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.