Monthly Archives: May 2015

A Roman holiday in Tunisia: Picnic like the Romans did

My most memorable food adventure in Tunisia was self-made: a group picnic that made good use of Tunisian foods, French cheese, Tunisian wine, and Italian cookies, set against the backdrop of an A.D. second century amphitheatre in which thousands of Tunisian citizens of the Roman empire must have done the same while enjoying a comedic or tragic stage production. Was ours a comedy or a tragedy? Read to find out!

From its plains made verdant by winter’s rain and wind to gently sloping mountains with terraced olive groves and vineyards, it’s easy to see why some of the ancient world’s most powerful civilizations made this region its breadbasket and home.

Centuries before the famed Punic wars between Carthage-based Hannibal’s brilliant north African armies (the ones with the elephants, if you have some vague recollection of history classes) were stymied in their attempt to colonize northward into southern Europe, came the Berbers, the Carthaginians, the Phoenicians. Trade with the Greeks and, later, Romans ensured an exchange of ideas and their signature architecture and urban planning. I can’t tell you what they ate, but I can tell you what I ate during a visit to the ancient Punic and Roman city of Dougga. Aside from some packaged cookies, European cheeses with more recent origins, and the plastic utensils we used to eat them, I would guess a middle or upper class Punic, Berber, or Roman woman could have eaten a very similar meal at various points throughout Dougga’s history.

If you ever studied the Latin language or enjoyed ancient history in school, you should make Tunisia and Dougga a bucket list item. Unlike ruins in southern Europe, Tunisia’s Carthaginian, Punic, and Roman ruins are better preserved (less wars and intentional mass destruction) and less frequently trafficked than what you’ll see behind glass walls and barricades elsewhere. Dougga, which is the best preserved Roman city, was my favorite. Though local farmers still own most of it (sidebar: seriously, how cool is it to say, “Oh that temple? Yeah, I own it.”), it was designated as a UNESCO heritage site not long ago in 1997. So I feel pretty privileged as a North American tourist to be allowed to wander around the city. My inner nerd definitely came out as I walked in and out of Dougga’s 1900 year old (2nd century AD) amphitheater, Caelestian temple, public baths (complete with a 12-seat latrine that made for a great photo op), a 22-room home (oh no, that’s not an error), less ostentatious homes, and the much older (9th century BC) Punic tower – the only building the Romans felt was interesting enough to not destroy and build atop it. And our picnic inside the amphitheater was definitely the most scenic I’ve had. How often can you say that you have tailgated where thousands of people have been tailgating and sloshing wine around for nearly 2,000 years?

In Berber villages outside of Tunis, you can create an entire meal through the shops that line a single street. One vendor may sell brined olives, chiles, and pickled vegetables; another, fresh meat; a third offers thick, warm rounds of spongy bread; another homemade butter and fresh cheese. The locals compare it to ricotta, but the texture ad flavor is much more similar to Indian paneer. All vendors in one village had an identical, interesting method of cheese making. Milk is cultured in 1.5 Liter water bottles, then placed in an aerated plastic mould, usually infused with a sprig of Rosemary. The use of old water bottles was slightly disturbing for a sterile American, but the cheese was absolutely fantastic, especially on fluffy Berber bread. On a stop in one small down along the drive from Tunis, we added to our Carrefour supermarket (a modern-day French occupation!) purchases with small-town bounty.

 

We stuffed ourselves while defending against blustery winds with our rotisserie chicken; round, spongy Berber bread loaves; local, fresh sheep’s cheese; imported Edam, Swiss, Camembert, and Brie cheeses; stewed apricots, fresh, local dates and oranges; and three kinds of Tunisian wines. I thought of it as our remake of the original, pre-theater meal! Someone asked if ours was a comedy or tragedy. I would say that it was both: We lost some food and overturned plates to wind, and wine was spilled like a blood sacrifice due to a colleague’s inexperience wearing her new (men’s) Berber cloak (which really looks like a Druid or Harry Potter character’s garb), it made for both frustration and a lot of laughs. For the record, I’m pretty sure we weren’t anywhere near the first or last group to spill wine in that amphitheater. And one of the feral dogs that are fixtures in Tunisia showed up as we were cleaning up, waiting for us to depart so that it could become a living garbage disposal for the bits of food that flew off our plates.

It was truly a dining experience for the memory bank and to share with others. If you ever make it to Tunisia, you will be well rewarded by the scenic 2 1/2 hour drive from Tunis.

What is Tunisian cuisine?

This post is the first in a series about Tunisia, a small country on the Mediterranean Sea in North Africa. To many of you in Europe, it may be familiar as a budget-friendly tourist destination at its beach resorts. To much of the rest of the world, Tunisia took on importance as the birthplace of Arab Spring in January 2011 and one of the ‘success stories’ of democracy. Scarcely two months have passed, however, since the tragic attack at the Bardo Museum in March 2015. My heart goes out to the families of those lost in that attack, as well as to the Tunisian people, who are some of the most friendly and tolerant I’ve ever met. I hope each of you enjoys this introduction!

Tunisia’s importance has historic significance predating today’s turbulent times. Its strategic seaside location and wealth of natural resources inspired colonization by the Phoenicians and ancient Romans – for whose empires it was the ‘breadbasket.’ More recently in the 19th and 20th centuries, France and Italy vied for control before Tunisia finally received independence in the 1950s.


Though small, Tunisia has much variation in terrain and vegetation: windswept Mediterranean cliffs; fertile, rolling hills that remind one of Piedmont or Tuscany (Piemonte o Tuscano) in Italy; and sandy, desert dunes reminiscent of another world. In fact, southern Tunisia has served as the location for the production of numerous films, most famously, Star Wars Episode I, which since has attracted tourists to Tatouine. Its cuisine is equally heterogenous and hard to characterize: A mix of land meats (if this term does not already exist, then I officially claim it) and seafood; an abundance of sweet, tart citrus; and influenced by Mediterranean and Arab flavors and culinary techniques alike.

From the Mediterranean shores come its sea influence. Cold tuna salad, octopus, and calamari (also referred to as cuttlefish or seiche) are as easily found as simply grilled dorade or sea bass. Fish are often served simply with lemon and french fries or rice – or a side of pasta, a common sign of Italian influence.

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Inland, roast lamb and chicken are are most common main dishes. You might be startled to find your future meal – a giant, fresh lamb carcass – literally hanging in front of your eyes as you order, only to find your cut of meat butchered in front of you and promptly grilled. You can’t say it isn’t fresh!

Couscous is a common conduit for this meat, though it tends to be much drier than its more widely known Moroccan brother. An egg dish, brik, is a national dish of Tunisia. I liken it most to a Spanish tortilla, and often it is eaten by hand. Much of Tunisian cuisine is built upon simple flavors; when Tunisians need a little spice, they turn to harissa, North Africa’s best and most versatile condiment. Harissa, a spicy roasted red pepper and chili spread, livens even the most mundane dishes.

Both ashore and inland, Tunisia’s winter citrus crop seems endless. One day, we had the opportunity to pick at least four varieties of oranges, as well as lemons, from a small orchard. Fresh fruit is never hard to come by during Tunisian winters: Fruit carts can be found alongside busy city and village streets or even along some highways. Alongside citrus and seasonal fruits are sweet dates, ubiquitous throughout Tunisia and bought by the sprig (still on the branch) from vendors.

Sweets are serious in Tunisia. Bakeries are plentiful; their goods combine both French/European and Arabic flavors. They can be a bit on the sticky sweet side, but with honey, cardamom, dates, and pistachios on their side, it’s hard to resist a small pastry.

Tasty Italian tagliatelle Bolognese  with Tunisian wine

Tasty Italian tagliatelle Bolognese with Tunisian wine

With such a wealth of food resources, one might expect dining in Tunisia to be an amazing experience. My experience of several weeks led me to conclude that Tunisian food is best experienced cooked in the home. I did have inspiring experiences with Tunisian and Moroccan ingredients and style, as well as Italian and even Indian. I’ll share a few of them with you in posts to come, including my own incorporation of these ingredients, such as harissa. Cooking your own meals with Tunisia’s bounty – or Tunisian inspiration – will give you a sense of this lovely country.

Calling all Ambassadors: The CD needs you!

I’m hijacking this regularly scheduled post to make this request of you readers:

Most of you have your own stories to share – the food adventures and discoveries, the memories of an experience and place – whether during travels or in your own backyard. Or perhaps you have a favorite recipe to share, one inspired by a trip or exotic ingredient. Perhaps a restaurant took you on a gastronomic journey, helping you experience a new place – or a place you’ve never seen with your own eyes.

The Culinary Diplomat’s mission is to connect people and cultures through the shared experience of food. To fulfill this mission, The CD depends not just on readers, but on you making your voices heard! We can all relate to each other’s stories.

Each of you leads a busy life. Many of you are established bloggers in your own right (thanks for following!). All of you have full-time jobs, academics, and/or parenting. The idea of writing a post for The Culinary Diplomat is something you’ve been wanting to do for awhile, but maybe you tell yourself, “when I’m less busy.” ¬†Or maybe you worry about perfection. You might be self-conscious about your writing style. You need time to edit before you’re comfortable.

Instead, I ask this. Send us a story, an idea, and we will do the editing (with your own editorial veto power)! Want to submit but not sure which story to share? Share multiple stories! Worried about publishing it under your name? Give us a nom de plume and we’ll use it instead!

Join the CD community! To find out more, contact us through the form on the Become a CD Ambassador page here.

The best grits you’ll ever eat – and make yourself

Often in life, the best ideas are the simplest. The best dishes are not necessarily the most complex – like molecular gastronomy, for example. Nice to look at, but really? These grits, quite the opposite, are insanely good. I promise you that you will never taste grits as good as this recipe. I also bet that if you do not like grits, you will become a believer after trying these. Today, I share the not-so-secret recipe for the world’s best grits, from Georgia Brown’s, a Washington, D.C. restaurant.

I discovered these grits – and the gluttonous wonder that is the Georgia Brown’s brunch buffet – over a decade ago. I couldn’t get enough of them. I passed up extra desserts to eat more of them. They paired with everything they touched – from sausage to the restaurant’s amazing, biscuit-battered French toast, with its maple syrup, to a potato hash. So rich and creamy, the risotto of grits, I assumed they had to contain heavy cream. At the least, they had to be difficult to achieve. I was wrong on both accounts.

A friend discovered that the restaurant posted their recipe directly on their website. I was shocked at its simplicity. It was almost impossible to ruin them (except with too much salt). Even another of my friends, whom I swear has a mental block to cooking, could make it without complaint from her husband. I tweaked it slightly; I rarely buy milk, much less whole milk, so I’ve often combined skim/nonfat or lowfat milk with Half-and-Half (light cream).
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Georgia Brown’s chefs proclaim that the secret to these grits is use of organic grits. If you live in the United States, Bob’s Red Mill is a recommended brand. It is available at most major grocery chains (aisle or category varies). If you’ve never used them before, you’ll notice that organic grits appear suspiciously like polenta. Yes, grits and polenta are essentially one and the same, and typically, both are cooked in water, even when cheese or a touch of butter or cream are added at the end of cooking. This recipe is different, special even, because of the simple substitution of milk for water, and its slow cooking process.

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Once brunch is finished, I like to repurpose the grits as polenta, serving them reheated with chicken sausage and marinara sauce. Delicious for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!

While writing this post, I realized that Georgia Brown’s has updated its website, and this recipe no longer is available, so get it here! Without further adieu, I bring you the world’s best grits, courtesy of Georgia Brown’s.

Georgia Brown's lowcountry grits

  • 2 Tbsp. salted butter
  • 4 cups whole milk (or 3 cups lowfat/skim milk plus one cup half-and-half)
  • 1 c. organic grits (uncooked polenta)
  • 1 tsp. salt

In a small to medium pot, melt butter over Medium heat. Once butter sizzles, whisk in the milk and salt. Bring to a boil. Add the grits and whisk thoroughly. Reduce heat to Low and simmer to cook the grits, stirring frequently, until the milk is absorbed (about 10-15 minutes). Remove from heat and serve.

I often make this dish a day ahead, and I stop the cooking process just before the milk is fully absorbed. Immediately prior to serving, I then reheat on Low heat on the stove, fluffing or stirring occasionally.

Wedel chocolate cafe: Polish confections for a chocoholic

Women and chocolate. Few food stereotypes are more appropriate – at least in my case. I am someone constantly in search of my next chocolate fix. In Krakow, Poland, I did not have to look too hard to find Wedel, a chain of chocolate cafes that feel like the perfect spot to celebrate girls’ day out…or, in our case, Easter. Or anytime when you just need chocolate.

Wedel doubles as both an airy cafe and retail shop for their chocolates. The cafe’s menu book is quite comprehensive, and it’s not limited only to sweets. One can make a light lunch of a sandwich and coffee, if not in the mood for chocolate. But why wouldn’t you be?

My friend and I made dinner of our chocolate and sweet meal. And what a dinner it was! Choosing between seemingly endless combinations of flavored hot drinking chocolates and more spoon-worthy desserts was tough. Four pages of the menu were devoted to varations of hot chocolate beverages alone.

Since Wedel was recommended to us for hot chocolate, we had to try it. I ordered a tasting (or flight) of three hot chocolates accented with fruit or nuts: dark chocolate with hazelnut; milk chocolate with strawberries, and white chocolate with raspberries. My friend ordered the traditional hot chocolate, which was dark and thick. I really enjoyed my hot chocolate flight more than I expected.

When I ordered the fruit sampler, I didn’t know what to expect. I assumed fruit syrups or perhaps dried fruit might be present, but Wedel used fresh fruit, which also prevented them from being overly sweet. The bottom of the chocolate-hazelnut tumbler was harshly sweet in comparison to the bittersweet top half – a good reason to stir it with the tiny spoon the cafe provides. The milk chocolate with strawberries was my dark horse favorite. To clarify, I’m not a big milk chocolate person. The darker the chocolate, the better is my philosophy. The white chocolate with raspberries (normally a great combination) was as good as I could have hoped, but I just really liked the sweet strawberry bits with the smooth milk chocolate base.

Prosecco, yogurt & chocolate parfait

Prosecco, yogurt & chocolate parfait


For my main course, I went for the “light side” (a very ironic choice of phrasing on the menu, but I suppose it’s all relative) and chose a yogurt parfait made with granola and chunks of chocolate-covered, layered wafer bars (what else?). Strangely, the yogurt was plain and unsweetened. It could have used just a hint of vanilla and honey, but I suppose my body was happy with me for not going on a sugar binge with one of their ice cream desserts or others. I did not help the situation much by orderig a glass of prosecco, but why not?

My friend chose the dessert sampler, which consisted of a hot chocolate souffl√© topped with the tiniest scoop of ice cream; vanilla ice cream with strawberries, halwa/halva, and a dark chocolate “straw”; and a “tiramisu” (it was a bit of a stretch) with raspberries soaked in red wine. The souffle was a perfect miniature souffle. I personally did not try the ice cream. The tiramisu had no ladyfingers or cake layer and was solely a white chocolate mascarpone cheese atop a raspberry-wine compote. It actually made for a nice, light, and not too sweet dessert option, if it did not meet one’s expectations for tiramisu . Several other patrons ordered the full portion of it, and few left any trace of it behind. Another popular dessert, which we did not try, looked like a meringue version of strawberry shortcake – strawberries and mascarpone sandwiched between two long, submarine shaped meringues.

As the saying goes, we left Wedel – and Poland – fat and happy indeed.

Zielona Kuchnia: An organic experience in Krakow

Classic continental European dishes take on organic, Polish interpretations at one of Krakow’s best modern restaurants.

I’ve found that I can visit any city in Europe and find menus that put the city, region, or country’s spin on dishes from throughout the continent. The more I travel, the more I notice the culinary influences of other countries regionally – as well as the styles and trends that now are commonplace at ‘international’ restaurants around the world. Go to Eastern Europe, and expect to see pork chops, duck, potatoes, root vegetables, and dill featured, but you’ll just as often, find foie gras and Bernaise sauce, micro-greens and mutton alongside the other ingredients. Pasta, pizza, and more distinct national dishes take on the eastern European treatment.

At Krakow’s Zielona Kuchnia, organic, fresh ingredients are superbly cooked in the Continental style, but with other flavors from around the world. I wouldn’t quite call that fusion, but instead an interpretation of a dish or incorporation of another cuisine’s style or ingredients.

Zielona Kuchnia is located outside of the old city, tucked back in an unassuming courtyard and with outdoor seating that I imagine to be an amazing respite during summer months. Indoors, the walls are cheery and white; decor is modern and minimalist with white and black striped accent pieces and fresh daffodils on our early spring table.

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If you are a foodie, particularly one who enjoys the lighter and healthier side of food, you would happily savor Zielona Kuchnia. My friend ordered a bacon-wrapped scallop starter; it was so nice to have scallops perfectly cooked; they were a work of art with various colors of cauliflower, a foam, and orange and black caviar as shown above.
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For a main, I ordered a tuna steak cooked rare and served over sprouted grains (lentils, peas, or chickpeas) with a balsamic reduction, watercress, and avocado crema. It was a dish that would be as equally at home in California as in Poland. After weeks of heavy food, I felt like I was nourishing my body and enjoying every bite without guilt. My friend had never tried Beef Wellington, so she did, and thus Krakow proved to be a great place to have a first experience with the very Anglican Wellington. Its crust was a bit thicker and heartier than I’ve been used to (more substantial than a flaky puff pastry) and also was stuffed with bacon, but the meat was tender; the pastry the right mix of softness and crisp, golden-brown exterior. We shared a bottle of smooth Spanish Rioja, which apparently was the right pick, as we saw other diners ordering the same. Lest one feel cheated on Polish flavors, I had a hard time turning down the roast duck, and the steaks are served with a Polish vodka sauce. Vodka makes an appearance at Zielona Kuchnia only in cooked dishes; the Polish staple is not available as a beverage, nor are other liquors.
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We lacked the willpower to turn down dessert; instead of sharing one, our indecision led us to end up with two. Zielona’s perfect version of French tarte tatin, the rustic and free-form apple tart that puts American apple pie to shame, was the best I’ve ever had, possibly edging out other versions due to a rum-heavy rum-raisin ice cream served with it. We also ordered their chocolate tart – a rich block of chocolate mocha decadence inside a shortbread tart shell. I’ve eaten too many chocolate tarts to count, but Zielona’s was well conceived and clearly made from good chocolate, coffee, butter, and/or cream.

The meal was so well-executed and fresh that I wanted to return. Though we did not have the opportunity to do so before we left, I would return in a heartbeat.

Pod Aniolami – ‘Under the angels’ and underground for Poland’s best

Step back in time for an underground (literally!) feast of some of Poland’s finest cuisine deep in the heart of Krakow.

A colleague who knows Poland well highly recommended Pod Aniolami (literally “Under the Angels,” translated) for both the excellent food and a walk back into medieval Poland. Not one to ignore such an enthusiastic endorsement, I obtained an early (1 pm) Easter reservation for lunch. The meal turned out to be a wonderful Easter feast that felt more like Christmas dinner. But then again, the entire holiday weekend felt more like Christmas than Easter. The flavors of Poland are perfect for winter, and the weather itself was oddly snowy for early spring.

Pod Aniolami is a cavernous, below-ground restaurant near the main square in Krakow’s old town. Like most European cities, Krakow built atop itself over the years, such that this restaurant, now underground, is actually at what was ground level in the 14th century.

Descending one of the restaurant’s two winding staircases to reach most of the restaurant’s seating areas, it feels like the cliched step back in time. Exposed masonry and stone peeks between plaster, with curving, arched doorways and what once served as windows, now bricked in place to form niches decorated with relics of the past, antique books, and the like. One seating area is at ground level, lit by skylights to give it an airy, more picnic-like setting for larger parties. While it seemed more fitting for Easter in that bright section, the upstairs seating misses the charm and historic feel of the walls below.

The below-ground level has four chambers of seating, each with only four or five tables, so it feels quite intimate. Tall pewter candlesticks and thin, linen runners provide the only decoration on the rough-hewn wood tables. Seating is a mix of wooden chairs with cushions, or a hard wall bench. The benches have no cushions, but small woven, wool carpets are placed atop the benches – honestly, they were a bit uncomfortable for me, as I was wearing a dress, so I sat on my coat. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining; the atmosphere was so unique that creature comforts were unnecessary, especially when enjoying course after course of hearty Polish food at its best.

Polish food runs on the heavy side of the heavy side – pierogis, pork knuckle – well, pork everything – sausage (pork again), potatoes, cabbage, beets, and beer, for example – but at Pod Aniolami, it is so delicately prepared that it doesn’t feel heavy until you’ve finished your meal and reflected on all you’ve eaten. The menu is an extensive list of anything you could conjure, including vegetarian dishes. Selecting one dish was a daunting task. Luckily, the restaurant offers two set menus, which are not unreasonably priced and which surely could satisfy most diners. We chose the smaller option, which for 130 zloty (between 35-40 USD at the time) included two starters, a brothy beet soup, a main course choice between veal or fish, a dessert course, and a small cheese course. The portions are smaller than their a la carte counterparts on the menu – and thankfully so, as our waiter told us, “You won’t leave hungry.” I would recommend it, particularly for those with little previous experience with Polish food.

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Our first, cold starter was a salad of mixed lettuces with tangy ewe’s cheese (sheep’s cheese), shaved cucumber, sprouts, and tomatoes. The starters were served alongside a basket of nutty, whole grain bred and sourdough loaf accompanied by the house special lard, in lieu of butter. The lard had bits of meat incorporated in for a chunky spread; Riga, Latvia’s Valtera restaurant had a far superior, smooth and smoky lard in my opinion. We each ordered a glass of a Polish white wine, which was sweeter than expected – somewhat like a semi-sweet Riesling but worked well with the salty cheese in the starter. Sidebar: The more I travel, the more I appreciate the quality and diversity of European wines, particularly in comparison to American wines; eastern European wines, while less exported and revered as their French, Italian, and Spanish brothers, are both interesting and reliably good.

Out of order relative to the sequence listed on the menu, we next received a clear beet broth, simple and nourishing. We then received our pierogis – one each of the Russian (potato and cheese), mushroom, and shredded pork. Rather than being boiled or steamed, these had been pan-fried, giving them slightly crisp, buttery exterior. Cranberry chutney worked well as a condiment, particularly for the more bland pork dumpling. I ordered the veal chop with chanterelles as my main course. It was slightly tough and crisp on the outside, owing to having been pan-fried, but the flavor was good, and it was a good conduit for the luxuriously creamy sauce with chanterelles. Boiled potatoes laced with dill, and a salad garnish completed the presentation.

Dessert proved to be the best course. What was billed as an apple cake actually turned out to be a tart apple pie with a vodka or whiskey sauce, vanilla ice cream, and whipped cream. It had the mildest sweetness, which drew attention to the tart, slightly spiced apple filling. It was fabulous, and I ate every bite of the large portion. The finishing course was sliced, smoked cheese (listed as ewe’s cheese on the menu, it tasted much more like cow’s Gouda) with a stewed plum, said to aid digestion. The sweet and savory combination was a nice finish to the meal.

Our waiter was correct: We certainly did not leave Pod Aniolomi hungry. We were satisfied with the value of the meal and loved the atmosphere. It was the best “takeaway” culinary journey I took on my long weekend trip to Poland.