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.
I had some leftover goat meat from the As luck would have it, goat is popular in Liberia and I was easily able to find a recipe for 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 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. that I wanted to use before leaving DC (ugh – I just realized how old it was; glad I didn’t poison anyone!).
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 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., which sounded similar based on Josh’s description.
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 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 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.
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 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.
Yes! Finally, a dessert that came out well and everyone seemed to like! It is not clear whether in Liberia 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”