Recipes from Brittany, France


I learned a new trick this week, which I'm sure will elicit a resounding "duh" from anyone with half a functioning brain. Here it is (are you ready?): If you want to find international recipes online, you have to learn to speak the language. Or use Google Translator. It seems so obvious doesn't it? Sure, NOW it does.
Let's back up a little so I can first tell you what country we're in. Or more accurately, what region, because this week we're entering a land of many cuisines, all of them gourmet. That's right, France. Specifically, Brittany.



Martin actually laughed at me when I told him that I was breaking France up into regions, because although it was his idea to tackle India that way, he's not sure little France deserves the same attention as big India. Of course, it might also be because he's English, and they love to poo-poo the French. Who knows. Anyway, after reading about French cuisine I decided that regional coverage was the way to go. Because although France is tiny, its culinary traditions are huge.

Brittany is in the northwest peninsula of France, with the English Channel to the north and England itself just beyond that. Historically this region has had a bit of an identity crisis, sometimes allying itself with France and sometimes with Britain. In fact it has often been called "Little Britain" (as opposed to Great Britain), and is actually one of six Celtic nations, a distinction it shares with Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man. In 1956 Brittany was legally reconstituted as the French Region of Brittany, and since then its cultural identity has suffered something of a decline.

As far as food is concerned, Brittany is known for its seafood, a fact that didn't escape me even as I finally settled on a decidedly non-seafood meal. I made this choice for a couple of reasons, the first and most important being that I've been cooking a lot of seafood for Travel by Stove and I decided this week that I wanted to let my kids in on the fun, which basically rules out seafood.



Before I came to this conclusion I did have a famous Brittany seafood recipe picked out: Cotriade, which like the region it comes from seems to be a dish with a bit of an identity crisis. I found versions made with monkfish, versions made with eel, and versions made from mackerel. I found versions made with shellfish and versions made without. What I did not find, however, were any versions made with stuff I could actually find at Safeway. I could have substituted, of course (I've done it before) but it seemed like most of the potential substitutions (canned mackerel, for example, or cod) would have been a bit of a stretch. So that was my second reason for rejecting seafood.

Brittany is also famous for crêpes and galettes, which you probably know are thin pancakes that can be served with sweet fillings (crêpes) or savory (galettes). I decided against those, too, mainly because Martin makes them for breakfast all the time and they just seemed a bit too ordinary.

So what I finally decided on was a chicken dish (Poulet au Cidre Breton) made with another one of Brittany's regional favorites: Brut cider. Which of course I also couldn't find at Safeway, but BevMo had a pretty acceptable substitute. Here's the recipe:

Poulet au Cidre Breton

  • 6 chicken breasts
  • 2 golden apples, cut into small cubes
  • 3 large onions, cut into strips
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 2 cups of brut cider
  • 2 tbsp Cognac (optional)
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • 2 pinches ground nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Ingredient note: "Brut" cider is a dry, carbonated cider that seems to be hard to come by in the US (or maybe just around here). I purchased a cider at BevMo that was described as "European-style, dry, carbonated," which I think it was pretty close to the Brut cider that is supposed to be used in this recipe.

The Poulet au Cidre Breton recipe made it very clear that it should be served with potatoes or rice, so I set out on a frustrating search for a Breton potato dish, which became a whole lot easier when I used Google Translator to give me the French words for "potato" and "recipe," which paired with "Bretagne" gave me quite a few to choose from. Here's the one I settled on:

Kouing Patatez (Breton name meaning "potato cake")

  • 1 1/3 lb potatoes
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 egg yolk, beaten
  • Dash of nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper to taste

I also found my third recipe in the same manner:

Artichokes Breton

  • 4 large globe artichokes
  • 4 1/4 oz of cream
  • 1/3 cup butter butter
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 1/3 cup lemon juice *
  • Salt and pepper to taste

*Here's where we run into the real problem with using Google Translator, and that is crappy translation. I couldn't tell if this recipe called for that much lemon juice or simply that much of the cooking liquid from the artichokes. It didn't give a measurement for lemon juice in the ingredients, but it did ask for "1/3 litre of 'juice'" in the instructions, and there was something about cooking artichokes in there too that seemed a little non-sequitur. But it also didn't tell me to reserve the cooking liquid, so I couldn't really figure out for sure what it wanted. So I guessed. Based on my results I'm wondering if I guessed wrong.

And finally a dessert, which has actually been sitting in my recipe software for weeks:

Hazelnut Gâteau Breton

  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup hazelnuts, lightly toasted, husked
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 1 cup salted butter, melted
  • 2 cups unbleached all purpose flour, divided
  • 1 large egg yolk beaten with 2 tsp water (for glaze)
  • Whole strawberries

(This recipe originally appeared in Bon Appetit Magazine)

The cake can be made ahead, so as in past weeks I'll just start there.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees, and butter a 9-inch springform pan.

Mix the sugar with the vanilla extract to make vanilla sugar. Make sure to break apart any lumps that form.

Now mix 2 tbsp of the vanilla sugar with the hazelnuts. Add them to a food processor or grinder and blend until the nuts form a fine powder.



Mix the 6 egg yolks with the rest of the vanilla sugar and whisk for 2 minutes. Now, the original recipe was quite clear about not using an electric mixer for this, which sounds a bit suspect to me. I do like to follow the recipe, though, so I hand mixed.



After the 2 minutes are up, add the hazelnut mixture, then gradually add the melted butter. Keep whisking.

Now sift the flour over the batter and stir gently until just blended. Don't overmix; this is a pretty thick batter and you don't want it to turn out rock hard.

Put the batter in the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula or the back of a spoon.



Brush the egg glaze over the top, then draw some cross hatches with a fork. Bake at 325 for about an hour, or until the cake is golden and a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool for 15 minutes, then loosen the springform pan and allow to cool completely. Serve with whole strawberries.



Artichokes take a while to cook, so let's do those next.

Cut the bottoms off of the artichokes and rub with lemon juice.



Boil in a pot of salted water until tender, about 40 minutes.

Now, when I make artichokes I always steam them, and if I did this recipe again I would cook them in my usual fashion rather than boiling. Boiling doesn't really serve a lot of purpose except that it fills them up with water, which doesn't come all the way out until you are in the middle of eating them. Plus I'm really not sure what purpose the lemon juice rub served except to be rinsed off in the boiling water.

When the artichokes are done, take them out and drain them (yeah right) and keep warm. Now make a roux with the flour and butter. Gradually add the lemon juice, then the cream.



Pour the sauce into a gravy boat and serve on the side.



The chicken also takes a little bit of time, but is a fairly straightforward recipe:

Melt half the butter in a large saucepan and saute the onions and apple cubes until golden.



In a second pan, melt the rest of the butter. Add the Cognac and chicken breasts. Cook until brown on both sides.



Top with the apples and onions, then add the cider. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper.



Simmer uncovered until the cider has been reduced by about 2/3rds (The recipe claims this will take 30 to 40 minutes, but your chicken may dry out in this time. If you need to, remove the chicken once it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees, then keep simmering the sauce until it is the right consistency.)

Remove the chicken breasts if you haven't already done so, keeping them warm. Add the cream to the cider and onion mixture and stir for a few minutes.

Serve the chicken topped with the sauce.



And finally, the potatoes:

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, then add the potatoes and cook for 20 minutes. Drain.

Meanwhile, butter a 9x9 casserole dish. Cut the rest of the butter up into cubes.

Run the potatoes through a ricer. Mix with the butter, flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg.



Transfer the mixture to the prepared casserole dish and smooth the top. Use a fork to make crosshatches in the top, then brush with the beaten egg yolk.



Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden (if desired, you can put under the broiler for a few minutes to get some darker color).



The verdict: My kids pretty much universally liked this meal, though they didn't eat the sauce with the artichokes (they would never accept any substitute for ranch dressing). I personally found the meal a little dull. Don't get me wrong, there was plenty of flavor, it just wasn't terribly interesting. The only thing I really didn't like was the sauce for the artichokes. It was too lemony, which is what makes me think that maybe my interpretation of Google's lousy translation was wrong. If you make this, you might want to try using some reserved water from the artichoke pot instead, and let me know if your results are better.

The one exception to the overall ho-hummedness of the meal was the gateau. The texture was somewhere between a cake and a cookie and the hazelnut flavor was subtle but just present enough to give the cake some uniqueness. I loved it. It would have been wonderful with a cup of coffee, or with a little whipped cream on top. Yum.

So in retrospect, my choices this week may not have done Brittany justice, and if I could find a cotraide recipe that actually seemed possible to duplicate I might like to do it over. Or maybe I should stick with one of the other more popular Brittany dishes, such as Moules-Frites (mussels with fries, a very highly un-kid-friendly dish, except maybe for the fries). Either way, I'm sure a region known for its food has more to offer than what I experienced this week, so I'll just have to put this one on my list of places to revisit. In my copious spare time.

For printable versions of this week's recipes:




Recipes from the British Virgin Islands


This week's recipes come from yet another land of tropical beaches, warm weather and resort hotels, otherwise known as Places I Can Only Dream of Visiting Because I Have Four Kids who Would Destroy the Experience For Me. Don't misinterpret that, I actually love traveling with my kids, but I'm not deluded enough to think that they would get as much out of a tropical getaway as the average adult. So until they're old enough, it's Disneyland and Pirate Adventure for us, and in the meantime I'll just pretend like I'm enjoying a tropical vacation by eating from Caribbean menus, which I've actually been doing a lot of, since this is my sixth Caribbean entry.

The British Virgin Islands (BVI) has a bit of a dull history, which means that apart from some 15th century violence between Caribbean tribes, the islands have been blissfully free from war and other major carnage--though as is the case with many Caribbean islands, the African slave trade helped populate the region. In the early years of settlement, the BVI's economy depended primarily on agriculture--namely sugarcane-- but today the island's ideal sailing conditions make it such a popular tourist destination that its economy is primarily driven by tourism dollars.

The British Virgin Islands are a Caribbean territory of the United Kingdom.


Food-wise, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of outside influence (even from the UK, the country that presides over this tropical territory). Most of the traditional favorites are some variation of seafood and local fruits like (you guessed it) mango and papaya. Upscale restaurants tend to serve dishes that are more Americanized, with a Caribbean twist.

Fish and fungi with fried plantains.


So I spent quite a lot of time in frustrated research but finally decided on a menu, and just as I was about to get the meal on the table my husband informed me that he was tired of "reading about how you couldn't find any recipes on the Internet." So I won't say anything more about how hard it was to find BVI recipes on the Internet, and instead I will just leave you thinking that my choices were boring and uninspired. Because they kind of were. On the upside, I consider this edict of Martin's to be as good as permission to buy a new cookbook every week, though that does seem strange coming from a guy who's always complaining that we have too much stuff in our house.

Anyway, the dish I chose was called "Fish and Fungi," which is evidently the national dish of the British Virgin Islands. Which seems sad really, because it's basically just boiled fish and polenta. Yawn. Here's the recipe:

Fish and Fungi

For the fish:

  • 2 1/4 pounds fish, scaled and gutted
  • 1/2 tsp Accent*
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tsp margarine
  • 1 medium onion, cut into large chunks
  • 1 small tomato, chopped
  • 1 1/2 tsp vinegar
  • 4 1/2 tsp lemon or lime juice
  • 1 lime, sliced
For the fungi:

  • 5 ounces package frozen cut okra
  • 3/4 cup fine yellow cornmeal
  • 1 1/4 cups boiling water
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • Pepper to taste
* Ingredient note: Accent is MSG. If you would rather not use MSG, you can probably substitute salt.

I actually settled on fish and fungi after struggling with that all-too common conundrum—do I go with a chef recipe from a local restaurant, or do I stick with traditional favorites. Because chef recipes don't really seem like they can do justice to traditional cuisine (and they may not even have any shades of traditional cuisine in them at all). You wouldn't go to Australia and eat at Outback Steakhouse, then say you've had Australian food, so I really don't think you can do the same thing at an upscale restaurant in the Caribbean. But fish and fungi was So. Boring.

So I compromised, and I started the meal with a crab cakes recipe that came from The Sugar Mill, a resort hotel on the BVI island of Tortola.

Crab Cakes with Shrimp Sauce

For the shrimp sauce:

  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 2 oz raw shrimp, deveined, shells removed and reserved
  • 1 1/2 tsp vegetable oil
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 2 tbsp dry sherry
  • 2 tbsp heavy cream
  • Salt and pepper to taste
For the crab cakes:

  • 1/2 cup red and yellow bell peppers, finely diced
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 small eggs, separated
  • 1 cup soft bread crumbs
  • 4-5 oz, cooked crab meat
  • 1 1/2 tsp Caribbean seasoning
  • Flour, for dusting
  • Dash of Worchestershire sauce
  • Dash of Tabasco sauce
  • Salt and pepper to taste
And then I finished the meal with a fresh lime pie, which is another recipe that came from The Sugar Mill. I actually tweaked it a little by using a crust that came from a recipe for Coconut Cloud Tart, another Sugar Mill dessert that I didn't sound as tasty as the lime pie. So here's my amalgamated version:

Fresh Lime Pie

  • 1 1/4 cups vanilla wafer crumbs
  • 1/3 cup butter, melted
  • 3 tablespoons sugar 
  • 3 eggs, separated 
  • 1 small can sweetened condensed milk  
  • 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice  
  • Lime zest from 1 lime
  • 1/4 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1/4 cup of sugar
I also did some fried plantains, not because I particularly wanted to but because after my disastrous encounter with plantains as a dessert I wanted to give them another chance as a savory dish. Here's that recipe:

Fried Plantains

  • 1 ripe plantain, sliced lengthwise and cut into four pieces
  • Olive oil for frying
  • Salt to taste
None of these recipes was particularly challenging, but I started with the dessert since that can be made in advance. Here's how it's done:

First heat your oven to 350 degrees. Mix the crust ingredients and press down into the bottom of a pie pan. Bake in the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the crust is just starting to brown. Let cool.

This crust is made from crushed vanilla wafer cookies and butter.


Now put the eggs into a small mixing bowl and beat until they are thick and pale yellow. Stir the eggs into the condensed milk.

Beat the egg until it is thick and pale yellow, then add the condensed milk.


Add the lime juice and rind and pour over the crust. Set aside.

Pour the mixture over the crumb crust.


Now beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until the whites begin to thicken. Slowly add the sugar and continue to beat until you get stiff peaks. Spread gently over the lime filling.

Spread the meringue over the top of the lime mix.


Bake at 350 for 15 minutes, or until the meringue begins to brown (this took more like 22 minutes in my oven).

The meringue should be lightly browned on its peaks.

 
After I was finished with the desert, I pre-made the crab cakes:

If I did this again, I would definitely dice my shimp finer than this.


First dice the shrimp and set aside. Heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat, then sauté the shrimp shells with the garlic and shallots.

Saute the shallots with the garlic and the shrimp shells.


When the shells turn pink, add the paprika and the sherry. Continue to cook until the sherry has reduced by half (this won't take very long).

After the sherry reduces, strain the mixture and return to the pan with the shrimp and the cream.

Now strain the mixture, and return the liquid to the pan. Add the diced shrimp and the heavy cream. Keep cooking until the sauce thickens (it should coat the back of your spoon). Season with salt and pepper and keep warm.

Now sauté the peppers in 1 tbsp of the butter. When they are soft, take them off the heat and set aside.

Put the breadcrumbs and crab meat into a medium sized bowl. With your mixer, beat the egg whites until you get stiff peaks, then fold into the crab mixture.

Fold the egg whites into the crumb and crab mixture.

Gently add the peppers, yolks, Caribbean seasoning , Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces.

Now add the cooked diced peppers and the seasonings.

Form the crab mixture into small cakes (you should get six to eight from this recipe) and dust with flour.

Shape into patties and dust with flour.

Fry in the remaining 1 tbsp butter. When they are golden brown, flip and continue to fry until the other side is also golden brown.

To serve, pour the shrimp sauce over.

Fry on both sides and serve with the shrimp sauce.

Then the fish:

Put all the ingredients into a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat, simmering for 20 to 30 minutes or until the fish flakes with a fork. Garnish with sliced lime.

The fish and fungi was so boring, I only took one picture while it was cooking. And the picture is boring.

Then the fungi:

Bring the water to a boil and add the frozen okra.

In a separate bowl, blend 2 tbsp of the cornmeal with about 6 tbsp water. Pour into the pot with the boiling water and okra and let cook for one minute.

Slowly pour the rest of the cornmeal into the pan, stirring constantly. Add the butter and salt and pepper, continuing to cook for 5 minutes. Serve hot.

This is the fungi, which is basically just polenta with okra.

And finally the plantains:

Heat the oil and fry the plantains on both sides until golden. Salt and serve hot.

Plantains: Potatoes without the thing that makes potatoes taste good.

So if you read this blog you've probably already guessed that I didn't give any of this food to my kids. And based on the howls, moaning and tragic cries of "it smells horrible in here!" I'm thinking I made the right choice. So it was just me and Martin, and here's what we thought:

The crab cakes were good. For me, they were probably the best part of the meal. If I had it to do again though I would finely mince the shrimp instead of just chopping it. The sauce would have been better if it had been more like a sauce and less like cooked chunks of shrimp in a sauce.

The fish and fungi was just as boring as I thought it would be. I made pretty liberal use of the lime slices, because the fish itself lacked flavor. The fungi was bland and I can't say I'm crazy about okra, though that is really just personal preference. I don't really like polenta either—it's edible, but lacks interest. Since fungi is really just a variation of polenta my dislike is, again, just a matter of personal preference.

Martin was a huge fan of the pie but I thought it was just OK. I do like meringue, but I prefer it when it's crispy and this meringue didn't cook long enough to get to that point. And the lime filling was good but I really didn't like the texture. Again, that's just me though. And I'm not picky generally, it's just that a lot of these BVI recipes fell right in line with those things I'm just not that fond of.

And yes, this is the last time I will eat plantains. It's not that they're unpleasant tasting, in fact it's just the opposite: they have no flavor at all. As Martin described them: "plantains are like potatoes only without the thing that makes potatoes actually taste good." So yeah, definitely not as a dessert, and probably not as a side dish either unless there is suddenly a global shortage on potatoes.

So as far as that simulated tropical vacation is concerned, well, I guess I'd probably rather go to another Caribbean nation, even if I'm only doing it virtually. I'm sure BVI is beautiful, but since food is the only way I get to experience the Caribbean during the child-rearing phase of my life, I'll just have to keep looking. At least until I get to the Cayman Islands, anyway.

For printable versions of this week's recipes:




Recipes from British Indian Ocean Territory (Chagos)


Food is good pretty much everywhere you go. The human species has a remarkable capacity for taking simple local edibles and turning them into something delicious and unique, which is one of the reasons why I love doing this blog. Political history, though, isn't always as fun and friendly as culinary history. Humanity is great with food, but it's pretty awful at basic stuff like human rights.

So based on that uplifting first paragraph, you can probably guess where I'm going with this intro. The "country" we're visiting this week is officially known as the British Indian Ocean Territory, but historically this 23 square mile collection of six atolls and over 1,000 individual islands (most of them very small) is known as the Chagos Archipelago. It is located in the Indian Ocean, midway between Africa and Indonesia, and was settled by African slaves and Indian laborers who were brought to the islands in the 18th century for the purpose of building and operating coconut plantations. In the early 19th century, the UK captured Chagos and neighboring Maruitius, which was originally claimed by the French.

The Chago Archipelago, otherwise known as the British Indian Ocean Territory.


For a while the islanders were allowed to go about their business, until the British decided that the Chagos Archipelago would be a good place to build a military base. After that, the UK government purchased and closed the plantations and then spent the next five years kicking 2,000 islanders out of their homes and off the islands. When it was finished, it dusted off its hands and then signed a nice little treaty with the US, leasing the Chagos Archipelago to the American military. All this happened between 1865 and 1871. No, wait … I'm 100 years off. This happened in the 1960s.

Yeah I had to blink too when I saw that date. This story is very reminiscent of the stuff that the British and the Americans used to do to native populations in the 1800s. Who knew it was still happening in the 20th century? This is modern history, and yet the British did a pretty fine job of keeping the whole endeavor quiet. My English husband didn't even know about it.

Today most of the exiled Chagos islanders are living in Mauritius and the United Kingdom, and for the most part they'd still like to go home. They've taken their case successfully to the English High Court, which ruled in 2006 that the Chagossians were entitled to return to their homeland. In 2009, however, the British countered by proposing that the Chagos Archipelago should be named a "marine preserve," which was a nice tidy way to tell the Chagossians to shove it, while of course maintaining military use of the islands.

Yes, this story ticks me off. But I guess I have to get on with the part about the food.

The Chagos Archipelago: serrage poulet with a brown lentil seraz.


Recipes from Chagos were predictably difficult to find. I had to rely on little clues I found in various places online, the first of which came from a website by the UK Chagos Support Association. In its news section I found a listing for an event where "Typical Mauritian and Chagossian food" would be served. The menu included a dish called "Serrage Poulet" (chicken in coconut milk).

Happily, I was able to discover a Mauritian recipe for Serrage Poulet fairly quickly, and since I'm told Maritian and Chagossian cuisine are more or less interchangeable, I figured this recipe would do:

Serrage Poulet (Chicken in Coconut Milk)

  • 4 chicken breasts, cubed
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1" ginger root, grated
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp garam masala*
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper*
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tbsp cooking oil
  • 1 14 oz can coconut milk
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • Handful of chopped cilantro

* Note: The original version of this recipe called for "spicy masala" of an undetermined amount. I chose to use a mixture of garam masala and cayenne pepper.

My next two recipes were a bit harder fought. They came from a French language interview with Olivier Bancoult, who is the leader of the Chagos Refugee Group. I was lucky enough to stumble upon this interview during my search, and was pretty happy to discover that the entire interview was about Chagossian food. Picking out a side dish recipe from what amounted to a very questionable translation required a little bit of detective work, but I eventually discovered that in Chagos "seraz"(which went untranslated) means "rougaille," and from there was able to track down a Mauritian recipe for a brown lentil rougaille, which is one of the dishes mentioned in the Olivier Bancoult interview. I was also lucky enough to find a partial recipe for a dessert in that same interview. Here they are, with my notes:

Brown Lentil Seraz

  • 1 lb brown lentils
  • 2 tbsp cooking oil
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 tsp ginger, finely diced
  • 3 large tomatoes, diced
  • I sprig fresh thyme, crumbled
  • 3 bay leaves
  • Salt to taste

Notes: Olivier Bancoult specifically mentions coconut milk as a part of his brown lentil seraz, but I thought my meal was already pretty overwhelmed with coconut milk, so I left it out. If I was going to use it I would probably let the lentils boil in water until they were soft and the water was almost evaporated (about an hour and a half), then I would top the pot up with the coconut milk and let the lentils cook for another 20 to 30 minutes.

And finally the dessert:

Mouf

  • 2 cups white rice
  • Water to cover
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 large, square pieces of banana leaf

Note: All the measurements in this recipe are my guesses, because the Bancoult recipe didn't include them. I can't actually vouch for how accurate my version was, but I thought it came out beautifully. My mouf wasn't very sweet, though, so I've changed the sugar measurement from 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup in the recipe above.

The lentils take one and a half to two hours to cook, so I'll start there.

Now, the recipe says to soak the lentils for four to five hours, which of course I didn't do because I never actually read the recipe until after I'd already picked up my kids that afternoon. But in my experience, brown lentils don't really need to be soaked … a couple of hours cooking will usually get them where they need to be.

If you have time, soaking the lentils for a few hours will make them cook faster.


So first cook your onions in hot oil until they are soft, then add the ginger and garlic and keep cooking for one or two minutes. Add the tomatoes, thyme and bay leaves and continue to cook, stirring, until the tomatoes are soft.


Add the tomatoes.

Add the lentils and enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cover. Simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, topping up with water as necessary. You want your finished lentils to be more of a thick stew than a soup. Add salt to taste.


Then add the lentils and cover with water.

Now for the chicken:

Coat your chicken cubes with the seasonings.


Toss the chicken with the seasonings.

Heat the oil over a medium flame, then add the chicken and cook until evenly browned.


Brown the chicken in hot oil.

Pour in the coconut milk and add the cinnamon sticks. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and continue to cook until the chicken is heated through.


Add the coconut milk and simmer until the sauce has reduced.

Serve over white rice, garnished with cilantro.

And finally the mouf, which has to be one of the top 10 weirdest things I've ever made for this blog. Simple, though.

First cover the rice with water and soak 30 minutes. Drain the water and transfer the rice to a food processor. Pulse until the rice becomes little beads.


The processed rice should look like tiny beads.


Add the coconut milk and sugar and stir until you get a nice batter.


Add the coconut milk to make a batter.

Now put your banana leaf on your work surface. If you've never worked with banana leaves before, I wish I could tell you how to do it, but I can't, because I have no idea. My banana leaves came from eFoodDepot, which I can sadly no longer recommend for a couple of reasons: 1) because I ordered a product from them that arrived in questionable condition and 2) because my last order took several weeks to arrive and  came packed in what was clearly a second-hand cardboard box with crumpled up newspaper for padding, which just screams "someone's garage" and doesn't really give me a high level of confidence in the products I'm buying, especially given that they are imported exotic food items.

But anyway, I have these banana leaves, but mine were cracked and unable to contain the mouf batter, so I put them on top of a sheet of aluminum foil and hoped that the foil wouldn't stop the mouf from cooking properly, since banana leaves are porous and foil is not.


Pour the batter onto the banana leaf.

Anyway I wrapped up the mouf batter in the leaf and the leaf in the foil, then I submerged the entire packet in a pot of boiling water for about 30 minutes (at the end of 30 minutes, the mouf should be pretty soft. If the rice is still crunchy, put it back in for another 15 minutes or until done).


I had to wrap mine in foil because my leaves were cracked.

What I got after unwrapping the foil and leaves was an odd looking cake with a really interesting texture, which tasted great with honey (I don't think that's the traditional way of eating it but it sure worked for me).


Slice the mouf into pieces and eat plain or with honey.

This meal was actually hugely popular with my children, once they got over the horror of being asked to eat green chicken (it was yellow, actually, but there's no arguing with gradeschoolers). Dylan moaned over his until long after the rest of us were finished eating, then sheepishly brought me a clean plate and admitted that he'd loved the entire meal. Martin and I enjoyed it too, and I'm not sure there's anything I would actually change about it if I made it again.

The mouf was a huge surprise. I didn't actually try it out on my kids because I'm fairly sure they wouldn't have been interested, and I didn't even think I'd be interested, to be honest. But there was something about the texture and the mild coconut flavor that was really delicious. Kind of addictively delicious, actually. I kept going back for more. As I mentioned earlier, I had mine with honey (probably not traditional), but I suspect it wouldn't have needed the extra sweetener if I'd got the sugar amount correct the first time.

So that's Chagos/The British Indian Ocean Territory, and although the food was good I can't say it had as much impact on me as the history of the place. But this blog isn't really about my political opinion, so I'll just stop there.

Next week: British Virgin Islands

For printable versions of this week's recipes:




Recipes from Bouvet Island


Every now and then, as you know, I've had to get creative with my entries. This only happens when I run into a nation that isn't really a nation, like Ashmore and Cartier, which is an uninhabited nature preserve, and Bassas da India, which is basically just a bunch of barren islets off the coast of Madagascar. Usually I can find help with these psuedo-entries, which I only leave on my list because 1) this blog is almost as much about geography as it is about food and 2) I like challenges. This week, sadly, I kind of had to go it alone, though it wasn't for lack of trying.

Our destination this week is Bouvet Island, which is an Antarctic volcanic island located in the south Atlantic ocean. It is more than 1,500 miles from South Africa, its nearest populated neighbor, and over 1,000 miles from Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, where there is a Norwegian research station. Bouvet Island holds the impressive distinction of being the "Most Remote Island on Earth," which means, of course, that it has no population to speak of--no researchers, and only the occasional bold adventurer. And penguins.

Bouvet Island, a tiny spec thousands of miles from anywhere.


Bouvet Island is a dependent territory of Norway, which I find a little funny because as far as I can tell it's a pretty useless chunk of ice and rock that may hold some interest for science, but is mostly useful in its ability to give well-financed explorers a chance to, well, check "The Most Remote Island on Earth" off of their bucket list. This means that despite its remoteness, Bouvet Island is a destination, and destinations always have purveyors willing to sell someone the experience of traveling to that destination, and those travelers of course need to be fed.

Bouvet Island, the most remote island in the world.


So after only a little bit of research on the subject, I hit on a ship called the "Hanse Explorer," which among other things takes small groups of people to remote destinations such as Antarctica and, yes, Bouvet Island. The Hanse Explorer is an "icebreaker" ship that was "purposely built for Arctic/Antarctic Exploration," but this ain't no barebones research vessel. This is a luxury yacht that just happens to be outfitted for very cold, very remote destinations.

And so began my fruitless email campaign. I emailed the charter company, several people who have posted online accounts of their Hanse Explorer journey to Bouvet Island, and I spent/wasted quite a lot of time waiting for people to get back to me. Alas, only one person did, and he was kind enough to forward my message along to the chef onboard the Hanse Explorer, which briefly made me think I'd hit the jackpot. Sadly, though, I am but a lowly blogger, and coughing up $115,000 a week for a trip to Bouvet Island is neither on my to-do list nor on my within-the-realm-of-any-kind-of-possibility list, which I suppose ranks me fairly low on the scale of people worth getting back to. So I never heard from the chef, or from anyone else involved with the Hanse Explorer's charter business.

I did, however, during the course of my deep scrounge of online resources, find several references to the sushi served on board the Hanse Explorer. I was also lucky enough to find a single recipe for one of those sushi rolls, transcribed from a German-language article about the galley on board the Hanse Explorer. The other two recipes I decided on were a basic tuna nigiri, because what sushi spread doesn't have one of those, and a spicy tuna roll recipe that came from a chef who works on board a different yacht. A stretch, I know, but hey, these non-country entries are usually mostly fantasy anyway.

My fantasy menu from Bouvet Island.


Fortunately I've made sushi a few times before, so the prospect of doing so again wasn't that daunting. I already had a sushi mat, serving boards, a rice paddle and a nigiri mold. The only thing I didn't have were the chopsticks, because Dylan recently turned all of my nice chopsticks into Harry Potter wands. So I had to pick up a few of those but after that I was mostly ready to go.

Before you can make sushi, you have to make sushi rice. This is Alton Brown's sushi rice recipe, halved. It makes exactly two sushi rolls and four pieces of nigiri (enough for two pretty decent sized meals); if you're going to feed a bigger crowd you'd need to double it, but since sushi isn't a terribly kid-friendly dish I figured the halved version would be more useful.


Sushi Rice

  • 1 cup sushi or short grain rice
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

Next, the semi-official Hanse Explorer sushi roll, transcribed from a German article, which I've decided to call a Polar Roll. I've had to guess at the measurements but I figured on them being pretty similar to a California roll.

Polar Roll

  • 2 tbsp fresh or canned crabmeat
  • 1 tbsp mayonnaise
  • 2 sheets nori (dry seaweed)
  • 1/4 cucumber, cut into thin spears
  • 1/4 apple, peeled cut into thin spears
  • 1 cup prepared sushi rice

Next is a basic spicy tuna roll recipe, which I have taken the great stretch of including in the Bouvet Island entry based solely on the fact that it comes from a chef who works onboard a yacht, although not the Hanse Explorer or any other Bouvet Island-destined ship.


Spicy Tuna Roll
(This recipe comes from Victoria Allman)

  • 1 tsp mayonnaise
  • 1/8 tsp wasabi
  • 2/3 lb fresh tuna, diced fine
  • 2 sheets toasted nori
  • 4 tsp white sesame seeds
  • 2 tsp black sesame seeds
  • 1 cup prepared sushi rice

And finally, almost every sushi spread I've ever seen includes a basic tuna nigiri, and here's the recipe:

Tuna Nigiri

  • 4 oz ahi tuna (I used albacore, because the co-op didn't have ahi)
  • 1/2 tsp prepared wasabi
  • 1 cup prepared sushi rice

A couple of notes: if you're going to make all three recipes using the sushi rice measurements above, you will need to halve the roll recipes, which will give you one of each roll. Otherwise the rice amount will be just enough for one of the roll recipes and the nigiri.

You do need to make the rice ahead of time so it will have time to come to room temperature (important!), so let's start there.

First a quick note: don't try to substitute long grain rice in this recipe; you need to use sushi rice or your sushi won't hold together.

This is sushi rice. See how short the grains are?


First rinse the rice in a fine mesh strainer until the water runs clear.

Stop rinsing when the water is no longer cloudy.


Put the rice and the water in a small saucepan and turn on the heat. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 15 minutes, then remove from the heat and, without taking the lid off, let stand for 10 minutes.

Now mix the vinegar with the sugar and salt. You can use a small saucepan to heat the mixture, or you can just pop it into the microwave for 20 or 25 seconds.

Put the rice in a bowl and pour the vinegar mixture over it. Mix thoroughly. Your goal is to make sure that the vinegar/sugar/salt mixture covers each grain of rice.

Coat the rice with the vinegar mixture.

Now let the rice stand until it reaches room temperature.

When the rice is ready, start on the spicy tuna rolls. If you've never made sushi before relax, it's actually not difficult.

First mix the tuna with the wasabi and mayo. Set aside.

This spicy tuna roll is made with albacore, mayo and wasabi.


Now cover your sushi mat with plastic wrap to prevent sticking, and lay it on your work surface so the slats are horizontal. Get a little bowl of cold water and place it next to the mat. Now take one sheet of nori and place it shiny-side down on the mat.

For reasons unknown, my stupidly expensive organic nori came in half sheets,
so I had to lay two down side by side.


Grab a handful of rice and spread it over the nori sheet, using the water in the bowl to keep your fingers wet, which will make it a lot easier to get the rice into the right place. Yes, the rice is supposed to be that sticky. If it's not all over your hands and refusing to come off, then you haven't made it right.

Put the rice on the nori and use your fingers to spread it around.


Try to get the rice as close to the edges of the nori as you can, while leaving a half-inch or so strip at the top. Sprinkle the white and black sesame seeds evenly over the rice.

When the rice covers the nori, sprinkle on the sesame seeds.
I left a little too much space at the edges so I had to trim my rolls when I was finished.


Now carefully lift the nori sheet and turn it over, so the rice is facing down and the nori is the top layer.

Flip the sheet over (don't worry, the rice sticks very well). See that seam?
If you are using a full sheet of nori you won't have to worry about that.

Spread a thin line of the tuna mixture across the length of the nori, a couple of inches from the bottom of the sheet.

Now add a strip of tuna mixture.


With your sushi mat, roll the nori sheet away from you, pressing down with the mat to make a tight roll. You'll need to keep repositioning the mat and the plastic wrap so it doesn't get rolled into the sushi.

Roll away from you, pressing down tightly with the mat.


Keep rolling, using the mat to make the roll tight. When you get to the end, remove the mat.

Cut the roll in two, then cut each of the halves in two. Now cut each quarter in two. You should have eight evenly sized pieces.

Cut the roll into eight pieces.


The polar rolls are made in almost exactly the same way:

Mix the crab with the mayo. Set aside. Lay down the nori on your sushi mat and cover it with a layer of rice. This time you don't need to flip the nori over. Just lay the crab mixture down in a thin strip over the rice, a couple of inches from the bottom of the nori sheet. Now put the cucumber and apple strips over the crab, horizontally.

Lay down the crab mixture, the apple and cucumber.


Roll the sushi up in the same manner as you did the spicy tuna rolls, and cut the roll into eight pieces.

Finally, the nigiri, which is pretty simple if you have a mold.

Press the rice down into the sushi mold and transfer to your work surface. If you don't have a mold, you can just shape the rice using your hands.

My mold makes pretty thick nigiri.

Put a dab of wasabi on top of the rice.

Add a dab of wasabi ...

Now lay a thin slice of the tuna over the rice. Done!

... and cover with a slice of tuna.


Serve your sushi with pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauce on the side.

So obviously, I did not feed this to my children, because it's way too much money and work to waste on the unappreciative. As for my opinion, well, I love sushi, and it's pretty hard to screw up since you can't overcook it or anything. The apple was something I've never had in a sushi roll, and I thought it was a nice addition. I do like sushi that has a little bit of crunch.

As for the spicy tuna, I thought that using wasabi to make the roll spicy was a little redundant, since most people eat their sushi with wasabi anyway. When I've made spicy tuna in the past I've used Sriracha chili sauce, which is what I'll also do the next time I make spicy tuna.

Martin enjoyed his dinner too but for the most part I think we were both underwhelmed—not by the sushi itself, because as long as the fish is fresh sushi is almost always yummy—but by the non-uniqueness of it. I do wish I'd heard back from someone on the Hanse Explorer, but since these pseudo-countries are really just little bits of culinary fiction, I guess I can't complain too much.

Next week: British Indian Ocean Territory

For printable versions of this week's recipes:






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