Monday, May 24, 2010

Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo may be the most devastated country on the planet right now. In a long list of 'worsts', Congo takes quite a few titles. Its long history of colonialism, political turmoil, and civil war makes Congo the site of the most violent conflict since the second World War. Over five million are said to have died in the fighting since 1998. Human rights groups have consistently named it as the worst place in the world to be a woman. Until Zimbabwe overtook it recently, Congo had the lowest GDP per capita in the world at just under 300 dollars. In short, Congo is pretty close to the bottom of my list of places I need to visit (although I'll still put it above Florida).

With its crippling economic and political realities, Congo has not had the chance to create a distinct cuisine for itself. Like much of Central Africa, the food of Congo is more about necessity than taste. Most of the food tends to be cheaply made and quickly prepared with minimal adornment. We tried to stick to this tradition as best we could and cooked the entire meal (except the dessert; which is in no ways authentic) over the open flame of our cheap gas grill. Nothing involved much cooking time, and all the seasonings were from raw ingredients that involved no cooking of their own. Even with these limitations it's still possible to turn out a great meal from a semi-functional grill. We're happy to say that Congo was nowhere close to being our worst meal.

Grilled Okra Salad

It just wouldn't feel right to not include okra in a fully grilled meal. Luckily okra is also amongst the most popular vegetables in the D.R. Congo. It also happens to be one of my favorite vegetables to grill whole. The skin crisps up beautifully and the slimy inside of the okra doesn't cover the rest of the food in goo. I'm really not sure why chopped okra is so popular. It was only recently I discovered that frozen okra is way cheaper than the fresh stuff, and I've been happily buying it in large bags for the past several months.

1 lb whole okra (frozen is fine and often cheaper)
2 medium white onions peeled and cut in half
2 red peppers seeded and cut in half
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Toss the vegetables with a bit of olive oil and salt and set aside in a bowl.
2. Heat your grill to about 450-500 degrees and grill the vegetables until they are nicely crisped and browned on all sides.
3. Scrape any burnt bits off the peppers and cut them into long slices. Thinly chop the grilled onion. Combine everything in a large bowl dressing with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper to taste.

Mustard Chicken

While researching Congolese food, I was happy to find that mustard became quite popular throughout Central and West Africa during the colonial era due to the heavy French and Belgian presence in the region. Here it makes a great marinade for the simplest of grilled chicken dishes.

1 whole chicken cut in half with spine removed.
1 cup whole grain prepared mustard
Salt to taste

1. Marinate the chicken halves in mustard for at least two hours or overnight. Be sure to rub it in well with your hands!
2. Sear the halves over high heat on the grill to crisp the skin. Reduce the heat to medium low. Cover and cook for 30 minutes flipping halfway through.
3. When chicken is fully cooked remove and cut them into serving portions. Salt to taste. Our guests also loved the ginger, coconut sauce on them.

Grilled Fufu (corn mush)

As we have demonstrated in other posts, corn mush is popular in pretty much every corner of the globe. And it is especially popular in Central Africa. We decided to go with the whole grilling theme of the meal and cooked these over the open flame as well. They tasted fine, but began to break apart when left over the flame for too long. Perhaps if we use some eggs in the mixture in the future this might hold together better during the actual grilling.

1 cup corn meal
2.5 cups water
1 tsp salt

1. Boil the corn meal, water and salt over a medium low flame for about twenty minutes; adding more water if it begins to stick.
2. Allow the mixture to cool for at least two hours. Form the corn mush into golf ball sized balls, press them somewhat flat to the thickness of about 1 cm, and lay them aside on a greased tray.
3. Grill over a medium flame about five minutes per side. Serve.

Grilled Trout

In many areas of Congo, rivers are still the only means of transporting goods long distances. It should then come as no surprise that river fish are quite popular with the Congolese. We found trout was the cheapest freshwater fish we could find whole at the time we made this dinner. But really, this method of cooking should work with just about any freshwater fish. Just be sure to adjust your cooking times for larger or smaller fish.

Trout: gutted and cleaned (we grilled one for every two people)
Lemon sliced
Salt and pepper

1. Place slices of lemon into the stomach cavities of the fish.
2. Using a fish basket, bake the fish over a high flame for about five minutes per side and remove them.
3. Cut into serving portions and serve with generous portions of parsley, coconut, ginger sauce.

Parsley, coconut, and ginger sauce

I pulled this sauce out of thin air and made it up out of items in my pantry. It's certainly not an authentic recipe, but the spiciness and creaminess of the sauce go well with this style of cooking. No cooking is involved, and nothing here would be too hard find in a Central African market.

1 handful of parsley or cilantro or both
1 can coconut milk
2 inches fresh ginger roughly chopped
1 clove garlic
1 serrano chili or more to taste
Juice of 1 lime
1 tsp salt

Just grind everything together in a blender or processor and set aside until ready to use.

Congo Bars

Despite the name, these cookie bars have absolutely nothing to do with Congo. I'm pretty sure there's some old-timey racism behind the name since they originated in the American South at least a century ago. By the time we realized this, they were halfway made. So we'll include them anyways. We Northerners have always known these as blondies. I'm sorry, Congo. On the plus side they were delicious.

2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick butter cut into squares and brought to room temp
2 and 1/4 cups brown sugar
2 cups semi sweet chocolate chips
3 eggs
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 tsp vanilla extract

1. Mix the butter, eggs, and brown sugar together in a large bowl.
2. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir into a thick batter.
3. Grease a large cake pan and pour in the batter smoothing it out with a spatula.
4. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes or until a toothpick may be inserted into the center and be removed cleanly.
5. Allow to cool for one hour and serve.


This meal fell on one of the warmest days of the year. So we were happy to celebrate a return of decent weather and a chance to grill outside without looking like crazy people. This was also one of the easier dinners we've thrown together. In short it was a perfect start to a long session of summer cooking. You can expect to see the grill in more of our shots for the next several months. And in other news, we signed the lease for a new apartment starting July 1! Soon we'll actually have a dining room in which we can feed our many guests without making them sit on one another! Up next is Singapore, until then: santé!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Turkey is the country I chose for my birthday dinner, so yet again, we did not stick by the rules of the random picking. Sorry about that, but in my defense, I think I made the right birthday choice. Turkish food is, in my opinion, some of the best flavors to ever hit your palate. It's just the right amount of savory, sweet and dishes that sound very elegant without breaking the bank.

Taramasalata: Caviar Dip

Here, as you can see and read, is a perfect example of something that sounds really expensive but isn't at all! Tom and I noticed jars of taramasalata popping up all over at our neighborhood grocers about 2 months ago and our curiosity got the best of us. We bought 2 or 3 jars until we realized how easy it was to make. The caviar used in this dip is that of a carp, which may sound a bit iffy and awful, but it is quite tasty and addictive. Most importantly it is cheap. We definitely made way too much of this and ate it throughout the next week.

3 heaping tablespoons of carp roe (may be found at greek and middle eastern grocers for cheap)
1.5 cups of white rye bread with crusts removed
2 cloves garlic
Juice of 1 lemon
1 cup olive oil
1 cup vegetable oil
3 tbsp. water if needed.
(There is no need to add any salt to this recipe since the caviar contains more than enough.)

1. Soak the bread in a bit of water and squeeze as dry as you can.
2. Add the soaked bread, roe, garlic, and lemon juice to a food processor. Pulse several times to distribute them evenly.
3. Combine both oils and slowly drizzle them into the mixture with the motor running. If the mixture get's too thick simply pour in a few tablespoons of water.
4. Continue adding the oil until a thick mayonnaise-like substance forms. Chill until ready to serve. This stuff kept well in our fridge for two weeks.

Feta and Walnut Dip

It seems that this was the favorite of the two dips. Our guests really gobbled this one up. I barely ate 2 pieces of matza with it before it was all gone. I wasn't mad about this fact, just happy everyone enjoyed it so much. Here's our good friend Marco enjoying it:

2/3 cup walnuts
1/2 pound feta
1/4 cup yogurt
1/3 cup chopped parsley
1/2 tsp ground pepper
1 tbsp olive oil

1. Simply combine all the ingredients in a food processor and blend into a rough paste.

Red Pepper and Chickpea Soup

Let me just say, I love this soup! Tom found and made this recipe about 2-3 weeks before the Turkey dinner and we automatically knew we had to make it again. It is flavorful and includes two of the best soup ingredients: bulgur and chickpeas. Just read through the recipe and tell me that isn't the most Turkish dish ever.

1 cup dried chickpeas soaked overnight
1/3 cup olive oil
1 medium onion finely chopped
2 bell peppers seeded and finely cut
2 tsp dried mint
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
2 cups chopped canned tomatoes
1.5 quarts water
1/2 cup bulgur
1/3 cup chopped mint
1/2 tsp hot paprika or cayenne
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

1. In a large heavy pot, heat the olive oil over medium low heat and add the onion and pepper. Cook for five minutes stirring frequently until the vegetables soften. Add the pomegranate molasses and dried mint. Cook for another minute.
2. Drain the chickpeas and add them along with the tomatoes and stock to the pan. Simmer this mixture covered for an hour or until the chickpeas are tender.
3. Add the bulgur to the pot, and simmer a further ten minutes adding more water if necessary.
4. Before serving, stir in the lemon juice and paprika. Salt and pepper to taste. And distribute the soup into individual bowls. Garnish each bowl with some chopped mint and serve immediately. Steps 1-2 can be done up to a day in advance.

Spinach and Feta Pies: Pide

Tom and I enjoyed these wonderful little pies for the first time while we were in New York City this year. Of course the ones we had were filled with pastrami and mozzarella in true Manhattan fashion. We decided to go with a more traditional and not to mention, less filling version of feta and spinach. The dough was so perfect that the next day, we made another batch with sausage, tomato and mozzarella for dinner.

1 quantity of pide dough (recipe follows)
2/3 cup yellow raisins soaked 15 minutes
1 lb spinach washed
2 garlic cloves chopped
2 tsp salt
1/2 red onion finely sliced
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp ground pepper
Zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
2/3 pound feta
1 egg
1/2 cup milk

1. Divide the dough into twelve even portions by cutting it in half and dividing each half until you have 12 even portions. Cover and set aside.
2. Prepare the filing by blanching and cooling the spinach in batches. Then chop the spinach and mix it with everything else except for the egg and milk.
3. Preheat your oven to it's highest setting. On a floured surface roll out each piece of dough into a long and thin oval of about 13 by 4 inches. Place several tablespoons of the filling in the middle of the dough and fold the sides over without allowing them to touch. Twist the ends securely. The final result should look a bit like a canoe.
4. Mix the egg and milk in a bowl and brush the pides with a bit of the mixture.
5. Bake the pide two at a time in the oven on a large baking sheet for 7-8 minutes a batch. Remove when the crust is a golden brown. (I find it's easiest to prep the next batch of pide while the other batch is baking.) Serve immediately or warm later in a 320 f oven.


2 tsp dried yeast
1 tsp sugar
2 cups flour
4 tbsp oil
1/2 cup warm water
2 tsp salt

1. Soak the yeast in warm water and let rest for ten minutes to activate the culture.
2. Combine everything else either in a food processor or mixer and knead until smooth (about five minutes in the mixer)
3. Place in an oiled bowl and leave covered in a warm place for 1 hour.
4. Follow the assembly instructions in the above recipe.

Pistachio and Spinach Pilaf

The best part of this dish is the use of all the fresh herbs. Pilafs always seem to act as a perfect side to meals, but I think this one could stand alone. It just was a good combination of nutty and fresh flavors and got me a little excited about the upcoming farmer's markets for even better herbs.

1 cup basmati rice
1.5 cups water
1/2 stick butter
1 medium onion finely chopped
1.5 lbs spinach washed and roughly chopped
4 tbsps shelled pistachios
1/2 cup chopped mint
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup chopped dill

1. Melt 2 tbsps butter in a medium sized heavy saucepan. Cook the onions in the butter over low heat until they soften.
2. Add the spinach and stir until it has wilted and reduced.
3. Add the rice and stock and bring to a simmer. Season the liquid with salt and pepper to your taste and cover and cook for 12 minutes over very low heat.
4. Cook the pistachios in a small pan with the remaining butter until they brown. Open the lid to the rice and put the pistachios and chopped herbs on top. Cut the heat and leave covered for 15 minutes allowing the pilaf to steam.
5. Fluff the grains and stir the pilaf to distribute everything. Serve on a a large platter.

Circassian Chicken

This is Turkey's national cold buffet dish. This is what you would you would bring to a picnic and is much like a chicken salad we would make, you know, without the mayo. Personally, I did not enjoy this. I think it would be good actually on some bread maybe with some sprouts and stone ground mustard, but on it's own it is a bit boring. This is probably my American taste buds talking but I think it was just lacking some pizazz. You can see it below with the fork in it.

4 chicken breasts
2 stalks of celery
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 large red onion chopped
1 bay leaf
1 carrot peeled and chopped
1/2 cup parsley
1 sprig thyme
1 tsp peppercorns
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 cup toasted walnuts
2 slices white bread
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp paprika

1. Combine the chicken, celery, carrot, onion, thyme, pepper, and coriander with a liter of water and bring to a simmer. Let cook for 25 minutes and remove the chicken to cool and continue cooking the leftover stock for 25 more minutes.
2. When the chicken is cool shred it with your hands and remove any bones and set aside in a bowl.
3. In a food processor combine the walnut, garlic, cayenne, and paprika. Grind all this and gradually add enough of the prepared stock to make a thick sauce. Salt it to taste.
4. Mix half the sauce with the chicken thoroughly, and top all of this with the rest of the sauce and several dustings of paprika. Serve cold or at room temp.


There are so many interesting tidbits and facts I could share with you about Turkey. The Ottoman and Byzantine Empires, the trade of the Silk Road, the Orient Express, and complicated issues with European and Middle Eastern identities are just the tip of the iceberg. I still think what fascinates me most about Turkey is their road to EEC status and their still pending EU status. I remember having a geography professor my sophomore year telling us that he was betting on 2010 for the year that they finally gain membership. Alas, he was wrong, but it seems to be this struggle that Turkey has with Europe despite having just about equal trade with each other at this point. Someday, Turkey, someday.

As far as the food goes, it is the perfect mixture of Middle Eastern, Balkan and Mediterranean. With this meal, we tried to find the perfect balance of all of these cuisines and produce something that would satisfy and surprise our guests. I think everyone has an idea of what Turkish food is and should taste like, and we'd like to think we exceeded some expectations.

So remember, if you want to see Greek or Roman ruins...go to Turkey.

Up next is the Democratic Republic of Congo. Until then, Sagligina!

Monday, May 3, 2010

St Lucia

Here we are with yet another Caribbean island. Don't worry there's still plenty more of them coming up. St. Lucia's history is very similar to many other East Caribbean islands and involves a succession of French and British colonial rule from the 17th to 20th century eventually leading to autonomy in 1979. This messy colonial history brought a great deal of distant people and cultures to the island (of course not all did this by choice). Today St. Lucia is a popular cruise ship stop and a strong exporter of bananas. The island's food is pretty much what you'd expect from that region of the Caribbean. Fruit, fish, and beans play a dominant role in the dishes whose influences come from just about every corner of the globe.

Cucumber and Avocado Salad

In today's busy world, people seem to forget that cucumbers are actually subtly sweet melons. This salad is centered around the cucumber's sweetness. When eaten without the standard accompaniment of lots of lettuce the cucumber provides a refreshing side to any meal.

2 lbs cucumber peeled and thinly sliced
1 lb avocado roughly chopped
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/3 cup lime juice
1/4 cup olive oil
1/3 cup cilantro
1/3 cup pistachios chopped
1 orange pepper cut into strips
1/2 red onion thinly sliced and soaked for 10 minutes
1 clove garlic minced

Soak the onion and drain it after it loses its bite. Then simply mix everything together in a large bowl, allow to rest for ten minutes, give another stir and serve.

Lentil and Cheese Soup

Simplicity is key to this dish. Beans and cheese are always a crowd pleaser. But it's also quite easy to make way too much of this stuff, but that's ok. It keeps well in the fridge the provided me with a lunch at work for the rest of the week.

2 cups lentils
2 quarts water
4 sprigs thyme
Salt to taste
2 tbsp butter
3 tbsp chives chipped
1/2 cup sour cream
Handful of chopped parsley
Whited cheddar cheese grated

1. In a large pot combine the lentils, thyme, and water. Raise to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and cook for 45 minutes or until the lentils have become tender.
2. Blend the lentil mixture or pass it through a food mill adding more water to thin the mixture if needed.
3. Stir in the butter, chives, and sour cream. Ladle the soup into individual serving bowls and garnish each bowl with your desired quantity of cheese and parsley. Serve.

Fried Biscuits

I was shocked by the simplicity of these biscuits. No yeast or waiting is involved, instead baking powder provides them with a fluffy texture and frying them in oil ensures they'll be delicious.

1lb flour
3 tsp baking powder
2 tsp salt
2 oz lard or butter chilled and cut into thin squares
1 tbsp sugar mixed with 1/4 cup water
Oil for frying

1. Combine everything in a food processor and blend into a gooey ball adding more flour or water if neccessary.
2. Pinch off about a golf ball sized piece of the dough and pat it into a 3 inch diameter round.
3. In a large cast iron frying pan, pour 1/4 inch of cooking oil and heat it over a medium flame.
4. Fry the biscuit rounds in batches about 3 minutes aside or until each side is golden brown. Allow ten minutes to cool and serve.

Green Fig (Banana) and Fish Pie

I guess the big surprise with this dish was that it wasn't disgusting. Still I wouldn't exactly call it tasty. Bananas, fish, and cheese tasted exactly as I thought they would. I guess it's best to say that I'll never make it again. Nevertheless here's the recipe, and you can try for yourself. The green bananas are more starchy than sweet and taste somewhat like mashed potatoes. I'd imagine plantains would make a better substitute. After eating this, you may find yourself wondering why anybody would make this their national dish.

2 lbs green bananas
1 lb tilapia
1/2 lb mozzarella or other melting white cheese
1/2 cup milk
Juice of 1/2 lime
2 red peppers
2 tomatoes thinly sliced
1 medium red onion thinly sliced
1/2 cup bread crumbs
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Boil the bananas in their skins for 20 minutes and set aside to cool.
2. When cool, peel the bananas and mash them in a bowl. Sprinkle the lime juice onto them to prevent them from darkening.
3. Heat another pot of water until it boils, and poach the fish for two minutes. Remove the fish and shred it.
4. Butter a deep pan and smash half the mashed banana on the bottom. Sprinkle half the onion, cheese, tomatoes, and pepper on the banana. Place another layer of banana over this and sprinkle with the remaining toppings putting the cheese on top.
5. Top the pie with breadcrumbs soaked in milk and bake for 40 minutes in a 375 oven or until the surface has evenly browned. Serve.

In Conclusion

When all was said and done and everybody had eaten their fill, there was a lot of untouched green fig pie. I made the mistake of putting cheap swiss cheese on it which I'm sure didn't help this poor dish. I'm sure if a skilled hand made it I might change my mind. Maybe it just needed bacon. Everything else, however, went down quite well and the beans tasted even better throughout the week. Amy actually just requested I make another pot of lentils to get us through the current work week. Up next is the mighty nation of Turkey! Until then, cheers!