Study Abroad and Cultural Tours Blog



Between our Mardi Gras blog earlier this month and our resident musician’s blog on his experience in New Orleans from last week, I’m feeling inspired to make something Cajun. So today we are cooking up some Gumbo.

Cajun food is great for the cold winter days we’ve been having too. The mix of French technique with rustic traditions and locally available products fashioned this food into one of the most unique and identifiable in the United States. The tradition of making Gumbo dates back to the beginning of the 1800’s in New Orleans. The must haves for this dish are okra, meat and/or shellfish, and roux. Some might add filé powder (dried and ground sassafras leaves – adopted from the Choctaw traditions) to the list, but living in Spain I can’t get my hands on it so we made do without.997091_670439377570_5264889757987796219_n

The dish itself is a perfect incarnation of the melting pot that is New Orleans. It combines ingredients and techniques from all the nationalities that have colonized the area over the centuries: West African, French, Spanish, German, and Choctaw to name a few.

In my experience, stews always turn out better in the slow cooker, and this was no exception. The roux takes a little time and elbow grease, but once it’s done you can have it on hand and the rest was just throwing in the ingredients and waiting.

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Slow Cooker Gumbo

(serves 6-8)

10411179_670439417490_4485544457572464867_n1 green bell pepper
1 red bell pepper
2 onions
4 cloves of garlic
2 cups okra
3 celery ribs
Italian parsley
1 can crushed tomatoes
3 Tablespoons Cajun seasoning
4 boneless skinless chicken thighs
3 chorizo links*
1lb monkfish tail**
4 Tablespoons brown roux (recipe follows)
8oz shrimp

*You could use Andouille, we just don’t have it in Spain where I live.
**Or other fish with a meaty texture

Chop veggies chicken and chorizo. Stew in a slow cooker on low 6 hours.
Add 4T brown roux. And shrimp (peeled and deveined). Simmer on high another 20min
Serve over long grain rice.

Brown Roux

Equal parts butter and flour vigorously stirred over medium heat until brown. Probably 15 minutes. Most recommend a 10173788_670437107120_2351037600899939043_nwooden spoon, but I found a whist helpful.

I usually make a ton and keep it in the fridge to throw in soups or thicken up meat juices from the slow cooker into a grave instantly.

by Katalina C. Thomas

New Orleans

A musician’s take on the Big Easy

by Mariano Cobo Iturbe, Contributing Blogger and Resident Musician

It’s eight o’clock in the morning. The weather is a bit grey and gloomy. I’ve landed in New Orleans and I’m at the footstep of one of the city’s most emblematic neighborhoods: the French Quarter. I expect that before me lies what’s going to be an experience every musician and music aficionado must live.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs I start my journey I’m immediately captivated by the architecture of the place. The houses are old, made of Wood, each with their own long balcony.  It’s a unique sort of style I’ve never before encountered. After a brisk walk I find myself at one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States and standing before two musicians playing popular songs on brass instruments. When one of them breaks into song I almost thought I was listening to the great Louis Armstrong himself. Soon after he smiles at me to go take a picture with him, without hesitation I give him his well-deserved tip. I find him hugely talented, and I find it strange he is playing in the street.

I move on a few more blocks and hear the dizzying solo of a clarinet. When I find where it’s coming from I see a parking spot. Passers-by crowd near hypnotized by the music. Cars can barely squeeze by, but it’s no matter. Music is the heart and soul of this city, and the drivers know that.  I‘m struck by the raw talent of the family’s youngest member and the dexterity with which he plays the drums is incredible.

the french quarterI hop on the street car to go to go for lunch at the renowned Willie Mae’s Scotch House to try some of the traditional food from the area, and I’m blown away by the truly succulent red beans. I’m so marveled by the neighborhood that I think I should come back to keep enjoying atmosphere so unique to this world.

I decide to visit the famous piano bar at Pat O’Briens where two musicians on two huge pianos take turns performing any song the crowd requests. It’s amazing. As if they are human karaoke machines. They know everything. I can’t help but scribble “Piano Man” on a napkin and pass it to one of them. He plays it as the whole crowd sings along to the tune.

New Orleans agosto 2012It has been a magnificent experience. All I want to do is stick my head in each and every bar on the street where they’re playing any and every kind on music your heart could desire. As I come to an intersection the music melds and creates an atmosphere that is simultaneously disconcerting and spectacular. Never had I experienced anything quite like it.

I finish my visit with a feeling of desire to return, of wanting to share my experience, of wanting to transmit to my colleagues in the music world what I saw and express to them how lucky I feel to have experienced it.

translated by Katalina C. Thomas

Mardi Gras:

get carried away by the celebration

If New Orleans is famous for one thing it would have to be its Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) celebration. Yet most see it as a bacchanal celebration for raucous college students, while it is in fact so much more.

New Orleans agosto 2012Fat Tuesday celebrates the final send off for our excesses before the religious period of Lent, observed by Catholics. Since many people who celebrate it give up things like meat, fatty foods, or alcohol during the 40 days of lent, the time leading up to it is fraught with excess. Independent from its religious origins, Mardi Gras has risen to a level of popularity on both national and international levels, because, really, who doesn’t love a good party?

file0002136400336Carnival is celebrated in many ways and in many places, from dancing in the street in Rio de Janeiro to masquerade balls in Venice. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is infamous for its debauchery and plastic beads, but the traditions surrounding it have far more breadth. Families wake up bright and early on parade days to claim their territory lining major thoroughfares like Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue. They will camp out from the wee hours of the morning to make sure they have the perfect spot, and even take decorated ladders to get a head up on the crowd for catching the beads, doubloons, feather boas, and other prizes thrown from the floats.

Mardi Gras: King Cake With Hurricane Drinks BehindThroughout the day, whole families stake out their spots sending members to bring back provisions from the drive-thru daiquiri places, spicy fried chicken joints, or even better to pick up a world famous King Cake. The whole day is a celebration culminating in the parade. The music from the marching bands pipes up, and the floats begin to roll by.  Everything is bathed in a purple, green, and gold aura; no one could resist being carried away by the atmosphere.

Cooking Around the World:  


              Everyone feels creatively blocked every now and again. Whether it be in art, writing, sewing, or, in my case: cooking. I love spending my free time in the kitchen being creative, but when you have to get food on the table day in and day out I often find creativity the first thing to be left by the wayside. So one day I decided that the best way to force myself out of my rut was to take the list of countries of the world and cook a representative meal from one every week. My first country: Afghanistan. Exotic, right? Well, that’s the point.

                Afghan food holds as staples rice, barley, and other major crops cultivated in the region. It is a cuisine heavily influenced by halal Islamic dietary laws, and as one might expect, heavily spiced with things like cardamom and coriander. We chose a popular rice preparation called Challow and Kofta with Korma, aka meatballs and sauce.

afghanistan meal                As rice is a popular staple both in Afghanistan and our home I decided this would make a fitting  carb for the meal. While we often make rice in our home I was surprised by the process for making this rice. While we normally steam ours, Challow is boiled and then baked. It was a little laborious but fluffy and delicious. It also called for a tremendous amount of freshly ground cardamom, which seemed overpowering until combined with the main dish.

                To go with the rice we chose Kofta and Korma. These words might ring a bell for those of you familiar with Indian food, however the spice combination for these was unique and a perfect companion to the exotically spiced Challow. The intense tomato and paprika flavors really set the dish apart.

                This first experiment was a tremendous success overall! When you mix the Challow (rice) with the Korma (sauce) from the Kofta (meatballs), the balance works really well and the cardamom in the rice isn’t so overpowering. I might reduce the cardamom just a smidge on the rice (the recipe included below has been adjusted down some), and the extra work of boiling and baking the rice as opposed to steaming was probably unnecessary taste and texture-wise. Nonetheless, I would use this recipe for meatballs any day of the week. The plan forced me outside my comfort zone, and that was just what I was looking to do! I actually now regularly add whole cumin seeds to my long grain rice now thanks to trying it out with the Challow recipe.

Kofta and Korma

For Kofta:Afghanistan meatballs

1lb ground beef

1 medium onion, minced

2 cloves pressed garlic

1 egg

1T  coriander, ground

3tsp chicken broth powder
(this eliminates the need for salt)

ground black pepper to taste


                In a bowl, combine all of the ingredients. It is important to mix everything well so that the meatballs will be tender. Form into meatballs about golf ball sized. Next, set the meat aside while you make the Korma sauce.

For Korma:


EVOO to fill the bottom of a skillet

1 large onion chopped

1 tbsp tomato paste

1 tbsp of chicken flavor bouillon powder in place of salt

1T sweet paprika

1T ground cumin

1T ground coriander


                For the Korma sauce heat the oil in a large pan (the meatballs should touch each other as little as possible in the pan). Caramelize the onions. In a separate bowl add 2 cups of water and tomato paste to mixing to dissolve then add spices. Add this to the onions, stir till mixed. Add the meatballs, making sure they do not touch, and then add more water until the meatballs are more than half covered.

                Set the pan to medium high and cover with a lid. Let cook for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and carefully flip meatballs. Stir gently and cover again leaving it slightly open so the steam can escape. Cook for 25 minutes more. Stir occasionally. Uncover and reduce until the sauce thickens.

                Total cook time is about one hour, you will know when the sauce has thickened; turn the meatballs as needed to prevent burning. Serve with white rice (Challow).



2 1/2 cups of Basmati rice


1T whole cumin seeds

3t salt

1T ground cardamom

6 cups of water


                About 30 minutes before you want to start, place Basmati in a bowl and cover with water. Wash rice and drain the water off, repeating 3 times or until the water is no longer cloudy. Once rinsed, fill the bowl with water, completely covering rice, and let it sit for at least 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350F

                In a large ovenproof pan with a good lid (we used our cast iron, add a good bit of water and sprinkle with salt. Bring the water to a strong boil, and drain the soaking water from the rice and then add the rice to the boiling water. Stir in well and then let it boil again for about 6 minutes – until the rice is more or less soft when you bite on a piece.

                Drain the rice in a colander or strainer, reserving 1/4 of a cup of hot water and dissolving 3 teaspoons of salt into the water. Add 1/4 of EVOO to the hot water mixing well. Add this to the rice until the top of the rice is just covered. Next add in the spices. With a bid spoon mix this into the rice by making little mounds of the rice and shaking the pan. Repeat until the whole pan of rice is mixed and covered with oil and the spices are well mixed with the rice.

                 Pile the rice into a mound in the middle and with the back of the spoon, in a circle pattern make 5 “holes” for ventilation in the mound (four around and one in the middle). Place the top on the skillet and place it in the oven for about a half hour. After 30 minutes turn the oven off and let it set for 20-30 minutes more to let the rice finish cooking. When you serve the rice first fluff it by taking a forkful and shaking it back into the pan, repeat until most of the grains of rice are separated.

by contributing blogger Katalina C. Thomas


Beer, Sausage, and Art

courtesy of morguefileIncomparably framed in picturesque surroundings at the foot of the Alps, we find the city of Munich. It is an old city in which we can find a mix of cultures reflected in the lifestyle of its citizens, its cuisine and its art.

When you arrive in Munich’s historic center you realize that it is a place where old and new fuse. The old is represented by the medieval arches and buildings of all architectural styles.  One of these emblematic sites is Marienplatz. It is a place full of life and beauty. Flanked by the monumental city hall in its Gothic Revival style, the square is the meeting point for all Münchners alike, and it is from here that we can reach all the other points of interest in the city.

The cultural offerings are very diverse in Munich. There are important art museums where we can find pieces from any movement in art history. But if you are looking for something truly representative of the city, it’s the beer. You can’t understand Bavarian life without its beer. Upon entering any beer hall you have the dilemma of deciding which beer to order, because, unless you’re unafraid of a serious hangover, you’ll never come close to tasting them all.  For the thirstiest of travelers there are traditional taverns where tray after tray of gigantic steins filled to the brim with beer endlessly circulate to the tune of traditional music.

courtesy of morguefileNothing is better than joining in for a little polka to stave off the effects of the oversized beers, although another way would be to try their traditional sausages and pretzels. Any time is great to enjoy one; sold at all hours the delicious sausages can be purchased from any number of street vendors.

Munich breathes the life of its streets. Thanks to the mild climate, at any time of year people can meander through the local open air markets, which offer truly appetizing farm to table fare, and, of course, take advantage of the great weather to sip a beer at any of the many Biergartens.

With all Munich has to offer all that’s left is to head over for Oktoberfest: the most important festival dedicated to beer in the world celebrated every September.  Anyone want to join us?


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