Sunday, November 13, 2016

Pan seared octopus Maltese style

Malta is one of Europe’s best kept secrets.  The Malta archipelago
of islands is located in the Mediterranean south of Sicily which means it is blessed with a Mediterranean climate - think no snow.  There are many wonderful places to visit; in fact, Malta has three UNESCO World Heritage sites including the City of Valletta, the Megalithic Temples, and the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum.  Several other sites are on the UNESCO Tentative List awaiting inclusion. Impressive for an island that is 17 miles by 9 miles.  

We toured many places in Valletta, the capital city, including St. John’s Co-Cathedral with golden carved pillars and fabulous paintings on the vaulted ceiling. In the Oratory is Caravaggio’s “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist” painting; the only one he signed. I was especially impressed with Casa Rocca Piccola, a unique 1850 house/museum where the friendly owners are still in residence. They have an extensive bomb shelter where the family sought safety during WW II.  I didn’t know that Malta was the most bombed place during WW II.  

One day we scheduled a ‘hotel day’  -  reading around the pool,
enjoying the spa and learning how to make a traditional Maltese recipe. Ramla’s Executive Head Chef Christian Borg showed us how to make Qarnit Moqli. Chef Borg said Maltese cooking is simple, colorful, and tasty.   He explained further that many countries invaded Malta over
the years so many recipes are a mix of Italian and Arabic cuisine.  Qarnit Mogli is usually served as a starter but we found it was enough for a lunch.  John, the seafood –lover, declared it excellent.  I am not a lover of seafood but of course I tried it.  The flavor was wonderful. I knew it would be from the aroma when it was cooking; however, I found the octopus a little too chewy to my liking. 

Qarnit Moqli

2 whole medium-sized octopuses
1 medium fresh chili, diced (depends on how hot you want it)
1 lemon
1tbsp black pepper corns
6 bay leaves
10 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 small red onion, diced
2 – 4 springs of fresh mint 
2 – 4 springs of fresh basil 
10 cherry tomatoes cut in half
1tbsp sun-dried tomatoes, diced
½ cup white wine
1tbsp capers 
1tbsp pitted black olives, roughly chopped
Freshly ground pepper as desired
Extra virgin olive oil as desired 
Crusty white loaf (Hobz tal-malthi) or bread bowls

Boil the octopus together with half the chili, half the lemon, black pepper corns, bay leaves, and half of the garlic. Let it boil gently until the octopus is nice and tender (approximately 40 minutes). When the octopus is ready separate the tentacles from the head and cut them in half. Remove the beak. Cut the head into three thick slices. In a frying pan add a dash of olive oil when warm  add the onions until it starts to become soft then add the with rest of the garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and the rest of the chilies.  Add the octopus and white wine. Cook over medium heat until it is reduced by half. Add the capers (rinse these before adding to the pan) and the olives and let them cook slowly for about 5 minutes.  Finish with a squeeze of lemon, freshly ground black pepper, and more olive oil. Scoop out center of bread bowl and fill with octopus mixture. Garnish and serve. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Nicaraguan style Mini-burritos a la Xalli with gallo pinto

John and I have been to Nicaragua several times since our first visit
in the 90s. At that time the country was trying to recover from the devastation caused by the conflicts between the socialistic Sandinista junta and the opposition, the U.S.-backed contras.  It wasn’t the first involvement by a group from the United States.  Every school child in Central America learns about William Walker, an American who invaded Nicaragua with his private army. Walker became president of Nicaragua from 1856 to 1857.  We visited the local museum where money issued by Walker during his administration is on display. Around the same time Cornelius Vanderbilt considered building a canal connecting the natural waterways between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  Instead the Panama Canal was built. In 2016 a Chinese tycoon started to build a canal across Nicaragua; but work is at a standstill.  The Rio San Juan connects the Atlantic Ocean with Lake Nicaragua and from there it is only a short distance to San Juan del Sur on the Pacific.  Hopes for a new Nicaraguan canal spurred hopes for increased tourism on the projected route including Ometepe Island. 

Ometepe is home to twin volcanoes connected by a narrow isthmus. In December 2015 John and I visited the island which is accessed by ferry from San Jorge, which is 10 minutes from Rivas.  The island is popular with nature-lovers.  

We stayed at Xalli Beach Hotel located on the isthmus with views of both volcanoes, (, Calle Principal, Playa Santo Domingo, Comunidad de San Fernando, Altagracia, Isla de Ometepe, Rivas, Nicaragua; phone 505-2569-4876, We paid $102 for a room with a lake-view porch, breakfast, and Wi-Fi.  

Xalli, whenever possible, buys organic and locally-grown produce.  It insures freshness and helps the local farming community. I loved the chicken burritos and asked the cook, Lorena Alvarez, to share the recipe with me.  She showed me how to make burritos and gallo pinto Nicaraguense. Pedro Centeno, the manager, acted as the translator. It is thought that the burrito originated in Mexico and spread throughout the Americas with each area making their own adaption.  The word “burrito” means “little donkey” and possibly referred to the bedrolls carried by the donkeys. 

Chicken Burroitos

1 large tomato – diced
1 small green pepper – diced
1 small onion – diced
1 tsp cilantro - diced
2 tsp olive oil 
1 tsp lemon juice
12 ounces cooked chicken, shredded or diced
¾ (three-fourths) cup cheese – shredded (cheddar or white Nicaragua cheese)
Salt and pepper
Small 2. burrito ingredients
Mix tomatoes, green peppers, onions, cilantro, oil, and lemon juice in a bowl add salt and pepper to taste. 

On each tortilla add place two tablespoons of chicken, two tablespoons of veggie mix, top with cheese. Fold. Lightly oil a pan. Grill burritos about one minute each side. Ingredients can be prepared ahead of time and assembled when ready to eat. Assembled burritos can be made ahead of time and refrigerated for several hours.  Serve with gallo pinto and /or sour cream. 

Gallo Pinto Nicaraguense
1 lb rice
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup onions, finely diced
1 can small red kidney beans (Goya sells Central America Beans)
1 green pepper, finely diced
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook rice, set aside. In frying pan, add oil, sauté onions over medium heat until onions are translucent. Add beans with liquid.  Mash beans a little to add aroma and color. Add green pepper. Sauté about two minutes. Add rice, sauté about two to three minutes.  Can be refrigerated for later use. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Learning how to prepare bánh bò hấp, in Vietnam

My husband, John, and I live in upstate New York, and most of the
retired people in our area are “snowbirds,” who head south to spend the winter in warmer, snow-free states. John and I head all the way to Asia for three months. We find Asia reasonable, cost-wise, and enjoy the diversity of cultures. We like the flexibility of wintering for a few weeks each in several countries.

In January 2016 we were in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam. We had been there several times but wanted to revisit the Cao Đài Temple and the Củ Chi Tunnels. The Cao Đài Temple is the center of the Caodaist church, an indigenous religion that incorporates the teachings of many religions. The first time we visited the temple was in 1998. It was as colorful as I remembered. 

The biggest change was at the Củ Chi Tunnels. The part of the
tunnel that we visited in ’98 is now open only to Vietnamese, whereas the new area has been made handicapped-accessible, with visitors entering via a gift shop. Also, other activities have been added, such as a rifle range. 

We wanted a hotel in HCMC close to the airport, so we booked a few days at the Parkroyal Saigon. A standard room cost $88 a night, but we upgraded to an Orchid Club room at $137. The Orchid Club room price included airport/hotel transfers, breakfast, afternoon tea and evening cocktails plus laundry for up to four garments per day. A great deal! We liked the relaxing atmosphere in the Orchid Club Lounge, especially during afternoon tea, when there was an assortment of tea sandwiches. 

We commented to the waitress that the most common dessert
in Vietnam was fresh fruit but seldom cakes or pies. She said that many Vietnamese don’t have ovens. Also, they don’t have a “sweet tooth.” She told us that her favorite dessert is bánh bò hấp, which she said are also called “cow cakes” because the word bò means “cow.” She said her mother told her the word bò also means “crawl” because when the cakes are steamed, they “crawl” up the side of the pan.

Later we had an opportunity to try this dessert. We reported back to our waitress that we loved the light and tasty “cow cakes” and thought they looked simple to make. She said she was sure the pastry chef would love to show us how to make them. The next day, pastry chef Nguyen Thanh Ngoan and his helper Nguyen Thu Nhi showed us how they are made. I found out it was not as simple as I had thought!

Bánh Bò Hấp (Vietnamese Rice Cakes)
1 ¾ cup rice flour 
3 tbsp corn flour (or tapioca flour)
2 tbsp rice wine
1/3 cup coconut water
½ tsp salt
1 cup water
2 cups sugar
optional — food coloring

Sesame Sprinkle
1 tbsp sesame seeds
2 tsp sugar
dash of salt

Coconut Sauce
1 tbsp rice flour
1 tbsp water
1 ¾ cups coconut milk
3 tbsp sugar

For the Bánh Bò Hấp, 12 hours ahead of time, mix rice flour and corn flour and set it aside. In a small pan, add rice wine, coconut water and salt and bring to a boil. Cool for five minutes, then add it to the flour mix and stir until smooth. A drop of food coloring can be added, if desired. Strain if lumpy. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside (not in the refrigerator) for 12 hours.  After the 12 hours, combine water and sugar in a medium pan and bring to a boil. Boil just until the sugar is dissolved, then cool for five minutes. Stir into the mix made 12 hours before. In a steamer, heat water to the boiling point. Brush small dishes or forms with oil and place in a steamer. Cover and steam for two minutes. Ladle batter into the dishes or forms, then cover. Steam for seven minutes or more, depending on the sizes of the dishes. When the center of each cake rises, remove from steamer. Repeat with any remaining batter.

To make the Sesame Sprinkle, place sesame seeds in a pan at medium heat. Toast until light brown. Set aside. When cool, add sugar and a dash of salt, and stir. 

To make the Coconut Sauce, mix rice flour and water in a sauce pan. Add coconut milk and bring to a boil. Cook for a few minutes, slowly stirring until it's the consistency of cream. Remove from heat and stir in sugar to taste. Strain the mixture to eliminate any lumps. 

Plate each cake, sprinkle with the sesame seed mix, top with dollops of coconut sauce and serve. 

NB: If the steamer has a metal lid, remove any water off the lid to prevent water from dripping onto the cakes. Cakes can be made ahead and refrigerated but should be steamed again for one minute before serving.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Myanmar Ginger Salad

One of the things that I love about Asian food is that the preparation is so easy.
I once mentioned to a Myanmarese, “There are no fast-food restaurants in Myanmar.” The reply was, “All food in Myanmar is fast food.”
Indeed, with many Myanmar recipes, once you have the ingredients, creating the dish is quick. In addition, simple alterations to many recipes can create equally delicious dishes. Such is the case with Myanmar Ginger Salad.

John and I took a cruise in Myanmar on the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River from Mandalay to Bagan aboard the RV Pandaw Kindat, The cruise was a great value; the one-week cruise was all-inclusive of food, local libations, tours, site admissions and tips for the crew. During the week, there were several onboard cultural presentations, such as how to apply thanaka (the pale yellow makeup commonly worn in Myanmar), how to wear a longyi (the wraparound garment worn by men and women), a puppet show and dance presentation. Also, every day there were shore trips to temples, pagodas, handicraft shops, villages and other fascinating places.

Near Amarapura, one excursion was a rowboat ride on Taungthaman Lake for a close up look at the picturesque U Bein Bridge thought to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. One of the crew brought along sunset cocktails. How’s that for service?! We sat in the rowboat sipping our cocktails while watching the sun set. Beautiful. One of the shore trips was to a market in Pakokku, where Yan Myo Aung, our guide, pointed out all the ingredients needed to make Green Tea Leaf Salad and Ginger Salad. Many of the items, like ginger, were already julienned and ready to use.
My favorite salad was the Ginger Salad, which is usually served as an appetizer or salad in the United States but in Myanmar is often a dessert or palate cleanser.
In a cooking demonstration on board, Chef Wai Myo Ham showed how to prepare a Ginger Salad, with Mr. Yan translating.


Mr. Yan related, “The simplicity of the
recipe defines Myanmar cuisine, which is a blend of textures and flavors utilizing available items from the market or locally farmed.”He also noted, “Pickling and salting of vegetables is widespread due to the lack of refrigeration.” There was one awkward moment during the lesson. When the salad was ready to serve, Mr. Yan asked our group of 10, “Who is the oldest? The oldest gets served first.” One woman in our group said, “You never ask a lady how old she is.” To avoid an embarrassing situation I volunteered that I was the oldest. Who knows? Maybe I was.         

Myanmar Ginger Salad (Jinn Thoke)
½ cup thinly sliced or julienned fresh or pickled ginger
½ cup thinly sliced crispy fried garlic
½ cup skinless roasted peanuts        
½ cup fried chickpeas (or 1 tbsp chickpea powder)
10 whole dried shrimp (optional)
¼ cup toasted sesame seeds
½ cup fried butter beans
3 tbsp peanut oil
½ cup julienned cabbage
½ cup julienned tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste

Minced chilies or chili sauce (optional)

Toss all ingredients in a bowl.
Serve with a side dish of chilies for those who want to add some spice.
N.B.: To make Green Tea Leaf Salad (Lah Phet Thoke), substitute ½ cup pickled tea leaf for the ginger and eliminate the chickpeas.

Monday, January 4, 2016

French Canadian Tourtiere

I was able to check off one of the adventures on my bucket list – to travel through the waterways and canals of the Northeast. The St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes were used by the Native Americans, explorers, settlers and armies and were key to the development of the provinces of Quebec and Ontario, New York State, and the interior of the United States. 

I was excited when I learned about Blount Small Ship Adventures’ “Locks, Legends, and Canals” (461 Water Street, PO Box 368, Warren, RI, 02885; toll free 800-556-7450, The two-week cruise from Montreal to New York City traveled via the St. Lawrence, Lake
Ontario, NYS Canal System, and the Hudson River was a dream come true.  The Grande Caribe is a purpose-built vessel designed to make it through the narrow and shallow waters of canals. Blount often has special offers.  The listed price started at $4,399 pp but with 40% off the cruise cost $2,640 pp making the two-week cruise a great value considering some of the shore trips were included. 

Even though John and I boarded the Grande Caribe in Montreal our first port of call was Quebec before returning to Montreal and continuing through the St. Lawrence Seaway on the way to New York City.  Each day the menu was posted offering a choice of entrees for dinner.  After a morning tour of Quebec that included a side trip to Montmorency Falls, I returned to the ship and noticed that one of the dinner entrees choices was French
Canadian Tourtiere. I asked Chef William Pannoni if he would show me how to make it.  Chef William, like all the staff, was quick to agree.  He made individual servings for most of the passengers including a half portion for one of the guests, and larger ones for the staff. 

Tourtiere originated in the province of Quebec as early as the 1600s and, while it is enjoyed any time of the year, it is a traditional part of Christmas and New Year’s celebrations in Quebec.

French Canadian Tourtiere

¾  tbsp butter
¼  tsp oil
1 onion, diced
1 lb. lean ground pork
½ lb. ground lamb
1 clove garlic, minced
1 ½  tsp salt
½  tsp thyme, crushed
¼  tsp sage
¼  tsp black pepper
1/8  tsp ground cloves
1 prepared double pie crust, uncooked
1 whisked egg white (optional)

In a large sauce pan add butter and oil (oil helps to prevent butter from scorching) over medium-low heat. When warm add onions. Cook slowly over medium-low heat until onions are caramelized being careful not to burn the onions. Set aside. In another pan cook pork for seven minutes stirring occasionally. Add lamb. Mix. Cook for seven more minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add garlic, salt, thyme, sage, black pepper, cloves, and onions. Mix. Cook five
minutes more stirring occasionally. Place in colander. Drain until excessive moisture is gone.  Let it cool for one hour.  Cut dough in shape of dish.  Use scraps to cover sides and bottom of dish. Press meat into the dish. Place crust on the top. Crimp edges. Slit air holes so steam can escape. (optional) Brush the crusts with whisked egg whites. Bake in preheated oven at 425 degrees F for 30 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Let it cool 10 minutes before cutting. Serve. Can be frozen uncooked.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Spicy Korean Chicken Stew

Recipes are found in cookbooks, which are one of the most popular
selling genres, on the internet, plus we all have family recipes; but, when I am looking for something different to make, I refer to the cooking classes John and I have taken in a variety of countries.  I like the fact that we completed the recipe, know it is correct, plus we have taste-tested it, and that it is ethnically authentic because the class was taught by a local chef. An added benefit is that we get to relive our trip while making the recipe at home.  

When my husband, John, and I were in Seoul, Korea, in March 2013 we took a cooking class at O’ngo Food Communications. We made several dishes including Spicy Chicken Stew. The teacher/chef, Hyejin Kim, said it is the recipe that most people want to learn how to make. 

Chicken is very versatile and relatively inexpensive so I thought the
spicy stew would be the perfect dish to make during the winter. I had not tried to make at home. There was another couple in our cooking class which made the class more enjoyable. When the class was finished we dined together on the recipes we made.  The chef joined us and we discussed Korean table etiquette.

Politeness and respect of elders is very important to Koreans. Chef Kim said that while manners have relaxed in Korea just as they have elsewhere many families try to retain the old ways. Korean meals consist of several dishes placed on the table family-style to be shared by everyone. The oldest person sits down first then everyone else may sit. Eating begins when the oldest person picks up their chopsticks. Guests should try to eat at the same pace as the oldest person. When offered an alcoholic drink it is considered impolite to refuse, especially if offered by an elder. If you do not want more to drink do not empty your glass/cup. When offered more food, and you would like more, decline twice and then accept the third time it is offered. Leave a little food on your plate at the end of the meal indicating that the host has provided enough food. There is no point in saving room for dessert because dessert is not commonly served after a meal. Koreans eat quietly saving discussion for after dinner.

Spicy Korean Chicken Stew (Dak Dori Tang)

1 ½-2 lbs bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces (drumsticks, breasts,                      and/or wings)
2-3 onions, cut in quarters
4-6 potatoes, peeled and cut to wedges
1 large carrot, peeled and cut to about 1-inch pieces
2 scallions, cut in 1-inch long pieces
1-2 tbsp oil (enough to cover the bottom of the cooking pot)

1 tbsp chili sauce
½ tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp chili powder
½ tbsp rice wine
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
½ tbsp sugar
¼ tsp black pepper 
1 tsp sesame seed, crushed
1-2 cups of water

Cut all vegetables, set aside. Mix all the sauce ingredients (not the water), set aside. Put oil in cooking pot (can use a crockpot) on medium heat for three to four minutes. Add vegetables and chicken slowly being careful that the oil doesn’t spatter. Sear for four to five minutes stirring occasionally. Add sauce mixture and water.  Bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium. Cook about one-and-half to two hours, or until all ingredients are cooked, and the sauce has thickened.  Serve with rice. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Be adventurous – Try Iguana Soup

I think travel is about discovering new places and learning about new cultures. Part of the discovery is learning to appreciate other people’s culture and respect the way they do things, their beliefs, and all aspects of their culture. One of the best ways to learn about people is to explore their cuisine. 

On our visit to Bonaire in September 2015, John and I stayed at Divi Flamingo Beach Resort & Casino.  The hotel had just completed a multi-million dollar renovation project that included an upgrade to both pools.  My favorite place to spend time was around the largest pool relaxing in one of the curtained cabanas. The pool had underwater music. 

The island is a semi-arid desert where iguanas are plentiful. Wildiguanas are indigenous to Mexico, Central America, parts of South America and some Caribbean islands like Bonaire. There are feral iguanas in California, Florida and Hawaii. Iguana Soup is a favorite of the local people claiming it is a cure-all for just about any malady plus it is an aphrodisiac, which seems to be the most common attribute given to unique foods. I liken eating iguana to people in parts of the United States who eat rabbits, squirrels, and frogs.  Iguanas are free for the capturing.

One day we visited the historic village of Rincon in the northern part of the island. The village is in a valley where it was safe from seafaring marauders.  We stopped by Posada Para Mira restaurant overlooking Rincon.  Their menu included many local favorites such as goat stew, conch soup, and iguana soup.  

After our return from Rincon we chatted with Divi’s general manager, Charles Vos, and mentioned that we saw iguana soup on the menu of Posada Para Mira. He said iguana meat tastes like chicken.  Laughingly, I said it seems that is the usual comment when describing the taste of exotic food. He said his chef would gladly show us how iguana soup is made even though it is not on the hotel’s menu.  

A few days later Mr. Vos said that Lucio Mercera, the sous chef, had an iguana and was ready to show us how the soup is prepared.  Iguana Soup sounds more exotic than it tastes. The tender meat had less flavor than chicken and the broth tasted like Knorr’s soup. It is very boney. I did a quick check on the internet and found iguana meat can be purchased from Exotic Meat Market, 

Iguana Soup
1 iguana, ready to cook (skinned, gutted)
½ (half) cup lemon juice
½ (half) cup vinegar
1 tsp salt
Water – as needed
½ (half) large onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 green pepper, diced
1 large tomato, diced
2 carrots, diced
4 cloves of garlic minced
1 box Knorr’s instant noodle soup mix
1 tsp minced basil leaves

Cut the iguana into two-inch pieces with spine removed. Place in pot and cover with two inches of water. Add lemon, vinegar, and salt.  Stir and let sit for 5 minutes. Drain. Cover with two to three inches of water. Bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat until iguana is tender – about one hour. Add vegetables, garlic, and soup mix. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and cook five to ten minutes or until vegetables are tender. Garnish with minced basil leaves. Serve.  Watch out for the small bones.