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About a year ago, you couldn’t find Grains of Paradise anywhere- I looked in several places, including a number of African groceries in our town.  I live in a fairly large  mid-western city, but I couldn’t find this spice anywhere, and in fact, it turns out that there was a widespread shortage exceeding all demand, which I think was reported on a national public radio cooking show last year.

Today I located a small jar of Aframomum melegueta seed at The Kitchen Window in Minneapolis.  I’d been looking for it for 2 years- it was almost like finding the holy grail.  I finally got to taste it, and it’s a very interesting flavor.  Quite a few people say it’s like a combination of ginger-root, black pepper and cardamom- and that’s actually a pretty accurate description.  The flavor is more pungent & complex than that, but this gives you a starting point to imagine it, if you’re not familiar with it.

It can be used in the same way as black pepper is used; and it is used in everything from  Belgian artisan beers, to the ‘legendary spice mixture of Morocco (ras al-hanout)’- mentioned in The Africa Cookbook- Tastes of a Continent, by Jessica B. Harris.  That Grains of Paradise should become a principle flavoring in Belgium isn’t too surprising- it was King Leopold of Belgium who oversaw the destructive 19th century colonization of central-west Africa.  This spice was a cornerstone of the trade economies in the region among the west coast cultures.

I began learning some West African cooking about a year ago or so- Liberian, specifically- so I had to become acquainted with some ingredients I didn’t know at all.  I learned how to make fried pepper sauce, made with a heap of habanero peppers; I learned how to use smoked dried fish as a spice, and used red palm oil for the first time.  If you look around North and Central America, there are quite a few unknown, or little-known herbs, spices and flavorings that will probably not be found in your standard American recipe books.  But there is an entire universe of African spices and flavorings that I have never heard of in my life- & I know a lot of weird, exciting & exotic ingredients.

I can’t wait to find out how to use the Grains of Paradise- if you’ve ever used it, or have a favorite recipe, please share on the blog!  I’m searching through my cookbooks & online now.

My friend Hortensia brought me  fresh tomatoes from her garden- and some other beautiful green things.  Then I went to the store & brought back another very Native fruit- the avocado- some cilantro, and a poblano pepper.

Avocados AKA Persea Americana AKA Alligator Pears are  mashed together with homemade, spicy tomato salsa, making a rich & delicious accompaniment to many foods.  That is more or less the  form of guacamole most familiar for many people here- and if you make it from scratch, it is greatly appreciated.

OK, you twisted my arm, and I will surrender my recipe to you. This is how I make my famous, authentic smoked pepper Eskimo Guac.

Please locate the following ingredients, if you can:

-a Poblano green pepper (a green, sweet pepper would also be good)

-1/2 a  small red onion, shaved thin & chopped to atoms (I use a mandolin)

-1/4 cup cilantro, roughly chopped

-a clove of garlic, also minced to smaller atoms

-a lime, halved & juiced

-1/2 tsp cumin

-1/2 tsp hickory salt (otherwise use plain, table salt)

-one tsp chili powder (or ground, dried red chili)

a couple of dashes of tabasco sauce

-a full 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

-if you happen to have it on hand, 1/2 tsp dried, or 1 tsp fresh Epazote (fresh is better).  This is a traditional Native herb, and it gives an almost indefinable, gently sharp, chocolate flavor, when not cooked.  When cooked with beans, it aids digestion, and it also tastes very, very good.

2 medium tomatoes, roughly chopped

There is only one ingredient here that requires some special attention- the poblano pepper.  Roast it over a fire of some kind, or roast it almost black in a heavy skillet on top of the stove:

This may take several minutes, but be patient.  The pepper builds up steam inside & cooks.  The charred outside gives you some complex, deep flavors.

When the pepper is no longer recognizably green, take it off the heat & place it in a paper bag:

Now, seal the bag & forget about it for a while.

After a few minutes, open the bag & scrape off the charred skin.  You can use the flat of a knife, your fingers, or even paper towels.  Clean out the ribs and seeds, and then cut into fine strips.  Then chop the pepper very finely.

Now you can begin to mix your salsa together- everything all at once.  And now you can also split & mash your avocado.  I think I use almost 1/2 cup of salsa to each avocado.  Some people like to keep the avocado in big chunks, or cut in large pieces -you can do it whichever way makes you happy.

Cookbook Gazette from my bookshelves

Native:

Northwest Native Harvest, Carol Batdorf.  A beautiful publication by Hancock House & full of Indigenous food ingredients and approaches to traditional food preparation

Colonial

I will repeat a reference to:  The Little House Cookbook, by Barbara M. Walker.  This writer & historian has contributed something very important to the story of American Food

Groundbreaking publications (19/20Centuries)

The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (am I repeating myself again?), Fannie Merritt Farmer

Classic American

I’m including The Tassajara Bread Book (Edward Espe Brown) on this list, and if you don’t somehow find a copy, I’ll be mad at you.  This is why god made Ebay.  Any old copy will do, but plan to wear it out.

Comprehensive  Cuisine

The New York Times International Cook Book (I have a 1971 Edition).  A treasure trove of lots of recipes, adapted for American kitchens, and probably popular at your local country club 40 years ago, for all the right reasons.  Very good.  I love Craig Claiborne.

Vegetarian

Fast Vegetarian Feasts, by Martha Rose Shulman (her dad a well-known writer) is a book I’ve worn down to a nub.  Lots of wonderful, creative, delicious and informed, do-able recipes.

Baking

A World of Breads, Dolores Casella, AND a bonus amazing volume, A World of Baking (1966 & 68).  These are 2 books that inspired me in high school to pay attention to baking- besides the women in my family.

World Food

Himalayan Mountain Cookery:  A Vegetarian Cookbook, Martha Ballentine (1976).  Spiral-bound, priceless)

Reference

The Rituals of Dinner, Margaret Visser (ever wonder why you’re should scoop your soup away from you?  or why you keep your knife-blade pointed toward you?  It’s polite.)  My friend Hortensia gave me this book nearly 20 years ago.

Desserts

Sweet Maria’s Italian Cookie Tray, A Cookbook, Maria Bruscino Sanchez.  So many of my cookbook finds have been in used book-stores.  This is one of them. Classic Italian cookie making.  Great Biscotti recipes.

Food Writers

American Food, Evan Jones.  Paperback, stunning, informative, comprehensive, delicious, historical.

Quirks

Wild Foods Field Guid Cookbook:  An illustrated guide to 70 wild plants and over 350 irresistible recipes for serving them them up, Billy Joe Tatum.

Okay.  I have reduced my cookbook entries to one per category.  But I’m going to do it again, since I promised I would.  There are more where these came from, and I would marry any one of these books- but that’s impractical.