Meal 138: Poland

Soon after sending out the invite for the meal, we got an email from someone named Ron. He couldn't make it to the date as scheduled, but he asked all sorts of questions and gave a bunch of advice and it was clear that this meal would be crafted under his guidance. After plenty of back-and-forth and an all-caps-and-bold insistence that I take some rare kielbasa from his freezer stash, we met up for coffee, a wide-ranging chat covering his growing up in Chicago and 35 years of experience shopping for food in Portland, and a sausage handoff. The stew recipe came directly from him, and he helped me craft a thorough menu. Thanks again, Ron, and we hope to see you at a future meal!

Joining us for this hearty and boozy meal — three shots, plus plenty of beer! — were Soumary, Jonas, Sarah, Sarah, Linda, David, Morgan, Jeanette, Amy, Russ, Lisa, and Eric.

Kapusta kiszona | Sauerkraut | Recipe

It used to blow me away that fresh sauerkraut's like nine dollars a jar in the cold case. Cabbage is extremely cheap, and making kraut is as easy as shred, mix with salt, pack, wait until it's sour, then refrigerate. Then I made kraut and realized that a whole head shrinks down to a quart after salting, and I no longer feel as squeezed.

Lacking the traditional fermentation crock, I found someone to lend me a few mason jar fermentation lids. It's arguably even easier that way, since the rising carbon dioxide forces out the oxygen that you keep away with carefully placed weights in a crock. I let the jars sit — in a pan, which is good because some brine followed the CO2 for the ride — until Laura complained about the smell, about a week later. Just as with the kim chi, the stink test worked: the kraut was crisp and funky, not too flabby and not too salty.

Chleb żytni na zakwasie | Sourdough rye bread | Recipe

I like making bread, and I'm often excited by the result. I'm very excited by how this turned out. Just enough crust to keep it interesting, a flavor rich enough to make it nice to eat on its own but not overpowering when paired with something...but really it's the texture that blows me away. A really consistent crumb, perfectly spongy, both excellent integrity and mouthfeel. YAY.

I replaced about 40% of the flour with locally grown hard red spring whole wheat flour. Otherwise, I did it exactly as specified, including building up the starter over a few days without discarding any — by the end of a few days that thing was funky. The dough was a lot easier to work with than most ryes I've used, I'm figuring because the souring process probably ate up a lot of the sugars that usually make it so diabolically sticky. Anyway, if you've got a sourdough starter and want to make a rye bread perfect for sandwiches, this is your recipe. 

Barszcz czysty czerwony | Clear beet soup | Recipe

Poland is home to some fascinating soups. There's one made with fermented rye extract, another with dill pickles. Even the borscht, the famous Eastern European beet soup, is interesting. There are many ways it can be made, including one where you ferment beets for a few days and then pull that together into a soup, but this one really caught my eye. It's not even a soup in the classic sense, it's really a bouillon because it's an extract of beets and vegetables. For a brief moment it looks like a sparkling clear version of cranberry juice; with sour cream mixed in, it looks like strawberry soft serve.

The recipe above is exacting, and written in a curious sort of English that took a bit of syntactic analysis to unpack. But the result is really good. I ended up running out of time so I didn't make the mashed potato float, but all the same, the flavor was rich but not overpowering, a really pleasant start to a meal.

Bigos | Hunter's stew | Recipe

While pierogi is the best-known Polish dish in America, without question the true national dish is this ugly-but-goodie stew. While there's general agreement that it involves bite-sized meat and both sauerkraut and fresh cabbage, all the other details — what kind of meat, whether or what to use to sweeten it a bit, to add wine or not, the spices, and so on — are subject to some combination of family tradition and what odds bits of fresh, cooked, and preserved meats are laying around. To that point, the term bigos is also applied to anything that's a jumbled variety, much like we'd say "kitchen sink."

I followed the linked recipe fairly closely, except that for the meats I got the gaminess through buffalo, and used pork shoulder for the other bit. Ron was extremely kind to give me some of his Olympia Provisions kielbasa freezer stash, which he swears is the best you can get in Portland yet they only make it at Christmastime. I also did some research on making it ahead, and ended up cooking it to close to done on Tuesday, reheating it and simmering for an hour on Thursday, and then bringing it back once more for a few hours until the meal on Saturday. I tasted it at each point, and it went from pretty good to really good to wow. I'm glad we have some leftovers!

Pierogi | Stuffed dumplings | Recipes: Fillingsdough

Just about everyone loves dumplings. There's always something fun about dough-wrapped units of tasty morsels. So much the better if, as is often the case with pierogi, it's pan-fried so you get all sorts of textures.

You know what's less fun, at least for me? Making dumplings. I don't like rolling dough, I don't like bending over and doing repetitive fine motor tasks, whenever I stuff things I seem to not always fully enclose things so the filling goes all over the place, and then there's a last-minute rush to get everything onto the table halfway through the meal. To make it easier on myself I got a pierogi maker, a clever little frame where you lay down a sheet of dough, press some filling in, lay down another sheet, then roll down hard to fuse top dough to edges of bottom dough, and pop it out. That did make the assembly quite a bit easier, but still, I ended up running behind and thank goodness for Linda stepping in and helping finish up the assembly

The more fun part was the fillings. Especially the potato and cheese: we had a lot left over and I made patties of it for breakfast the next morning. I could eat that three times a week forever.

Naleśniki | Cheese-stuffed crepes | Recipe

This is the food of my childhood! On special occasions, or sometimes just because, my mom would churn out these crepes one by one — pour some batter, quickly swirl it around, flip it over, remove, repeat — then roll them with sweetened ricotta into little burritos, sear them on both sides with butter, and serve with yogurt and fruit. As most people in America who know this food, we call them blintzes. (It's a Yiddish term that comes from a diminutive of blin, the Russian word for pancake.)

The Poles call their crepes nalesniki, and often it's served other ways, especially rolled up more like flautas or even folded like quesadillas. (Mexican food terminology is useful here!) But blintz style is perfectly legit too, so that's what we did.

Because I didn't think I'd end up at a store that sold it, I made the farmer's cheese myself. Here's how I did it with the Instant Pot. I also threw together a sauce by simmering frozen blueberries, lemon zest and juice, and a bit of sugar. That's the easy part.

The tedious part is making those blintzes, one by one. It took me the better part of an hour to make about 25; next time I'll do two pans at once to reduce the time at the stove! One trick my mom figured out recently that helped reduce the mess is using a fat separator to dose out the batter: just pull the handle to dispense batter. (In an amazing stroke of luck, I found one at a garage sale the morning of the Nosh!) Thankfully this part can be done hours ahead of time, just cover the stack with waxed paper. Then roll up with sweetened farmers cheese right before searing and serving.

One more innovation to add to the blintz game: I was struggling to get my Griddler to open flat, when our guest Russ asked why not to just use it as a panini press to crisp both sides at once. Genius!

Oh, and they tasted great. Despite how much description I just gave, and the time it took, none of the work is particularly hard, and the chorus of delight from around the tables are the sign of a real winner.

 

Meal 137: Portugal

I didn't realize, until researching this meal, just how different Portuguese food is from Spanish. Foolish me, it's really something quite different — I can't remember ever seeing collard greens, allspice, or corn flour playing a role in Spanish food! It's too bad that, outside of New England where there's a substantial Portuguese population thanks to the whaling trade way back when, you just don't see much in the way of Portuguese restaurants, because it's really quite good.

This meal was also Laura's birthday celebration! The friends around the table this year were Deena, Craig, Chelsea, Rachael, Laura, Alley, Annie, Suja, and Douglas.

Broa | Corn and what bread | Recipe

This bread is just perfect for dunking into soup. It's sturdy but not chewy, with a crust that's just strong enough to hold together but doesn't resist too hard to soaking. It's got a subtle nuttiness too, thanks to the corn.

What intrigues the etymologist in me is that, although it's the specific name of a bread made with a New World grain, the name comes from an ancient Germanic language's word for bread. I wonder what broa was before corn, and how that differed from pão, that is, bread.

Caldo verde | Collard and potato soup | Recipe

Salt cod is considered the most iconic ingredient in Portuguese cuisine, but the national dish is this humble yet tasty soup of potato and collards. In fact, it's so common that throughout Portugal you'll find a purpose-designed machine that feeds collard leaves through a hand-cranked disc of blades to achieve the whisker-thin slices required. The thinness is essential for it to cook quickly, because bigger pieces of the tough green can take quite a long time to soften up. Of course I didn't have access to such a disc, and a food processor would have made a hash of it, so I had no choice but to carefully hone my best knife and chiffonade like mad. Luckily, I had collards in the yard that I was able to put into service, but my goodness, a pound of medium-sized greens is a lot of leaves.

It turned out great! Even though there's not much in the way of flavoring, I credit cooling and reheating with helping the inherent flavors develop. The only modification I made was to cook the sausage separately rather than using its grease to build the soup, to respect a few friends' dietary needs. Maybe it'd have been even better with some linguiça grease in there, but I didn't miss it. 

Bacalhau à Bras | Salt cod with fried potatoes, eggs and olives | Recipe

Some have observed how curious it is that Portugal's waters are teeming with fish and seafood right offshore, yet without question the most popular fish there is harvested in subarctic waters  and packed in salt. Many Portuguese recipe sites quote the old chestnut that there are over 365 recipes for salt cod, so you can eat a different one every day and not repeat for a year. Indeed, there's a boatload, so to speak, of ways to serve the fish, many of which are named after the person or place responsible for the invention. Because bacalhau doesn't need to be cooked, you can throw it into just about anything, whether as a whole fillet or flaked.

After looking through a dizzying array of recipes, I ended up on this one as an inventive combination that became canonical. While I don't much like frying to order, I don't mind as much doing it in advance, so I did the potatoes a bit ahead of time. The rest is essentially a stir-fry with onions, those potatoes, the flaked salt cod, and at the very end scrambled eggs cooked just long enough to be done but not yet an omelet. You drop in the olives at the end. We didn't end up with a good photo, but it hardly matters, because this isn't a photogenic dish. But it's tasty and satisfying and I can attest that it's good re-fried the morning after!

Alcatra | Pot roast in white wine | Recipe

Portugal is more than a notch on the southwestern corner of the European continent, with substantial populations in both Madeira and the Azores Islands. I decided to use the meat dish to represent this other aspect to the country, and I found a great one in this pot roast. It doesn't have too many ingredients, but they're all interesting — allspice! bacon! two bottles of white wine! — and given the eight hours of cooking, all of them have a full working day to lend all their flavor to the broth and the meat. This was just so delicious, the meat tearing apart with barely an effort, and a mouth-filling but far from overwhelming flavor. If you make this, make a lot, because you can throw the leftovers into so many things.

Pasteis de nata | Egg tarts | Recipe

I think every single person I've mentioned this meal to who's been to Portugal has asked if we'd have egg tarts. Of course we had to, it truly is Portugal's international calling card in the pastry world. The national airline serves these in coach, that's how iconic they are for the country.

I gotta say, we clearly didn't quite get it. We definitely cut a big corner by using store-bought puff pastry rather than making our own laminated dough, but I didn't have the time and I very much didn't have the inclination to go through all that folding and rolling. And also these things are supposed to be baked at a blistering 800° or so, while our oven tops out at 500°. But Deena, who took the lead on this dish, did her best given the handicaps, and they turned out particularly pretty. (Protip: you get that nice crust form by putting a disc in the bottom of the muffin tin and pushing out and up!) Flavor-wise, those who'd been, including Deena, said it was a tasty, but far from great, result. Oh well.

Meal 136: Philippines

Combine tropical abundance with Chinese, Spanish and American influence, and you've got yourself a unique cuisine. Tangy meats, sweet breads and banana ketchup are just a few of the components of how people eat across the 7,600 or so islands. Despite the diversity of influence and the disperse geography, the national cuisine is surprisingly coherent, which made planning this meal pleasantly straightforward. Also a huge help was Andrew, our friend who's from outside of Manila.

Also joining us tonight were Laura, Melia, Mike, Kendra, Douglas, Joan, Hannah, Sam, Eric, Chelsea, and friends. Chelsea, by the way, is the one who redesigned this site and took our headshots — thanks so much!

Adobong manok | Chicken adobo | Recipe

Despite the Spanish name, it’s believed that adobo’s been cooked in the Philippines since far before the conquistadores arrived. The acid from the vinegar and the salt from the soy sauce serve to preserve the meat for a while without refrigeration. The unsubtle delight of those bold flavors is what keeps people cooking it far after the arrival of the refrigerator.

It turns out this is a really easy dish to make, pretty much you just cook the meat in the sauce until it’s done to get a basic adobo. To make it even better, you cook remove the meat and cook down the sauce to concentrate it. And to really win, follow the variation in the recipe, and broil the chicken to crisp that skin up nice.

Lumpia | Spring rolls | Recipe

It’s no coincidence these look like spring rolls, as the Philippines’ favorite finger food was indeed introduced by Chinese immigrants. The only difference I can surmise is that this version is slimmer, so there’s a higher surface-to-filling ratio, and hence more crisp per bite. We served it with banana sauce, which for reasons I don’t understand is dyed bright red.

Lechon liempo | Barbecue pork belly | Recipe

A roast suckling pig is a sign of a great Pinoy party, but we’d need a lot more than sixteen people to make it worthwhile. As crispy skin and unctuous fat are the most cherished qualities in lechon, a pork belly was the natural choice for a pig portion. This recipe, along with a few others, advises a roll-up like an Italian porchetta; I used some leeks from the yard as a substitute for the lemongrass because I’ve become allergic. (Here’s hoping that clears up before the Thailand meal!)

Even if we weren’t doing a whole animal, I wanted to get at least half of it right by cooking over coals. I don’t have a spit, but I came close by spearing the roll with two sword-like skewers and rotating it every 20 minutes or so, with a basting of soy sauce at every spin. I kept the coals low, slow, and indirect, so it took several hours to cook. It was so, so good, though it was really rich! I froze the leftovers; I’m thinking I’ll use it in a bean soup or simmered greens soon.

Sinigang na isda | Sour fish soup | Recipe

Some cuisines make a mockery of my inclination to cook a vegetable dish. Filipino recipe sites often have a “vegetables” section, but almost all the dishes in there have meat in one way or another! Sinigang is such an example: it has turnips and spinach and tomatoes so it’s definitely considered a vegetable dish, but it’s typically made with meat too

I was also fairly astonished by how, in a country of 7,107 islands, the standards of the cuisine seems so much heavier on meat than on fish and seafood even though the latter’s eaten plenty often. Sinigang is yet another dish that’s better known for being made with meat, but fortunately the seafood version is definitely a thing too.

In the end, the soup was okay but not great. Maybe I put in too little tamarind or fish sauce, or maybe my expectations were misaligned, but I found it to be pretty mild flavored.

Ube ice cream | Purple sweet potato ice cream

The Philippines has a very solid ice cream tradition. But many of the flavors are off the spectrum of what usually comes in the frozen tub. In addition to corn and coconut flakes, the element that most throws me for a loop is...cheese! Like, the same sort of yellow shredded cheese you’d put on your nachos.

But the most famous, and pretty, Filipino ice cream type is ube, the purple yam. In much the same way as a sweet potato pie, the tuber lends itself to sweet dishes both in terms of a nice flavor as well as adding just a bit of texture.

Champorado | Chocolate rice pudding | Recipe

Although there are plenty more famous desserts — there are multiple Filipino bakery chains in the US! — Andrew insisted not only that we make this chocolatey sweet rice pudding, but that he make it himself. He said the last time he ate it, at a restaurant in Brooklyn, he was immediately transported to memories of home -- and the other Pinoys at the table agreed. I can’t decide whether I liked this thick dessert better warm that night as dessert, or cold the next morning as breakfast, but in both instances a rich drizzle of condensed milk made it all the better.

Meal 135: Republic of Korea

Just about any Korean table will be set with a variety of banchan, which sort of translates as "side dishes" but is more than that . Even more than "main dishes," it's the fermented condiments, the braised vegetables, the stir-fried fish, and all sorts of other nibbles that form the heart and soul of the cuisine. Such variety, ranging from spicy to funky to mild to crunchy, allows the diner to choose their own adventure through the course of the meal. 

Some banchan are super-easy to make, whereas others take hours of labor and weeks of advance preparation. Most banchan keep well, so households that's eating this way on the regular will make their favorites on a rolling basis as they run low (or simply buy it from the store). Since I haven't made Korean food in years and I insist on making as much as I can from scratch, it took a long time to make it all, which I paced over several days.

A two-part note on why, as an alphabetically-organized project, we fit a meal from South Korea between Peru and the Philippines. One, in the UN member list, it’s classified under R for Republic of Korea, so it’s not that far off. (North Korea was under D, for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.) And two, we moved it up a few notches so we could have the meal during the Opening Ceremonies in Pyeongchang — and it also happened to fall right around the Korean New Year, so we made two dishes special to the occasion.

Big thanks to John, who lived in Seoul for a while, and brought both kimchi pancakes and some soju. And it was great to have Eunju's perspective, comparing the flavors to the ones she grew up with. Our other guests were Monica, Andrew, Laura, Craig, Julia, Liz, Elia, Jeff, Chelsea, Pan, and Orion.

Dasima twigak | Fried kelp | Recipe

I’ve never tasted anything like this, certainly not with this much flavor for so few ingredients. These fairly thick pieces of seaweed, which would be really tough and unpleasant to gnaw on raw, puff and crisp after just about a minute in hot oil and a sprinkling of sugar, you’ve unlocked the briny, umami-laden flavor of the ocean in every nibble. This is just the perfect thing to get your appetite going -- especially because they’re so intense, it’s hard to gorge on them!

Myulchi bokkeum | Stir-fried dried anchovies | Recipe

Anchovies are a somewhat more familiar way to snack on the sea, for sure, but this preparation and especially the blend of flavors threw me for a different sort of loop. It's sweet with honey, punchy with garlic, and savory with soy and rice wine, along with the intensity of some really small semi-dried fish. The texture is equally trippy, a fairly sticky sauce on top of slightly chewy and quite crunchy little swimmers. But for all of that, it was impossible to resist snacking on one or two every time I walked by the plate while cooking!

Kkaetnip Jangajji | Pickled shiso leaves | Recipe

I’m a big fan of shiso leaves, which are apparently also known as perilla. They’ve got a flavor somewhere between mint and basil, which you may have tasted as a little garnish at a higher-end sushi restaurant. Here, they’re pickled in a simple soy sauce and vinegar. It was worth a shot, but I found those flavors to overpower the aromatics in the leaf. Oh well!

Tongbaechu kimchi | Classic cabbage kimchi | Recipe

I know precious little about Korea, and this is only the second time I’ve ever cooked Korean food, but I did know that we’d have to have kimchi, and that I’d have to make it in advance to allow time to ferment.  

Now that I’ve made it, I understand why, despite being primarily based on a very inexpensive ingredient, kimchi isn’t very cheap. There’s a lot of ingredients, a lot of steps, and some careful labor involved.

Among the twenty or so ingredients this recipe were a fermented brine of the tiniest little shrimp, and a vegetable I’d never heard of called water dropwort. You have to salt and squeeze the cabbage, julienne radish and carrots, make a porridge out of glutinous rice powder, mix everything with two cups (!!) of chili powder, and then diligently rub the goop in between every single cabbage leaf. It took me a good 90 minutes or so to put this all together, while a batch of dill pickles would only take five to ten minutes to assemble. Thank goodness I decided to make the full recipe of three cabbages, to make the most of the effort.

Most kimchi recipes say to let it sit out for a few days “until it’s ready” before refrigerating. I hadn’t thought a ton about it, and then I came home one day to the house smelling funky in a novel way. It took me a few minutes to remember that I had kimchi going! It then went into the fridge for another week of maturing until the meal.

Guys, this was some really good kimchi. The stalks keep some crisp, the flavors are complex, the fermenty smell real but not at all overpowering, and the spice surprisingly balanced despite the tremendous amount. Even after giving some away to friends and guests, I have a good six cups or so remaining, which I’m looking forward to using as it ages -- I hear tell there’s a good soup for mature kimchi!

Kkakdugi | Radish kimchi | Recipe

The paste-rubbed cabbage kimchi is only one of a constellation of fermented condiments under that name. Another common kind is made with so-called Korean radish, which is different from daikon: it’s shaped like a top and has the firmness of a turnip, but is really big, like, most are well over a pound.

This one was substantially easier to make, both because it’s a simpler spice/flavor paste, and also because it’s as simple as mixing up chunks rather that rubbing between each leaf. However, while I enjoyed the radish crunch, I didn’t find the flavors as complex as the cabbage one. But I’ve also got it hanging out in the fridge for a few months, so let’s see if that changes.

Gamja salad | Potato salad | Recipe

Along with fried chicken and a noodle dish made with Spam and hot dogs, potato salad is a culinary legacy of the Americans’ presence during the Korean War. While there are many additions and subtractions that can be made, what’s particularly distinctive for me is that many include apples or Asian pears. The fruit adds a nice little crisp to a dish that so often is all soft and mushy. That was the most exciting aspect; otherwise, this was a pretty straightforward mayonnaise-y classic.

Sukju namul | Bean sprouts | Recipe

Nice and mild. A nibble provides a bit of a respite from all the other intense flavors.

Dduk guk | Rice cake soup | Recipe

Not only was it the opening of the Olympics, but it also wasn’t too far from the Korean New Year. A traditional food for the occasion is a soup made of rice cakes -- not the puffy crisps from the health food store that you rarely see anymore, but hefty dense slices from a roll made of processed cooked rice. The shape is considered reminiscent of coins, so the soup is intended to invite good fortune for the new year.

I thought the soup was just okay. I found the broth made from brisket to lack depth, and the flavors didn’t bring it back -- this is probably due to the fact that I didn’t spring for the “soup soy sauce” as called for, relying on the suggested substitute of fish sauce. If you’re inclined to make this dish, I would say to only do it if you get the right sauce. Those rice cakes, for what it’s worth, were a bit gummy but not bad.
 

Galbi jjim | Braised short ribs | Recipe

The local Fred Meyer sells “Galbi-style marinated pork chops,” so the secret is definitely out about this awesome flavor. It’s not a surprise it’s starting to tittilate American taste buds, as it’s got the same sort of rich and sweet flavor of teriyaki, but with a more complex flavor profile to satisfy a modern palate.

If you’ve had it you probably had it grilled, but for winter and especially as a New Year treat, the braised version is a treat. Instead of a quick-cooking cut like chops, it’s made from rib cross-cuts, so the slow cooking can work its magic. My only regret is that I didn’t make more!

Japchae | Stir-fried glass noodles | Recipe

These were fine. Mild and balanced flavors, decently chewy noodles, gentle vegetables. For all the chopping and prep, I didn’t find it worth it.

Meal 134: Peru

From coastline to towering mountains to jungle, Peru offers a ton of geographic diversity. From Inca to Spanish to Asian, it’s also become a converging point of several populations, which of course has influenced the food too. It took a bit of doing, but fortunately our guest Dan helped me a whole lot in pulling together a menu that represented as much variety as possible in a semi-coherent meal. And speaking of helpful guests, muchísimas gracias to my aunt Marcia, who hand-squeezed well over 100 key limes for the ceviche and the pisco sours.

Our enthusiastic guests for the evening were Dan, Lucy, Quinn, Marcia, Jeff, Eleanor, Amilcar, Jan, Lauren, Chris, Ted and friends.

Cebiche | Lime-cooked fish | Recipe

No surprise that this dish represents the coastal region!

I’m a big believer in the theory that often, the freshest fish is in the freezer — it’s usually frozen right at sea, so it’s spent but a few hours at most out of the water. Using frozen fish also gives me more flexibility in my shopping schedule, I can buy it in advance and just gently defrost when needed. So I present to you a ceviche (or cebiche, in Spanish it’s essentially pronounced somewhere between a B and a V as we know them in English anyway) made with some Trader Joe’s cod. And it was good — not a truly memorable ceviche, but tasty and a good way to start the meal. It helped to have cancha, the giant Peruvian (hence, original) version of corn nuts which I was surprised to also find at TJ’s, as well as some green plantain chips and lettuce cups.

Papas a la huancaína | Potatoes with spicy cheese sauce | Recipe

Potatoes are natively from the Andes Mountains, so of course that’s the food to represent that part of the country.

Out of the many things Peruvians do with potatoes, this dish struck me as oddly specific, but I kept seeing it in my research and it seems this really is one of, if not the most, popular uses of the spud. The potato itself is simply peeled and boiled, but the sauce is something I’d never conceived of: fresh cheese, evaporated milk, a specific type of medium-hot yellow chili…and crackers, all thrown together in the blender with the aim of a thick but pourable consistency.

Frankly put, this sauce wasn’t exactly my favorite: it kinda felt like heavy, slightly grainy, moderately spicy, and intense mayonnaise, or perhaps like a bizarro aïoli. But in Peru, it’s apparently such a hit that they put the sauce on all sorts of other things, perhaps like we treat ranch dressing. Huh.

Arroz chaufa | Fried rice | Recipe

For well over a century, there’s been a substantial Asian presence in Peru. Chinese and Japanese alike were brought over to provide agricultural labor, and of course they brought their foodways with them. Peruvian-Chinese cuisine and the restaurants that serve them have their own name, chifa, which is derived from the Cantonese words meaning “eat rice.” Similarly, chaufa means “fried rice,” so the name literally means “fried rice rice.” (The other best-known chifa dish is lomo saltado, which is strips of beef stir-fried with soy sauce and vegetables and served over…french fries!)

Among the options offered in the recipe, I chose to make this with beef and the thin egg omelette. Frankly, it tasted kinda like the fried rice I’d expect to find at an American Chinese restaurant, I’m not exactly clear on what makes this dish particularly Peruvian-influenced. (The bell peppers, perhaps?) Though I will say, the MSG — which I bought for the very first time in my life for this meal — definitely made it even better!

Juanes | Steamed rice tamales | Recipe

The western extent of the Amazon basin, on the eastern side of the Andes, actually represents the majority of the country’s land mass, but those forbidding mountains plus the challenge of getting around the jungle keeps the outside attention largely focused elsewhere. The dish I found at the intersection of distinctive, relatively common, and something I could prepare with ingredients I can find here is, well, what I made.

Juanes are associated with the Feast of St. John on June 24, and Wikipedia has a fascinating claim: “The dish could have a pre-Columbian origin, but it is known that after the arrival of the Spanish people to Incan lands, missionaries popularized the biblical account of the beheading of St. John. This dish’s name could therefore be, more specifically, a reference to the head of St. John.”

What’s in St. John’s Head? Well, it’s a close cousin of tamales, similar to the Central American version in that it’s a moist dough wrapped in green leaves. However, the typical post-Columbian filling is now rice rather than corn, and the leaves aren’t banana but rather from a plant called bijao. (I figured I wouldn’t find them and went to grab banana leaves at the Hispanic market, but I noticed a different kind of bundle of leaves with a name that wasn’t bijao — which thankfully the Internet helped me conclude was in the same genus, Heliconia, and therefore was surely more appropriate than banana leaves.) The rice is drenched in lard — I went through two cups of the stuff to make the dish for sixteen people — and the filling a tasty blend of hen meat and other tasty bits like onions, olives, and yucca shavings (because apparently the rice isn’t enough starch.)

I spent a pleasant portion of the morning listening to the radio and rolling them up, and then throughout the afternoon they gently steamed. Even though there was plenty of other food on offer, most people managed to eat some if not all of these big ol’ lumps, which is a testament to how tasty and satisfying they were.

Pisco sour | Recipe

We won’t get into the debate over whether the pisco sour belongs to Chile or Peru. We enjoyed it for that meal (albeit minus egg whites and plus bubbly), and we really enjoyed it for this one. While the ingredients and technique are straightforward, it clearly took an expert’s touch to perfect, as Amilcar demonstrated. Our only regret was that we had just one bottle of pisco, so we each enjoyed our one glass of frothy, tangy goodness with concentration and relish.

Alfajores | Filled cookies | Recipe

We just made alfajores for Paraguay. So why again for Peru? Because for both countries it really is the proper dessert, and because a guest brought the cookies last time and I wanted to try my own hand. And whaddya know, there is actually a bit of a difference: while both are rolled-out buttery cookies made with both cornstarch and flour, the other ones were a bit puffier whereas the Peruvian ones are less leavened and therefore flatter, and also crumblier both in the hands and on the tongue. I happen to like these better. Big thanks to Dan and Lucy for carefully assembling these fragile treats — though, in the great tradition of pastry prep, I wouldn’t blame them if they happened to hide any mistakes by eating them!