Meal 104: Maldives

If you go to the Maldives, off the southwest coast of India, for a tropical beach vacation, you're more likely to find steaks and French cheese than any of the local cuisine. I'm not entirely surprised, because the intense flavor of sun-dried and smoked tuna runs that through nearly every meal is probably a bit too intense for the holiday-package crowd. This is only the second meal for which I've ordered an ingredient online, but there's simply no way to cook Maldivian food without that uniquely prepared fish. I was able to get it from a Sri Lankan market outside of LA, which wasn't a surprise, since they've imported so-called "Maldive Fish" for nearly a millennium.

Our guests: Maxwell and his mother Leslie, Bitsy, Anne, Steve, Julie, Levi, Kal, Lauren, Karen, and Andrea.

Karaa fani | Watermelon juice | Recipe

Simple as can be: watermelon pieces, water and sugar in a blender. Delicious and refreshing.

Lonumirus | Hot sauce | Recipe

A fairly thick sauce, fairly musky from the curry leaves and cumin. A good complement to the rich umami flavors from all the dried fish.

Mas huni | Dried tuna with coconut | Recipe (scroll down)

This is apparently an extremely common dish. Although the Maldives imports much of its food, this can be made with pretty much entirely local ingredients: dried fish, coconut, onion, chilies, and lime. It's also super simple to throw together. It's a unique textural mix of semi-jerky-like flaked fish, crunchy onions, and slightly chewy coconut. It was fun to eat, and pretty tasty.

Bashi hiki riha | Eggplant dry curry | Recipe

This dish shows the dried tuna in another light, as a flavoring moreso than the main event. This was a mess of eggplant and various veggies and spices. The term "dry" in the translation doesn't mean it's not moist, but rather that it isn't a saucy curry. This was a pretty intense and aromatic dish that needed some rice to balance it out.

Kaliya birinji| Spiced rice | Recipe

As there's barely space to grow things on these small islands, the traditional means of getting rice is to trade for it with that dried tuna. This dish is hardly a daily affair, with an indulgent assortment of spices as a hefty dose of coconut milk. But it's gentle and mild in the mouth, marrying well with the other dishes, especially the eggplant.

Pirini | Rice pudding | Recipe

This rice pudding would seem familiar to Western tastes — sugar, milk, vanilla, mild spices — but for one flavor unique to the tropics, pandan leaf, which imparts a gentle yet haunting nutty flavor. Compared with the intense flavors of the rest of the meal, this made for a nice wind-down.

Meal 79: Iran

We say that with a Nosh we aim to cook a meal appropriate for a special moment or celebration, so it's great fortune when the calendar aligns with a festival — and even greater when it's the biggest of the year in the country. Persians have been celebrating Nowruz, the festival of the spring equinox, for millennia, and specific foods play a central (and delicious!) part of the rituals. Nowruz felt to me somewhere between Passover and Thanksgiving, a holiday tightly linked to many specific foods with imbued meaning. Helping us through this ancient tradition was Sophia. She brought many of the elements of the haft seen, the traditional elements; helped cook some of the dishes; and provided moral support by insisting that Iranians are very inventive so every little mistake or forgotten item wasn't a big deal and could be creatively substituted. We also got useful menu-planning help from Arya. Thanks to you both — and to everyone who pitched in to help serve, clean, and otherwise help out.

As with the India meal, we noshed at a rented space, so we could accommodate twenty people, including Laura's dad, Lyall! I must say this one went more smoothly than India, mostly because I learned the lesson to not cook too many dishes at once.

I should also note that I broke with my habit of using recipes found online. Everything I cooked is from Najmieh Batmanglij's Food of Life, which offers not only clear and tasty recipes, but also history, culture, and even fables to bring fuller context to the meal. Where possible I've linked to either the exact recipe I used, or found something similar.

Sofreh haft seen | Display of the seven "S's"

The next best thing to the way Sophia explained the arrangement is from Wikipedia:

  1. Sabzeh - (Persianسبزه‎)-wheatbarleymung bean or lentil sprouts growing in a dish - symbolizing rebirth
  2. Samanu - (Persianسمنو‎)-sweet pudding made from wheat germ - symbolizing affluence
  3. Senjed - (Persianسنجد‎)-dried oleaster Wild Olive fruit - symbolizing love
  4. Sir - (Persianسیر‎)- garlic - symbolizing medicine
  5. Sib - (Persianسیب‎)- apples - symbolizing beauty and health
  6. Somāq - (Persianسماق‎)sumac fruit - symbolizing (the color of) sunrise
  7. Serkeh - (Persianسرکه‎) - vinegar - symbolizing old-age and patience [we didn't have any so we used wine!]

Moreso than a seder plate, there are many popular traditions of extra items to add to the core. The variation I can think of, and the only one the Wikipedia page on the seder plate lists, is an orange. In fact, one of the haft seen variations involved an orange — but floating in a bowl of water, representing the Earth in the universe. (I guess Zoroastrians didn't believe the Earth was flat?) Another common tradition is a goldfish, representing both life and Pisces, the astrological sign whose time ends on the spring equinox and hence the end of the year that Nowruz begins. According to Sophia, you'll see a goldfish in many Persian households in spring and summer, as a houseguest that arrived on Nowruz. Since neither she nor I could commit to a goldfish, we didn't get one.

Persian Rose cocktail

Alcohol is forbidden in Iran, but the place has a long history with drinking. After all, Shiraz, that inky wine, is named after a Persian city.

This cocktail is a lovely way to build a drink around rosewater. The gin stands up to the strong aroma, the cherry liqueur adds color and roundness, and the lemon of course brings the tart. (We couldn't find sweet lemons anywhere, so we balanced with some extra lemon and also a bit more sugar.) With a rose-petal float, it was quite the classy drink Laura whipped up!

Doogh | Yogurt-mint drink | Recipe

At Kalustyans, I found an artisanal Persian strain of yogurt, "slightly tart with a light saucy consistency" as the good folks at White Mustache Yogurt say. It cost $6 for a one-cup tub (!!), but now that I know how easy it is to make my own, I turned it into a whole gallon more. (And then some! I've since made more batches with the same strain that are just as good.)

We first enjoyed this drink with the Afghan meal, but I have to say I like the Persian version better, minus cucumbers and plus seltzer, and with this silky-tart yogurt as opposed to something lumpier. I might even whip this up again in a few months when I'm seeking relief from the heat!

Nan-e barbari | Buttery flatbread | Recipe

In Iran, like so much of the world, few people bake at home, and rather let someone else deal with the toil and the heat. But I like baking bread, and other than lavash it's just about impossible to find Persian-style breads here. I particularly enjoy working with a dough that has oil in it — it's easier to work with, the goopiness is kinda fun, and of course the end flavor is rich. Since I cracked my pizza stone a while ago, I cooked the breads one at a time on a metal griddle in the oven, which definitely worked to get the bread crispy, but also ended up charring the cornmeal that accrued after several loaves and led to a bit of a smoky condition. Oh well, the bread worked great, and was a fantastic companion for the cheese.

Sabzi khordan | Cheese and herb platter

Making a fresh cheese isn't quite as easy as yogurt, but it's far from impossible. In fact, the hardest part was that I just didn't have enough cheesecloth, so I ended up employing several coffee filters and mugs to strain bits of the curds, finally putting everything back together once enough of the whey had strained out. I'm not sure if I've ever had a cheese made with lime juice before, and the result was delightfully tangy. (I'm having trouble finding a copy of the recipe online, but you should be able to find a substitute. Basically, farmer's cheese made with lime juice and with some nigella/kalonji thrown in.)

With this platter we see the first of many appearances of herbs in the meal, which Persians love year-round and especially for the rebirth and freshness they represent for Nowruz.

Ash-e reshteh | Legume, herb and noodle stew | Recipe

This rich yet healthy stew of beans, lentils, herbs and noodles is as indispensable a part of Nowruz as the turkey is to Thanksgiving. An abundance of fresh greens — parsley, spinach, dill, green onion — of course makes this dish representative of springtime, while the dried legumes and buttermilk (traditionally of a variety that's dried for long-term storage) acknowledge that heartier fresh fare is yet to arrive. But most symbolic is the noodles, which you eat to "symbolize the choice of paths among the many that life spreads out before us."

But enough about embedded, how does it taste? Really good. I used a rich chicken-and-lamb broth which lent a lot of depth, and made the legume base the day before, so there was a lot of concentrated flavor. Tangy yogurt (I left the dried buttermilk at home!) and fresh herbs brought zing and aroma, and the garnish of garlic, turmeric, mint and olive oil made sure the first few bites woke up the palate.

Sabzi polo va mahi | Herbed rice with fried fish | Recipe

If Ash-e reshteh is the equivalent of turkey, then this fish-and-rice dish may as well be the cranberry sauce in terms of relevance to the holiday. (Nowruz is celebrated over the course of two weeks, so there's many meals for fulfilling the traditions.)

The rice is cooked in the peculiar Persian style: basmati rice washed five times, soaked in salt-water, vigorously par-boiled in more salt-water, drained, and then formed into a pyramid on top of a crust-base, then steamed in the residual moisture for a good long while. Let's back up to that crust-base, known as a tahdig: Persians expect that the bottom of their rice will be crispy and caramelized, so it's common practice to make a layer of oil plus something to crisp up (lavash, potatoes, yogurt) at the bottom of the pan. A gracious host will give the best crispy pieces to honored guests. The sabzi polo, or herbed pilaf (polo, pilaf, same thing!), takes this concept and layers in lots of herbs plus saffron water. I accidentally put all the saffron water on the rice, rather than reserving most for the fish as the recipe says, but I rather like the way the heavily saffron'd rice turned out!

The fried fish is simply pan-fried, though optionally dusted with some intriguing flavors, such as the turmeric and cinnamon the book calls for. I went with striped bass in filets, though you could do any white-fleshed fish and having it cut into steaks is perhaps more traditional. Either way, it's a tasty dish with crispiness all around between the fish and the tahdig!

Kuku sabzi | Frittata with herbs and walnuts | Recipe

Here eggs, that incomparable symbol of the circle of life, make a bold appearance, accompanied by two other favorite Persian ingredients, walnuts and barberries. The berries, known as zereshk, are so tart you don't really want to eat them straight, but once soaked and sautéed they're ready to balance the eggs and the herbs. Those walnuts add some crunch to what we'd expect to be a thoroughly soft dish. This is also the only dish with essentially zero flour I've ever seen that uses baking powder, which indeed serves to leaven the frittata all the more.

Samanu | Sprouted wheat pudding

Unlike a Passover seder, most of the items on the haft seen spread aren't eaten, but this pudding made of sprouted wheat is the exception. Yes, it's yet another manifestation of growth and rebirth — but also transformation. Samanu takes days, and a lot of labor, to make: you need to sprout whole wheat kernels for a few days until it gets a bit sweet thanks to malting, grind them up with water, extract every little bit of flavored you can by pressing through a sieve, and then comes the really tedious part of stirring this malt-water with flour over a super-low flame for several hours until it thickens and caramelizes. I wouldn't say the flavor is amazing, but considering the only ingredients are wheat and water it's sweeter and more complex than I'd have imagined.

Sholeh zard | Saffron pudding | Recipe

This ancient dessert is so important to Perisan culture that it's the first of many dozens in the Food of Life cookbook — continuing our metaphor, maybe it's like the apple pie of Iran. It's a fascinating blend of a classic peasant technique for stretching food — simple rice cooked in a lot of water to make it more filling — with some of the most expensive ingredients like saffron and cardamom, making it at once comforting and exotic. A healthy dose of rosewater helps make it special for ceremonies and holidays, the butter makes it stick to your ribs and banish any possibly remaining hunger, and the cinnamon and nut decoration makes a feast for the eyes, too. This dish was super tasty and just about all of the enormous batch was eaten, but keep in mind it takes a long time to cool so make it well in advance of serving.

Bereshtook-e nokhodchi | Chickpea cookies | Recipes (though I'd use butter/ghee rather than oil)

This turned out to be really similar to the burfi I made for the India meal, shortbread-like, semi-sweet, lightly oily squares. Whereas with the Indian version the butteriness came from ground cashews so the dairy was dry milk, in the Persian version it's the chickpea flour that's dry, and ghee brings the moist fat. In both cases it's little more than mixing with powdered sugar (with a splash of rosewater to make it indelibly Iranian), rolling it out, and cutting it up. Easy, and tasty.

Meal 68: Guinea

Teeny dried shrimp. Pre-cooked fonio grain. Okra powder. Unlike shopping for Ghana, this time Diaby had everything I needed. As I got to talking with the man behind the counter -- finally, for the first time in a half-dozen trips, we broke the ice! -- it turns out he's from Guinea. (I was startled to hear the name of his city, Mamou. That's pronounced the same as the family name for my grandmother who passed away last month. I suspect she had no idea she had something in common with a West African trading town!)

This meal owes a big debt of gratitude to the really wonderful Guinée Gourmande, which helpfully divides recipes regionally and also has some handy commentary and articles giving color about ingredients that bare recipes normally don't. If only every country had at least one site with such thoughtfully organized and lovingly produced content!

So, between the Guinean shopkeeper and the blog, here's hoping this meal turned out authentically! (And apologies for the sparse photos, the camera wasn't working so these are from a phone.)

Djindjan | Ginger drink | Recipe

Another source I've been increasingly cross-referencing for local recipes is the Peace Corps. Many (most? all?) volunteers get a cookbook as part of their training, which tend to be adapted for each country. While many of the recipes tend to be creative adaptations of local ingredients and cooking methods to create comfort foods, there's usually some for cooking what most people tend to eat around there. And hence, this recipe for a ginger drink. This recipe had me at "this tastes just like the stuff you get in little bags" -- I know that it's common in Africa to sell drinks in plastic bags, so I was sold. I'm no judge of whether it really did taste like a bagged beverage, but it was sure tasty! The spices and the citrus round out the sharpness of the ginger very well. Oh, and this stuff mixes up great with rum.

Kansiyé 'Mafe' | Smoked chicken and beef stewed in peanut sauce | Recipe

I couldn't find a smoked chicken, nor a recipe for how they smoke chicken in West Africa, so I winged it (haha) a few days before with a bundle of hickory chips. Turns out it's not too hard to do on a gas grill, though it took four hours and ended up a bit less smoky than I'd hoped. I'll keep working on my technique. Though the title of the recipe doesn't mention it, it's as much beef as chicken, and the shank meat I picked up at the farmers market was so flavorful. For the vegetables, I threw in cassava and a big eggplant, and it was a substantial and tasty stew, one of my favorites of all the African cooking thus far. You could easily make this with a plain, unsmoked chicken (just increase the cooking time for the stew), and if you don't have the ground dried shrimp it's not a huge deal (maybe use some Thai fish sauce to substitute?).

Gouiki | Mashed plantains

The same recipe explains how to make this side, which is pretty easy. Just make sure to buy green plantains and not the ripe ones. The texture and technique is a lot like mashed potatoes, but the taste is entirely different.

Mangoé rafalari | Susu-style mango stew | Recipe

I've never seen a mango stew before, so I had to try this one. It's got many of the familiar elements of West African cooking, like the dry-smoked carp (so many bones to pick out when flaking it!) and red palm oil (which I now buy by the half-gallon), but throwing the mangoes, whole, into the pot was a new one for me. I probably overcooked the mangoes, because I followed the French version of the recipe, which doesn't have the note on the bottom of the English one saying that the types of mangoes that are exported tend to be the softer ones that don't need as much cooking. Hm. Anyway, it packs a pretty pungent flavor-punch, between the tang of the fruit, the salt of the fish, and the richness of the oil.

Fonio | Info (in French)

It tolerates poor soil and erratic rain, has high nutritional value, and tastes pretty good. So why hasn't fonio become the next quinoa? Turns out that this member of the millet family has tiny grains with husks that are really hard to remove -- the traditional method involves mixing with sand for grit, beating in a mortar and pestle repeatedly, and then washing with a lot of water (which kinda eliminates the whole "good where there's little water" thing). But fortunately, a Senegalese engineer developed a machine that successfully hulls the little seeds. It's still cost-prohibitive for farmers to buy directly, but inexpensive enough that a relatively small amount of outside funding could make a big difference in people's lives and nutrition.

At least in Guinea, fonio is eaten like couscous. It's a bit labor-intensive to cook; even the "pre-cooked" version first is plumped up with boiling water, steamed twice in cheesecloth, blended with a bit of okra powder to make it malleable (when you're eating with your hands it sure helps if it sticks together), and steamed once more. The texture was like couscous with a little more tooth, and it had a nice and mild nuttiness. If you happen to see fonio somewhere, give it a shot, before everyone discovers it in like ten years.

Tarte caramélisée aux mangues et bananes | Caramel tarte with mangos and bananas | Recipe (in French)

I know that dessert really isn't a thing throughout much of Africa, but sometimes I just gotta make something. This inventive recipe exhibits the legacy of the French by making what's essentially a tarte tatin, but instead of apples, it's tropical fruits. I used demerara sugar for a rich and tasty caramel, and the crust recipe is easy and forgiving. Note that if you feel weird about putting your pan (I even used a springform) directly on the stovetop for the caramel-making, you could just as easily do that in a pot and pour it into the pan before baking.

The next meal takes us to the adjacent, and very similarly named, Guinea-Bissau.

Meal 53: Egypt

For 12 millennia, people in what's now Egypt have successfully built civilizations around agriculture in a virtually rain-free desert environment. While there's plenty of evidence that they grew fruits and vegetables, the annual cycle of the Nile's flooding made it much easier to grow plants that could thrive on their own in properly inundated soil — which means grains and legumes were much easier than relatively more fickle fruits and vegetables. So, it should be no surprise that our meal was very carb-heavy! (Vegetarian and nearly vegan, too.)

Joining us for our starch-fueled adventure were Shazna, Ron, Nadia, Jessica, Sophie, Angad, Melanie, and Catherine.

Ful medames | Fava bean stew | Recipe

It's apparently a common saying that ful medames is "the rich man's breakfast, the shopkeeper's lunch, and the poor man's dinner." Ful is a popular food around the Middle East, but it's really a core part of the Egyptian diet.

It's made from fava beans, and the same inner skin that makes it a very labor-intensive vegetable to eat fresh renders it a particularly long-cooking dried legume. In fact, I soaked it for twelve hours in warm water with vinegar, then simmered it for four or five hours, and I still think it could have cooked longer to be more tender. No wonder a lot of people buy the cooked beans in a can and then gussy them up for serving. It was tough to find a good recipe that started from dried beans.

As far as the seasoning, there are many approaches, all of them delicious. I tried a pretty straightforward version, eliminating the tahini from the recipe, and going a little heavier on the garlic.

Aish badali | Whole wheat flatbread | Recipe

The perfect accompaniment for this mushy, tangy, rich dish is a fluffy, toasty, lightly nutty loaf of what is possibly the world's oldest form of bread. (Maybe this is what the Israelites were trying to bake when they fled from Pharaoh, and what we now memorialize as matzo?) The standard Arabic word for bread is khubz, but in Egypt they call it aish, the word for "life." It's heavily subsidized, and its quality and availability remains a major political issue.

Happily, this is one of the easier breads to make, and also pretty healthy given that it's made entirely out of whole wheat. What's fun is that it only takes a few minutes to bake, puffing up rather dramatically in an oven as hot as you can make it. Unfortunately, mine tops out at around 500°F, which isn't hot enough to shock the crust so that you get the classic pocket.

Koshari | Rice, pasta, and lentils with tomato sauce and crisp-fried onions | Recipe

This explosion of complex sugars is Egypt's national dish. In fact, it's been credited with fueling the recent revolution. So how do you bring a taste of Tahrir to your table?

Start with a layer of little pasta — elbow macaroni is OK but even better are quarter-inch-long tubes sometimes seen as ditalini. On top of that put rice (a relative newcomer to Egypt, cultivated since the 7th century) which has been steamed with previously-cooked and lightly fried brown lentils. Then put a layer of vermicelli, essentially little pieces of super-thin pasta, which has been fried and then boiled. Pour on a moderate helping of a basic vinegar-garlic-tomato sauce (way late in the game as a New World food!). Cover generously with paper-thin onion slices fried to within a whisper of burnt. Then top off with a salsa of fresh tomato, raw garlic, vinegar, and more cumin than you probably realized you could actually cook with.

I'm pretty sure that in the time it took me to write that paragraph, you'd have wolfed down half your bowl. It's such an oddly compelling dish, a mutt of starch and tang which laps at your taste buds and nuzzles contently in your stomach. Not surprisingly, given all the steps that go into making all the parts of the dish, koshari is rarely made in the Egyptian home, as it's cheap enough to eat out anyway.

Whom should we thank for this dish? It may surprise you to know that the British are generally given credit for having brought a similarly-named rice-and-lentil combination from India, apparently because it's something they could reliably eat without getting food poisoning!

Quick-pickled eggplant | Recipe

Fresh veggies played a secondary role in ancient Egypt, and the same is true in the modern one too. The most appropriate would have been molokhiya, a leafy green that's bizarrely translated as "Jew's Mallow," and makes for a stew that's goopier than okra. But that wouldn't have worked with koshari, so I went with this good-looking quick-pickle recipe for eggplant. Now, I wasn't able to get the sort of really skinny and small eggplant they call for, Italian eggplant was the best I could do. All in all the dish was underwhelming, and also a little offputting — any guess why the garlic turned blue when stuffed inside the eggplant?!?

Shai | Mint tea

Now, tea is a much more recent phenomenon in Egypt than most of these other staples, but deeply incorporated into life all the same. It's often steeped with mint. Both very strong and relatively mild versions of tea are brewed; I guess we kinda ended up in the middle.

Umm ali | Puff-pastry bread pudding with nuts | Recipe

Why this dessert is called "Ali's Mother" is a matter of debate. But there's no denying that this was one tasty end to the meal. For all the richness, with puff pastry, condensed milk, three types of nuts and coconut, it was pleasingly not too sweet, with no added sugar other than that in the condensed milk. (I even used just milk rather than cream as called for, and we didn't miss any of the extra richness.)

In terms of awesomeness to effort, this is one of the highest ranking desserts yet for United Noshes! Really, provided that you plan ahead — or are a culinary savant and happen to have ingredients on hand — it takes little effort to whip it up, and even less to clean because your guests will be licking the dish.


And that does it for United Noshes in 2012! It's been our first full calendar year, with 34 Noshes in five cities, over $9,600 raised (bringing us to over $12,300 total) for World Food Program USA, and a few hundred prior friends, friends-of-friends, and new friends served. We're soon heading off for a three-week trip to India over the holidays, where I fully expect to buy tons of spices and pack my already overburdened spice collection to overflowing.

Happy holidays and New Year! May it be filled with good cheer, and of course great food.

Meal 44: Cuba

A friend who's been to Cuba suggested that "for many Cubans, food at the moment is state-issued ham sandwiches, which you could approximate with some layers of wet cardboard standing in for bread, and finely shaved erasers for the ham, all encased in a blister pack of clear cellophane." Our guest Tennessee reported that by far the most disgusting food she's had in her life was "street pizza" in Havana, during her time as a student there.

Fortunately, we were able to lean instead on the culinary traditions of families who've left Cuba. In fact, the structure of the meal was suggested by my colleague Wendy, who's from a Cuban family in South Florida. (Note the distinct lack of vegetables. Apparently this is very authentic.) Our guest Alex agreed that this food reminded him of what his Cuban mom makes.

Fortunately, we didn't have to contend with rationing, so this turned into quite the feast. The five mile bike ride back from the Food Bazaar supermarket was quite the haul, with a nine-pound pork shoulder and a three-liter jug of olive oil anchoring my saddlebags. Like I imagine many things in Cuba to be, the preparation was long and slow, folks trickled in as the smell of slowly barbecuing pork roasted through the house, and the payoff was lovely. Our guests were Sam, Beni, Nathalia, Ian, Alex, Tennessee, Kirsten, and Demián.

Cocteles | Cocktails | Recipes at bottom

Sam was eager to mix some cocktails, and Laura and I were fully in support. As a major sugar producer for centuries, Cuba also developed a substantial rum industry. Pretty much everywhere besides the US they enjoy Havana Club and other Cuban rums; even Bacardi was based in Havana before they absconded with their yeast to escape nationalization and set up shop in Puerto Rico.

We started out with mojitos, of course, with fresh mint from the patio and a simple syrup made of demerara sugar. Now, I order mojitos frequently at bars, and it's fair to say I've had dozens if not hundreds in my life. This was one of the best. Not too minty, not too limey, and rather than being pure sweet, the richness of the demerara really held it together. Check out the recipe at the end.

The other drink Sam made was also rum-based, but in a very different direction. Made with orange liqueur, (homemade) grenadine, vermouth, and aged rum, it's called El Presidente, but I think of it as a Rumhattan. The vermouth balances the sweetness, and provided it's made from quality ingredients, which this sure was, it's a really complex drink worth lingering on.

Plátanos maduros | Fried sweet plantains | Recipe

Baked plantains are definitely easier, faster for such a big crowd, healthier, and less labor intensive. But there's nothing like coins of super-ripe plantains shed of their nearly-black skin, cut on the bias, fried to within a minute of burning, and touched with a hint of salt. No matter how many of these I make, they always disappear.

Lechón asado | Roasted pork shoulder | Recipe


The planning for this dish started many months ago, when I wantonly suggested to a friend that I could build a pit in her backyard and roast a whole 80-pound pig in it. Among the many reasons this was a poor idea is that she's vegetarian! Anyway, I was happy to learn that you can do something similar with just part of a pig, hence the nine-pound shoulder. I hadn't once done a true charcoal this summer, and I'd be chagrined to miss this opportunity.

It started the night before with a mojo — not to be confused with mojito! — of sour orange juice, lots of olive oil, a smattering of onion, and 30(!) cloves of garlic. (Note that if you use fresh sour oranges for this recipe, it takes a lot of them! I got barely a cup from nine whole fruits, and filled the rest with lemon and lime juice.) I stabbed the shoulder with a knife a few hundred times, especially in the skin, to let the marinade in.

The next day, I built the coals, pushed them to the side, and let this beauty roast indirectly for six hours on low, slow heat. Interestingly it only took a few hours to reach safe-to-eat temperature, but two or three hours of extra cooking makes it so tender you can pull it with a fork. (One thing I'd do differently next time is to let the coals simmer down even more before putting the pork on. I think the outside seared too quickly and ended up closer to burnt than roasted.)

The pork turned out simply delicious; two days later we're still eating it for every meal, like a Thanksgiving turkey. It's a really cheap cut of meat (usually under $2/pound), and you can make it easily in the oven and not be fussy on the grill, so if you've got time and a crowd to feed, consider it!

Pan cubano | Cuban lard bread | Recipe

Would you guess that this bread is non-vegetarian? Well, the secret to its golden-brown hue and delightfully springy texture is none other than lard. What can I say, it's a really, really tasty loaf. The recipe is a little over the top in complaining about how long it takes; if you already make bread you'll know that two one-hour rises is pretty speedy actually. (I also have begun using diastatic malt powder in place of some of the sugar while proofing the yeast, and that speeds up the rise, improves the texture, and makes it last longer.)

I actually made two loaves; we used the second today to make a sandwich with some leftover pork. (And yes, we put pickles and other Cuban sandwich accoutrements on it.) Yum.

Moros y cristianos | Rice and beans | Recipe

Cubans prepare rice and beans several different ways. Given my fondness for interesting food names, the choice was clear. Moros y cristianos means "Moors and Christians," a reference to the pairing of two different items on the same plate, just as two peoples shared the Iberian peninsula for centuries. Beyond the fun name, it's a super-tasty dish, with a onion-bell-pepper sofrito plus cumin providing that classic Latin rice smell and flavor. (Sometimes the dish is black, I think that's from saving the bean-cooking water for cooking the rice too.)

Yuca con ajo | Manioc with garlic sauce | Recipe

The same thing as manioc and cassava, which we've encountered many times. I think this is my favorite preparation of this starchy, bland root: covered in a sauce of olive oil, citrus and garlic!

Flan | Recipe

Tres leches refers to a dessert that has evaporated, condensed, and fresh milk. We made a tres leches rice pudding for Costa Rica, and a tres leches cake is to Latin America what tiramisú is to Italy: a baked good drenched in sweet liquid. Anyway, hold onto your arteries, because this flan is cuatro leches, courtesy of cream cheese! Probably non-traditional, but really, really tasty. As with the mojitos, the sugar in the caramel is demerara, which further enhances the rich, nutty flavor. And the flan itself was just great, perfectly set, not too sweet, just darn tasty.

It shouldn't surprise you that the Cuban music was top-notch, and thanks to our guests who'd been to Havana and beyond, we heard several stories of life in a country so close yet so far, such as the tradition of pouring a little splash on the ground from a newly-opened bottle for los santos.

Next, we're heading to the hills for the Labor Day weekend, where we'll do our Czech Republic meal!

Photos by Laura Hadden, whose love for Sam's mojitos knows no bounds. 


Drinks (notes by Sam)
El Presidente:
1.5 oz. aged rum (I was using Bacardi 8)
3/4 oz. dry vermouth (I used Foro, which is Italian-produced and I don't think it's on the US market yet. Any French/dry vermouth would be good, and any blanc vermouth might be even better -- I hear Dolin blanc vermouth is fantastic in this drink)
1/4 oz. curacao (I used Clement Creole Shrubb, which is based on rhum agricole from Martinique, and has lots of vanilla and spicy notes to it. I bet the new Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao would really work well here too.)
1/2 tsp. or dash grenadine (I used homemade grenadine, made of equal parts Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice and superfine sugar, shaken like hell till they combined.)
Stir with cracked ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with an orange twist.
2 oz. silver rum (we used Don Q)
1 oz. lime juice (I actually just did the juice of half a lime for each drink, and was making two drinks at a time.)
3/4 oz. simple syrup (we used demerara sugar, of course, and I think that really made the difference. I also made it "rich simple syrup", with a 2:1 sugar:water ratio.
10 or so mint leaves
Seltzer water
RumDood has an extensive discussion of technique at the above link. I tend to depart a little bit from that, and I very gently muddled the mint in the bottom of each serving glass. (Too much, and it gets chalky or bitter.) I juiced half a lime into the shaker for each serving, added the rum and simple syrup, filled with ice, and shook like hell. Then strained that into the serving glasses, topped with soda (maybe two ounces, though it was inexact), and gave it a quick stir. (His dry-shake technique looks like one I'll have to try, though.)