Sunday, November 24, 2013

Gambia (The)

Sunrise in The Gambia
Photo courtesy user H2O Alchemist on Flickr
Location: Western Africa
Geography: Surrounded by Senegal on three sides with a small ocean border.  The map is quite interesting.
Area: Over 11,000 sq km; 167th largest in the world
         Slightly less than twice the size of Delaware
         Smallest country on the continent of Africa
High Point (Elevation): Unnamed elevation, 53 m
Official Language: English
Population: Over 1.8 million; 149th largest in the world
Capital: Banjul
Airports: 1

Source: CIA Factbook

Apparently small African nations like to answer their embassy e-mail addresses to help people!  I got responses from first Gabon and now Gambia with regards to recipe suggestions.  I really appreciate that they have people that take the time to do this.

The Cultural Attache attached three recipes in two documents.  The first starts with the ingredient "2 cups of peanut butter."  We've seen how that goes in the past, so I went right to the other document.  This one had two versions of the same recipe - one with fish and one with beef and chicken.  Perfect!

I did a lot of research on bitter tomatoes.  At first it was pretty fruitless - a description of how they are used in Africa but not much else.  But searching for the other names given (jaxatu / jahatu) was much more useful.  Those two don't seem to actually refer to the same thing, actually.  But, it seems as though the first refers to something called an African eggplant.  It isn't actually related to the eggplant, but it was thought to be for a long time.  In my opinion, if they thought it was an eggplant for a while then they must at least be similar.  And that is my roundabout reasoning for why I increased the eggplant in the recipe in place of the bitter tomato.

We have some typical beginnings.
I've decided it is usually worth paying for the pre-cut-up chicken.  So much less work/grossness.

Meat, vinegar, and some seasonings.
Then things, as per normal with African recipes, got a little confusing.  I noticed that the recipe instructions mentioned both tomato puree and skinned and scalded tomatoes, but they aren't separate in the ingredients list.  Also, the instructions mention pounded peppers and sliced peppers.  Where is the difference?

I showed this to my interpreter, Kevin, and he said that I should probably just do half and half.  Seemed reasonable enough to me!  I dealt with the vegetables while the meat sat.

For the tomato puree I used my immersion blender.
Hopefully this is what they meant!
And what are pounded peppers?  No idea!  So I literally pounded them.  This is about learning as I go, right?
Meat tenderizer!
Now, a note about Maggi cubes, which aren't listed in the ingredients but are in the instructions.  I remember needing them before but deciding that they were the same as chicken boullion.  And then I heard this podcast.  It is all about how so many different cultures around the world think it is a native flavoring because it is so ubiquitous in their cooking.  It is actually from Austria.  I decided I would use the real thing next time I got a chance.

 Anyway, at this point you cook things in waves (chicken, then beef, then add the onions and tomatoes...).  Actually that is what takes up most of the time in this recipe.  Lots of time.
After it is all cooked to specifications you take out the solids and add some rice and sliced peppers (not pounded).  You are basically making flavored rice in the juices from everything you cooked.  I ended up having to add quite a bit of water because there just wasn't enough for all of the rice they wanted.
This part also took quite a bit of time, but then we were done.  Yay!  Finally!

It was kinda a ridiculous amount of rice.
Kevin's response, in a somewhat shocked voice, was "I would eat this."

It was good.  Not oh-my-goodness amazing, but good.  If it hadn't taken me hours I would consider making this again.  If you think about it, it is basically meat and vegetables cooked in some chicken stock, then rice cooked in the leftover juices.  This seems very doable in a much shorter amount of time.  It probably wouldn't be quite as Gambian, but more American housewifian.

Very excited for an African win.

Next time: Georgia

Monday, October 21, 2013


Cameroun / Gabon
Photo courtesy of user pushreset on Flickr
Location: Central Africa, between the Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea
Area: Over 260,000 sq km; 77th largest in the world
         Slightly smaller than Colorado
Noun: Gabonese
Official Language: French
Population: Over 1.6 million; 153rd largest in the world
Capital: Libreville
Economy: Per capita income four times higher than most other sub-Saharan African nations

Source: CIA World Factbook

So, guys, it has been a while.  Since I last cooked we moved 551 miles, took a trip to the other coast, bought a house, and started new jobs.  Mine involves me reading a lot of books to Brendan.  Doesn't pay well but I get to work from home.  :-)

A long long time ago (AKA December) I got an e-mail from the Gabonese embassy. It read:
Good afternoon Ms. Hetzel, My name is Kate and I work for the Ambassador in the Embassy here in Washington; I’m so glad you took the time to email us and I’m thrilled you’re interested in experiencinGabonese cuisine. I’ve attached to the email a Word document with two recipes that you might be interested in trying as you cook your way across the globe. I hope this helps! Have a happy and safe holiday season – best wishes from Washington! v/r,Kate Frier   American Liaison  Embassy of Gabon
You can access this same Word file here.  My favorite part is that it is named Recipes for Students and Inquiries.  They were planning for this, guys.

But this feels a little familiar, doesn't it?  Anyone else remember Angola?  In fact, I tried almost the exact same recipe then.  It didn't work because I couldn't find Nyembwe.  But this time, since I heard about it from an embassy, I decided I was going to make it work.  So I bought all of the ingredients while we were still living in Virginia.  And then...nothing.  Still didn't find it.  Harumph.

So when I got here to Michigan I decided to redouble my efforts and make this dish.  I looked for local African markets, but apparently most of the Google results were actually hair salons.  So then I asked for some help.

Sam, who claims to be a  former "professional googler," found the following: Since fresh palm nuts are not available outside the tropics, canned palm soup base, also called sauce graine or noix de palme may be substituted for homemade.  He also found somewhere to buy it.  Wait a minute.  That seems familiar...

I've done this substitution before.  I think I even found the same site telling me the substitution was okay.  Le Sigh.  I ended up ordering it from a different website with cheaper shipping, but I was feeling a little silly.  Maybe I can blame mom brain?

Anyway, on to cooking!  First, I must introduce you to my new kitchen.

The lighting wasn't great when I took these, but you get the idea.  Welcome to Michigan!  Turns out you can buy things like okra at Meijer (where I do pretty much all of my shopping).

Okra are kinda slimy and gross to cook with, but I got over it.  Luckily I've had to use them before so I was prepared.

This recipe is pretty simple.  You fry the solid ingredients together.
Then you add the rest.  In case you don't remember, here is what the palm soup base looks like:
It is...interesting.  Not really bad smelling, but not great either.  Very grainy.  Anyway, that goes in with water, salt, and pepper and voila.  Let it simmer for an hour.
While that cooks, broil some bread with Za'atar spice and olive oil (trust me on this, it is amazing).  Watch your husband make your son giggle.  A lot.

Then you have a meal!  I'm sorry it is not more exciting.  I guess I could look for more complicated recipes in the future...(not going to happen).

I decided not to serve it over cassava because of previous experiences.  We went with rice.
Brendan LOVES bread.
I did not like this food.  I really wanted to, especially with all of the extra work that went into preparing for it, but I just couldn't get behind it.  It may be the consistency of the palm soup base when I put it in.  It is not appetizing to me at all.  Kevin thought it was fine, and even said he would take some of the leftovers for lunch.  This is why I think it has to do with me preparing it.  It just doesn't work out.

That being said, I think I'm starting to get some of the lessons I was hoping to when I started this.  I was able to link to Angola, Congo, and Central African Republic to talk about what I had previously learned or tried.  I have used okra before.  These are things that would not be true had I not been doing this.

I'm going to try to pick this up, but unfortunately African countries tend to take longer than others because of ingredient sourcing issues.  I have found a few good Middle Eastern markets that make fresh Iraqi bread, but it doesn't really help with all countries.  We have one more African country coming up, then we travel around for a bit.  Bear with me!

Next time: Gambia

Sunday, September 15, 2013

France, Again

Last time, we learned that I don't really like things cooked in red wine, especially dry red wine.  That was worrying.  I had already bought all of the ingredients for my other experiment in French cooking.  And that attempt was Coq au Vin.  Chicken.  In red wine.  Gulp.

This recipe came from the same cookbook that the delicious crepes did last time, so that was a bonus.  I had made Coq au Vin from another cookbook once, a long time ago.  That was soon after Kevin and I got married, and I know that I have grown a lot in my cooking since then.  It was a adventure I was excited to take on, but I was a bit wary after the beef burgundy.  This is all about trying things and learning though, right?  Right!

Like before, we start with bacon.
However, much of the rest is different.  This calls for a whole chicken, as well as thyme, parsley, garlic...  There are a good number of spices that get thrown in there.  We also used a different kind of wine, as this one called for something more fruity.

After you cook all of this together for a while, you remove the chicken and the herbs while leaving the sauce.  Mushrooms go in, and you create a reduction.  Brendan and Kevin wait.

After it is reduced by three-fourths, the chicken goes back in with some butter and you are ready to serve, preferably with some bread.

Brendan loooves bread.

This dish could not be more different from the beef burgundy.  I absolutely loved it.  It was wonderfully flavorful and a bit fatty.  The meat didn't get ultra-tough, and I wasn't overwhelmed by a dry red wine that I don't like.  Kevin asked for the leftovers for lunches until it was all gone.  Brendan enjoyed it as well.

What was the difference?  I'm sure many things.  I think, for me, one of the biggest is the different kind of wine.  Being more fruity helped.  I also believe that boiling beef in wine for a while makes it tough, while chicken just gets more tender, but I'm not sure about that.  All I know is that I plan to make this one again.  And probably again after that.

And as we leave France, we leave Virginia.  Onto new adventures, new foods, and a new letter!

Next time: Gabon

Saturday, July 27, 2013


L'Opéra et l'Hôtel de Ville avec la Tour de l'Horloge, Avignon, Vaucluse, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, France.
Photo courtesy of user Bernard Blanc on flickr.
Location: Main part is in Western Europe.  However, five former overseas territories were made part of France proper, and they are in South America, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and Southern Africa.
Area: Over 550,000 sq km (main part); 43rd largest in the world
         Slightly less than the size of Texas
Population: Over 65.5 million; 21st highest in the world
Capital: Paris
Nuclear Electricity: 53% of total install capacity; 1st in the world
Kevin's favorite link about France: The Complete Military History of France (not for the easily offended)

Sources: CIA Factbook

This was still while we were in Virginia, so it has been a while.  I apologize for any lack of memory may have gotten a little fried during all of this travel.

I knew that France would be big and important in my cooking travels.  It, unfortunately, also corresponded with the craziness of getting ready to move.  I wanted to do something good and cool, but not overly ambitious.  We were busy trying to get our lives sorted out.

The number of dishes that you can cook for France are overwhelming.  Their culinary story is rich, storied, and worthy of a lot of study.  I knew that whatever choice I made, in the end it would be inadequate and someone would think I didn't choose correctly.  I did some research, picked a few things, and hope for the best.

First, with some people coming over, I picked a beef burgundy recipe.  I also bought everything for french onion soup and two different crepe recipes from two of my international cookbooks.  I couldn't decide which one would be better.

Beef and bacon?  Starting in the right spot.
Beef burgundy basically takes some meat and vegetables and simmers them in red wine.  There are obviously variations on ingredients, but at the heart this is what you do.  In this recipe, first you saute the vegetables with some spices and brown the meat.

Carrots, onions, and garlic.
Kevin helped.
This particular recipe has you add wine and cognac.  And set it on fire.  You can't tell in this picture, but the vegetables are on fire.

It was probably around this time that I decided the soup was not getting done.  C'est la vie.

The beef burgundy then has to simmer for a while to soak up the wine and some other ingredients added, such as tomato paste.
I highly recommend this stuff.  You don't need to take out only a tablespoon and the throw away the rest of the can anymore!
Add some mushrooms, frozen onions, etc, and voila!  You have a thick stew you serve on bread.

Brendan even got a taste of this stuff.
After the baby was in bed, I decided that one crepe recipe was enough.  Luckily, I had made up some crepe batter long before, as it was supposed to sit, so my work was greatly reduced.
It was a fairly simple recipe: flour, sugar, salt, milk, eggs, butter.  The hard part is getting the cooking right.  You pour just a little batter in the pan, swirl it around until it covers the bottom, then immediately pour out any excess that doesn't stick.  Once you get the hang of it it goes pretty well, but it is a bit awkward at first.

When Kevin was in Paris he said he got a crepe every day, so he dictated the fillings.  Nutella, strawberries, bananas, and powdered sugar.

The beef burgundy?  Blah.  I didn't like it at all.  Couldn't bring myself to eat a lot of it.  Everyone else seemed to be fond, though, so it may just be me.  I remember the last time I tried eating beef burgundy I didn't like it either.  It is too...dry?  I'm not sure how to describe it.

The crepes, however, were amazing.  They came out of The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman.  If you want a great crepe recipe, go there.  Since you do the batter ahead of time, it really helps the cooking by more quickly.  In fact, when Kevin's parents visited a little while later, we made them again.

But I wasn't done yet, I still had another dish to cook.  France still had more to say.

Next time: France, Again