Other things I’ve been cooking

Still no baby.

So in the meantime I’ve been cooking (and eating) a lot.  Here are some of my favorites:

These waffles are wonderful.  If you’re looking for a new homemade waffle recipe, this one is highly recommended.  I like to add a teaspoon of almond extract to the batter.

This puffy corn pancake recipe from the NY Times is also tasty.  The first time I made this, I used peaches instead of blackberries, and the second time I used wild plums.  I also baked it in a 12-inch cast iron skillet, which was just big enough.

Another NY Times recipe, this creamed corn with no cream is great.  I added garlic scapes and a poblano pepper to the shallots.  Oh, how I have missed the state-side vegetable selection!

Smitten Kitchen’s pasta with raw tomato sauce is really good.  No recipe tweaks necessary.

These tomato sandwiches (also NY Times) are amazing.  Please don’t leave out the bacon and mayo.

Food and Wine’s rosemary chicken with corn fricassee is very tasty and there will be lots of leftovers.  I would marinate the chicken for several hours next time, though, for more flavor.  And the fricassee is really good left-over with a fried egg on top.

I haven’t been making many (any, really) desserts because the ice cream selection here is so darn amazing.  I can literally go to a local dairy, pull up to the drive-through window, and get a cone of freshly churned ice cream (and a bag of cheese curds and some beef sticks).   Gotta love the USA!

Baking at home in Dhaka

I love to bake, so whenever I move to a new country, it’s always kind of an adventure figuring out what will and won’t be available on the local market. Sometimes I guess correctly, sometimes I don’t.

Before we came to Dhaka, I stocked up on baking powder because I’ve never been able to find baking powder outside of the US. Baking soda, on the other hand, is usually available everywhere, so I thought there was no need to bring that.

My first week in Dhaka, I was perusing the baking aisles and what did I see? Shit tons of baking powder and zero baking soda. Also lots of custard powder, whatever that is.

A sample of the baking goods at Dhali

A sample of the baking goods at Dhali

I did eventually find baking soda at Dhali, but only after I spent $4 to order a tiny box of it on Amazon.

There are lots of things you can find here on the local market that surprised me: Crisco, cake and brownie mix, pre-made frosting, vanilla extract, sprinkles and other decorations, brown sugar, powdered sugar, nuts (including walnuts and pecans), cream cheese, heavy cream, yogurt, peanut butter, and dried fruits, including cranberries. Some of it is expensive (nuts are ridiculously pricey), but mostly the prices are about what I’m used to in the DC area.

The peanut butter selection at Dhali.  It's not bad!

The peanut butter selection at Dhali. It’s not bad!

Since we are with the embassy, we are also able to shop at the commissary, which has some things (when it’s stocked, anyways) you can’t find on the local market, like puff pastry, Pillsbury croissants in a can, cinnamon rolls in a can, chocolate chips and peanut butter chips.

If you are moving to Dhaka and love to bake (or if you’re coming to visit and want to make me even happier), you should bring: unsweetened chocolate, baking chocolate (chocolate chips, dark chocolate, etc), corn syrup, yeast packets or jars of dry active yeast, and nuts.

One thing you will not find anywhere and cannot ship or bring in luggage is cooking spray. If you can’t live without it, I suggest investing in an oil mister thingy. I butter baking dishes with butter wrappers, which works really well, and so far hasn’t been too big of a problem. But I do miss the convenience of a big container of Pam, that’s for sure!

The Iftar experience

So much yummy food!

So much yummy food!

During Ramadan, Muslims break their fast at sunset with a meal called Iftar.

There are lots of Iftar parties, restaurants offer special Iftar menus, and it’s generally a time when you eat a lot of food, which is understandable if you’ve been fasting all day.

But for most Americans, who go about their day eating as they normally would, and then go to an Iftar, this when they start to pack on the pounds if they’re not careful (myself included).

The fast is traditionally broken with dates,* and the other food that is served varies depending on where you are, but there seems to usually be a good amount of fried food.

Cheese-filled pastries, potato and meat fritters, fried eggplant, Bangladeshi hush puppies, and more!

Cheese-filled pastries, potato and meat fritters, fried eggplant, Bangladeshi hush puppies, and more!

Nate and I were invited to an Iftar at the home of a Bangladeshi friend, and we’ve also been to some restaurant Iftars.  As you might expect, the home-cooked Iftar was hands-down the best.

Our friend and her family made fried meat and potato fritters, fried eggplant, fried pastries filled with cheese, fried lentil fritters, and fried semonlina fritters that tasted like Bangladeshi hush puppies.  She also made Vietnamese spring rolls, which were just amazing.  They served homemade limeade, made from the limes grown on their rooftop, and freshly made lassi, a sweet yogurt drink.

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I ate more than my fill, only to discover that this was just the Iftar meal, and dinner was still to come. So then I ate some really tasty chicken and rice.  I had flashbacks to hram in Moldova, which is a several-day celebration in each village, town and city in Moldova celebrating the name day for that locality’s patron saint.  You’d go from one party to the next, where you were expected to basically do nothing but eat.

A few nights ago we went to an Iftar party at Heritage, an Indian restaurant.  We were served Iftar plates, full of dates, fruit and fried food, and then there was a buffet dinner.  The halim, a spicy lentil stew with chunks of meat which is traditionally served for Iftar,  was tasty and not too greasy.

Iftar plate at Heritage; jilapi is in the top corner

Iftar plate at Heritage; jilapi is in the top corner

A traditional Iftar dessert (following in the “fried food” theme) is jilapi, which is basically like if you made a funnel cake and it didn’t expand while it was being fried, and then you soaked it in sugar syrup.  It’s crunchy, sweet, and you can’t tell when you bite into it if it’s grease or syrup that’s dripping down your chin.

It’s interesting going to restaurants right before Iftar because the restaurant will be packed, and there will be loads of food and drinks at every table, but no one is touching anything. When I sit down at a restaurant, I always reach for something to drink and it’s hard to see it in front of me, but to not drink it. I can’t even imagine how those that have been fasting all day must feel.

Iftar dinner buffet at Heritage

Iftar dinner buffet at Heritage

Tarka’s Iftar is really good, but the Iftar at Lucknow is the best.  Their saag paneer is just so darn tasty.

We tried Nando’s Iftar platter, and it was way overpriced, cold, and blah.  I think it will be a while before I go back to Nando’s because that experience was scarring.

There were lots of restaurants with Iftar specials that we wanted to try, but we just didn’t have time (or pants that would fit if we kept eating out every night). Luckily, there’s always next year!

Ramadan and other random things

Ramadan started last week, and it lasts until July 17, which is the date of Eid al-Fitr (not to be confused with Eid al-Adha.  I had no idea there were two Eids before moving here.).  Eid al-Fitr is one of the main holidays in Islam, and Ramadan is the period of fasting that leads up to it.  In terms of religious holidays, just like Christmas is the big one for Christians, Eid al-Fitr is the big one for Muslims.  From what I understand anyways; I could be wrong.

During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, which here is about 6:30 am to 6:45 pm. One afternoon, we walked to our favorite bakery, Holey, which caters to expats and is open during Ramadan.  All the usual market and tea stalls along the way were still there, but they were covered in tarps.  You could see some people behind the tarps drinking tea, although there was definitely less hustle and bustle than normal.  This is the first time I’ve been in a predominantly Muslim country during Ramadan, and it is interesting.

I am not observing Ramadan, and now that we are settled into our apartment, I’ve started doing some baking.  I made a mango upside-down cake for our amazing social sponsors, which was so good I made a pineapple up-side down cake the next day for me and Nate.  I’m sad to say that I made the cake 4 days ago and it’s almost gone… and Nate’s not much of a dessert eater, so, yes, I’ve eaten nearly the whole thing.

Not the best photo I've made of a cake, but tasty none-the-less!

Not the best photo I’ve made of a cake, but tasty none-the-less!

This morning I made an apple coffee cake that is also really good.   Nate likes coffee cake more than I do, so I’m really hoping that he’ll eat this one.

Whenever I’m cooking in our kitchen here, I’m always struck by the amount of garbage that we produce.  This is primarily because, since moving to Dhaka, we don’t recycle anymore. Even worse, we don’t pick up after our dog.

A few nights ago, we were cooking dinner and Nate asked if we needed to save a glass jar.  I said, “No, just toss it in the recycling.”  His response was, “Um, don’t you mean garbage?” Right…. Currently in our garbage there is paper, a empty egg carton, a yogurt container, soda cans, and an empty milk box. I feel so guilty.

I’m able to rationalize not recycling here because there are people who go through the garbage and pull out the recyclables. Not that I think that picking through garbage should be something people have to do to survive, but, hey, at least someone is trying to make some money and also happens to be helping the environment.

And if we picked up after our dog, then we’d be walking around with a bag full of poop and no where to throw it away.  We do our part, to the extent possible, and encourage Athena to take care of her business on the trash piles. But still, it feels strange and wrong.

Well I’m not really sure how this when from Islamic holidays to everything we’re doing wrong for the environment, but there you go, that’s my train of thought these days.

Fontina and Bacon Mac

This is definitely a year of “firsts” and there’s a new one to add to the list: I entered my first cooking competition.

Some A-100 friends hosted a Mac & Cheese-Off a few nights ago. It was very informal, and more of an excuse for everyone to make and eat lots of macaroni and cheese than an actual cooking competition.  But I am pretty competitive, so I was in it to win it.

I decided to use fontina cheese because it has a strong (but not overwhelming) flavor and is really creamy.  Add to that some mozzarella, and you have a cheese combination that melts nicely and tastes smooth but distinctly cheesy.  Then I added bacon because, well, most people that like mac & cheese also like bacon.

I sprinkled some Italian seasoned salt on top after it came out of the oven because I was worried it wasn’t salted enough.  And I’ve seen enough episodes of Top Chef to know that under-seasoning a dish can mean defeat.

We arrived at the party, and there were nine different mac & cheeses entered in the competition.  As soon as I saw that someone had brought fried chicken and mac & cheese waffles, I knew I was sunk.  It tasted really good and was very inventive, and the woman who cooked it literally spent all afternoon and several hours the day before cooking the dish.

The four judges tasted each dish, rated them from one to ten and then discussed their findings.  Eventually they announced the winners, starting with third place.  Much to my surprise, I won!  I’d convinced myself I wouldn’t win, so I was pretty happy.  And Nate was happy because he got to eat mac & cheese all night.

Just like in Top Chef, a classic perfectly-executed dish beats out the inventive pretty good dish every time!

Fontina and Bacon Mac

Time: 20 min preparation, 25 min baking (serves 8-12)

16 oz uncooked spiral pasta
3 c grated (packed) fontina cheese
1 c grated (packed) mozzarella cheese
1 c grated (packed) Parmesan cheese
2 c heavy cream (or half and half)
2 c milk
3 t flour
2 t salt
1 t freshly ground pepper
12 oz bacon, cooked crisp and diced
1 c Panko (you can also use crushed Saltines or crushed Rice Krispies)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Butter a 9×13 baking dish.

Cook the pasta in heavily salted water (more salt than you think you need) until al dente, about 5-7 minutes.  Drain the pasta, but don’t rinse it.

Whisk together the milk, cream and flour, and then stir in 2 c fontina, 1/2 c mozzarella and 1/2 c Parmesan.  Stir in the cooked pasta, salt, pepper, and bacon.

(Taste the mac & cheese at this point, even though it will be a little weird because the cheese isn’t melted. Add more salt and pepper if necessary.  I found this needs more salt than you’d expect.)

Spread the pasta/cheese/bacon mixture in the prepared baking dish, and sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese.  Sprinkle the Panko on the top.

Bake uncovered for 20-25 minutes, until bubbling and brown on top.

Other things you could add: 3 c sliced kale, 2 c chopped cauliflower or broccoli, etc. You could leave out the bacon and use ham, chicken, or turkey.

Do ahead: After sprinkling the Panko, cover the pan and refrigerate for up to 3 days.  Bake for 25-30 minutes.

Experiencing the DC melting pot

My office is in downtown DC, and I love working downtown.  All those things people complain about (tourists, motorcades, metro, etc), I love it all.

The views of the Capitol, Washington Monument, the Lincoln, White House, and the reflecting pond never get old and I smile every time I go by. I go for runs on the mall with a huge smile on my face simply because it’s so pretty.

Yesterday I was yet again reminded of how great it is to work in DC when some colleagues and I went to an event  in the Ronald Reagan building called “Winternational: A Global Celebration of the Season.” The event promised “a sampling of global bites,” and we’ll do just about anything for free food.

We entered the atrium, and there were at least 15 booths set up for various embassies from around the world to showcase local artisans and cuisine.  The first one we came to was Bahrain and, since I was there for the food, I grabbed a little pastry-ish-looking thing.  I chomped down on it, and it was a bit crunchier than I’d expected it to be (don’t worry, there wasn’t a dead bug or something in it).

The next booth we came to was Bangladesh!  I was hoping they would be represented since I love Bangladeshi food.

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This was when I realized that crunchy Bahrainian pastry had snapped half my retainer off my teeth.

It was also when my colleague told the woman at the booth that I am moving to Bangladesh next year.  She got a huge smile on her face and wanted to talk about Dhaka, but all I could think about was my damn retainer.  Last week I spent an arm and a leg at the stupid dentist getting the permanent retainer I’d had for 20 years (yes, 20 years) removed and a new one put in.

So I just smiled faintly and pushed my tongue around in my mouth to assess the retainer damage.

I called my dentist and set an appointment for that afternoon to get it glued back on.  I figured that I could bite and chew with the other side of my mouth in the meantime.  Very few things can stop me from eating.

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I don’t know exactly what I ate, but they were both vegetarian and really good!  The triangle-shaped one was like a samosa, and I have no idea what the other fritter-like thing is called.

Other notable food offerings included plates of beef rendang (Indonesia booth), lumpia (the Philippines), amazing coffee (Nepal), macarons and decorate-it-yourself gingerbread men.

This is probably an event they do every year, but this was the first year I knew about it.  If you are in DC in December of 2015, make sure you check it out! (And don’t bite too hard on crunchy pastries if you have recently had dental work done.)

My favorite holiday

Thanksgiving is in less than a week!  I have some big plans, people.

But first I want to tell you about the Thanksgiving meal I am the most proud of.

When I was in Moldova, two of my best friends and I made Thanksgiving dinner for about 200 people, including all the Peace Corps volunteers, Peace Corps staff and their families, and the entire embassy community (including the ambassador).  Every year Peace Corps would have the all-volunteer conference over Thanksgiving, and each PCV would chip in about $10 to help cover the cost of the meal.  Traditionally Peace Corps would extend the invitation to the embassy community as a courtesy, and then the embassy would decline because why make the poor (literally) PCVs pay for dinner for the comparatively-rich diplomats and their families. But that year everyone that we invited showed up!

Over the span of 3 days, in a hotel kitchen, we prepped and cooked 14 turkeys, countless pecan and pumpkin pies, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, mac and cheese, stuffing, sweet potato casserole, gravy, biscuits, and other things that I’m probably forgetting.  Other volunteers helped out in the kitchen, but it was the three of us directing the show.  We were so proud at the end when no one got sick!

After that Thanksgiving, no meal will ever be too overwhelming.

Our next Thanksgiving in the U.S. will most likely be in 2017, so I am taking full advantage of the fact that this year I can easily buy pretty much all the ingredients I want.  Also, my little sister is coming to visit and nothing says “I love you” like “Look at all the food I made!”

Here’s the planned menu:

Turkey (spatch-cocked, brined and grilled)
Pork belly (brined and smoked)
Cornbread, chorizo, cherry and pecan stuffing
Whole grain bread, sausage and apple stuffing
Sweet potato casserole with marshmallows
Rosemary-scented dinner rolls
Cranberry sauce with dried cherries
Bacon and shallot gravy
Pumpkin pie
Cinnamon ice cream

Guests are bringing antipasti platters, mashed potatoes, vegetable sides and pecan pie.  We have loads of wine left over from our Halloween party, and I think that about covers it!

The fun starts this weekend with picking up the turkey and pork belly from the butcher, grocery shopping (not so fun), etc.  I have a spreadsheet of what to make when, and with my sister and Nate helping out in the kitchen, I am really excited!

 

Aladdin Restaurant and Market in Arlington

Just looking at the photos as I was inserting them into this post made me hungry, even though I finished eating a fairly large lunch a few minutes ago.

Anyways, last Friday Nate and his class went to a Bangladeshi market near the FSI, and he sent me a text message with this photo:

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He asked if I wanted anything in particular, and I told him to just buy whatever looked good.

Apparently “whatever looked good” was pretty much everything.

We now have enough spice mixes to feed a small army, which is a good thing because that’s approximately how much Nate eats.  Most of the boxes contain two to four packets of spice mix and I can’t wait to use them all!

Well, after the Bangla class went to the market, they went to a Bangladeshi restaurant a few storefronts down called Aladdin Restaurant.  Nate brought back some shrimp curry for me, and it was SO good.  Oh my goodness.  If this is seriously what the food is like in Bangladesh, I’m going to be in such trouble.

Nate was also really excited because Aladdin has an all-you-can-eat lunch on Sundays for $10 per person.  Ten dollars!

We decided to check it out the first chance we got, and we were not disappointed.
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There was a fried leavened bread (I think it’s called porota), tandoori chicken, potato curry, daal, cauliflower curry, spicy eggs, goat curry, and rice. I tried some of everything, and loved it all.

Then I went back and had seconds of everything.  photo 2 (2)For dessert we had this stuff that was like cream of wheat made with lots of butter, sugar and sweet spices.  I would have eaten more, but at that point I was so full that it would have ended badly.

We are pretty lucky that our first post in the Foreign Service is someplace with amazing food.  Someplace with fresh produce year round, lots of spices, and flavorful food.  I love South Asian food, and I seriously can’t wait to get to Dhaka!