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.

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.