Just because we can’t travel during the Covid-19 pandemic, doesn’t mean we can’t still explore the culinary traditions of various countries from the comfort of our own kitchens.
This wasn’t a conscious thought. As the travel restrictions weighed more heavily upon me I started to broaden my cooking, unconsciously seeking out new recipes from favorite countries that reminded me of my visits. Then one day I realized I’d taken a grand tour of Europe without leaving my dinner table. Over the course of two weeks I cooked ten different international meals. With the resulting leftovers and lunches I had 14 days of reminiscences of past visits while enjoying the taste of each country.
And it wasn’t just Europe I visited. I went to Cuba (I wish!) New England (a favorite summer haunt) and to North Africa for an adventurous dish. But it really all started rather simply in Mexico.
I’m a big fan of tacos, but not one of “messy eating around the dinner table” tacos. So now I make taco bowls to be eaten with a fork and spoon. Yes I’ll still eat tacos as street food, say, in Mexico City, with sauce dripping down my chin and arms, but doesn’t this look more inviting?
The next evening I was transported to Spain over a dish of Chicken Chilindron. This dish could be from any Mediterranean country except for the addition of smoked paprika, a.k.a. smoked pimenton, a very distinctive Spanish spice added for its red smoky heat. The aroma and taste had me right back in Extremadura, Spain, where smoked pimenton has its own DOC.
For a Friday in Lent I made cod cakes. The Iberian Peninsula is historically connected to cod, with Basque fishermen crossing the Atlantic, way before Columbus “discovered” the New World, to catch and dry fish for transport back home. All the salt cod you see today is descended from their preserving tradition. The Portuguese fished New England’s cod banks as well. This recipe is from an older Portuguese woman I once knew. It is healthier and more complex than the deep fried Spanish cod croquettes I love.
The next three dishes could easily be lumped into an Italian trifecta. Not that I was on a roll here. And certainly pizza the way I make it has nothing to do with Italy. But it’s still good and does have Italian-American roots. No, these reflect a desire for a more extended stay in the boot of Europe.
And while the scallops in white wine and garlic could be found along any Mediterranean coast, serving them on pasta got the dish included here.
But the true dish of Italy I made was a huge batch of slow-cooked Bolognese sauce, fragrantly simmering all day in my kitchen. It made a great base for some homemade ravioli I enjoyed for many days before freezing a quart for another trip, er, I mean meal. And speaking of slow cooking, I also made a vat of Pasta e Fagioli, unconventionally using some Rancho Gordo pinto beans I got as a Christmas gift. (If nothing else, we’ve all learned to improvise ingredients during this pandemic shut down.) I enjoyed the soup’s rich deliciousness many times.
Then, while I was in the neighborhood, I thought I’d skip across the Mediterranean to taste a bit of Ethiopia. It wasn’t my plan, but I was inspired by a description of berbera spice mix on Milk Street Radio one Sunday. Apparently Ethiopians put berbera spice in everything, everyday, and each house has its own distinctive blend. I researched the basic recipe and made my own, adding and subtracting to my tastes. By the second batch I knew to use less hot ingredients, so everyone in the household can enjoy this taste of North Africa. The result is Doro Wat, an Ethiopian chicken dish with a red onion to chicken ratio of 1:1, a head of garlic, and a half cup of berbera spice blend. Wow! Just Wow! I doubled the next batch of berbera I made so I can use it every day, too.
Europe bound once more, I had a layover in Greece, because I always wanted to. And because I had all the ingredients for this delicious sounding dish: Greek Braised Chicken, a.k.a. Kota Kapama. It’s not what you’d think – no olives or feta cheese – just a healthy amount of cinnamon and allspice rubbed into the skin-on chicken thighs before they are braised in a tomato and wine stock. It was just so fragrant and tasty – Yum!
On my last visit to France (and the word “last” takes on new meaning during this pandemic as I wonder if we’ll ever travel again . . . ) I was in the Lorraine region when I remarked that during my entire visit I had not tasted the celebrated local dish, quiche. Arrangements were promptly made, and quiche was served with drinks before dinner, by a chef who disdainfully told me that we “never serve quiche here.” (I can only throw my hands in the air and exclaim “THE FRENCH”! when I think of it. They should serve quiche more often – and more civilly.) It was delicious. Since then I have it on rotation in my kitchen, using up bits and pieces of ingredients and things “going bad” in the refrigerator. This one used up the sheets of phyllo pastry left over from the Greek spinach and feta dish, Spanakopita, that I ate all of but neglected to photograph!
Last year a sale on pork loins left me with an eight pound loin (I cannot resist a food sale!) Half was butterflied, stuffed with herbs, wrapped in prosciutto and braised (with much work and little reward except that it was pretty) while the other was frozen. I thawed that for the next two dishes.
The first was a slow-cooked New England balsamic and stock braise on red potatoes and carrots. It fits the travel theme because we visit family in New England often. Coastal Maine and New Hampshire are favorites for summer fun and food, so while it wasn’t lobster rolls I was cooking, it was comfort food.
But the real reason to cook the pork, besides making room in the freezer, was for the leftover pork needed to make Cuban Sandwiches. With thinly sliced pork loin, Swiss cheese, ham, dill pickles, and two kinds of mustard layered in a crusty loaf, then pressed and grilled, these are always a favorite in our house. They were so satisfyingly chewy-delicious served with a horseradish cole slaw and a cold beer. Heaven!
There was another Cuban dish – Braised Chicken. It tasted great, but except for the raisins, olives, and capers it looked just like all the other chicken dishes pictured above. So, instead of looking at same ol’ same ol’, here’s a picture of the Cuban Sandwiches plated:
So wasn’t that a fun vacation to the culinary hotspots of the world? You got to read it and enjoy a vicarious tour through kitchens of seven countries, while I gained five pounds cooking and eating! Does that seem fair to you?
Do you like to recreate the dishes of your favorite vacation destinations? Please tell me about them in the comments below (and share the recipe!) Thanks for reading.