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.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Tag, a Picnic, and a New Warm Salad

Maintaining a food blog isn’t all fun and games you know. Sometimes you get witheringly challenging assignments from your peers, like the one I recently received from lobstersquad. Stop by and admire Ximena’s endearingly carefree writing and illustrations, and then note that she has “tagged” me to respond to the following question: Which menu would you serve food-blogging friends for a welcome dinner upon their first visit to your home?” This meme was started by Angelika of The Flying Apple, and has solicited numerous mouth-watering replies.

Well, my food blog friends, you’ve come a long, long way to arrive here at my home in Zimbabwe, and you’ll probably want to get out and see the country you’ve landed in. So, instead of being stuck inside my house, I’ll prepare a picnic lunch and we’ll all head off to nearby Ngomakurira, an imposing rock formation that features amazing ancient rock art. We’ll stop for our picnic beside a steep rock face that, because of its slightly convex shape, offers some welcome shade at its base. If you come now – quick! – before the rainy season starts, the sky will be a penetrating blue and the landscape’s colors – the light tan of the rock, the rust and lime lichen, the dark green scrub – will be almost flattened by the intense sunlight. You’ll have a clear view over the surrounding countryside from the rock’s peak, and will be able to spot a few villages and some people dressed in white who have gathered for church under a tree.

However, what you really want to know is – what will you be eating? Well, the assignment asks for “signature” dishes, and one of my entertaining signatures is dips. I love dips. In fact, this may sound like one tall tale, but I once shared my recipe for feta-walnut dip (a recipe adapted from Molly Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook) with a friend in North Carolina, who happened to be friends with the then-boyfriend of Rachel Ray, who loved the dip, made her own modifications, and prepared it on Oprah earlier this year. True story.

In addition to my feta-walnut dip, you’ll be munching on spicy hummus, beetroot pesto and olive tapenade, all waiting to be scooped up by toasted pita crisps. Other nibbles will include baked ricotta cheese and boursin-stuffed peppadews. You’ll wash these appetizers down with cool sips of rooibos sangria, straight from my trusty cooler.

Next up will be a creamy avocado gazpacho, followed by a warm green salad with spicy peanut-butter dressing and sadza-sage croutons. This is a special recipe I invested just for you. I know you’ll want to try some Zimbabwean food during your visit, but, to be honest, the local cuisine doesn’t really lend itself to picnics, multi-course meals or chardonnay-laced toasts. My salad adds some new flavors to a traditional Zimbabwean relish made with greens, tomato, onion and peanut butter and transforms its traditional sadza accompaniment into tasty croutons. You’ll find the recipe below (with an option to use polenta instead of sadza for the croutons) just in case you can’t make my picnic. The main course – a light one, since we have a bit of a hike back to the car – will be Savory Broccoli and Cheddar Strudel, garnished with a dollop of chakalaka.

The wine selection in Zimbabwe is quite limited and, to make matters worse, I am totally stupid when it comes to wine. So, I will bribe a fellow food blogger with the promise of a Zimbabwean stone sculpture gift (like this one) to bring several bottles of an appropriate white wine to accompany the meal.

Finally, I have bad – and long-standing – habit of trying out new recipes on unsuspecting guests. It is not surprising, therefore, that I have found the perfect untried and untested dessert for you all. I recently discovered a recipe in Food and Home Entertaining (September 2006) for a grilled fruit platter that looks simply stunning – grilled chunks of pineapple, cantaloupe, bananas, strawberries and guava in a mango reduction sauce topped with toasted fresh coconut. This dish is supposed to be served at room temperature, which makes it a perfect take-along picnic treat. Just in case this plan backfires, however, I’ll have some sweet baked nuts on hand.

Sleepy, full, and sun-kissed, we will lethargically make our way back to my house, drink some tea or coffee on the veranda, watch the sun set, and reminisce about that lovely warm salad.

Warm Green Salad with Spicy Peanut-Butter Dressing and Sadza-Sage Croutons
Serves 2 as a side salad
Adapted from a traditional Zimbabwean relish and a crouton recipe in Food and Home Entertaining, July 2006

1 cup sadza
1 tablespoon butter
2 sage leaves, minced
1 teaspoon olive oil

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 dried red chili pepper, crushed
½ an onion, finely sliced
1 large bunch of greens, chopped (I used a medium bunch of Swiss chard, supplemented by a handful of beet greens)
1 medium tomato, chopped
1 small clove garlic, minced
Salt, to taste
2 tablespoons natural peanut butter
1 teaspoon hot water
Juice of ½ a lemon

To prepare the sadza croutons, first you need some sadza, which you could create by making this recipe. For those of you far from sadza, you can use polenta. Stir in the butter and sage during the last five minutes of cooking either the sadza or the polenta. Let the sadza or polenta cool slightly, then use the back of a wooden spoon to flatten the sadza/polenta into a square, 3/4-inch tall pancake. Cut the sadza/polenta into cubes and grill using a hot griddle pan and the olive oil. You’ll end up with a few more croutons than you’ll need for this salad, but you can store them in an airtight container for future salad-topping use over the next few days.

Now, begin the salad. Pour the oil into a large fry pan over medium/medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the dried red chili pepper and stir. Quickly add the onion and sauté, stirring frequently, until the onion has turned translucent. Add the greens, a handful at a time if necessary, stirring frequently. When the greens have begun to wilt, add the tomato, garlic and salt, and stir. Sauté for just a few more minutes. Meanwhile, mix together the peanut butter and hot water in a small bowl or teacup until it is smooth. Pour the thinned peanut butter over the sautéing mixture and stir. Cook for one minute more, and then take the warm salad off of the stove. Adjust the salt as needed and squeeze the lemon over the salad. Toss, and serve topped with sadza-sage croutons.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Couscous Cool Down

Over the past two months, Northern Hemisphere food bloggers have been cooking and baking in time with the changing seasons, matching their menus to lingering balmy nights, the new chill in the air, and the first flakes of snow. They have artfully invoked the imagery, scents and flavours of fall, with their vanilla-scented cakes and nuts, warming soups, seasonal fresh produce and Thanksgiving preparations. While pretending there was a crisp fall breeze wafting in my window, I have vicariously joined in the autumnal festivities with my pumpkin fritters, and a soup or two. But today I must succumb to the reality of the weather in my little corner of the Southern Hemisphere.

It is hot, bloody hot. The sun is doing its best to suck away my last bit of energy and the afternoon humidity has induced a permanent state of sweat. It is well past lunchtime, and I refuse to cook. Or move very much.

My only option, and a welcome one it is, is to prepare my favorite couscous salad. This dish has only one heat-inducing step – boiling the water to pour over the dry couscous. After that, all you are required to do is whisk together a Mexican-spiced dressing spiked with lime, chop up some nectarines and a handful of spinach, and open up a can of chickpeas. The nectarine cools you off, the citrus wakes you up and the whole ensemble is light and invigorating.

Couscous is a staple food in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia – an area of the world where it likely has been eaten for more than 1,000 years. The dish may have been invented by Muslim Berbers in North Africa, or by people in West Africa who did, and still do, prepare couscous using millet. Typically, however, the tiny couscous granules are made from mixing, rolling and sieving a combination of semolina flour, salt, and water. They are then dried in the sun, cooked in a special steamer called a couscoussière, and served with meat, vegetables, or fish as a main or side dish, or with nuts, cinnamon and sugar as a dessert. The couscous we buy in boxes at the store is pre-steamed, which is why all we need to do is add hot water and let it re-hydrate for a few minutes. One day, one day, I will eat authentic couscous prepared in a couscoussière, even though I hear that you can never go back to the box variety again.

This couscous recipe has very little "African" about it, other than the African origin of the couscous itself. My friend Molly adapted this recipe from an unknown cookbook, and shared it with me exactly four years, two months and 10 days ago, according to the printed-out e-mail from her that I have carried with me to two countries. I have been making this couscous salad for picnics and brunches – and on sweltering hot days – ever since.

Couscous Salad with Nectarines and Chickpeas
Serves 6 as a side dish or light lunch

1 cup uncooked (dried) couscous
1¼ cups water
4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1½ cups nectarines, coarsely chopped (about 3 medium)
¾ cup coarsely chopped spinach (I used Swiss chard this time)
1 can (15½ ounces) chickpeas, rinsed and drained
Lettuce leaves, for serving

Pour the couscous into a small bowl. Bring the water to a boil and pour it over the couscous. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a plate, and let it sit for at least five minutes. Fluff the couscous with a fork and let cool.

Whisk together the lime juice, olive oil, honey, salt, cumin and coriander in a large bowl. Add the couscous, nectarines, spinach and chickpeas. Toss well, and serve mounded on lettuce leaves.