CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One day last year, culinary inspiration struck Liz Jones. She thought it would be fun to prepare an entree from every country in the world. She didn't realize the United Nations recognizes 196 countries, but she wasn't fazed by the large number. She even added Tibet, which isn't on the official list.
"I started the day after I had the idea," she said. Nine months later, she'd completed her culinary odyssey.
The dishes she selected weren't necessarily the entree most commonly associated with the country. They're native to the country and represent it well, but aren't the obvious choice like cheeseburgers and fries for the U.S. She chose pulled pork barbeque for the United States' selection.
"I wanted each dish to be something a native would know was delicious and popular in that country," she said. Jones spent hours researching countries and their cuisine before she selected a recipe. She searched for the county's cuisine, and then looked up local newspapers and restaurants online to see which dishes appeared frequently.
Sometimes she tweaked the recipe slightly to make it more palatable to Americans, for whom she plans to publish a cookbook of her round-the-world foodie journey. If a recipe called for goat or, once, reindeer, she usually substituted beef.
Many Polynesian recipes called for SPAM, which became a local favorite when American soldiers introduced it during their time on the islands during World War II. Jones' aversion to the canned meat product led her to substitute fresh corned beef in those recipes.
If the entree didn't turn out "five star delicious," Jones reworked it and noted the changes. She didn't repeat many. They mostly turned out well the first time, largely due to the fresh, authentic ingredients she used. She searched for recipes that focused on fresh vegetables and herbs and spices and avoided those with a high fat content.
"My number one favorite is Nem Tadieu from Laos. It has a variety of textures, crunchiness and unexpected flavors," she said. She made the dish to be photographed, only the second time she's made it. "I wanted repeats, but the project had to continue."
Some of the simpler dishes were on their top 10 list, like a steak sandwich from Uruguay, a Chinese noodle dish from Kyrgyzstan, and a salmon, spinach and rice dish from Russia.
She and her husband, Kevin, bought every ingredient locally. They shopped at international food markets in Kanawha City and South Charleston for exotic ingredients and got to know their local butcher at T&M Meats in Cross Lanes very well.
"I went to the grocery store daily," she said. Their grocery store bills rose, but they rarely dined out, so that expense practically vanished. The couple no longer enjoy dining out because the fresh authentic entrees she prepared surpass most of the bland dishes served in restaurants, even ethnic ones because they have to cater to American taste.
During her production phase, Jones, 28, assembled ingredients in her Cross Lanes kitchen after completing her workday as an assistant manager at a retail bank, where she works full time. She cooked about five days a week and finished the culinary odyssey in about nine months. Preparation time averaged about three hours, so the couple usually dined between 10 p.m. and midnight.
"We both gained a lot of weight," she said. "I was cooking instead of exercising, and then we ate late."
She didn't buy any special equipment, and relied mostly on a charcoal grill, skillet, spice grinder and a saucepan because she wanted to prepare the dishes using traditional methods. Jones ground all her spices, a step she said significantly intensifies their flavor. She said she'd never cook on a closed gas grill again.
"The rest of the world cooks over an open pit. It's tender and better. That's the way it should be done," she said.
Although she was a cook of average skill and no formal training when she started the project, she learned techniques and preparation methods as she cooked. She didn't master the Metric system, in which most recipes were measured, and frequently called on her husband to make the conversions.
Her husband fully supported her project from the start, but had reservations, even though he thought the project presented big challenges that could lead to burnout.
"I thought this was a daunting task. I didn't realize there were 196 countries," he said. "I also thought she'd struggle to find ingredients."
She never tired of cooking international recipes.
"I liked to cook before this project, but I didn't know I'd fall in love with it," she said.
The couple was somewhat surprised to find that the continent of Africa was the source of some of their favorite recipes. They were particularly fond of an Ethiopian lamb dish.
Chivito, a sandwich from Uruguay, is widely acclaimed as the most popular sandwich in the world, according to her research. A fairly simple combination of thinly sliced tenderized steak served on a fresh roll with a slice of ham, fresh mozzarella, Bibb lettuce, tomato and mayo lived up to the hype.
"The juices dripped down our arms as we ate it. It was to die for," she said. "We were shocked almost nightly at how good everything was."
After she translates two overstuffed folders filled with dog-eared recipes and the photos she took of each creation into a cookbook, she'll tackle her next challenge, which focuses on one of her favorite ethnic cuisines.
"I'm excited next to cook from every state in India," she said. India has 27 states and seven union territories. "I finished (cooking) in mid-June and I'm having withdrawal."
@tag:Reach Julie Robinson at jul...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.Nem Tadieu -- Laos
3/4 pound lean ground pork
1 cup freshly shaved coconut
2 tablespoon red curry paste
2 chicken stock cubes, crushed
2 cup steamed Basmati rice
1/4 cup packed fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
1/4 cup packed fresh dill, roughly chopped
1/3 cup packed cilantro, roughly chopped
1/4 cup scallions, sliced
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
Pinch of salt
Roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
COMBINE pork, coconut, curry paste, chicken stock cubes and rice. Form into tight patties using about 1/3 cup of the mixture each.
POUR vegetable oil in a skillet about 1/2 inch up the side and heat until almost smoking. Lower the heat to medium-high and fry the patties on both sides until dark golden brown.
DRAIN and cool patties on paper towels.
BREAK apart the patties with your hands in a large bowl, and then roughly chop the mixture with the end of a metal spatula..
ADD in chopped herbs and lime juice. Mix to combine.
FILL lettuce leaves with the mixture and garnish with roasted chopped peanuts and lime slices.
Rikkita Beef -- St. Kitts and Nevis