Monday, September 3, 2018

L is for Liberia

Two and a half years ago, Davida and I moved to DC for me to take a position at the National Science Foundation.  Two months ago, Davida moved back to Pittsburgh to continue her research at Carnegie Mellon.  Now it is my time to bid a fond adieu to our nation’s capital.  It will be difficult to leave – not only did I have a great time at NSF, but we really enjoyed being in Washington, participating in cultural and political (read “protest”) events, and having a great time being so near three of our children.  But, I am looking forward to returning to Pittsburgh to enjoy the city, see (and cook for) friends, be director of the new undergraduate program in AI at Carnegie Mellon, and (hopefully) pick up on my research. 

Before leaving, I wanted to make one last country meal (this meal was on August 19).  Josh had recently come back from a work-related trip to Liberia, and I was up to the letter "L", so it was the obvious choice.  I asked him what foods he liked from his two-week stay in Liberia, but he hadn’t had much of the local cuisine.  He did say he liked a dish called corned-beef gravy and fried plantains.  OK, it’s a start…  The guests included Josh, Katie, Noah, Emily, and Hannah.  Unfortunately, Davida couldn’t make it back for this meal – I believe this is the only one she’s missed over both cycles (38 meals, to date).

While I have found significant thematic commonality in sub-Saharan cuisine, I wanted to try some new dishes other than the peanut soup and jollof rice that I have made several times before.  Fortunately, Liberia seems to have a rich food culture (maybe influenced by the Americas), so I was able to find many new dishes to serve.

The Soup:
I had some leftover goat meat from the Ghanaian meal that I wanted to use before leaving DC (ugh – I just realized how old it was; glad I didn’t poison anyone!).  As luck would have it, goat is popular in Liberia and I was easily able to find a recipe for pepper soup that would use up all my diced goat meat.  Obviously, I did not include the pig’s feet or the shrimp that the recipe calls for.  Instead, I doubled the amount of goat, cutting it up into about half-inch pieces.  Other recipes that I found for pepper soup called for a specific peppersoup seasoning mix, which I was able to find at an African grocery store a few miles from our house (we’ll see if I can find a similar store in Pittsburgh).  I also used some gluten-free bullion instead of the indicated seasonings. The soup smelled delicious and had just the right amount of peppery “zing”, but I felt that it was too watery, so I added some cut-up okra and chopped onion, to help thicken the broth, along with the whole okras and quartered onions called for in the recipe.  I also made some fufu to put in the soup.  I had made fufu, a yam-based starch, for the Ghanaian meal and everyone seemed to like it.  Though it is fairly bland, it soaks up flavors very well and added a nice, spongy texture to the soup.

The guests mostly liked the soup – the ratings ranged from 5 to 7, averaging 5.8.  I would think of keeping it, but it seems to rely so much on the goat flavor, and I am doubtful about getting goat again, at least any time soon.

The Main Dish:
I wasn’t able to find a recipe for corned-beef gravy that Josh liked, but I did find a fairly popular recipe for chicken gravy, which sounded similar based on Josh’s description.  Again, the recipes I found called for shrimp, which I naturally left out.  Other than that, I followed the recipe fairly closely.  There was a huge amount of chopping to do (I more than doubled the recipe) and pureeing all the vegetables took time in the relatively small food processor that I used.  But, the flavors melded together really well, getting better as everything simmered together.  The rich, deep red appearance of the dish was striking.  While the dish is supposed to be fairly peppery, I left out the cayenne pepper to make it more palatable.  Nobody seemed to mind.

I really liked the sauce, especially over the rice (see below) and the crunchy green beans were a pleasant treat.  The guests mostly liked this – average rating was a 6.2 – but the ratings were either 5’s or 7’s (no 6’s), so there was a significant difference of opinion.  Personally, I thought it was very tasty, but not exceptional.  I’ll probably put it in my keepers folder, just because it is rather unusual.

The Starches:
The main rice dishes in Liberia appear to be jollof and check rice.  I had made jollof rice several times before, so was eager to try something new, especially since various websites indicated that it goes well with chicken gravy (it does!).  Check rice is typically made with jute leaves, which I didn’t find, but the recipe for check rice that I used indicated that a combination of spinach and okra was a good substitute.  I wasn’t quite sure how to parboil rice, but I think I did it correctly (steaming the rice until it was not quite soft), since the rice turned out somewhat chewy but not hard.

I was a bit concerned about how rice, spinach, and okra would work together – it seemed like an odd combination, especially with nothing else flavoring the dish – but it was very good, even on its own.  And, it was so much better with the chicken gravy.  The guests were completely split on this dish, with ratings spanning from 2 to 6 (average 4).  Definitely not a keeper.

When he was in Liberia, Josh really liked his meal of corned-beef gravy over fried plantains, so I made a batch of fried plantains as another starch/vegetable.  I didn’t really use a recipe, as I had made them several times before. I cut the plantains in half, lengthwise, then cut them into about 3-inch pieces, rubbed them with ginger powder, and fried them in canola oil.  The plantains that I used were ripe but not overly so, and they came out fairly sweet.  We mostly ate them plain, without the gravy – I think Josh was disappointed that they didn’t compare to what he had in Liberia.  He’ll have to go back there and bring me back a real recipe.  The guests mostly did not care much for the plantains, with ratings of 3’s, 4’s and 5’s (average 4.2).  Not great ratings – perhaps the plantains were too oily, or maybe just not interesting enough.

The Vegetable:
Various websites indicated that fried sweet potato leaves were a common vegetable dish in Liberia.  I had grown potatoes for years in my backyard garden, and it never once occurred to me that the leaves could/should be eaten.  In fact, when I mentioned that I was making fried sweet potato leaves, several people said that they hadn’t realized sweet potatoes had leaves.  I was prepared to use a substitute, such as collard greens, but I was lucky to find packages of frozen sweet potato leaves in the African grocery store.  As with many of the other Liberian recipes, the recipe for fried sweet potato leaves called for shrimp, which I left out.  In fact, it also called for chicken, beef, and smoked turkey (I 4guess the latter is one of the things Liberians got from the New World), but all I used was some cut up chicken, and only about half of what the recipe calls for.  I didn’t have any seasoned salt, but I did use some bullion and, instead of the hot peppers I used some cayenne – not a lot, just enough to give the dish a bit of “pop”.

As with the Check Rice, I was skeptical about the combination of ingredients, and the dark green color was a bit off-putting.  But, as I told the guests, how can you go wrong with frying anything.  Apparently, that’s true, as the guests mostly liked the dish – most of the ratings were 6’s and 7’s, but a 3 and a 4 rating brought the average down to 5.2.  While I thought it was tasty, I don’t think I’ll keep the recipe, since getting the sweet potato leaves will be difficult in the future.  Although, maybe I’ll try the recipe using collard greens and see what that’s like.

The Dessert:
Yes!  Finally, a dessert that came out well and everyone seemed to like!  It is not clear whether in Liberia rice bread is served with the meal or as a dessert, but when I tasted it, it was sweet enough that I thought it should be used for dessert.  It is basically a banana bread (the recipe calls for either bananas or plantains, and I used bananas, since the main meal already had plantains), but with rice flour instead of wheat flour.  Perfect for gluten-free guests!  The texture and taste were a bit different from regular banana bread, but in a good way. The guests agreed, giving the rice bread an average rating of 6.5.  Definitely a keeper and, as Noah suggested, maybe I’ll put in chocolate chips next time, like the banana bread recipe that we typically make.  It surely cannot hurt!

Up next: TBD – so many good choices for “M”

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

K is for Kazakhstan

After a sixth month hiatus, which included a trip to the Galapagos and moving to a new place in DC (Adams Morgan district – fabulous area for eating out!), I finally felt it was time to get back to cooking through the alphabet.  Coincidentally, I had read a newspaper article about a month before about Kazakh chefs setting a world record for the largest beshbarmak, the national dish of Kazakhstan.  While I had no interest in trying to break the record (it was something on the order of 3,000 pounds), it did sound like an interesting dish.  So, with that, Kazakhstan became the country of choice.

The opportunity was there, as well, since my sister-in-law Naomi was coming in from Connecticut to help celebrate my mother-in-law Brenda’s 80th birthday.  Davida was out of town, but the guest list included Noah and Emily, Naomi and her partner Roger, my nephew Jacob and his girlfriend Naomi, and Brenda.  The meal was held on July 6.

Kazakhstan’s meals are very heavy on meat, specifically horse and lamb.  Fortunately for all my guests, horse is not kosher, so I used beef instead.  I have to say, that I’m not at all sorry that I will never find out how my recipes compare to the originals.  I also tried to cut down on so much meat, making some of the recipes vegetarian for a little variety.

The Appetizers:
Sorpa is a standard Kazahk meat broth.  I found a recipe that was a bit more interesting than the basic sorpa - ashshy sorpa is a lamb-based soup with tomato and egg.  You make an omelet, roll it up, slice it, and put a slice in each bowl of soup.  The recipe needed just minor adaptations –  I simply used margarine where the recipe calls for butter and soy milk where it calls for milk.  I used lamb shank, as the recipe calls for, and the whole kitchen smelled of lamb – the aroma was intense.  The pepper and vinegar gave the soup quite a bite, although not at all unpleasant.  I thought the soup benefited from a garnish of cilantro, and the egg added a really nice texture.  The guests were split on the soup – two gave it a 7 but the rest were 4’s and 5’s; personally, I would have given it a 6 – it was good, but not great.  Not quite over the threshold to be a “keeper.”

The other appetizer I made was a steamed dumpling called manti.  As with the sorpa, I was looking for something a bit more interesting than the basic recipe, which is mostly meat and onions. I found a recipe for pumpkin manti (while the recipe calls them “Russian” dumplings, they are apparently also very popular in Kazakhstan).  I couldn’t find whole pumpkin (go figure!), so I used canned pumpkin. And I didn’t want to make yet another meat dish, so I used seitan instead.  Otherwise, I followed the recipe as written.  Also, for some strange reason, I thought I’d make my own dough, despite not having a pasta machine or even a proper roller in the house (I ended up using a beer bottle to roll out the dough!).  Because of the lack of proper equipment, the dough was much thicker than it should have been, and I ran out of dough with still half the filling left.  So, I went out and bought circular wonton wrappers to have enough of the manti.  The wonton wrappers worked out so much better – they were easier to close, steamed more evenly, and didn’t have the doughy consistency of my own wrappers.  Definitely not worth the trouble of trying to make my own dough!  I liked the manti a lot – they were fairly light (at least, the ones with the store-bought wrappers) and tasty.  I think the substitution of seitan for meat filling worked out well.  The guests agreed, giving it an average rating of 6.2, spread out pretty evenly with ratings of 5, 6, and 7.  I would probably not add it to my “keeper” recipes, though, since there are other dumpling-type recipes from other countries that I’ve liked better.

The Main Dish:
Beshbarmak, the national dish of Kazakhstan, is a fairly simple dish of boiled meat and noodles.  It literally means “five fingers,” because presumably that’s how you are supposed to eat it – grabbing a square of noodle and using it to scoop up chunks of meat (not us – we all used forks!).  The dish is typically made with horse meat or mutton, but I chose to use brisket (and I’m sure my guests thank me for that decision).  After the difficulties I had with making my own manti dough, I decided to use store-bought lasagna noodles (again, I’m sure that my guests thank me for that decision).  Beshbarmak is straightforward to make – it just takes a long time to boil the meat and then cut it all up into bite-sized chunks.  The dish was fine, but nothing special – the meat was quite tender, but not very flavorful.  It definitely needed more salt than the recipe calls for (maybe horsemeat is naturally saltier, or maybe the Kazakhs just watch their sodium intake more scrupulously).  I think the guests were generous, giving it an average rating of 5 (with a spread between 4 and 6); my own rating would have been a 4.  Not that it stopped me from eating it as leftovers, but definitely not a keeper.

The Vegetables:
Much more successful was the carrot-radish shalgam salad.  The recipe says it is “light and refreshing,” and I certainly felt it turned out that way (in addition to being very colorful, in contrast to most of the rest of the meal, which was shades of brown and beige).  The recipe calls for cutting the carrots and daikon radish into strips, but I decided to use a grater to both get finer pieces and to decrease the prep time.  I think it was a good decision because it provided more surface area for the dressing to adhere.  I didn’t want the salad to be overwhelming, so I left out the onion and put in much less cayenne than the recipe calls for.  I think that made the salad even more “light and refreshing.”  Apparently, the guests also enjoyed it, giving it an average rating of 6.2 (mostly 6’s and 7’s, with one 5).  This is a simple, yet tasty, salad that would go well with meats and fleshier fish – it is going into the “keepers” file!

The Starch:
The star of the meal was the Kazakh rice and fruit dish.  This dish has similarities to the Afghan palaw that I made previously.  The recipe calls for lamb, but I felt that adding lamb would be too much meat, so I left that out.  Instead, I doubled the quantities of dates and apricots used (while keeping the same quantity of prunes – I’m sure that my guests thank me for that decision) and added some bouillon cubes to impart a bit of flavor.  When the rice was done, I felt that it still lacked flavor, so I added about a cup of the liquid in which the beshbarmak meat cooked.  Bingo – instant flavor!  The guests all gave it a 7 and Davida, when she got back, indicated that it was one of the best rice dishes she had eaten.  A definite keeper!

The Dessert:
Having been burned multiple times trying to make a country’s traditional dessert, I decided to go with a simple fruit salad – watermelon, canteloupe, blueberries, mango, banana.  Not something one would typically see in Kazakhstan, but everybody enjoyed it, especially after a heavy meat meal.

Up next: Liberia!