Friday, March 30, 2012

Cote d'Ivoire

Commonly Known As: Ivory Coast
Location: Western Africa, between Ghana and Liberia
Area: Almost 325,000 sq km; 69th largest in the world
         Slightly smaller than New Mexico
Geography: Except for the capital, most people live along the coastal region
Nationality: Ivoirians
Language: French
Population: Almost 22 million; 55th largest in the world
Capital: Yamoussoukro
HIV/AIDS deaths: 36000 in 2009; 12th highest in the world
Literacy: 48.7%
UN: 9000 forces present since 2004
Source: CIA Factbook

The national dish of Cote d'Ivoire is fufu.  We already tried that once.  Well, kinda.  Didn't go so well.  I decided to try something else this time.  Something fun and new and full of potential.  Something with a name like chicken and plantain curry.  That sounds about right.  I did a search for the French version of the name, and got a bunch of sites, in French, that mentioned Cote d'Ivoire.  Seemed legit to me!

I was especially excited because it involved a lot of ingredients I have eaten before, but never cooked.  Plantains, papayas, sweet potatoes.  New, but not scary.  Baby steps.  Plus, I was able to find everything I needed without going to dozens of stores, which is always a bonus.

I already had all of the ingredients needed for brushing the chicken thighs, which is pretty cool.
I believe this has already come up before, but groundnut oil is peanut oil.
We didn't really do sweet potatoes growing up, so I don't have much experience with them beyond the fries variety.  Definitely never had to boil them before.  Also - never had to bake plantains.  I ate plenty of them in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean.  I was impressed by how sometimes they were used as a sweet dessert-like dish, and other times seemed more like a potato side-dish.
These plantains were huge.  And possibly not ripe.
I have had papaya flavored things or dried papaya before, but I don't think I had ever had it fresh before our recent trip to Hawaii.  In that context it was okay, but not my favorite.  A little bland.  Squeezing a lemon on it helped.
The plantains were unevenly browned when they came out.  I wasn't really sure what to do other than continue the recipe.  Maybe it was intended?
Yay sticker reside.
Now the oven was free!  Chicken thighs coated in garlic and curry powder smell amazing, by the way.  I wasn't sure what they wanted when they said roasting tin, though.  I decided to use my roasting rack, but it seemed a little bit of overkill for four chicken thighs.
Reading the directions is pretty important for the next few steps.  I didn't necessarily understand the timing they wanted until I re-read it a couple of times.
Dramatic reading picture taken by my sister.
The sweet potatoes peeled quite easily.  The plantains still seemed a bit...hard.  Should they have been squishy?
As a side dish, I decided to try something I had read about online.  Not from Cote d'Ivoire, but foreign.  We have a lot of spice mixes and don't always get a chance to use them.  This one was supposed to be good on bread, similar to a garlic bread concoction, so I decided to go with it.  I just mixed some with olive oil, spread it on French bread, and baked it for a bit.
Now I was ready to add the fruits and veggies to the meat.  My first true confusion hit me here.  Were they supposed to go under the roasting part?  On it?  Did I need the roasting part?  How does this all work?  First I tried it with the roasting pan.
That...didn't seem right.  How were the flavors supposed to mingle?  So I took the roaster out and mixed it all together.
Less attractive, but maybe more right.  Still not sure.  There weren't many juices to baste with, though, even after adding the coconut milk.  I'm pretty sure I added more liquid to try to help.
I added the bread with a few minutes left, and watched Tesla play with "crinkle fish," his favorite fake animal.
It was difficult to get all of the food to fit on one platter.  There was a ridiculous amount, especially with the rice.  I think the bread was in a little bit too long, too.
My sister Sarah-Anne and her friend Jason were visiting us, so they got to partake.
It is a little difficult to review this dish as a whole, because it didn't really feel like one coherent dish.  Maybe it wasn't meant to be.  The chicken was delicious.  Absolutely amazing.  I would love to make curry chicken using some of these techniques again.  The sweet potatoes weren't bad, but I think they would have been better smaller.  They got a little tough in the middle, and the flavor didn't really go beyond the surface.

The papayas were fine, but nothing special.  Sarah-Anne really liked them.  This might just be part of liking papayas in general, though.  The plantains were probably the most disappointing part.  They were still very tough and hadn't absorbed any flavor.  I believe there are two culprits here.  One is their gigantic size.  I know plantains are usually large, but not always this ridiculous.  The other was their level of ripeness.  Having them be more aged might have allowed them to give some more of their flavor to the surrounding items as well as picking some up.

The rice was good with some of the juices coming off of the chicken.  And the bread was actually quite yummy, although a little hard.  Dipping them in olive oil helped.  I plan to make them again, just with a little less baking time.

Overall, this was one of the best African dishes we have had.  I think some of my complaints could be fixed easily.  Cut up the sweet potatoes into smaller pieces, and maybe only have two of them.  Smaller, more ripe plantains.  Those could also be cut up.  And more chicken.  Because that part was amazing.

We all left full and happy, so I call that a success.  Yay!  Now we actually leave the African continent for a little while as we continue our journeys.

Have you had better experiences with including fruit in curries?  Any tips to share?

Next time: Croatia

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Costa Rica

History: Declared independence from Spain in 1821
Armed Forces: Dissolved in 1949.  Only two brief periods of violence have hindered the democratic development since the late 19th century
Location: Central America, bordering both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean
Area: Over 51,000 sq km; 130th largest in the world
         Slightly smaller than West Virginia
Population: Over 4.5 million; 123rd largest in the world
Religion: 76.3% Roman Catholic
Capital: San Jose
Human Development Index: Consistently among the top Latin American countries
Carbon: Announced plans in 2007 to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2021
Happiness: Ranked #1 in the Happy Planet Index in 2009
Sources: CIA Factbook and Wikipedia

When Kevin and I were recently considering where to go on vacation before the baby arrives, we seriously considered Costa Rica.  The standard of living is high and tourism is a major industry.  There were really only a few things that pushed us to Hawaii instead.  One, I was sure that I would be able to communicate with healthcare officials in case something went wrong while there.  And two, I don't think I could do a lot of the cool stuff in Costa Rica while pregnant anyway.  Guess we'll have to go later!

Recipe searching for Costa Rica was very different than I had anticipated.  I expected spice and flavor.  Instead, my research said that a lot of their cuisine was fairly mild.  The one thing that came up most often was Gallo Pinto.  Rice and beans?  Rice and beans!  Often served three times a day.  I didn't feel like I could choose something else when this was so prevalent.  I looked through a lot of recipes and settled on this one.  Simple, and reasonable assumption of authenticity.  It felt nice to be working with familiar ingredients in a not-entirely-familiar way.

I had to start the day before with soaking some dry beans.  I may have said it before, but this is much cheaper than buying canned beans, and really not a lot of work.  You can put any leftovers in the freezer.
They will expand, so make sure you use a big enough bowl.

After 24 hours or so, you boil the beans for 1.5-2 hours.  I had forgotten to take this into account when we cooked this, so we ended up deciding this would be a between meal snack.
The water gets very dark.  Normally I would discard it, except that the recipe specifically calls for it.
The rice was cooking in the rice cooker, so the only active work at the beginning was chopping and sauteing, as per normal.
I got a new camera for Hawaii, and it has a food option!  I'm not entirely sure I  like the results, though.  I kept playing with the settings.

The recipe calls for Salsa Lizano, which is a popular Costa Rican condiment.  In reading up on it I learned that it is basically on every restaurant table in Costa Rica.  Like ketchup here. We were a little worried about finding it, but it didn't take us too long.  In fact, it was our most successful trip to the Latin American store near us.  Unfortunately, they only have big containers.  If anyone needs some, let me know!
It is now made by Unilever, which I find a little odd...
It was a little thicker than I expected it to be.  Like a slightly watered-down ketchup.
This was unlike some other dishes I have made (like Bolivia), because the rice included was already cooked, as I mentioned before.  Mixing that with the beans and some bean stock certainly gave it an interesting color.  I was worried I wasn't putting enough stock in, but it turns out it doesn't take a lot.

I actually cut up some cilantro as well.  I hate buying bunches of herbs because usually they end up going bad.  It is hard to get cilantro in any other decent form, though.
And really, that's it.  Since it was a between-meal snack, I didn't serve it with eggs or sausage or anything.
Kevin and I both had the same reaction.  It was okay.  Not offensive in any way.  Could be a good side for something with a ton of flavor or salt.  As a separate dish, however?  Not much to get excited about.

We both flavored ours with some additional Salsa Lizano, which helped.  And to be fair, it isn't supposed to be the main attraction.  I guess I expected something more from a dish that so many people raved about, though.  I'm sure when we someday go to Costa Rica and try the real thing, we will see what all of the buzz is about.

Next time: Cote d'Ivoire

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Congo, Republic of the

History: Former French region of Middle Congo that gained independence in 1960
Government: First democratically elected government took office in 1992
Location: Central Africa bordering the South Atlantic Ocean
Area: Almost 350,000 sq km; 64th largest in the world
         Slightly smaller than Montana
Noun: Congolese
Official Language: French
Religion: 48% "animalist"
Population: over 4.2 million; 127th largest in the world
Capital: Brazzaville
Cities: About 70% of the population lives in Brazzaville, Pointe-Noire, or along the railroad between them
Budget surplus: 7.7% of GDP; 8th highest in the world
Source: CIA Factbook

As we covered a little bit last time, the DRC vs Republic of the Congo cuisine was causing me some issues.  They both refer to themselves as the Congolese, and most sites just refer to it as Congolese cuisine.  In fact, there is only one Wikipedia article for both: Congolese Cuisine.  Most other sites are no exception.  So I got the recipe for this time from the same place I got the recipe from DRC.  Maybe this is valid?  Maybe not?  I don't really know.

This is the recipe I chose.  There are some new ingredients that I have been seeing around other recipes but never actually found/gotten to use.  The palm oil was obviously used last time, but I also added some palm soup base this time.

This recipe follows a pretty simple set of directions.  Mix things together.  Cook.  Mix some more in.  Cook.  Repeat.  The first set of mixing was meat, lemon juice, salt, and cayenne pepper.
Kevin's grandmother got me something to help me juice lemons for Christmas, which will be very helpful.  It makes it a lot simpler than doing it by hand.

It is a little hard to tell from here, but the lemon is all squished.  I still got a little bit out by hand afterward, but not too much.
I halved the recipe, but there was still a lot to chop.  Tomatoes.  Ugh.
Didn't blanche them.  Take that, good ideas!
Palm oil!
I was supposed to add the tomatoes with a "few cups of water."  I tried to make it soup-like.  Things certainly smelled good here.  I tried to put in more cayenne pepper than normal.  The biggest goal I had was to avoid bland!

Palm nut sauce was hard to find in the store, but luckily the helpful lady who owns it could point me to what I needed.  The cans looked a little...beat up.  I went with it anyway.

Clearly the picture it a little difficult to interpret, but it was very...grainy.  And fairly solid.  I expected something a little more like a stock, but I was mistaken.  I also don't know how to describe the smell.  Not too strong, but it existed.  I suppose it smelled like palm nuts?

I avoided the peanut butter, but did decide to use some kale for the greens.  Gotta get some of those good nutrients!

Simmer until meat is tender: that I can do.  I also made a side of Oven Roasted Red Potatoes.  Super-easy to make and pretty tasty.  Probably not the best for you, but...

After the soup has simmered, and the potatoes come out you're done!  Really not difficult, once you find the ingredients you need.  But the real test is always eating it, no?

This was not my favorite.  In fact, I would rank it as one of my least favorites.  Something about it just was not settling well with me.  I didn't like the taste, and I had a hard time getting a lot of it down.  There could be a number of reasons for this.  I was uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the palm soup base.  Maybe it is just a flavor I am not accustomed to?  The meat wasn't the greatest cut, either.

Overall, it definitely wasn't as bland as some of the other dishes we have made.  The meat itself, mixed with the lemon and pepper and such, left something to be desired.  It didn't seem to retain any of that.  And I'm not entirely sure where it went...  The potatoes were good, though.

Harumph.  I guess my quest for a delicious central African dish will have to continue.  Not next time though, because we are going to travel to another continent.

Next time: Costa Rica