– Words and recipes by Ellie Shortt Photography by Don Denton
Three years ago, the world seemed to stop turning. Planet Earth was, of course, still spinning steadfastly around, but life as we knew it ceased and, along with it, the global movement of our species. All travel deemed non-essential was prohibited and even as airports slowly started to open up again, many folks were hesitant to hop on a plane. During this time, I wrote a piece entitled “Great Escapes,” whereby I longingly recalled favourite past trips, and some tastes and gastronomic experiences that helped shape those adventures. Two years have since passed, and I have been on a couple of little family getaways, eagerly mind-mapping more adventures to come.
One of my greatest travel delights is in the planning. I tirelessly research the best hidden gems and secret sweet spots, and make sure to include the tried-and-true mainstays amid spontaneous discoveries. I curate detailed master lists of must-sees, must-dos…and, of course, must-eats. And in the process, I’m given the gift of getting to know my destination a little better before I humbly step foot in these new spaces.
One of the greatest ways to familiarize oneself with places, people and cultures is through cuisine. I am a big advocate of snacking, sipping, dining and tasting one’s way through a town via the most loved local haunts. Prior to a trip, I find it fascinating and fun to look up cherished recipes, enjoying loosely themed meals as I plan, prep and count down to takeoff.
The following recipes represent three places I’ve yet to visit that are at the top of my travel bucket list, and perhaps are on yours too. Even if you’re not visiting any of these countries, the flavours will transport your taste buds as you dine your way around the world without even leaving your kitchen.
Spicy Mezcal Margarita
The word mezcal comes from the Nahuatl word “mexcalli,” which means “oven-cooked agave” and is distinguished by a smoky flavour. Nine Mexican states are particularly popular for the making of mezcal: Durango, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla and San Luis Potosí, and each of these regions produces mezcal with slightly different profiles. While I would be delighted to visit any of these regions, I feel a particular draw to Puebla City for its fascinating cultural landscape and rich culinary history. With that said, a good margarita can be found all across this bright and beautiful country, as can good mezcal. I mix the smoky with spicy by infusing the mezcal with jalapeño, and swap the more commonly used triple sec with fresh-squeezed orange juice. This was first introduced to me by a Mexican chef, and I haven’t gone back to an orange-flavoured liqueur since.
Prep time: 5 minutes (plus infusion time)
Makes 2 margaritas
1 jalapeño, sliced and deseeded
4 oz mezcal
1-2 oz fresh squeezed orange juice
2 oz fresh squeezed lime juice
1 oz agave syrup
1 lime wedge, with a shallow slice down the middle
or rimming the glass
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp chili powder
Optional garnishes of lime and deseeded jalapeño slices
In a small jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine the mezcal, orange juice, lime juice, agave syrup and jalapeño slices. Close the lid and give it a good shake. Store this mix in the fridge for 8 to 12 hours (or less time if you don’t like it too spicy). When ready to enjoy, mix the salt and chili powder and spread it out on a plate. Glide the lime wedge around the rim of two rocks glasses and dip the rims in the salt mix to coat. Fill the glasses halfway with ice cubes, give the mezcal mixture another good shake in the sealed jar, remove the lid, pour it evenly between the two glasses and enjoy!
Moroccan Lamb Tagine
I have long dreamed of getting lost in the bustling marketplaces of Marrakesh, soul searching in the Atlas Mountains, immersing myself in the buzz of Essaouira, and winding my way through the Jardin Majorelle. The breathtaking architecture, cultural eclecticism, rich and dynamic history, and of course mind-blowing, life-changing food, all make the entire country of Morocco a dream destination. And while I fantasy-plan a trip, I will continue to make this staple dish in our weeknight dinner rotation, as the warming aromas transport me to this wondrous part of the world.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 2 to 3 hours
Makes about 4 to 6 servings
About 2 lbs cubed lamb shoulder (roughly 2-inch chunks)
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
800 ml diced tomatoes (canned or fresh)
1 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp ground ginger
½ tbsp turmeric
2 tsp ground cinnamon
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2-3 tsp sea salt (plus more to taste)
1 tsp freshly cracked black pepper (plus more to taste)
1 loose cup dried apricots, cut in half
1 loose cup prunes, cut in half
2 cups broth
2 tbsp honey
¼ cup roughly chopped cilantro and/or parsley to garnish
¼ cup of sliced almonds to garnish
Preheat the oven to 300 F. Heat 1 tbsp of olive oil in a large ceramic pot with a fitted lid (like a Dutch oven) and brown the lamb. Transfer the browned lamb to a plate, and add the onions, as well as a bit more olive oil. Sauté the onions until translucent, then add all the spices and garlic. Continue to cook over a gentle heat for a few more minutes, being mindful not to let the onion or garlic overly brown or burn.
Add in the diced tomatoes and cook for about 10 more minutes, stirring throughout. Add the lamb back to the pot, as well as the broth, apricots, prunes and honey. Give it a good stir, and as soon as you notice a low boil, turn off the heat, cover with a fitted lid, place in the oven, and cook for 2.5 hours or until the meat is melt-in-your-mouth tender. Place the lamb in a tagine or large serving dish and sprinkle on the chopped herbs and sliced almonds. Serve with rice and/or flatbread.
Santorini Fava Bean Dip with Honey Spelt Flatbread
Santorini, and the Greek Islands in general, encompass my ideal vacation spot, either as a romantic getaway or family-friendly trip. The warmth (both temperature and hospitality), the beaches, the winding villages and mind-blowing Mediterranean meals all call to my body, heart and soul. When I’ve spoken to friends who’ve been there and read articles on visiting this region, an enthusiastic “you must order the fava bean dip wherever you go!” seems to be a commonly emphatic statement. Accessing these beans is a touch trifling, so it’s often recommended to make the dip with yellow split peas when Santorini fava aren’t available. Taste-wise, Santorini fava beans are known for having a velvety texture, are sweeter than other fava beans, but are like a yellow split pea. The slow-cooking process with onion and thyme gives this creamy-yet-light dip its depth, especially when dolloped on top of some fresh flatbread, made here with the ancient grain of spelt and honey, both of which would have been choice ingredients of breadmaking in the Mediterranean prior to the global popularization of refined flour and sugar.
For the bean dip:
Prep time: about 5 minutes
Cook time: about an hour
Makes about 2 cups of dip (roughly 4 to 6 servings)
1 cup yellow split peas (or Santorini fava beans if you can get them)
1 onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
5 large thyme sprigs
2 ½ cups water
Sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste
The juice of 1 large lemon
Extra virgin olive oil (about ¼ cup)
Optional garnishes: shown here with chopped capers, sun dried tomatoes, mint, parsley, feta cheese, and a sprinkling of paprika.
Soak the peas/beans in boiling water for 15 minutes. Drain, rinse and set aside.
Heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Sauté the onions until translucent, then add the garlic and continue sautéing until fragrant and slightly golden. Add the soaked peas/beans, thyme, water, about a teaspoon of sea salt and about one quarter of a teaspoon of pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and cover the pot. Continue to simmer for 45 minutes or until the peas/beans are tender and all the water has been absorbed. Remove all the thyme twigs and transfer the cooked mix to a blender. Add the lemon juice and remaining olive oil. Puree until smooth, seasoning with more salt and pepper to taste as you go. If you’re finding that it’s not blending well, you can add a little bit of lukewarm water (or even some more olive oil) as needed. Once smooth and creamy, transfer to a bowl, smooth out the top, drizzle with olive oil and garnish with toppings of choice.
*Note: The dip can be kept in the fridge in an airtight container for up to a week. You may notice that once cool it stiffens a bit. To make it smooth and creamy again, transfer back to a blender and mix with small amounts of warm water until you’re happy with the consistency again.
For the flatbread:
Prep time: about 5 minutes + resting time (about an hour total)
Cooking time: about 2 minutes per flatbread
Makes about 6 to 8 flatbreads
2 tsp active dry yeast
½ tsp honey
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour plus 1 ½ cup spelt flour, mixed together (you may also need a little extra all-purpose flour for dusting)
1 tsp sea salt
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (plus extra for frying)
In a large mixing bowl, add 1 cup of lukewarm water and whisk in the yeast and honey until dissolved, followed by half a cup of the flour blend. Set aside, uncovered, until it begins to bubble slightly (about 15 minutes). Once bubbling, add the salt, olive oil and 2 cups of flour, and stir until all the flour is integrated, and then knead gently for a minute or two. If you’re noticing that the dough is still quite sticky, add small amounts of flour as you knead, until it’s somewhat moist but springy, and can be formed into a very soft ball. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and set it aside for 30 to 45 minutes. Divide the dough into 6 to 8 pieces and form them into smooth balls. On a lightly dusted surface (you can also do it between two pieces of parchment paper), roll out each ball to 5 inches in diameter and a quarter-inch thick (it helps to lift and turn the dough frequently as you roll so that dough doesn’t stick to your counter too much, and to give it a more even shape).
While rolling out the flatbread, heat a frying pan to medium heat and coat the bottom with a small amount of olive oil. Working with one flatbread at a time, lay a rolled-out flatbread on the pan and fry for 30 seconds, until a couple bubbles start to form. Flip the flatbread over and cook for 1 to 2 minutes on the other side, until large toasted spots appear on the underside. Flip again and cook another 1 to 2 minutes to toast the other side. Transfer to a plate and gently wrap with a kitchen towel to keep warm. Repeat until all the flatbreads are cooked. Enjoy warm or at room temperature, and to reheat, place back on a medium-heated pan for 30 seconds on each side.
Southeast Asian Mango Sticky Rice
Although I have been beyond fortunate to visit many amazing places, I have regrettably never travelled to any country in Southeast Asia. My husband, whose father is Vietnamese, sadly hasn’t either, so at the tip-top of our to-do list is a big adventure throughout this stunning and special part of the world, including (but not limited to) Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Many associate mango sticky rice with Thailand (known there as Khao Niew Mamuang) as it’s a popular dessert and street-food snack throughout the region. This recipe (as well as all offered today) is my own interpretation, an easy home-cooking version, and meant to be enjoyed in the comfort of your own abode as you plan, prep and dream of adventures in far-off places.
1 ½ cups uncooked rice (it works best with sticky or “glutinous” rice, but if you can’t find it, use regular short grain white rice)
1 1⁄3 cup of well stirred coconut milk (full fat)
1⁄3 cup plus 3 tbsp coconut palm sugar (you can use regular sugar, but coconut palm sugar is widely used in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia and gives it the most exquisitely rich flavour and colour)
¼ tsp salt
1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted lightly
1 large mango, peeled, pitted, and cut into thin slices
Cook rice as per the instructions on the package. While the rice is cooking, bring 1 cup of coconut milk, 1⁄3 cup of sugar and the salt to a low boil in a small saucepan, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat but keep this mixture warm. Transfer the cooked rice to a bowl and stir in the coconut milk mixture.
Let the rice stand, covered, for 30 minutes or until the coconut milk mixture is fully absorbed (you want it to have a sticky, creamy, yet slightly stiff consistency that would hold shape when formed). Note that the rice may be prepared a couple hours ahead and kept covered at room temperature.
While the rice is standing, use the same small saucepan to slowly boil the remaining one-third cup coconut milk with the remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar, stirring occasionally until it starts to thicken. Remove from the heat, keep uncovered and let it cool until you get the consistency of caramel sauce. To serve, mold one-half-cup servings of rice onto a plate and artfully arrange the mango beside it. Drizzle with the sauce and sprinkle with the sesame seeds and enjoy!