Sunday, February 25, 2007

Spicing Up Your Daily Grind

In college, I made drip coffee. After college, I graduated to French press. As I turned 30, I acquired an affinity for coffee brewed in a sleek stovetop espresso-maker. One thing stayed the same – I liked my coffee dark, black and unadulterated.

Until our trip to Zanzibar. There, it is not the usual subjects – sugar and milk – that people add to their cuppa. Instead, as would befit life on the “Spice Islands,” Zanzibaris infuse their coffee with spices. Cardamom and ginger to be exact. For me, Zanzibar coffee is not everyday coffee – it can be a little too much of an event for my senses when I’m groggy and just trying to get myself out of the house. On Sundays, however, I can enjoy breathing in the aromatic steam before each sip and feeling the tickle at the back of my throat where the ginger and cardamom hit.

Zanzibar coffee is prepared similarly to Turkish or Bosnian coffee, and, like these nation’s brews, is served in tiny cups. If you choose, you can accompany your cup with a cube or two of sugar. Or, even better – and more traditional – forgo the sugar and intersperse your sipping with nibbles on a sweet, plump date.

Many people are rather protective of their morning routines, and won’t like the idea of disrupting this routine with a new method of coffee brewing. If this is you, instead of following the recipe below, try simply adding some cardamom and ginger to your normal brewing method. For example, in a French press, you can let the cardamom pods, ground cardamom and ground ginger steep along with your ground coffee. With drip coffee, make a strong brew, and then stir in the ground spices before serving. Experiment!

Zanzibar Coffee
Adapted from A Taste of Zanzibar: Chakula Kizuri
Serves 6 (small cups!)

750 milliliters / 3 cups water
3 cardamom pods
75 milliliters / 5 tablespoons ground coffee (less for weaker coffee)
2.5 milliliters / ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
2.5 milliliters / ½ teaspoon ground ginger

Boil the water for 10 minutes with the cardamom pods. Add the ground coffee, stir and boil for another five minutes. Stir in the ground cardamom and ground ginger, and remove from the heat. Pick out the cardamom pods, and serve. Like Turkish or Bosnian coffee, a bitter, coffee-grind sludge will gather at the bottom of your cup – don’t drink this!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Lunch that Wasn’t a Leftover

I don’t usually have post-worthy thoughts while heating my lunch in the workplace microwave, and some of you may argue that the thought I am about to share only barely qualifies as something of interest to anyone other than myself.

But, here it is: I don't eat lunch anymore.

Sure, I eat a meal between 1 and 2 in the afternoon. This meal, however, is always the remnants from dinner the night before, or the night before that (or, horror, even the night before that). I have stopped preparing food that is, truly and proudly, lunch.

Clearly, this is a major omission on my part, because the meals that characterize lunch – and only lunch – have some wonderful qualities. A whole genre of these meals comes wrapped within the warm arms of bread; another species – light, airy and gently moistened – gains its substance from lettuce. Lunch meals can also be purposefully dainty and, well – lunch-size – by appearing as individual servings of quiches, pizzas or savory tarts. Oh, what I have been missing. I could blame the lack of good sandwich bread in Harare, or the dearth of lettuce. But, the real culprit is morning laziness. On weekday mornings, grabbing a Tupperware container of leftovers from the fridge seems much more manageable than any sort of spreading, assembling, tossing or – dear me – cooking.

Post-realization, however, I set out to change my ways and begin preparing proper lunch food. In my quest for a suitable rut-breaking recipe, I turned to The Soul of a New Cuisine. This cookbook by Marcus Samuelsson not only includes recipes for traditional African fare, but also for dishes that take African spices, ingredients and preparations and apply them to other cuisines. Thus, in Samuelsson’s able hands, boring old egg salad becomes piquant, ruddy-hued, peanut-studded egg salad, with nary a dollop of mayonnaise in sight. This is egg salad like you’ve never had it before, which, for me, is a good thing, because I’ve never been too fond of the egg-y aroma and squishy consistency of traditional egg salad. (In fact, as a child, I disliked the smell of egg salad to such an extent that when my parents told me they had almost named me Alison, I said, “I’m so glad you didn’t! ‘Alison’ sounds like ‘egg salad.’” ) Samuelsson’s egg salad may lack the pretty, lemon color of traditional egg salad, but the recipe more than compensates with its complex textures and spices.

Because it contains fresh tomatoes, this salad does not keep very well, and I suggest you make it on the day you plan to eat it. For easier workday morning preparation, you can prepare both the sautéed peanut and spice mixture and the dressing on the night before. Serve for lunch, of course on a wheat-bread sandwich, or cradled in a Romaine lettuce leaf.

Spiced Egg Salad
Adapted from The Soul of a New Cuisine
Serves 4-5 spread on a sandwich, 3-4 scooped onto lettuce

30 milliliters olive oil / 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus an additional 30 milliliters/ 2 tablespoons
35 grams / ¼ cup dry-roasted and unsalted peanuts, blanched and de-skinned
1 green chili, seeds and ribs removed, minced
1 small red onion, minced
1 small scallion, finely sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
15 milliliters / 1 tablespoon paprika
2.5 milliliters / ½ teaspoon ground ginger
7.5 milliliters / 1½ teaspoons chili powder
15 milliliters / 1 tablespoon soy sauce
Juice of 1 lemon
3.5 milliliters / ¾ teaspoon salt
5 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
2 ripe tomatoes, chopped
10 milliliters / 2 teaspoons fresh lemon thyme, or other fresh herb of your choice

Heat 30 milliliters / 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a frypan over medium-low heat. Add the peanuts and sauté until golden, about five minutes. Stir in the chilies, onion, scallion and garlic and cook until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the paprika, ground ginger and chili powder, and cook another two minutes, stirring occasionally. Transfer to a medium bowl.

In a separate, small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, lemon juice, salt and additional 30 milliliters / 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add this dressing, as well as the eggs, tomatoes and fresh herbs, to the bowl with the peanut mixture. Mix gently, and serve at room temperature.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Media, Meat, Mushrooms

Last Wednesday, The New York Times published an excellent article about Zimbabwe, written by Michael Wines. If you read this blog and wonder about the deteriorating economic and political situation in the country where I live, this balanced, perceptive and accurate article is a great place to gain an overview.

In contrast to Wines’ report, many articles written about Zimbabwe are exaggerated, inflammatory or downright deceitful. The state-run newspaper, The Herald, is well-known for serving up government propaganda, and will go to outrageous lengths to blame the country’s ills on outside forces, while discrediting the political opposition and heaping praise upon the ruling party. I once read a Herald article which claimed that the U.S. and the U.K. had created space-based technology that could change the weather, and that they were using this innovation to inflict drought upon southern Africa. I would have laughed if I had read this report in The Onion; it was not so funny to see it published as serious news in the country’s most widely read paper. (Note to The Herald: Next time, try substituting “technology” with “global warming” and I might believe you.)

The foreign media (which faces restrictions) and the independent national press (which faces persecution) has a more laudable raison d’etre – to expose the true causes of Zimbabwe’s economic and political crises and highlight the real suffering of people. But their work is also prone to an occasional bout of hyperbole. Two months ago the Institute for War and Peace Reporting published a story that said Zimbabweans had resorted to eating pet food because they could no longer afford to buy meat fit for human consumption. While I don’t doubt that some people have faced this predicament, the article portrayed pet-food eating as a widespread, national phenomenon, which it is not.

Articles that are heavy on shock value and light on analysis and perspective do a disservice to the Zimbabwean people by portraying them as hopelessly desperate rather than as people trying to live happy, peaceful lives enriched by friends and family. How much more useful would it be for an article to look at the reasons why meat and other foods have become so unaffordable, the variety of coping mechanisms people are using to deal with poverty and hunger, and the resulting implications for people’s health and nutrition? These coping mechanisms are much more diverse that simply eating pet food, and their impact can be much more tragic. Recently, for example, five family members from a Harare suburb died due to eating poisonous mushrooms. The father had picked the mushrooms, and said he was just trying to provide for his family. Other people cope by eating fewer meals. More nuanced and less obviously “shocking” articles can move the reader beyond a reaction of simply “oh, what desperate people,” to deeper reflection about how people like them, working hard to put food on the table, are living in a economic environment that gives people such limited choices that there are few good choices to be made.

Despite the recent tragedy, and although most Zimbabweans favor meat, eating mushrooms as a meat substitute is common, especially during the rainy season when wild mushrooms are relatively plentiful. There are several types of wild mushrooms that can be safety eaten. One type, called chihombiro, is a particularly substantial, chewy mushroom. Chihombiro are are most commonly sold by women and children along the road to and from Nyanga – a mountainous district that abuts Mozambique. If you are driving to Nyanga this time of year, your friends and colleagues will likely ask you to return with some mushrooms for them.

Mark and I don’t eat red meat, so we use mushrooms in place of meat as a personal choice rather than as a less preferable alterative. Last night, I used chihombiro as a substitute for meat in an Ethiopian-inspired recipe for Stir-Fried Beef Stew from Marcus Samuelsson’s The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa. This dish is Samuelsson’s version of the traditional Ethiopian dish, tibs w’et, a spicy stew made from beef or lamb. He notes that calling this dish a “stew” is a bit of a misnomer. I agree. Not only is it quick-cooking, but it contains little liquid and couldn’t possibly be eaten by the bowlful – it needs a grain-based accompaniment to temper its dark, rich flavors.

Tibs w’et is quite spicy – so be wary if you are spice-averse and be sure to reduce the amount of berbere and green chili. You can substitute chili powder for the berbere if you wish, or refer to my previous recipe for Ethiopian Lentil Stew to make your own. Traditionally, this dish is made with nir’ir quibe, or spiced clarified butter. I simply used clarified butter (a.k.a. ghee), and you could also substitute unsalted butter. In Ethiopia, tibs w’et would be served with the country’s famous injera bread and awase, a condiment created by making berbere into a paste. I spooned my mushroom version of Samuelsson’s tibs w’et over a simple scoop of rice. Next time I am going to try it as a filling for crêpes.

Make sure to use a meaty sort of mushroom as your beef/lamb substitute, such as porcini, shitake or crimini. If you would like to make Samuelsson’s beef version of this recipe, exchange 1½ pounds beef tenderloin, cut into ½-inch cubes, for the mushrooms. I suspect your dish might yield more servings this way.

Ethiopian-inspired Wild Mushroom Stir-Fry
Adapted from “Stir-fried Beef Stew” in The Soul of a New Cuisine

Serves 2

60 milliliters / 4 tablespoons ghee, or unsalted butter
75 grams / ¾ cup red onions, thinly sliced
300 grams / 3 cups
meaty mushrooms, chopped
5 milliliters / 1 teaspoon salt
15 milliliters / 1 tablespoon berbere, or chili powder
2½ milliliters / ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
2½ milliliters /½ teaspoon ground ginger
1¼ milliliters / ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
Pinch ground cloves
1¼ milliliters / ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 400-gram / 14-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped
2 green chilies, seeds and ribs removed, thinly sliced
125 milliliters / ½ dry red wine

Melt the ghee in a wok or large skillet over high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring constantly, until they begin to brown around the edges – about two minutes. Add the mushrooms and salt, and fry, stirring occasionally, for 6-7 minutes until the mushrooms are cooked. Stir in the berbere and all the ground spices. Add the tomatoes, chilies and wine, and stir. Simmer for one minute. Serve immediately.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Eat Your Cake

Last week, Michael Pollan’s article in The New York Times Magazine had the blogosphere abuzz with its insightful analysis of how Americans eat, why we think about food the way we do, the reasons these viewpoints make us unhappy and unhealthy, and what healthy eating” in America might really look like. The article is memorable for many reasons – the way it chronicles the American obsession with “nutritionism”; its “well, wouldn’t you lie on the questionnaires, too?” approach to undermining the major longitudinal studies that inform nutrition science; and how it clearly articulates our lack of understanding about how foods interact with one another within the context of an overarching cuisine.

As someone who likes to write, the article is also noteworthy because it is so darn well-written. In particular, I love the straight-to-the-point opening sentences: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.”

So, for my post today, I present a pale imitation:

Make this Rooibos-Chocolate Layer Cake. Many times. Mostly for guests. That, more or less, is the short answer to the often overwhelming decision about what dessert to prepare for your lunch or dinner company.

My friend Ruth gave me the recipe for this amazingly moist, delicately tea-flavored cake. Roobios is a tea from South Africa that I’ve written about before, in the context of a refreshing sangria. It adds a similarly round, fresh, ever-so-slightly nutty flavor to this chocolate cake. Ruth says the cake gets better the next day, and even better the day after that. I’ll just have to take her word for it, because the cake is not going to be around our house long enough to verify this discovery. My six lunch guests ate a good two-thirds of the cake yesterday, and my husband devoured a second (large) slice as “dinner.” Cake for dinner? Pollan might not approve.

Rooibos-Chocolate Layer Cake
From my friend Ruth (thanks, Ruth!)
Serves 10

2 rooibos tea bags
250 milliliters / 1 cup boiling water
125 milliliters / ½ cup cocoa powder
5 milliliters / 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
125 milliliters / ½ cup vegetable oil
4 eggs, yolks and whites separated
300 grams / 1½ cups sugar
240 grams / 1 2/3 cups plain flour
15 milliliters / 1 tablespoon baking powder
2 milliliters / scant ¼ teaspoon salt

Icing (half these amounts if making a 2-layer cake, or be prepared to store some leftover icing)
2 rooibos tea bags
400 milliliters / 1 2/3 cups boiling water
200 grams / 1 cup sugar
50 milliliters / 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon butter
50 milliliters / 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
50 milliliters corn flour (a.k.a. cornstarch)
7 milliliters / scant 1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tin caramel OR 1 can dulce con leche, made this way

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C (350°F).

Steep the rooibos tea bags for the cake in the boiling water for at least 15 minutes, until the tea is quite strong. In a separate bowl or pot, steep the rooibos tea bags and boiling water for the icing, and keep this tea off to the side until later.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix together the cocoa powder, vanilla extract and vegetable oil until smooth. In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar until they are thick and creamy. Add the egg-and-sugar mixture to the cocoa mixture, and mix well. Add the strong tea (for the cake) to this batter and stir.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt, add it to the batter and beat well.

Whip the egg whites until they form soft peaks, and fold them into the batter.

Pour the batter into two round, 23-centimeter / 9-inch cake tins. Bake 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cakes comes out clean.

While the cake is baking, prepare the icing. In a small saucepan, heat together the sugar and butter until the sugar has dissolved. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix together the cocoa powder and corn flour with a bit of the strong tea you have set aside and stir until it makes a paste. Add the remainder of the tea and stir well. Pour the cocoa-tea mixture into the saucepan and stir. Heat the icing until it thickens. Stir in the vanilla extract, and bring the icing to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove the pan from the heat, and let the icing cool. Place the icing in the fridge to cool completely. Before serving, mix the caramel or dulce con leche into the icing.

Remove the cakes from the oven and let them cool for a few minutes. Then, remove the cakes from their tins and cool them completely on a wire rack.

Here, you can choose to make a two-layer cake, or a four-layer cake. Clearly, to make four layers, you’ll need to carefully cut each round cake in half! Whichever option you choose, divide your icing between your cake layers and the top of the cake. The icing is quite soft, so some will drip down the sides. Decorate with cherries, chocolate curls or fresh mint leaves.