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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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Dinner, Now Now

Once upon a time, Mark and I had a friend from Tonga. One day he invited us to his church for a special celebration. He said the festivities started at 11. Mark and I took the train from Brisbane to the suburb where the Tongan church was located, arriving just before the scheduled hour. We spotted our friend sitting in the shade of a tree, eating oranges. He invited us to sit with him, and handed us each an orange. There was no other activity on the church grounds; Mark and I were slightly baffled. But, we were enjoying the shade, the oranges and the company, so we lazily let time pass.

About 45 minutes later, our friend said, “I bet you’re wondering where all the people are and when the service will start.” Why, yes, we said, that question did cross our minds. “Well,” he said, “We are on Tongan time. Which means it doesn’t matter when we start. All that matters is that the service happens.” People began trickling in a few minutes later, and after another half an hour there was a boisterous crowd. The service, indeed, did happen. (And was followed by a feast that involved five whole spit-roasted pigs, but that is another story.)

In Zimbabwe, time is not quite so loosely conceived as in Tonga. However, we are certainly not on German time, or New York time, or even Southern U.S. time. It took me a while to get the hang of what exactly time here means:

Zimbabwean English: U.S. translation

Let’s go now: Let’s go sometime in the next couple of hours.

Let’s go just now: Let’s go sometime in the next hour.

Let’s go now now: Let’s go now.

After a day of meetings that started “just now” and e-mail replies that came, belatedly, “now,” sometimes I want dinner now now. If you find yourself in a similar situation, then you can prepare Chickpeas and Swiss Chard in the Style of the Tunisian Sahel. The recipe comes straight from Paula Wolfert, the doyenne of Moroccan and Tunisian cuisine. I am reprinting it here only so I can provide the metric equivalents – I didn’t change the recipe one bit. It makes for a quick, light nutritious meal, or a vibrant side. I love the different textures, the spicy kick and the fact that you can eat this dish warm or cold. The one question your dinner-mates will ask, of course, is where, oh where is the Tunisian Sahel? “Sahel” means coast or margin in Arabic; in Tunisia, the Sahel refers to the central part of the country’s eastern shoreline.

Time to go eat – now now!

Chickpeas and Swiss Chard in the Style of the Tunisian Sahel (Morshan)
From Mediterranean Cooking
Makes 2 servings (4 as a side)

¾ pound / 340 grams Swiss chard leaves, stemmed, rinsed and torn into large pieces
2 large cloves of garlic, peeled
½ teaspoon / 2.5 milliliters coarse salt
1 teaspoon / 5 milliliters ground coriander
1 small dried red chili
30 milliliters / 2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup / 80 grams minced onion
2 teaspoons / 10 milliliters tomato paste
1 cup / 165 grams cooked chickpeas, with ¾ cup / 190 milliliters cooking liquid*
1 lemon, cut in wedges (optional)

Steam, parboil or microwave the chard leaves until tender, about 5 minutes. Set leaves in colander to drain. Squeeze out excess moisture and shred coarsely.

Crush garlic in mortar with salt, coriander and chili until a thick, crumbly paste forms.

Heat olive oil in large skillet and sauté the onion until pale-golden. Add the garlic paste and tomato paste and stir into oil until sizzling. Add chard, cooked chickpeas and cooking liquid and cook, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand until ready to serve. (Contents of skillet should be very moist but not soupy. For a looser texture, stir in more chickpea cooking liquid. Serve warm, at room temperature or cold with lemon wedges.

Note: Broccoli rabe, dandelion leaves, mustard greens, kale or turnip tops may be substituted for Swiss chard. Discard any yellow or damaged leaves and cook like chard. Cooking time will vary.

*Okay, I lied, I realized as I was typing that I didn’t follow this recipe to the letter! I actually used two tins of canned chickpeas, drained, and water instead of the freshly cooked beans and their cooking water. I wanted dinner now now, remember?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Helping Each Other: A Zimbabwean Feast

The world has many holidays to be celebrated, many guests to be welcomed, many special occasions to be recognized and many accomplishments to honor. In other words, there are many good reasons to hold a feast. Last Saturday, the women of Batsiranai held a feast to an honor an accomplishment – their own.

I have been meaning to write about this amazing group of women for a long time. The members of Batsiranai are mothers of disabled children who live in a township on the outskirts of Harare. Living in this township is hard enough – inflation constantly erodes the value of the money in your purse; electricity, water and telephone services come and go; many residents lost their homes in a government “clean-up” operation two years ago. Having a child with a disability creates additional challenges. Across Zimbabwe, it is common for husbands to leave their wives if they give birth to a child with a disability, as the woman is thought to be cursed. For the same reason, these women and their children often find it difficult to secure housing – no one wants to rent to them. And, of course, the mothers need to figure out how to get healthcare for their children in a country where the doctors are striking because of low pay and basic medicines are frequently unavailable.

Such circumstances would overwhelm the best of us. But Batsiranai means “helping each other” in Shona, and helping each other is the core of what these women do. By helping each other, the Batsiranai mothers have established a successful craft-making enterprise that enables their families to thrive. They sew, paint and embroider many different items – tote bags, purses, bookmarks, baby quilts, baby bibs, bottle-cap earrings, greeting cards and more. Attached to the women’s workshop is a day care centre where their children can rest and play while they work. A nearby hospital has an outreach team which regularly visits the center to talk to parents about how to help their children grow and develop. Batsiranai has other “helpers,” too, including volunteers who’ve made the day care center a welcoming place through colorful painting and donations of toys; volunteers who’ve connected them to retail markets outside of Zimbabwe; and all the people who buy their products.Last Saturday, Batsiranai celebrated a major accomplishment – the completion of an order for thousands of dolls. It was a huge project, and, to complete it on time, Batsiranai trained mothers of disabled children from other townships in how to make the dolls. The Batsiranai spirit is spreading. At the feast, one of the new recruits said, “Thank you for giving us the opportunity to earn money; now we come home on Fridays with pay and our husbands have already done the ironing.”

And what was the menu for this feast? Beef, beef and more beef, plus sadza, cole slaw and a tomato and onion relish. And, just as important as the food, the feast was preceded by hours and hours and hours of singing and dancing.

You might not be able to make it to Batsiranai’s next feast, but you can certainly honor these women’s accomplishments by buying their fair trade-certified products. Their products are of very high quality, and make excellent gifts! Simply visit

(Full disclosure: my husband has volunteered with this group for almost two years!)

Sunday, June 03, 2007

A Sprinkle a Day

When my brother and I were growing up, the treatment of choice for asthma was a medicine called Theo-Dur. To tempt little asthmatics like us, Theo-Dur was packaged in sprinkle form. I can certainly understand the marketing ploy – why not subvert children’s inherent aversion to medicine and take advantage of their pure, innocent, instinctive love of sprinkles on ice cream? And, the doctor assured us, you could also sprinkle them on applesauce! And pudding! They will make every food more fun!

Well, they didn’t. My brother and I hated Theo-Dur sprinkles.

Theo-Dur sprinkles may have been the first thing in my life that I reluctantly consumed because it was good for me, but it certainly wasn’t the last. I try not to remember, for example, those tasteless celery-sticks I ate in high school because they were rumored to have “negative” calories. My present-day equivalent of Theo-Dur sprinkles is moringa. Moringa oleifera is a tree that grows in tropical and sub-tropical areas, and its leaves, fresh or dried, have many amazing properties. Three times the potassium of bananas! Four times the vitamin A of carrots! Four times the calcium in milk! It is for good reason that the tree is promoted here in Zimbabwe by organizations concerned about people’s nutrition, particularly the nutrition of people living with HIV and AIDS. Leaf powder can be added to any food! It adds flavor and nutrition! Sadly, however, one of moringa’s amazing properties is not tastiness.

Undeterred, my husband has been dusting dried moringa leaves onto his yogurt and muesli breakfast, and even his oats and brown sugar breakfast, for quite a while now. I tried it once, insisted it made my breakfast taste like grass, and thereafter turned up my nose at the stuff. Grassy might be a favorable description when discussing a chardonnay, but not my morning muesli.

I recently discovered that I’m a bit anemic, though, and now instead of just giving me a “but it’s SO good for you” look of guilt every morning as I snub the moringa, Mark has become quite pushy. You see, one of moringa’s amazing qualities is that it is a good sourse of iron. Sigh. Rather than face grassy muesli every morning, however, I decided needed to find a better conduit for the healthy green stuff. Today, I had a breakthrough.

Zimbabwe’s electricity situation is bad and getting worse, and this afternoon we only had power in half of our house (strange, but true). This meant I had a functioning oven, but a non-functional stovetop. I never realized how many baked meals actually require a little sauté action beforehand. It is really quite a few. I finally settled on preparing a tapas-like lunch of brushcetta, feta-stuffed peppadews, roasted broccoli (tossed with dried red chili, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper) and roasted green beans (tossed with salt). In an effort to add a little more zip to the roasted veggies, I prepared a yogurt-based dressing, and, in a burst of inspiration, added a healthy dose of the dreaded moringa. Its grass flavor blended right in, and the dried leaves accentuated the dressing's mellow green hue. I’ll add a sprinkle any time.

African Green Goddess Dressing

Plain Greek yogurt
Parsley, chopped
Scallion, sliced
Dried moringa leaves (optional)
Lemon juice

The amounts here are quite flexible – do what tastes good to you! Blend everything together using an immersion blender or food processor. Serve as a dressing or dip for roasted vegetables.