Recently our adoption finalization was given the final stamp of approval from our social worker, and we will be going to court hopefully soon. We wanted to celebrate and so in honor of Leah’s (presumed) African heritage, we decided to make a dish from Africa and have some friends over. When I recently looked at my 80 Plates travel map, I realized most of Africa was blank—we’d only done one country from the entire continent! With my in laws coming to visit for a few days, we decided the timing was right to throw a little dinner party with them and some friends who we expect will be in Leah’s life for a long time to come.
I immediately set about looking up different recipes from different countries, and found it is an extremely daunting task. Many recipe sites and even international cookbooks list Africa as one big amalgamation. At best, you often find recipes labeled “Eastern Africa” or “Western Africa”. Even Googling something like “Congo recipes” isn’t apt to necessarily provide you with good results.
But I persevered and eventually I came up with recipes from 7 different African countries. The plan was to do Angola (chosen because Princess Diana was heavily involved in the land mines campaigns there just before she died), South Africa (chosen because I had prepared S. African cuisine before when I was a nanny), Egypt (chosen because it was the first African country I thought of), Chad (chosen because there was a recipe from there!), Algeria (just because), Somalia (chosen because I found an interesting and informative blog about Somali cooking) and the Ivory Coast (chosen because Michael used to work with someone from there). I found recipes from each country and was ready to go. My sole hesitation was that it was going to be VERY difficult to make 7 dishes from 7 different countries all at once. But my mother-in-law volunteered to help out with the project, and I am getting more and more organized with this whole thing, so I decided to go for it.
Friday afternoon, Michael and I went grocery shopping and got all the supplies we needed. This let to a joke, because I really needed a candy thermometer for the dish from Angola. And when I finally located one, it was twenty damned dollars. I had myself a little melt down in the thermometer aisle, pardon the pun. I declared that I would not be held hostage by the powers that be wanting to charge me—ME!—twenty dollars for a candy thermometer! I evaluated several other available thermometers, but none of them went high enough temperature wise. So in the end, I was indeed held hostage to the powers that be and we bought the thermometer. Let it never be said we are cheap. And I assure you, Leah is going to learn to make candy to my dying day.
Ok, so we got home and I decided to get a jumpstart on the cooking by making the Angolan dish, cocada amarela, or yellow coconut pudding. I found the recipe at www.marga.org and she writes “Cocada amarela seems to be the Angolan dessert par excellence”, so that was good enough for me.
(You can see my shiny candy thermometer up there, isn’t she a beaut?)
The one change I made to the recipe was that it called for me to break open and shred a coconut. Not happening. I got it in a bag. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find unsweetened coconut, so I used sweetened, which I think may have caused me problems later, but I’ll get to that.
The recipe is pretty simple—in a saucepan, you boil up sugar, water, and whole cloves, stirring constantly. Once it gets to boiling, you stick your candy thermometer in there and let it cook to a temperature of 230 degrees. (Doesn’t it look awesome that stove is glowing purple? I’m not sure what that’s about, but I wish it did, that is COOL!")
So it was time to break out the new gadget. I’m not sure where I read this or if my mind was making it up, but I think I recently read somewhere that when you have one of those impossible clamshell plastic packages to attempt to break into, you should use your handheld can opener. Well, I decided to try it, and it worked AMAZINGLY! So that is your kitchen tip of the day.
Ok, big problem, my pan wasn’t very deep to begin with and the liquid in the pan was not very deep. Consequently every time I put the thermometer in there, it sank to the bottom. I tried to rig up a bunch of possible solutions and eventually managed to prop it on a glass kind of dangling into the pot, praying that the glass wouldn’t break in the heat.
It takes a really long time to heat this stuff to 230 degrees, but what I learned is that it actually takes FOREVER to heat it to 175 and then in about 2 seconds, it’s 250 degrees. So yeah, I overshot the mark just slightly. And then I had a really, really hot syrup in my pot (note: if you are going to make this, use either a wooden, metal, or silicone spoon. Do NOT use plastic, it WILL melt.)
Ok, fantastic. So then I dropped the heat to low and used a slotted spoon to remove the cloves. Then I added the coconut and here’s where I ran into some trouble. As I mentioned, the coconut had added sugar, and I had gone over and above the 230 degree mark. Consequently I think I had too much sugar and not enough water, because the whole thing immediately seized into a hot mass of coconut, which promptly began to brown and was threatening to burn.
I pondered the situation. I decided that since our tap water is absolutely scalding hot (I’m not sure how hot, but now that I have my new thermometer, I can check!), I would let the tap run for a minute and let the water get REALLY hot, and then add some water to the pan. This seemed to work out quite satisfactorily.
Then I was supposed to let it cook on low for another 10 minutes until the coconut became translucent. I set the timer for 10 minutes and let it cook. Was it translucent? I’m not sure. But it was done.
Meanwhile, I separated 6 eggs and whipped up the yolks in my mixer.
Then I returned this mixture into the saucepan with the rest of the coconut mixture and let it cook another 10 minutes over medium heat. I was told to let it cook until it seemed to pull away from the bottom and sides of the pan. I think I did, I let it cook until it wasn’t runny any more, but since at this point I have no idea about the water and sugar proportions, I would say it probably has no bearing on anything you’re likely to do if you repeat the recipe yourself!
Once it had cooked up, I poured it into a dish, sprinkled some cinnamon on top, and voila! Cocada Amarela!
I stuck it in the refrigerator and called it a night!
I woke up Saturday morning and was having second thoughts about my chosen Egyptian dish, kibbeh. From the recipe, it sounded like they were almost little deep fried meatballs made with burghul wheat, which I had a bag of and didn’t know what to do with, which made it a natural for selecting the kibbeh recipe. However, I had my doubts for two reasons: 1) complicated recipe—we were going to make 6 different countries this day and I felt like crafting shells out of ground beef and then making filling with more ground beef to put in the shells and all that was going to be a lot of work and 2) I already had another ground beef dish selected. So ultimately, I decided to do some research on hummus. While it doesn’t seem that there is an official origin of hummus—it’s very widespread across the Middle East and Northern Africa—at least one source declared it was thought to have originated in Egypt some 4000 years ago. I decided I would make homemade hummus instead of kibbeh and found a recipe. On the recipe was tahini, and a good amount of it too, 1/3 of a cup. I didn’t know what it was, so I googled it and my sources told me that it was a sesame seed paste commonly found in Asian foods and sold in the Asian food section of most markets. Armed with this knowledge, I went to the grocery store, and despite scouring the Asian section of the store, came up empty handed. I was damned if I was going on a tahini hunt and decided I would skip Egypt and just do 6 countries instead of 7, when a thought came to me that maybe it was with condiments. I don’t know why I thought this, but I did, so I went to the condiment aisle and found exactly one jar of tahini in amongst the olives. The prize was mine! So I grabbed everything else and went home to make the hummus before my mother-in-law, Sheila, arrived to be my back up.
Everything started out copacetic. I drained the garbanzo beans and threw them in the food processor and juiced a lemon with my new citrus press and tossed the juice into the food processor as well.
Then it was time to break into the tahini. Ok, here’s the deal. Tahini contains a LOT of oil, and when it is bottled and shipped and shelved, it settles into an oil part and the paste part. All the oil floats to the top and everyone merrily assures you that you just have to mix it all up and you’re fine and dandy!
Well, I must be culinarily delayed or something. A minute amount of the oil splashed out of the jar when I started stirring. This got on my hand and on the jar and everything got extremely slippery. Ok, but no problem, right? Wrong ! Soon I had a major oil slick on my hand and counter.
Ok, still no problem. I just keep on a-mixin’ and suddenly disaster strikes, the bottle completely tips over and there is oil and partially mixed paste everywhere. And let me tell you people something: that stuff runs like a bastard. Right after I took the below picture, I was literally wiping it up from where it dripped down the counters into and down the cabinets below and onto the floor. It is IMPOSSIBLE to clean without serious chemicals—in my case, the love of my life, Clorox Clean Up. And of course, my in laws had arrived by now and my father-in-law comes over, inspects the mess and says, “Susan, you sure are your father’s daughter!” If I hadn’t been laughing so hard, I’d have been tempted to slug him.
So finally I said (pardon my French), “Eff this!” and measured out what was close to 1/3 of a cup, some oily, some chunky, and gave up.
I also added a bit of salt and some garlic, before hitting the “on” button and cleaning up.
The hummus was not as smooth and was quite thick—probably if the tahini had been properly mixed it might have been a little bit smoother, but it was fine. Once it was pureed, I put it in a bowl, poured over a little bit of olive oil and sprinkled on some paprika, and called country number two complete!
Ok, so now that my back up had arrived, I put my mother-in-law to work chopping vegetables. I was not going to take a picture of her chopping each time she picked up a different vegetable to chop, because it is A) redundant and B) she wasn’t that keen on having her picture taken in the first place. So you will have to imagine her chopping everything up!
I put her to work chopping onions first since I wanted to work on South Africa next; the dish we were making is bobotie. So okay, truth in advertising time, I have made a version of bobotie before. This was back when I was a nanny in Connecticut and the family I was working for wanted to have it for dinner one night, so they left me the recipe and told me to have it ready. I did not taste it, as it did not appeal to me at the time, so I don’t know if it was good or not. I made it one other time after that and seem to recall enjoying it, but I can’t be sure. In any event, it is the quintessential South African comfort food and according to the good people at www.inmamaskitchen.com, no self-respecting South African housewife does not own a favorite bobotie recipe. So I decided to make it again with their recipe.
It is basically a sort of meatloaf that is held together with an egg topping that you pour on mid-way through baking. It requires a lot of ingredients (today’s special ingredients are malt vinegar, I bought an entire bottle and used 1 1/2 tablespoons and chutney, I bought an entire jar and used 2 tablespoons) and a few steps, but is well worth the effort. So the first step was to take the sliced onions from my MIL and sauté them in a bit of oil. While that was going on, I prepared the bread.
You need a thickish slice of white bread which you soak in milk. I was not buying an entire loaf of bread for one slice, so I used my regular sandwich bread and to make up for the softness of it, I used two slices instead of one. I put it in a pan with a cup of milk and let it soak. After a little while, I squeezed out the milk and reserved it, while transferring the bread to a plate and mashing it with a fork.
By then, the onions were pretty soft, so I added the ground beef and let that cook up with the onions.
Once the beef was cooked, I added in everything except the bay leaves and let it cook up until it was well combined. Then I spooned it all into my deep covered baker and put the bay leaves on top. I mixed 2 eggs in with the milk and put that in the fridge for later on in the baking process.
Meanwhile, Sheila had turned into a chopping machine. Despite the fact that she has a lot of pain in her hands after breaking her hand back in January, she managed to chop through something ridiculous like 5 pounds of squash, 2 or 3 pounds of onions, 2 cucumbers, green pepper, and a couple pounds of potatoes. I really couldn’t have done it without her.
We took a short break for a while after bagging up all the freshly cut vegetables and she and I watched “Say yes to the dress!” while Michael and his dad went upstairs and cleaned up Michael’s office (there was a suspiciously large Susan pile by the end of that task—my father-in-law said “Poor Susan!” when they were finished. But it was mostly my stuff, I’ll be fair.)
So 4:00 rolled around and Sheila and I went back upstairs and got cooking. I heated up the oven for the bobotie. Then I fired up the stove and started making the Algerian couscous. This is basically a vegetable stew which you serve over couscous. I found out that Hank, my FIL, hates couscous, but it was too late to turn back. I told him I would not be offended if he chose not to eat it, but that it would basically be veggies over couscous if he wanted to try it and I left it up to him.
Cooking this is a pretty simple task. I found it interesting that you sauté the onions in vegetable stock, not in oil! While the onions were sautéing, I combined all the spices needed for the recipe. These were: turmeric, cayenne, black pepper, salt, and cloves. Once the onions were soft, I added the spices in and let the whole thing cook for another couple of minutes. Once it was good and fragrant, I added a can of tomato paste and let that cook up another 2 minutes.
Then I tossed in all the vegetables (yellow squash, zucchini, carrot, potatoes, and green pepper) and enough water to just cover the veggies. My MIL chopped it all, I didn’t lift a knife the entire time. It was wonderful!
She confessed to me later that all the sitting around when there was cooking to do and people coming over made her very nervous, but I had a timing flow going and I knew it was all going to work out just fine. So I let the stew simmer for an hour while we got to work on other things.
The next thing we worked on was a cucumber and zucchini salad from the Ivory Coast. I was extremely skeptical about this dish because I do not like cucumbers and because the dressing was quite simple and sounded a bit strange. Sheila had scored the vegetables with a fork, leaving the skins on and just running a fork through them to create a pretty, scalloped effect, before she sliced them up and made layers in a bowl—a layer of cuke, a layer of zucc, a layer of cuke, a layer of zucc. You get the idea.
Meanwhile, in a measuring cup, I combined hot water and sugar and then added white vinegar, salt, and black and red pepper. That was it for the dressing! I got out my little mini whisk and mixed it altogether and then we poured it over the zucchini and cucumber and put it in the fridge to marinate for an hour. It honestly could not have been simpler.
Ok, so now it was time to get the bread dough ready for the fried sweet bread from Somalia. I am embarrassed to say that I did not take pictures! Things were starting to get busy and I just neglected to do it. Ugh! But I did take the ingredient picture, so at least you can see that and the picture of me frying them a bit later in the game. Anyway, I got this recipe from www.mysomalifood.com which I found via www.somalirecipes.com which is a cool site in which the lady actually does videos of each recipe. Anyway, the recipe for the bread states that this bread is a very popular snack, particularly during Ramadan. I was particularly excited because I could use up some more cardamom and also because I happen to love fried bread and it had been ages since I’d had any.
The basic idea is to combine everything you see pictured above (oil, flour, sugar, baking powder, cardamom, egg, and milk) into a dough. Again, I used my mixer and let it do the work. Then you let the dough rise for a while before you fry it up. The recipe says to let it rise for 30 minutes, but frankly, mine probably sat the better part of 2 hours and it was just fine and dandy.
The last dish we had to make was squash with peanuts, a recipe from Chad that I found and added due to the simplicity of the dish. According to the website www.congocookbook.com (which I found thinking I’d find a recipe from Congo, but ironically enough found one from Chad), peanuts are a common ingredient in Chadian cuisine. I thought it would be interesting and as I have no clue about Chad, much less its food, and the recipe looked easy and it would be a good match, I decided let’s go for it!
This is another startlingly easy recipe. You simply sauté squash in a little bit of oil until it gets tender, which takes about 10 minutes. Then you toss in a little bit of sugar, a little bit of salt, and a whole lot of peanuts, and voila! Squash with peanuts!
So now, everything was mostly done. I poured the milk and eggs over the bobotie and put some garbanzo beans into the Algerian couscous. I also steamed up some couscous. It was all over but the eating!
My first guests arrived, our friends Landry and Meredith, and we were all sitting around waiting on Melissa, who is typically early, so I decided to break out the hummus and the pita chips. I knew my husband didn’t like hummus, and Hank said he wasn’t crazy about it, but I put it out so we would enjoy it while we were waiting. Imagine my shock when The General decided he was going to try the hummus!
That was NOTHING compared to my shock when he said he liked it and decided to eat SEVERAL helpings of it! Hank also tried it and he said he liked it a lot too!!! Wow! Go hummus! :-) While everyone was enjoying the hummus in the living room, I dished up the food in the kitchen and set it around the table. We had sat down and were passing the hummus and pita chips when Melissa arrived, and so then it was time to dig in!
The reviews were all very favorable, but there were some dishes that were more popular than others. Top of the heap was the bobotie. It was tremendously flavorful and we literally scraped the pot to get as much out of it as we possibly could. The cucumber and zucchini salad was much gushed over by those of us who tried it—me included! I loved it, for such a seemingly strange dressing, it was amazing. It was like eating fresh pickles, if that makes sense—pre-pickled pickles? Delicious! For such a simple dish, the squash with peanuts was also very good. The Algerian couscous wasn’t such a hit—it was good, but it seemed to need more punch. I may have added too much water, or maybe the proportion of spice to vegetables was off, but none of us felt it was flavorful enough.
We all took a breather while I prepared dessert. I scooped out the pudding—it was tremendously sticky and luscious looking. Then I used a scoop to put the dough from the fried dough into the fryer.
Thus stuffed, everyone went home to sleep it off, including Leah who was exhausted from all the excitement.
Thus have we finished 41 countries and more than half the project, in just over 10 months. We will hope to get 39 more countries done in the next 6 months or so! I am slowly getting back on my feet after Leah coming home and adjusting to be a new mom.