A quick, less-than-delicious update

I know I said I was aiming for speedier cooking and blogging, but unfortunately, life has had some very nasty ways of interfering with my plans. I decided what I’d be making for San Marino within a day or two of drawing its slip and bought all my ingredients weeks ago, but since then, my family has experienced a series of crises, including medical news about various family members ranging from “pretty bad, but probably mostly curable with a scary form of treatment” to “very bad, and not at all curable” to “we had the funeral last week.” (That last one was in his late 70s, it wasn’t at all a surprise, and I was not particularly close to him, but any family member’s passing still leaves a hole behind, a chair that should have been filled at family gatherings, and a painful reminder of the mortality of other family members I’m closer to.) And just to top it off, in the midst of all that, my own health problems have been acting up more than usual, which means that I’m in a great deal of physical pain. So, you know, it’s kinda been a rough few weeks, to say the least. I’m stressed, anxious, and exhausted, and thus not really in the mood to cook interesting foods or write silly things about cooking interesting foods. With any luck, my “I can’t wave a magic wand and fix all these awful things, so I have no energy and feel like everything I do is useless” mood will turn into a “I can’t wave a magic wand and fix these awful things, so I’m going to find the energy to do things I enjoy in order to distract myself from all the awfulness for a while” mood sometime soon, but I haven’t quite gotten there yet. So while I fully intend to make my Sammarinese dish as soon as I can, grief and worry and pain may keep pushing “as soon as I can” down the road a little longer while I focus on slightly less lofty goals like “get some sleep” and “eat actual meals rather than either forgetting to eat all day or stress-eating ten mini donuts in a row.”

That said, I’ll offer a little spoiler and tell you that my Sammarinese dish is likely to be fairly epic in one form or another – it may be epically delicious or epically disastrous, but either way, I suspect it’s going to be fun to make and fun to read about. I hope you’ll stick around to see it! (And here’s hoping life decides to ease up on all the unpleasantness soon so that you don’t have to wait too long – and also, you know, because I’d really rather my family and I actually be relatively happy and healthy for a while, but you can root for our well-being because you just want to see what terrible puns and/or ridiculous geeky jokes I’m going to make about my mysterious epic food if you want. I’m cool with that.)

#16: Mauritanian Maafe

See, I told you it wouldn’t take me seven months this time! Managing to get this post up in one-seventh of that time is still somewhat longer than I’d hoped for, but in fairness, my slowness this time was caused in part by the fact that on top of my “normal” problems, I currently don’t have internet access at home, so it’s been a challenge to find times when I could actually write this post. (The reason I don’t have internet access is a long and not particularly interesting story, but the important bit is that it’s supposed to be fixed next week, so hopefully it won’t delay my progress on the next country’s recipe and blog post too very much.)

Anyway, on to Mauritania! This is the first time I’ve plucked a country out of the jar that’s geographically adjacent to a country I’ve already done – in this case, Senegal, way back at #1. And in researching Mauritania, I found that, given that the vast majority of the country consists of the Sahara desert, the Mauritanian population is heavily concentrated in the south – i.e. along the border with Senegal. It was, therefore, not terribly surprising to learn that Mauritanian cuisine and Senegalese cuisine aren’t really very distinct from each other. (In fact, according to Wikipedia, both countries have the same “national dish.” I didn’t actually make said national dish for either one, but I might yet if it turns out it’s also supposed to be the national dish of the Gambia or Cabo Verde or something!)

But what’s rather cool about revisiting the food from that particular area of the world is that it means I get to engage in another first – taking a reader’s suggestion! Or, well, sort of taking a reader’s suggestion, because as it happens, I actually had already pretty much decided to make maafe when I thought, “Hey, wait a minute, didn’t someone suggest this very dish or something like it in the comments for my post on Senegal?” Which, in fact, they had. So thanks, atomtrident, for making me absolutely certain I wanted to make maafe instead of just mostly certain I wanted to make maafe!

I did still have a few decisions to make, though. Since maafe – also known as groundnut stew (and spelled an assortment of ways, including “mafé,” “maffé,” and “maffe”) – appears to be a pretty common meal across much of western Africa, I found a LOT of recipes for it, with a LOT of variations. Think of just about any meat or vegetable, and I probably found a maafe recipe containing it somewhere on the internet. (Well, except for pork. Given that much of western Africa’s population is Muslim and Mauritania itself is supposed to be 99.999% Muslim, it’s not a big shocker that pork wasn’t used in any recipe I read.) I didn’t have any very good way to ascertain which among those recipes was the most authentically Mauritanian, but I tried to lean towards any that specifically described it as being a dish from Mauritania, Senegal, or Mali and away from versions that specifically described it as being a dish from, say, Côte d’Ivoire, since the climates of those areas are different enough that it seemed likely that the vegetable choices in particular would be rather different. (That said, I never promised perfect authenticity here, so if a recipe just said it was from “West Africa” and had an ingredient that sounded tasty to me, I didn’t worry too very much about using it even if I had my doubts about its availability to the average Mauritanian. This is probably not maafe exactly as it’s most likely to be served in Mauritania, but it should at least be fairly close, and fairly close is good enough for me!) The toughest decision I had to make was the choice between meats. The reader suggestion I mentioned above was for chicken maafe, and that sounded pretty tempting, but the recipes that specified the region around Mauritania as their origin generally called for beef (or sometimes lamb) instead, which sounded a little more intriguing, since I’ve definitely eaten at least a couple of chicken-and-peanut dishes before, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever combined red meat and peanuts. So, two choices. Two good choices. Two good choices that I didn’t really want to decide between. Hmm, is there any meme-based wisdom I can once again turn to here?

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Why Not Both girl is pretty much the mascot of this blog at this point, given how often I ignore the title of the project because I just HAD to make two things, gosh darn it.

Now, admittedly, the “why not both” strategy isn’t always the most practical one, but when you do in fact already have both chicken and beef in your freezer and you’ve worked out a recipe in which the meat will be the last thing you add to the stew (thus making it very easy to pour half of the stew into a second pot and put a different meat in each), it’s a pretty persuasive argument! Chicken maafe AND beef maafe it would be, then.

So, let’s stew some peanuts ‘n’ stuff, shall we?

THE PROCESS

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I came pretty close to having the right ingredients in this picture – that counts for something, right? (I have one more tomato than I actually used and I forgot to include the rice, but rice isn’t part of the maafe per se, anyway. It’s just the thing one serves maafe atop, so it hardly even counts. Or at least that’s the excuse I’m going with.)

First up: the meats. I know I just told you that they’re added to the stew last, and they are, but they were sautéed (and then set aside for a while) first. I chopped both varieties of meat into fairly small pieces (the beef stew meat was already cut up, but this package happened to have relatively large chunks, so I cut them in halves or thereabouts) and seasoned them lightly with salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. Then it was time to oil up the skillet and use the Brand-New Ingredient of the Week (where by “Week” I mean “the time period between these entries that is currently quite a bit longer than a week,” but you get the idea), which, in this case, was red palm oil.

When I read about red palm oil, I found it described as both “strongly flavored” and “an acquired taste,” which made me a bit trepidatious, but acquiring acquired tastes is clearly a significant part of the point of this blog, so red palm oil it would be. Since it was also frequently described as a “superfood,” I correctly guessed that I could find it at the local kinda-pretentious-supposedly-healthy-food type of grocery store without too much trouble. Like coconut oil, red palm oil is solid at room temperature. Unlike coconut oil, red palm oil is also bright orange. It resembled nothing so much as canned pumpkin – which is slightly bizarre, because when I tasted a little bit of the strongly-flavored-acquired-taste oil, it also tasted like nothing so much as canned pumpkin (or some similar sweetish squash). Given that oil palms are not, to the best of my knowledge, related to squashes, that was unexpected to say the least, but not unwelcome, since (a) I like pumpkin a lot, so acquiring that taste didn’t seem too challenging, and (b) one of the ingredients I was using in my stew was sweet potato, so it’s not like I was going to think, “Oh no, this oil will make my stew taste like it contains a mildly sweet orange vegetable associated with fall harvests!” (Incidentally, using a sweet potato rather than a genuine African yam is one of the ways in which this recipe isn’t quite authentic – but I prefer to consider it one of the ways in which this recipe is very authentic, because quite a lot of sources suggested that the vegetables one should put in maafe were basically “whatever’s available and sounds good,” two conditions which sweet potato easily met as far as I was concerned. So there!)

So anyway, into the skillet went a largish scoop of red palm oil (enough to thoroughly coat the bottom of the pan). And while I just told you that as a solid it was bright, pumpkin-like orange, it transformed a bit as a liquid, creating an effect I found rather delightful:

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It’s like I’m cooking in a pan made of solid gold! Except without the part where that would cost a truly insane amount of money and also possibly give you some sort of horrific heavy metal poisoning if it ever got chipped or scratched. But anyway, OOH, SHINY!

Red palm oil was definitely the most attractive oil I’ve ever sautéed anything in, so I felt like I was off to an auspicious beginning. Next it was time to throw in the first of my meats. I started with the chicken, although the order didn’t particularly matter – while I was using the same skillet for both meats without washing it in between, the other strong flavors in this stew meant that I wasn’t really worried about a little bit of chicken getting in the beef maafe or vice versa. (This is also why I only used beef broth and not both beef and chicken broth – once the broth is mixed in with everything else, I don’t believe one would taste any significant difference between chicken maafe made with beef broth and chicken maafe made with chicken broth, so I didn’t feel the need to open a second carton of broth when one would do. And keeping my two varieties of maafe separated from the point when the broth is added would have been much more of a pain in the butt than keeping them separated from the point when the meat is added, and I prefer to avoid butt-pains whenever possible.)

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Painless-butted meats being sauteed. Well, maybe not exactly painless-butted for the cow, since that may possibly be its butt that I’m sauteing, but I would certainly hope that it wasn’t feeling any pain by the time said butt was converted into beef chunks, anyway. (P.S. It continues to annoy me that WordPress won’t let me use accented letters in captions, so “saute” loses its accent every time I write it here. Grumble grumble.)

Once I’d sautéed both meats (adding another scoop of red palm oil before I put the beef in) until they were nicely browned – or nicely yellowed in the chicken’s case…

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Look at the chicken pieces, look how they shine for yooooouuuu, and all the things that yooouuuu doooo, yeah they were all yellow! (And also kinda pumpkin-scented.)

…I set both meats aside and got to work on the veggie side of things. Which started, as it so often does, with chopping some onions. (I also chopped my tomatoes, sweet potato, and cabbage at this point, but they got to sit in bowls by themselves for a little while before I actually used them.) Then yet another generous spoonful of red palm oil went into the skillet, followed by said onions.

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Look! It’s the picture that appears in basically every non-dessert recipe on this blog, but now in an exciting “kinda yellow” variation!

While the onions were softening up, I grated a little ginger, and then added it and the minced garlic to the skillet as well. Once the onions were moderately soft (not fully soft, since they were going to simmer in the stew soon, and that would finish the job), I removed the pan from the heat and set it aside along with the chicken and beef.

Next up: making the actual peanut base of the stew. Truly traditional maafe would require me to grind a whole bunch of peanuts by hand, but given that you can find an assortment of jars of ground-up peanuts at almost any grocery store (at least in the US), every recipe I found agreed that you should simply use peanut butter and spare yourself the hassle. (The one catch: you do need to use natural, unsalted peanut butter, i.e. the kind of peanut butter that has exactly one ingredient, since this is a direct substitution for ground peanuts and not for ground peanuts + salt + sugar + soybean oil and so forth. You can, however, totally choose creamy or chunky based on your personal preferences; I went with creamy, but either would work just fine.) I stirred my peanut butter well to mix the oil that had separated out back in, and then measured out a somewhat generous cup of it. Into a pot it went, along with one last spoonful of red palm oil and roughly a cup and a half of the beef broth. (Much more broth will be added later, so you don’t need to be especially precise here.)

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Okay, so, I know this kinda looks like either some weird fungal growth or a horrifying one-eyed sea monster rising up from the depths of a soup pot to swallow you whole, but it really is just peanut butter, a floating scoop of red palm oil, and beef broth. It will not eat you, I promise.

I stirred that together well – and I really wish I’d taken a second picture of that pot as I did so, because the peanut butter and broth take their time about mixing, and so stirring it creates hundreds of swirly little peanut-butter tendrils, which was actually pretty cool looking. (And, admittedly, a little bit like the horrifying sea monster had hundreds of tentacles propelling its terrible bulk through the dark waters of the beef broth after it awakened from eons of slumber to devour mankind. Iä! Iä! Peanut butter fhtagn!)

Ahem. Anyway, I then moved my definitely-not-a-fearsome-elder-god pot onto the stove, set the burner to roughly medium heat, and let it heat up and melt together, stirring it constantly. At that point, it definitely ceased to look like any sort of monster and mostly looked like a pot of liquefied peanut butter. Once that had had been gently simmering for four or five minutes, I stirred in the tomato paste, and then continued cooking and stirring for another two minutes or so. Then in went the chopped tomatoes, which changed the look of the dish from “liquefied peanut butter” to “the bizarre lovechild of a peanut butter sandwich and queso dip.”

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The love that dare not speak its name…possibly because it didn’t know how to pronounce “maafe.” (It’s MAH-fay, or so Google tells me.)

I brought the mixture back up to a simmer, and then added the chopped onion mixture and all the herbs & spices, along with some more broth to keep the consistency about the same – i.e. a thickish but still easy to stir liquid. (Well, okay, I actually added about half of the onion mixture, realized that the onions and broth were going to end up filling the pot nearly to the top and that it was therefore very stupid to keep using the smaller of my two available pots at this point in the recipe seeing as I was going to end up putting maafe in both pots anyway, poured everything into the bigger pot, and THEN added all that stuff. I mostly mention this because the next photo is obviously of a larger pot and I didn’t want you to think I was a wizard with the ability to magically alter the shape and size of pots. Although, come to think of it, convincing my readers I’m a wizard could be pretty useful. I could say things like “Give me money, and lo, I shall magically transform it into books, games, and chocolates!” Never mind, I take it all back, I’m totally a wizard. Yep! Super wizardy over here! If ever a wonderful wiz there was, that’s me! I fight Balrogs and/or play Quidditch and/or kill Red Court vampires and/or get followed everywhere by The Luggage and/or have a very high INT score, depending on your personal wizard preference!)

So, as I was saying, after I moved the peanut butter mixture to a bigger pot magically transformed the shape and size of the pot with my amazing wizard powers, in went the onion mixture, broth, and seasonings. I wasn’t at all precise about the seasonings, but just started with a pinch of each and then taste-tested and added another dash or pinch or smidge as needed. And once all those things had been added and the mixture had been brought back up to a gentle simmer, the maafe went from looking like the lovechild of a peanut butter sandwich and queso dip to looking like the lovechild of, well, queso dip and queso dip, because it looked so much like a chunky queso dip that it was almost weird to look at it and smell its very definite peanut aroma at the same time.

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See what I mean? It’s like a mystery written by someone doing a particularly cheesy Irish accent: The Case o’ the Counterfeit Queso! (Okay, that was bad even for me.)

That got to spend another ten minutes or so at somewhere around a medium or medium-low heat, I think (I forgot to write that bit down, but whatever, basically just cook it at a not-super-hot temperature until it looks like a somewhat less chunky queso dip because the tomatoes and onions are softening up and getting soup-ified and you’ll be fine), being stirred occasionally. Then it was time for the rest of the veggies.

As I mentioned before, there aren’t really any “wrong” vegetables to put in maafe as far as I could tell from the recipes I saw – pretty much everyone seemed to have their own list of vegetables, which varied tremendously from recipe to recipe. Since my impression when reading about maafe was “this is basically West African comfort food, isn’t it?” I opted for two vegetables that appeared on multiple people’s lists and particularly evoked “hearty, comforting stew” to me: sweet potato and cabbage. You could totally use just about any reasonably stew-able vegetable, though – white potatoes would be fine, as would carrots, celery, okra, squash, and so forth. You could also stop after stewing the vegetables and just serve up vegetarian maafe (assuming you used vegetable broth rather than beef or chicken broth, of course). That’s a perfectly valid and authentic option, and I think it’d work very well. (I actually halfway considered putting the “vegetarian” category label on this post even though my recipe obviously contains meat, because adapting this dish to be vegetarian really is just a matter of “don’t put in the meat.” I decided against it because I feel like if I were a non-carnivorous newcomer to this blog, I clicked on the “vegetarian” category in the sidebar, and the first thing that came up was a meaty stew, I’d be a bit annoyed, but if you’re vegetarian or vegan and trust me not to lead you astray, do please consider this recipe to be secretly tagged for you!)

Anyway, if I hadn’t already actually chopped these earlier, I’d tell you that I chopped up my potato and cabbage at this point, but mostly I just took a picture of them at this point so I could show you the size of the chopped pieces.

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They’re about THIS big. Well, okay, technically they’re significantly bigger, because I resize these photos so they fit on the page (and so they don’t use up all of my storage space on WordPress with giant image files) and I do not, in fact, have bowls that are only about 300 pixels in diameter, but if you assume the white bowl is in fact a normal bowl-sized bowl, which it is, they’re about as big as that would then make the chunks of potato and cabbage. (To be slightly more helpful, I’d say the potato chunks were probably each about a centimeter or so across.)

Into the stew they went, which finally made it stop looking like queso dip.

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Well, unless you put cabbage and sweet potatoes in your queso dip. Which you might, I suppose, but it doesn’t seem like that would taste very good. Of course, I’ve had people say “it doesn’t seem like that would taste very good” about a few of the dishes on this blog before they tried them, and so far they’ve happily retracted that evaluation every time, so who knows? Maybe sweet potato and cabbage queso dip is amazing and I’m just too unimaginative to realize it!

The stew then got to simmer for a good long time, with more broth being added periodically to keep things at the right consistency. Again, I didn’t remember to write down the specifics of how hot the stove was or how long this cooked for, but what matters is “medium to medium-lowish heat” and “until the potatoes are mostly cooked, as determined by scooping one potato chunk out of the stew and seeing how much it squishes when you press a fork on it.” By the time the potatoes were moderately squishy, that meant the tomatoes, onion, and cabbage had all softened up (or outright dissolved)…which also meant that I was back to “this seriously looks like queso dip, you guys” territory:

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Seriously! (Although I think it at least looked LESS like queso dip at this point, both because you can kinda see potatoes and cabbage just under the surface and because the increasingly dissolved tomatoes had darkened the color of the stew a bit. But still, if you saw this picture without any context, I bet many of you would think this was something to dip a nacho in. Which I suppose it might actually be, if you wanted it to be; unlike cabbage-and-sweet-potato queso, maafe nachos sound a little weird but not outright unpleasant.)

I did a bit more taste-testing and seasoning, and then it was time to divide and conquer! Or, uh, divide and put beef in one pot and chicken in the other, but in a conquering sort of way? Something like that. And I’m sure you’ll be positively shocked to learn that the next step is to keep simmering it for a while, stirring occasionally, and adding broth as needed – you know, pretty much the exact same step as after every other addition to this stew, because it’s stew and “simmer a bunch of stuff for a while” is pretty much how you make stew.

So, the meat went in…

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Meat meets meetly meted out maafe!

…and then simmered until it was nice and tender, the sauce was at an ideal consistency (thick enough to stay together on top of rice when it’s served, thin enough to mix into that rice easily once you start eating), and the potato test I mentioned before yielded a result of “totally squishable” rather than “moderately squishable.” (Given my differently-shaped pots, I had to cook the beef maafe and the chicken maafe at different temperatures to achieve the same effect in the same amount of time, so the beef in its wide pot was at medium-low and the chicken in its narrower pot was at medium to medium-high. As long as the maafe in your pot of whatever size is lightly bubbling, you’re doing it right!) While my two pots of maafe were simmering, I used one more pot to cook up some rice, and when my maafe-pots looked less like they were full of a bunch of fully distinct items in a sauce and more like, well, stew…

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Cheerfully orange (and very peanutty-smelling) stew!

…it was time to serve them up and dig in!

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(I think that top picture is chicken maafe and the bottom one is beef maafe, but honestly, it’s pretty hard to tell just by looking at it once it’s all covered in peanut sauce.)

THE VERDICT

So, you know how I mentioned that my impression of maafe just from reading about it was “West African comfort food”? Apparently I form good impressions, because that’s exactly what it tasted like. I mean, I suppose I can’t swear to it specifically tasting “West African,” but the “comfort food” part was right on the money. It’s rich and hearty and very tasty, but less in a “wow, this is amazing gourmet cuisine” way and more in a “wow, this is exactly what I want to be eating on a cold night when I’m feeling a bit down” way. I admit that I was a little more uncertain about the potential deliciousness of this recipe than some I’ve done for this blog – I mean, I never really questioned whether “caramel custard topped with wine-infused meringue” or “artichokes stuffed with bread, olives, capers, and garlic” were going to be tasty, because those basic descriptions alone were enough for me to safely assume I’d like the result. “Beef or chicken in a peanut butter and tomato-based stew” didn’t come with that same “well, obviously I’ll like this, since it’s impossible for that combination to be bad” guarantee in my mind, but in the end, I liked it every bit as much as either of those two dishes I just mentioned. (Honestly, maybe even more – those were both much flashier to look at, certainly, but they’re more “food to wow your guests” and not so much “food to stick to your ribs and make you feel warm and fuzzy inside.” There’s a lot to be said for good comfort food!)

As for the obvious question: which was better, beef maafe or chicken maafe? Of the three people who ate it the night I made it, one voted for beef (but still liked the chicken a lot), one voted for chicken (but still liked the beef a lot), and one (me) voted for “I just can’t decide – they’re both really good!” I did, however, amend that very slightly in the days afterward when I ate both again as leftovers. My true, final verdict as to which one was my favorite is, I think, “chicken, but only just barely.” If chicken maafe and beef maafe were somehow given legs and made to run a race to determine my approval of them, it’d have a photo finish, but chicken would end up winning by a nose. (Or maybe a beak?)

If I make this again, which I almost certainly will, I don’t honestly think there’s anything I’d change. I might experiment with different vegetables just for the heck of it, and I’d probably only make either beef or chicken maafe (and would almost certainly decide which of them to make entirely on the basis of “which meat is already in my fridge or freezer?” because they really are both very nearly equally delicious), but there’s nothing about this recipe that feels to me like it needs fixing.

THE INGREDIENTS

(Since several of the quantities I used, especially of the spices, were “to taste” or “as needed,” this is going to look like a very imprecise list, but I think maafe is flexible enough that just about anyone’s “to taste” will still result in something tasty! You don’t really need to be very precise with any of the measurements below, to be honest – this is the sort of dish where just throwing in approximately the right amount will almost certainly turn out just fine for pretty much every ingredient.)

3/4 lb beef stew meat
3/4 lb chicken breast, chopped
a few tbsp red palm oil
2 large onions*, diced
1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced
1 cup natural, unsalted peanut butter
roughly 1/4 of a medium-sized cabbage, chopped
5 Roma tomatoes (or roughly 2 1/2 cups diced tomato)
roughly 4 cups beef broth (slightly more or less as needed)
1/2 tbsp freshly grated ginger
2 tsp minced garlic
2 tbsp tomato paste
pinch thyme (more or less to taste)
pinch parsley (ditto)
pinch white pepper (you get the idea)
pinch black pepper (as above, plus more sprinkled on the meat)
pinch cayenne pepper (as above, plus more sprinkled on the meat)
pinch salt (as above, plus more sprinkled on the meat)
rice

*(My large onions were unusually large, so I actually ended up using more like 1 3/4 huge onions, but 2 more typical large ones is probably about right. And, again, precision doesn’t matter greatly here, anyway.)

Stay tuned for the next country’s announcement, and (hopefully not too very long afterward) the next country’s recipe post!

#15: Samoan Koko Alaisa

Guess what? I’m not dead!

Given how many months have passed since my last update, though, I wouldn’t blame you if you thought I was dead. The last year has contained an irritating assortment of problems and responsibilities requiring a lot of time and energy on my part as well as some new and highly unpleasant health issues, so both cooking and blogging have had to take a backseat for a while. This project will probably continue to fall lower on my priority list than I’d ideally like it to for some time yet, but I’m hoping that things are starting to improve enough that I can at least do some cooking and blogging again, even if updates are still slower and more sporadic than I originally intended.

Accordingly, I finally made a Samoan dish! Hooray!

When I started researching Samoa and its cuisine, I quickly learned two (possibly related) facts:

  • Samoa has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world.
  • In online search results, recipes for Samoan desserts vastly outnumber recipes for any other element of their cuisine.

Actually, let’s add a third fact:

  • Samoan desserts almost universally sound freaking delicious.

A lot of why Samoan desserts sound freaking delicious is that the majority of them seem to contain some combination of coconut, caramel, and chocolate (which, incidentally, means that the non-local name of my favorite Girl Scout cookie suddenly makes a lot more sense). Deciding which one to make was exceedingly difficult. I finally narrowed it down to two contenders (one chocolate-based dessert, and one caramel-based dessert) but choosing between them was pretty much impossible, because I wanted to make both of them. Given my aforementioned lack of time and energy, though, that unfortunately wasn’t very feasible. So in the end, the decision simply came down to the fact that one of them was significantly quicker and easier to make than the other.

But, you see, I still really, really want to make that other dessert. I’ve already figured out my recipe for it and everything. So here’s the deal: I’ll go ahead and tell you about the dish I actually made and move onto the next country afterward as usual, but there may someday be a “Samoa, revisited” post when and if I actually get around to making that second dish. Assuming I pull that off somewhere down the line, I hope you won’t be too very upset if I break the rhythm of these posts to tell you how to make a bonus deliciously decadent-sounding dessert. (No promises, though, since I still have 182 other countries to get through!)

So, since I’ve already made you wait far too long to read about Samoan food, let’s get right down to business, shall we?

THE PROCESS

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Not too very many ingredients in this one, because sometimes five is all you need. (Well, okay, six, because there’s also water, but as usual, I’m pretty sure you all know what water looks like even if I don’t photograph it.)

As you may have guessed from the “koko” part of this dish’s name, this is the chocolate-based dessert rather than the caramel one. (Technically, in Samoa, it appears that this is a chocolate based dessert/breakfast/snack/general excuse to eat chocolate. Samoans seem like very sensible people.) I was pretty pumped about making something chocolaty, since chocolate is delicious and it hasn’t made an appearance in this project until now.

Unfortunately, I had to do things a little bit incorrectly right from the start, because the recipes I found for koko alaisa almost all emphasized that if one couldn’t use real, authentic, fresh Samoan cocoa, one should at least use especially high-quality cocoa. I don’t think Hershey’s really qualifies, but I couldn’t quite justify buying a whole new container of cocoa when I already had a full one at home. (Hershey’s may not be high-quality, but it’s perfectly adequate for making nice, gooey brownies, which is its primary function in my house.) I also had to substitute orange extract for orange leaves, because the Midwest is not exactly known for its abundance of orange groves. There’s probably a store that sells orange leaves somewhere around here, but since the whole reason I picked this dish over the other one was that it wasn’t going to take me a ton of time and effort, I wasn’t particularly inclined to go on an wild goose (or wild orange leaf) chase around town.

Anyway, what I’m making here could essentially be described as “chocolate rice soup.” I began my chocolate rice soup by putting the rice and water into a pot, turning the heat up to high, and waiting for it to boil.

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I sometimes like staring intently at pots just before they’re about to boil, just to be contrary. You can’t tell me what to do, proverbs!

I let the rice boil for a minute or two before turning the heat down to medium and adding the next ingredients. First, the coconut milk:

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That coconut milk is all over the pot like white on rice! Literally! Because it’s white! And it’s on rice! I’m explaining the joke! It is a very funny joke! You can tell by all the exclamation points! I’m sure you are very glad that I’ve returned to add more brilliant jokes like this to your life!

Then the orange extract, which doesn’t get its own picture because (shockingly) adding a tiny amount of a clear liquid to the pot didn’t actually make it look any different.

Next, it was time for the cocoa. In order to make it blend more easily and not clump up too much, I mixed it with some water to make a thick, gooey liquid before pouring it in. You don’t really have to do that, though. Pouring it in directly is just fine; you’ll just most likely want to pour it relatively slowly and stir it as you go so you don’t end up with congealed cocoa-blobs.

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Note: while this looks like something you would want to lick off the spoon after you’ve poured the contents of the bowl into the soup-pot, because NOM NOM NOM CHOCOLATE, it is important to remember that you have not actually put any sugar in this bowl and licking the spoon will therefore actually make you go “blech” rather than “NOM NOM NOM.” (I may have learned this the hard way. Like I said, cocoa in my house usually gets turned into brownie batter, so turning it into something that looks very much like brownie batter activated my chocolate-loving lizard-brain’s MUST PUT BATTER IN FACE reflex. Oops.)

I stirred the cocoa in well, and then did the same with the sugar. (A quick note regarding the sugar: if I’d wanted to make this dish in the most authentic manner possible, I would have put in far less of it. The sources I found discussing koko alaisa generally recommended making it pretty bitter and then serving it with sugar so that everyone can sweeten their individual portion to their liking. Since I knew who was going to be eating my koko alaisa and that none of us would want it especially bitter, I went ahead and made mine moderately sweet. If you or someone you’re planning on feeding is into super-dark chocolate, I’d use something like a third of the sugar I put in. Just make sure you have the sugar bowl available for anyone who isn’t into super-dark chocolate.)

Once the sugar and cocoa were mixed in, I turned the heat back up to medium-high so that the rice could finish cooking.

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Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble! Actually, this took very little toil or trouble, and I have an electric stove, so there wasn’t technically any fire either. And I didn’t put any eyes of newt, poisoned entrails, or dismembered body parts from people belonging to assorted ethnic groups in here, because that doesn’t sound like it would make a tasty dessert at all. (And, you know, I don’t exactly make a habit of cutting Turkish people’s noses off and so forth. I’ve always wondered how on earth Macbeth’s witches came by all that stuff. Was there a Multi-Ethnic Body Parts Emporium in medieval Scotland, or did the witches have to fly all the way to Mongolia just to cut some dude’s lips off? Do you think they ever thought, “Eh, Tartar’s lips are too much trouble; I’ll just use locally-produced lips instead”? What if that was the real fatal flaw in the whole plan and if some witch hadn’t gotten lazy about her lip-harvesting, the prophecies would have been like, “Yo, Macbeth, you’re gonna get your butt kicked if people drag a bunch of branches out to your castle and then some dude whose mom had a C-section fights you” instead of getting all cryptic about it? Overthinking extremely minor literary details is fun!) BUT ANYWAY, there are bubbles! That part is accurate!

At that point, it was just a matter of letting it bubble away until the rice was fully cooked. You may need to add a little more water or coconut milk if your rice takes longer to cook than your liquid does to evaporate, and that’s just fine – this dish is very forgiving. Once the rice is fully cooked, you should be left with something that looks like a very thick soup.

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It’s sort of halfway between a soup and a pudding, really. It’s a…soudding? (That’s almost certainly a better name than a puup, anyway. I don’t think anyone would want to eat puup.)

Then it was time to eat!

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Not puupy at all! And guaranteed 100% Tartar-lip-free!

THE VERDICT

Mmm…chocolate.

The large amount of cocoa in here makes for a very, very rich dessert – much as with the suspiro de limeña that I made waaaaaaaay back on country #7 (almost a year ago, yeesh) this is a dessert where a little goes a long way. In that Peruvian dessert’s case, it was because it was so very, very sweet; the koko alaisa, on the other hand, isn’t especially sweet – I’d say that with the amount of sugar I put in, the sweetness level ended up somewhere around semi-sweet chocolate – but it packs an intense cocoa punch. That little dessert bowl was just about as much of it as I could eat in one sitting. The rice soaks up plenty of chocolaty flavor, the coconut milk makes the texture thick and creamy, and the orange extract adds just enough of its own flavor to make things a little more interesting (in a good way)!

If I make this again (which I very well might – it’s extremely easy and makes for something a little different than most chocolate desserts, and I always enjoy the experience of converting people who say, “I don’t know…that sounds weird” when told about the things I’ve cooked or am going to cook for this project into people who say, “om nom nom nom, okay, I guess it’s not so weird, om nom nom nom”), I think the only change I’d make would be to add just a little more orange extract, because I very much liked the hint of orange flavor and would almost certainly continue to like a somewhat less subtle hint.

Also, two small notes: first, this recipe makes quite a bit of koko alaisa, and since, as I said, a little goes a long way, if you’re not serving a crowd, you may want to halve all the quantities listed below. Second, don’t be alarmed if leftover portions of this soup congeal into a solid mass when stored in the refrigerator – just scoop out however much solidified koko alaisa you want to eat, add a tiny bit of water (or, even better if you have it available, a tiny bit of coconut milk), and reheat it in the microwave, and it’ll go right back to being soup. (I did try some while it was still in solid form, just for the heck of it, but it’s definitely richer and tastier as soup, so I recommend re-soupifying it before eating it.)

THE INGREDIENTS

1 1/2 cups rice
3 cups water (plus more as needed for mixing with cocoa or thinning the soup)
1 can coconut milk (13.5 ounces, or about 1 3/4 cups)
1/4 tsp orange extract
1/2 cup cocoa
1 3/4 cups sugar

Stay tuned for the next country! As I said above, updates are likely to remain sporadic rather than weekly for the foreseeable future, but barring some unexpected crisis, I at least don’t think it’ll take me seven friggin’ months to cook and write about my next dish. *knocks wood*

#14 (Part 2): Andorran Calçots amb Salvitxada

So, there are two slight misnomers in the title of this post. The first, as I mentioned in my last entry, is that this is not, strictly speaking, an Andorran food, but rather a food of Catalonia, Spain, which is right next door to Andorra. And it’s not just a food there – it’s an event. Calçotades are communal festivals dedicated to the mass consumption of the dish you’re about to read about. Since Andorran cuisine is described by every source I encountered as being “essentially Catalan cuisine,” I think this dish is fair game even if its origins lie in a neighboring country. (And Spain is big enough and full of enough culinary options that I’m not exactly worried about having used up one Spanish dish in advance.) More importantly to me when I was deciding what to make: even if it weren’t fair game, it sounded delicious. Grilled onions dunked in a savory roasted tomato, pepper, and almond-based sauce – what’s not to like?

The second misnomer is the word “calçots” itself. The calçot is a specific type of green onion, bred and grown in such a way that the white part is 6-10 inches long. They look like this:

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Source: Wikipedia

Unfortunately, calçots do not, to the best of my knowledge, exist around here as a thing one can purchase. I might have been able to grow some pseudo-calçots in the garden using the technique described in that Wikipedia article if I’d planned this meal months in advance, but, obviously, I did not do so. So my mini-calçotada featured regular green onions and leeks in place of proper calçots. As the “about” page on this blog says, I never promised to be perfectly authentic, but I hope that what I ended up with is at least reasonably close.

So, shall we grill some onions ‘n’ leeks?

THE PROCESS

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I am beginning to think I should rename this blog “197 ways to cook onions and onion relatives.” Or maybe “197 ways to cook onions, unless it’s a tropical country, in which case there are also coconuts.” That might be a little long, though, so I’ll probably just stick with what I’ve got.

Before doing anything with my onions ‘n’ leeks, I needed to make the salvitxada sauce in which they’d be dipped. I began by sticking my dried chili peppers in a bowl of warm water so that they’d become not-so-dry chili peppers. I left them there for about half an hour. While they were soaking, I poured some olive oil onto a cookie sheet, spread it around to coat the bottom, and then put my tomatoes on there. I drizzled a little more olive oil over each of them, and then they went into a 350° F oven to roast for 20 minutes. Soon their skins had split open and they looked nice and roasted.

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Looking at these tomatoes, I kinda feel like an honorary member of House Bolton. I think a flayed tomato would make for a much nicer sigil than a flayed man, anyway, don’t you?

I let my flayed tomatoes cool for a few minutes before doing anything else to them. In the meantime, I added some more olive oil to a small frying pan, heated it up over low heat, and then added my slivered almonds. I cooked them (stirring them around often) for a couple of minutes until they were lightly browned. I dumped the contents of that pan (olive oil and all) into my little bullet food processor and let it chop the almonds a bit more, till they were more like a chunky almond paste than individual nut pieces. (The almonds would get chopped up more once they were mixed into the rest of the sauce, but having them be smallish to start seemed helpful.)

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Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you feel like a…blobby sticky pile of nuts?

Somewhere around this point, the chilis finished soaking, so I removed them from the water, shook them out over the sink a bit (a fair amount of water ended up inside each chili, so pouring it out before proceeding was necessary to avoid making the kitchen any messier than it inherently gets when I’m cooking), and then sliced each one in half lengthwise, removed the seeds, and chopped the peppers into small pieces.

By now, the tomatoes had gone from 350° to “pretty hot, but not so hot that you’d burn yourself touching them,” so it was time to peel off what remained of their skins. (As the Boltons would say, those tomatoes have no secrets now! Although I’m not sure what kind of secrets a tomato would have in the first place. Embezzled topsoil? An illicit affair with a carrot? The buried evidence of a murdered potato?) I then cut each one open, removed most of the seeds (in theory, I should have removed all of the seeds, but that’s a pain in the butt and it’s not like a few tomato seeds were going to harm anything), and piled up the semi-disintegrated, mostly-non-seedy tomato chunks on a plate.

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They’re only a little bit seedy – so I guess that means their secrets are probably just something pretty tame, like hidden folders on their little tomato-computers full of suggestive photos of turnips. Dirty, dirty turnips.

I poured off a little of that liquid you see in the picture, but given that it’s a mixture of olive oil and tomato juice and both of those things are supposed to be in the sauce anyway, I didn’t really try to drain them very much.

Next up: toast! One of my family members expressed surprise at the idea of toast being a significant component of a dipping sauce, but my sources were pretty clear that authentic salvitxada required it. I used the same pan in which I’d toasted my almonds, poured in yet another dollop of olive oil, heated it up to medium-low, and then dropped in my slices of bread (flipping them quickly to make sure each side got a coating of oil – if one side sops it all up and doesn’t leave enough for the other side, just drizzle a little olive oil over it. This is not a recipe in which “too much olive oil” is really a concern). I fried the bread until it was crispy and very lightly browned on each side – or at least that was the plan. In practice, I got called away from the stove briefly while the bread was toasting, and while I was only gone for a very short period, it was apparently juuuuuust long enough to overcook the toast. Hmph. Luckily, I had the whole rest of the loaf to work with, so I just carved off two more thick slices and tried again. The second attempt was much more successful:

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Mmm, toasty! (And the overcooked slices were still pretty tasty for snacking on while I cooked, so it all worked out in the end.)

All my salvitxada ingredients were now ready to go! It was time for the full-sized food processor. Into it went the tomatoes, the chopped peppers, and the almonds. I crumbled one slice of toast in there too (I would end up adding roughly 1/2 to 2/3 of the second slice once I got to the testing-the-consistency stage), and then added the garlic, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, paprika, and mint leaves. It made for a pretty colorful mélange.

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It also made for a pretty excellent-smelling melange, which is always a good sign! (Incidentally, it is kind of annoying that WordPress won’t let me use accented letters in captions. I may have forgotten a lot of my French, but I’m not quite enough of a space cadet to forget how to accent a French loanword between one sentence and the next, even if WordPress wants to make you think I am. Hmph!)

I popped the lid back on and let the food processor do its thing. Once everything looked pretty well blended into a cheerful, bright orange sauce, I did some consistency and taste testing. You can obviously add any of the ingredients that you have more of at this stage, but your most likely additions will be toast (if you only put in one slice to begin with) or olive oil (if the sauce seems a bit too thick – although you want it reasonably thick, since runny dipping sauces don’t work so well). Once I was satisfied with my salvitxada, I let it be and proceeded to deal with the onions ‘n’ leeks.

First up: putting charcoal in the grill and getting it nice and hot. I used mesquite charcoal, since that was recommended as an option in several of the recipes I saw, and also because I like mesquite. (Because I’m not the grill-master in the house, I let that family member handle the charcoal-heating. This would turn out to be a slight mistake on my part, as you’ll see in a moment.)

While the grill was heating up, I chopped the squiggly-root ends off my green onions, chopped both ends off the leeks, and then, since my leeks were pretty fat and I wanted them to get cooked through, cut the leeks in half lengthwise as well.

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Speaking of dirty, dirty vegetables, it was kind of amazing just how much dirt was lurking inside these leeks. I think I ended up washing them about seventeen times, because every time I thought I’d gotten all the dirt, another layer of leek would slip aside enough to expose some soil that I’d missed. So, PSA: wash the heck out of your leeks. (In fairness to leeks, I’ve cooked with them many times before without finding anywhere near as much dirt in them, so I think it was just a matter of these particular leeks being sold without any significant washing beforehand. But still: wash your leeks, because no one likes a dirty leek, except possibly for seedy tomatoes.)

It was now grilling time! And it was also now finding-out-why-I-probably-should-have-supervised-the-grill-setup time. You see, in proper calçotades, the calçots are meant to be cooked over pretty intense heat. If you do a Google image search for “calçotada,” you will see numerous pictures in which the calçots are actually engulfed in flames. Normally, when grilling, you want the flames to die down first so that you don’t blacken the outside of your food without cooking the inside – but blackening the outside is, in fact, exactly what you’re supposed to do as the first step in grilling calçots. Unfortunately, I wasn’t specific enough when I described this dish to the resident grill-master, and he (quite reasonably) assumed that I wanted the flames to subside and the coals to get down to a more typical grilling heat. He also didn’t fully understand that I was hoping to cook a lot of onions and leeks at once, and therefore only put coals in a relatively small section of the grill. Since at that point, adding more coals and starting over would have been pretty difficult and everyone was hungry, I decided to make the best of it.

So, as I said, you’re actually supposed to blacken the outside of your calçots (or calçot substitutes), and then, once they’re blackened, wrap them up (traditionally in newspaper, but I used aluminum foil), move them to a less-hot part of the grill, and let them steam in their wrappers until the insides are cooked, too. Since there really wasn’t any way to blacken them at the heat level I had (and also the hot section of the grill was only big enough to accommodate roughly six green onions or two leek-halves at a time, and I didn’t want to be there all night), I just grilled each set of onions or leeks till they had fairly dark char marks. Then I’d drop the hot veggies onto a foil sheet, wrap them up, move them to the side, and start grilling the next set. I left each foil packet on the grill for fifteen minutes or so, which seemed to be sufficient.

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Those foil packets are getting all up in my grill! Because, see, they’re on the upper part of the grill? Get it? Get it? (Okay, that was terrible even for me, I admit it.)

I’m not going to lie: this was a frustratingly slow process. It was absolutely my own fault for not clearly explaining what I wanted grill-wise (or just setting up the grill myself), but I was getting pretty grumpy by the time I got to the last few green onions, largely because it was well past dinnertime, I’d skipped lunch that day, and I had to keep cooking things rather than eating them. You know those Snickers commercials where people turn into celebrities when they’re hungry? It was like that, except instead of turning into a famous person doing something humorous, I mostly just turned into a grouch who wanted to eat some freaking grilled onions already. Which is a shame, because turning into Betty White or Danny Trejo would have been pretty awesome!

Anyway, I muddled through despite my lack of famous person transformation, and eventually enough of the onions and leeks were done that I could leave the last couple of foil packets to steam without my active supervision and go eat!

Before I get to “THE VERDICT,” though, I have to briefly explain how one eats calçots. The idea is that you peel off the outermost blackened layer (or, in my case, the outermost somewhat charred layer), dunk the remaining onion-y part of your calçot in the salvitxada, and then chow down on hot, smoky, saucy onions. (Also, traditionally, you’re supposed to have them with lots of bread and lots of red wine. I didn’t happen to have any red wine on hand, so I had to skip that part, but I did still have plenty of bread!)

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Look how cheerful that cheerful orange sauce is! Heck, I think it’s practically an ecstatic orange sauce. “Hooray! I’m a mixture of delicious things!” that sauce is saying. Well, since it’s a Catalan sauce, it’s probably saying, “Hurra, jo soc una barreja de coses delicioses!” Or at least something resembling that, assuming Google Translate isn’t completely lying to me and spitting out things about hovercrafts and eels.

THE VERDICT

Pretty good!

I have to give this dish a little bit of a mixed review. The truth is, the onions and leeks weren’t as impressive as I would have liked. The lack of blackening heat meant they didn’t really pick up the smoky flavor they’re supposed to have, and the lack of actually being calçots meant that the oniony part of each green onion was small enough that I only got one or two bites out of each of them, and the leeks were kind of a pain, since cutting them in half meant they really wanted to fall apart and cook unevenly (but if I hadn’t cut them in half, they would have taken approximately 47 years to cook through, or at least that’s what it felt like considering how long they took as it was). Both the onions and the leeks were tasty, to be clear – they just weren’t quite as tasty as I would have hoped. That said, they were certainly good enough that they all got gobbled up pretty quickly – and as for the salvitxada? That was freaking delicious. I was very happy that I ended up having a fair amount of it left over after all the onions and leeks had disappeared, because besides being a great dip for onions and leeks, it was also a pretty great dip for crackers, a tasty topping for grilled chicken, and a super yummy spread to put on slices of crusty bread. I’m not sure I can accurately describe the flavor – I mean, it obviously tastes like roasted tomatoes, chili peppers, almonds, olive oil, mint, garlic, paprika, and so forth, but that combination of flavors isn’t really like anything else I’ve eaten before, so I’m not sure what I can compare it to. Mostly it tastes like “yum.” And yum is a good way to taste!

If I made this again, obviously, I’d want to get the grill set up differently so I could try blackening the green onions and leeks more authentically. But honestly, I’m not sure I’d bother making them again – even if they’d been blackened authentically, I feel like green onions and leeks would never quite measure up to actual calçots. I guess I’ll just have to go to Andorra (or Catalonia) and try the real thing! Sooooo…anyone want to pay to fly me to Europe?

As for the salvitxada, I would definitely make it again. I do think I’d tweak it just a little bit, though. The New Mexico chilis I used had a really lovely flavor, but very little heat – no one would call my salvitxada spicy. (Well, okay, a person who buys “extra mild” salsa might, since it’s probably about as spicy as extra mild salsa. Presumably someone out there thinks extra mild salsa is spicy, given that it exists as a thing one can buy. I kinda feel sorry for that person, though, because man, think of all the delicious Thai and Indian food they can’t eat at all. I don’t even want to imagine a life without Thai and Indian food!) When next I make salvitxada, I think I’ll probably put in three or four chilis instead of just two. That still wouldn’t be hot, by any means, but it ought to give it a little extra kick (maybe up to “mild” salsa level), and I think that would make it even tastier!

THE INGREDIENTS

For the “calçots”:

leeks
green onions

For the salvitxada:

8 plum tomatoes
1/3 cup slivered almonds
2 large dried New Mexico chilis
4 1/2 tsp minced garlic
1 1/2 thick slices of Italian bread (or similar bread)
olive oil sufficient for roasting and frying the roasted and fried things (plus more as needed to get the sauce to the right consistency)
1 1/2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 sprig of fresh mint
generous dash paprika
salt & pepper to taste

A quick note: I recently added a couple of sentences to my “about” page noting that the weekly schedule just isn’t realistic for me right now. While I’m still hopeful that I’ll get back to that schedule eventually, for the time being, rather than cooking and blogging about something from a different country every week, I’ll be cooking and blogging about something from a different country every however-long-it-takes-me-to-cook-and-blog-about-it. I very much hope you’ll keep reading despite the current erratic schedule, because there are definitely many tasty things and many terrible jokes yet to come!