Recipes from Marche, Italy

For this entry, I made two recipes. Neither of them were especially good, but I don't blame the people who posted the original recipes or any of the traditions they came from, I blame myself and my propensity for Googling things that might kill me.

Recipes from Marche, Italy: Brodetto

A seafood stew with mussels and clams, minus the Vibrio.

Recipes from Marche, Italy: Filone Casereccio

An Italian bread that will come out much better than mine did if you use fresh brewer's yeast and steam.

Recipes from Malta

This is actually the third time I’ve cooked a meal from Malta. The first time, I cooked the meal and then just did not write the blog post. Years went by.

Recipes from Malta: Imqarrun

Imquarrum (also called Imqarrun il-forn) is descended from a dish served in Sicily, but the Maltese have adopted it as a traditional staple. The key to making this dish is to be patient.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Recipes from Christmas Island

So I finally gave up on trying to find an authentic source for Christmas Island, which I passed up several weeks ago while waiting on a email. It's not really my style to do these things out of order, so its presence up there on my list, surrounded by countries I've already done, was really starting to bug me.

So I fudged it. I'm glad I did, though, because the food I ended up making was delicious. But was it Christmas Island? Kind of, sort of.

Let me explain my process. When researching Christmas Island recipes, I found only a single possible resource. In Sydney, Australia there is a restaurant called Island Dreams Café, which specializes in cuisine from Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Now you remember Cocos (Keeling), of course, which I did a few weeks ago. I did actually find a good resource for that one—and evidently the food is similar in both places, since the islands are close to each other and the populations are similar in ethnic descent, although Christmas Island has a much larger population of Chinese than it does Malay, which makes up a majority of the population on Cocos (Keeling).

But I wanted to get a recipe that I could say was actually a Christmas Island recipe, so I tracked down the owner of Island Dreams on Facebook and sent her a message. It took her a few weeks to get back to me, and when she did she wanted the link to my blog. So I sent it to her, and that was the last I heard. That was probably six weeks ago.

Now, I'm not sure if she went to my blog and was put off by the general lack of something-or-other in its author (um, cooking experience, maybe, or maybe just the blatantly Americanized ignorance of geography). More likely (I hope) she just didn't have any time to devote to getting back to me. But either way, I finally decided to just fudge and redo if I ever do find a better resource.

Anyway, let's talk about Christmas Island. As I just mentioned, it is close to and very similar to Cocos (Keeling). Like Cocos (Keeling), it is a territory of Australia, located in the Indian Ocean. There are approximately 1,500 people living there, which explains the total lack of information of any kind about its cuisine. The island was unknown until Christmas day in 1643, when a British ship sailed past it. Yes, that is how it received its name.

The island remained unexplored, though, for more than 200 years. In 1888 it was visited for 10 days by a small group of explorers who used the time to gather biological and mineralogical specimens. Their collection included a few rocks that consisted of nearly pure phosphate of lime, which of course led the British to claim the entire island shortly thereafter. Christmas Island's rich phosphate deposits (which by the way comes from bird poop) also made it a target for Japanese occupation during WWII. Eventually sovereignty was given to Australia, which still holds the territory today.

Anyway, here's what I did:

I looked at some of the restaurant reviews for Island Dreams Café and got an idea about what they serve there. Then I Googled pretty much every dish that I could find a reference to. I finally came up with this one:

Ayam Panggang (Lemon Chile Chicken)

  • 2 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 2 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tbsp fennel seeds
  • 1 tbsp tamarind paste
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • 4 stalks lemongrass, grated
  • 4 kaffir lime leaves
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 1 onion
  • A large handful of red dried chilies, soaked
  • pinch salt
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 4 lbs chicken pieces (on the bone)
  • Oil
  • 1 3/4 cup coconut milk
  • Juice of 1 lemon
Now I want to stress to you, this is not the recipe that they use at the Island Dreams Café. According to some of the reviews I've read of their version, it is made with a "secret blend of spices that includes ground coriander seeds, cumin seeds and whole chilies." The version I used is based on a recipe I found on from SBS Food, which is a Cocos (Keeling) version of Ayam Panggang. I did change it a little, and here's how:

  1. I added cumin, to bring it a little closer to the recipe they use at Island Dreams Café.
  2. I added lemongrass, since I heard another review refer to the Island Dreams Café dish as "lemongrass chicken." Of course, I don't have any way of knowing how accurate that is, though I did find lemongrass in other versions of this recipe.
  3. I took out the shrimp paste, because ew.
  4. I took out the candlenuts, because I did not find them in any other version of this recipe and also because you can't get them anywhere in my local area, or online. And I mean nowhere.
  5. I added kaffir lime leaves, because I did find them in several other versions of this recipe.
The other Island Dreams dish I found a reference to was roti, which is a popular Malaysian flat bread. It seemed like it would go nicely with the chicken, so I found a recipe for it at South East Asian Flavors. Here it is:

Roti Canai

  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup ghee, room temperature (divided)
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 3/4 cup whole milk
  • 1/2 cup water
Now, if you know anything about making roti you are probably laughing at me right now. Yes, I know. I really didn't know what I was getting into.

Roti is an unleavened bread, which means you have to do other things to it to make it less dense. Things like stretching, rolling, pressing and tearing your hair out.

By the way, you will need to start making this about eight hours before you plan to serve it. You have been warned.

So first mix the flour with the salt, sugar and about 1/4 of the ghee (yes you do need ghee for this recipe, butter would make a totally different bread). Rub the mixture together with your fingertips until it starts to get kind of clumpy.

Now add the egg, milk and water. Mix until well-combined, and then knead for 8 to 10 minutes, until you get a smooth, stretchy dough.

I, of course, did this in my bread machine. Because I love my bread machine, and am also lazy.

Now divide the dough up into eight equal-sized parts and shape them into balls. Take a teaspoon of ghee and slather it all over the first ball. Then take another teaspoon and do the second ball. Keep going until you have eight shiny balls of ghee-covered dough. Now cover them with a paper towel and let them rest for six hours (more is ok, too).

Your dough should be warm, so if you like your kitchen to be as cold as an Antarctic summer (as my husband does), you may need to microwave each dough ball for a few seconds until it is warm enough to work with. This will make it easier to stretch, which is the challenging part of this recipe.

OK now you will need a work surface that's at least two foot square, that you can cover with ghee. In the center of the workspace, put about 1 teaspoon of ghee. You will also need to cover your hands with more ghee.

Pick up the first ball and place it on the center of your workspace, where that blob of ghee is. Now flatten it with your hand until it is about six inches in diameter. Now start stretching it. Pull the dough from the center outwards, working in 3 or 4 inch sections, until you've stretched it out into a large, uniformly paper-thin circle about 2 feet in diameter. You will need to go back and redo areas as needed, concentrating on the parts that are thicker. It's very stretchy but be careful, you can still end up with holes.

Now take the sheet and roll it up loosely like a rope, trying to keep some air in between the layers (this is what replaces the yeast and makes the texture of the final bread lighter that it otherwise would be). Now drizzle the rope with another teaspoon of ghee. Yes, more ghee. 

OK, pause to catch your breath. Almost done.

Coil the first rope into a loose pinwheel shape, keeping plenty of small air pockets in between the coils. Tuck the end into the center (which I didn't do, but the final product didn't suffer). Repeat with the rest of the ropes. Flip them over and let rest for five minutes.

Now flatten the first pinwheel until it is about 7 or 8 inches in diameter. Melt some (what else) ghee over low heat in a large griddle and cook the first dough until a deep golden brown on both sides. Repeat with the remaining breads.

Now when they have cooled a little, put them between your hands and "clap" a few times, which will help separate the layers. That's it. Whew, that was complicated.

OK now for the ayam panggang. But first I have to tell you about kaffir lime. I saw a package of leaves the other day at the co-op, and I thought, cool! I've never actually seen those before, and I've had to pass on loads of recipes because I had no source for them. But like a big dummy, I didn't buy them. Of course in my defense, I didn't know you could freeze them. Anyway when I went back for them the store no longer had them, which just figures because that's the kind of luck I have. So I bought a kaffir lime tree. Yes, you heard me, I now have a kaffir lime tree in my living room.

You may think that's a little crazy, especially since the original version of this recipe didn't even call for kaffir lime leaves, but I've actually been thinking about doing this for a while. I see kaffir lime leaves in a lot of ingredient lists, especially Thai recipes. And they are supposed to be pretty good house plants. Of course, I kill most of my house plants, so we'll have to see how that works out.

So anyway, on to the recipe:

In a mortar and pestle (or spice grinder, which is what I used), crush the coriander with the cumin, fennel and turmeric. In a blender, purée the tamarind paste with the grated lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, onion, garlic, soaked chilies and salt, adding a little water as needed, until you have a smooth paste. Add the dry spice mix and pulse until well incorporated.

Now heat some oil in a large pan and add the paste. Cook, stirring, until the mixture becomes aromatic. Then add the chicken and about 3/4ths of the coconut milk. Cook for about 30 minutes or until the chicken is tender (the internal temperature should be at least 165 for breast meat and 175 for thighs and drumsticks).

When the chicken is done, add the rest of the coconut milk and the lemon juice and stir. Serve hot over steamed rice.

I did not do this for my kids because of the whole "handful of chilies" thing. It was pretty spicy, but I used dried super peppers from my summer garden, which are kind of ridiculously hot, so the level of heat really depends on the brand of pepper.

The ayam panggang was really yummy. Martin and I both really enjoyed it. It was very much like an Indian curry, but the lemon made it really tangy and unusual. The next time I make it though (and I will), I'll probably use diced boneless-skinless thighs, which will make it a little simpler to eat. I think it was hard to get the full effect of all that yummy sauce when a lot of it was just left on the plate with the bones.

And the roti, oh my. I don't know how close mine actually came to the authentic stuff, but I made a pretty good go of it and it tasted delicious. It was both crispy and soft, which is an awesome combination in a flat bread. Like an Indian naan, it was great for scooping up excess sauce, which I wish I'd actually made a lot more of.

So although this isn't a true Christmas Island meal, it was the closest I could come given the general lack of resources on the subject. If I do ever hear back from the owner of Island Dreams Cafe, I'll post the real thing, but in the meantime who cares. I'm not one to criticize a good thing just because it's a little less than genuine.

Next week: Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast)

For printable versions of this week's recipes:

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Recipes from Costa Rica

I just have one thing to say about this week's meal: coconut fudge.

I guess I have to write a whole post too, though. Dang.

Yes, coconut fudge is heavenly. And when I say heavenly, I mean that this is the stuff Saint Peter hands out to all new arrivals at the Pearly Gates. It is also the stuff that the devil dangles in the faces of all his new recruits while taunting "Nah-nah-nah, you can't have some!"

So I'm sure you're dying to know about the coconut fudge. First, though, I have to tell you about Costa Rica.

Costa Rica has many things going for it, besides just the coconut fudge. Though seriously, the coconut fudge really should be enough. Anyway, besides being quite high on the Gobsmackingly Delicious Desserts Index, Costa Rica is the only Latin American country included on the list of 22 countries that have been "steadily democratic" since the 1950s. On the Human Development Index, it ranks 69th in the world—and this despite the fact that it is still a developing country with a poverty rate of about 23%. It is also fifth in the world (and first in the Americas) on the 2012 Environmental Performance Index—with aspirations towards becoming the world's first carbon-neutral country by 2021. And it doesn't have a military. Can you believe that? After a bloody civil war in the 1940s, the Costa Rican government decided to just abolish that entire institution.

Oh yeah and then there's the coffee, which is one of Costa Rica's principle sources of income. So Costa Rica is probably at least partially responsible for the fact that I can actually get out of bed in the mornings.

Finally, Costa Rica is home to the world's largest oxcart. The trivia just keeps getting better and better.

As far as the food goes, Costa Rican cuisine is similar to what you find in other Latin American nations. It is not typically particularly spicy, but it does have a lot of flavor.

I didn't have too much trouble finding a main course and a side, and here they are:

Escabeche de Pollo (Chicken Escabeche)

  • 12 chicken drumsticks
  • 2 large onions, sliced
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1/2 cup pitted olives
  • 1/2 cup capers
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • Salt and pepper to taste
And on the side:

Gallo Pinto

  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 cup cooked rice
  • 1 cup canned black beans
  • 1 tbps vegetable oil
  • 1/3 cup cilantro, chopped
  • 4 tbsp Salsa Lizano
  • A dash of black pepper
And finally, the coconut fudge. Cue the heavenly bells and sounds of singing angels:

Cajeta De Coco
This recipe came from, from a poster who obtained it while visiting Costa Rica.

  • 2 cups sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup fresh coconut, shredded
  • 1 cup butter or 1 cup margarine
  • 1/2 cup graham cracker crumbs
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
OK, let's start with the chicken.

This recipe is weird. It's really more like a drumstick salad, only without the lettuce. And other salad ingredients. It's drumsticks with salad dressing.

Anyway, it's easy to make. Here's how:

Heat half of the oil in a large skillet. Fry the drumsticks in the oil over a medium high heat until they are golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels.

Using this grill pan was really not the best idea.

Now put the drumsticks in a glass bowl and top with the sliced onions, bay leaves, olives and capers.

In a smaller bowl, mix the vinegar with the water and the rest of the olive oil. Toss with the drumsticks. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes.

At this point you can reheat the drumsticks or just serve them cold.

That's it! Now on to the gallo pinto. "Gallo pinto," by the way, means "painted rooster." The name comes from the appearance of this dish, which is speckled like (evidently) a colorful rooster. Gallo pinto is the national dish of Costa Rica.

Heat the vegetable oil over a medium flame and cook the bell pepper and onions until soft. In the last couple of minutes, add the garlic and cilantro.

Add the beans and Salsa Lizano to the pot with the black pepper. Then stir in the rice. Done!

And finally, the coconut fudge.

The ingredients of pure bliss.

Put all the ingredients in a pot over medium-low heat. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly.

Keep boiling for about five minutes, but don't stop stirring. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Now at this point, I figured I would just pour mine into a pan like I do when I'm making chocolate fudge, because I didn't have any of those little candy papers like the original recipe called for. Well, sadly this didn't really work. Coconut fudge doesn't solidify the way chocolate fudge does. So when I served mine, it was really just like a little scoop of pudding rather than something you could eat with your fingers. I can see now why the little papers would have been better.

I did chill my leftovers and that made them easier to cut up and eat, but they were still a lot softer than traditional fudge.

Here's the verdict:

My kids love drumsticks, so all 12 of the ones I made vanished pretty quickly. But the onion/caper/olive topping seemed a bit wasted. It added a little flavor to the drumsticks but even the vinegar didn't really penetrate them in a significant way. It was really just like eating unbreaded drumsticks that had been fried in hot oil, which, you know, is exactly what we were doing. I think maybe this recipe would have worked better if I'd put the drumsticks in the fridge and let them soak in the dressing for a couple of hours instead of just 30 minutes.

I really liked the gallo pinto. It was very flavorful and the Salsa Lizano gave it a sweet flavor. It made for pretty tasty leftovers, too. I would definitely make this again as something a little different to go with pretty much any Latin American main course.

And now, the coconut fudge. You know, I don't typically like coconut in desserts. I like it in savory dishes. But this, whoever invented this is a culinary genius. The coconut gave the fudge a great texture and a subtle coconut flavor. The graham cracker crumbs gave it a little more body than it would otherwise have had (which wasn't much really). And the rest of the ingredients combined just made it incredibly rich, decadent and unusual.

I know I'm gushing. I hope that readers who actually make this enjoy it as much as I did. I hope I'm not setting expectations way too high, because I realize that this newfound love of mine could very well just be a serendipitous connection between my personal tastebuds and this particular dessert. I will say, though, that I wasn't the only one in my family who loved this. When I wondered out loud which holiday I could make this recipe a traditional part of, Martin said "EVERY holiday."

So yeah, it was good. And now on to the turkey, homemade cranberry sauce and apple pie (I don't eat pumpkin pie, which I know makes me a freak of nature). Happy Thanksgiving everyone! See you next week.

For printable versions of this week's recipes:

      Thursday, November 15, 2012

      Recipes from the Coral Sea Islands

      OK, these recipes are not really from the Coral Sea Islands. Right now, at this very moment, there are only four people in the whole world who are qualified to talk about Coral Sea Islands food, and I can't find email addresses for any of them. So I'm going to post this entry in the vain hope that, like Bouvet Island, someone who actually possesses genuine knowledge of this subject might find me through Google and send me a message.

      In the meantime, I'm using cruise ship recipes.

      Let me back up. The small group of uninhabited tropical islands and reefs known as the Coral Sea Islands is one of those places that made it onto my list despite it not really being a country containing, you know, actual people. With four exceptions.

      Located off the coast of Queensland, Australia, the Coral Sea Islands includes about 485,000 miles of islands and reef/island groups and stretches southeast from the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. The group consists of about 30 reefs and atolls, about half of which only count during low tide because the ocean completely covers them the rest of the time. Only one of them is inhabited: Willis Island. Willis Island is a nesting area for various species of birds and turtles but lacks any real natural resources. It doesn't have a port or a harbor; if you want to visit Willis Island you need to anchor offshore and then come in on a smaller boat. Willis Island's total land area is about 1,600 ft x 490 ft, or approximately 19 acres.

      Willis Island has a weather monitoring station, which means it needs a small staff to stay operational. So there are usually four people living on the island: three weather observers and one technical officer, who handles the electronic engineering. The station has all the comforts of home and, if you can stand the people you're living with, actually sounds pretty idyllic. It has a rec room with a pool table, ping-pong and darts. It has a library, two satellite TV systems, a DVD library and a workout room. The staff can entertain themselves outdoors by swimming or snorkeling or tending to their vegetable garden. Every now and then, the Royal Australian Air Force flies over and drops supplies.

      But as you might imagine, there doesn't seem to be any way easy way to get in touch with the four people on the island, or even to find their names. Not that I made any long distance calls or anything, which might have given up more information. Sadly, I'm a low-budget operation.

      Anyway, back to the cruise ship recipes. As it turns out, Willis Island is a popular cruise ship destination. Actually it's more distination-ish, because passengers can't really disembark there. Instead (as near as I can tell, anyway) the ships anchor offshore and everyone just looks at the island.

      So for this entry I actually purchased a cookbook from the Royal Caribbean Cruise lines, which is one of the cruise ship lines that visits Willis. I have to say, my decision to use these recipes did make for some pretty danged tasty food, even though I really had no way to verify whether or not these recipes were actually used on actual voyages to the actual region. But there you go. By the way, the book is called the "Royal Caribbean International Cookbook ," and the author is Rudi Sodamin, who at the time of the book's publication (2001) was the chef in charge of fifteen ship's kitchens on the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.

      The first recipe:

      Grilled Island Strip Steak

      • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
      • 2 medium shallots, minced
      • 1 small onion, thinly sliced
      • 3 cloves garlic, minced
      • 1 cup dark rum
      • 3 cups beef stock
      • 2 tbsp molasses
      • 4 8-oz strip steaks
      • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
      On the side:

      Garlic Roasted Mashed Potatoes

      • 1 large head garlic
      • 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
      • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
      • 2 sprigs rosemary
      • 1 1/2 lbs russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
      • 3/4 cup whole milk, gently heated
      And also on the side:

      Caramelized Brussels Sprouts with Red Onions

      • 20 oz Brussels sprouts (I used frozen)
      • 10 oz red pearl onions
      • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
      • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
      Starting with the steak:

      First melt the butter in over medium-high heat. Add the shallots, onion and garlic and saute until translucent. Add the rum and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the liquid is reduced by about 2/3rds.

      Now add the beef stock and return to a boil. Reduce heat and add the molasses, whisking until well-incorporated. Keep simmering, uncovered, until you have about 2 cups of liquid (I actually reduced mine a bit more because I prefer a thicker sauce).

      Season the steaks with salt and pepper and grill on both sides until they reach the desired doneness. Now place them on warm plates and top with the sauce. Serve at once.

      Now on to the potatoes.

      Start by roasting the garlic. If you haven't done this before, it's easy. Just pull off the excess husk and then cut off the top of the head to expose the cloves. Pour a little olive oil over the garlic and add some salt and pepper.

      Place the garlic in a small ovenproof dish with the rosemary. Add a little bit of water and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Roast at 325 degrees for 30 or 40 minutes, until the garlic is soft.

      Let cool and then squeeze the soft pulp from the garlic skins into a small bowl. Yes, it's messy. Mash and set aside.

      Now put the peeled potatoes in a large saucepan and add just enough cold water to cover. Add 1 tsp salt. This is actually a totally different way of boiling potatoes than my usual method (I typically boil some salted water first, then I add the potatoes when the water comes to a rolling boil. My way takes forever.) Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Drain and then return to the pan. Cook over low heat, stirring continuously (this will evaporate off the remaining water).

      Now mash the potatoes, adding the garlic and the warm milk. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

      And finally, the Brussels sprouts. Now, my father-in-law (who I never had a chance to meet) used to say that Brussels sprouts aren't any good until after the first frost, because freezing tempers some of their natural bitter flavor. We discovered that just buying them frozen has the same effect. So though I'm generally against frozen vegetables of any kind (can you say "mush," blech) I almost never buy fresh Brussels sprouts. I think they're better frozen, but that's just my opinion.


      Bring about 1 1/2 inches of salted water to a boil in a large suacepan. Pull off the outer leaves (if using fresh sprouts) and trim the stem ends to remove any brown coloring. With a small knife, cut a shallow X at the stem, then rinse and drain.

      Put the sprouts in the boiling water and reduce the heat to a low boil. Cook for about 8 minutes or until tender. Drain and run cold water over them so they don't overcook. Set aside.

      I know, it's not much of a photo.

      Meanwhile, bring a different pot of salted water to a boil. Make a shallow X in each pearl onion with your small knife, then add to the boiling water. Replace the lid so that the pot is partially covered and boil for 4 to 6 minutes, or until just tender. Drain and run cold water over them until they are easy to handle, then remove the skins.

      Melt the butter in a large skillet over a medium hot flame. Add the sprouts and cook until they start to brown (but don't stir). After about 3 or 4 minutes, start stirring and add the onions. Cook until the onions are hot, then season with salt and pepper and serve.

      So I don't have to tell you that this meal was delicious. People pay a lot of money to go on cruises where they can eat this kind of food, so I would be really shocked if anything in this cookbook wasn't at least four-star restaurant quality.

      Of course, Martin wasn't crazy about the steak. It wasn't because the sauce wasn't delicious (it was), it was because the meat was on the bone and there was some fat on it. Sigh. Normally he can cut around the evil fat and bone, but the sauce made it too hard to tell what was fat and what was meat. So the steak lost points.

      The potatoes were great. Not so different from the garlic mash I've made in the past, but I liked the cooking technique. It was faster and the potatoes really did come out perfectly.

      As for the sprouts, they were probably the best I've ever eaten. Caramelizing them was a stroke of genius, and the little pearl onions complimented them really well.

      So there you go, a cruise ship experience. While you're eating, just close your eyes and pretend you're looking at that little weather station on Willis Island from the deck of a gigantic cruise ship.

      Next week: Costa Rica

      For printable versions of this week's recipes:

      Thursday, November 8, 2012

      Recipes from the Cook Islands

      Yes, this week we are on another group of islands. And next week we will be on still more islands. This brings the sum total of island nations that begin with the letter "C" to 11, counting of course Cuba, Curacao and Cyprus (which we will be visiting in the weeks to come). That means about 46% of all countries beginning with the letter C are islands. Now there's a bit of trivia you probably won't find anywhere else.

      The Cook Islands are in a different part of the ocean than most of the other "C's;" this group of 15 small islands is located in the South Pacific Ocean—way, way out there, about 1,800 miles from New Zealand, with which it has a "free association." This "free association" means that Cook Islanders are citizens of New Zealand, which takes primary responsibility for the islands' defense and foreign affairs.

      The Cook Islands are even tinier than Comoros, our last island destination. In fact at just 91 square miles they are only about 1/10th the size of Comoros, which makes them roughly equal in size to the Cincinnati Public School District. (How's that for an out-of-left-field comparison?) The Cook Islands' Exclusive Economic Zone, however, is a whopping 690,000 square miles, which means that they have special rights over the exploration and use of the marine resources in an area of ocean that is about 7,582 times as large as their total land mass. Economically, I don't know how much good this really does for them, though, since most of the Cook Islands' economy is tourism-based.

      Resources for Cook Island recipes were as limited as you might imagine, but I had enough to choose from that I felt pretty satisfied with my menu. Sadly, Martin's pass on eating seafood had to come to an end, because its really not realistic to keep skirting seafood recipes when they are so ubiquitous on island nations. So here's the main course, which comes from Mereana Hutchinson at the Blue Note Café on Rarotonga:

      Moana-Roa Mahi Mahi
      • 7 ounces mahi mahi
      • 2 cups coconut cream
      • 1 cup cooked taro leaves*
      • 2 cloves garlic
      • 1 onion, diced
      • Zest of 1 lemon
      • 1 tbsp fresh ginger slivers
      • Salt and pepper to taste
      • Two green bananas
      • Two taro roots, diced
      • Vegetable oil
      * No, you cannot get taro leaves at Safeway in Grass Valley, CA. But Gourmet Sleuth told me to substitute spinach, so that's what I did. I know it's not authentic, but really, I just have to let it go.


      Cook Islands Potato Salad

      Famous for its pink color, this is actually one of the signature dishes of the cook islands. This particular recipe comes from Polynesian World Magazine.

      • 12 peeled potatoes, boiled
      • 1 small onion, chopped
      • 1 14-oz can pickled beets, drained
      • 1 cup of frozen peas
      • 1 lb frozen mixed vegetables (I just used more peas, as indicated in other versions of this recipe)
      • 3-4 tbsp chow chow pickle*
      • 3 hard boiled eggs
      • Best Foods mayonnaise
      * Chow chow pickle is American soul food. What it's doing in a Cook Islands recipe, I have no idea. But you can either buy it ( has some ) or you can make it, which is what I did. Though I really don't know what I'm going to do with three jars of chow chow pickle.

      And finally I chose a dessert. It was really a toss up whether I was going to do this dessert recipe or Ika mata, which is a raw fish dish that was just a little too similar to the Oka Popo recipe I did back in American Samoa. So I went for the dessert instead. Here's the recipe, which came from The Cook Islands News:

      Poke (pronounced "Poh-kay")

      • 1 cup starch (arrowroot is traditional, but cornstarch can also be used)
      • 2 cups mashed or pureed banana
      • Sugar (optional)
      • 3/4 cup coconut cream
      Now if you shop in the US, you've probably seen arrowroot in the spice section, in tiny little bottles. You won't be able to cheaply buy enough arrowroot to use in this recipe at the grocery store, but if you are determined to do it the traditional way, you can get it in 1 pound bags from I personally just used cornstarch.

      And now for the instructions, starting with the salad, which has to be chilled:

      First cut the potatoes up into bite sized pieces, then boil until they are just tender enough to pierce with a fork (they should be firm but not undercooked). For me this usually takes about five minutes at a rolling boil.

      Drain the beets and dice. Meanwhile, cook and drain the mixed vegetables. Add the beets, vegetables and potatoes to a large bowl with the onion and chow chow.

      I actually didn't bother to cook my peas; these are still frozen.

      Fold 2 tbsp mayonnaise into the salad, then smooth out the top of the mixture and spread a thin layer of mayonnaise over it. Sprinkle peas over the mayo and then grate the boiled eggs on top of that. Chill until ready to serve.

      Now on to the fish.

      Saute half of the onion with one garlic clove in a small amount of oil. When the onion is translucent, add the taro leaves (or spinach, which is what I used) and 1 cup of the coconut cream.

      Season with salt and pepper and simmer until the leaves are tender. (Taro leaves take some time to cook, while spinach will be ready pretty quickly). Add a squeeze of lemon and set aside, keeping warm.

      Now saute the other half of the onion and the other garlic clove in a medium-sized pot. Meanwhile, rub the fish fillets with salt and pepper and add to the onion and garlic. Pour another cup of coconut cream into the pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until the fish is done (12 to 15 minutes).

      Now heat a little more oil in a small pan and fry one tablespoon of slivered ginger with the lemon zest. Keep stirring to avoid burning the zest. When the ginger is crispy, remove from heat.

      Meanwhile, bring two large pots of water to a boil. Add the diced taro root to one pot and the green bananas to the other (leave the peels on the bananas).

      These are taro roots. They look like hairy potatoes.

      Boil the taro root until it is fork-tender, and the bananas until the skins start to split (they should also be tender). Let cool, then peel the bananas and slice.

      Yes, these were once green.

      Spoon the taro leaves (or spinach) onto each serving plate. Place a piece of fish onto the leaves and then garnish with the fried ginger and lemon zest and some freshly-ground pepper. Now surround the fish with the taro root and banana (called "kinaki" on the Cook Islands). Serve!

      And finally, the poke. Now, I confess the reason I decided to make this isn't because it sounded particularly good to me (it didn't). The main reason is because my kids used to watch this movie that had a line in for which they had a strange misinterpretation (for some reason, they thought "Oh, it's hopeless!" was "Oh, it's poke!"). They used to go around the house declaring "Oh, it's poke!" and then falling down in hysterics. I really don't know why this was so funny to them, but it was pretty funny to us that it was so funny to them. Anyway, when I saw this recipe I imagined myself presenting it to Martin with the words "Oh, it's poke!" And that's why I chose it. Yes, motherhood does strange things to a person.

      Anyway, here's how to make poke:

      Blend the bananas with the starch and 1/4 cup of the coconut cream and mix until well-incorporated.

      Now pour the mixture into a greased baking dish (I actually used little mini tart pans since there wasn't really a whole lot of the mixture).

      Bake for 30 minutes, or until beginning to brown on top.

      Meanwhile, boil the rest of the coconut cream until it thickens a little. Pour the thickened cream over the banana puddings and serve.

      So here's the verdict, starting with the fish.

      We both thought the mahi mahi was a little bland. As it turns out, this was because I completely forgot to add the garnish. I didn't even fry the ginger slivers, and I didn't even realize I hadn't done that until I sat down to write this entry. Damn. So I am actually going to make this again, if only to update my photos and to be able to accurately say that I made this dish. Because without that garnish, I don't think it was complete.

      I will add that it was the first time I'd ever eaten taro, and I felt about the same way about it that I usually feel about plantains (though I've been told that I haven't been using ripe enough plantains). Anyway, the taro was like a potato, only without all the things I like about potatoes. I was surprisingly fond of the boiled green banana, though. It tasted like a mildly sweet vegetable, and not a whole lot like a banana.

      The potato salad was really good and different. I hate peas, of course, but I used them pretty sparingly so they didn't put me off of the recipe. I loved the pink color, and I do like beets so it was overall a nice little side dish. Martin, on the other hand, was as blah about it as he was about the fish.

      As for the poke, well, I liked it about as much as I expected to, which was not at all. The texture did surprise me—I expected it to be kind of gelatinous and it wasn't, it was firm and had an almost bread like texture. But the flavor was just kind of absent. Perhaps if I'd used that "optional" sugar (my bananas weren't as ripe as many versions of this recipe said they ought to be).

      Martin described the poke as tasting "like if you put a piece of bread in a plastic bag with a banana and then left it there for a few days, and then you ate the bread." Which was really a very strange comparison but actually pretty accurate. My advice: sweeten and top with plenty of that reduced coconut cream.

      So that's the Cook Islands. Now on to the next set of islands.

      Next week: The Coral Sea Islands, another non-country.

      For printable versions of this week's recipes:

      Thursday, November 1, 2012

      Recipes from Comoros

      Well, we've certainly been doing a lot of island-hopping in recent weeks. From Clipperton Island to Cocos (Keeling) and then back to Bouvet Island, and now we're landing on the other side of Madagascar in a volcanic archipelago known as The Union of Comoros.

      Comoros was one of those places that fell under European rule during that golden age when countries like England and France were fond of showing up, planting a flag and then pretending like they owned the place. Yeah, that's it: Colonialism. Anyway for Comoros it was France that laid claim to its vast 863 miles of land (which by the way is less than 3/4ths the size of Rhode Island). France held Comoros until 1975. Since then, there have been more than 20 coups or attempted coups, which is the equivalent of one about every 22 months or so. As you can imagine, this hasn't really been good for the overall stability of Comoros, and at least half the people living there are getting by on less than US $1.25 a day. (That's the international poverty line: $1.25 a day. Wait, is there a decimal in the wrong place? Nope. The international poverty line is $1.25 a day.)

      Anyway because of its long history of French rule, the cuisine of Comoros has European influences as well as influences from Arab and African nations. The sauces tend to be spicy and (as with all island nations) much of the cuisine is based on what can be harvested from the sea. I'm still trying to give my husband a break from fish, though, so I wanted to go with a meat dish instead.

      Goat is actually popular on the Comoros islands, so I did some searching locally for someone who sells goat meat since it's not something I've ever tried, and I love new culinary adventures. For some reason, though, even in this rural community, I couldn't find anyone who would sell me a piece of goat meat (something about USDA regulations, who knew). A couple of people offered to sell me a whole goat, but I don't have that kind of room in my freezer and probably wouldn't be willing to invest that kind of money in meat that I may or may not even enjoy. So I gave up on the goat idea and went instead with this dish:

      • 1 inch piece of ginger
      • 1/2 tsp pepper
      • pinch of saffron
      • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
      • 1 1/2 tsp nutmeg
      • salt to taste
      • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
      • 1 lb beef, cut into bite-sized pieces
      • 2 large onions, chopped
      • 4-5 cloves garlic, sliced
      • 1/2 small can tomato paste
      • 1 1/2 tsp garam masala
      • 1/2 cube maggi
      • 1/2 tsp cardamom
      • 1 tbsp margarine
      • 2 cups basmati rice
      This recipe says to serve with a bowl of rougaille, so here's the Comoros version of that:

      • 4 medium tomatoes
      • salt, pepper and chili powder to taste
      • 4 sprigs chives
      • lemon juice
      • 1 shallot
      And of course I had to make this bread, because it sounded really tasty:

      Mkatra Foutra

      • 4 cups flour
      • 1 15 oz can coconut milk
      • 2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast
      • 2 eggs
      • 1 tsp salt
      • Butter
      • Sesame seeds
      First we'll make the rougaille, which is easy and can be made in advance:

      Peel the tomatoes (blanch in boiling water for one minute to make this easier).

      Put them in a food processor and puree (the original recipe said—I think, since it was a translation—to remove the seeds from the tomatoes, but I never do that since the seeds and the flesh around them contain most of the flavor).

      Now slice the shallots thinly and chop the chives.

      Add to the tomato puree. Season with the salt and pepper.

      Now on to the bread:

      First dissolve the yeast in warm water with a pinch of flour. Now add the flour and eggs and mix thoroughly.

      You'll get a kind of breadcrumb texture, since there isn't much moisture in this first step.

      Add the coconut milk, mixing until you get a smooth dough. Let rise for an hour or so.

      Yeah, it's a pretty sticky dough.

      Separate the dough into balls and flatten them with the palm of your hand (you may need to put a little flour on your hands since this is a sticky dough). Melt a little bit of butter into a skillet and add the flattened dough. Sprinkle sesame seeds on top.

      When golden, turn over and cook until that side is golden, too. Remove from heat and lightly butter.

      It's not the most attractive bread, but dang it's tasty.

      Now, I changed a couple of things with the preparation of this recipe because the translation was, um, challenging. It told me to moisten the bottom of a baking griddle with lightly salted water, but that seemed weird so I just used butter. Then it told me to "pour" the dough into a ladle, which wasn't possible because this dough was too thick to pour. Then it was supposed to cook on low heat in the ladle, which I guess is a mistranslation of some other cooking vessel because one would not normally cook something in a ladle. Then I was supposed to put the bread on a grill when it was "dry," which also didn't make any sense. So I improvised.

      Next the pilaou:

      In a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle, mash the first six ingredients together with 3 cloves of garlic and about 1/8 tsp cloves.

      Meanwhile, cook the meat lightly in a pot with a small amount of sated water. In another pot, sauté the onions and the rest of the garlic.

      Add 1/3rd of the crushed spices to the meat (there should be a little bit of water remaining in the pot, but not much). Add half of the tomato paste and 3/4 tsp garam masala, mixing well. Turn off the heat and cover. Set aside.

      Wash and drain the rice (the water should run clear).

      Now in yet another pot, boil about 2 cups of water and add the Maggi, the rest of the cloves, another 1/3 of the crushed spices and the rest of the tomato paste.

      In yet another pot, (yes you will be doing dishes for the rest of your life), melt 1 tbsp of butter. When the butter coats the bottom of the pan, add the rest of the crushed spices, 3/4 tsp garam masala and the rice. When the rice is hot, add the water with the spices in it. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook for 10 minutes or so, or until about half of the water has been absorbed, then add the meat. Cover and continue to cook.

      When the rice is almost done, add the garlic and onions and the cardamom. Stir well and cover. When the rice is tender and the water is absorbed, remove from heat and serve.

      I liked the pilaou better than anyone else in my family did. I thought it had a nice flavor and was a good, filling meal. Martin was pretty ho-hum about it, though, and the kids liked it with about the same enthusiasm they show for most of what I cook, which is not very much. That's because the pilaou was completely and utterly overshadowed by the mkatra foutra, which was probably one of the top five best bread recipes I've ever made. I was surprised by how little I could taste of the coconut milk but that didn't stop me and everyone else in my family from really enjoying this bread. I ate it to the point where I was actually starting to feel ill. I made a ton of it and there wasn't one crumb left by the time my family was finished with it.

      As for the rougaille, well, I have no idea. I forgot to serve it. I'm quite sure Martin wouldn't have eaten it anyway since it was basically a gazpacho, and he despises gazpacho. I did, however, eat it as a salsa with some tortilla chips the next day and it was pretty good like that. Not very authentic, I know, but I do hate to waste food.

      Next week: The Cook Islands. Yes, more islands.

      For printable versions of this week's recipes:

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