Meal 30: Canada

Laura is Canadian, Monday was her birthday, and we're at the beginning of the C's. That's a recipe for a Canadian blowout party! For eight hours we fried, drank, and sang our way through the Great White North. We went through the better part of twenty pounds of potatoes, five pounds of cheese curds, a gallon of gravy, and every last bottle of wine in the house. Let's be honest, this isn't a collection of dishes you'd likely find on a table in Halifax or Edmonton — by and large they eat roughly the same up there as we do down here, perhaps with more ketchup squirted on top. But by dint of history, marketing, and circumstance, there are indeed some dishes that are classically Canuck. Not surprisingly given the universal link between cultural identity and cuisine, many of the dishes come from the French Canadians, who have had a complex identity with and within Canada ever since becoming subjects of the British Crown after the French and Indian War in the eighteenth century.

We had about thirty people come and go throughout the afternoon and evening — including Laura's mom Eileen and sister Jen, who were visiting! It was a lovely day, and our first meal of the year outside. This time we took a break from fundraising for the World Food Program, and instead asked guests to support Laura's fundraising ride in the upcoming Five Boro Bike Tour benefitting CAMFED, an amazing organization that directly supports girls' education in sub-Saharan Africa. Please consider donating!

Poutine | Fries with cheese curds and gravy | Recipe

In Quebecois French, une poutine is "a mess." Never has a food been given a more appropriate name! Interestingly, the dish was only invented about 50 years ago, but has become so widespread that it topped a survey of Canadians as being their national dish. Anyway, French fries topped with cheese curds and smothered with gravy  is just as disgustingly awesome as it sounds. Let's deconstruct it:

  • Fries: Unlike Belgian fries, which I made with yukon gold potatoes to replicate the lower-starch bintje variety, a classic North American fry is made with a starchier potato like good ol' Idaho russets. (Though in Canada, Prince Edward Island is the famous spud-grower). I left the potatoes unpeeled 'cause I prefer them that way, soaked them in ice water for a half hour after slicing to draw out some of the starch, drained them and let them air-dry, fried for about 8 minutes at 325° to cook them through, let them sit for about 20 more minutes, and then finally crisped the for a few minutes at 370°. It's a lot of steps, but makes for a potato that's soft on the inside and crispy on the outside.
  • Gravy: To make chicken stock, I swear by the technique in Cooks Illustrated's The New Best Recipe, which eschews carrots and other aromatics and just has you concentrate on drawing as much flavor out of the meat as possible. This one I made with a seven-pound roaster (minus the breast, which I actually simmered as the stock was cooking and used for sandwiches). Making the gravy was super-simple, just throw in some butter and flour and whisk it good. (I also made a vegetarian version using a boxed broth.)
  • Cheese curds: These little lumps of joy taste like medium-mild cheddar, but due to their higher moisture content they melt fantastically. When they're super-fresh they squeak when you bite into them, but cheese curd options are limited in NYC, and even though I got the freshest ones I could find at Saxelby Cheesemongers, we didn't get that experience. But oh well.
The result: everyone who'd ever had poutine before said this was the best they'd tasted. Hooray!

Tourtière | Spiced pork pie | Recipe

The tourte is a long-extinct pigeon that was once the filling of this pie, traditionally served by French Canadians on Christmas Eve. The place is now taken by pork, but the combination of spices such as sage, thyme, and cloves give a beautifully comforting and old-timey flavor.

Pastry has always been my cooking weak spot, and I've been steadily improving, but I gladly put this job in Eileen's expert hands as you see above. Her expertise is not only in technique, but also in recipes. Rather than what's given in the linked recipe, the pastry we used for both the pie and the butter tarts is as follows. It's enough for two whole pies (or 24 butter tarts):

5 1/2 cups of flour 1/2 tsp salt Cut in 2 cups of Crisco Mix with 1 egg, 2 tsp vinegar and enough cold water to make 1 cup total of liquid

The dough holds up nicely when you work it, especially if you refrigerate it for a while. It's also delightfully flaky in that Crisco way.

Kraft Dinner

We wouldn't have to eat Kraft Dinner But we would eat Kraft Dinner Of course we would, we'd just eat more. And buy really expensive ketchups with it. That's right, all the fanciest... Dijon ketchups! Mmm. —  If I Had $1,000,000 Dollars, Barenaked Ladies

Sure, the day-glo yellow of Kraft Mac & Cheese was a staple for many of us who grew up in the States. I can't even look at my parents' six-quart saucepan without smelling the tang of powdered cheese. But only Canadians sing about this easy-to-prepare boxed meal, or assign it a rarified two-letter nickname — KD. They are, far and away, the world's most avid consumers of the blue boxes, so along with time-consuming dishes of distinctive patrimony, Raven whipped up a big batch.

I really wish someone had told ten-year-old me that mac and cheese goes so well with ketchup. I guess the Barenaked Ladies tried to, but I didn't catch the message. According to our friend from Calgary, Ophira Eisenberg, KD with ketchup and scallions is known as "Skiiers' Delight," and that's exactly how we enjoyed it.

Fèves au lard | Maple baked beans | Recipe

Truth be told, finding truly Canadian dishes was tough, and everything I was finding was so fatty and unhealthy. I begged Laura and her mom for advice on a vegetable dish, but none was forthcoming. What joy when I found this dish for baked beans made with maple syrup...they're not veggies, but they are healthier! In context of the meal, the pound of salt pork that seasoned the double-batch of beans was a mere condiment for healthsome beans. Whether you make it with the pork, or try the smoky vegan version, you won't be disappointed. It takes a long time, but with the firmness of the beans and the rich and subtle sweetness of the sauce that coats them, you'll realize that canned baked beans just pale in comparison. If there's one dish that I learned from this meal that I'd make again, it was these!

Caesar | Bloody mary with Clamato | Recipe

Who knows why Mott's decided to market a tomato juice with a bit of clam flavoring, but luckily for them, a bartender in Calgary discovered Clamato and fixed a bloody mary-type drink with it, garnished with celery salt, and the rest is history. This drink has a firm lock on the Canadian cocktail pantheon but is virtually unknown elsewhere. Luckily, you can still find Clamato in the U.S., but with Spanish labeling, since it's what you mix with beer and hot sauce for a chelada.


image credit: Raven Keller

Laura and I encountered the shotski at her cousin Ryan's wedding up in Whistler. Glue shot glasses to a ski, fill with shots of choice, get friends together, kneel down, put glasses to your lips, and toss it back on the count of three. I couldn't find Sortilege, so I made it myself by shaking Canadian Club whiskey with maple syrup (in roughly a 4:1 ratio) with ice and straining. The shotski was fun, and the drink was tasty. And now we have a six foot board with shot glasses emblazoned with Canadiana that we've got to store somewhere!

Butter tarts | Recipe

When I proposed to Laura, I placed the ring in a butter tart. When word traveled north of this deed, her aunts, uncles, and cousins were instantly inclined to like me. That's how important these gooey, crispy, addictive desserts are to her, her extended family, and millions of Canadians. Like the Caesar, this treat is way popular in Canada, served in diners and Tim Horton's and houses across the land, but barely seems to have made it down south. This heavenly combination of raisins, corn syrup, brown sugar, butter, and pastry crust is overdue to invade! (The closest we've found is the Momofuku crack pie, but it truly pales in comparison.)

Ice creams | Recipes: Maple, blueberry


With all the cold that comes from living up north, you'd think Canadians wouldn't be into frozen desserts. But you'd be wrong! Turns out Canada has the sixth-highest per capita ice cream consumption, and I like making ice cream, so the deal was sealed.

The blueberry ice cream was made from wild berries picked in northern Quebec, which conveniently enough are available frozen at Trader Joe's. And oh, how tasty they are: they're really small, but bursting with a depth of flavor that's just lacking from the larger, commercially grown ones. For this I simmered the frozen berries with some lemonade (ha, it's what I had on hand) until it made a lovely thick sauce, and then mixed that in with a standard custard ice cream base. The maple was similar, but a lot easier: just replace most of the sugar with maple syrup, and make ice cream as normal. Both were fantastic; the latter is especially good scooped on top of a butter tart.


To go along with everything, Laura made up a list of Canadian musicians. Take a look, you'll be amazed at just how many great musicians come from up there. Probably has something to do with content laws that require one quarter of all music on the radio to be from Canadian artists.

Phew! That was a lot of fun, and quite a wipeout. Learned a few things about hosting for such a big crowd. One thing we did really right was making it over a long time period, so people could come and go and we were never too packed. A lesson for next time is to not make something that requires short-order prep like poutine; that occupied a lot of my time and had me on my feet for hours on end, although we did have the deep fryer set up where I could hang out.

Thirty meals down, 164 to go. Next up, Cameroon!

Photos by Laura Hadden, who refuses to disclose how many butter tarts she ate.

Week 2: Albania

A nation's food is quite often a reflection of its geographic and historical circumstances. In Albania's case, it's across the Adriatic from Italy, not far from Greece, and was a part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. Hence: yogurt, peppers, lamb, and a hell of a lot of olive oil. (See the shopping list, which doesn't include the gallon of olive oil I bought later.) But of course, each country adds its own twist. In the case of Albania, it's egg. Of course, almost every culture makes use of eggs. But I've never seen a cuisine that puts a little bit in almost every dish!

Our guide for the evening was Rudina, a radio producer from UNICEF from the north of Albania. (Thanks also to Elton and Quinn who sent their advice!) We met her through Snezan, the agent who found us our amazing apartment, and his girlfriend Neely. Rudina gave me a bunch of suggestions of what to cook, and the recipes that went with them. Along with the three of them, we had my college roommate Jeff, his girlfriend Elly, another college friend Sarah-Doe, and Laura's coworker Kirsty.

There were six dishes in the meal, four of which were oven-baked and three of which were fried in olive oil. (Huge thanks to Kirsty for helping with chopping, frying, and much more.) For those of you doing the math, that means that one dish was indeed fried and then baked. It required some gymnastics to do it all on the small range, but it all turned out quite well. Most of the dishes came from Rudina directly; she's graciously allowed me to include them at the bottom of this post.

Rakia | Grape brandy

The Turkish national drink is Rakı, a potent licorice firewater which gives me an instant headache. Given the similarity of the word, I was a bit scared when Rudina brought a bottle of Rakia. But contrary to my assumption, it wasn't licorice-flavored at all, but rather a nice grape brandy.

Fergese | Fried peppers with tomato-feta sauce | Recipe below

The recipe calls for 1.5 cups of oil. Eek! But yum. The same oil that fried the peppers is the foundation of the sauce with tomato and feta (and a little egg). Pour the sauce on top of the peppers, eat it with a chunk of bread, and you have a deliciously self-contained dish.

Tarator | Fried zucchini with cucumber-garlic yogurt dip

This one is so simple I don't need to give a separate recipe. Just peel and slice zucchini lengthwise and fry it. Pour on a sauce of yogurt with some chopped cucumbers and minced garlic. Done. Yum. These zucchini came from the local farmer's market this morning, and were so fresh they still had that little fuzz on the skin.

Musaka | Spinach and egg casserole | Recipe below

I know the word from Greek food, as an eggplant dish. So what a surprise to see this one based on spinach. Really simple, really good.

And that was just the first course. Here's the mains.

Byrek me spinaq | Spinach pie | Recipe (scroll down to find it)

I'm only a slight bit ashamed I didn't make the filo dough. It was effort enough even using pre-made sheets. Did this one have egg too, you ask? Yep, mixed in with the spinach. Baked it most of the way earlier on, then finished it off right before serving. Could have baked it a bit more to make it even crispier, but the filling was great.

Stuffed eggplant | Recipe below

Ta-da! This is the one that was first fried, then baked. The eggplant was lovely and tender, and the filling a nice balance of veggies and meat.

Tavë Kosi | Lamb casserole with rice and yogurt sauce | Recipe below

Despite appearances, I am pretty sure I'll be making this one again. I had never poured dry rice into a pan of roasting meat, let alone an entire quart of yogurt (with — you guessed it! — a bit of egg). Took a while to all set and get the nice crust on top, but worth the wait. Creamy and meaty, but not heavy.

Rudina didn't give any advice about dessert. When I told her I had an ice-cream machine, she advised that I make anything that Italians would eat, "not oreo or cookie or something." I saw the most beautiful cherries in the market, and I knew what I had to do.

Cherry sorbetto | Recipe


When Rudina saw it, she said I couldn't have done anything more appropriate. Apparently, cherries are a popular fruit in Albania. Yes for guesswork! It was so good too. Elly had the genius idea of pouring a bit of rakia over the sorbet to give it a kick, and by the time dessert was over, the entire bottle of 50% alcohol rakia was gone.

As we lingered over dessert, Rudina told some stories about Albania: how folklore has it that rakia cures just about any disease; how the entire country fell into a pyramid scheme in 1997; and how the house she grew up in is 2,500 years old, older even than the Albanian language. I bet that even back then, they were putting a few eggs into whatever they were cooking.

As promised, some recipes from Rudina.


• 10 italian frying peppers, seeds removed, cut into strips • 1-1/2 cups olive oil • 4-5 big, ripe tomatoes, peeled and cut into small pieces • 1 tablespoon flour • 2 eggs • 4-5 cloves garlic, minced • 1/4 lb feta cheese, cut into small pieces • chili pepper (optional) • crusty bread

Fry peppers in olive oil until soft and brown. Remove them from the pan and place on a plate to cool off. Pour off about a half-cup of the oil and saute tomatoes and garlic slowly until it thickens a bit. While sauteing, beat eggs with flour. Add chili (if using) and cheese. Cook for few more seconds, than add the egg mixture. Cook for 1 minute until the sauce looks thick. The red sauce is put in the middle of the plate and the idea is to deep the peppers to it.


• 1 shallot, minced • 1 kg (a bit over 2 pounds) fresh spinach, cleaned and cut • 5 eggs, beaten • some olive oil, salt and seasonings

Heat oven to 450 degrees. In a large pan, saute the shallots, than add spinach, salt and spices. Cook until the spinach is wilted and some of the water boils off. Put a baking pan in the oven a few minutes before the spinach is ready. Move spinach into baking dish, pour eggs on top, bake for 30-35 minutes.

Filled Eggplants

• 6 pieces of eggplants (smaller the better) • 2 onions • 250 gr minced meat • 3 tomatoes • 1 small can of good tomato sauce • 5-6 cloves garlic, peeled but not minced • 2-3 green peppers • parsley • black pepper • paprika • salt

Clean eggplant by removing the tip end. Peel in stripes, dark stripe – white stripe. Cut the eggplants in the middle and scoop out the bitter inside. Put them in salted water for 45 min. After drying the eggplants with a paper towel, fry them in olive oil. Remove the eggplants and fry the garlic, onion, minced meat, tomatoes and peppers, and add parsley, spices and salt.When done, fill the eggplants and lay them in a oiled baking pan. Add the canned tomato sauce and a glass of water. Bake in the oven for about 10-15 minutes.

Tavë Kosi • 1 kg of good quality lamb • olive oil • salt • pepper • 1 liter (4 cups) of fatty yogurt, the fattiest you can get • 2 eggs • little rice (a handful, I used about a half tup) • 2 tbs flour

Cut the meat in five or six pieces. (Note: I used lamb stew meat and it turned out great.) Put it in the baking pan with some olive oil, salt, pepper and bake in miedum heat (I did 350 degrees). Just before the meat is ready, add rice with ½ glass of hot water. Mix the rice into the juices and let it cook. In a bowl mix yogurt, eggs and flour. When rice is done, add the yogurt sauce slowly, stirring it in so it doesn't shock. Put it back in the oven for another 10-15 mins until the top begins to firm up, then remove and serve.