Thursday, April 19, 2007

After a Pause, A Pudding

Greetings from cold, rainy Boston, Massachusetts. Yep, that’s right, I am away from Zimbabwe for the moment and am visiting family and friends in the U.S. I thought I would have lots of free time during my trip, free time during which I would cook many delectable African dishes that would win the admiration of many wary-eyed family members, and that I would transform into many wonderful blog posts. The reality: few items have been cooked and, until now, no posts have been written. Instead, I have been wooed by shopping malls and feted by friends, spent hours of drop-jaw gawking at the amazing offerings of Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Wilson Farms, and been re-introduced to the joys of surfing with a fast (as opposed to a 32kbs) internet connection. Ah, the many wonders of the (over)developed world.

I have squeezed in a bit of cooking – not the elaborate feasts I had a mind, but a few dishes here and there, including
these beans, this stew and beetroot pesto pasta. The biggest admirer of every dish has been my 16-month old nephew, who, I’ve learned, will eat and drink absolutely anything. I have seen him gobble up pickles and clams, bite into a fresh lemon, and take a sip of black coffee – and go back each time for another gobble, bite and sip. He may not be discerning, but he is certainly the most adventurous little eater I have ever seen. (Here seen eating the aforementioned pasta).

Thus, it was not surprising that Little Matthew used two hands as he devoured the apricot pudding I made using a recipe from Colette Rossant’s
Apricots on the Nile: A Memoir with Recipes. This dish had other family fans, too, including my mom, who was seen eating a bowl for breakfast and claimed the pudding’s intense apricot flavor become better every day. This dish is a great springtime dessert because of its sunny yellow color – I wish I had made it for Easter, in fact. The most fun part of this recipe is seeing how the dried apricots, after being soaked overnight, actually plump up until they are almost the size of fresh apricots. I was amazed!

Without further ado, here is apricot pudding, a recipe I hope will tide you over until I return to Zimbabwe in mid-May…or until I somehow sneak away from the many distractions vying for my attention to cook and write another post!

Apricot Pudding
Slightly adapted from
Apricots on the Nile
Serves 6 or more

450 grams / 2 cups dried apricots
6 large eggs
90 milliliters / ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
30 milliliters / 2 tablespoons rum
150 grams / ¾ cup sugar

Place the pound dried apricots in a bowl, cover them with warm water, and soak overnight. Drain.

Pre-heat the oven to 180° C / 350° F. Place the apricots, eggs, heavy cream, rum and sugar in a food processor. Process until the apricots are puréed. Butter a 1½ liter / 1½ -quart mold, and pour the apricot purée into the mold. Place the mold in a larger pan filled with hot water. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until the point of a knife inserted in the middle of the pudding comes out clean. Cool.

I’m sure this is pudding heresy, but I didn’t unmold the pudding after it cooled; instead, I served scoops straight from the mold. Unmold if you wish! Rossant suggests garnishing with mint leaves.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Home-Baked Beans

About seven years ago, I worked at a global education museum, where I helped develop exhibits that introduced U.S. schoolchildren to the world outside their country’s borders. One of the exhibits encouraged kids to think about how people around the world are connected by international trade. In an effort to make these connections, sometimes I’d talk with groups of children about where their favorite foods came from. Here is the start of a typical discussion:

Me: Today, let’s talk about some of your very favorite foods and think about where they come from. Who wants to tell us their favorite food? Let’s hear from you [pointing to the 8-year-old in the blue sweatshirt jumping up and down with his hand raised].

Boy: Hot dogs!

Me [thinking, oh dear, I really don’t want to get in a discussion about where hot dogs come from]: Great, that’s a great favorite food. Let’s hear from someone else, too. How about you [pointing to the girl in the purple shirt]?

Girl: Macaroni and cheese!

Me: What kind of macaroni and cheese, the kind you make at home, or the kind you buy in a box?

Girl [screwing up her face as if confused]: Well, we make it at home but it comes from a box!

Me: Oh, right, of course. Now, where does that macaroni and cheese come from?

All the kids in unison: THE SUPERMARKET!

Me: But, how did the box get to the supermarket?

Children [blank stares, silence].

Me: And how did the noodles and cheese get into the box?

Children [blank stares, silence].

Me: And where did the noodles and cheese come from?

Children [blank stares, silence].

Me: Do you think that boxes of macaroni and cheese grow on supermarket shelves?

Children [laughter, followed by blank stares].

Me: Okay, let’s try to work backwards and figure out how this box got to your supermarket….

This story brings me, somehow, to baked beans. Because, not too long ago, if you had asked me how a can of baked beans got to my house, I would probably stutter and stumble and say something like: well, obviously, the beans need to be baked, probably in big batches in a very big oven. Hmm, I’m not sure what type of beans they are, though – maybe a special baking bean? And then there is the sweet and salty sauce that goes on them, or maybe that is what they are baked in – I’m not sure. And then the whole mixture gets poured into a can and goes by truck to the supermarket where I buy it!

Being from Boston, the home of Boston baked beans, I feel I should definitely know more about baked beans and where they come from. Lucky for me, food writers and bloggers have been quite interested in baked beans lately.

While seeking out an African version of baked beans, I found Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe for Baked Beans with Nigerian Seasonings. These beans are warmth itself, satisfying and hearty with a hint of spice. They work well as a light dinner or side dish – just remember that the recipe takes two hours to bake, so its not something you want to start preparing at 7:30 on a weeknight! If you have leftovers, try a breakfast of whole-wheat toast topped with the beans.

The main seasoning in these beans is curry powder, which I more closely associate with the East African coastal cooking of Kenya and Tanzania and the Cape Malay cuisine of South Africa rather than with Nigerian cooking. But Jaffrey is one of my favorite chefs, so who I am to question her? After all, the recipe does ask for a hefty amount of black pepper – a very Nigerian touch. The other interesting ingredient in these baked beans is peanut butter, an item used in many dishes in sub-Saharan Africa (including this stew and this snack). In fact, to my mind, these beans are better named “Africa-inspired baked beans.”

I’ve prepared Jaffrey’s baked beans several times now, and I like to make them even more Africa-inspired (and a bit more colorful) by adding a locally-grown green leafy vegetable (such as rape, covo or pumpkin leaves). I’ve added greens both before and after the baking stage. I think “after” works better, although this is not how I did things on the day my husband took the photo above. The recipe works best with delicate cannellini beans, but any small-to-medium white bean will do. When I can’t find white beans at the store, I use local sugar beans instead. Finally, note that you can modify the proportion of hot versus mild curry powder depending on your heat preferences. Enjoy!

Baked Beans with Nigerian Seasonings
Slightly adapted from World Vegetarian
Serves 4-6

180 grams / 1 cup dried cannellini beans
62 milliliters / ¼ cup peanut or canola oil
1 medium onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
5 milliliters / 1 teaspoon hot curry powder
10 milliliters / 2 teaspoons mild curry powder
2 large tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped
22.5 milliliters / 1½ tablespoons smooth peanut butter
6.2 milliliters / 1¼ teaspoons salt
Very generous grind of black pepper
45 grams / 1½ cups of your favorite green leafy vegetable, finely chopped

Soak the beans overnight in plenty of water. Drain.

Put the beans in a pot with 875 milliliters / 3½ cups of water and bring to a boil, skimming off the foam that rises to the top. Cover partially, turn the heat down to medium-low, and simmer gently for 40-60 minutes until the beans are just tender.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large fry pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook for 1-2 minutes until the onion has just wilted, stirring almost constantly to ensure it doesn’t burn. Add the garlic, stir, and cook for another 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the curry powders and stir, then add the tomatoes and stir again. Cook for 7-10 minutes, until the tomatoes have softened. Transfer this mixture into a medium casserole dish.

Pre-heat the oven to 162°C / 325°F while you wait for the beans to finish cooking.

Spoon the peanut butter into a small bowl. When the beans are ready, remove 6 tablespoons of the cooking water from the pot and slowly add it to the peanut butter, stirring as you go. Pour the beans and their remaining liquid into the casserole dish. Stir in the peanut butter mixture, salt and pepper.

Bake, uncovered, for two hours until much of the liquid has evaporated and the beans are very tender. Add the greens just after you remove the dish from the oven, and stir them around until they wilt. Serve hot.