Za’atar Thyme

This installment I go a bit further east along the Mediterranean Sea to the middle east for a spice blend. Thyme is not the only herb in Za’atar, the particular version I used also has the requisite sesame seeds, sumac and salt but also marjoram and oregano. A very aromatic blend.

If you haven’t guessed this is another cooking at home entry. Za’atar is used a lot of different ways from adding it to olive oil dipped pita to sprinkling it into hummus to adding it to meat and vegetable dishes. I opted to try the last of those by using pork as my protein. While pork is not a huge middle-eastern favorite I had that 2lb slab of pork left from the sausage making so it would do. I had about 2 tbsps of the spice so mixed it with olive oil to make a paste to spread on each side of the pork and then let it marinate (sort of) for a while.

I wanted it tender so I decided to sear it on both sides and then throw it in the pressure cooker with some chicken stock for the pressure liquid and a small onion sliced thin. It came out tender, however in hindsight I think baking it would have preserved more of the spice blend on the pork. It still tasted nice with the thyme and oregano coming through well. I captured more of the other flavors using some of the juices later.

To keep the meal in theme I made some couscous and homemade pita bread and then added some mixed vegetables for color and just because they’re good.

After taking the picture I added the aforementioned juices to the couscous and pork and that perked up both.

I’ve used za’atar before in chicken dishes from Blue Apron so I know it goes well with chicken too. My favorite way to date though was using some on a pita with olive oil and a bit of feta and baking it just a bit. It’s a very versatile blend and worth trying out.

Scandinavian Yums

The April 2020 box from Universal Yums had snacks from various Scandinavian countries one of which was my hoped for licorice.

The countries represented in this box were: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. I expected the licorice to be from Denmark but it turned out to be Finnish.

As the package says it was indeed salty. It was packaged such that you could peel the strips apart and there were three layers of strips together so you could stretch out the fun of this for a long time. In spite of the the fact that I’ve mentioned it so many times it wasn’t my favorite item from the box.

My favorite item turned out to be the Choko-Flager, an oat cookie sandwich with chocolate filling.

The cookies were light and crispy with some really nice darkish chocolate. Was amazing with a cup of coffee. I wouldn’t have known they were oat cookies. It had a nice texture and that dark chocolate had just the right amount of bitter to compliment the sweetness of the cookie.

The runner up for me in this box turned out to be one of the little candies in the Yum bag. Sadly I didn’t snap a picture of any of these which is truly unfortunate because they made up two of the four highlight spots.

Number 2 was the Nöt-creme cookie dough pralines. Man these were close to number 1. The chocolate outer shell was okay but the cookie dough flavored filling was excellent. It was definitely thinner than real cookie dough but the taste was spot on unlike my least favorite snack in the box.

The Kolafabriken Fizzy Toffee was supposed to be bubblegum toffee and it was a pink and blue sugar bomb that would pull teeth out. It was very colorful and that’s about all I can say for it. At least the one I’m classifying as the weirdest got cool points for the shape.

When I first saw this package I thought that was an octopus and was very afraid of what this might be but then I noticed the name and looked closer and saw it was a skull and crossbones. Well nothing says cheery snack like pink skulls and crossbones. Turns out that’s true. These little raspberry gummies had a sour sweet outside dusting that dissolved into a sweet chewy raspberry workout for your jaws. It was a big bag and required more than one sitting to finish. I don’t know what the Swedish fascination with skulls is but there was another snack shaped like a skull as well (chocolate with strawberry filling).

Have to give a shout out to these Norwegian chips just for the name, although they did have a nice spice blend.

Overall not a bad box. I think they could have done better but I enjoyed most of the treats. Next month is another repeat country, the Philippines.

Sweet Harissa

Tunisia

eu irish passport stamped with entry and exit visas with arabic ...

This is the first time I’ve added a new country to the blog in quite a while. Unfortunately it’s not because I found some great new restaurant specializing in foods from Tunisia. Nope it’s because I was stuck in the house and had a left over ingredient from a Blue Apron meal I didn’t make, harissa paste. Harissa paste is used widely in North Africa but generally thought to have originated in Tunisia so I decided to run with it.

I expect you’re saying to yourself, “that looks like ketchup that’s been sitting out too long how did that inspire anything but nausea?” Well let me tell you. Since I haven’t been able to get out to the international eating places I decided I’d have to bring them to me and try out spices and recipes from countries I haven’t been able to find restaurants for. I had the harissa paste so this became the first entry in the quarantine series. Hopefully this will be a short series.

Harissa paste comes in many variations but basic elements are red peppers (hot and not), coriander, cumin, garlic, caraway seeds, and olive oil plus others stuff that strikes the creators fancy. When I peeled back the label on the Blue Apron version the smell of the peppers and cumin were very prominent and it smelled good. Now I had to figure out what to do with it.

I decided to use it in a chicken stew I threw together using some chicken and stock I made and froze to use as a base for soups and stews.

In keeping with the north African / Mediterranean theme I added a can of chickpeas and then some tomatoes and spinach for some additional color and taste. Of course the harissa paste of which there wasn’t as much as I would have liked. The aroma that filled the kitchen while the stew simmered was quite pleasant. Once it had simmered and thickened a bit I decided to serve it over rice to stretch this out for a couple of additional meals.

It was very hearty and delicious for this and the additional meals I made out of it. Two things I wish are that I’d had more harissa paste and that this paste had been a little hotter but otherwise this was a great use of a very versatile spice mixture / condiment. If you’ve never tried it don’t be shy about giving it a shot and if you have let me know how you liked it or didn’t as the case may be.

Since this is a new country there is a Tell Me More page you can check out for recipes, a music video, and a random fact.

Brazilian Yums

Universal Yums presented the first repeat country this month with a second box of snacks from Brazil. Fortunately there was only one actual duplicate among the goodies.

It was a good mix of sweet and savory so a little something for every taste. I did get something different this month in the form of cassava chips that wound up filling the “weird” snack spot. My favorite though was a white chocolate strawberry number.

Bib’s Morango Extreme bar was quite the surprise. As soon as the package was opened the strawberry smell leapt out and grabbed me by the nostrils.  The bar itself was decent white chocolate and the strawberry was in the form of crunchy little bits of concentrated flavor that made this a delight to eat. Number 2 for me was the 1891 bar.

Another white chocolate entry. I’m not a huge fan of white chocolate so having it be top two is something I’d consider unusual. I’m not even sure how to describe this. I didn’t feel like it was all that tropical but it was delicious. The banana was there but muted for me and the caramel was a nice addition. Somehow it all worked. Now for the weird.

The Mandioca Chips Cebola were thin sliced and fried cassava chips flavored with onion and garlic. I liked the flavor of these but the texture was what got it slotted as weird. It definitely had crunch but I wouldn’t call it crispy, unlike a potato chip. Basically it had more give before the snap of the crunch. Not sure how to describe it other than that. Flavored ok but just an odd crunch. Still head and shoulders over the worst snack.

These were the only ones I actually disliked. They were coconut and cheese flavored cookies. I’ll just wait a second while you process that.

The sleeve of cookies held a boatload of half dollar sized cookies.  The coconut was evident by smell and coconut was the prominent flavor to start.  Then a weird sour flavor surfaced that was apparently supposed to be cheese.  It was cheesy but also kind of stinky feety.  Not a fan.

Brazil 2 definitely suffered the sophomore slump from my perspective but still enjoyable on the whole.

The next box is filled with Scandinavian snacks. Fingers crossed there will be at least one good licorice treat.

Edit: Shortly after wrapping up the post the Scandinavian Yum box was delivered and there is some licorice now I just have to hope it’s good. From my quick perusal I think I’m going to enjoy this box a lot.

Time to Make the Sausage

Since we’re all sitting at home avoiding a global pandemic and looking for stay at home things to do I thought I’d drag out the old meat grinder and make some bratwursts.

When I was out buying essential provisions to shelter in place I saw this big old hunk of pork shoulder on sale and this 7 lb slab of meat made the trip home.

Now cleanliness is very important and the first thing I did was sanitize all the work surfaces and the sink I’d be additionally sanitizing the various tools and parts in with a mild bleach solution. Then using the same one step sanitizer I use in brewing sanitized everything in the cleaned sink.

Once everything was clean and sanitary it was time to cut the meat into pieces that would fit in the grinder chute, about an inch or so. I had enough brat seasoning for 5 lbs of sausage and a 7 lb piece of meat so as I was slicing I grabbed a piece that happened to weigh in a 2.1 lbs and vacuum sealed it for later use in a pot, either Crock or Instant depending on what time of day inspiration strikes.

After getting the meat cut into manageable chunks they got to chill out in the freezer for a bit because firmer bits go through the grinder easier. This gave me some time to clean up the work area and get started on the casings.

I used natural hog casing. They came packed in salt so I had to rinse them off then soak them for a bit before running some water through them to make sure the insides were rinsed as well. Let me tell you if you think getting the plastic bags at the self check out to open up is a pain they have nothing on trying to get a slippery wet hog casing to open up. Once that was all done I could set it aside for later. And back to the meat.

The little meat grinder I have was a Christmas gift that I had only used a few times up to this point and with mixed success. This turned out to be the most successful usage to date. The meat was nice and firm and the flow was consistent so the job didn’t take very long. The next part was adding the spice mix and combining it with the meat.

I had premixed bratwurst spices so fortunately all I had to do was dump and blend. I didn’t have a bowl big enough initially to hold all the ground meat so I did two bowls and split the seasoning. The mixing reduces the volume so I was able to ultimately add the two together and do some more blending to get a reasonably uniform dispersal of the spice blend which is key. Now I was ready to stuff the sausage.

My meat grinder came with a sausage stuffing attachment but it didn’t work well for me the first time so I bought a dedicated apparatus for the situation. Upon reflection the issue was probably more inexperience rather that machine fault but that’s in the past now.

So after clamping the stuffer in place and filling the barrel came the lubing of the tube so the casings slide on nice and easy. This is actually more time consuming than you might imagine because you’re trying to keep it even and not tear the casing while carefully sliding it over the plastic tube. Once I had that done it was tie off the end and start cranking. You have to be careful and try to avoid air pockets and there is even a little pricker tool you can use to make small holes in the casing to let the air out. I wound up going through 3 casings and some hiccups that left me with a busted casing and some bulk sausage not to mention the uneven link sizes but overall not a bad haul.

If I had a bigger freezer I’d have probably made more but as it was this would be enough for this round of sausage making. It’s really not that hard to do and if you want to get started they have manual grinders that aren’t very expensive and little electric ones like mine that aren’t that bad and even attachments for some stand mixers that do the job. It’s an interesting way to control what goes in your sausage and maybe add some flavors you might not get just anywhere.

After a trip to procure some buns the end result was grilled, topped with a little spicy mustard and some homemade sauerkraut. Deee-lishus.

French Yums

The February box from Universal Yums was stocked with snacks from France. I was really hoping for the some fancy escargot flavored chips but alas things were not that exotic.

While I didn’t get to try my first snail in this box there were some other quite decent snacks to try. The oddest was also one of my favorites so I’ll save it for the Odd slot and promote another to the Silver Medal spot. In a fortunate situation the Worst one was really just disappointing rather that bad and I’ll start with that one to put it behind us.

The Sibell Tube a Grignater Fromage looked like it should have been great. I mean it’s a cheese snack from France how can it not be good? Well if you don’t really have enough cheese flavor that’ll do it. The tubes were mostly squashed flat rather than being a rounded tube. I guess that made packaging more efficient. The corn snack was crunchy and corny but the cheese element was disappointingly light.

The chocolate elements fared better and all three were very tasty, however the Cemoi Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt Crystals was the top of the box for me.

I’d call it darkish rather than straight up dark chocolate that was nevertheless good quality and the salt crystals were a nice add. The whole had a slightly smokey flavor that was just delicious.

These little strawberry chews were a favorite also. They were a bit waxy and tough but I grabbed a handful and ate one at a time. Turned out the heat from my hand softened them a little and made them easier to chew. The flavor was absolutely artificial strawberry with a little sourness but they embraced it and poured it on. I know that doesn’t sound like it should be in the favorites but they were a treat to eat. The chews had that in common with the weirdest of lot.

The brown oblong blob on the left is a tart cola taffy that was probably the snack I enjoyed the most in a box that had good stuff. The chewy texture was like a taffy and the cola flavor was in your face from the start. It also had some added tartness that I could feel in the pucker glands (those exist, don’t doubt me).

I have to give the truffles honorable mention.

The first pic shows a pack that was about the size of standard candy bar and the 4 truffles in this pack, that looks like something you’d buy at the gas station or as you’re at the checkout line, were better quality than the fancy box ones. They were just plain old creamy cocoa dusted truffles but damn fine. The fancy box ones were almond flavored cocoa dusted truffles and were quite good as well. The flavor and texture gave it a marzipan-y taste and mouthfeel if marzipan brought a big chocolate friend. Good stuff.

So even if I didn’t have anything really new from a flavor profile there were some good snacks in the box. The next box is from Brazil so I hoping to get some new flavor from them.

Polish Yums

The most recent box from Universal Yums was loaded with great snacks from Poland. I was excited for these because I’ve been to Poland a couple of times so I felt more connected even though I didn’t have any of these.

Another pretty solid box, nothing that would make a top 10 all time snack list but nothing making the worst 10 either.

It was actually difficult to pick a favorite because there was no “star” but several I really liked. Upon reflection I enjoyed one of the simple ones most.

E. Wedel Ptasie Mleczko are dark chocolate covered vanilla marshmallow treats. The chocolate was moderately dark and had a good cocoa taste. The marshmallow was a slightly different texture than most I’ve had. It was almost like a cross between marshmallow fluff and a gummy. Very sweet with a hint of vanilla. As I said simple but tasty. The next favorite was more complex in the flavors dept.

This big bag of Pierniczki Basniowe turned out to be heart shaped gingerbread covered with dark chocolate and filled with an apple jam like substance. Lots of flavors going on here. The chocolate was decent, the gingerbread was mild and the touch of apple filling was appley and sweet. Very nice combo and hard to stop eating. Weirdly it was also hard to stop eating what I’m putting in the “worst” category.

I didn’t even get a picture of these so here’s a photo from the internet.

Image result for beskidzkie paluszki

These were poppy seed covered pretzel sticks. Worst in this case means they were the most disappointing, not that they were bad. The pretzel stick was actually delicious and the poppy seeds were plentiful but there was no salt other than what might have been in the stick batter. In my opinion that was a significant lack. However once I started munching on them I kept going back for one more crunchy little stick.

The oddest one was also one I’d say was probably my third favorite of the box.

Rarytas Crackers were little Ritz like crackers with black cumin seeds and onion. I like cumin as a spice but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to add it to a cracker, fortunately someone else had better vision. After tasting the first of these I immediately went and made a bowl of soup to go with the crackers and make no mistake the soup was the side dish for the meal. I mean I really enjoyed these crackers.

I’m going to throw out a mention to the first of the snacks I had out of the box just because they were fun.

These little ghost shaped potato crisps were light, crisp, salty and potatoish. A tad on the greasy side but still made me smile as I devoured the little spirits.

I think next month’s box is going to be from France so I’m hoping for wine and cheese but no snail flavored snacks.

Get Samoha

Nigeria

On this bright sunny, if not exactly warm, afternoon I got the culinary passport out and ventured north to Charlotte’s Sugar Creek Rd to grab some food at Samoha African Cuisine restaurant. They are labeled as west African or even more specifically a Nigerian restaurant (thus the country title) depending on where you see them referenced.

The shopping strip they are in is not exactly parking friendly but I found the lone spot and popped in. I was greeted with a big smile and welcome from the lady behind the counter. They have a few tables for dining in however they prominently display their ability to handle take-out as well and that’s what I decided to do.

They have a lot of the stuff made up like a cafeteria so they can fill an order and get you moving quickly. It’s nice that you can see what you’re getting prior to ordering and they had a number of good looking items. I decided to go with the jollof rice, fried plantains and some stewed goat meat for protein.

When I got to the register the gentleman checking me out was also smiling and pleasant and when I asked him to pick me out a soda he liked from the case he was more than happy to grab me a Jamaican Pineapple soda he said was his favorite.

I saw the lady loading the jollof rice into the container but didn’t appreciate how much it was until I got home and really got a look at it and there was easily two meals worth. If you haven’t had it before it’s basically tomatoes and rice with onions, peppers and spices and both times I’ve had it the onions and peppers were very finely cut up so you hardly knew they were there except for the taste. That it was rice and tomatoes reminded me of my father as he liked that combo a lot and factored into my decision to get it over something else.

It was very tasty and meshed well with the sauce from the stewed goat which was also tomato based. The two big hunks of goat meat were cooked reasonably tender and were virtually boneless, just one little piece that easily pulled away. There was a little skin and gristle but the taste was good and not even remotely spicy, which I kind of expected.

The fried plantains were a lightly sweet contrast to the acidity of the tomatoes in the other two dishes and the pineapple soda went surprisingly well with the meal. The pineapple was not as tart and strong as straight pineapple but present enough it was enjoyable and you knew what flavor you were drinking.

It was sufficiently good I didn’t regret having to drive on I-77 & I-85 to get there (a testament all by itself) and would do so again. Maybe I’ll try one of the fufu dishes next time, the melon soup sounded interesting.

Spaghetti Western

Italy

To be fair I didn’t have spaghetti but the restaurant was such a ghost town tumbleweeds were blowing through.

It occurred to me that I have really given Italian restaurants a short shrift for much the same reason I avoid the standard Chinese & Mexican restaurants in every shopping plaza in America. They tend to be generic and for all practical purposes share the same menus. Acknowledging that prejudice I decided to give a local Italian joint a chance.

Right around the corner from me I have two to chose from, located in adjacent shopping plazas, Mario’s & Luigi’s. It makes me chuckle every time I think about it, all we’re missing is a Princess Peach Ice Cream Parlor. I’ve eaten at both since moving to Rock Hill so I knew Mario’s had very little in the way of atmosphere and the menu was pretty standard. Luigi’s has the Italian restaurant aesthetic with pictures, vines, and wines.

When I got there the staff was already outnumbering the customers and the single table of 3 left shortly after I arrived so I was soon the lone diner. My server was very nice and attentive throughout the meal. The menu did have the staples of various noodles with red sauce or alfredo and various parmigianas plus of course pizzas. I decided on the Chicken ala Luigi as something that was a little different.

The Chicken ala Luigi was a couple of thin chicken breast pieces lightly floured and seasoned along with mushrooms and artichokes in a garlic, white wine sauce over fettuccine. It came with 3 little garlic bread sticks. The first bite was not impressive. The sauce was decent but it felt like it was missing something. I got a bite with some of the chicken and the blank was filled in, salt. The bit of salt from the seasoned chicken made the difference and the same for the bread that had garlic salt on it. It had the effect of making one appreciate the chicken and bread more than usual. Now lest you wonder why I didn’t just add some additional salt, I probably would have as a reflex except there was no salt or pepper on the table. I decided not bother requesting any and just enjoy the extra importance the chicken and bread assumed.

Honestly if I had to pick between this and Olive Garden the only reason I’d pick Luigi & Sons is because they were local and not a chain.

One bit of amusement I probably wouldn’t have gotten at the Olive Garden was my server talking with a co-worker about things going on in their lives and a subject came up that the one said to the other, “That’s probably not something to talk about out here”. They walked into the kitchen and because of the noise raised their voices so I heard the conversation even clearer than when they were standing in the dining area.

It was good enough I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it even if I’m not making it a regular on the “I’m too lazy to cook tonight” tour.

Trail Head

So as I mentioned in the last entry my plan was to start hitting the international flavored restaurants again and while Legal Remedy Brewing doesn’t represent any country specifically there are some tenuous international connections which I’ll point out a bit later.

What kind of derailed my initial plans were the weather and downloading the Visit York County app so I could do the Brew Trail & Taste Trail. One is a list of breweries in the county and if you check in at 6 of 8 you can get a t-shirt and the the taste trail has a list of 15 or so restaurants and if you hit 12 and have their “signature” dish you can also get a t-shirt. I saw these as win, win, win contests and I love winning contests. I decided to start both at the one establishment that gave me a twofer being on both lists. Legal Remedy Brewing is also a place I’m familiar with and like.

Their signature dish for the Taste Trail is an appetizer, Southern Poutine.

Here’s our first international connection, Poutine is a Canadian dish, eh. The LRB Southern version happens to be well fried, semi-crispy French fries topped with smoked jalapeno pimento cheese, bacon, and pepper jelly. Initially I disdained cutlery and proceeded to play a sort of edible jenga game where the goal was to get a hold of the fry with toppings and not get any on me. That led to a leisurely dining experience until people started noticing the intense concentration and deliberation with which I was eating and I think they started worrying about my sanity. When the fork and knife were brought to bear the pace was accelerated and the bacon and pimento cheese disappeared in a frenzy of fries.

The pimento cheese was good but I didn’t notice much smokey or jalapeno-y about it. The pepper jelly was an interesting addition that was more jelly and peppery. The bacon was just right. Overall it was enjoyable the portion generous enough I didn’t even finish it all. The beer might have helped in making me feel full.

As is my want in a place that offers the option, I got a flight of the seasonal offerings. As you can see I got a mix of light and dark. I started with the heaviest and went lighter as the meal progressed. The Barrel Aged: Elements of a Crime was an imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels and conditioned (I have no idea what that means) on Brazil Monte Verdi coffee from a local roaster. And there’s the other international connection, Brazilian coffee. The stout was just that and had very much embraced the barrel and its bourbonness.

The next dark beer was Exhibit:Gingerbread Porter. A mild porter that had some hints of clove but that was about the only one of the winter spices it was brewed with I could discern. After the two dark ones I had the Probation Pilsner, a German pilsner with a light flavor and hints of evergreen. I saved the Bribery Bittersweet Orange Wheat for dessert. A sip of that provided a nice flash of orange that quickly dissolved into a bitter finish, in a good way.

In summation your honor it was a good lunch and a great start to the trails.