Meal 123: Nicaragua

I try not to knock the countries whose food we cook, but I have to admit I've generally found Central American food to be pretty boring. The Nicaraguan food we cooked mostly fits the pattern, with one huge exception: enormous, overloaded, rich nacatamales. The variety of ingredients, from raisins to olives to rice to pork, is so enshrined in each family's recipe that it's like canon; as one fourth-generation nacatamal vendor put it, "We don't innovate. We make everything step-by-step the way we were taught." Joining in our attempt to avoid innovation were Emily (and Stella!), Courtenay, Courtenay Hameister +1 Elia, Julie, David, Nancy, Sue, Kaely, Brett, and friends. Muchísimas gracias to Emily for her guidance in all things Nico — that is, Nicaraguan.

Refresco de chia con tamarindo | Tamarind-chia drink | Recipe

There's a surprisingly broad range of non-alcoholic drinks in Nicaragua. Emily brought over a premixed cebada, a barley-based drink, while I whipped this one up from scratch. Well, sorta. I bought whole tamarind pods and tried to soak and strain them, but they were super old and tough, so I cheated and used an Indian tamarind concentrate. Way easier! I put the chia on the side, because not everyone enjoys boba-like texture in their drink.

Vigorón | Yucca with slaw and pork rinds | Recipe

It's odd how sometimes a very particular combination of foods becomes a common thing, almost like someone's late night fridge raid accidentally got enshrined in the national culinary canon. In this case, it's plain boiled yucca root with a mildly tangy cabbage slaw and fried pork rinds, wrapped in a banana leaf. It didn't do too much for me, though it was fun learning to make chicharrones from scratch.

Nacatamales | Deluxe tamales |Recipe, Article

I am a huge fan of Mexican food, but I'm just not a fan of the tamales, most I've had are pretty dry and almost all corn with just a bit of some filling. The Nico version, on the other hand, is rich and just about bursting with filling.

To start, the pork is great just on its own, in a vibrant red sauce. I was stoked to find the sour oranges fresh at Providore, and since every recipe called for a different cut of meat, I went with pork shoulder because I needed the skin for the chicharrones, and the generous layer of fat for the masa. Now that's how to avoid a dry tamal, just douse the corn in lard! The third component of the tamal is all the other random stuff you fill it with: rice, potatoes, tomatoes, onion, mint, olives, prunes, raisins, peanuts, capers, and chiles. You practically clear the pantry! Then it's all assembled on top of banana leaves — which themselves contribute to the flavor and moisture — wrapped and steamed for several hours.

Oh man, I loved these! So much flavor and color, so many textures, every bite a little adventure. They're so filling that I can hardly believe that the traditional accompaniment to a nacatamal is, I kid you not, bread.

Gallopinto | Rice and beans | Recipe

Very similar to the Costa Rican version with which I'm more familiar. According to Emily, this recipe was fancy compared to typical, which should be little more than leftover plain rice and beans, stir-fried. That said, this still didn't have a ton of flavor, the tamales were way better.

Maduros en gloria | Creamy sweet plantain casserole | Recipe

In extreme contrast with the Spartan plainness of gallopinto, this dish lives up to the name that literally translates as "ripe ones in glory." The ripe ones in question are fried sweet plantains, and the glory is layers of cultured cream and sweetened salty hard cheese.

Meal 121: The Netherlands

What good fortune that the Netherlands arrived right at Christmastime! I love it when there's a seasonal connection for the meal, and better yet when it matches our own weather: the Dutch kerstfeest is definitely designed to keep you warm and well-fed while also bringing the cheer. Also, I just realized, every bit of food was soft, save for the lettuce garnish on the shrimp cocktail. Our guests for the festive evening were Kale, Rachael, Elena, Michael, Haley, Chelsea, and Al.

Garnalencocktail | Shrimp cocktail | Recipe

I saw a few places mention that shrimp cocktail is a classic way to begin a Dutch Christmas meal, and apparently Dutch grey shrimp are really tasty. Since I couldn't find them here, I used standard shrimp, so it's the sauce that made the dish distinctive. Whereas I'd think of a cocktail sauce as being essentially mayonnaise with stuff mixed into it, this recipe is made with partly whipped cream; while it sounds exciting that it's got some whiskey in it, I could barely notice. It was fine, I guess, though the flavor wasn't interesting enough to be worth the effort, and a "good dollop" of sauce as the recipe recommends was too much.

Snert | Pea soup | Recipe

Snert! What a fun word to say. You could also call it its more formal name, erwtensoep, but we're among friends who like to giggle at food names, so, snert it is.

Pea soup is always thick and hearty, but this was definitely the thickest and heartiest I've ever had. It's got a bunch of vegetables that survive the winter plus pork, cooked until it's so thick a spoon can stand straight up in it, and topped with slices of a sort of smoked sausage that's apparently similar to kielbasa. Apparently, snert is the food that traditionally follows ice skating. I'd definitely enjoy something this warm, filling, and rich after some exertion in the cold!

Kerstkonijn | Rabbit in vinegar | Recipes: rabbitappelstroop

One of the most popular Christmas songs in the Netherlands is "Flappie," the story of a boy's pet rabbit who goes missing on Christmas Eve only to appear on the Kerstfeest table the next day. It's one of the few Christmas songs with a sinister side. (I'm looking at you, "Baby It's Cold Outside.")

Sometimes I find that rabbit turns out like stringy chicken for a few times the price. But this traditional preparation treats the rabbit right: a long marinade in vinegar and spaces, followed by browning and then a long simmer (in a Dutch oven, naturally!) with a sweet apple syrup that's super easy to make yourself. Tangy, aromatic, and a bit sweet. Perhaps the best dish I've ever tasted with rabbit!

Rode kool met appeltjes | Red cabbage with apples | Recipe

The vinegary red cabbage dish common to a huge swathe of Europe. The tang and mild sweetness felt a bit redundant with the rabbit, but the slight crunch was welcome.

Aardappelen | Potatoes

Plain peeled, boiled potatoes are a super duper common part of a Dutch meal.

Vla | Custard | Recipe

Vla is just on the pourable side of the continuum of custard thickness; it typically comes in bottles or cartons, rather than jars or tubs, in the store. It's not a coincidence that the name is similar to its firmer cousin, flan. They both come from the same root as the English word flat, though if you asked me to come up with a list of adjectives describing custard desserts, it would take me quite a while to get to "flat!"

Anyway, this was tasty! The process was like making a vanilla ice cream base, just with whole eggs instead of just yolks, and some cornstarch. The best part was topping it with hagelslag — the literal meaning is "hailstorm," but it's actually the Dutch version of sprinkles, in this case chocolate. (Thanks, Laura D., for sharing part of the Christmas gift from your Dutch host family!) They're not coated in shiny stuff like sprinkles here, so they're a bit softer, and in case they're frequently enjoyed on top of buttered bread. But in our case, they added color, texture, and a little flavor to the vla.

Advocaat | Brandy cordial | Recipe

If a pourable flan sounds strange to you, how about an eggnog you eat with a spoon? Advocaat is the thick, rich, Dutch answer to egg nog.

There are two theories about the name: one is that, since advocaat means "lawyer," the thick and smooth drink was used as a vocal lubricant before a court argument. But advocaat also means "avocado," so the conjecture is that colonists had enjoyed avocado blended with rum in the tropics, and this drink was a pretty clever approximation of the texture. As an armchair etymologist, I find the latter slightly more probable.

Despite the purportedly colonial origin of the drink, there's no hint of the country's spice-trading history in the form of nutmeg or cinnamon as there is in the egg nog we know, so the quality of your vanilla and brandy are very important. I only had cognac in the house and not enough time to run to the store, so this was a pretty darn good advocaat!

Meal 119: Nepal

The core of Nepalese food can be summed up in one very simply named dish: daal bhat, meaning "legumes [and] rice." Along with tarkari — a spiced dish we'd probably call a curry — and achar (pickles), this is the dish that many people in Nepal eat pretty much every single day. Fortunately, there's variety to be found in the type and preparation of the dal and the tarkari, and a wide variety of achars can bring all sorts of flavors. Characteristically, I tried to capture as much of that variety as possible with two daals, three tarkaris, and four achars! Now, Nepal is a geographically and ethnically diverse country, ranging from river plains to the highest mountain in the world, and with a whole wide variety of distinct cultures (Nepali is the home language of less than half of the population.). Accordingly, there are indeed other kinds of foods eaten, such as a variety of grilled meats, and perhaps most famously dumplings.

We took advantage of fine weather for a late-September outdoor meal. It was convenient that we could use the new outdoor wok burner, because we needed all the cooking devices we could get to cook so many dishes. Apologies in advance about the photos, our good camera was being repaired so we had to rely on an iPhone in far less than ideal lighting conditions!

Momo | Dumplings | Recipes: chicken momo, sauce

Pretty similar to dumplings you see in many Asian countries, though rather than the half-moon shape typical of potstickers, they're made into round purses and also tend to have more filling per piece. There are at least as many filling recipes as there are people who make momo, ranging across just about every type of meat and vegetable you can find in the area; we chose to go with a chicken version to accommodate dietary preferences. Frankly, vegetables made up the bulk of the filling anyway, and I'm glad we had a milder meat so the flavor of the curry and the electric zing of the Szechuan peppercorn could come through.

Daal | Legume stew | Recipes: black gram, pigeon peas

Daal is a whole lot more than that kinda soupy yellow thing you push to the side in favor of the tastier stuff at the Indian restaurant. (Well, at least that's what I tend to do with it.) There's a whole lot of lentils, peas, and beans that can be gently simmered — more often than not they're split, so the cooking time is reduced —and flavored into a protein-packed stew that's just begging to be paired with rice. Amidst a whole lot of options, I chose the pigeon-pea version, rahar ko daal, because it's apparently the "king of daals" in Nepal, and maas ko daal made with what's known as black gram because it looked pretty and seemed to offer a richer flavor.

I was a bit surprised to find that I preferred the more pedestrian-seeming pigeon-pea one, which had a brighter flavor with warm spice from the cinnamon and cumin. The dark one was fine too, but I felt like it was a bit too heavy, perhaps if it had a personality I'd call it "brooding." (To be fair, I didn't have the jimbu herb the recipe called for, but since it's in the same family as onion I don't think my concern would have been addressed).

Tarkari | Vegetable curry | Recipes: mustard green, bottle gourd

Nepali vegetable curries aren't quite as richly spiced as many Indian ones, rather the flavors of the individual spices seem to me to come through more: the maple-like nuttiness of fenugreek, the sharp whiff of mustard oil, the zing of the Szechuan peppercorn. It's a nice contrast with the more harmonious flavors of the daal, and crisp or firm vegetables like the bottle gourd also make for a flavor contrast.

Achar | Pickles |ginger, onion, tomato, gundruk


I shoulda thought to start the achars earlier. I knew that some of them take a good long while to get all good and funky, yet I really didn't get to it until a few days before. Fortunately, there was plenty I still could do, and jars from the store took care of the rest.

The ginger achar was not only the tastiest and most versatile, but the recipe ends with perhaps one of the best declarations I've read in a recipe: "This is the best thing to eat during lazy hours." The gundruk was really intense and funky, I only made it because I shockingly found a container of this salty, fermented, dried vegetable at the store, and whoo-boy, that's a bold one. Tomato achar is a really nice one that's found throughout the Subcontinent but surprisingly hasn't made its way onto restaurant tables like mint and coriander chutneys. I think the condiment, which is like a chunkier, more spiced, less sweet version of ketchup, would go over well.

Kaju barfi | Cashew fudge | Recipe

A lovely, gentle way to end an intense meal after all those spices and textures. A just-barely-holding-together fudge of ground cashews with a judicious dosing of cardamom.

Meal 116: Morocco

I love spices. I love meats cooked with sweet flavors. I love Moroccan food. This was one of our very most anticipated meals, and I went pretty overboard with all the dishes and condiments. But with all the meats and flavors, how could I have cut back? The house smelled fantastic, we all got super full, and there was so much food going on that I even left one whole dish uncooked to be enjoyed later. Thank goodness for mint tea that helped our digestion.

Our guests for a lovely summer evening were Andrew, Laura, Craig, Laura, Tennessee, Alley, Amos, Nik, Deena, Bengt, Tim, Kristine, Haley and Mary.

Baghrir | Pancakes | Recipe

A semolina-heavy pancake that puffs up quite similarly to an American-style pancake, but this one you don't flip over. We had it with two toppings: goat cheese with honey (yumm) and fermented butter (yumm to some).

Smen | Fermented butter | Article

I've read that in some families, it's tradition to bury a container of smen when a daughter is born, to be unearthed and eaten for her wedding. By comparison, the version I made hung out in my cupboard for about a month. Even still, it had a distinctive, but not unpleasant, funkiness, which made for a really intense sensation in combination with all that butterfat. If you're intrigued, read the article! And if you make some, enjoy it with those pancakes.

Harira | Lentil stew | Recipe

This stew is classically made with lamb, but I went the vegan route due to some guests' dietary needs, as well as the abundance of meat on offer in other dishes. We hardly missed the meat, as it was plenty rich in terms of flavor, heft, and mouthfeel, but also bright with fresh herbs and a squeeze of lemon. A great simple, healthy dish for a cold evening.

Seafood bisteeya | Savory seafood pie | Recipe

Bisteeya is Morocco's contribution to that great list of foods that includes empanadas, pierogi, bao, and börek best summarized as savory pies. The crust is fillo dough, the filling is typically based around poultry, and it's topped off with powdered sugar. Sugar with chicken? You bet.

Anyway, as with the harira, to make the meal more accessible to more people I went with this seafood-based version. I made the rookie mistake of not defrosting the fillo overnight, and my rushed method led to the sheets breaking in half. Worry not, because I just made two smaller ones.

In the rush of all the cooking and the huge excess of food, I didn't end up baking off these pies for the dinner. But my goodness, they were so delicious later! Also, they freeze really well, just throw them straight into the oven without defrosting.

Couscous | Preparation

That little pasta's really easy to cook, right? Just a bit of boiling water, a few minutes, and ready to go? Sure, but how about adding a lot more effort and an hour more for a moderately improved texture? If you want to do it right, which involves three separate rounds of steaming interspersed with breaking up clumps by hand, then follow the link above. The cool thing is that this is efficient with energy and stovetop space: you do it right on top of the tagine!

I suppose if I were from the region and grew up with couscous made this way, I'd appreciate it being done right. But frankly, I didn't feel like the improvement was worth all the effort. Unless somehow we messed up.

Lamb with prunes Recipe

As far as I'm concerned, this is the Platonic ideal of Moroccan food. Rich meat, sweet fruit, haunting spices, and a long slow simmer combine to make the sort of food that you just can't stop eating. I'm practically smelling the dish as I type. You should cook it so you can smell it too. Make a lot, freeze the leftovers, and enjoy them many times.

Chicken tagine with preserved lemon and olives | Recipe

This dish covers the other direction of Moroccan meats: brighter and tangy. The meal will still be great if you make it with fresh lemons, but it just won't convey the appropriate depth and intrigue unless you use preserved lemons. (I anticipated the meal several months prior, and made them myself from Meyer lemons from my parents' tree. It takes like five minutes to make them, but you do have to wait at least a few weeks for them to mature.)

Vegetable tagine with tfaya | Stewed vegetables with caramelized onion and raisins | Recipes: Tagine andsauce

We made this the vegetarian way, and it was still quite tasty. Make sure to cut the veggies big enough that they hold up, both for presentation and texture.

The real star of the dish was the topping. It has nearly as much of that rich savory-sweet-aromatic as the lamb tagine, but to me the real high point is the floral note from the sprinkle of orange blossom water at the end. I'd really better make this tfaya again.

Khobs kesra | Bread | Recipe

It looks pretty, but was kind of disappointing, just not very flavorful and a weak crumb. I'm going to assume it was our own failure, but all the same I'd maybe seek out a different recipe, or just buy the fluffiest pita you can find.

Harissa | Spicy paste | Recipe

There are many harissa recipes in English, but it's worth running this obnoxious all-caps Courier-font French one through Google Translate for this one. The secret is the mint, which adds a lovely second sort of tingle to the predominant fiery chili one. (Also, consider cutting this recipe in half or even a quarter, unless you plan on going through a lot of it in a month or two.

Ghoriba | Almond cookies cake | Recipe

An accident that turned out great! These are intended to be cookies, but when we put everything together the batter was just too slack. So instead of dolloping

Meal 101: Madagascar

The same geographic isolation that's led to the lemurs and other unique fauna and flora for which most of us know this island, also meant that even though it's not far on an absolute basis from where humankind emerged in East Africa, it wasn't settled until around 2,000 years ago. And, improbably, those settlers were Austronesian, probably from Borneo, having crossed the Indian Ocean westward in canoes — in other words, from the same ethnic core as Hawaiians and even Easter Islanders. As they did wherever they went, those Austronesians brought rice and pork with them, too.

Madagascar is so big — the fourth-largest island in the world — that before Europeans showed up, the folks living there didn't have a name for it. So there was nobody to tell Marco Polo that he really messed up when he confused the island with Mogadishu, the port city and current capital of Somalia, and then got it really wrong. So while Madagascar is indeed an exotic-sounding name, it was accidentally invented by a Venetian.

Our guest of honor was Mimi, from Madagascar, who helped us plan the meal and also help us understand what we were eating and why. We also had his wife Kirsten, their son, and Deena, Bengt, Molly, Julie, Levi Laura, Anna, Judy, Haley, and Mary — a big enough crowd that we needed two whole tables!

Vary | Rice

The basis of virtually every Malagasy meal, it’s typically served in tremendous quantities. I’m figuring its predominance is a legacy of the Austronesians. Despite its importance, I couldn’t find any description of how they cook it; Mimy said to just do the “normal” method of bringing to a boil then steaming.

Ranovola | Rice water

The water in Madagascar isn’t safe to drink, so you need to boil it. But the big pot was just used for making a bunch of rice, and it’s a pain to scrub off the bits of rice stuck to the bottom. The Malagasy solution is brilliant: just boil the water in the pot along with the stuck-on bits! The water gets a delightful toasty flavor, and the pan is a lot easier to clean.

You can drink this rice water warm or chilled; I chilled it. The flavor was indeed nice and nutty, though Mimy suggested I could have boiled it a bit longer to make the flavor even deeper.

Ravitoto sy henakisoa | Pork with cassava leaves | Recipe

Pork from the Austronesians and cassava from the African mainland (after having been originally brought from Brazil) combine to make a national dish that’s very emblematic of Madagascar’s cultural geography. I have to admit that cassava-leaf stews just aren’t my favorite, though to be fair I’ve only had them made from rock-hard chunks of frozen leaves, which can’t be ideal. That said, this was among the better I’ve had, the pork definitely adding a richness that central African preparations have tended to lack.

Tsaramaso | Beans | Recipe

Unlike several other African bean dishes I've made, which are very straightforward preparations with just a few vegetables for flavor, this one has two features that make for more flavor. The first is cooking the vegetables first and making a broth out of that, so the flavors can be absorbed throughout cooking rather than just mixed in at the end. The second is some seasoning, in the form of curry — perhaps we can thank trading ships on the Indian Ocean for that contribution. It went extra well with some fried tilapia, which probably should have been whole filets but ended up as pieces due to a bit of kitchen miscommunication. Oh well! All tasty over the requisite pile of rice.

Ro mazava | Broth | Recipe

When there's not much money or food around, a meal may consist solely of some rice supplemented by a weak broth of greens or maybe some bits of fish or meat. In my enthusiasm to incorporate a broad variety of Malagasy foods, I kinda went overboard, and made a broth of greens and fish in addition to the whole rest of the meal. Mimy said you probably wouldn't serve such a broth if you have other stuff, but all the same, it added some nice flavor to drink it warm alongside the meal.

Sakay | Hot sauce | Recipe (in French)

What a surprisingly successful condiment, especially considering I couldn't find a single recipe that gave proportions. To translate the linked recipe interpreted by what I did: equal parts by volume of garlic and black pepper (since there seems to be nowhere in the US to get the specified Voatsiperifery pepper), and a little less of bird's eye chilies (I used frozen ones from the Asian grocery). I threw in enough vinegar and oil to make a smooth texture, dashed in a bit of dried ginger and salt, and whizzed it up in the little food processor. The abundant black pepper gives it an unusual and intense dimension, and most importantly, Mimy said he loved it! We ran out, and

Mofo akondro ou koba | Steamed banana and peanut cake | Recipe

Fried desserts are a delicious treat, but really annoying for a chef who also wants to enjoy the dinner party rather than clean up the kitchen and spend time away from the guests wrangling hot oil. So, instead of the fried bananas which seem to be Madagascar's number one dessert, I went for another that can thankfully be made ahead of time: a batter of mashed bananas and rice flour spread onto banana leaves, wrapped around ground peanuts, and poached for a long time (I used the crock pot). The texture firmed up as it was supposed to, but it was pretty bit bland, and Mimy pointed out how it should be improved: put caramelized sugar in with the peanuts! Makes sense to me.