives, parsley, cilantro, and chicken bouillon. It was easy to make and you could try other things other than shrimp such as lobster or crab.
Other popular dishes in the Dominican Republic are fried green plantains, fried dumpling with meat and cheese, and Mondongo, a soup made from cow’s stomach.
Here in Canada our short days of winter are getting depressing. You wake up to dreary weather and then it gets dark and your day is over. Many of the Canadians I know are flying off to the Dominican Republic. I must say, that does sound rather good right now.
Asopao de Mariscos
2 lbs shrimp, crab or lobster
2 1/2 cups rice
3/4 gallon water
5 TBSP oil
4 TBSP tomato paste
1/4 cup green peppers, chopped
1 pinch oregano
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pinch black pepper
1/8 cup seedless olives, chopped
1/4 cup celery, chopped
1 TBSP parsley, chopped
1 TBSP coriander, chopped
1/2 tsp thyme leaves
1 cube of chicken bouillon
Heat oil in a pot, add herbs, olives, spices, tomato paste, peppers, garlic, and salt. Then add the shrimp and stir. Cover and cook for two minutes, then stir again. Add water and bring to boil. Add all remaining ingredients including rice. Stir. Let most of the water evaporate. Add salt to taste. Serve hot.
Monday, December 28, 2009
Dominica is nicknamed the “Nature Isle of the Caribbean” because of its unspoiled natural environment. The island nation, in the Caribbean Sea, has mountainous rainforests, national parks, the world’s second largest boiling lake and many rare plant, animal and bird species. It could be a great tourist destination, except hordes of tourists would spoil the island’s natural beauty. Maybe it’s a good thing that there are no direct international flights and to travel there requires some island hopping.
Dominica’s cuisine is rooted in Creole techniques. Creole food is influenced by all the countries on the American slave route – West Africa, Caribbean, Eastern coast of South America and Louisiana. I chose to make Callaloo soup, a Creole food, and popular with the Dominicans. The national dish is Mountain Chicken and, no, it’s not chicken but frog legs and from a special kind of frog found on the island.
The soup was delicious. It was perfect for a cold winter day, or sitting on a beach in the Dominica knowing that it’s one of the few island nations in the Caribbean not swarming with tourists.
1 lb Callaloo leaves, Chinese spinach or Swiss chard, chopped
1 celery stalk with leaves, chopped
3 green onions, chopped
2 med. Onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 tsp thyme
1 sweet pepper, chopped
1/2 lb okra, sliced
1/4 tsp ground cloves
4 cups chicken or vegetable stocl
1 cup coconut milk, unsweetened
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp hot pepper sauce
Put chopped greens, celery stalk, green onions, garlic, thyme, sweet pepper, okra and cloves into a pot. Add stock and coconut milk and simmer until the vegetables are soft, about 30 minutes. Puree soup. Add salt and pepper and pepper sauce. Serve hot.
I’ve been cooking meals around the world since late August and I haven’t attempted to figure up how much I’ve spent on food or how many hours I’ve spent in the kitchen. Each month has blurred into the next and I’m consciously aware that I have way over a hundred countries left to go. Every day I’m obsessively searching for recipes and running to the grocery store. Our dinners begin with my kids asking what country we’re eating and then patiently posing for the camera as I snap away at them eating. They smile in almost every picture even if they don’t like what we’re eating. John, who is very competitive, pushes me to continue so that I finish this project in a year.
My life is centered around food and though I’m not paying much attention to the news anymore I can’t help but be sucked into the same media hype as everyone else, like the Jon and Kate break-up, the mistresses of Tiger Woods and the Swine flu.
Kevin, the kids and I ran out to get our H1N1 shots as soon as we were able, and the night I cooked the Djibouti meal, Kevin called me from work to remind me that it was the last night, until January, for us to get our seasonal flu shots. It was snowing and I considered the inconvenience of going out to the clinic to stand in line with the kids, for God knows how long.
I decided to go but I had already begun cooking. I was making Harira, a beef stew with lentils, chickpeas, tomatoes, spices and pasta. I told Kevin that he would have to finish making it since I had no idea how long it would take us to get the flu shot. He had already gotten his shot at work.
Djibouti is a small country located in the Horn of Africa. It borders Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. There is nothing in the media about this country. It gained independence from France in 1977 - after a hundred years of occupation - and it may be considered just a transit point on the road to Eritrea and Ethiopia but it’s stable with a well organized infrastructure, unlike some of its larger neighbors.
Djibouti is ninety percent desert with the hottest and driest climate on earth. However, it has one of the best harbors on Africa’s eastern coast making its location its main economic asset. Much of Ethiopia’s foreign trade passes through the port, providing Djibouti with its primary source of income. Plus, in an effort to counter terrorism, France and the U.S. have stationed troops in Djibouti. This provides the country with additional income. It’s the only place in Africa where the U.S. has a base.
It ended up taking us well over an hour to get our flu shots and when we got home I saw our Harira. It was a massive conglomerate of food in one big pot, and even though Kevin and the kids didn’t seem to mind it, I didn’t like it at all. There was too much stuff mixed in together and I didn’t like the idea of lentils and pasta together. There was so much of it that we ended up throwing most of it away.
I wasted food for a country that is poor and relying heavily on foreign aid. It made me wonder how I can help feed those who don’t have enough to eat. From now on I’m going to regularly supply the food bank with food – canned food, not my Eat Planet leftovers.
1 onion, chopped
A pound and a half of steak, cut up into bite-size pieces
1 cup of lentils
1 can chickpeas
1 28 oz. can of chopped tomatoes
1 small can tomato paste
3 lemons, quartered
1 cup chopped celery
1 bunch of cilantro, chopped
1 bunch parsley, chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
1 pinch saffron
3/4 cup sifted flour
2 cups water
1 large handful of angel-hair pasta
Salt and pepper to taste
2 litters of sparkling water
Add oil to a large pot with meat, cumin, saffron, cilantro, parsley, onion, celery, and salt. Cook for 5 minutes then add the sparkling water and cook for a further 10 minutes. (I’m not sure what the sparkling water is suppose to do) Add lentils and chickpeas and cook for 50 minutes. Add the tomatoes and tomato paste and cook for another 20 minutes. Mix the flour with 2 cups of cold water and mix well with a whisk to get out any lumps. Pour this mixture into the pot stirring all the time. Add pasta and cook for 10 minutes. Serve hot and garnish with lemon.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
I was in a contest. I competed in the Canadian Blog Awards under the category of crafts, cooking and other activities. I came in second place and I was very pleasantly surprised. It’s funny. A year ago I never would have thought I would be in a blog competition. I don’t know if Denmark has been in any contests per se but it sure has “won” a lot of recognition.
It ranks as having the world’s highest level of income equality.
It has the best business climate in the world, according to Forbes Magazine.
It’s one of the happiest places in the world based on standards of health, welfare and education.
It’s the second most peaceful nation in the world, after New Zealand.
It’s ranked as the least corrupt country in the world in 2008 Corruption Perception Index.
It’s ranked 10th for the greenest countries to live in the world.
It was the first country in the world to implement an environmental law in 1973.
You notice how the greenest and most peaceful countries rank the highest on the Happiest Country Index? Maybe pollution, greed and war isn’t the way to go – at least if you want to be happy.
The UN summit in Copenhagen seemed a failure this year. While countries debated the news programs like CNN were bringing in “experts” that don’t think we need to be making such a fuss over the environment. Here’s my question: Even if these so-called experts are 1% wrong where does it leave the planet and all of us? Wouldn’t it make sense to err of the side of caution? I know, environmental laws costs money for industry. That’s why I wonder if these “experts” are getting paid to play devil’s advocate.
Maybe we should look to countries that are the happiest. Follow their example. Just a thought.
The night I made our Danish meal I was not in the mood to cook. I wanted something easy. I was delighted when I saw that open-faced sandwiches are very popular in Denmark. It was a snap to make but turned out to be a disaster.
I found a recipe for an open-faced sandwich that was easy peezy. All I had to do was spread butter and anchovy paste on slices of bread (I was supposed to use rye but I used multi-grain) and top them with slices of hard-boiled eggs. To go along with the sandwiches I bought Danish pastries at the bakery. Of course the kids loved the Danishes but absolutely hated the sandwiches. It was the anchovy paste they detested and, I was surprised, because I honestly thought they liked anchovies. After dinner I gave our cat, Lewis, some anchovy paste, thinking he’d go nuts over it, and he wouldn’t touch it. He eats bananas for God’s sake!
A few days later I met a woman from Denmark who told me they don’t eat anchovy paste. My God! Does anyone like anchovy paste!
So I decided to do a redo. I decided to make Frikadeller, Denmark’s national dish. On the day before Christmas I fought the crowds at the grocery store, after finally finding a parking space and almost getting run-over. Frikadeller are pan-fried meat dumplings often served in soups. There are different variations, minced pork, veal or beef. I mixed the pork and beef, which was a suggstion from the woman from Denmark. I served the meatballs with boiled white potatoes, gravy and cooked red cabbage. Everyone loved the meatballs.
Denmark may be one of the happiest countries but I wasn’t too happy to have cooked two meals for one country. But, in the end, I learned a lot about Danish food and anchovy paste.
Anchovy Paste Open-Faced Sandwiches
1 1/2 cups soft butter
1 1/2 ounces anchovy paste
4 hard-boiled eggs
Spread a slice of rye bread with softened butter, then with anchovy paste. Cut strips of the hard-boiled egg whites to arrange in petal shapes. Filled center with sieved yolks.
Mix ground pork and beef together with chopped onions, an egg, milk, breadcrumbs and salt and pepper. Form into balls and flatten as you pan-fry them in oil.
Serve with boiled white potatoes, gravy and cooked red cabbage.
Monday, December 21, 2009
My dad and stepmother were stationed in Prague in 1982. My mother and I were living in Tel Aviv at the time and I would visit my father twice a year, for the Christmas and summer holidays. The Czech Republic is now a very popular tourist destination but at the time it was a communist country called Czechoslovakia and tourists found traveling there too restrictive and intimidating.
From Tel Aviv I would fly into Vienna where my dad would pick me up and we would drive three and a half hours into Prague. Crossing the border was always interesting. We would have our car searched by sour-faced border security looking for smuggled western goods or, when we were leaving the country, Czechs trying to escape.
Despite the repressive environment, Czechoslovakia was one of my father’s favorite posts. The U.S. Embassy and its employees were housed in the 17th century Shoenborn Palace in the Mala Strana district. It had over a hundred rooms, some with thirty-foot ceilings, and three courtyards. Behind the palace was a terraced garden and orchard with pear trees. Each family had a little plot of land where they could grow fruits and vegetables. The garden extended up a hillside where, on top, rested the Glorietta, a tall structure we climbed to see the magnificent view of the city and the Royal Palace.
Except for Czech crystal, there were few consumer goods and what was available was very bad quality. But there were a few nice restaurants in walking distance from the embassy and the city had beautiful opera houses, symphony orchestras and ballets. Since the Czech government funded the arts, the tickets were only a few dollars each, which made it possible for the average Czech to go to the performances. My father doesn’t remember a time going to an opera or ballet where the theater wasn’t packed.
Prague was a popular location for Hollywood. The first week my dad and stepmother were there they were filming the Barbra Streisand movie “Yentil” Not long afterwards another film crew came in to film “Amadeus.” There were several embassy people who were in the movie as extras. After my dad and stepmother left Prague the movie “Mission Impossible” was filmed there. The embassy RSO ( the regional security officer – the same position my dad held) had a speaking part in the beginning of the movie.
For our Czech Republic dinner I made vepro-knedlo-zelo, a pork roast with dumplings and cabbage. It’s the most popular Czech dish. It was not a difficult meal to make though I was a bit jittery about making the dumplings. It turned out I had nothing to worry about. I dumped little dough shaped loaves into boiling water and I was quite proud of myself when the dumplings came out just as they should.
For the cabbage, I sliced it into pieces, blanched it and then sautéed it with onion and butter. I then seasoned the cabbage with sugar, salt and vinegar. For the pork, I simply rubbed it with garlic and caraway seeds and roasted it.
It was fun talking with my dad about the Czech Republic. He reminded me of some of our experiences there. He also corrected me on a few things. For instance, since I was fourteen, I have been telling people that to get to Czechoslovakia I flew into Frankfurt, Germany where my dad picked me up before taking me to Prague. But my dad told me I had it all wrong. I flew into Vienna. Strange. I don’t remember being in Vienna. But I do remember gorgeous Prague and Shoenborn Castle.
Vepro-Knedlo-Zelo (Pork with dumplings and cabbage)
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup milk
1 white bread roll, cut into pieces
1 tsp baking powder
1 head of cabbage (red or white – I used red for color. I also heard it’s healthier)
2 TBSP butter
1 tsp caraway seeds
Rub meat with minced garlic and salt; sprinkle with caraway seeds and roast in a 350 degree oven until tender and cooked through. It took my pork roast an hour.
For the dumplings, mix all the ingredients until combined and add the bread cubes last. The dough should be a medium consistency. Shape the dough into 2 or 3 small loaves. Dump them into a big pot of boiling water and simmer for 20 – 35 minutes. Fish them out and slice them thick. The dumplings are supposed to have a soft and bready taste.
Cut the cabbage into strips and quickly blanch in boiling water; strain. With butter or oil, sauté chopped onion and then add the cabbage strips and a teaspoon of caraway seeds. Cook until cabbage leaves are tender. You may have to add in a little more water. When the cabbage is done, season with sugar, salt and vinegar.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Cyprus is called ‘the island of Aphrodite, according to many travel brochures, maybe because, like Aphrodite, it rose out of the sea about 20 million years ago.
It’s a popular tourist destination. You can lounge on one of its gorgeous beaches or explore the Karpas Peinsula, medieval castles or visit the Byzantine frescoed churches of the Troodos Mountains and much more.
For now, you may want to stay away from cemeteries. The body of the former president, Tassos Papadopoulos, is missing from his grave. Thieves stole the remains on the eve of the first anniversary of his death.
The bizarre incident is messing with the peace efforts aimed at reuniting the Turkish and Greek parts of the island. Cyprus was divided in 1974 when Turkey invaded the island after a coup to stop the plans to form a union with Greece. The tensions between the Greek Cypriot and the Turkish Cypriot have been high since independence from Britain in 1960. Papadopoulos was president from 2003 to 2008. In 2004 he denounced the UN plan to reunite the island.
I decided to make mousaka for our Cyprus meal. I had many recipes to choose from since Cypriot food is a delicious fusion of Greek and Turkish cuisines. I had a selection of seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, grilled lamb, potatoes and souvlaki,. One of the things I found most interesting was the Hallounni cheese that originated in Cyprus in the Medieval Byzantine period. It’s often garnished with mint and served fresh or grilled.
Every year for my birthday, when I was a kid, my mother would make me mousaka. I believe I had it for the first time in Greece when I was about seven and I instantly fell in-love with the cheesy meat and eggplant dish.
I consider mousaka labor intensive and it takes me several hours to make. But it’s always well worth it. I’ve cooked mousaka plenty of times before but each time it brings back fond memories and I always enjoy it immensely.
Cyprus gave me the excuse to tackle the recipe once again.
1 large eggplant, sliced
1 large onion, chopped
1 lb ground beef or lamb
1 glass of white wine
1 28 oz can chopped tomatoes, drained of some of their juice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground allspice
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp oregano
Grated Parmesan or Gruyere cheese (I used both and I grated the cheese over the dish and put on as much as a wanted)
A bit of chopped parsley
6 TBSP butter
1/3 cup flour
4 1/2 cups milk
1/4 tsp salt
75g grated Parmesan
pinch of nutmeg
Grated Parmesan or Gruyere cheese
Toasted bread crumbs (I used plain coutons and crushed them)
Immerse the eggplant slices into salt water for 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry. Fry them in hot vegetable oil until they become golden (they absorb a lot of oil). Drain on a paper towel.
Heat oil in a pan and sauté onion. Add the meat and sauté until the meat turns brown. Pour in wine, tomatoes, spices, salt and pepper and oregano. Cover and cook for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally. Then mix in grated cheese and parsley.
To make the béchamel sauce, melt butter in medium saucepan until melted. Add flour. Cook, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat. Slowly add milk, whisking constantly until smooth. Return to heat. Stir with a wooden spoon until sauce comes to a boil and thickens. Remove from heat. Stir in parmesan, salt and nutmeg.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a rectangular baking dish place half of the eggplant slices on the bottom, then spread half the meat mixture evenly on top and then cover the meat with the remaining eggplant. Spread the remaining meat on and then pour some bechamel sauce over the meat and. Sprinkle with grated cheese.and breadcrumbs.
Bake for 1 hour, until a golden crust is formed on the top. Let it stand for 5 minutes before serving.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
My family and I are standing in front of Julie’s Cuban restaurant on a small street in Toronto. It’s the closest we’re going to get to Cuba anytime soon. We walk in from the bitter cold and into the tiny eatery, the only other customers are a couple that look to be on a date. The hostess is friendly but concerned we don’t have reservations. After a few confused moments she pulls two small tables together, even though I spot plenty of tables for four, and we are seated. I can’t imagine why we would need reservations. It’s a Sunday night and we just left the mall where, I swear, half of Toronto is doing their holiday shopping.
An older woman with a pile of blonde hair swept up on her head welcomes us with a warm smile. I explain to her that we want very typical Cuban dishes and she happily points them out on the menu. For appetizers she suggests Corn Frituras and Yuca Fritas. Kevin says, ““Kids, mommy boiled yuca at home, remember?”
For our main course the woman suggests we get Ropa Vieja, shredded flank steak in a tomato sauce, black beans, rice and plantains. “Mommy’s made fried plantains too,” Kevin says. Yes, mommy has made a lot of things these days!
We also order the Enchilado de Camarones, rice and shrimp with roasted red pepper. For dessert the woman recommends Tres Leches and Chocolate Rum Flan, both are to die for.
As we’re eating, I notice people are piling in. The few tables the restaurant has to offer are quickly getting occupied.
The restaurant has a homey quality about it. White lights line the outside and inside giving the restaurant a cozy ambiance. We figure the restaurant had once been a townhouse, judging by the neighborhood and the old townhouses surrounding it. It’s sort of hidden away, a little gem, a bit of Havana on a cold night. One side of the room is a shelf covered with photographs and memorabilia from Cuba. Next to us is a large cigar ashtray that prompts an explanation to the kids about Cuban cigars.
“Why are they so special?” the kids ask.
“Because they’re really good cigars” I say remembering how I had snuck in a Cuban cigar for my stepfather when I had gone to Tijuana. “You can’t get them in the U.S.”
“Because the U.S. government doesn’t like Cuba and won’t trade with them.” The kids still look confused and finally I say, “It’s all very complicated.”
Truthfully, I don’t understand it myself.
When I first arrived in Canada it sounded strange to hear about Cuban vacations and read travel ads in the newspaper promoting all inclusive vacation packages to Cuba. It’s jarring to the ears when your whole life you’ve viewed Cuba as this non-accessible mysterious place where that Fidel Castro rules.
One day I told my hairdresser that I wanted to go to Cuba. He called over a Cuban woman who worked for the salon and told her my dilemma: I’m an American who wants to visit her country.
“You can go!” the woman assured me. “They welcome tourists. The Cuban officials don’t care that you are an American. They won’t stamp your passport.”
It’s attempting. It angers me that I can’t loll on a Cuban beach with my Canadian friends. President Obama has said he wants a new beginning with Cuba but has not lifted the U.S. commercial, economic and financial embargo against the island nation.
At Julie’s, we scarf down our meal and thank the nice lady with the blonde upswept hair. The restaurant is full now. As we leave I look back at the other patrons who look like they’ve been here before, they seem at ease, comfortable with where they are. We step out into the frosty air. It’s cold and dark as we walk to our car and the white lights from the restaurant fade from view. Back to reality, but still dreaming of hot Havana nights.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
It’s rare to find a place these days that has a timeless quality about it, especially one that has cruise ships pulling into its coastal isles. As the country tries to preserve its authenticity tourists scramble in to see Croatia’s cozy rustic villages, Roman ruins, medieval cities and gorgeous beaches. One can island hop to one of the 1185 islands and then stroll through art galleries in the capital of Zagreb where the architecture speaks volumes about its socialist and Yugoslavian past.
Despite the fact that it’s had a rough history I think it would be the perfect setting for the next chick flick. It could be called “Under the Croatian Sun.” Of course it’s a spin-off from the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” but, I swear, from my perspective, it looks like Croatia has all the beauty and romance of Tuscany. Maybe. I’ll have to go there to make sure.
Croatia night was also Kevin’s birthday. Normally I would have cooked Kevin’s favorite meal of – do I dare say it? – Sloppy Joes and French fries. Well, not this time, not when I have a deadline! It could have been worse. It could have been Botswana night! Actually, what I made wasn’t a far stretch from what he likes. I made a sausage and potato casserole. I cooked the sausage and potatoes with bacon, garlic, parsley and other seasonings. I topped it with sour cream.
Croatian cuisine varies from region to region but there is something for everyone. While it still holds firm to its Eastern European roots its reminiscent of the many cultures that have influenced the country throughout history. On the coast you will feast on Italian-style dishes and on the mainland you’ll experience the flavors of Hungary, Austria and Turkey. But whatever the region they love fresh seasonal ingredients.
There are days when I wish that I could hop on a plane, without a care in the world, and travel to somewhere like Croatia. The day of the Croatian meal I went to parent/teacher conferences, picked up Kevin’s birthday cake, hung up decorations, cooked dinner and tended to John and Julia and their friends who were running through my house. When Kevin got home from work I made a big effort to make him feel special. I placed his presents on the dinning table next to his dinner plate while the kids and I lit the candles on his cake and sang Happy Birthday.
After dinner we went to see the movie “The Blind Side.” It was a good family movie about hope, perseverance and working hard to achieve your dream. I liked the movie but I think I would rather have seen “Under the Croatian Sun.”
In the theater I sat back and relaxed for a couple hours. When we got home I was on the computer again deciding what to cook next. I won’t be seeing Dalmatia’s coastal isles anytime soon or any signs of timelessness.
Sausage and Potato Casserole
4 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
250 g spicy sausage, sliced
2 oz smoked bacon, sliced
1/2 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 TBSP vegetable seasoning (I used Italian seasoning)
Salt and pepper
4 cups water
Sour ream (optional)
Heat vegetable oil in a pan and sauté the bacon, onion and sausage. Sprinkle with paprika add potatoes, vegetable seasoning, bay leaf and salt and pepper. Dust with four, stir well and add water. Boil gently until the potatoes have softened. Add chopped parsley and garlic. Bring to a boil then serve. Top it with a little sour cream.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
For many years Cote d’Ivoire was the jewel of West Africa. When we lived in Nigeria it was known by its English translation as the Ivory Coast. My mother visited Abidjan, the capital, dubbed “Paris of West Africa” with its boutiques and fancy restaurants. My mother described it as a beautiful French city.
Cote d’Ivoire’s modernity is exceptional compared to other West African countries. It has impressive skyscrapers and a basilica that closely resembles Rome’s St. Peter’s. However, things have changed. Since the death of their first president, Houphouet-Boigny, the country has taken a dramatic downward turn. A series of coups, insurgencies and the northern-led rebellion in 2002 has devastated the country and its economy has crumbled.
For our Cote d’Ivoire meal I managed to find a recipe that didn’t require peanut butter. I cooked Kedjenou, chicken pieces baked with eggplant, okra, onions, tomatoes and various spices. It was a one-pot meal and I got to use my new baking dish with a lid.
I love eggplant so my hopes were high but I was not overly impressed. Maybe I’m just sick of chicken. The kids had no complaints.
Ironically, after dinner, I sat down with John and helped him study for a French test. My mother learned a little French so she could get by in those French African countries. I think she would have been very impressed that John is learning the language, even if French Africa seems to be disappearing.
Large chicken cut into pieces
4 small eggplant, peeled and cut into pieces
6 okra, chopped
2 onions, chopped
4 tomatoes, blanched, peeled and chopped
2 cm length of ginger
sprig of thyme
2 garlic cloves, minced
2/3 cup chicken stock
1 TBSP groundnut oil (I used peanut oil)
Combine ingredients in cooking pot. Stir then seal with a lid. Seal lid with tin foil ringing the rim of the pot.
Place in a 350 degree oven and cook for 1 hour and 40 minutes (I only cooked it for about an hour). Take pot out of oven and let cool for about 10 minutes.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
When I was in college my friend Karla went to Costa Rica on a class trip. She came back and described to me how she found a cockroach in her hotel room the size of a Buick. She must have told me other stuff about her trip, the country’s beauty and diverse ecosystems, but quite honestly, I don’t remember anything else.
I was so fascinated by the size of Costa Rica’s creepy crawlies that I missed learning about this amazing country. Costa Rica, which means “rich coast,” is ranked first in the Happy Planet Index and the greenest country in the world. The government has plans to become the first carbon neutral country by 2021.
It’s also peaceful. In 1948 it abolished its army and has managed to avoid violence that has plagued other countries in the region. Costa Rica’s military budget now goes towards security, education and culture. Their president, Oscar Arias, has something in common with Obama. In 1987 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end civil wars in several other Central American countries.
The staple food in Costa Rica is gallo pinto, rice and black beans and is considered the national dish. It can be eaten as part of any meal but seems to be a favorite for breakfast. It’s a simple recipe composed of rice, black beans and cooked together with onion and fresh cilantro.
For our Costa Rican meal I made gallo pinto and served it with fried eggs and toast. Even though we were eating this as our dinner the kids thought it was very strange to eat rice and beans for breakfast. I liked the idea. My friend, Ana, who is from Mexico, once cooked me breakfast and she served me eggs with hot sauce and refried beans. I thought it was delicious!
The night of our Costa Rican meal we had our first snow. It was just a dusting but exciting nonetheless. But I think I would prefer the climate in Costa Rica. It sounds like a marvelous place to live, minus the enormous bugs.
Recently I realized that most of the countries I write about are war-torn and corrupt. It was refreshing to write about Costa Rica’s peace and environmental awareness. It gave me a better outlook on the world and humanity.
Thank you Costa Rica.
1 lb black beans (I cheated and used 1 can)
Fresh cilantro, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
2 cans of chicken broth
2 cups of white rice
1/2 tsp salt
1 TBSP vegetable oil
Add oil to a large pan and sate dry rice for 2 minutes. Then add half the onions and cilantro and sauté for another 2 minutes. Add chicken broth and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to simmer until rice is tender (you may have to add some water). Once rice is cooked, sauté the rice with the beans and the rest of the onions and cilantro in vegetable oil.
Sprinkle some fresh cilantro on top before serving.
Friday, December 11, 2009
The Republic of the Congo is on the opposite side of the river from Democratic Republic of Congo and its less dangerous and friendlier. It’s famous for its lowland gorillas and chimpanzees, dense forests and jungle. This country, which was a former French colony, is in central Africa and borders with Gabon, Cameroon, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Republic of the Congo offers tourists surf beaches in Pointe-Noire, white-water rapids on the Congo River and Odzala National Park. Nearly half the people live in the urban areas and Brazzaville, the capital, still has a French feel with its tree-lined boulevards and street cafes serving French croissants.
Still, The Republic of Congo has had decades of political turmoil since independence in 1960 and for centuries the country’s coastline was one of the main areas for slave and ivory trade by Europeans. Today, even though it’s on its way to becoming a modern multi-party state and is more industrialized than most of its neighbors, its unsafe to travel along the Ubangi River border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and the routes between Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire.
For our meal I cooked Fish cooked in sorrel (in my case, I substituted the sorrel with baby spinach). I fried onion, garlic, chili pepper, tomatoes and tomato paste to make a sauce and then poured it over the fish. I then added spinach along with seasonings and served with rice.
Sorrel is also known as Spinach Dock or Narrow-leaved Dock. You can use sorrel in soups, sauces and salads. The flavor is sharp and has a similar taste to kiwi. It is not related to Jamaican sorrel.
For us this recipe was a disaster. It had to do with the fact that I bought some bad fish, I believe. I bought whole Sea Bream that John filleted for me since he’s a fisherman. He kept saying to me, “You’re lucky mom that I fish.”
We ate some of it, but it didn’t taste right. Needless to say, I won’t be buying fish from this particular grocery store again.
Fish cooked with sorrel
Oil for frying
1 fish cut into serving sizes
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 chili pepper, chopped
2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 small can tomato paste
1 bunch of fresh sorrel (or baby spinach)
Salt and pepper
Heat oil in pan and fry fish until done. Set aside. Heat more oil and fry onion, garlic, then chili pepper, tomatoes and tomato paste. Stir in enough water to make a smooth sauce. Heat to a slow boil. Pour sauce over the fish. Add the sorrel leaves, bay leaf, nutmeg, and salt and pepper. Simmer gently for 10 – 20 minutes. Serve over rice.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Democratic Republic of Congo has also been known as Belgian Congo, Congo Free State and Zaire. It’s located in Central Africa and the third largest African country, and yet, only the most adventurous would consider traveling to DRC. It has been the center of Africa’s world war that has claimed the lives of 3 million people all in the name of mineral wealth and the ability to plunder natural resources.
The history of DRC has been defined by corruption and civil war. It’s the setting for the famous book by Adam Hochschild called King Leopold’s Ghost about one of the most infamous international scandals of the turn of the 20th century.
If only greed and corruption could step out of the way, DRC could be a rich African nation with its untamed wildlife and trillions of dollars of untapped mineral resources. With its exotic animals, sprawling rainforests and fast-running rivers it could also be a favorite tourist destination. If only….
For our DCR meal I cooked chicken a la moambe (fried chicken with peanut butter sauce). The chicken pieces were browned and cooked in tomato paste and peanut butter. As a result, the coating on the chicken was gooey and messy – we used lots of napkins – but was quite tasty. I served it with cassava, or yuca.
The cassava root is not very appealing to look at; it’s long, rough and brown on the outside. I looked up how to cook it and found several good recipes but decided to do the most simple. So I peeled it, chopped it, boiled it and then served it. It looked like cut up boiled potato but had a more delicate flavor.
After we ate our meal the kids and Kevin went to Toronto to see a football game. I had the whole evening to myself. I worked and then decided I should do something more fun so I dug around in my collection of movies and found “An Officer and a Gentleman.” I hadn’t seen it in years and I was surprised by the nudity, just because I’m almost certain I watched this with my parents.
There’s a scene in the movie where the Sergeant is putting Zack (Richard Gere) through hell because he caught him breaking the rules. The Sergeant dares him to quit but Zack breaks down and cries, “I have nowhere else to go!”
The people of DCR live with violence and failed politics, and they’re stuck. They have nowhere else to go. But perhaps they too will learn to rise up from their circumstances and do more than just learn how to survive.
Chicken A La Moambe
Pieces of chicken
2 cups water
2 oz. peanut butter
salt and pepper
Brown chicken and discard oil. Combine tomato paste and water and pour over chicken. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add salt, pepper and peanut butter. Simmer for another 20 minutes.
Monday, December 7, 2009
Sometimes I wish I could zap myself somewhere around the world. I wish I could say, “beam me up Scotty,” and I’d be on a remote white sand beach in Comoros with the scent of ylang-ylang in the air. Then again, if it’s too easy to get somewhere everyone goes and it looses its mystery.
Comoros is an island nation in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa. Its nearest countries are Mozambique, Tanzania, Madagascar and the Seychelles. The country consists of four major islands and many smaller islands, although, the island of Mayotte is still apart of France.
Comoros has had a troubled history since independence of France in 1975. Its been nicknamed “Cloud Coup-Coup” land because of its crazy political climate. The country’s three major islands – excluding Mayotte - have experienced almost twenty coups since independence. The political violence has left Camoros desperately poor and it has few natural resources.
But the islands do have a spectacular array of exotic plants and animals. For instance they have fruit bats with a wingspan of more than four feet. I told you I read the book The Bizarre Truth by Andrew Zimmern and he ate fruit bats when he went to the islands of Samoa. He said that these bats are so clean you can eat every part including the insides of its intestinal tract because all they eat is bread fruit. He and his traveling companions cooked the bats over an open fire, scraped off their fur and roasted them whole.
Another interesting species in the waters around the islands is the coelacanth. It’s a fish that has been around for 400 million years and was once thought to be extinct for 60 million years. It’s called the “living fossil” fish and a live fish was discovered in 1938 and one was recently caught by a Comorian fisherman.
Life was crazy the day I cooked a meal from Comoros. More accurately, the day Kevin cooked a meal from Comoros. The company children’s Christmas party was that morning, Julia had a birthday party to go to that afternoon, and John announced that he was going to have a social studies test about the Vikings in French. So, while Kevin cooked, I spent a good part of the evening translating John’s notes. I now know more about the Vikings than I ever cared to know. I just hope John knows it. Plus, I was shamelessly voting for myself for the Canadian Blog Awards and watching my Eat Planet blog name ride up and down the list, celebrating when my name was on the top, cursing when my name was on the bottom (though I’m not sure that has anything to do with where I stand). I could be dead last, for all I know, or it could be all very random. Nonetheless, it ‘s turned into an excessive hobby of mine, watching my name go up and down the list.
So Kevin made the meal, but I did choose the recipe and I did run to the grocery store. Cooking all these new recipes can be exhausting and yet, I discovered, I cannot let up. In fact, I must up my game if I want any hope of doing this in a year. I mean, my God, I’m still in the C’s! I feel like I’ve been doing this for years. How am I still in the C’s? So, at any rate, it helps when Kevin volunteers to give me a break.
The meal Kevin made was Poulet Au Coco (Chicken with coconut). Technically I should have picked out a seafood recipe since Comoros is known for its excellent seafood. In fact, I was going to cook langouste a la vanille (lobster cooked in vanilla sauce) but, quite frankly, I didn’t have it in me to make some complicated seafood dish no mater how delicious it sounded. Although, I may cook it one of these days so I will be sure to let you know.
In the meantime, I found this lovely chicken and coconut dish that was quite simple and the perfect thing to throw at Kevin. He did a wonderful job; he diced the chicken in little pieces and cooked it in butter, onions, garlic, curry powder, fresh thyme and coconut milk. When it was done it looked beautiful and tasted very good - except for the pieces of branch we kept pulling out of our teeth. When putting in the fresh thyme Kevin didn’t just throw in the leaves but the tiny branches as well and, at first, John thought they were little bones. At the end of our meal our plates were rimmed with thyme branches. But who’s complaining? I didn’t have to cook!
Beam me up, Scotty!
I’m standing on a picture postcard beach just as the sun hits the water. In the distance I can see Grande Comore Island, the home of the largest active volcano in the world. My hotel is far from fancy and since it’s a Muslim country I can’t drink wine and I must be modest and cover up. But it’s a great place to escape and, best of all, its still shrouded in mystery.
Poulet au Coco (Chicken with coconut)
1 lb chicken, diced
2 TBSP butter
2 onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tsp curry powder
1 can coconut milk
1 tsp fresh thyme
6 green onions, chopped
1 bunch parley, finely chopped
Fry chicken in butter until golden brown, then add onion, garlic and curry powder. Stir-fry for 15 minutes then add coconut milk, thyme, green onions and parsley. Season with salt and pepper and stir and allow to simmer for 20 minutes.
Serve on a bed of rice and squeeze lemon juice over the top.
Sunday, December 6, 2009
Lonely Planet says Colombia is back and it’s now safe to visit. The country is in transition from being the homicide capital of the world to being a paradise. But who knows how long they will be in this transition. Since the 1960s left-wing insurgents and right-wing paramilitaries have been engaged in the continent’s longest-running armed conflict. Violence escalated in the 1990s fueled by the cocaine trade.
My dad was in Colombia on business in 2003. Since he works in the anti-terrorism division for the U.S. government he met with the police in Bogotá. Their meetings were delayed since a drug gang had massacred 20-30 police officers and everyone was busy going to funerals. My dad’s constant escort, a police major, had a bounty on his head and drug lords had threatened to kill him and his family. When my dad went to the police base he had to take a helicopter in because the roads to the base were too unsafe.
Despite the violence, Colombia could very well be the favorite tourist destination in South America, according to Lonely Planet. It definitely has all the makings - beautiful climate, diverse terrains, a rich mixture of people and good food. For our Colombian meal we had Bandeja Pais,a a large platter of food that is very popular and typical of a Colombian dish. It’s a plate of grilled steak, pork loin, Chorizo sausages, rice and red beans, avocado, sweet banana chips and topped with a fried egg. We loved it. It was easy to make and we had so much food we were able to eat it again the next night.
Another popular dish is hormiga culona, a meal of fried ants. During the rainy season the ants are harvested, soaked in salty water and roasted in a ceramic pot. If I ever go to Colombia I’ll make sure I try it.
I would love to visit Colombia but I hope they have the strength to move forward and out of this dark period of drugs and violence. They need to move on and go back to a better time. Sometimes you have to go back to move forward, and even then, it’s a long way to paradise.
Sweet banana chips
Thursday, December 3, 2009
For our China meal I decided to try a new Chinese restaurant in our area called Cynthia’s. Ideally I wanted to go to China Town in Toronto but the day had become too hectic for us to make a trip into the city. Besides, John was exhausted. He had spent the night at a friend’s house and then spent the entire next day playing. He was now feeling the effects and we had hardly seen him all weekend. When Kevin and I tried to snuggle with him he pushed us away and told us that he didn’t do that anymore. “Well, you should have warned us about six months ago,” I told him, “so I could have made sure to get in extra cuddling time.”
To make it easy on myself I called the restaurant and ordered take-out. I then hopped in the car and took off for the restaurant. The only thing I knew about this place was from the flyer I got in our mailbox. I was worried. The other Chinese places I had seen in Oakville looked questionable, to say the least.
As it turned out the restaurant had a theme park feel - a far departure from the non-aesthetic take-out places that seem to dot every strip mall . Two life-size terracotta warriors stood outside in front like guards. The heavy, wooden front door opened automatically and inside I was greeted by friendly waiters and waitresses dressed in elaborate Chinese costumes. They certainly didn’t depict Communist China but a more romantic time in Chinese history.
Back home we ate Peking duck, along with tofu and spicy eggplant. The kids dug in, and devoured the duck – one of their favorite foods. We were a happy family, together again, laughing, and I wished I could freeze time and put it in a bottle. But things are always changing.
Sometimes the passing of time is most noticeable when we travel. The most striking example was when I first traveled to China in January 1993.
My mother, stepfather, a couple of traveling companions and I touched down into Kunming, China at sunset. The sky was glowing red and we could see mountains in the distance.
Kunming was a bustling vision of lights, tall buildings and roaring traffic. It was different than what I imagined. I had read about China’s drab sameness of everyday life, the fear and the pervasive bureaucracy. My traveling companions had not been back since the late 1970s shortly after China opened its doors to the West. From them I heard repeatedly, “My things have changed.”
We saw karaoke set up outside on every other street corner where young men and women trilled out what sounded like Taiwanese pop music, venders too intent on making a buck to waste time on politics, numerous publication stands selling Playboy-like publications, and young women outfitted in stretch pants and wearing stiletto-heeled ankle boots. One in our group muttered, “right revisionism” as we entered the vast, marbled lobby of our hotel and were greeted by a huge, neon Santa and the words, “Merry Christmas.”
Later, we ended up at a restaurant that was loud and packed full of customers sitting at simple round tables. The owner, a lively old woman with a squinting grin, seated us. She was elated when my traveling companions spoke to her in Mandarin. The food was excellent. One of the dishes had a strange spice that numbed first my lips and then my tongue. At the table next to ours, rowdy Chinese men crudely spat chicken bones on the floor by our feet. My traveling companions were delighted. This was the old China they had loved and remembered.
We took a 24-hour train trip to Chengdu. My companions who had traveled extensively in China in the past decided either our train was the most disgusting in China or train service had seriously deteriorated. This is when we wanted modern China. The government-run service was in sharp contrast to the more pleasant encounters we had with the private sector. When we got any service at all, it was surly and haphazard. The train was filthy; especially the dinning car and the bathrooms and cigarette smoke was so thick it made our eyes water.
My mother gazed out the train window and tried to make something of the vast countryside. She pointed to some mountains in the darkening sky, and searched for light to pinpoint human life. It was desolate. She mentioned how odd that was – China having a population of a billion. She tried to quote a Tang Dynasty poem that she had read, something about mountains in China where no one is seen but heard. I thought of Yunnan’s national minorities, in the remote and isolated regions of the province, whose lives had changed very little in the last hundreds, if not thousands, of years, still inaccessible by public transportation.
A year after my first trip to China my mom and stepfather moved to Beijing. “I want to see Peking,” my mother mused using the old name for Beijing. I knew it was the old Peking she longed to see that Westerners described as the “lingering city of splendor” – lakes and palaces, courtyard mansions, pods of camels and ancient trees. Even then, things were changing, its old society was disappearing with the onslaught of war with Japan and infighting between the communists and the Kommingdong. “I want to see the old city walls,” she said. She and I both knew that the walls had been torn down by Mao years before to use the material for air raid shelters. This was during the Cultural Revolution when angry bands of Red Guards tried to destroy all elements of the old society to rebuild China under a single communist ideology.
My mother complained about the constant noise of construction and what a pity it was that they were destroying the old hutongs. She loved to ride her bike down the old narrow alleyways with cobblestone streets lined with faded red gates that offered a glimpse of ruined courtyard houses and China’s past. She detested the nondescript apartment buildings they put up in their place.
I have traveled to China many times and my mother and I wrote a book about China called Hard Sleeper that journeys into China’s past. In our own way, we saw the old China.
In the book China to Me Emily Hahn wrote about her life in China in the 1930s. In it she said how she loved Shanghai but feared it would change. “Always changing, there are some things about it which will never change" she wrote, "so that I will forever be able to know it when I come back. No, they can’t take Shanghai away from me.”
So I must remember: we can freeze time and put it in a bottle. We store it in our hearts and minds. And now when I hug John I savor the moment but I will never forget what it was like to cuddle.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
For Chile I cooked the national dish curanto, or, to be more accurate, I cooked pulmay, the indoor stewed version. Curanto is prepared in a hole dug in the ground. It consists of every meat and seafood ingredient imaginable. It’s the perfect dish to have at parties. When I cooked my pulmay I invited Christa and her family over to help us eat it. It was rather fearless of me to invite guests over when I had no idea what I was cooking. But it would have been more fearless if I had made the traditional curanto. Nonetheless, we were up for the adventure and it turned out to be a tasty experience.
For the pulmay I bought a 14-liter pot and I layered it first with vegetables, then sausage and chicken pieces, then clams, mussels, shrimp and scallops. I covered each layer with cabbage leaves and I poured a bottle of white wine over the top. The cooking wine mixed in with the garlic, onions and seafood was enough to make you salivate. The wine juices were also the perfect dipping sauce for the homemade bread that Christa brought.
We ended up eating the pulmay in courses starting with the shellfish, then the shrimp and scallops and then the pork, sausage and chicken. Christa and her husband, Neil, brought Chilean wine and it was delicious. I’ve recently become interested in Chilean wine and it has become quite popular around the world. It all started in the 16th century when Spanish priests cultivated the country’s first wines because they needed wines to celebrate the Catholic Mass. The Chilean climate is ideal for grape growing and today Chili is exporting wine to more than 90 countries.
Chile has also become a popular tourist destination with its award-winning wines and exceptional seafood. Some of their popular cuisines are conger eel, sea bass, mussels, king crabs and locos – large abalone. It’s also known for its hardy country dishes with meat, potatoes, corn and beans, and they love their empanadas - pastries stuffed with meat. I found empanadas at the Latin grocery store I go to and they were a big hit with Christa and her family. They were made fresh and I put them in the oven until they were warm and crispy.
I thought how fun it would be to have a traditional curanto. I could invite people over to literally pull their food out of the ground. It would make us feel one with the earth.
If anyone is interested this is what you do: You dig a hole, 1 foot deep, 5 feet wide (hopefully your neighbors won’t think you’re burying a dead body in your backyard). You then start a bonfire in the middle of the hole. Spread wood coals evenly on the bottom, then stones on top of the coals and then cover the stones with leaves. Rhubarb leaves are the best to use. Then put on the layers of food. Seafood (best to use shellfish) goes on the bottom, then meats and then the vegetables. Cover each layer with the rhubarb leaves. When all the food layers are down, cover it again with leaves, then lay down a thick cloth over the top of it all. Now shovel dirt on top of that. It will cook for one to two hours.
So the next time you want to have a backyard barbeque you may want to consider making curanto. I’m sure it will be the talk of the neighborhood, especially if the neighbors called the police because they really did they think you buried a dead body or because you broke some city ordinance.
In any event, friends, great food and wine and lively conversation, it doesn’t get much better than that.
2 green bell peppers
1/2 cup chopped parsley
4 onions, peeled and chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
5 potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 head of cabbage, with leaves separated
1 1/2 lb pork loin, cubed
1 1/2 lb pork sausage, sliced
1 chicken cut into 8 pieces
10 sea scallops
10 large prawns
7 blue crab and soft shell crabs and any other seafood available
1 bottle of white wine
You will need a very large pot. Spread the peppers in the bottom of the pot, sprinkle with parsley and salt, follow with onions, garlic, and potatoes. Spread a layer of cabbage leaves and follow with pork loin, sausage, chicken pieces and salt. Spread a layer of cabbage leaves and follow with seafood and cover and cover with cabbage leaves again. Pour wine over the layers. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 25 to 35 minutes until cabbage is tender. If needed add water.
In my experience the seafood may be done much sooner.