Thursday, December 28, 2006

For New Year's, a Tradition or Two

A few years ago, I decided to ring in the New Year by undertaking every New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day tradition I had ever heard of, along with whatever interesting customs I could find on the Web. It was a busy December 31st.

I was living in the southern U.S. at the time, so of course I had to prepare black-eyed peas (for good luck), greens (for money) and cornbread. I wasn’t (and am still not) certain how cornbread consumption might enhance my New Year, but it didn’t really matter, because what are beans and greens without a slab of cornbread? I hid a well-scrubbed coin inside the cornbread, for it seemed a country-spanning tradition (Greece, Norway) to hide things inside of holiday food – items which, happily, would bestow good luck upon whoever bit into them.

Although Chinese New Year falls at a different time of year, I adopted its traditions, too – giving my husband a red envelope filled with coins and sweeping dirt into piles, then carrying the dirt out of my house through the back door. Like Spaniards, my friends and I ate 12 grapes in rapid succession as the clock struck midnight, while trying, with limited success, to simultaneously sing Auld Lang Syne, kiss our significant others and make a champagne toast. I really wanted to attempt the Brazilian seaside custom of jumping seven waves while tossing flowers and making a wish, but it just wasn’t possible. It would have been nice, though, to know that the goddess of the sea would make my wish come true.

This year, I’m keeping it simple: I’ve cooked a vegetarian version of jolof rice that features black-eyed peas. This West African specialty also happens to be so flexible that I could say “out with the old, in with the new” to all the veggie odds and ends I had lying around. Okay, so preparing jolof rice didn’t help me sweep my house, but it did help me clean my fridge.

Jolof rice (also spelled “jollof” and “djolof”) can be made with meat, chicken, fish, or, like the recipe below, with simply vegetables and beans. You can be very creative with this dish, as long as your final product is spicy and the rice is dyed a reddish color from the use of a sufficient quantity of tomatoes. You could employ the exact same vegetables as I did, or you could add or substitute chopped green beans, cubes of butternut squash, shredded cabbage, or finely sliced scallions, for example. Jolof rice is well-complimented by a cool and refreshing side dish, such as a cucumber salad or mild mango salsa. Note that this recipe differs from more traditional versions in that it requires baking as a final step, which deftly melds the flavors together.

Another note: You might have trouble spotting the black-eyed peas in my photo. That’s because I used Zimbabwe’s version of the black-eyed pea, which is called the nyemba bean. (For those regular readers with good memories, yes – it is the leaves of this bean plant that are dried to make mufushwa.) Dried nyemba beans range in color from mustard yellow to brown to black and they all sport the trademark white “eye.” A handful of nyemba is a colorful sight. Sadly, however, every nyemba bean turns the same, dingy brown color when cooked, which caused them to disappear into my jolof rice, just when I wanted them to take center stage. Here’s a toast to hoping the nyemba beans will still provide me (and you!) with lots of good luck in 2007. Happy New Year!

West African Jolof Rice
Adapted from Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook
Serves 6-8 as a main dish

1 cup dried black-eyed peas
2 medium eggplants, sliced into ½-inch / 12-millimeter rounds
2 teaspoons salt
1½ tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cinnamon stick
2 large onions, chopped
2 tablespoons fres
h ginger, minced
2-3 green chilies, seeded and chopped*
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 green bell pepper,
5 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1½ tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons hot c
urry powder (or mild, if you prefer)
1 pound / 450 grams carrots, chopped
1½ cups uncooked rice, preferably long-grained
1½ cups green peas (fresh, or frozen and defrosted)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Hot sauce, optional

Soak the black-eyed peas overnight in plenty of water. Drain, and put the black-eyed peas in a large saucepan with 2 quarts / 1 liter of fresh water. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down so that the black-eyed peas are simmering. Simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the beans are tender. Drain and rinse the black-eyed peas, reserving their cooking water.

Place the eggplants slices in a colander and sprinkle 1 teaspoon of salt over them. Toss the slices with your hands to distribute the salt. Leave the eggplants to “drain” for at least five minutes. Pat them with a paper towel to remove any moisture that has seeped out.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large, wide saucepan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the cinnamon stick and let it sizzle for a few seconds. Add the eggplants, one tablespoon of the onion, one tablespoon of the ginger, one of the chilies, one clove of garlic and the bell pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5-10 minutes until the eggplants have turned a reddish-brown. Remove the eggplants from the pot, and set them aside.

Add the remaining onion, ginger, chili, garlic and 1 teaspoon salt to the pot, along with the reserved liquid from cooking the black-eyed peas (there should be at least 3 cups or so). Also add the tomatoes, tomato paste, cayenne pepper and hot curry powder. Stir. Bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, pre-heat your oven to 400°F / 205°C.

Add the black-eyed peas, carrots and rice to the pot, and stir. Cook for five minutes. Then add the green peas and eggplant slices. Stir, and cook for 15 minutes more. Test the seasoning, adding salt and freshly ground black pepper as needed. Remove the cinnamon stick.

Transfer the mixture to a large, ovenproof casserole dish. Cover the dish with aluminium foil and bake for 25 minutes. Serve hot, with a squirt of the optional hot sauce, if desired. I like to use a spicy sweet chili sauce called “hot zvakananka sauce” (“zvakanaka” means “good” in Shona), which is locally made by Peter Piper’s.

*The original recipe calls for roasted chilies, but I’m not convinced the extra work roasting the chilies is worth it.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Stuffed Squash, with Ornaments

Perhaps I can blame the seasonal cocktail of excess sugar consumption, prolonged exposure to Christmas music and visions of days off work dancing in my head for inducing my recent streak of peculiar thoughts. Like this one, which came to me upon spotting some gem squash at the grocery store – “My, these look like Christmas ornaments. I should cook them for the holidays.” It was quickly followed by this idea, hatched while pulling into the driveway: “The pomegranates growing on our tree look like ornaments, too! I should concoct a holiday dish combining both “ornaments” – gem squash and pomegranates.

And so gem squash with pomegranate, pecan and parsley stuffing was born. My husband gave me a “you are crazy – you know that, right?” look as I hung my “ornaments” on a string of pine-branch garland for inspiration, and I began cooking.

Gem squash are a common vegetable in southern Africa, and, according to Jeanne at Cook Sister!, they are another one of those food items that South Africans in the Diaspora long for. I can see why. These dark-green globes are downright adorable, easily beating out butternut’s half-an-hourglass curve on the squash-attractiveness scale. They also cook quickly, sport a lively yellow-color flesh, and are ideal for filling with all manner of savory treats, from curry to rice pilaf to couscous to bread stuffing. You can also add chunks to lentil dhal.

A quick Web search revealed that pomegranate stuffing wasn’t an idea unique to me, although I would hazard a guess that these other cooks weren’t motivated to use pomegranate because it resembles a Christmas ornament. I drew bits from these recipes and combined them with parts of Nic’s vegetarian stuffing recipe to create my own pomegranate stuffing.

Mark may have smirked at my “ornaments,” but he had nothing but compliments for the final stuffed gem squash dish. The pomegranate seeds added a crunchy texture and tart bite to the stuffing, while the flavors of baked squash, sage, and pecan evoked memories of Christmases past. His verdict? “Tastes like the holidays.”

Gem Squash with Pomegranate, Pecan and Parsley Stuffing
Serves 6 as a side dish

6 gem squash
2 teaspoons, plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
1 small onion, diced
¼ cup celery, diced
¼ cup fresh parsley, minced
2 teaspoons fresh sage, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup pomegranate seeds, plus extra for garnishing
¼ cup raisins
¼ pecans, chopped
3½ cups bread, cubed
½ cup vegetable broth

Preheat your oven to 350°F/175°C. Slice the top off each squash and scoop out all of the seeds. Use 2 teaspoons of the olive oil to coat the inside cavities of the squash; sprinkle the salt inside, too. Cover the squash bottom with its lid and place on a lightly-greased baking sheet.

Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a fry pan over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, parsley, sage, salt and pepper, and stir. Sauté for 5 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat.

In a large bowl combine the onion mixture, pomegranate seeds, raisins, pecans and bread cubes. Pour in the vegetable broth and stir carefully until all the bread cubes are moistened (adding more broth, if necessary). Place the stuffing in a lightly-greased, medium-size baking dish and cover with aluminum foil.

Put both the baking sheet with the squash and the baking dish with the stuffing into the oven at the same time. Bake for 20 minutes. Take the aluminum foil off of the stuffing and check the squash to see if they need to be basted with more olive oil. Return both items to the oven and cook for another 20 minutes. The squash should be soft, but still holding its shape, and the bread in the stuffing should look a bit crunchy.

To serve, fill each squash with the bread stuffing. Any additional stuffing can be served alongside the squash. Use any extra pomegranate seeds as garnish.

This post is an entry in Holiday Cooking with Herbs, a special holiday edition of Weekend Herb Blogging hosted by the amazing Kalyn at Kalyn’s Kitchen. I’ve intended to participate in Kalyn’s landmark food blog event ever since I started Field to Feast, and I’m glad the holidays finally inspired me to take the plunge!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Amarula, and Other Weighty Topics

In the U.S., it is a generally accepted rule that you do not talk to a woman about her weight – unless, that is, you plan to enthuse over how many pounds she has shed. One would never think of telling a woman that she has gained weight, and would cautiously avoid the pitfall of asking a woman if she is pregnant – only to find out that she is not.

The same social mores do not apply in Africa.

“You look as if you have put on some weight! Your mom must have cooked all your favorite foods while you were home.”

“Your face is looking nice and round, are you expecting?

“You’ve gained weight since I last saw you – now you are becoming an African woman!”

Over the past 20 months in Zimbabwe, I have been on the receiving end of numerous permutations of the three quotes above – each said to me by a well-intentioned friend or colleague. You see, here in Africa, the standard of beauty is not to be skinny as a beanpole, but plump as a peach.

The logical, rational part of my brain reassures me that such comments are actually compliments on a continent where extra weight means that you are able to purchase plenty of food for your family. In fact, the women who run a craft collective where my husband volunteers recently boasted that, due to the success of their initiative, they had become “fat and fatter.” I’ve also noticed that remarking on a woman’s weight gain – real or not – after a holiday is a cultural courtesy, similar to the way people in the States would tell co-workers that they appear well-rested upon returning from a vacation.

I can’t wait to hear what people say when I come back from the Christmas break having gorged myself on Amarula bread and butter pudding with cinnamon custard.

Amarula is a cream liqueur produced in South Africa. It is made by sweetening and fermenting the fruit of the marula tree, maturing this spirit in an oak cask for two years, and then blending it with cream. The result is rich, silky and lightly fruity. A much less time-consuming process goes on in rural Zimbabwean villages, where marula fruit is fermented to make a potent homebrew. Alcohol isn’t the only use for marula – one local company turns the fruit into a dark, thick jam. And, humans aren’t the only mammals who enjoy marula – it is also a favorite food for elephants. (In fact, a common myth says that the fruit makes elephants drunk. Scientific research, however, has proven otherwise.)

Amarula bread and butter pudding is not a dessert for the faint-hearted, nor for the dieting, as butter, cream and sugar all appear in substantial quantities. It is a warm, comforting dessert – perfect for casual holiday gatherings – with a taste and texture reminiscent of French toast. If you don’t have Amarula, you can easily substitute Bailey’s or Kahlua.

Enjoy! And, if you eat too much pudding, hop on a plane to Africa. I’m sure you’ll receive many compliments.

Amarula Bread and Butter Pudding with Cinnamon Custard
Adapted from the Amarula website and Food and Home Entertaining, May 2001
Serves 10-12

50 grams / 3½ tablespoons butter, well-softened
8 slices of soft bread with a soft crust, sliced in half diagonally
50 grams / 1/3 cup raisins, soaked in warm water and drained
500 millilitres / 2 cups milk
375 ml / 1½ cups double cream
5 millilitres / 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 large eggs
200 grams / 1 cup castor sugar
125 millilitres / ½ cup Amarula

500 millilitres / 2 cups milk
2 cinnamon sticks
45 millilitres / 3 tablespoons castor sugar, or to taste
3 egg yolks
15 millilitres / 1 tablespoon cornflour

Icing sugar, for dusting

Use a little of the butter to grease a large, shallow, ovenproof dish. Use the rest to butter both sides of each piece of bread, and lay these pieces evenly in the bottom of the dish. Sprinkle the raisins over the bread.

In a medium saucepan, bring the milk, cream and vanilla extract to a boil. (Watch the pot when it is getting close to a boil to avoid it bubbling over!) Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and castor sugar. Gradually add the milk-cream mixture to the bowl, stirring constantly. (It helps to have a friend/spouse pour while you stir, or vice versa.) Stir in the Amarula.

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C (360°F). Pour the Amarula mixture over the bread and allow it to soak for 15 minutes. Bake the pudding for about 40 minutes, or until it is golden and set, with just a slight wobble in the middle. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes.

To prepare the custard, pour the milk into a small saucepan, add the cinnamon sticks, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and let simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent a film from forming. Remove the cinnamon sticks and take the pan off the heat. Whisk together the castor sugar and egg yolks, and then whisk them into the milk. Continue stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Mix the cornflour with a little water (about 1 teaspoon) to make a paste, and add it to the custard. Return the pan to the heat and cook over a low heat until the custard has thickened.

Serve the Amarula bread and butter pudding warm, with a dusting of icing sugar and a spoonful of cinnamon custard.

Note: Our electricity went out (for the third time in three days) while I was cooking the custard, so it is not pictured. And, Mark only had a chance to take one nighttime photo of the dish under lights. Alas, power cuts are one of the less appealing things about life in Zimbabwe!

Friday, December 15, 2006

Faves on Fridays #2: Spaghetti with Beetroot Pesto

Invite your friends over for pasta, and they will expect you to serve up a meal that is tomato-red; white-sauce cream or bright basil green. Set a plate of spaghetti with beetroot pesto before them and watch their eyebrows rise. Some guests will stare warily at their dish, as if it may be radioactive. Others will lean in closely and turn their plate around, admiring the pasta like they would a budding flower. It will be your frank, no-nonsense friend who breaks the awkward silence and says: “I’ve never eaten anything this color. What on earth have you done?

What you have done is boil a couple of beets until they are soft, and then blitz them in the food processor along with some olive oil, Parmesan cheese, lemon juice, pine nuts and a chili. The resulting pesto is lush and creamy, with a spicy kick. It is also, of course, a shocking shade of fuchsia. When you toss the pesto with cooked spaghetti, the spaghetti strands morph from dirty-blond to punk-rock pink in seconds. Even people who consider beets to be one of those vegetables they tolerate rather than crave will enjoy this dish, especially when it is topped with slices of seasoned and baked ricotta cheese. (Not shown in the photo – I was out of fresh ricotta and had to settle for grated Parmesan this time!)

Spaghetti with beetroot pesto and baked ricotta is ideal for warm summer nights and festive wintertime buffets, or when you need to extricate yourself from a brown-food rut. Be warned, however – once you serve this dish to your friends, they may begin responding to your dinner invites with a wink and a query: “So, tell me, what color dish are you making tonight?”

Spaghetti with Beetroot Pesto and Baked Ricotta
Serves 6

2 medium beets
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
4 teaspoons pine nuts, toasted
1 fresh green chili, deseeded and minced
Juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons roasted garlic paste (optional)
50 milliliters / 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Baked ricotta
450-gram / 1-pound wheel of fresh ricotta cheese (not the kind that comes in a plastic container)
Olive oil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 dried red chili, crushed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

500 grams / 1 pound spaghetti

Cook the beets in plenty of boiling water until they are tender, about 35 minutes. While the beets are boiling you can prepare the other pesto ingredients, as well as the baked ricotta.

To make the pesto, peel the cooked beets, chop them into chunks, and blend them together with the Parmesan cheese, pine nuts, chili, lemon juice, roasted garlic paste (optional) and olive oil in a food processor until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.

To prepare the baked ricotta, begin by pre-heating your oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Place the ricotta wheel on a baking sheet and cut it into two pieces. Pour the olive oil over the cheese and use your hands to coat both pieces. Sprinkle the dried thyme, dried red chili, salt and pepper over the cheese, and use your hands to ensure each side gets seasoned. Bake in the oven until the cheese has just begun to turn brown – about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in salted water until al dente. Drain. Put the spaghetti into a serving bowl, spoon on the pesto and toss until each strand is evenly covered. Serve topped with slices of the baked ricotta (or grated Parmesan, as an alternative).

Inspiration for this dish came from a Jamie Oliver recipe for pasta with sweet tomato sauce and baked ricotta, as well as from a pesto recipe in the July 2006 edition of Food and Home Entertaining. I mingled and adapted these recipes to create this Fave. Note that slices of baked ricotta can also make a lovely appetizer when laid atop a cracker.

Want to read my first Fave on Friday? Click here.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Ful Medames, the Holiday Antidote

Eggnog, cheese balls, shrimp dip, trifle, fruit cake – there is no doubt about it, the closer we get to the holidays, the richer and heavier our food and drink becomes. Following a festive evening, what I really want to eat is an antidote to all that gluttony. Something nutritious, comforting and uncomplicated that resets my body’s balance and allows me to face another Christmas party buffet, plate in hand.

Ful medames is just such a meal. I’ve found three references to this rustic fava bean stew over the last few months, all of which highlight its role as a daily staple in Egypt (where some consider it a national dish) and Sudan.

First, I spotted an October 3 New York Times article entitled “A Hand on the Ladle, and a Eye Out for the Law,” which told the story of the popular – but unlicensed, and therefore illegal – street vendors who ply Cairo’s poorest neighborhoods selling ful from their carts for the equivalent of 20 cents. Then, in Emma’s War: a True Story, I read journalist Deborah Scroggins’ descriptions of her attempts, during a 1988 visit to Khartoum, Sudan, to meet with government officials in order to gain permission for a trip to a refugee camp. Her task was complicated by the fact that the officials arrived to work at 8, took a break at 10 to eat a breakfast of ful, left for lunch and a nap at 1, and rarely returned to the office. Finally, just this weekend, I was devouring Apricots on the Nile: A Memoir with Recipes when I came across Colette Rossant’s reminiscences on ful medames, a dish she discovered as a child during World War II when she lived in Cairo with her Egyptian grandparents. Their cook made ful medames everyday for the household staff, while concocting much more glamorous dishes for Colette and her family. Nevertheless, young Colette loved ful medames. Per her grandmother’s instructions, she was supposed to eat a baguette with butter and jam as an after-school snack, but Colette and the cook conspired to ensure she could eat ful medames instead.

Although ful medames is more typically eaten for breakfast or as a snack, I like to have a bowl for lunch or as a light supper. It is an especially appealing meal when I crave something wholesome and nourishing after a lazy holiday afternoon spent grazing over cheese platters and cramming my plate with every dessert on offer. Meet ful medames, my un-holiday holiday dish.

Ful Medames (Fava Bean Stew)
Serves 4 as a light main course

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 bay leaves
1 large tomato, peeled and chopped
4 cups vegetable stock
2 15-ounce cans fava beans, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons tahini
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
4 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
3 scallions, sliced
Cilantro leaves, for garnish

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat, and sauté the onions and garlic until the onions are translucent. Add the ground coriander, ground cumin, cayenne pepper and bay leaves, and cook for 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in the chopped tomato and vegetable stock, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, mash together the fava beans, lemon juice, tahini, parsley and salt in a separate bowl. Stir this mixture into the soup, making sure to break up any clumps of the mash. Simmer for another 8 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, and remove the bay leaves. Ladle into serving bowls, scooping up from the bottom of the pot. Top with the eggs, scallions and cilantro leaves. Serve with warmed pita bread. If you want to eat ful as the Egyptians and Sudanese do, try using the pita bread to scoop up the stew, sans spoon.

This post is an entry in the Super Souper Challenge, a food blog event hosted by running with tweezers.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Karibu! A Field Trip to Zanzibar

If you are gorging yourself on coconuts, fish, pineapples and a bonanza of bananas, chances are, you’re on a tropical island. But if your fish is marinated in tamarind and lime, your tea steeped in lemongrass, your coffee infused with ginger and cardamom, your mouth burning from chilies, and your meal accompanied by chapattis and roasted breadfruit or cassava, then there is only one place in the world you could be – Zanzibar.

Like Timbuktu or Transylvania, Zanzibar is a place you might have heard of, but might not be able to state, with absolute certainty: 1) whether it truly exists or 2) where in the world it might be. Dust off your atlas and find Tanzania, in East Africa. Pick out Dar es Salaam, the country’s largest city, located along the coast. Off the coast, to the northeast, is the Zanzibar Archipelago. The archipelago consists of Pemba, a scattering of tiny islets, and the main island, Unguja (which, by itself, is often referred to as “Zanzibar”).

Zanzibar was a key trading post for slaves and then spices during the 18th and 19th centuries. This history created a society characterized by an amazing convergence of African, Indian, Arab and Persian cultures, all of which have influenced Zanzibar’s religion, architecture, and, of course, its food. For example, on Zanzibar you can eat ugali (Tanzania’s permutation of African stiff maize-meal porridge); dig into Indian-inspired plates of biriani, pilau and coconut milk-based curries; and nibble plump dates with your coffee. One of our trip highlights was snacking on lentil bhajias while watching the sun set over Stone Town from the Tower Top Restaurant at 236 Hurumzi (formally Emerson and Green), while the evening call for prayer wafted on the sea breeze from every mosque spire.

Coming from a landlocked country, we eagerly anticipated Zanzibar’s many opportunities for ocean-gathered eating. Upon arrival, we headed straight for Forodhani Gardens, a night market that boasts table after table laden with calamari steaks, octopus, crab claws and an astonishing array of fish kebabs – your choices include red snapper, kingfish, tuna, and prawns, to name a few. It’s a chaotic scene. Smoke rises from dozens of grills and every vendor uses his best sales pitch to attract your attention (and money) while you negotiate aisles clogged with wide-eyed tourists, gaggles of local teens, and “helpers” directing you to their preferred stall. Another Forodhani staple is Zanzibar pizza which, despite being a crêpe topped with cheese, green chili, onion, tomato, egg, cilantro, mayonnaise, ginger paste, garlic and minced meat (optional), somehow actually does taste like pizza and is surprisingly good. It also reminded me of a favorite street food from China, jian bing.

Zanzibar was once known as the Spice Islands, and spices are still an important export. “Spice tours” – visits to farms that grow spice-generating trees and plants, as well as tropical fruits – are an established tourist must-do, and we happily complied. We discovered that both cardamom and peppercorn are native to the island, but that the other spices Zanzibar is known for – vanilla, clove and cinnamon – were all brought here by the Omari Sultons who ruled during the 1800s, when Zanzibar was the Arab Empire’s capital in East Africa. I love learning where the ingredients I cook with actually come from, so it was fascinating to see turmeric and cardamom plants, vanilla-bean vines, and cloves growing on trees as well as drying on large sheets in the sun. We got to taste-test many items, including fresh peppercorns, straight from the vine (which make your mouth tingle) and the tart mbiri mbiri, a variety of star fruit used in recipes as a substitute for lime. We also timidly tried a red chili that is called “pilipili-hoho” in Swahili because you have to exhale with a “hoho” after eating it in an attempt to extinguish the fire in your mouth. In addition to being used in food, we learned that Zanzibaris have found other uses for spice plants and trees. For instance, cloves are used for toothaches and the menthol-scented root of the cinnamon tree is mixed with oil and used to relieve chest colds.

One of the many things I loved about Zanzibar is that although you can plunk yourself down on a stunning white-sand, palm-fringed beach, the island is not one big, sterile, tropical resort. It is very much a living, breathing, bustling and, in many areas, poor and gritty, place. Public transport consists of dalla-dallas – pick-ups with modified truck beds featuring benches, wood or iron-lattice sides, and an awning top. They rattle along streets lined with tin-roofed market stalls selling everything from fish to fruit to phone cards. Scooters zip and weave, some with strapped-on metal jugs that dispense milk – Zanzibar’s version of the milkman. By the coast, you can spot sailboats called “dhows” in the distance. They are endlessly photogenic, but also functional – this is what fishermen use to catch all that fish at Forodhani. At low tide, people with buckets wade into the ocean, collecting seaweed in plastic bags for export to East Asia, while young boys catch tiny fish in the tide pools using worms tied to a string.

Over the next few months, I’ll be trying to replicate some of our favorite Zanzibari dishes and drinks: red kidney beans with coconut (maharagwe), lentil bhajias, dawa (a drink made with konyagi, a local gin), Zanzibar pizza, Zanzibar coffee and many more. Stay tuned!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Pucker Up! A Taste of Tamarind

This past weekend I was lounging on the soft-sand, turquoise-water beach of south-east Zanzibar, equidistant from the ocean and a crystal-clear pool. There, between catnaps, I read the first few sections of John Reader’s fascinating epic Africa: A Biography of the Continent. One of the many things I learned was that humans likely evolved from primates when our ancestors began exploiting the opportunity to forage for food during the day, while most carnivores in the East African savanna were sound asleep. These daytime adventures required long hours under the hot, tropical sun, and, over time, the individuals who flourished were those who started to walk upright – which exposed less surface area to direct sunlight – and those who lost their thick coat of hair. Eventually, Reader says, we humanoids evolved to boast the most efficient cooling system of any mammal.

Very interesting stuff, and very coincidental to be reading it under that same tropical East African sun, where every move is sweat-inducing. Reader also says that the way our cooling system developed – sporting well-developed sweat glands, for example, instead of a muzzle – actually made the evolution of a large brain physiologically possible. It is this large brain that allows us to solve problems. Problems such as: My body may be an efficient cooling machine, but I feel hot. What should I do? Ah, yes, I will invent something called a refrigerator and use this nifty appliance to chill water into tiny cubes. Over these ice cubes, I will pour a beverage that will quench my thirst, give me a quick burst of energy, and jolt awake my taste buds with a puckery tang.

In other words: When in Zanzibar, I will drink tamarind juice.

The tamarind tree is native to the East African tropics. Its fruit is a long pod, and inside the pod are shiny, brown seeds surrounded by a thick, rust-colored pulp. When the pod is picked, it dehydrates into coarse, stringy fibers, which makes the tamarind that you, say, purchase at a Zanzibari market and carry with you back to Zimbabwe, distinctively unattractive (see photo). It is the pulp that you eat, and that is packaged and sold as tamarind paste.

Mark and I first drank tamarind juice during breakfast at the Tembo House Hotel on our first morning in Zanzibar. We could not stop refilling our glasses. The juice was sweet and sour with that tell-tale tamarind texture of almost syrupy thickness. Today, back in Zimbabwe, I used our “imported” fresh tamarind to make this recipe. We puckered our lips, and imagined the beach.

Tamarind Juice (Maji ya Ukwaju)
Adapted from A Taste of Zanzibar: Chakula Kizuri
Serves 8

4 cups of water, plus 3 cups
½ pound / 230 grams tamarind pods*
1¾ cups sugar

Place the tamarind pods and 4 cups of water in a large saucepan and soak the pods for one hour. Put the saucepan on the stovetop and bring the mixture to a boil. Cool.

Your next task is to remove all the stringy bits and seeds from the pan. I did this with a combination of my hands and a strainer. First, I used my hands to pick out the seeds from the pot. The membrane and any remaining pulp around the seeds should be soft and can easily be separated from the seed. Discard the seeds and return the membranes and pulp to the pan. Some seeds may have broken apart – I found that these bits are most easily captured with a fine strainer.

When all the strings and seeds are gone, use an immersion blender to blend the remaining liquid. Strain again. Add the sugar and 3 more cups of water and boil again for five minutes. Taste the liquid and add more sugar if you think it is necessary. Chill. Serve over ice cubes.

*Miriam, a Tanzanian blogger, has also recently written about tamarind juice, and she combines it with mango to create, I must say, a much more photogenic beverage. Since most people don’t have access to fresh tamarind, she helpfully recommends Laxmi Brand natural tamarind concentrate for recipes that call for tamarind, including juice recipes. Unfortunately, I don’t have any tamarind paste with me here in Zimbabwe; otherwise, I’d try making tamarind juice using the paste, and advise you on how much to use. If anyone attempts this substitute – please let me know what you discover! I’m sure your experimentation will be worth it.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Time for Avocado and Peanut Salad, Courtesy of Côte d'Ivoire

Time is a funny thing. On some occasions it evaporates, like when you are absorbed in a good book on a chilly day, a cup of tea by your side. Other days it’s cordoned off into neat and tidy chunks: meeting from 8-10; article due by noon; dentist appointment at 12; lunch with friends between 1 and 2. Once in awhile, time is thick, like quicksand, determined to prevent all forward movement, as when waiting in a never-ending queue, or during the last workday minutes of a Friday afternoon. Some of the longest hours of my life were spent on a street corner in Brisbane where I had the dastardly job of handing out advertisements for a chain of parking lots, all in clear view of the slowest moving clock I have ever seen, perched on top of the Suncorp tower.

Time can be heralded with the jingle of an on-the-hour news break, a school bell or the call from a mosque. It can also stretch before you, long and languid, like an endless white-sand beach, with nothing to mark its passing but the movement of the sun. And every so often you want to push the fast forward button on time, or, like TiVo, save the bit that you have now, but would find much more enjoyable later.

I realize, however, that despite these varied experiences of time and our casual use of expressions such as “time flies” or “time stood still,” it is not time itself that keeps changing its character, but we who are changing and living time in different ways. I was thinking these thoughts about time today, as I counted down the hours before Mark and I leave on our trip to Zanzibar. I always get a bit anxious before traveling, especially when this travel involves Zimbabwe’s less-than-reliable national air carrier. But, I’ve decided, my anxiety also stems from my conflicting feelings towards time. On one hand I want time to speed up – to be on that plane and in the air. On the other hand, I want time to slow down, so that I have the chance to pack leisurely, to tie up loose ends, and, of course, to write a post before my weeklong blog hiatus.

The puzzle is, what can I cook that is quick and easy, and doesn’t create leftovers I won’t have the opportunity to eat? The answer is this refreshing avocado and peanut salad from Côte d'Ivoire. Its appeal stems from the ingredients’ contrasting flavors (sweet, spicy and sour) and textures (creamy and crunchy). Now, I have no aversion to simply slicing open an avocado and eating it straight from the peel. But, with a just a few more minutes on my hands, the extra effort to make this salad is well worth it. One day – maybe as an antidote to the tedium of packing or the anxiety of time – you, too, can give it a try.

Avocado Salad with Crunchy Peanut Topping
Adapted from Food by Country
Serves 4-6

3 ripe avocados
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons finely chopped peanuts (a.k.a. groundnuts)
¾ teaspoon paprika
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Cayenne pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste

Peel the avocados and cut the flesh into cubes. Place the cubes in a small bowl, and toss with the lemon juice. In a separate bowl, mix together the peanuts, paprika, ground cinnamon, cayenne paper and salt. Spoon the avocado onto your serving plate, and top with a sprinkling of the peanuts. Serve immediately.

This post is an entry in Slashfood's Going Nuts in November food blog event.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Okra, I Want to Like Thee

Okra, papaya and Twizzlers. These seemingly dissimilar food items have one unfortunate commonality – they are the three foods in the world that I dislike.* My aversion is begrudging and reluctant, however, and I periodically retest my taste buds just to make sure they haven’t changed their minds. Today’s test subject? Okra.

Okra is an African vegetable, through and through. It originated in present-day Ethiopia, and the word “okra” comes from Ibo, a language spoken in Nigeria. African dishes from the Cape to Cairo employ this long, tapered, hexagonal vegetable, including the two I tried tonight – okra with coconut (a recipe from the Indian community in South Africa) and bamia, an Egyptian okra stew.

I’ve tried okra fried. I’ve tried it in gumbo. I’ve tried it sautéed with tomatoes. And I have never once enjoyed it. But, to my amazement, I actually found these two dishes to be excellent – full of flavor and cooked so that the okra retains a bit of crunch, a technique which effectively distracts your attention from the vegetable’s slimier tendencies. Both okra recipes make excellent side dishes, and can be served over rice.

Okra with Coconut
Adapted from Mixed Masala: Indian Cookery South African Style
Serves 3-4 as a side dish

½ teaspoon coriander seeds
¼ teaspoon cumin seeds
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ teaspoon mustard seeds
250 grams/½ pound fresh okra, sliced into fine rings
1 tablespoon desi
ccated coconut
2 green chilies, cut lengthwise and then into halves
1 small onion, finely sliced
½ teaspoon salt

Put the coriander seeds and cumin seeds in a small fry pan over medium heat, and roast lightly. Grind the seeds into powder using a mortar and pestle, and set aside.

Pour the oil into a medium fry pan and set over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds. Once the mustard seeds begin popping, add the okra. Sauté for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Turn the heat down to low and add the freshly ground coriander and cumin seeds, desiccated coconut, chilies, onion and salt. Stir. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, or until the okra is tender. Lift the cover occasionally to give the mixture a stir. If the okra is sticking to the bottom of the fry pan, simply add a bit of water.

Egyptian Okra Stew (Bamia)
Adapted from Recipe Zaar
Serves 4-6 as a side dish

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, cut in half and finely sliced
2 small garlic cloves, minced
1 400-gram/14-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
Juice of one lemon
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon cilantro (a.k.a. fresh coriander), chopped
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
Pinch of salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
700 grams/1½ pounds fresh okra, cut into ½-inch rounds

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and sauté until the onion is translucent, about five minutes. Add the tomatoes (with their juice), lemon, parsley, cilantro, ground cardamom, salt and pepper, and stir, making sure to break up the tomatoes with the back of your spoon. Simmer for five minutes, stirring frequently. Add the okra and stir. Cook for another ten minutes, or until the okra is tender but not mushy. Serve hot.

One down, two to go. Now does anyone have a particularly enticing papaya preparation to share?

* I must offer the caveat that I don’t eat meat (pork, chicken, or beef). I don’t consider these to be items I don’t like, just foods I choose not to eat!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Bunny Chow by Any Other Name

Scientists say that 80-90 percent of what we taste is due to our sense of smell – a fact that becomes abundantly clear whenever you have a cold. We know, too, that the appearance of a dish greatly effects our perception of how it will taste. This is why there are food stylists in the world and why food bloggers pay so much attention to their photographs. An article in the October 14 issue of The Economist adds some scientific veritas to the “appearance accentuates taste” argument by sharing research which finds that the champagne bottle itself has a dramatically positive effect on how people think the bubby inside will taste.

In addition to smell and appearance, I believe the name of the food or drink you are about to consume also plays a critical role in your overall gastronomic experience. This is one of the many reasons why French food has such an eternal allure (crème brûlée, anyone?) and why bunny chow by any other name would taste better.

What do you think of when you hear the term “bunny chow”? I think cute, doe-eyed bunnies and pesky, shivering Chihuahuas – and neither image makes me hungry. But, alas, “bunny chow” is the name with which a yummy South African dish is forever burdened.

The simplest way to describe bunny chow is that it is curry served inside a hollowed out loaf or roll of bread for plate- and utensil-free eating. Durban is the South African city home to the largest number of people of Indian descent, and it is here that bunny chow was born in the 1940s. One set of stories traces the origin of bunny chow to inventive Indian restaurateurs from a certain caste called Banias. According to these stories, “Banias” somehow morphed into the word “bunny” when describing the restaurants’ signature bread and curry dish, which could be served to all patrons as a take-away (take-out) meal – even black customers who weren’t allowed inside the restaurant due to apartheid laws. Another set of stories points to Indian golf-course caddies as the impetus for the invention of bunny chow. These caddies either didn’t have time to leave their courses for lunch or, due to apartheid, were not allowed to use the utensils at course restaurants. The fact that bunny chow was both a container and a meal made it the caddies’ perfect lunchtime choice.

Bunny chow is traditionally made with bean curry, as in the recipe below. Feel free to use your favorite lamb, beef or chicken curry instead. You also may want to consider inventing your own name for the dish, one that will get your families’ taste buds tingling. My working moniker is Spicy Bean Curry in a Crusty Bread Bowl. Or, maybe I should make that cari épicé d'haricot dans un bol croustillant de pain. Yep, sounds – and tastes – even better.

Bunny Chow
Adapted from From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail
Serves 4 to 6

1½ cups dried pinto beans or other small-to-medium white beans, such as cannellini beans
½ teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon hot curry powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 tablespoons peanut or corn oil
Generous pinch ground asafetida
½ teaspoon brown mustard seeds
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
¼ teaspoon fennel seeds
1 medium onion, quartered lengthwise and then cut crosswise into thin slices
10-15 fresh curry leaves (optional, but highly recommended)
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons peeled and finely grated fresh ginger
1 cup peeled and finely chopped tomato
1¼ teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
¼ teaspoon garam masala
4-6 large, crusty bread rolls

Cover the beans with plenty of water and soak overnight. Drain, and place the beans in a pot along with 6½ cups of water. Bring to a boil, partially cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 2 hours or until the beans are tender. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water.

Mix together the ground cumin, ground coriander, ground turmeric, curry powder and cayenne pepper in a small bowl, and set aside.

Pour the oil into a large saucepan and set over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the asafetida, quickly followed by the mustards seeds, cumin seeds and fennel seeds, in that order. Swiftly add the onion and curry leaves and stir. Sauté until the onion is lightly browed. Add the garlic and ginger and stir for 10 seconds. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until they have softened – about five minutes. Add the fresh water (not the reserved water), as well as the salt, lemon juice and garam masala. Bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce the heat to low and cook gently for fifteen minutes.

Pour the cooked beans into the saucepan and stir, adding some of the reserved water if you would like a soupier curry. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, on low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, cut the tops off of your rolls, saving them to serve alongside the rest of the roll. Using a combination of a knife and your finger, hollow-out the insides of the rolls. Traditionally, this fluffy hollowed-out bread piece would be served on top of the bunny chow, but I typically end up discarding this part of the bread (otherwise the meal is a tad too bread-heavy for me). When the curry has finished cooking, scoop spoonfuls into your bread bowls and serve hot.