Recipes from your Bulgarian Aunt

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Lela Stanka has embraced our visit to Nikolaevo by cooking up a storm, and I’ve been watching carefully and taking notes. Without further ado, here are her gifts to us (and you), traditional home cooking from Central Bulgaria. We also got a jar of lutenitsa as a gift from Lela Stanka, but that’s ours and we’re not sharing.

Rose Hip Tea

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A ubiquitous recipe throughout European cultures that has been mostly forgotten in the present day but makes the perfect entry into foraging and wild food. Wild rose hips collected in the late summer and autumn are steeped in hot water overnight to make a tangy, floral tea.

– 1/2 cup rose hips (make sure they have no holes)
– 1 1/2 cups water

  1. Rinse the rose hips and cut them in half of crush them. The goal is to break the skin. If you were careless and collected ones with holes, you might find some grubs here.
  2. Put rose hips into water and boil. You can let it steep overnight if you want it to be stronger
  3. Pour through a sieve and serve.

Lutenitsa

This traditional Bulgarian pepper spread is AMAZING. This spread pairs well with practically anything savory, from rice and bread to eggs and meat. It’s like the Ajvar that’s served in much of the Balkans, but better (I may be biased). The best Lutenitsa is homemade, and while we didn’t have time to make it with Lela Stanka, I did get her to share the family recipe:

Makes 12 14-oz. jars of Lutenitsa

– 100 sweet peppers, about as big as an average adult hand
– 2 small or 1 medium-sized eggplant
– 5-6 medium-sized carrots
– 1 8 oz can of tomato paste (note: hers is homemade and contains no salt, so she recommended lowering the salt content below to make up for salt in store-bought tomato pastes)
– 2-3 tbsp salt
– 3-4 tbsp sugar
– 3-4 cloves garlic
– 1 cup vegetable oil

Roast and peel peppers:

  1. This step is pretty time-intensive, so it’s often done in batches or the day before. Put peppers in a covered dish and roast in an oven or pepper-roaster (these are store-bought or homemade ovens common in Bulgaria). Let them steam for 2-3 hours, until limp, then remove and let cool.
  2. Once cool, peel the peppers. Dip fingers in a dish of cold water and peel the skins from each pepper, then pull the stem and seeds from the top of the pepper. Discard skins, pepper stems, and seeds. Place the peeled peppers on a plate or flat surface for a few hours, dumping off liquid from the peppers as it collects.

Make sauce:

  1. Roast eggplants in the oven. Make cuts in their sides before roasting them to prevent explosion, and remove them from the oven when they start to get dark spots and feel soft. After removing them from the oven, put them on a plate to let the juice drain out for an hour. Move eggplants to a new plate and dump the eggplant juice (it’s bitter).
  2. Cut carrots and boil until soft
  3. Combine the veggies. Grind the roasted peppers with the roasted eggplant and boiled carrots. When mostly mashed, add the tomato paste. Put it in a big pot and mix in salt/sugar to taste.
  4. Heat mixture over medium heat, stirring in oil in 1/4 cup amounts. When the mixture starts boiling, reduce to a simmer.
  5. Mash the garlic into a paste. When the sauce in the pot has a jam-like consistency, turn off heat, add the garlic paste, and mix thoroughly.
  6. Transfer sauce to jars and follow your standard steps for canning. Lela Stanka boils her jars for 30 mins.

Village Potatoes

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These are your standard roasted potatoes, but with Bulgarian spices and seasonings.

– 15 small to medium-sized potatoes
– 1 tsp cumin
– 2 tbsp Bulgarian oregano
– 1 tbsp regular oregano
– 1 tsp tumeric
– 1 tsp curry powder
– 1 tsp salt
– Cooking oil
– Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Peel potatoes, and cut into thick ~1 cm wedges. Put potato wedges into a pot.
  2. Put enough water into a pot to cover, add ~1 tsp of salt
  3. Bring potatoes to a boil and cook for ~5 min.
  4. Pour oil into the bottom of a roasting pan. Mix spices together, and then mix into the oil in the pan.
  5. Using a strainer or slotted spoon, transfer potatoes into roasting pan and mix.
  6. Bake at 220-230 Celsius, until golden brown.

Breaded and baked squash

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When you want to eat veggies but don’t want them raw in a salad or boiled and limp, breading and roasting comes to the rescue! The spices used in village potatoes (above) could also be used here.

– 1 large zucchini
– 2+ tsps Flour
– Cooking oil
– Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Peel zucchini and cut in half perpendicular to its length. Then slice lengthwise to make flat, thin strips.
  2. Put 1-2 tbsp oil and 2 tsps flower into a baking pan
  3. Dip zucchini strips into flour, then layer into baking pan
  4. When done layering, sprinkle a couple teaspoons of oil on top, then sprinkle on salt and pepper to taste
  5. Bake in oven at 220-230 C for ~20 min, until zucchini have golden-brown spots
  6. After removing from the oven, season with crushed garlic and salt, then serve with yogurt

Feta cheese bread

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This bread is one of Stoytcho’s favorite childhood memories. It’s like a savory cinnamon roll filled with feta cheese. A few non-traditional twists on this (like adding dill or other herbs with the feta) would probably also be delicious.

– 2-3 tsps sugar
– 1 cube of yeast (1 tbsp yeast; or a standard 2.25 tsp yeast packet in other countries) – water
– Flour
– 3 eggs
– Salt
– Melted butter
– 6-8 oz of Feta cheese (12 oz if you want more cheesy)

  1. Activate yeast. Mash the yeast cube/mix dried yeast into 1/2 cup of water with 2-3 tsps of sugar, and then add 1/4 cup flour. In a separate small bowl, beat 3 eggs with a bit of salt.
  2. In 5-10 mins, when yeast is bubbly and eggs have rested for a bit, mix the two together
  3. Add 7 tbsp of oil into the mix, then add ~2 cups + 2 tsps of water and 2-3 tsps of salt. Mix.
  4. Then add 4-5 c flour and a bit more water (you can tell this is exact), then mix with your hands to remove lumps. It will be sticky.
  5. Then add flour until it reaches a dough consistency but is still a bit sticky
  6. Knead for 5-10 mins
  7. Oil the sides of a deep bowl, then place dough in it and cover with plastic wrap and set aside until doubled. You can also put it in the fridge overnight; it will keep for about 2 days
  8. Oil or butter a baking dish.
  9. Split the dough in half and roll one half into a large round-ish sheet. Then roll the second half out in another place. Spread melted butter on top of one rolled-out piece dough, and then crumble feta cheese over it. Place the other rolled-out piece of dough on top of the butter and cheese and press down slightly to flatten.
  10. Poke a hole through in the center of the dough circle through to the other side. Begin pulling the dough from the bottom side up through the hole, rolling the dough outward from the hole to the edges of the dough sheets. This will form a ring of rolled dough.
  11. Cut the rolled dough into cinnamon bun-like wedges and place in greased baking dish. When done, cover and let rise again for 30 mins to an hour
  12. Preheat oven to 200 C. Put the rolls in the oven and bake for 10 mins, then reduce heat to 175 C and bake for another 20 mins or until buns are golden brown on top. Remove and serve toasty warm, or when they’ve cooled with fresh yogurt.

For those who found the assembly description confusing:

Below is the step-by-step of assembly in pictures. I suspect this assembly method would also work wonderfully for babka, cinnamon rolls, or other such rolled desserts.

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Roll out both halves of the dough. Brush one piece with butter and sprinke feta over it, then place second layer of dough on top.
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Poke a whole and begin pulling layer beneath up and out, rolling dough outward from the center.
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Continue rolling dough outward from the center hole.
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Form into a ring shape, squeezing to make sure distribution of cheese and dough is mostly even.
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Slice rolls from the ring shape and place in greased pan.

Specialty dish : Yaki Curry

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Kokura’s cool shopping center.

Next in our Japan tour we visited Kokura, city of anime, a snazzy castle, strange pasta-headed statues, and, supposedly, one of the best nighttime harbor views in Japan. This last was not true, at least not in any way we could discern. Yes, it’s a harbor, and yes, it has cool flames from off gassing. But it’s dark and quiet with a very industrial feel. Maybe the locals dig it more than we did.

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A claw machine with Neko Atsume cats! Yes, we tried it.

The anime related things were fun. There’s a manga museum and a toy/books/everything-else mega store. There’s statues of anime characters dotting the train station, and statues of figures with pasta for heads on the city bridge.

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The castle is a restoration of an older building, and now it houses a museum on how the city was founded and what life was like before. It seems like every castle-turned-museum in Japan has the same theme, but it’s still interesting to see. The moving diorama is pretty unique.

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The real draw to Kokura (for us) is actually the tiny seaside town of Mojiko. It’s less than half an hour by local train and it is the home of fried Japanese curry. It also has a charming dock-side promenade and interesting drawings of squid by the station, but the curry is what we came for.

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Japanese curry is fairly well known around the world. It’s about as thick as some of the Indian curries, thicker than the south-east asian curries, and it is usually not anywhere near as spicy. It’s very commonly served with breaded fried chicken or pork – katsu kare or cutlet curry.

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Kid’s drawings of squid decorate the outside wall of the station.

In Mojiko they have what they call “fried curry” as their regional specialty. A dozen shops near the station – the center of town – serve it, and from what we could tell they all smelled great. We tried two of the restaurants and they were both amazing.

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The basic idea of fried curry is to take a small dish, chop up vegetables, meats, and whatever other additions you want, cover it in a deep layer of curry sauce, cover that with cheese, and then broil the whole thing until the ingredients cook and the cheese starts bubbling and crisping.

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It’s a great idea. We love the taste of Japanese curry dishes, and this style is right up there with the best of them. It becomes a more varied dish with different flavors and textures mixing and melting together. Sort of like the difference between pasta and lasagna – the same ingredients, but the preparation style changes everything.

You can find recipes for this style of curry online by searching for ‘yaki curry’ or ‘yaki kare’ recipes. This one looks good, but different from what we tried.

If I were to try and recreate what we had that night, I’d go for the vegetarian version. Get together :

2 potatoes
1 eggplant
2 carrots
1 pepper
1 large onion (yellow or white)

Prepare a box of Golden Curry, whichever spicy level you prefer. This is super simple, just follow the instructions on the box. Dice the vegetables and cook them with the curry as the box says.

Take the cooked curry and pour it into a 8×12 ovensafe dish. Some people will put a layer of steamed rice under the vegetables, but ours came with rice on the side, so it’s entirely optional.

Cover the curry with a few oz of shredded mozzarella (and/or cheddar).

Set the oven to broil and put the pan in for five minutes. This will give the cheese a chance to bubble and brown a bit.

Remove from the oven before the cheese starts turning black, let cool for just a minute, then serve frighteningly hot. Our curries came out bubbling and trying to eat them without burning ourselves was part of the experience.

Happy cooking!

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Two Drinks from Indonesia

In our travel through Java we almost accidentally got to try two of the most popular drinks in the country. Despite being widely available and delicious, I think it’s entirely possible to go visit the islands and miss these because they’re so ubiquitous they’re not advertised in any way – they just are.

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The first is a a summertime treat that’s close to a milkshake and perfect during the sweltering heat of .. all the seasons in Indonesia.  It’s called soda gembira, and its key points are : pink, fizzy, and  sweet (overwhelmingly so in restaurants). We had it for the first time at a stall in the near-Prambanan food market, where Natalie decided to try something random for breakfast. I was suspicious but soon ordered one for myself. This drink is childhood-level tasty. The recipe is extremely simple. The amount of syrup and condensed milk dictate how sweet and milky it will be, while more soda water dilutes the taste. We like the soda to be cold to begin with, but it’s not required. Ingredients (for our level of sweetness):

  • 1/8 cup condensed milk
  • 1/8 cup red syrup*
  • 1 cup soda water

Pour the milk into a tall glass, then the syrup. Fill to near the top with soda, throw in an ice cube or two, mix well and enjoy. About the syrup : it’s main quality is that it should be red. In Indonesia the two most popular choices seem to be rose syrup and coco-pandan syrup. I’m pretty sure strawberry syrup (or even strawberry milk) will work just fine, as well as cherry, or really any fruity syrup. If you want to try the real thing, coco-pandan syrup is available in specialty stores and Indonesian markets in the States. You can also make it at home with this recipe.


The second drink is a warm and spicy milk and ginger concoction that remains our favorite drink of the trip. Susu jahe – that is, milk and ginger, is readily available in any of the cities we visited and seems to come in a million variations. Most common is a pre-boiled ginger concentrate and milk, but some stalls serve a crushed root of ginger in a glass of hot milk, while some boil the ginger in the milk for a bit, then serve. They all come out good with the exception of crushed ginger in hot milk – it’s ok, but not gingery enough. STMJ is a semi-available and far better version, and our favorite drink. It takes a bit more preparation and isn’t suited to fast-paced street markets. Nearly every food area will have a susu jahe cart, not so with STMJ. Indeed, we actually only found one – the night market at Blok M, at the south end of the 1 bus line. There the pace is slower and the STMJ cart serves most of the market.

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The acronym stands for Susu (milk) Telur (egg) Madu (honey) and Jahe (ginger). It takes a bit more work than a standard susu-jahe but boy is it ever worth it. Even adding honey to the standard susu jahe is a step up, but the egg takes it to another level.

The ingredients for this one are right in the name :

  • ginger syrup
  • milk
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon honey (or more, this is to taste)
  • ground cardamom, cloves, cinnamon to taste.

We based the syrup on the excellent ginger milk tea recipe from this site, filled with recipes of Indonesian dishes. There are a number of ways to make this, including this recipe which shows a typical process, but we replicated the way we saw it made at the food market.

Start by heating up the ginger syrup and milk to a boil. Pour the two liquids into a glass, about half-way to two-thirds, then stir in the honey. The egg yolk comes last. Pour a bit of the hot mix into a small cup and whisk the yolk in. Keep adding from the ginger-milk until the yolk is foamy and somewhat heated. This is done to prevent the yolk from cooking rapidly and turning into flakes. Lastly, Whisk the yolk into the rest of the drink. The people that were making ours just put the whisk into the cup and spun it between their hands. They also added the amazing touch of torching the top of the drink to give it a creme brulee taste. Sprinkle your choice of spices on top and enjoy.

 

Fried banana crepe cake

Intro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!

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CAKE. If it’s not clear from the photo, I don’t have a whole photography studio at my disposal for food pictures while on this trip. 

For the first time in months, I have a full kitchen at my disposal. Australia has a lot of bananas—markets here are crammed with bananas, including the somewhat forlorn-looking, past their prime bananas that find their way to the discount cart.

Banana-bread was inevitable. But it turns out my tolerance for making banana bread is about once a week and after my first round baking Saint Deb of Smitten Kitchen’s Jacked-Up Banana Bread (https://smittenkitchen.com/2006/11/jacked-up-banana-bread/), we still had 4 more bananas languishing in the kitchen. I returned to Smitten Kitchen for another banana recipe, but the only recipe that wasn’t banana bread was a banana crepe cake recipe that used only one banana. If readers wanted more banana, Deb suggested layering the cake with sliced bananas. That was a no go, since at the time we thought Stoytcho was allergic to raw banana.

 

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But what if I filled it with fried sliced bananas? I googled around until I found a recipe I mostly liked. I subbed the white sugar for brown sugar, because that just seems right when you’re working with bananas. The final cake was a 3 hour process of making crepes, frying bananas, making filling, assembling cake, and finishing up with the butterscotch topping. But it was TOTALLY worth it—with a combination of bananas, brown sugar, and cream cheese, this cake takes the cake.

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Sources:
Smitten Kitchen’s Banana Crepe Cake with Butterscotch
Fried Bananas

Ingredients:

For the crepes:

  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 1 large speckled brown banana
  • 1 to 1.5 c milk
  • ¾ all-purpose flour
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • ½ to 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ¾ tsp freshly ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/8 tsp freshly crushed cloves.

For the filling:

  • 1 8 oz brick of cream cheese at room temperature
  • 1.5 c plain greek yogurt
  • ¼ to 1/3 c granulated sugar (to taste)
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract

For the fried bananas:

  • 4 overripe bananas
  • 3-4 tbsp brown sugar
  • 3 tsp freshly-ground cinnamon
  • ¾ tsp nutmeg
  • neutral oil to fry the bananas

For the Topping:

  • ½ heavy whipping cream
  • ¼ c light brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp (15 g) unsalted butter*
  • ½ c chopped, toasted macadamia nuts**
  • ½ to 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp salt

Process:

I simplified Deb’s recipe a lot because I’m in someone else’s kitchen without access to a mixer/blender/spatulas/etc. It did have a mortar and pestle and whole spices, so we did fresh grinds of all the spices, which was simultaneously better tasting and a huge pain in the hands. The kitchen also lacked standard measuring cups and spoons, but it turns out our camping kit has measurements for cups on the side (yay!) and we just fudged the spoon measurements with silverware in the kitchen. So take all of the smaller measurements with a pinch of salt.

    1. Make your crepe batter: In a bowl large enough to hold all the crepe ingredients, mash banana with a fork until whole thing is wet and there are only a few small chunks. Add melted butter and mix. Then mix in 1 c milk and all of the flour, eggs, brown sugar, vanilla extract, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Cover the bowl and put in the fridge for an hour or more to chill. (Deb recommends overnight and up to two days).
    2. Fry banana slices for filling: Slice overripe bananas to a thickness of 2 cm (~3/4 inch) and prep a plate for the fried bananas with a paper towel on it. Fill the pan with enough oil to cover the bottom and start it on medium heat. Mix brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a bowl. When the oil in the pan begins to shimmer, dip the banana rounds into the sugar-spice mix and then drop in the pan. Fry for 2-3 mins on one side, then flip and fry 1-2 minutes on the other. Then transfer to prepared plate with paper towel. Repeat frying process, adding more oil as needed, until there are no banana rounds left. Let cool while you make the crepes and rest of filling.
    3. Make the crepes: Heat neutral oil or butter in a skillet over medium heat and pull out a plate for the finished crepes. Pull the batter out of the fridge—if it seems too thick, add an extra ½ c milk to thin it. When oil begins to shimmer, spoon ~1/4 c of batter into the skillet and tilt the pan so it covers the bottom. Cook until it browns on one side 3-4 min, then flip and cook the other side. Repeat until all crepe batter is gone. (Or better yet, get your boyfriend to do it since he’s an expert at making crepes.) Set crepes aside to cool.
    4. Make the filling: Beat room temperature cream cheese with a spoon until fluffy, then add yogurt and mix. When there are no more lumps of cream cheese, add sugar and vanilla and beat until combined.
    5. Assemble crepe cake: Put first (ideally biggest) crepe on what will be your serving plate—this cake isn’t moving once you make it. Spread ~1/4 c of the filling onto the crepe and add 15-20 slices of fried banana onto the filling. Add a second crepe and spread another ~1/4 c of filling, this time with no fried bananas (we had structural integrity concerns with a full banana stack). Repeat process, alternating between fried-banana and banana-less layers until you run out of crepes, filling, or both. Do not put filling on top of the last crepe.
    6. Make topping: Mix cream, brown sugar, and butter in a small pot over medium-high heat. Bring to boil, then let simmer for 10 minutes while stirring frequently. It will thicken and smell like caramel when it’s done and in my case, some of the butter separated from the mix. If this happens to you, just dump the extra butter off. Remove the topping from heat and mix in the vanilla, salt, and nuts.
    7. Pour topping over the cake and serve. We also found letting it sit in the fridge overnight improved the structural integrity, but it’s not a huge deal—it’s going to end up a delicious mess on your plate anyway.

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Abbreviations:
c = cup
med = medium
min = minutes
tbsp = tablespoon
tsp = teaspoon

Notes:

* – As mentioned in step 6, we had some issues with the butter separating from the topping. This could be due to overusing butter (we eyeballed 15 grams from a huge stick), or some other condition. Even if you use too much butter, you can just dump it off.

** – Deb’s original recipe called for walnuts, but we only had macadamia nuts foraged from a nearby orchard. These lent the cake a decidedly more tropical flavor.

Valentine’s Day dinner

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On the road out of Auckland, headed to the eastern shores of the North Island, we encountered a very long and flat beach. We mostly stopped there because our app said there was a bathroom there. There was one, and there were also groups of people walking around with buckets on the beach. This is always of interest to us – people with buckets means something worth collecting is nearby.

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We asked a local with a full bucket and quickly found out the thing worth collecting was cockles. There’s a sign on the road that says you should only take fifty cockles per person, far more than a feast calls for. Our friend told us they and many other families gathered up bucketfuls for their gatherings. We’re not much into mollusks but we have a hard time passing up foraged food. There’s a satisfaction in cooking and eating something you found and gathered yourself, though for us it’s normally mushrooms and berries.

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We headed right down to the waterline, pokey spiral shells under our feet. When we got there, we realized we had no way to hold the cockles we found. Back to the car, then back to the waterline, this time with supplies in hand. A trowel to help with digging and a waterproof bag to hold the cockles. It turns out, as expected, that the waterproof bag holds water in almost equally as well as it keeps it out. It also, thankfully, doesn’t retain smells.

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It took us a while to find our first cockles. At first we only saw these spiral shells up and down the beach, making a life in the soft mud. Figuring that we had no idea what to look for, we found holes left by other cockle hunters. When we found our first tiny cockle we were ecstatic. In the bag it goes! Then came another, and another, and at the next hole came five more. Pretty soon we were bogged down in cockles, picking and choosing the largest and freshest looking.

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While foraging we found other sea life, this time sadly dead. I’d never seen the underside of a starfish so this was pretty interesting.

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About half an hour later, we were proficient cockle hunters. The best method we found was to abandon the trowel and sift through the mud with bare hands. Grab a cockle, fling it into a nearby pile. When the pile gets big enough, pick out the five or ten biggest ones. To call this hunting is a stretch. The cockles are more plentiful than a berries in the summer, have no thorns, don’t hide well like mushrooms, and can’t run away.

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We wound up with fifty medium to large sized cockles and some seawater in our bag. We decided to leave the smallest ones to keep growing, and not take too many for just the two of us. It turned out that fifty was a good number for two people. If we go hunting again we would probably take the same amount. Overharvesting is really the thing to avoid. The cockle population can support a fair amount of hunting, but too much will cause population collapse. In certain parts of New Zealand they are under threat, with various monitoring and closure measures being taken to protect them.

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Bag of cockles in hand, we hit the road. While wondering how to cook them, looking up recipes, and managing the slight flow of water out of the bag, we came on a very curious sight. A hoard-flock of birds were camped out on the shore. It was like something out of a migrating animals documentary. They are the Variable Oystercatcher, and they were previously hunted, now protected with numbers rising. I could not find information on why or how a single flock got so huge, but there they were. The best thing about roadtrips is finding the unexpected around the next bend.

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A night and a day passed. Adventures were had and Valentine’s Day evening came. Our recipe called for lemon, butter, and white wine. We’d luckily picked up a bottle of white on the outset of the trip, and the local minimart offered a lemon and a tub of garlic butter. Our cockles had been fed some crackers to help get the sand out, to a mild degree of success. Everything was ready for dinner, except us.

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While I’ve spent time on a farm and know where the bacon comes from, killing my own meat is still a relative rarity. Natalie similarly hadn’t hunted an animal since childhood, so we were both a bit hesitant. We took a moment, said thank you to the cockles for providing our meal, then put them in the simmering wine and butter. To cook cockles you essentially steam them for a few minutes until they open. Those that don’t open are not good to eat.

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This is what they look like when they’re done. The meat comes out with just a slight pull. The cockles were delicious and every bit worth the time to gather and cook. They tasted better than cockles from the supermarket or at a restaurant, fresher and less chewy, without the sometimes overwhelming ocean-water taste. If you’re in the area I would highly recommend stopping for a quick cook-out. Beaches all along the eastern shore have them, ours was near Coromandel.

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As good of a Valentine’s dinner as we could ask for. Candle courtesy of an early “in case of emergency” purchase on my part, which baffled Natalie at the time.

Arica’s empanadas

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Okay everyone, I’m here to report that Arica has some of the HUUUUUGEST, AMAZINGEST empanadas ever. We’ve had empanadas throughout the Americas, from Mexico down to Peru. But these one are ridiculously good, and the fact that they’re served up at a quiet, hole-in-the-wall spot makes them all the more amazing.

We found this place by just wandering around, and the menu was all of four things listed on a spray-painted wooden sign out front. We went in and asked for one of each, and have photographed them in all their glory, just for you:

13-IMG_20170128_121755 The Salteña

A hot, rich beef stew with spices and olives wrapped in a toasted crust. Meat, cumin, and chili powder are the main flavors while the olives round it out with some sour-saltiness. Watch out though; the olives still have their pits.

15-IMG_20170128_122325The Empanada

Though less stew-like than the Saltena, the spiced ground meat in the Empanada is rich and juicy. Combine this with the starchy joy of potatoes and the a fried egg (also miraculously baked into the empanada) and you’ve got yourself a meal.

19-IMG_20170128_123222 The Napolitana

We’ve been told that Chile is culinarily one of the “more European-style” countries, and the Napolitana is more of a European-style pastry. With ham and cheese for filling in a flaky crust, this one is like eating a ham pizza without the marinara sauce.

21-IMG_20170128_123818The Queso

Simple is sometimes best, and the queso is a straight cheese filling in toasty empanada crust. The cheese is salty and light, making it the perfect light snack. Or, if you bring your own jam and make an amazing sweet-and-salty dessert.

In Arica and looking to get your mitts on some of these empanadas? Caupolicán is here!

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Not in Arica and longing for your own empanada goodness? Make your own using one of the recipes here:

Bolivian Salteñas

Argenitnian Empanadas

Empanadas de Queso

You Gotta Try This: Spiced Poached Figs with Cheese

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Somewhere in the streets of Quito’s old center, lost between a cathedral and an arts market, we found something that smelled like everything you’d want of a winter treat. Pulling back a lid, a vendor released a warm fog scented with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and fruit from her oversized cauldron. We peered inside and found scores of figs simmering gently in syrup. We had to have one. Or maybe two.

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Okay, we ended up having three. But in our defense, these fig sandwiches are AMAZING! In exchange for $1, the vendor made us a sandwich filled with the poached figs, some slices of fresh cheese, and a few generous spoonfuls of the fig syrup on a crusty sandwich roll. Taking a bite of it blends all of the flavors – the sourness of the figs melts into the slight sharpness of the cheese and the burnt sugar on the syrup melds with the earthiness of the figs, while highlights of cloves and cinnamon dance on your tongue.

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Google searches after the fact revealed that this dish, poached figs with cheese or “Dulce De Higos”, is a national pastime in Ecuador. It’s readily available in nearly every dining establishment, to from the family table to the local restaurant to the country’s hautest eateries. And while it’s served as a sandwich on the street, it also takes the role as an appetizer or dessert in other places. Seriously, if you find yourself in Ecuador, you don’t have an excuse to not try this dish.

For those of you unable to find your way to Ecuador, never fear! Further Googling turned up what appears to be the only recipe for Dulce De Higos on the whole internet (psst, the recipe is in this link). It’s from Ecuadorean food blogger Layla Pujol, so I’m betting it’s pretty legit. It’s also ridiculously simple to make, although a bit time consuming (~3 hours of work spread over 2 days). Some thoughts on the recipe:

  • Panela is a raw semi-processed sugar sold in giant bricks or cones at Latin markets. If you can’t find this, you can substitute light brown (more sugar flavor) or dark brown (more molasses flavor) to your tastes.
  • Fresh figs can be hard to come by, but they’re probably a necessity for this recipe. If you insist on trying this with dry figs, you may want to puree the figs after boiling and create a preserve instead.
  • Layla’s recipe calls for “cinnamon, cloves, and other spices” but doesn’t list how much. I’d start with 2 3-inch cinnamon sticks and 6 to 12 cloves for the recipe’s final volume (4 to 6 cups), which are my estimates from making applesauce and chai tea. A few cardamom pods or star anise might also make great additions.
  • These figs pair best with a fresh but somewhat firm cheese, and Layla’s recipe calls for quesillo or queso fresco. She mentions mozzarella too, but I’d worry about a texture clash since that tends to be more rubbery. If you can’t find queso fresco, a ricotta cheese would also work well. Or you could make your own queso fresco!
  • If you absolutely must have some kind of bread/crust with it, this would probably also make an amazing pie/galette/dumpling filling.

I’m filing this recipe away until we return from our world travels, but if you try it in the meantime let me know how it turns out!

Arepas of Colombia

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Arepas in their natural habitat: on a griddle.

The arepa is a food both endemic and ubiquitous in Colombia, analogous to the biscuits we get with meals in the U.S. In its most basic form, it is a fried corn pancake that comes in two forms: white cornmeal, known as far as I know only as an arepa, and yellow cornmeal, which is often referred to as a Chocolo/Choclo arepa. These arepas are eaten as sides during meals, stuffed to make portable sandwiches, or used as a base for delicious food towers in meals and snacks. This is an encyclopedia of the arepas we encountered on our travels, where they are found in the wild, and how they taste.

The white corn arepas

This variety of arepa varies in size but has a wide range and is the predominant arepa you’ll find in Colombia. You’ll know them by their snow white color.

The side arepa: an arepa that is given as a side to common meals, including cazuelas (mixed bowls of food—think bibimbap), planchas (plates of meat, beans, fries), and soups. Outside of nearly every food-serving venue, you can buy them premade in markets. It is most often a sad, flavorless hockey puck because it’s made of only white corn flour and water. See anything missing? (Hint: it’s salt and fat. Ever made a biscuit without either of those?)

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The arepa is the round thing to the left. It’s fairly flavorless, and meant to offset the rich flavor of the main dish, here whole-roasted pig with some crackly skin.

The Don Jediondo side arepa: While it may seem that we have an unhealthy obsession with Don Jediondo around here, we promise you this isn’t biased. Unlike the standard side arepa, the Don Jediondo arepa is amazingly good even on its own! It’s served with their soup entrees or can be ordered separately, and tastes both salty and a bit sweet—delicious when dipped into the warm beef stew (Cuchuco) or the chicken soup. It’s also insanely dense, though, and two or three of these could make a meal.

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The arepa can be found in the upper right corner…with a bite out of it. It’s still photogenic, right?

The arepa sandwich: Found at street stalls, this flat arepa gets stuffed with meats and veggies to make a portable sandwich. During breakfast, you can find them deep-fried with an egg in the middle, while at lunch and dinner they’re pre-grilled and then stuffed. The arepa itself is still a bit tasteless, but is helped by the savory fillings.

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The remnants of a fried egg arepa. This one may actually be yellow corn, or the frying process may have changed the color. Either way, it falls into the less flavorful category of white arepas for us.

The cheesy arepa: This white corn arepa differs in that it’s packed with flavor because there are pieces of cheese mixed into the dough. These cheese bits melt into delicious stringy goo when the arepa is fried on a hot griddle, and the whole thing is then topped with savory or sweet sauces. A dessert favorite is this arepa topped with condensed milk.

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A dessert arepa at a fair. Note the margarine mashed into the hot center of the arepa and the swirl of condensed milk.

The yellow corn arepas (Chocolo/Choclo)

This arepa is on average larger (around 6 inches across) and often has pieces of corn kernels in it. It tends to be more flavorful overall, but rarer, with specific stalls specializing in this type. Look for “arepas de chocolo” written on the wall or in the stall’s name.

The open-faced sandwich: This arepa is frequently eaten for breakfast and as a snack and consists of a chocolo arepa topped with butter or margarine, a slice of deli meat, and a wedge of queso fresco. We found the quality of meat and cheese to be a bit bad in some places, so we often ordered just the arepa with butter, which got us some odd looks.

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Our first chocolo arepa, an open-faced breakfast sandwich made with spam and queso fresco. Breakfast of champions, this is.

The topped chocolo arepa: Studded with cheese and corn bits, this arepa acts as a delicious base for a tower of food. These beautiful dishes are most frequently found in nicer restaurants, and can be topped with vegetables, meat, and seafood and finished with a nice sauce. This was the first arepa I ever encountered thanks to Rubamba’s amazing arepas in New Haven, although we rarely encountered them in Colombia.

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An arepa tower, covered in roasted veggies. We only found these in pricier restaurants, so we encountered them rarely. This may actually be a white corn variant, but the others we encountered (including those at Rubamba in New Haven) were yellow corn.

The dessert/snack Chocolo arepa: This arepa is similar to its white-corn cousin, but instead of being filled with cheese, it’s fried on a griddle in butter and then topped with a wedge of queso fresco and condensed milk or honey. This was arguably our favorite arepa of the bunch.

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For a snack that’s both savory and sweet (and has some fiber from corn bits), look no further than this arepa.

Arepa distribution and DIY at home

Arepas drop off abruptly as you enter Ecuador to the south or Panama to the north, so get your arepa fix in Colombia (and Venezuela to the east). If there are any we missed (like the rare whole wheat arepa we encountered at Mercado Minorista—we didn’t get to try them), add them in the comments below.

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An arepa stall at Mercado Minorista, with a baffling array of arepa and arepa ingredients.

For those of you looking to make your own arepas, here’s some help:

Serious Eats arepa guide, where there’s a link to a recipe

Chocolo Arepas – This is the first recipe I’m trying when I get home

The food of Medellín’s Zona Rosa: Eat Your Heart Out

Zona Rosa

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People sit in front of a Christmas lights display at a park in Zona Rosa

Zona Rosa is Medellín’s happening tourist spot, with all of the hippest shops, bars, and restaurants. Stroll down one of these streets and you could easily imagine you’re in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or any other major metropolitan hub. And while the prices definitely reflect the area, clocking in around 1.5-3 times that of other places in the city, they’re still highly affordable if you’re coming from a country like the U.S. or Canada.

We spent most of our time in Zona Rosa enjoying the relative comfort of the Panela Hostel 2 and eating amazing food. We covered the delicious dessert options of Zona Rosa in our previous post. This post will cover awesome main meal options we discovered: two restaurants offering traditional foods, and one spotlight on a great health/vegetarian restauarant. Regardless of what you choose, get ready to eat to your heart’s content.

The Comida Tipica

There are two must try’s here: the Mondongo and the buñelos.

Since the locals almost always know best, we asked around for the ONE thing we should try in Zona Rosa before leaving. And every time, from the kids in high school to the abuelitas out for an afternoon stroll, we got one answer: get the Mondongo at Mondongo’s.

Mondongo’s is an institution in Medellín, serving up hearty soups and grilled meats to the hungry Colombian locals. On the afternoon we wandered in, we found a quiet patio with attentive waiters. They even insisted on helping us put our bags on to the chairs instead of on the floor:

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Our bags, our ever constant traveling companions.

When it came to ordering, we were a bit nervous because Mondongo’s was really expensive by Colombian standards (a Mondongo costs around $10 USD, or 30,000 COP). Wondering if we could share, we asked the waiter about the size of the Mondongo and he pointed over to a nearby table with a bucket-sized bowl of soup, a plate of rice, slices of avocado, bananas, and arepas. We had to double check that was indeed one order. We asked to share, and even then we couldn’t finish the whole thing. The great part was that while we were struggling to finish our food, a pair of abuelitas came in, each ordered a Mondongo, and demolished them. They were tiny, so I have no idea where that food went. Perhaps their stomachs were part of some kind of space-time distortion.

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The HALF Mondongo. When we asked to share one, they kindly pre-split the soup for us, so this is half the amount you’d normally get.

As for how the Mondongo tasted, here’s the best description I can muster: a rich, meaty tomato broth, loaded with FOUR kinds of meat (beef, pork, chicken, and tripe), potatoes, and onions. You’re supposed to dump the rice, avocado slices, and banana slices directly into the mix, but we ate them in separate spoonfuls for a delightful contrast in flavors and textures.

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The whole Mondongo meal. Why yes, that avocado is nearly the size of a banana. That’s the normal size of avocadoes in Colombia.

Recommendation: Bring a friend. You’re going to need their help against the massive Mondongo.

The second must try are the buñelos from Buñelos supreme, a tasty deep-fried breakfast treat made of  flour, tapioca flour, and cheese. At 500 COP (17 US cents) a pop, it’s easy to down 5 or 6 of these for breakfast alongside an egg-filled arepa.

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Fresh hot buñelos nestled together in a bowl.

And since people regularly come in and order 30 at a time, you can watch them being made all morning:

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The buñelo-maker, hard at work. Each buñelo is expertly hand-formed and fried by him.

Note that buñelos are sold at practically every bakery in Medellin, but Buñelos Supreme is where we found the best.

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The fried egg arepa: an egg somehow cracked into an arepa and then all fried together. Two of these make a heavy, filling breakfast.

Recommendation: If you’re a lover of deep-fried breakfast treats, pull up a seat here and a few buñelos with a fried egg arepa and drink of your choice—I’d go with a hot Milo.

The Vegetarian

Finding vegetables can be hard while travelling, even when you’re not looking to eat exclusively vegetarian food. Plates at restaurants tend to be meat-centric and occasionally come with a sad lettuce-and-tomato vegetable pile, although more often they’re heaped with fries. After the meat fatigue, we were delighted to come across an entirely vegetarian restaurant in Zona Rosa by the name of Lenteja Express. It serves vegetarian starters, burgers, and wraps made from lentils or chickpeas.

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Oh, and a pretty good vegetarian lasagna, but limited to certain days of the week.

We went a few times and had the ceviche (which was a beany, mango-y, salsa-y wonder), burgers (great flavor, but they haven’t quite worked out a way to keep the patty moist), and burrito (seriously huge, share it). The biggest highlight though was the humble side dish of griddle-cooked baby gold potatoes, called papas criollas, which by some witchcraft of spices were elevated to a dish fit for kings. On one occasion we just ordered a whole plate of these potatoes and shared them doused with the equally amazing whole grain mustard that Lenteja Express has on tap.

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The burrito, paired with their mysteriously fantastic papas criollas

Recommend: This is a must, if only to try the amazing seasoned potatoes with (what I would guess is) homemade whole grain mustard. If you’re getting a burger, pay extra for guac or douse it in another sauce to combat how dry the veggie patty can get.

If you can’t pop down to Colombia to try these amazing foods, here are a few recipes to tide you over. Since we’re still on the road and don’t have much of the way in kitchen supplies, we haven’t been able to taste-test them ourselves. But given the ingredients, they look like the real deal:

Recipe for buñelos

Recipe for mondongo – Disclaimer: there are TONS of different recipes for mondongo online, and each varies in the meats, vegetables, and spices that go in. I suspect this is one of those each-grandmother-has-her-own-way type dishes. This version was chosen because its ingredient list looks the closest to what we had at Mondongo’s.

Recipe for papas criollas – We asked Lenteja Express’s owner how they made their papas, and got the following instructions: take small gold potatoes and season with rosemary (romero). Place them on a hot griddle (a la plancha) for a few minutes, then put them in a bowl or bag, douse with paprika and salt, and shake/toss to coat. Or you could try the Serious Eats recipe here.

Don Jediondo

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The Don Jediondo that nourished us while we recovered from food poisoning.

After our food poisoning ordeal, we thought we’d lay off the street food for a while and needed a safe alternative. Thankfully, we had just moved rooms to Hotel Casa Salome, which was located near the Pepe Ganga C.C. Mall Plaza El Castillo (i.e. a mall). And in the mall was a food court. And that food court had a Don Jediondo, probably the most saintly restaurant I’ll ever have been blessed to encounter. This was partly the food poisoning speaking. But for a chain restaurant, its food was also REALLY GOOD.

The food at Don Jediondo broke down into two categories: grilled meats and soups. We could get fresh, high-quality chicken, pork, sausage or beef along with fries. Or for soup, we could get a massive bowl of soup that came with rice, an arepa, and a huge slice of avocado. Regardless of what we got, any entrée was a 2-person meal and cost only 15,000-30,000 Colombian pesos ($5-10 USD). Knowing our stomachs were sensitive, we mostly stuck to the soups and found this particular gem: Cuchuco, a rich beef and bean stew that came with a massive slab of tender stewed beef:

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This was the only time we ever ordered two entrees. The food lasted for three meals.

Also, their drink cups tell you random facts! Did you know that a chorizo sausage went to space in 1995?

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Other facts include the length of the longest sausage in the world, the psychological effects of anger on hunger, and the water-starch composition of a potato. 

Don Jediondo, the namesake of the restaurant, is actually a character created by Colombian comedian Pedro González, who partly owns the Don Jediondo Restaurant Franchise. It’s been around for 10 years now and has over 50 restaurants throughout Colombia. Although they haven’t made the international jump yet, here’s to hoping it appears in the U.S. soon. Until then, I’ll just have to make my own Cuchoco. I’ve already got recipes to try lined up here and here. For those of you weathering the cold winter, want to give it a try and let me know how it goes?

– Natalie