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 102: Malawi

Malawi's a landlocked country in southern Africa, hugging the lake with which it shares a name. And Laura's sister's husband just so happened to do Peace Corps there, so Scott provided some enthusiastic and thorough advice on what to cook.

Joining us for the meal were Brett, Kaely, Lisa, Audrey, Elizabeth, Amy, and Jérémy and his French companions.

Nali sauce

Probably the single food item that other Africans will recognize from Malawi is this notoriously spicy chili sauce. While there's a site in Australia that seemed to be the only way to get it shipped to the US, they were completely out of stock when I checked before the meal. So, I had no alternative but to try it on my own, and to help me with this, Scott shared the ingredients and a description:

"Ingredients: water, birds-eye chilies, fresh paprika, onions, acetic acid, garlic, salt, stabilizer (E415), antioxidant (E300), preservative (E211).

It's quite simple. It doesn't come off as vinegar based despite the acetic acid... very heavy on the paprika and onion. No oil-- that would be more of a west african Piri Piri, at least in my experience. Out of the bottle it flows but is still a bit chunky."

So into the blender I threw these ingredients, minus the preservatives, and used dried paprika instead of what was probably meant to be bell pepper. To keep things easy (and spicy!) I used a whole pack of frozen Thai chilies, seeds and all. I regret not taking down the proportions, because the result was quite tasty, spicy for sure but with some body from the onions.

Fish and chips

As Scott describes: "at all markets and bus stands you will find chippies, which are thick cut potatoes fried in low grade vegetable oil in a freestanding, flat-topped fryer. These are the best thing ever, sprinkled with caked salt, chili powder, and fresh minced cabbage with vinegar. Man I am getting hungry." I couldn't stomach getting the actually cheapest oil I could find, but I did go with good old Wesson. Armed with a really puny french-fry slicer I got for a quarter at a yard sale, a sack of Russets, and a wok, I did my best version of roadside stand chips, complete with toppings. Very tasty.

Along with that I simply fried some tilapia filets, the closest thing I could find to chambo, a popular fish from Lake Malawi. On its own, plain fried tilapia is decent, but with some Nali sauce and the potatoes, all generously doused in vinegary shredded cabbage, it was a darn good snack.

Nsima | Cornmeal mush

Again, Scott: "The key is getting the nsima just right. It is typically cooked over an open fire and takes some serious arm strength-- constant stirring for 10-20 minutes at a full boil as it thickens. It's all basic food but challenging to get right." The best cornmeal to use is masa intended for tortillas, and just like other African mushes, you start by boiling water and then adding the grain until it's the right thickness. Nsima makes for the huge proportion of most Malawian meals.

Ndiwo | Vegetable stew | Recipe

As an indication of the primacy of the nsima, the vegetables typically served with it are generally referred to as "relish" in English. That is, they're there more to give flavor to the mush than as a substantial element of the meal. It's pretty much any green you can find — pumpkin greens are apparently the most common but it seems that almost any cookable leaf would work — sauteed and simmered with onion and tomato.

Beans | Recipe

Several sources, including Scott, rave about the quality of the beans in Malawi. It's unclear whether the beans themselves are so tasty, or if it's more about how they're prepared, but I gave it my best shot, and indeed they were quite flavorful. What's most distinctive about this technique is that the beans aren't drained, but rather cooked in a relatively small amount of water which then becomes a rich sauce once vegetables are added. My only variation on the recipe was to use vegetable oil, which surely is more authentic to the region than the specified olive oil.

Sweet potato ice cream | Recipe

The only thing this has to do with Malawi is featured ingredient. Dairy is rare in Malawi and refrigeration even less common. But I'd just gotten the machine and we were in a heat wave, so I took some creative license. It tasted like Christmas with cinnamon and nutmeg, and had a bit of graininess to it which was surprisingly pleasant.

Meal 80: Ireland

I thought this was going to be a meal of corned beef and raisin-studded soda bread. I quickly learned that that would be perhaps the meal of an Irish immigrant in America, but not really one to be found on the Emerald Isle. You’ll see why! The diet of Ireland is a very economical one, based on its damp, gray climate. Potatoes, of course, are the main starch, carrots and cabbage the primary vegetables, and protein coming from milk and pork. You’ll see all of this in the meal.

Big thanks to our friend Sean, who helped with the structure of the meal, and read a few food-related portions of the book he just wrote about his mother’s experience growing up in a large, rural Irish family. Our other guests were Bill, Cathlin, Erin, Brendan, and Tennessee.

Soda bread Recipe

Thanks to the Society for the Prevention of Irish Soda Bread, I learned to disregard all those recipes with raisins and sugar and caraway, buy a fresh box of baking soda, and bake the loaf in a cast-iron dutch oven. I made the brown bread version, which made up for in heartiness and authenticity what it lacked in sweetness or crispness. And of course, it went very well with Kerrygold butter — which it turns out are made just down the road from Sean's family — and Dubliner cheese.

Curry chips

According to Sean, fried potatoes smothered in a mild curry sauce is the snack of choice while drinking out on the town in modern Ireland. And while often the quest for authenticity will send me down winding paths of grinding strange herbs or sprouting seeds or rendering animal parts, in this case, doing it the right way was as easy as tearing open a few packages. With oil-sprayed Irish oven chips and a packet of powdered curry sauce teeming with MSG, I whipped up a totally guilty-pleasure dish that seems a whole lot like Irish poutine in but a few minutes. I can’t wait to go to Dublin some day, get drunk, and eat these again.

Boiled bacon

Boiling bacon is a salt-brined hunk of pork that’s a lot closer to what we think of as ham to that fat-streaked breakfast meat that we call bacon in America, and is the closest thing to a national dish in Ireland. So why do we eat corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day? Multiple sources say that when Irish immigrants got to the states, beef was far more commonly available, and was often found preserved in corns of salt, hence corned beef. It’s prepared just about the same way as Irish bacon — boiled for a good long while. So eventually it took hold, and now plenty of restaurants in Ireland serve corned beef to match American tourists’ expectations.

So how’s boiled bacon? Kind of what you’d expect for salt-preserved meat boiled for a few hours: sorta salty, not terribly flavorful, but satisfying enough, especially if you helped yourself to some of the fat.

Black and white puddings

If you want more interestingly flavored meats, go for the sausage, or shall we say pudding. Both are made with oats and some spice; the difference is the white pudding is made with fat and random pig bits, while the black is made of the blood. Both were plenty tasty when fried up in a bit of the fat I rendered from the bacon!


Colcannon | Cabbage and mashed potato | Recipe

Colcannon is a dish so famous it’s got a song written about it. It’s real comfort food of mashed potatoes with cabbage or kale, and cream and/or butter mixed in with maybe some scallions. I made two versions, one of cabbage boiled in the salty bacon water with the Kerrygold butter and cream from the farmer’s market, and the other a vegan one of cabbage and coconut oil. Both were quite tasty, and a good foil to that salty meat.

Porter cake

OK, this is actually an Irish food stereotype that is true: they do cook with beer! Sean was kind enough to share with e his grandmother’s closely guarded recipe entitled “My Own Porter Cake.” It’s a dense affair, with a whole lot of raisins and a bottle of Guinness. You’ll forgive me for avoiding the twenty minutes of hand beating the recipe called for, I let my good friend Kitchenaid do that part. I realized about five minutes after putting the cake in the rather low-heat oven that I’d forgotten to add the spices, so I simply put them in the whipped cream I served on the side.

Sean also brought a playlist, so we enjoyed a wide variety of Irish music, from 70's Northern Irish punk bands to the Cranberries and U2. Oh, and we ended the evening 1.5 bottles of Irish whiskey poorer!




Meal 72: Haiti

Have you ever pondered what would have happened if something went differently at a given point in history? Compared with the rest of the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is sort of a real-life example of contrarian history. The crux is a slave revolt against French colonial masters that, incredibly, led to independence in 1804. The slave system was ruthless and required a constant influx of slaves, which had the silver-lining consequence of a strong syncretic culture quickly developing that combined French and West African influences — ranging from language (Kreyol is mostly French vocabulary but has strong West African grammatical influence) to cuisine to religion.

Our meal fell directly on fet gede, a Vodou celebration blending the Catholic traditions of All Souls' Day with West African-derived spirits and beliefs. To get into the mood, we made an altar with some of the traditional elements, including an offering of our own ancestors' favorite foods. The meal, while not unique to this holiday, is one that would be appropriate to the festivities, particularly because the spirits related to death love spicy food. To bring a little bit more of Port-au-Prince to Brooklyn, we turned out the lights and ate by candle, since most folks only get electricity a few hours a day, if any.

Joining us for this adventure were Lisa, Alex, Samantha, Johan, CJ, and Rachel. Alex spent a month in Haiti, whereas CJ recently lived there for a year.

Kremas | Rum cream | Recipe

The drink par excellence for fet gede is pikan, hard liquor steeped with scotch bonnets. CJ brought some that she'd made for last year's, so you can imagine how pungent it was — all you need is the tiniest sip of this truly firey water.

For the rest of our Haitian-style drinking, we drank this cordial that's pretty much the opposite — an unctuous, sweet, spiced blend — with the only part in common is the alcoholic strength, thanks to being made with overproof rum. Between the spices (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg) and the thickness of the liquids (condensed milk, evaporated milk, cream of coconut), this drink was quite reminiscent of eggnog, just a whole lot stronger. While all enjoyed the flavor, some found the thickness too heavy to indulge in more than a glass, but I quite happily managed to have several.

If you choose to follow this recipe, just note two things: you should use more than a quarter-cup of water to make the simple syrup, and this made two liters in total (and I only used a 750 ml bottle of rum, rather than 1L), so be prepared to give plenty of it away. Oh, and it's extremely important to look people in the eye when toasting. Goodness knows you don't want to get on the wrong side of the spirits.

Pikliz | Spicy pickled slaw | Recipe

Growing up in California, taquerias were a core part of my childhood, and at some point my dad taught me the awesome trick of picking out the carrots from amongst the pickled japaleños at the salsa bar, to get the spice infused from the surrounding peppers while also getting more of the vinegar flavor. I feel like pikliz takes this concept to a marvelous extreme, with just a few extremely hot scotch bonnet peppers seasoning a whole jar of shredded cabbage, carrots, and whatever other veggies you throw in, by bathing together in spiced vinegar. And then there's whole cloves thrown in there to add a little more exotic flavor. I threw all the vegetables through the Cuisinart's shredding disc, but next time I would probably use the thin slicer for the cabbage to keep it in larger pieces.

Pikliz is such an essential part of the cuisine that everyone who'd been to Haiti whom I told about this meal asked if I'd be making it, and there's even an expat website called So, if you're doing a Haitian meal, don't leave this out, and be sure to start this a few days in advance to let that spice from the peppers migrate over to the vegetables! And then throw it on just about everything, as there's little on the Haitian table that won't go well with some vinegary crunch-n-spice.

Tasso cabrit | Fried goat | Recipe

This was, hands down, the tastiest goat I've eaten in my life. What it's lacking in visual appeal, it way more than makes up in flavor and texture.

It started with a trip to the Fertile Crescent, where the butcher cut stew pieces of meat to order, including the super-tasty rib bits. Then to Bed-Stuy where I had to pop into a few markets to find the elusive sour orange, a green fruit with thick skin, a ton of square-ish seeds, and appropriately named flavor that's just excellent as a marinade. The night before the meal, I squeezed up the oranges, mixed with a bunch of other ingredients including lime, ground clove (there's that spice again!), hot peppers, etc.

Some recipes call for a simple vinegar marinade and then boiling with all the flavors; other call for a rich marinade and then a simple boil. I find it hard to let go of good flavors once you've got 'em, so the next afternoon I dumped the whole bowl, meat and marinade alike, into a pot, added water to cover, and then let that simmer for a good two hours or so. The recipes say to boil, but tough meat always enjoys slow heat, and my tweaks were vindicated by a really tasty and tender meat.

But wait, there's more! Once I finished frying up the plantains, I turned up the heat and threw the goat in the same oil, adding a lovely crisp to all the edges. Once served, these tasty chunks lasted approximately five minutes on the table. The only challenge was successfully navigating all the bones by candlelight!

Sauce Ti-Malice | Tomato and onion sauce | Recipe

This sauce is pretty much soupy sautéed onions with hints of other ingredients. I saw it mentioned on pretty much every site I visited, but I'm not sure I get it. The rest of the cuisine has such vibrant flavors and textures, while this came across as kinda bland and watery. Did I do something wrong?4

Diri ak pwa | Rice and beans | Recipe

Doesn't that look like an exotic, perhaps African, name for this dish? Actually, it's the Kreyol transformation du riz au pois. Highlighting one face of the large American presence in Haiti, this recipe comes by way of a missionary.

I'm fascinated by how many ways there are to cook rice and beans. This one has you boil the beans (which I'd pre-soaked), adding some coconut milk and parsley toward the end, then re-introducing the bean broth and the beans and then finally the rice, with a heavy unlidded boil and then finally a slow simmer with the lid on. It was a lot of work and required a lot of attention, which proved quite worthwhile, with a great semi-moist texture on both the rice and the beans, and a nice richness thanks to the coconut milk. (I actually made coconut milk from scratch, by cracking, prying, and shredding coconuts, adding water to the shreds, and squeezing to extract the milk. Maybe that made a difference, but it was probably hardly worth it.)

I made a whole ton of it, using a pound of little red beans and five cups of rice; three nights of leftovers later and we've still got plenty left! Fortunately, it tastes great when crisped up in the frying pan with the addition of extra veggies and some pikliz!

Banan peze | Twice-fried green plantains | Recipe

For all the fried ripe plantains I've made, this was actually the first time I've fried the unripe version. Known as tostones or patacones in Spanish, these bananes pesées — weighted-down plantains — are fried once, smashed, and fried again. I can't find confirmation online, but my suspicion is that if the edges would burn before you managed to cook it all the way through, so smashing after the heat softens it makes all part of the slice close to the surface. Or maybe it's just that more surface area means more crispiness. Anyway, yum. Even though I have a deep-fryer, I made these in a frying pan so I could get more of these flat things going at a time.

Bonbon siwo | Molasses cake | Recipe

This cake-like dessert can be pretty honestly described as a fluffy brownie, but with molasses and spices instead of chocolate. I thought it was OK, but on the dry side. (The first recipe I found called for a ridiculous four sticks of butter, whereas this one has one stick, perhaps the truth and beauty lies somewhere in between.) However, it was an excellent supporting actor for a scoop of the nutmeg ice cream left over from the Grenada meal!

Post-dinner lingering, by candlelight

Meal 65: Germany

What a convergence -- my 30th birthday, the one-third point for United Noshes, a gorgeous day, an apartment with a backyard...and a cuisine and culture renowned for good cheer around food. While German food rarely makes the rounds of haute cuisine, for those who enjoy meat and beer it's a wonderful, homey way to get a lot of calories. New York City used to have a distinct German immigrant population. Much like Chinatown today, Kleindeutschland in the Lower East Side and other enclaves around town featured whole communities where you'd see more German than English on the walls. Yet today the presence is a lot more subdued, and is hanging on best in the portion of the Upper East Side once known as Germantown. There are many reasons explaining the decline of the German identity, from the General Slocum disaster in which over 1,000 people capsized near shore, to xenophobia during the two World Wars.

About thirty friends and members of the Noshing community passed through in the nine (!) hours the temporary backyard biergarten was open, including three visitors from California! Thanks to all who came for bringing so much beer and wine, too -- it was quite festive!

Aufschnitt | Cold cuts

German food is chock-a-block with preserved meats. To get the party started, I set out a few different kinds. Pictured above is liverwurst; sometimes it's more of a spread but this is the Braunschweiger variety, originating from near Hanover, which is firm enough to slice, and goes great with some onion on a bit of pumpernickel bread. We also had two air-dried ones: Landjäger, from the south, which is like a thin square salami, and smoked bratwurst. To round it out, we enjoyed the rich and appropriately named Butterkäse -- käse means cheese and I'll let you figure out the other part.

Brezeln | Pretzels | Recipe

I've always loved the distinctive flavor of pretzels, that oddly salty nuttiness, most enjoyable a crisp crust and a soft inside. The process was really enjoyable: a quick rise, a supple dough to roll and twist, a quick boil in a baking soda bath to lend the distinctive flavor, and a moderate bake. (In fact, the one modification I'd make to the recipe is to cook at more like 400 or 425, rather than 450, to get it to really bake through -- the crust will darken plenty even at a lower temp thanks to the baking soda.) Since I didn't want to spend my birthday party leashed to the stove, I figured out (with help from my buddy PJ at King Arthur Flour) how to prep and freeze them ahead of time while serving them nice and hot, right in time. I made them the whole way through but pulled them just as the crust was starting to brown, froze them on sheets until mostly hard, and put them in plastic bags and back into the freezer. A few days later, I thawed them for about an hour at room temperature, and put them on a 350 oven for maybe 15 minutes until the house smelled great. Done! I think they turned out even better this way than the original recipe, because the second bake really cooks them through and also lends a pretty thick and crispy crust. However you judge it, I made 65 pretzels and they all disappeared!

If you end up making these pretzels -- and you should! -- make sure you get some good mustards to go with it. We had a straightforward, medium-sharpness yellow mustard, a spicier one, and my favorite, a sweet rich Bavarian. Each brings out a different aspect of the pretzel, and taking your time to decide which mustard is your favorite is a great excuse to eat more pretzel.

Rheinlander Sauerbraten | Sweet and sour pot roast | Recipe


Don't worry, even if the photo were in focus, this dish wouldn't look like much. But whatever soaking three days in a spiced vinegar sauce followed by several hours of stovetop stewing and a dusting of raisins does to make a hunk of beef look unattractive, it sure makes it flavorful. This dish has been enjoyed in Germany for a very long time -- both Julius Caesar and Charlemagne have been credited with its invention -- and the meaty sourness, balanced a bit by the sweetness of gingersnaps and raisins, is still a winner.

Würste | Sausages

While I try to make as much as possible from scratch, I draw the line at sausages. It was surprisingly difficult to find a good variety of German sausages around New York -- Fairway, normally a reliable source of European foods, really came up short. So I headed up to Yorkville on the Upper East Side, an area once well-known as Germantown, to Schaller and Weber. It was tough to choose from their wide variety, but I ended up with delicate Weisswurst, richly spiced and smoked Bauernwurst, and then the famous Bratwurst, which I bought raw, and simmered in beer before grilling. As all the sausages were fully cooked ahead of time, grilling was just for temperature and texture, so I did it with the cover up.

Rotkohl | Stewed red cabbage with apples | Recipe

The classic German stewed cabbage is tender, with a good balance of sweet and sour. While this fulfilled all those elements, it was kind of lacking in depth. The dish was pleasant enough, but didn't really beg to be scarfed down like some versions of these dishes I've found. Not sure what the problem is -- maybe shredding with the Cuisinart made the cabbage too fine, or something?

Berliner Kartoffelsalat | Vinaigrette potato salad | Recipe

Most German potato salads don't have mayonnaise, and I like them for that. This recipe, which makes an unsubstantiated claim of being from Berlin and therefore helped me round out the geography, is pretty clever, using juice from the pickles as the sour base for the vinaigrette. I'd say it was all right, but it probably could have used more vinegar to really make the flavors sing. I also probably overcooked the potatoes a bit, which might have made things mushier than ideal.

Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte | Black Forest cake | Recipe

I didn't feel like I should be making my own birthday cake, so Laura agreed to do it. She even knew what she'd make, a German chocolate cake. Imagine Laura's surprise when she discovered that such a cake is actually American in origin, invented by a certain Sam German working at a chocolate company! Thank goodness our friend Lisa came to the rescue with this cake, which is so German that it was one of two national submissions to a Europe-wide cake fest. Four layers of deep chocolate, generously separated with buttercream studded with cherries, and then evenly sprinkled with shaved I might have a German-themed birthday party every year just so I have an excuse to get this cake!

We're about to start into a 16-state, 4500+-mile road trip, and our first stop is to the Jersey Shore where we'll do the Greece meal!