Saturday, December 15, 2007

Va-Voom

Some Americans spend their childhood in suburbs – backyards, front yards, bike-riding in the street. Some are raised in cities – hubbub, playgrounds, concrete, culture. Some sprout in rural areas – porches, animals, tall grass, big sky. Others grow up in central Zaire.

Or maybe that’s just Ruth.*

Two weeks ago, in a transaction that looked suspiciously like a drug deal, my friend Ruth handed me an expired prescription pill container half-filled with brown-grey powder. I opened the child-proof lid, took a sniff – woodsy, with a peppery bite – and placed the goods in my purse. Buamba, she called it, a spice mixture from central Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) that goes with everything. Her family no longer lives in Congo, but they always keep some buamba close at hand.

I can’t decide if I should describe buamba as African MSG or fairy dust. Sprinkle it on slow-roasted tomato, a fried egg, a green salad, some soft cheese and va-voom, every taste is amplified. I am tempted to become a buamba evangelist, plying the streets of Harare trying to convince people to stop using so much salt and convert to buamba.

First, however, I need to figure out what goes into the stuff. Black pepper – that’s for sure. What else? Ruth herself is uncertain. All she knows is that buamba does not contain salt (sodium chloride), but
potassium chloride instead. A Google search for buamba turns up nothing, nothing at all. If any reader has the secret recipe, please let me know!

In the meantime, I will begin toting some buamba in my purse. Watch out unpalatable overcooked veg at the hotel buffet. Pay heed lifeless leftover. Here comes buamba. Va-voom!

*And, speaking of growing up, I should mention that Ruth is one of those women you want to be when you grow up. Even when you are already grown up.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Dear Salad

Dear Salad,

It is a sunny Sunday afternoon here in Harare – a day just calling out for a salad – and I decided it was high time I write you a short note of appreciation. After all, I have enjoyed salads my whole life.

I’m not certain which came first – me liking salad or me liking the praise adults showered upon me whenever I ate raw vegetables. In any case, I started eating salad young. Growing up, my mom prepared a salad to accompany almost every dinner meal. To our great fortune, she saw right through the pale, watery leaves of iceberg lettuce and introduced us to romaine and red leaf and Boston lettuce way before the Jones’. We might not have had cable until 1995 or an answering machine until 2000, but we were eating tasty, nutritious salads.

My dad dressed you, salad, with his special vinaigrette. He has tried many times to show us how to accomplish this perfect balance of olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper and dried oregano, yet we can never make it quite the same. Whatever dressing remained at the bottom of the bowl was (and still is) carefully absorbed with a slice of Italian bread.

The other three salads I remember my mom serving were tomato salad (only made in August with tomatoes from our garden and, again, with my dad’s vinaigrette), chef’s salad, and ravioli salad – a “keeper” recipe my mom clipped from the newspaper that combines ravioli, fresh tomatoes, shredded zucchini and grated parmesan. I still make this salad today.

College might have expanded my brain, but it did not expand my repertoire of salads, even though I ate daily from the school’s salad bar. Since the cafeteria charged students according to the size of the salad bowl we used, I learned how to maximize the “small” bowl. I selected the sturdiest slices of cucumber and lined them up around the edges of the bowl, effectively adding another inch to the bowl’s height. Salad, I valued you, but I valued my precious “food points” more.

Once I began cooking on my own, I experimented with salads formed around bulgur and tofu, and learned to appreciate egg salad – now I not only like this
Africa-inspired version, but also one by Mollie Katzen that mixes hard-boiled eggs with gremolata and ricotta. When my husband and I moved to Australia to study, we quickly adapted to ordering sandwiches “with salad.” As you know, in Oz, “with salad” does not translate to “side salad;” rather, it is the lettuce, tomato, and, oftentimes, beetroot, placed inside the sandwich itself.

Yet, it has really been over the last two years that I’ve discovered how diverse a genre you really are, salad. Since I began experimenting with North Africa cuisine, I’ve learned that by looking to Tunisia, Algeria and Moroccan, I can take any abundant fruit or veg from my fridge, garden or cupboard –
carrots, zucchini, beetroot, dried peaches – and transform it into salads, both warm and cold. Now, I understand that anytime I am cutting up a vegetable and adding some sort of dressing – well, salad, there you are. Thank you.

Best wishes,
Carolyn

The salad I’m enjoying at the moment is a traditional grilled vegetable salad from Tunisia called mechouia (also written salata mishwiyya). It contains a cast of characters familiar to those who prepare
chakchouka or turlu turlu. I’ve seen recipes that call for blending the vegetables together after they are grilled or crushing them with a mortar and pestle; others, like this one, request a good fine chop. In addition to the topping of hard-boiled egg and feta cheese, some recipes also call for tuna. Olives or capers would be welcome additions, too.

Mechouia (Grilled Vegetable Salad)
Adapted from Classic Vegetarian Cooking from the Middle East and North Africa
Serves 6 as a side salad

2 large red bell peppers
4 firm medium tomatoes
3 medium onions
1 small chili
45 milliliters / 3 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice
45 milliliters / 3 tablespoons olive oil
5 milliliters / 1 teaspoon oregano
5 milliliters / 1 teaspoon salt
2.5 milliliters / ½ teaspoon black pepper
2 hard boiled eggs, cut into wedges
40 grams / ¼ cup feta cheese, crumbled

Grill the red peppers, tomatoes, onions and chili (outdoors or on the stovetop), or broil in the oven. Turn the vegetables periodically. Remove the vegetables as they become soft – the chili will grill faster than the onion, for example.

Peel the skins from the peppers and chili and remove as many seeds from the chili as you want; you can keep a few in to add additional heat to the dish. Chop all the vegetables into small pieces.


In a large mixing bowl, whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, oregano, salt and pepper. Add the chopped vegetables and mix well. Transfer to a serving platter and scatter the egg and cheese around the top of the salad. Serve warm.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Good, Simple, Filling

Cookbooks are filled with gussied up classics – cheesecakes transformed by lite makeovers, chocolate chip cookies enriched by whole grains, grill-side marinades renewed with pomegranate molasses, macaroni and cheese gourmet-ed with gruyere, and mashed potatoes, anointed by truffle oil, baptized into 2007. When I first made kushary, a sturdy Egyptian dish built around lentils, rice and pasta, I, too, was tempted to play. What if I added some a cinnamon stick to the stewing lentils, or mixed in some roasted garlic? There, in that pan of simmering tomato sauce, couldn’t I toss in a dried chili and some fresh herbs? And wouldn’t using spinach pasta just brighten up the whole dish?

Why, yes, it probably would. But sometimes cheesecake is supposed to be fattening; mashed potatoes need to be, well, just mashed potatoes; and kushary should be left as the simple, stick-to-your-ribs, working-class meal that it is.

Even on the night just before you go grocery shopping, you will be able to make kushary. Pasta, rice, lentils, tomato paste, onions – is this not a concise list of staples? I’ll admit, the current
food shortages in Zimbabwe and recent multi-day power outages at my house have created some challenges for a food blogger. (Did I mention I haven’t had a dial tone at my house for a month and, yes, I use a modem?) All the more reason to keep it simple, be happy that your refrigerator is reasonably full (although where oh where can I find real butter?), and remember that food is for sustenance. When it tastes good, even better.

Kushary tastes good. Not phenomenal or awe-inspiring. It is not the type of food you eat slowly because you are pausing every half-second to gush with praise. But it is good. The recipe I use comes from Clifford Wright, who has an excellent site you should explore when you have the time. The whole compilation – pasta on the bottom, rice and lentils in the middle, sauce poured on top, garnished with browned onions – improves the next day.

Rather than rewrite the recipes, here are the links:

Here for the
kushary,

And here for dim’a musabika, the thin tomato sauce it must be made with.

I left my onions caramelized instead of crispy, mostly because I find the line between crispy and burnt very hard to master. And, yes, I did use ghee – I found an old container crammed into a dark recess of my fridge. The serving numbers are accurate – it fed my husband and me exactly three meals. Three good, simple, filling meals.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Grown-up Spaghetti-Os

My husband writes music reviews, which means I have the opportunity to hear a lot of good music...and a lot of, well, music that I don’t love. I also get to stare at Mark in awe as he confidently describes albums as “angular artrock” or “Japanese instru-metal.” Angular WHAT? Japanese HOW? It is strange to hear someone you know so well put together phrases that you completely and utterly don’t understand.

Food imagery is rarely as impenetrably obtuse, but the craft of describing food and describing music are not that dissimilar. Both involve allusions and metaphors, evoke your senses, and, in the end, reflect just as much about the describer as the described. Although I usually lack the vocabulary and reference points to express more than a gut-level like or dislike of music, I occasionally try to impress my husband by, for example, telling him that a singer-songwriter sounds like what would happen if Iron & Wine shouted instead of whispered. Could fool you into thinking I know what I am talking about, now couldn’t I?

Mark, in return, shares his insights about food. Like when, after tasting this soup from Morocco, he quickly exclaimed – “It’s like grown-up Spaghetti-Os!” Sweetened by squash, freshened with lemon, and sustained by dainty pasta strands instead of Os – why yes, yes chorba bil matisha does taste a bit like grown-up Spaghetti-Os. Although this easy-to-prepare Kitty Morse recipe may not be as thought-provoking as angular artrock or Japanese instru-metal, it deftly transcends the seeming average-ness of pureed tomatoes and squash through the inspired addition of cilantro, celery leaves and cloves. Like new music from The Old Ceremony, Roman Candle, Sara Bareilles, Bobby Bare Jr., The Be Good Tanyas, and The Crooked Jades, it will join our regular playlist.

Chorba Bil Matisha
Adapted from The Vegetarian Table: North Africa
Serves 4 generously


1 onion
4 whole cloves
6 cups / 1.5 liters vegetable broth
2 pounds / 1.2 kilograms butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into small chunks
4 celery stalks, including leaves, coarsely chopped
5 tomatoes, quartered
12 fresh cilantro (a.k.a. coriander) sprigs
¼ teaspoon / 1.25 milliliters ground turmeric
½ cup / 50 grams angel hair pasta, broken into 2-inch / 5-centimeter pieces
½ cup / 125 milliliters milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Lemon wedges

Stud the onion with the cloves. In a large saucepan, combine the onion, broth, squash, celery, tomatoes, cilantro and turmeric. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook until the vegetables are tender, 30-40 minutes. Take the pot off of the heat and discard the onion with its cloves.

Use an immersion blender to puree the vegetables and broth until smooth. Return to heat and add the pasta. Simmer until the pasta is tender, about 6-8 minutes. Turn off the heat, stir in the milk, and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, with lemon wedges.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Keep Christmas with You

Remember that Muppets song with the line “Keep Christmas with you, all through the year?” Well, that is exactly what we aspire to here in our household. Far from home, relatives, snowflakes, and last-minute shopping, December 25th – for better or for worse – is sapped of the giddy bustle, familial drama, and no-holds barred commercialism that typifies the holiday in the States. Thankfully, through, Mark and I can experience other calendar days filled with the heady anticipation of a receiving a gift you know you will love and welcoming friends who you haven’t seen for a week, or a month or even several years.

Christmas at our house in Zimbabwe? This holiday happens all through the year when a friend returns from a trip outside the country, or when far-flung visitors make the long journey to see us. And oh do we savor the gifts we receive, from the little luxuries (thanks for cheese and chocolate, A&M!) to the mundane necessities (you don’t know how happy I am to have a roll of paper towels on hand, D&A!). Last year, a friend of a friend lugged Marcus Samuelsson’s Soul of a New Cuisine halfway across the globe for me – I am still celebrating. And, last week, our friend Chris arrived. Chris oh-so-kindly asked Mark and I if he could bring us anything from the States. Usually we are quite modest about making requests – we don’t like to make our friends feel like pack mules, after all. Nevertheless, we barely paused before making a list of about 15 things it would be great if Chris could bring…if he had room, of course.

Chris, minus our gifts, would have arrived for a month in Africa with one barely-full backpack. With our requests – well, that backpack was bursting at its seams. Mark and I were all smiles and fidgets as Chris unpacked his Santa-esque pack, unearthing new camera lenses for Mark (see how nice that opening photo looks?), DVDs and, of course, a couple of cookbooks for me: The Vegetarian Table: North Africa by Kitty Morse and Classic Vegetarian Cooking from the Middle East and North Africa by Habeeb Salloum.

Since you absolutely need dessert on Christmas, I decided that the first foray into my new cookbooks would be mhalbi, a milk-based, flower-scented custard from Morocco that is garnished with pine nuts and berries. It is the type of dessert I love – fruity, creamy, nutty and gently sweet. I used mulberries from the tree in our garden. (Yes, it is that purple time of year again.) Raspberries or blueberries would be equally lovely. Here is a dessert to enjoy whenever you want to bring a little holiday to your day.

Mhalbi
Slightly adapted from The Vegetarian Table: North Africa
Serves 4

1/3 cup / 40 grams cornstarch (a.k.a. cornflour)
3 cups / 750 milliliters milk
¼ cup / 40 grams sugar
1 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons / 30 milliliters orange flower, rose, or rose geranium water
½ cup / 45 grams almonds, toasted pine nuts or pistachio nuts, crushed
1 cup / 250 grams fresh berries

In a small bowl, dilute the cornstarch with ½ cup / 125 milliliters of the milk. Set aside. In a heavy, medium saucepan, bring the remaining 2½ cups / 625 milliliters milk, along with the sugar and cinnamon stick, to a boil. Add the cornstarch mixture. Whisk continuously until the mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and remove the cinnamon stick. Stir in the orange flower, rose, or rose geranium water. Pour into individual ramekins or parfait glasses. Refrigerate to chill.

Before serving, sprinkle with the nuts and garnish with fresh berries.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Mouths on Fire

My dad tends a vegetable garden in a long, narrow strip of yard beside the house where I grew up. The soil is rocky. Every spring, when the earth has defrosted, he turns it over with a shovel and uncovers more rocks than the year before. It is as if, during the winter, the ground absorbs the snow and sleet and frost and transforms it into hard, grey stone. The plot is quite shady. Vegetables that crave full sun – like pumpkins and carrots – stubbornly grow, but do not flourish. Meanwhile, the rabbits and deer think the garden is for them, and happily pick and choose from the tender shoots on offer.

Maybe it is because of the garden’s trials and tribulations that I have such fond memories of it. I loved pinching suckers off of the tomato plants, and the green scent it left under my nails. I loved watching the worms squirm in the soil. And I, of course, loved the vegetables themselves – the plump tomatoes tossed in olive oil vinaigrette, the string beans chomped straight off the vine and the hot peppers I learned to handle with care.

When my dad goes shopping for hot pepper seedlings, he always asks the staff at the nursery, “Are these the hottest peppers you have?” Assured that yes, indeed, these are the hottest peppers around, he buys a few flats. Then, when the first peppers appear, my dad sautés them in olive oil. Some years, he scoffs, “Hot? You call these hot?” Other years, I can remember my dad and my grandfather sitting across from each other at the dining room table, a plate of sautéed hot peppers between them, tears streaming down their cheeks and giddy smiles on their faces.

My tolerance for heat is not as high as my dad’s, or my grandfather’s. That said, I do love food that emits a slow burn. Which is why, on our trip to Mozambique, I dipped practically everything I ate in piri piri, the country’s ubiquitous hot sauce. Piri piri was such a welcome change from traditional fare in Zimbabwe, which is typically spiced with salt (and lots of it) and nothing else.

The below recipe for piri piri comes from our friend Mariana, who hails from Mozambique. Far from the garlicky grilled shrimp and fish of the Mozambican coast, Mark and I have been dotting the sauce on fried eggs and pasta marinara, and simply spreading it on crackers. This piri piri isn’t so hot that it will bring tears to your eyes, but, I believe, it may put a giddy smile on your face.

Mariana's Piri Piri

5 milliliters/1 teaspoon olive oil, plus 30 milliliters/2 tablespoons
½ medium onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced, plus 1 clove

7.5 milliliters/1½ teaspoons mild curry powder
12 red chilies, chopped, ribs and seeds removed (keep a few in for hotter sauce)
5 milliliters/1 teaspoon salt (coarse sea salt is best)
250 milliliters/1 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice
Zest of one lemon

5 milliliters/1 teaspoon white vinegar

Heat 5 ml/1 tsp. olive oil over medium heat, and sauté the onion and 3 cloves of the garlic for five minutes. Stir in the curry powder and continue cooking until the onion is very soft, but not brown.

Using a large mortar and pestle, mash together the remaining garlic clove, the salt and the chilies.

In a small bowl, combine the onion mixture and the chili mixture with the lemon juice, lemon zest, white vinegar and remaining olive oil. Pour into a sterilized mason jar. (Make sure there is no water in the jar at all.) Seal tightly and let sit in the sun for one week. Keep in the refrigerator after opening.

Options: I made a second piri piri using green chilies and added 30 milliliters/two tablespoons fresh coriander and one kiwi (peeled) to the chili mash. Mariana said you can use mango instead – that is what she does.

The photo below was taken at Cinco Portas on Ibo Island in Mozambique, where they make the piri piri simply with lemon, salt, chili – and the sun.


Monday, August 20, 2007

Coma Peixes! A Field Trip to Mozambique

Seven hours may seem like a long time to drive for a meal of fish and chips. But when you live in a land-locked country and you know that, at the end of the road, the fish will be fresh from the sea, the chips will be thick and crisp, and the flames of piri-piri sauce will leave an addictive, lingering tang – well then, seven hours is nothing at all. This is the thought that passed through my head as I chased a garlic-y crumbed prawn, judiciously dipped in piri-piri, with a cold 2M beer on the first night Mark and I spent in Mozambique.

We were eating at a restaurant called Solange in bustling, 100-year-old Beira, a rough-around-the-edges port city located just where the country pinches in to its thinnest point. From our hotel room, we could see a small slice of the sea, wedged between two run-down concrete apartment buildings. The building to the left had a grey, concrete rooftop patio jutting out from its lower floors. At night, from 11-2, that innocuous patio emitted a throbbing, electrified African beat, to the great pleasure of an equally throbbing and electrified crowd. We had been told that Mozambicans like to party late into the night. Mozambicans did not let us down.

During our week-long holiday in Beira, Pemba, and Ibo Island, one impression stood out to me most: the sense that, although the country was once among the poorest in the world, and despite enduring scars from a 17-year civil war (1977-92), today Mozambique boasts an unremitting energy and optimism. We heard it in the animated chatter that rose above the blaring music on the rooftop patio. We saw it in the fresh paint on tiny roadside stores and newly-paved roads, in women’s clothes (vibrantly-pattered wrap skirts and dresses and, in urban areas, second-hand, neon tank-tops from Brazil), in the busy hubbub of curbside bike repair shops, in the mass of little kids playing in the ocean – splashing, somersaulting, and diving for joy – and in their older siblings, strolling back and forth along the beachfront, preening and posing for their peers.

You, as a visitor, need to capture this optimism, too, and put your faith in the fact that Things Will Work Out. Because although more and more tourists are traveling to Mozambique, there are few helpful signs or maps, limited transport options for getting from point A to point B, and tourist facilities full of smiling people who can’t really help you very much. Nevertheless, Things Will Work Out. To wit:

1) When it appears you will be stranded on the island of Ibo in the Quirimbas Archipelago of northern Mozambique, you will, at the last minute, secure seats on a tiny plane, befriend a Zimbabwean who drives one of the two vehicles on the island, and catch a ride to the grass-runway airport. This will be your view from 1000 feet:

2) When your 4x4 gets a flat tire and, seconds after you notice the spare is secured by a lock, you realize that, since you borrowed the vehicle from a friend, you don’t have the key…well, a friendly man will walk by who happens to be a mechanic. He will ingeniously remove the lock without the key.

3) When you are visiting the local street market in Pemba and – for the sake of this very blog – purchase some sweets from a snotty-nosed girl who, with one grubby hand, is waving away a swarm of flies, while, with the other grubby hand, passing you your selections…miraculously you will not get food poisoning.

4) When you spend the whole week trying to order a traditional Mozambican dish called matapa, only to hear repeatedly that, although the dish appears on the menu, it was not made today…on your last night in the country you will return to Solange and gleefully discover they offer a special weekend buffet that includes not one, but two types of matapa.

5) And, finally, when you fruitlessly search market after market for cassava leaves, the critical main ingredient in matapa, eventually realizing that cassava must be something everyone grows at home rather than buys…you will make one last market stop and meet a man willing to bike 15 minutes to cut cassava leaves from his own garden and bring them to you. Which he does.

Yes, Mozambique is the place for optimism.

It is also the place for excellent food influenced by African traditions, Portuguese cuisine (the Portuguese claimed Mozambique as a colony for more than two centuries), and the curry and coconut-inflicted Swahili cooking that Arab traders spread up and down Africa’s east coast. Knowing this was Opportunity ’07 to eat fresh seafood, Mark and I consumed frutos do mar at every meal – warm cod in a turmeric, coconut and parmesan cream sauce; cold cod served with a tomato curry (caril) sauce; smoked marlin; curried prawns speckled with dried mango; and garlic-drenched prawns (camarões), calamari (lulas), and fish (peixe), sometimes grilled (grelhado), sometimes fried (fritado), always with lashings of piri-piri.

I’ll feature four of Mozambique’s culinary revelations in subsequent posts: piri-piri sauce, matapa, cassava root (mandioca), and the sweets sold in street food stalls. The dishes I recreate in my home kitchen may not be as flavorful as the ones we ate in Beira, Pemba and Ibo. But, I’ll just have to be optimistic. Things Will Work Out.

A Summary of Food and Drink “To dos”
Beira, Pemba, and Ibo Island, Mozambique

In Beira:
Eat at Solange. There is amazingly varied buffet on Friday and Saturday nights for about US$12/person and a unique green piri-piri every night. (Thanks, Emily, for the tip!)

In Pemba:
- Watch the sunset from Aquila Romana, an Italian restaurant on the far end of Wimbi Beach, past where the paved road ends and the sand road begins. Your table could be the one in the opening photo, and your view will look like this:

- Visit the nearby JPS for Mozambican and Portuguese cuisine (matapa some nights).
- Watch the kids frolic in the ocean as you eat fish and batatas fritas on the deck of Pemba Dolphin on Wimbi Beach.
- Be greeted with calls of “Salama” (“Hello”) as you explore the vegetable market in town; you can answer “Salama” in return.
- Buy some better-than-Maldon sea salt from a vendor, and check out the stalls with dried fish of all shapes and sizes, chilies, onions, tomatoes, cabbage garlic, rice and flour.

On Ibo:
- Visit the newly-opened Cinco Portas, run by the extremely helpful and accommodating Isabelle, which offers quaint, basic rooms and serves excellent Portuguese and Mozambican food, with a strong Swahili influence, from a vibrant, open-air kitchen. If you aren’t staying there, arrange your meals with Isabella in advance so that she can make sure her team of local cooks prepares enough food.
- Watch the sunset from the courtyard at Cinco Portas while enjoying one of the local beer brands: 2M or Laurentina. The luscious, chocolaty dark version of Laurentina, Laurentina Preta, is highly recommended.
- Try a homestay with a local family – a new community tourism initiative on the island. You can arrange for your hosts to cook you lunch and dinner, and will always receive some sort of light breakfast – like these fried UFO-shaped treats made with rice, coconut and, I believe, a bit of lemon zest. Contact Ibraimo Assane at +258 825511919.
- For a splurge, stay at Ibo Island Lodge, a beautifully restored house with fantastic architecture, a great view, and fabulous staff. We didn’t stay here, but wish we could have!

If you are in interested in traveling to northern Mozambique (both Pemba and Ibo are in the north), a good resource is Kaskazini.

Many thanks to Mariana (our traveling companion to and from Beira) for her insights into Mozambican food, and her translation assistance!

Gratuitous extra photos!

A day’s catch – Pemba

The old market – Pemba

Downtown Pemba – a Goat Town

Baobab trees line the shore of Pemba Bay

Bananas, anyone? – A truck on the road to Beira

Shells, with tiny, edible snails inside, drying in the sun – Ibo

Check out my previous “field trips” here:
Rome
Zanzibar

Sunday, July 29, 2007

One Veggie Star

Snowed under. Swamped. Buried. So describes my work situation at the moment. If you will give me a “Get Out of the Kitchen Free” card, then I will give you the recipe for a very simple Moroccan salad.

Moroccans are masters at concocting salads in which one solitary vegetable is the headlining act. Radishes, green peppers, and tomatoes, for example, can all get the star treatment. The recipe below features zucchini, and is one of the many dishes I learned from the cook who introduced me to Moroccan cuisine. Lemon-tart and garlic-tinged, this salad tastes even better the next day.

Warm Zucchini Salad
Serves 4 as a salad

3¼ cups / 500 grams zucchini (a.k.a. courgette, baby marrow), very thinly sliced
1½ teaspoons / 7.5 milliliters ground cumin
2 teaspoons / 10 milliliters sweet paprika
Pinch of cayenne
¼ teaspoon / 1¼ milliliters salt
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoons / 15 milliliters olive oil
2½ tablespoons / 37.5 milliliters fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons / 30 milliliters vegetable broth (you can use water)
Handful minced fresh parsley, plus more for garnish

Steam the zucchini until it is tender. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, whisk together the ground cumin, paprika, cayenne, salt, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, vegetable broth and parsley. Add the steamed zucchini and place over medium heat. Cook for five minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note: You can also boil your zucchini with a pinch of salt until tender, and use reserved cooking water in place of the vegetable broth.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

What a Contrast

Some people think things through as they talk. You can see it happening. At first, their explanation or argument wanders here and there, and then, all of a sudden, they see the way forward. Their words gain momentum – sentences tumble out, the decibel-level increases – until suddenly everything is tied together and the meaning is clear. Such individuals can start talking with only a faint idea or glimmer of an opinion, and somehow end up with a cohesive, communicated thought.

If I attempt this feat, my words trail off into a sea of mumbles in the hope that no one notices I had begun speaking in the first place. Instead, when I want to express an idea or an opinion out loud, I need to think it out thoroughly beforehand; rarely by talking do I hit my stride.

With writing it is very different. I can start with just the sketchiest outline of a thought, rest my fingers on the keyboard, and, as I type, figure out where that little idea was headed, and why it might have nibbled at me in the first place.

Today, I sat down to write about the idea of contrast. The nibble stems back to last December when, within a month, I visited two dramatically different places. First, I visited a rural area of Zimbabwe, where I stayed in a cement-block room which featured a faucet that occasionally dribbled water. The nearby “growth point” consisted of three dusty roads which merged around two blocks of shops, including a whopping three nightclubs. My colleagues and I bought bread, peanut butter, and bananas at the shops every morning, and, after several hours sitting on the ground talking to villagers, ate our lunch by the side of the dirt road under whatever tree we could find.

At the end of the very same month, for New Years’, some friends and I rented The Castle in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe – an actual castle, complete with dust and damp – perched on the side of a cliff overlooking the border with Mozambique. It was built by Italian prisoners of war held in the area during World War II. On New Years’ Eve Day we stopped at a nearby coffee shop named Tony’s, where the menu is be-tassled and the desserts are to die for. Tony’s may be famous for its chocolate whiskey cake, but the main attraction is simply the sheer strangeness of it all. There you are in Zimbabwe – with all its flour shortages and sugar shortages and fuel shortages – eating cake off gold-foil-rimmed plates. I couldn’t have been farther from that growth point if I had been on the moon.

These sorts of contrasts make life interesting – in fact, we often seek them out. A good part of travel, for example, is about comparing and contrasting what you see with what you know. “Isn’t it funny, they also eat with their hands here.” “I love mangos, but never realized you could cook with the green ones.” By comparing and contrasting we are able to weave together the experiences of our lives: “This raspberry dressing reminds me of the one we ate at Manna Epicure in Cape Town.” “Ugali seems a bit stiffer than sadza, don’t you think?”

At the same time, stark contrasts can be disconcerting. Slums and mansions. Hunger and plenty. Community and isolation. It is difficult to make sense of how such difference can exist on one planet. In fact, “making sense” may not always be possible. Contrasts can illuminate the unjust and the unfair. That unsettling feeling in your stomach? It makes you human. My experiences in December were certainly interesting – should they have been disconcerting, too?

So, this is where my keyboard has taken me. Within this post, you’ll see pictures from the two contrasting extremes I mentioned. First, there is a woman I met during my trip to the rural area; she was selling an indigenous green vegetable called nyeve (a.k.a. spider flower/spider wisp). I bought some. Nyeve is quite bitter and must be boiled for hours, draining and replacing the water a couple times to further dampen the bitter taste. Then, in classic Zimbabwean style, it is sautéed with onion, tomatoes, and a dollop of peanut butter, as shown in photo number two. I’ve been told you can also cook nyeve with lacto – a type of sour milk that is popular in Zimbabwe (and that I need to write about one of these days!). Third, as you may have guessed, is that very cake from Tony’s. And, below, the view from The Castle’s top floor. Quite a few contrasts, don’t you think?

Note: Top photo copyright Leslie Tuttle. Used with permission.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

One Year, Happily Consumed

A year ago, as I pressed “publish” on my first post, I remember worrying that I might run out of ideas. Was creating a food blog focused on Africa a mistake? Africa is a huge continent and I had little knowledge of its many foods – just curiosity and an appetite. Plus, I am not African. What would Africans, especially Zimbabweans, think about a food blog written in Zimbabwe by a white woman from America?

Today, Field to Feast turns one. And, instead of worrying that I might run out of ideas, I am slightly overwhelmed by them. My list of things to make and notes for stories to share is lengthy. I could write for years and years, and hopefully will.

Meanwhile, some of the comments and e-mails I have read with the most pleasure have come from Zimbabweans, both in the country and overseas. There was the Zimbabwean man living in the U.K. who showed his British girlfriend my post on kapenta, former residents who’ve reminisced about sadza, and welcome support for my meagre efforts to use the subject of food to shed some light on the country’s complex political and economic situation. Thank you, all.

I started this blog primarily because I wanted an excuse to write and I wanted an excuse to cook. My, my, what a great excuse it is. Just ask my husband how many times this past year, tired and hungry, I’ve said, “But, we can’t get takeaway, I’ve got to make it [peanut stew, couscous, pumpkin fritters] for the blog.” It is as if the blog is a person who I report to, but who, thankfully, is very generous with days off.

Keeping this blog has introduced me to new people and made me more curious about the foods around me and how they are eaten. In the past year, eating along with Field to Feast, I have discovered dozens of new ingredients and recipes – many of which, like malva pudding, bobotie, Nigerian beans, peanut butter rice, Zanzibari coffee and rosella tea, have become part of my life. This year, I am planning at least a couple more "field trips" so that I can bring you additional on-the-ground perspectives on African food. I hope Mozambique will be first on the list. Peri-peri sauce and seafood, here we come!

I’ll leave with you with a few of the new fruits and vegetables I’ve discovered over the past year - the photos are along the side. The first two are wild fruits most often eaten in the rural areas of Zimbabwematawe and mazhanje (the former could be spelled wrong!). When I first opened a matawe, I had the impression I was cracking some sort of alien egg, a feeling enhanced upon observing the sticky yellow goo inside. The idea is to chew on the husk until it becomes a well-masticated pulp, while absorbing all of the goo – which, mercifully, tastes like honey rather than alien blood. The pale orange flesh of the mazhanje, meanwhile, has a faintly squash-like taste, and it is often made into jam. The African cucumber is self-explanatory, while the last fruit is a complete mystery to me. All I know is that it is incredibly bitter-tasting, and I bought it from a street vendor who said it is popular among of people of Indian ancestry, who typically eat it with salt. Can anyone tell me what this mystery fruit is?

Thanks for reading over the past year and for your supportive e-mails and interesting comments. Field to Feast has a lot of friends for a one-year-old!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

With an Egg on Top

Sometimes you learn a new recipe. And sometimes a recipe teaches you a whole new strategy for composing a meal.

As a fish-a-tarian who rarely cooks fish, my dinners usually fall into one of the following categories: Indian curry; risotto; pasta; veggie or legume-based soup; frittata/quiche; polenta. Until now. Welcome – the vegetable sauté with poached eggs on top.

The inspirational dish was chakchouka, an Algerian/Tunisian creation that, I discovered through a little online searching, was brought by North African immigrants to Israel and is also quite popular there (spelled shakshouka), especially during Passover. Chakchouka is basically eggs poached in a sauté of tomato, onion, green pepper and North African spices. It is so easy to put together – and so warming and flavorful – that you’ll start inventing many other vegetables sautés that could cushion an egg. I’m thinking tomatoes and zucchini with some fresh basil; mushrooms, leeks, parsley and thyme; veggies with Indian spices and a handful of brown lentils; and morshan. In my humble opinion, just like pasta, risotto, or quiche, chakchouka is a brilliant dinner template.

The other reason I love this dish is that I adore poached eggs, but am a failure at poaching eggs myself. (Here is where my husband would say: and you have the audacity to call yourself a food blogger? Yes, I know, I should be able to poach an egg.) I’ve even used those special poaching pans with the ready-made indents, and I still screw things up. Chakchouka is a foolproof way of producing lovely poached eggs, and it even comes with a bonus stew.

The recipe below calls for chickpeas, which are a North Africa ingredient, but are not traditional to chakchouka. To me, the chickpeas are what make this a dinner dish. (Chakchouka is traditionally eaten for breakfast or lunch.) For an added Tunisian touch, and some more heat, stir in a dollop of harissa when you add in the tomatoes.

North African Pepper and Tomato Stew (Chakchouka)
Adapted from The Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook
Serves 4

2 teaspoons / 10 milliliters olive oil
1 tablespoon paprika
½ large onion, cut in half widthwise and then into fine slivers
1 large green bell pepper, cut into 2-inch/5-centimeter long slivers
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 green chilies, seeded and cut into 2-inch/5-centimeter long slivers
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters ground cumin
2 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 15-ounce/425-gram can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained
½ cup/125 milliliters vegetable broth or water (more, if needed)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 large eggs

Heat the olive oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in the paprika, and cook 10 seconds. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, until they are lightly golden – about 2-3 minutes. Add the bell pepper, garlic, chilies and ground cumin, and cook, stirring often, for 3-5 minutes until the vegetables have softened. Add the tomatoes and chickpeas and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have broken down into a sauce, about 10 minutes. If, as the tomato cooks, the stew is getting too dry, add some vegetable broth (I used ½ cup). Season the stew with salt and pepper to taste.

Make four small indentations in each quadrant of the stew. One at a time, crack each egg and drop it into an indentation, taking care not to break the yolk. Cover the skillet and cook over medium-low heat until the eggs are set, about 5-7 minutes. Transfer one egg with stew to each plate, and serve immediately.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Supermarket Adventures, Zimbabwe Style

Today the headlines about Zimbabwe seem real. So said my husband after an excursion to the supermarket that involved 1) diving into a throng of people as it descended upon trays of fresh bread and 2) triumphantly escaping with a loaf in each hand. Indeed, I just read a headline: “Zimbabweans Rush for Food.”

Why all the fuss? The answer is Operation Dzikamai – Shona for “calm down.” Last week, with the stated goal of curbing inflation, the government ordered all retailers to roll back their prices to June 18th-levels. In a normal economy there would be little difference between the prices of goods today and their prices from two weeks ago. But Zimbabwe has the world’s highest inflation rate – more than 4,000 percent, and that’s by the official numbers – so this roll-back effectively meant that retailers had to chop their prices in half. At first, government announcements made it seem as if the price cuts applied only to “basic commodities,” including mealie meal, flour, oil, bread, milk, sugar, salt, soap, and tea. Soon it appeared as if practically everything was fair game – Mazowe (a popular brand of cordial), boxed cereal, newspapers, hotel rates. Police quickly arrived on the scene to ensure that the price cut dictum was observed.

The evening Operation Dzikamai was announced, I drove home listening to a state-run news channel. The news reader, grave and solemn, said the station’s reporters had noticed a “disturbing trend”: retailers, instead of marking down prices, were simply removing items from the shelves. What the news called a disturbing trend was exactly what everyone else in the country knew would happen. In fact, people were already flocking to stores to purchase items while prices were low and, even more importantly, before they disappeared. Some of the people who were lucky enough – or pushy and patient enough – to get their hands on controlled items quickly began reselling these goods by the side of the road at double the controlled price. The black market is flourishing. Some stores have tried to shut rather than sell items at a loss. They may call it Operation Dzikamai, but the situation is anything but calm.

These days, a visit to a supermarket is a visit to a bizarre reality. There are three stores within an easy walk of my office. Two have simply removed whole shelves which used to contain bread, peanut butter and other staples. Almost every freezer case is empty. There is no meat or chicken for sale – and this in a country that doesn’t consider a meal a meal unless a hunk of meat or chicken is involved. Instead, I saw people hunched over the one tiny frozen fish compartment, picking up whole frozen trout and crumpled boxes of fish sticks, and shaking their heads.

What’s next? Who knows. In the meantime, Mark is greasing his elbows and doing sprints to prepare for his next supermarket foray. And I’ve realized that it may finally be time for me to learn how to bake bread.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Mish Mash, Part I

Tonight, across Africa, mashes, thick pastes and stiff porridges are being molded into right hands and swept across plates to collect vibrant vegetables, spicy meats and flavorful juices. These pale-colored conduits are the workhorses of African cuisine; daily staples that are thoroughly filling and cheap to prepare, but texturally boring, purposefully bland and thoroughly unattractive to look at. Yes, fufu, irio, sadza, ugali and pap, I am talking about you.

One compelling feature of Marcus Samuelsson’s The Soul of a New Cuisine is how he translates these African staples into side dishes that appeal to a global audience. Sadza becomes eye-catching with the addition of avocado and fresh corn, while fufu is glamorized with coconut milk and white wine. I’ll explore a couple of these transformations in the next two posts.

First up is irio, a dish prepared by the Kikuyu (also called the Gikuyu), the largest ethnic group in Kenya. Irio is traditionally made from mashed corn, beans or peas, potatoes, and greens. Samuelsson’s version adds carrots, onions, chili, and ginger; keeps the vegetables chunky instead of mushing them all together; and employs roasted garlic and sweet potato. Although I’ve written his recipe below, note that I reduced by more than a third the amount of oil and butter he suggests, used olive oil instead of peanut oil, and substituted yams for sweet potatoes. Anyway you make it, this wordly version of irio is a side dish that eats like a meal!

Chunky Mashed Vegetables
Adapted from The Soul of a New Cuisine
Serves 4 to 6

6 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch / 2½-centimeter cubes
½ cup / 125 milliliters peanut oil
1 pound / 450 grams green beans, ends trimmed and cut into quarters
8 tablespoons / 225 grams unsalted butter
1 3-inch / 7½-centimeter piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into ½-inch / 1¼-centimeter dice
1 medium red onion, coarsely chopped
2 jalapeno chilies, seeds and ribs removed, finely chopped
1½ cups / 375 milliliters water
1 tablespoon / 15 milliliters Berbere or chili powder
1 tablespoon / 15 milliliters chopped chives
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters salt
2 tablespoons / 30 milliliters olive oil

Pre-heat the oven to 350° F (180° C). Toss the garlic and sweet potatoes with the peanut oil in a roasting pan. Roast for 20 minutes, or until the garlic is tender. Remove and reserve the garlic. Continue roasting the sweet potatoes until tender, about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Prepare an ice bath by filling a large bowl with ice and water. Add the beans to the boiling water and blanch for 2 minutes. Drain the beans and plunge into the ice bath to stop cooking and set the color. Drain and set aside.

When the sweet potatoes are done, transfer them to a large bowl, add the roasted garlic, and mash with a fork to a chunky consistency.

Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the ginger, carrots, onion, and jalapenos and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent, about 10 minutes. Stir in the water and bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat and simmer gently until the carrots are tender, about 10 minutes.

Stir in the Berbere and mashed sweet potatoes, and then add the blanched green beans and cook, stirring, until heated through. Stir in the chives and salt and transfer to a serving bowl. Drizzle the vegetables with the olive oil and serve.

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