Tuesday, March 31, 2015

C is for Cuba

About Our Choice

Only 90 miles from the coast of Florida, Cuba is a still a source of mystery to many Americans who grew up during the cold war. Our relationship with Cuba is complex. Culturally, the music, the food, and the Caribbean history and locale call to our imaginations and influence our own heritage thanks to many Cuban ex-pats. Cuban cigars have taken on their own mythology. Yet for the last few generations, an average American hasn't had the ability to see Cuba for themselves. Instead, Cuba is filtered for us through movies, art, and the media. When researching for this post, I ran across this page that includes a compelling description of Cuba that captures what intrigues us so about Cuba.

The Selection Process

For C, we had a wide variety of countries to choose from (24 in fact), ranging from Cambodia to the Czech Republic. We knew that there were some countries that we were going to eliminate. For example, Chile was out of the running since we had just explored Brazil. We also eliminated some obvious contenders like China because I (Tim) have an allergy to ginger. In the end, after much debate, we landed on two neighbors to the U.S. as our main contenders: Canada and Cuba. While both had appealing elements, we went with Cuba. Perhaps it was because of the cold winter we had been suffering through. I think we all were craving a reminder of sunnier climates. The awesome thing about Cuba was that we already had some experience cooking Cuban food (Cuban sandwiches and Soffrito Rice are favorites in our house). We did, though, set out to make all new recipes and to find some new favorites to return to throughout the year.

The Recipes

We weren't disappointed, the meal we put together was delicious and colorful, and so worth the time and effort. We made the following:

And for the grown-ups: Mojitos and Sangria

The Process

We decided this time to extend the fun to members of our family (Tim's sister and her family) and to enjoy the food in a festive atmosphere. We invited them over at 6, and we began the cooking at noon. 

We started by locating our music first. The Cuban Music Pandora station is outstanding and a lot of fun. We did our share of dancing as we cooked which set a great mood for the rest of the day.

First, we made the marinade for the chicken. The recipe called for red chilies. While we couldn't find red chili peppers at the local groceries, we found a tube of red chili paste that worked great. The color and flavor were amazing! We covered the chicken and let it start soaking up the goodness. By the way, we doubled this recipe to account for our added guests.

Next, we started making the Sofrito for the rice. This process was pretty easy, but it needed to be done ahead of time since it was an ingredient for another dish. The recipe above creates a large amount of Sofrito, so if you are just making this for the one dish, we'd recommend halving the recipe.

Next, we made the dough for the cookies. We found that the dough was drier than what we were used to, and the cookies turned out drier and more crumbly as well, almost like a biscuit. The cookie was less flavorful than we had hoped as well, but we had a great moment of inspiration. We whipped up an icing made of powdered sugar, grated lime peel and lime juice. The icing helped bring out the citrus flavor in the cookies. 

Once the cookies were done, we started the frying the plantains because our guests would be arriving soon. The recipe said that it wasn't uncommon to sprinkle fried plantains with salt or sugar. That got us wondering if doing both would be good. We like kettle corn, so we thought the same concept of sweet and salty might apply here. It did. They were delicious and didn't last long.

As the adults settled in to the plantains and mojitos, we started putting together the rest of the meal. At roughly the same time, we started the rice dish and the chicken dish. As with the chicken dish, we doubled the rice dish since we had guests. The Mango-Avacado Salsa was the last to be added, and the combination of the colors, flavors and textures was the perfect addition to an already beautiful dish!

What We Learned

We definitely struck out in new directions this time, and everything turned out well. We learned that inviting others to enjoy the fun is definitely a big bonus to this project. We also learned that adding our own touches to the dishes makes the creative process more fun and the food even better! We learned that Cuban cuisine is very flavorful and colorful. And finally, we found an amazing Pandora station that we will definitely be returning to.

Overall Thoughts

Tim- I couldn't get enough of the chicken. The marinade and salsa made the dish so inviting. That's good-for-your-soul food as far as I'm concerned. I like that we started with something somewhat familiar and expanded on it. I also like that we took risks with the recipes. This was easily my favorite meal so far (and I thought Brazil would be hard to top). 

Annie- I really enjoyed this meal, however, I'm not sure if it beat Brazil. The fried plantains were my favorite part, and also probably the easiest. The chicken was amazing and so flavorful. Beans are not my favorite food in the world, but I definitely liked the beans with rice. Overall a great meal and not too difficult.

Too See More Pics, Check Out Our Slideshow

Monday, February 23, 2015

B is for Brazil

About Our Choice

Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, France (French Guiana), Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela neighbor Brazil in South America. Brazil’s cuisine consists mainly of barbeque and potatoes, which is not quite what we had been expecting. Most Brazilians that you would have heard of are soccer players or models, including Ronaldo and Adriana Lima.

The Selection Process

18 countries begin with the letter “B”, and the Bahamas and Brazil were our first choices. Brazil was chosen almost immediately, as I knew my dad would not be there to help cook. He was at a conference in Florida and would not be home until after the meal was done. However, help was provided by my step-mother, Leslie.

The Recipes

It was fairly easy to find some recipes that would not be difficult and that looked amazing. Here is what we came up with:

The Process

The first thing that we did was start the broth (for the canja) and the chicken mixture (for the coxinhas). After that, we began to work on the dough for the coxinhas and shredding the chicken for the canja. The chicken and rice went in the soup, and it was almost done. We rolled out the dough and cut them into circles with about a 2” diameter. The dough was easy to work with, but we had difficulty making the coxinhas into their shape without ripping holes in them. We figured out that if you stretch out the dough in your hand before you start to fill them with the mixture, then it is so much easier to not rip any holes. After we had gotten the coxinhas into the right shape, they needed to be fried. This took a lot longer than expected, and while this was happening I started on the brigadeiro. It is so simple to make the brigadeiro. To make them, I put the ingredients in a pan and let them cook for about 10 minutes until they were thick.

During the cooking experience, we added Brazilian music which was a lot more relaxing than the Austrian music (not hating, just stating). “The Girl From Ipanema” by Antonio Carlos Jobim must have played at least seven times. Brazilian music has a little bit of a jazz influence that the Austrian music didn’t have.

Some difficulties that we had began with the canja and the brigadeiro. The rice in the canja soaked up so much broth and we ended up having to add extra. The brigadeiro ended up being very sticky and thick, so I would recommend chilling them in the fridge for about half an hour before you start to make them into balls.

What We Learned

  • Even though the Brigadeiro is very easy to do, make sure that you chill it in the fridge for a little bit before you shape it, or your hands will be extremely sticky.
  • Brazilian food has quite a few bay leaves. Like way more than you would think. 
  • We added the rice too early without realizing how long it would take to fry the coxinhas. The rice became very plump and absorbed a lot of the broth.
  • It is easier to stretch the dough from the Coxinhas out while it is in your palm so there is more dough to work with.

Overall Thoughts

Annie: I thought that the food was very delicious and it did not take much work to make it happen. The coxinha could make an excellent lunch any day, and I would love to be able to eat them again sometime. Brigadeiro is so simple and it tastes magical. Overall, while it was not easy, we still produced amazing results that I hope to experience again.

Leslie: I thought that cooking this meal was easy. I would have added more spice to the coxinhas, but the blandness was easily fixed with some hot sauce. It was a great lunch.

Tim: Arriving after a long drive and smelling the food was awesome. I was really tired and ready to eat. My favorite part was the coxinhas, but close behind was the brigadeiro. The coxinhas were so light, but also very filling at the same time. I have a notorious sweet tooth, and the brigadeiro was like a super tootsie roll on steroids.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

A is for Austria

For our first go at an international (and alphabetical) cooking experience, we chose Austria.

Austria is a European Country that neighbors the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, Italy, and Switzerland.

It's cuisine is diverse and shares a lot of elements with it's closest European neighbors. Beef and Pork feature prominently in their menus, as do sweet pastries.

Their cultural contributions include Father of Psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, Composers like Liszt, Strauss, Haydn, and Mozart, Artist Gustav Klimt, Scientists like Christian Doppler and Erwin Schrödinger, and poets such as Franz Werfel and Rainer Maria Rilke. We also have Austria to thank for Falco, but more on that later.

The Selection Process

We came to our decision to start with Austria by first figuring out what countries in the world begin with the letter "A" using this handy-dandy list.  We were surprised to find that 17 countries share this initial, including Antartica and Azerbaijan. While we are interested in an adventure, we definitely leaned toward the familiar for this first go-around. We pretty quickly narrowed our choice down to Argentina and Austria.

From there we started doing research on the cuisines of both countries. Here are some of the places we checked out:


A Tango of Flavors: 10 Traditional Argentinian Recipes
Argentinian Food


Viennese Cuisine and Famous Austrian Dishes
Austrian Food – A Native’s Guide To Best Dishes and Austrian Recipes

Argentina seemed to offer some great choices in the barbecue department, but since our family heritage is German, Austria seemed a fitting start to our journey.

The Recipes

At that point we went on a quest for the perfect recipes to try. We searched both online and at the library, but honestly, we found it difficult to find Austrian cookbooks at our local library. These are the recipes we initially landed on:

Viennese Potato Soup
Old Viennese-Style Roast Pork with Fried Potatoes
Apple Strudel à la Sacher

The Process

Next, we shopped for our ingredients. This is where we hit some challenges.

For example, a closer reading of the Strudel recipe would have immediately clued us into the fact that as amateurs on a tight schedule, we had no business taking on this particular dessert. In fact, as the day of our first meal approached we let go of that particular fantasy in stages. First we thought we might just replace the hand-pulled pastry that had to be done well-ahead of time with store bought pastry, but the more we read about it, the more we realized that this was no real solution. Next, we looked into purchasing a delicious Apple Strudel from our local (and wonderful) German restaurant (The Gerst Haus). Buying an entire Strudel was well out of our price range, so then we thought we would just throw in the towel and buy something pre-made at the grocery (perhaps in the frozen section?). Let me tell you that unless you have a hankering for Pilsbury Toaster Strudels, that option is off the table as well. So... we fell back on a dessert that, while not technically Austrian, was close enough for us- a delicious Mozart Chocolate Bar by Reber (Product of Germany). Here is our rational: if we could buy it at our local Fresh Market, surely we could buy it in Austria. Besides, Mozart was Austrian, right? Good enough.

Another challenge was translating the recipes from Austrian to English, and more importantly, the measurements from metric to US/Imperial (bet you didn't know it was called Imperial). Talk about problem-solving. This process is not for the faint of heart or the math-challenged. Annie did that part with the help of Google Translate and a Metric to Imperial Converter.

Another challenge we faced was finding certain ingredients, specifically vanilla sugar (for the Strudel we didn't make) and juniper berries. Note to self: When looking for ingredients you haven't personally owned before, you might not want to start at Walmart. They have a lot of stuff, but apparently they don't see enough demand for juniper berries.

All of that said, with only 2 recipes to conquer, we had pretty smooth sailing the evening of the event. We set the mood with an awesome Austrian yodeling Pandora station (yes, that's a thing) which featured a lot of music from Edith Diepold, the Austrian Yodeling Queen.

Yeah, we could have listened to Mozart, but we went all in with the yodeling.

By the way, we could have also listened to Falco's Rock Me Amadeus and Der Kommissar (Austria's contribution to the 80's), but there is a limit to my tolerance for vocal scratching- Ruh-ruh-ruh-rock me, Amadeus!

Once we had set the right tone, we worked together to prep the ingredients and get them sizzling in the oven (roast) and simmering on the stove (soup).

We noticed that our soup didn't really look like the soup pictured on the website, but it was really good anyway, and the roast pork with vegetables was AMAZING (juniper berries, who knew?).

The best part was that we sat down to a family meal together, and got to enjoy our creations while having great conversation, and yes, while listening to more yodeling.

What We Learned

  • Austrian food is closely related to German food. In fact, we had a hard time distinguishing them.
  • There is such a thing as the Austrian Yodeling Queen. You should check her out!
  • When trying new recipes/cuisines, read the recipes closely ahead of time, and be realistic about what you can accomplish.
  • Austrians take their Strudels seriously, and short cuts to success with them appear non-existent.
  • Converting from Metric to Imperial measurements is time-consuming, but estimation helps make it less so.
  • Mozart Chocolate is pretty amazing, but pricey (and German).
  • Google Translator is a handy tool when translating webpages on the Internet.
  • Austrian food is rich, and in some ways saltier than we were used to.

What We Thought Overall

Tim: I liked the pork best. The rub that featured the juniper berries was super flavorful and worth revisiting. I wish we had been able to take a run at the Strudel, but the candy bar was very satisfying, and all I really needed after such a big meal. I liked the soup as well (even though I typically shy away from mushrooms), and it was very easy to make for such a tasty reward.

Annie: I really liked the soup. I thought it was very savory and the mushrooms didn't even bother me. It was really salty, though. The pork was also good, but I couldn't eat much of it because it was so filling. I liked being able to sit down to a meal that I helped to make.


Check out our 30-second slideshow to see images from our Austrian Cooking Adventure:

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Project


Welcome to our Alphabet Soup Project Blog. We hope you enjoy learning along with us as we cook our way around the world.

About the Project

For New Years 2015, we decided to do a father-daughter project. Our inspiration came from a cookbook that we saw titled International Night by Mark and Talia Kurlansky. The cookbook came from a project of their own in which, "Mark spins a globe and wherever his daughter's finger lands becomes the theme of that Friday night's dinner."

We liked the idea of learning more about the world through food, so we decided to try our own approach to this project. Since we spend every other week together, we realized that we would be able to take on this project once every 2 weeks (or 26 times in 2015). As a result, we decided to go alphabetically. In each week we would select a country that begins with the letter of the alphabet that occurs in order, beginning with A.

After we select our country, we will research the national cuisine of that country, imagine a menu with at least 2 courses, shop for the ingredients, and cook the meal for our family. As an added bonus we will add other cultural elements that we discover along the way (music, traditions, dress, etc.).

We will share our learning, our recipes, and photos on this blog. 

About the Authors

Tim Wilhelmus works with teachers to find meaningful ways to harness technology for the sake of learning. He enjoys cooking, traveling, singing in his band (The Boat Monkeys), anything nerdy or geeky, spending time with family, and visiting Disney World. His hopes for this project are to grow as a cook, to learn more about the world, and to have fun with his family.

Anwyn Wilhelmus is a freshman at Signature School. She enjoys reading, playing cello, photography, eating good food, doodling, learning anything new about math, going to Disney World, and school. She hopes to become a better cook, learn about different cultures, work on a project with her dad, and learn to blog.