Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Beautiful plum cake and heinous injera

Orangette/Nigel Slater plum cake
 I'm starting with the pretty because that seems more polite.

I read about this beautiful plum cake on Orangette and it was one of those recipes that was going to haunt me until I tried it. So I tried it. Very easy, very rewarding! It was delicious warm last night, but it was even better this morning, cold.  Read Molly Wizenberg's description. You're going to want to try it, too.

Would be good with whipped cream, though it's great plain.

Okay, now for the not pretty.

injera batter

A few days ago I mixed injera batter (teff flour, water, yeast) using the recipe from Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford's Flatbreads and Flavors. I let the batter bubble and sour and separate for 48 hours and I watched a little swarm of fruit flies form over the (covered) bowl. I had hopes. This seemed like the way injera should be made.

Something went wrong, or the recipe is wrong, I don't know. Hopes were dashed. My injera cooking skills are lacking, so the pancakes broke, as you will see below. But even had I been able to make the injera look like injera, it didn't taste like injera. It was only moderately sour and lacked that wonderful spongy texture. I served this nasty pancake with a dry, bland Ethiopian ground beef dish (also from Flatbreads) and it had to be one of the most heinous dinners I've ever put on the table. Which is odd, because those Duguid-Alford books are usually excellent. What is also odd is that my family ate it without complaint. I have beaten them into complete culinary submission. Not sure how I feel about that. 

sorry excuse for injera
I don't know what to do about my injera quest. I have a copy of Exotic Ethiopian Cooking by Daniel Jote Mesfin, but his recipe looks almost identical to the Duguid-Alford formula. If you have any suggestions, let me know.

On another subject, credit for my beautiful new blog design goes to my sister, Justine. Credit for the chicken picture -- and the impetus to upgrade -- goes to my publisher. I'm a little freaked out every time I open the page. It's like I've been living in a cozy basement with a bunch of rescue cats and posters thumbtacked to the walls and now I'm in a loft with framed Audubon prints and glass coffee tables. I love it, and I'm sure it will feel like home soon enough.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It's Istanbul, not Constantinople

Tortilla, Abyssinian wine, grandmother
On Sunday, Owen and I picked up my grandmother and told her we were going to an Ethiopian restaurant. She seemed unclear about exactly what cuisine we were talking about. "Indian food?" she asked. When we got to the restaurant she looked around at the people and said, "Oh, this is an Abyssinian restaurant."

I said, "No, no, Ethiopian. Ethiopia is a country in eastern Africa . . . "

I stopped myself, checked on my iPhone, discovered she was right. Or at least not wrong.

My grandmother did not like eating with her hands, and did not understand the role of the injera -- the spongy flatbread you use to scoop up the various dishes -- until about halfway through the meal. Lightbulb moment: "This a tortilla," she said.

I said, "No, no, it's actually a sourdough pancake made with teff flour. . ."

She looked at me darkly. "I know. But it's like a tortilla." After that she ate with gusto. My grandmother is a pip.

Zeni is the best Ethiopian restaurant I've been to in the Bay Area, and I'm just sorry it's in San Jose, where I hardly ever go. The injera comes in a basket and it is rolled up tightly, like hand towels. See lower left-hand corner of photo below:

It is pliable, grayish, slightly damp, intensely sour, so good. I am determined to learn to make it, or something like it. To go with the injera, we had super-spicy ground meat, homemade cheese, chicken sauteed in butter, cabbage sauteed in butter, salad, all delicious. One order of baklava for dessert, which I would have skipped, but my grandmother insisted.

I thought about how and what my grandmother eats. It's very simple: She eats everything, including wine, salad, and dessert, but everything in moderation, at mealtimes. It makes me think of the Michael Pollan maxim: Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. That strikes me as the soundest of all dietary advice.

The night after the Ethiopian dinner out, I made an Ethiopian dinner in. I made yataklete kilkil. Or, spiced vegetables. 

The recipe comes from the The Africa News Cookbook and you start by simmering butter with spices (ginger, turmeric, cardamom, etc.), onions, and garlic for a full hour. Then you strain out the solids -- both dairy solids and bits of spice and onion -- so that you're left with pure golden butter imbued with a subtly exotic fragrance. It's beautiful. You'll want to dip a crust of bread in it, but try to resist.

Once you have your spiced butter, steam some cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, and potatoes, then saute them in 1/3 to 1/2 cup of the butter. Salt to taste.

spa food meets spiced butter and salt
I served the yataklete kilkil with basmati rice and everyone loved it except maybe Owen, who didn't seem to eat much. Isabel had seconds. Again, I started thinking about the peculiarities of the American diet. How it's all or nothing, you're eating like a bird or you're eating like Orson Welles. When I hear the words "steamed vegetables" I wince, because I have only met steamed vegetables in their most austere, unbuttered, unseasoned, you're-on-a-diet form. If all steamed vegetables were sauteed in a little spiced butter, I might actually eat steamed vegetables more than once  per decade and be a healthier person for it.

Last night, I made Algerian spicy vegetable soup (chorba hamra), also from Africa News. I will have to write more about this soup later because I didn't really eat any so can't comment on its flavor. I just left the pot on the stove for my husband and went to meet a friend of a friend for a drink. There, in the Marinitas bar in downtown San Anselmo, I consumed so many tortilla chips that I didn't feel like eating vegetable soup when I got home at 8:30 p.m.

My grandmother never would have done that. First of all, she never would have left my grandfather to fend for himself with a pot of soup and two children while she went out for a drink. What kind of negligent wife does that? No comment. But second, and more germane to the subject of this blog, my grandmother never would have stuffed herself with tortilla chips then come home and eaten a Skinny Cow caramel cone washed down with a glass of wine while watching Breaking Bad and called it dinner.

I like to think I have a healthy, traditional diet, but when I actually look at what I eat, that isn't quite the case.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The mysteries of gluten and tempestuous little girls

Gluten-free pasta
About six months ago I was invited to join a book club and I was delighted. I'd never been in a book club before, and every woman I know is in a book club. It's the midlife equivalent of a sorority, except you can't really be "against" book clubs. What was wrong with me?

Then my friend Susan asked me to join her book club and I did and it was great. I haven't missed a meeting since, even though I never got past page 40 of What the Body Remembers.

This book club involves someone hosting dinner. There is the usual depressing understanding among women: No one wants to get fat. But meal planning is more complicated than that with this group. One woman is vegan. One woman absolutely can not eat gluten. One woman was on a cleanse the month I hosted, so she didn't eat anything at all, just drank herbal tea.

Dinner this last Friday, hosted by Alicia, started with homemade cashew "cheese" and gluten-free crackers. Alicia promised to send the recipe and when she does I will print it here, because this cashew "cheese" was sensational. Not as a replacement for cheese itself, but as something delicious in its own right.

We sat down to dinner. Two lasagnas: one vegan and gluten-free, the other merely vegan. We were allowed to choose. Here's what puzzled me: Everyone wanted the gluten-free lasagna. I understand why people with celiac disease can't eat gluten, but most people don't have celiac disease. When I said I didn't mind having the gluten-full lasagna, I felt slightly uneasy, like I'd been left out of yet another important girly secret.

We talked about the book (Shopgirl by Steve Martin) and movies and Michele Bachman and then, over coffee and soy creamer, the conversation turned to cleanses and the whole gluten business. Apparently, it's all about something called inflammation.

Unlike me, you probably know about inflammation, which leads to heart disease, stroke, cancer, pain, everything you don't want. Apparently, some foods are inflammatory, and some foods are anti-inflammatory. White foods -- including potatoes -- appear to be inflammatory and are to be avoided. Alcohol: very inflammatory. (The women in the group do not seem to mind this particular inflammatory.) Tomatoes and eggplant: inflammatory. Blueberries: anti-inflammatory. My book club members believe gluten is also inflammatory, although this turns out to be controversial. For the record, Dr. Weil does not see any reason to avoid gluten if you are not gluten sensitive.

So perplexing. So interesting. I was gazing into the middle distance while processing my thoughts about inflammation when a woman said gravely, "Jennifer, are you okay?"

Everyone fell silent and looked at me, which was awful. I said, "Oh I'm fine. I was just thinking about white foods."

Anyway, this is how dietary theories inform/complicate my life: Last night I was going to cook African food, but in the end I didn't want to go to the supermarket and I kind of wanted to try the box of gluten-free quinoa spaghetti that I'd inherited from my mother and which had languished in the cupboard for over a year. I made a sauce of olive oil (good fat), a whole head of garlic (major anti-inflammatory), broccoli (ditto) and red pepper flakes and served it with the gluten-free spaghetti. Then I added some inflammatory Parmesan cheese, because the pasta didn't taste good until I did. How was it? No one could even tell it wasn't "normal" spaghetti. I drank inflammatory white wine and ate some extra broccoli to offset the wine. This morning when I made my coffee I wondered if soy milk might be a better choice than super-inflammatory dairy milk. But isn't soy milk a white food? Or is it beige? I was going to have a slice of toast with some peanut butter for breakfast, but there's gluten in my bread and we only had Jif, which contains sugar, a white food.

And so I ate a pear with 1 ounce of inflammatory cheddar cheese and felt like I'd started the day on the wrong foot.

Inflammation. Just one more thing I'll worry about when I'm trying to decide what to cook and what to eat, without ever really believing that these inflammatory foods that people have eaten for centuries can be truly bad. On the fence: The story of my life.

Next month's book club book: The Emperor of All Maladies, A Biography of Cancer. It was that or the Dalai Lama's Art of Happiness. I voted for cancer.

On another subject, yesterday we went to a high school football game. It was not exactly like one of the games on Friday Night Lights and I'm sorry to report that while the teenagers in our town are very good looking, they're not as good looking as teenagers in Dillon.

At half time, I walked home with Owen and his cousin Stella, who is 5. I started a conversation with Stella. We discussed school, her friends and her upcoming birthday, for which she would like a rock tumbler. I thought I was being a benevolent and interested aunt when I asked, "Are there any cute boys in your class? Do you have a boyfriend?" She yanked my hand, glared at me, and burst into tears. She cried stormily for the next three minutes while I apologized helplessly and Owen berated me: "MOM! No one likes it when you ask those things." He started to cry tears of sympathy with Stella and pinched the inside of arm so hard there's a purple bruise now.

Life is so confusing!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Would you want her promoting your book?

Not the perky one on the left, the OTHER one
Funny. Neither would I.

Nonetheless, I'm going to be on a panel next Friday at the Eat Real Festival in Oakland, California. Come!

Back to our usual programming:

Wednesday night I got back from six days driving around Oregon gathering notes for some travel stories. It was lots of fun, though I find it increasingly hard to fall asleep in hotels.  I drank a huckleberry milkshake, which was delicious, and picked thimbleberries which are even more delicious. I hiked through evergreen forests, had the opportunity to bungee jump and declined, visited the Timberline Lodge, which I admired even more than I did the first time, and toured a botanical garden that made me want to come home and work in my sorry yard.

The last night of the trip, I was eating a chicken salad in the hotel lounge when two older ladies plopped down across from me and we got to chatting. I ended up buying them a round. I realized later that I'd never bought strangers "a round" before, or even said the words, "we'll have another round." I liked the way it made me feel -- not just light-headed and drunk, but big-hearted and convivial.

Then I went back to my room and did not fall asleep the entire night.
Just another crappy photograph of something I liked
The highlight of the trip was a tour of the Gordon House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for a farmer and his artist wife. It's the third Frank Lloyd Wright house that I've visited, and each time I come out of one of these residences I feel sad that I will never get to live in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Life is hard.

The kitchen looks hideous in my pictures, but trust me, tomato soup-colored countertops notwithstanding, it's a seductive room: unfussy, utilitarian, the perfect size and shape for one or two people who are trying to produce a meal. It isn't aiming to be the "heart of the home" with an island the size of Bermuda, homework center, wine refrigerator, puffy sofa, big screen TV. I think the backlash against the great room kitchen is inevitable simply because of how good -- how refreshing -- this small, thoughtfully designed kitchen looked.
The banquette was designed so it feels like sitting in the seat of a Chevy truck.
I haven't had a chance to cook a meal since I've been home, but when I do, it will be African.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Pink gin, piri piri prawns, PDX

piri piri
Lately, I've read several books in which people drink pink gin. Pink gin. It sounded magical and beautiful so I looked up the ingredients, but they don't sound magical or beautiful at all, which was both disappointing and a relief, because the last thing I need is another cocktail to fetishize.

One of the books in which pink gin gets drunk is Alexandra Fuller's new memoir, Cocktails Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. Like her first book, Cocktails is populated by eccentric white Africans who shoot guns, imbibe great quantities of alcohol and eat very little food. One of the foods they do eat in Cocktails -- or talk about, anyway -- is piri piri prawns. The words piri piri prawns had the same effect on me as pink gin.

But the ingredients sounded a lot better. Piri piri prawns -- which originated in Mozambique -- contains chili peppers, garlic, butter, and big, meaty shrimp. There are recipes in both Marcus Samuelsson's Soul of a New Cuisine and The Africa News Cookbook. Since Africa News is growing on me in a big way (more on that later), I opted for their recipe.

I looked forward to dinner all day long as the the shrimp marinated in the refrigerator. You're supposed to grill them, but I couldn't pull it together for grilling, so I cooked them quickly in a very hot cast-iron skillet and they came out perfectly. But after three prawns, I didn't want to eat anymore. While I love them all individually, I just don't like chili peppers, garlic, butter, and shrimp all together, and I don't know why. Too rich, I suppose, but usually I love rich.

To go with the piri piri shrimp, I served a Sudanese eggplant salad, also from Africa News. It involved frying peeled chunks of eggplant, chilling this grey-green mush, then mixing it with lemon juice, garlic, and crushed peanuts. It sounded so drab I almost didn't make it, but it was fantastic. I would type the recipe into the blog, but I don't have the cookbook with me right now.
Sudanese salad
Plus, despite my high praise, I don't think a single person would actually make it. A shame.

It looks like there's a pattern emerging here:  On another night last week, I thought we were going to love Marcus Samuelsson's lamb stir fry, but it seemed like it really wanted to be stew and we didn't love it.

He suggests serving the stir fry/stew with chunky mashed vegetables, which sounded like a horrendous porridge of sweet potato, carrots, green beans, and chili powder.
chunky mashed vegetables
It was almost as delicious as the Sudanese eggplant salad.

See, you never really know about a recipe until you try it. Almost never. I knew the chocolate rum cake from Samuelsson book would be lovely, and it was.

Although, calorie for calorie, I'd go for hot fudge pudding.

On another subject, I'm in Oregon on a short business trip, if you can call riding a chairlift, drinking huckleberry milkshakes, and visiting botanical gardens "business." If you have any suggestions -- food or otherwise -- for the Mount Hood and/or Silverton areas, send me a note!

Friday, September 02, 2011

African Food & Hot Fudge Pudding

red penne
I can't tell you how sad I am that summer is over. Isabel started high school a two weeks ago and yesterday morning Owen strapped on his 50-pound backpack, picked up his giant trombone, and set off down the hill to the middle school whence he emerged seven hours later cheerful and full of stories, but looking a little stunned. An hour later he fell apart because he had already lost his homework planner and he was sure he was going to be sentenced to eternal detention. "They're really strict about that in middle school!" he cried. I told him I thought the teachers would have compassion in the first week of school and that if they didn't I would homeschool him (?), but that meanwhile he really needed to figure out how to pay attention to his belongings. Then I left him disconsolate under a mountain of school supplies and drove Isabel to dance class.

Over the summer I thought I had outgrown my taste for alcohol. I thought, what an unexpected and wholesome development!

Yes, well. Cheers.

Three African dinners to report on:

1. Red penne. A lustrous pasta sauced with harissa (pepper paste) and ground almonds from Soul of a New Cuisine. Marcus Samuelsson likens it to pesto, which it somewhat resembles, except spicier and red. It is very delicious, though not quite as delicious as pesto. Another solid recipe from that very solid book.

2. I've been testing recipes from Marcus Samuelsson's Soul of a New Cuisine against the same recipes from The Africa News Cookbook. I was secretly rooting for the humble spiral-bound Africa News over the shiny chef's book, but the chef's book easily wins this round. The bobotie (Malay-inspired ground meat curry) from Soul of a New Cuisine was tender and fragrant. The bobotie from Africa News dried out in the baking so the top formed a mahogany brown crust studded with puffy burned raisins. I have spared you the photograph. To accompany, I made the buttery Africa News yellow rice which we liked, but which couldn't really compete with Samuelsson's "fancy" yellow rice, full of mango, yellow tomato, expensive saffron and corn on the cob. Not a fair fight, but Samuelsson still wins.
pretty and humble
3. Thursday night, I made Samuelsson's doro wett, an Ethiopian chicken stew with hard-boiled eggs. I hoped to present it, as he recommends, with a big plate of injera, the sour, soft, spongy flatbread that serves, in the course of an Ethiopian meal, as a platter, a utensil, and a tangy starch. I've only ever tasted injera in Ethiopian restaurants and it's the main reason I love going to Ethiopian restaurants. I had read disparaging reviews of Marcus Samuelsson's injera recipe and I am sorry to report that the naysayers were correct. His recipe calls for whole wheat flour, club soda, baking soda, and yogurt and yields a large brown pancake that is very tasty, but in no way resembles injera. It seemed much too easy and was. I am going to learn to make proper injera if it takes me the rest of the year.

Pass the maple syrup.
On another subject, I haven't been able to throw away any of my mother's clipped recipes and they sit n stacks and binders and files around the house. I have all my late grandmother's recipes too, and while I know that to keep them is silly, I think it's a benign kind of silliness, like keeping too many measuring spoons. No. It's better than benign. It makes me happy. When I look at my mother's and grandmother's recipe collections, I see those two women at their most youthful and hopeful. Recipe clipping and collecting is such an optimistic gesture, full of the expectation that there will be many days to come in which you will prepare and partake of braided holiday breads, homemade marshmallow eggs, oven-fried chicken, hot fudge pudding.

The following recipe for hot fudge pudding was at the top of one of my mother's stacks. I'm pretty sure she never made it. Clipped from the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003, it's one of those wacky recipes that has you mix ordinary cake ingredients and then pour hot water over everything to make a horrendous mudpie that miraculously bakes into something coherent and wonderful. It is super-easy and calls for ingredients you might actually have in the cupboard right now.

Homely, but so good

1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup sugar
6 tablespoons cocoa
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 cup chopped nuts (I used almonds)
1 cup light brown sugar
1 3/4 cups hot water

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees F and butter a 9-inch square pan.

2. Sift flour, baking powder, sugar, and 2 tablespoons of the cocoa into a mixing bowl. Stir in milk, butter and nuts.

3. Spread the batter in the pan. Mix together the brown sugar and remaining cocoa and spread over the batter. Pour the hot water over everything.

4. Bake for 45 minutes. Serve warm with whipped cream or ice cream.

It reheats well.  Last night, since the homework hasn't kicked in for real, Owen and I sat on the sofa and ate leftover pudding and watched The Gods Must Be Crazy, which I remembered as hilarious but is actually awful. Owen loved it, though, and told me he wished he was a Bushman.