Meal 127: Norway

The Midsummer festival, which is celebrated in Norway with the rest of Scandinavia, is a bit of a misnomer, in that it's actually around first day of summer. But whatever, it does celebrate the peak of the year, when days are super long and gardens are finally abundant with fruits and vegetables. We held ours a few weeks earlier, which actually worked out in Portland's seasons because we got the new potatoes, strawberries and rhubarb at their peak. Certainly not all Norwegian food is colorful and zippy. The most representative aspect of the traditional Norse diet is porridge, called grøt — from which we get the English word "grout," to give you a sense of the texture. Its centrality is represented in the Great Porridge Feud of the 19th century, in which a debate over whether to throw in a handful of raw flour right before serving served as a proxy for the conflict between tradition and science.

I ought to point out that the nearby Ikea was very handy for this meal, with items such as the right kinds of mustard and coffee, herring, rye crispbread, and even a mix for bread. Another Swedish import that proved indispensable was our guest Erika, who sliced the gravet laks and in general was a handy consultant on the preparation and service of all the dishes. This is all to say that Norwegian food is similar to Swedish food, but don't tell any Norwegian I said that.

Joining us for this outdoor feast were Kim, Dave, Melia, Carmen, Will, Ana, Erika, Peter, Maya, Douglas, Kevin, Suj, Kyra and Annie.

Rabarbra Likør | Rhubarb aquavit | Recipe

Doesn't that look pretty? It takes as good as it looks, too, tart and flavorful, especially good when chilled. You could do some great cocktails with it, dilute with soda water, or simply sip it from a shotglass. (Don't shoot it, though, that'd be a waste!)

Agurksalat | Cucumber-dill salad | Recipe

Sweet, tangy, and extremely crispy and refreshing thanks to the ice-bath soak. As far as I'm concerned this is now my Platonic ideal of a cucumber salad.

Gravet laks | Salt-cured salmon | Recipe

So easy to make, and so impressive. A few minutes of plastering the fish with salt, sugar and dill (the name translates as "buried salmon"), turning it over once or twice a day in the fridge for a few days, and you're done. In fact, the most time-consuming and challenging part is the slicing, which Erika thankfully took care of. She shared a pro tip, that if you put the salmon in the freezer for a little bit, the firmer flesh is easier to slice. Relatedly, this dish freezes really well, just defrost and eat, so as long as you're making it you may as well make a lot. Oh, and don't forget to make the classic mustard-dill sauce to accompany.

Rekesalat | Shrimp salad | Recipe

There's more treats in the Norwegian sea. We had some little jars of various pickled herrings, and also this nice little shrimp salad, which in typical style features a lot of dill. This is a good opportunity to share an anecdote about why Norwegians traditionally don't eat predator fish: it's feared that any one of them have eaten part of a friend or relative who died at sea, so it's an abundance of caution to avoid being a second-hand cannibal.

Rabarbrasuppe | Cold rhubarb soup | Recipe

Just about the simplest way to eat this vegetable we treat as a fruit. Cook with water and sugar, chill, serve. It's a vibrant pink and exposes in the most essential way the complex flavor of this very cold-hardy late-spring treat. I tipped the leftovers into the ice cream machine and it made a fantastic sorbet.

Rømmegrøt | Cream pudding | Recipe

Heavy cream, sour cream, milk and buttermilk, totaling nine cups. And a cup of flour. This is one of the richest things I've ever eaten, and while more than a little tangy with that sour cream and buttermilk, it was pleasantly balanced out with cinnamon and sugar. It's the culinary opposite of Midsummer, and indeed it's best known as a Christmas Eve dish. You could see why someone would want to eat this in the middle of a dark and cold winter.

Nypoteter | New potatoes

A true new potato is so delicate you can rub the skin off an uncooked one with your thumb, and unlike most potatoes really ought to be kept refrigerated and hence is only available around the late-spring/early-summer harvest time. It has a texture that's both flaky and creamy, with a much brighter flavor than a typical potato. As far as I'm concerned there's only one way to cook new potatoes: boiled, drained, and tossed with butter and a bit of salt. Oh, and because it's Scandinavia, a healthy helping of dill too.

Kjøttkaker | Meatballs | Recipe

Compared to the more famous Swedish meatballs, these have more spices, and are a little bigger and flatter. The balls were as tasty as they look; the sauce was a lot of work and not my favorite, which is likely because of the brunost — a unique "cheese" that's actually made of caramelized whey.

Vafler | Waffles

I made so many dishes that I ran out of time to assemble the cake. I baked it, but just didn't have the time to make it up, so I froze it. And everyone wanted waffles anyway. Maya did a super good job of making them (unfortunately I've lost the recipes we used!), covering them with strawberries, and making everyone happy.

Meal 118: Namibia

Namibia is a dry place. Most of it is desert, the best-known of which being the Kalahari, with a little strip classified as "semi-arid." In such an environment, few vegetables grow, so for thousands of years people living in this part of the world have relied on animals to turn meager grasses and shrubs into edible food. Accordingly, everyone, including the poor, makes meat a large portion of their diet, so naturally this meal featured meat in several forms.  It was hard to find any recipes that were truly Namibian, so I mostly went with South African recipes that seemed most in line with what I could gather is eaten in Namibia. (Perhaps we can blame the fact that the land was administered by South Africa as "South-West Africa" from 1915 through 1990.) Since Laura and I went to South Africa the previous winter, we had a decent frame of reference for the food.

While Namibia is a sparsely populated country, our backyard was packed for this meal, since 25 of our neighbors showed up to a block-wide Nosh invite! It was a grand time, with old-timers and newcomers alike, and many neighbors who'd never gotten beyond "Hi" finally getting to know each other. We'll surely do it again.

Biltong | Air-dried beef strips | Recipe

Biltong is like jerky, except with vinegar in place of salt, and deeply intertwined into the culture and soul of a whole region rather than a mere convenience-store snack. While it's better-known globally as being a South African food, many South Africans will tell you that the best biltong comes from Namibian meat. While it can be made from many kinds of animal, particularly game, in this case I used beef.

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With the right setup and a good butcher, making biltong is really simple. From your butcher, you'll want meat from the back of the hind legs, something low in fat and rather tough, that either you or they slice into fairly thin steaks. All it takes is an overnight marinade in vinegar, coriander, and salt, dry it off, and — here's where the right setup comes in — hang it to cure in a dry, ventilated environment. You could use a dehydrator at a low temperature or even use a purpose-built biltong dryer, but I went with the traditional method: hanging in the basement. (Not pictured: a mosquito net I used to keep flies away, and a table lined with paper towel to catch the dripping.) After about a week, the meat had shrunk a fair deal and was quite firm.

Against all odds and expectations, it was a huge success. The biltong had a great texture, firm enough to resist but not a chore to chew. And the flavor! Truly beefy, highlighted by the vinegar's tang and the nutty mustiness of the coriander. It's good snacking on its own, and just perfect with a beer.

Braai | Barbecue

I did a lot of research to see if there was anything specific to a braai that made it substantially different from, say, an American backyard barbecue; as far as I could tell, there isn't, but it was imperative to do one given how important it is to the food culture. I'd brought back a bag of opaquely labeled "Braai Spice" from our trip to South Africa, so I just rubbed that on some pieces of steak and threw it all over the coals. It was delicious.

Potjiekos | Spiced stew | Recipe: Lamb, Chicken (minus the couscous)

This "little pot food," as it literally translates, reminds me somewhat of the Southwestern chili con carne. It's a meal in a pot that you can cook over an outdoor fire, applying spices from afar — in this case, curry powder — to modest homegrown ingredients. One big difference, though, is that while chili is a true stew, a potjie isn't as liquid. It's also worth noting that it's stirred very infrequently, the idea is that although everything cooks in the same pot, the ingredients retain their individual flavors.

A few hours of slow cooking, combined with restrained seasoning, led to dishes that were on the mild, "comfort food" side. Despite how lamb is a more strongly flavored meat, the chicken one had a more developed flavor, perhaps due to the sly "Coke cola" lending sugar and some more spice.

Chakalaka | Tomato and bean relish |Recipe

Certainly one of the most fun dish names to say! It's also a tangy, (optionally) spicy, warm and stew-y complement to grilled meat. If you're missing one ingredient or want to adjust the proportions, by all means; this is definitely the sort of dish that's more of a throw-it-all-together rather than a strict recipe.

Mealie pap | Corn mush

Indulge me in a bit of etymological sleuthing: looking into why corn is called "mealie," it turns out it comes from the Portuguese word for corn, milho, which itself comes from the Latin milium, for millet. (For what it's worth, the term "maize" comes directly from a native Caribbean word.)

Anyway, pap is like fufu or ugali or any of those other mushes: a bland, dense starch to accompany the meal. After having cooked probably two dozen meals of this kind of food, I think I'm finally grasping that it has to be thick enough to hold, something with no runniness to it. The tough part is that you start with a pot of water and then add the grain to it, so the only way to deal with a too-thin pap is to add more grain. We probably got the texture right, but my goodness we had a lot of leftover pap.

Amarula ice cream

Just about the only liqueur from southern Africa that's internationally distributed is Amarula, a sweet, creamy drink made with marula fruit. (You may have seen the video of elephants getting drunk off the fruit; turns out it's a fake using footage from tranquilizations.) It's a bit similar to an Irish cream, but with a subtle tropical-fruit vibe. So I got it in my head to make an ice cream of it, adapting a recipe for Irish cream and simply substituting Amarula (any decent recipe, such as this one, will do). It turned out great: a lovely light brown color, a fantastic texture thanks to the alcohol, and a lovely smooth flavor that's far from overpowering. The perfect conclusion to a summer braai!

Meal 111: Micronesia

At 1 million square miles with only 100,000-ish people, the Federated States of Micronesia is both huge and tiny. (Obviously, almost all of that square mileage is ocean.) As with much of the rest of the Pacific islands, the traditional bland starches and simply cooked fish aren't the most stimulating cuisine. Micronesians have swung the pendulum far to the other side, with some really intense and novel uses of imported flavors. (Read below for what they do with ramen and Kool-Aid.)

There's precious little about Micronesian cuisine online. The two most useful sources I found were a few posts from this teacher's blog for traditional foods, and this astonishing account of some of the uses of modern foods on the island of Chuuk.

Along for the adventure were Emily, Jens, Molly, Will, Caitlin, Trish, Amy, Jordana, David, Michele, Emily, and guests.

Ramen snack "Recipe"

When I first saw that a common snack in Micronesia is dry ramen with its seasoning packet plus Kool-Aid, I thought it might have just been one person's crazy idea. But I read plenty more about the abundance of Kool-Aid, especially consumed in dry form, well, we had to try it. We tried various combinations: pork ramen with cherry Kool-Aid was best, and shrimp with tropical fruit was definitely the worst.

Kosrae soup

The island of Kosrae, where our friend Nathan did Peace Corps, is famous, at least throughout Micronesia, for its Sunday Soup. Below is a recipe, as given by LeiviaChenisa Situl in response to a Facebook post of Nathan's. You'll note from the photo that I included crab, because I saw clarified elsewhere that shellfish would work, and the crab was fresh at the market. Despite the simplicity, it was really quite flavorful.

Simple recipe. Boil your h2o first,bring up to boil then add the fish more better with bone for flavor for about 10-15 minutes and take fish out,make sure no bones in the stock and add on your uncooked rice cook all the way till rice cook and add on onions and salt and pepper and the last thing is coconut milk.


Half pot Fill 3/4 of the pot Fish- half fish or any meat 2 can coconut milk 1 onion salt n pepper with taste

Yapese taro salad

Picture a mayonnaise-based potato salad, but instead of potatoes, it's chunks of boiled purple taro. Pretty tasty, and the taro has a fun texture.

Rohtamah and kon | Pounded taro and pounded breadfruit with coconut milk | Description

The pounded taro with sugar and coconut milk, not pictured, was fine. The pounded breadfruit, pictured before being covered with coconut milk, was not. Never having had fresh breadfruit, I don't know if the overwhelmind blandness and mouth-drying texture came from being deep-frozen and potentially mishandled en route, or if breadfruit really is that unappealing. In any event, no more frozen breadfruit for me.

Sukusuk | Pounded banana with coconut milk

Straightforward and tasty, though yes, it's yet another mushy thing covered in coconut milk. The banana leaf made for a little variety in presentation.

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 97: Libya

After nearly four years, we've finally hit halfway! And how fitting to celebrate with a cuisine that's a synthesis of several influences. Libya is a real culinary interface between Africa and the Mediterranean: stews over a ball of pounded dough definitely evoke many of the sub-Saharan meals we've had so far, while spice-heavy preparations of lamb have the influence of the Ottoman Empire all over them. There's even a little legacy of the Italian occupation. For being a cuisine you hear very little about, it was really, really good — and little known, to the extent that I could find only one site with more than a few Libyan recipes. (Though it was a great site that provided all the recipes!)

To mark the occasion, we decided to make a bigger occasion out of it, and the stars aligned — our local Whole Foods donated the food and connected us to the Oregon Culinary Institute, which provided a beautiful space and a chef and several students to make it all happen. Huge thanks to Leora at Whole Foods, and to Tera, Chef Maxine, and all the students who chopped, stirred, and (blessedly) cleaned for fifty people. I fret that the leftovers they took home was scant compensation for so many hours of work! They're in the far back of the photo here, but they deserve to be front and center!

We passed one more milestone on this meal, crossing $25,000 in fundraising for charities addressing hunger around the world. For this one meal, we split the proceeds between Mercy Corps and Whole Planet Fountation — if you shopped at Whole Foods in March, you may still have one of those fetching purple-printed bags explaining how their microloans help families around the world.

Mseyer | Quick pickles | Recipe

Simple to throw together, just cut some veggies into matchsticks and mix with a brine with the right balance of hot peppers. It's a vibrant texture and color contrast to the rest of the meal. Or you can do as we did, and just nibble on them as an appetizer.

Bazeen | Recipes: Dough and lamb stew; tomato soup

This dish centers around a lump of dough made mostly of barley. It's one of the stranger techniques I've seen, where you dump a whole lot of flour in a little bit of salted water but don't mix it for 45 minutes. The outside of course gets wet but the inside is dry. Then you mix it all up — thankfully, a stand mixer works great, otherwise it'd be a ton of tough stirring — and amazingly it all comes together into a mass that can be made into balls. This means of preparing starch is attributed to the Berbers, but its popularity has spread.

What's far tastier, to me and apparently most of the guests, is the stew that goes on top. The primary choice was a lamb stew with spices like turmeric and fenugreek with potato chunks and a little tomato sauce to redden it up. Nothing particularly fancy or more exotic than what you can find in a supermarket, but it was well-balanced and rich, a real crowd pleaser. For a vegetarian stew, I found a lovely soup of tomato with herbs like mint and basil, and followed a hunch from another recipe and used dried fava beans — no soaking, boiled on their own, then added to the soup — which turned out amazingly well. The flavor was more delicate, as you'd imagine with fresh herbs, and surprisingly full for a vegetarian sauce. (Check out the quantities we were cooking in!)

Due to serving logistics, we only had small cup-size soup bowls, so it was essentially impossible to eat the dough with the stew on top as would be traditional. If you're making this, you'll want to make an effort to get bigger stew bowls, or better yet serve it all in an enormous platter to be eaten directly with the hands.

Note that I anguished over whether to make a shorba libiya, the oft-proclaimed national dish, but in the end I figured it's pretty similar to the lamb stew that went with the bazeen, and the bazeen's so distinctive that I just had to do it!

Makaruna imbaukha | Steamed pasta with pumpkin and raisins | Recipe

Couscous is traditionally made by steaming over the sauce with which it is to be served. But who knew you could prepare Italian-style pasta the same way? (Confession: due to issues of timing and logistics we ended up boiling the pasta the normal way, but I'd like to try it the traditional way someday!)

The sauce is also really intriguing. Not only are the base ingredients a sweet-savory blend of chickpeas, pumpkin, and raisins plus generous bay leaves, but the spices really take it over the top, with a generous dose of cinnamon, ground ginger, butter, and rosewater right before serving. I'm pretty sure nobody in the room had had pasta with quite that variety of seasonings before! The reviews were a bit mixed: some people were thrown for a loop by flavors they traditionally associate with dessert, while others found it intriguing and compelling.

Mbattan kusha | Potato and ground lamb casserole | Recipe

The more common, and certainly more distinctive, version of mbattan involves cutting a big notch out of a potato, stuffing it with seasoned meat, and deep-frying it. While that would have been fun, it would have been too complicated to pull off for serving to several dozen people at once, even in a commercial kitchen. So instead, we went with a deconstructed, oven-baked variant with layers of pre-roasted potato slices sandwiching a very ample ground-lamb filling. While this was probably the least exotic dish of the evening, it was perhaps the most popular, and rightly so: a great contrast of crunchy potato with soft meat, and a nicely balanced seasoning throughout.

Harissa | Spicy sauce | Recipe

I didn't realize, until I tried to find them, that fresh red chili peppers are only available seasonally. Nowhere in town had them! So I went to my standby Asian market up on Killingsworth for two packages of frozen Thai peppers. (This coming summer I'll make a point of freezing the best red peppers I can find!)

Finding the peppers was the second-hardest part; the hardest was making sure not to get any bit of it in my eyes! Once I accomplished those two, it was as simple as a little chopping of the ancillary ingredients, a blender, and a bit of time on the stove. I thought I'd made too much, but it turns out I underprepared, because every last bit was gone before the meal was over.

Basbousa bil tamr | Semolina cake with date filling | Recipe

The general technique for making cakes in the Middle East and the kitchens it's influenced is quite a bit foreign to my Eurocentric sensibilities. Whereas the cakes I know tend to be fluffy with the sugar baked in, these cakes are instead dense and fairly unsweet until they're doused with syrup after baking. (That's why baklava's so darn sticky.) In fact, this batter, based around semolina and coconut, was so thick that I pressed rather than pouring it into the pan. It was also a challenge to put together, since there's a layer of date paste sandwiched between two layers of that semolina-coconut dough. (Protip: try rolling out the date paste between waxed paper or saran wrap, it'd be a whole lot messy than pressing sections between your hands like I did!) The baking went fine, though the cake was positively swimming in syrup and we had to pour much of it off, so you can safely make quite a bit less than the recipe calls for.

I found it pretty tasty, but I've grown to like this type of dense, cloying treat. It went really well with the recommended qashta cream — if you can find it it'll probably be in a can with the Puck brand name, but World Foods in Portland happens to carry a fresh version that goes under a name that escapes me but is a heavenly rich, medium-tangy accompaniment.

Thanks once again to Whole Foods and everyone at Oregon Culinary Institute. This was a really special evening, a fittingly collaborative way to celebrate going halfway around the world, one feast at a time!