Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Vancouver to Ethiopia

Vancouver has a great public transportation system. It didn't take long to figure out how to get where we were going, and if you had a ticket to an Olympic event, all public transportation was free for the day. The trains and buses were crowded with people bedecked in Olympic gear and in a festive mood. Every time I thought we were at capacity we'd stop at another station and somehow we'd squeeze in dozens more. There were very few seats, so most people stood, hanging on straps or seat backs or poles.

In the Skytrain the first day I saw an ad for Yellow Pages that made me chuckle. The headline read "Touched the pole?" and the text said you could find anything in the Yellow Pages, including hand sanitizer.

Well, I touched the pole. By the time we left Vancouver I had the sniffles, and when we got home a week later I was ready for my usual sinus-clearing comfort food, something spicy and mushy. This time I decided on an Ethiopian dish called Mesir Wat.

I love Ethiopian food. Until recently we didn't have any Ethiopian restaurants in Pittsburgh; now we have two. Many of the common dishes are quick and easy to make at home, especially if you keep a few basic ingredients on hand, like berbere and niter kibbeh. It's best to have three or four dishes served together that you share communally, but in a pinch, one dish will do, and it really is comfort food.

Mesir Wat

1 large onion, cut in 8ths
2 cloves of garlic
2 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
2 tbsp niter kibbeh
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tbsp paprika
1/4-1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp berbere, either purchased or homemade
1/2 lb red lentils or masoor dal
2 cups vegetable stock
1 small can chopped tomatoes
salt and pepper

Puree onion, garlic, and ginger in a food processor or blender.

Heat niter kibbeh in a saucepan.  Add turmeric, paprika and cayenne pepper and stir, about 30 seconds.  Add onion mixture and sauté on medium heat until moisture evaporates, about 5 minutes. Add lentils and stock.  Bring to a boil and simmer till lentils are cooked through and fall apart, about 30 minutes.  Add tomatoes and berbere and simmer for another 20 minutes or so.
Stir in salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Serve this on injera and eat with your hands by tearing pieces of injera and scooping it up. Between the unpacking and the laundry I didn't have time to make injera, so I warmed whole wheat tortillas, put one on each plate and scooped some mesir wat on each. We used additional tortillas to eat it. Close enough.

As I served it Jack said, "That looks like plop."
"It IS plop," I said.

He had two helpings. So did I.

Monday, February 15, 2010

To the Olympics!

We took off last week while we went to the Olympics in Vancouver, then on to the San Juan Islands in Washington. As it happened I did have beans on Monday, in the form of a snack pack of hummus and pretzel chips on the Amtrak Cascades.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Black is the New Bean

When I decided to stop eating meat, I was determined to be smart about it, especially since I was feeding a growing child. I read whatever I could find about a healthy vegetarian diet and discovered that most sources emphasized the need for protein. For ovo-lacto vegetarians that meant eggs and cheese, and for all vegetarians, grains and legumes. Not only was vegetarian cuisine new to me, but I was also transitioning from a classic German meat and potatoes diet. (We were so German that my mother referred to cream cheese as "smearcase", an Anglicization of Schmierkaese, and Swiss cheese as "Schweizer." And she was two generations away from a native German speaker!) 

Legumes were a new world to explore because I hadn't eaten many different kinds of beans growing up. We had the usual New England baked beans at big family picnics in the summer. Occasionally we had lentil soup, which I found boring. Later I learned about hummus and fell in love with it, but I didn't know what else you could do with chick peas. And red kidney beans were the basis for the gummy re-fried beans served at chain Mexican restaurants as well as an essential ingredient of Complementary Pie, the signature dish from Frances Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet, the official post-hippie, pre-locavore cookbook.

Then in 1980 I was part of a film crew that traveled to the archaeological site at the Mayan ruins of Copan in western Honduras to make a documentary of the dig. As anyone who's ever taken an introductory course in Anthropology knows, there are many theories about the decline of the Maya civilization including war, overpopulation, peasant uprising, and the decline of trade. More recently the theories have focused on environmental factors like disease, climate change and mismanagement of land. The director of the dig we were shooting claimed that to satisfy the ruling class's desire for more wealth the good agricultural land was used for cash crops -- cacao in the Mayan era -- forcing subsistence farming into the hills where the yield was not enough to support the masses, leading to malnutrition, disease, and a steep decline in the population.

Our job as filmmakers was to illustrate this theory, a job made easy by the fact that, as the director pointed out, the same conditions existed then as in the Mayan period. The population was rising, the good agricultural land was being used for tobacco, and much of the local population was growing subsistence crops in whatever little patches of arable land they could find. We loaded into a pickup truck and bounced into the hills along the Guatemalan border to film the process. First we shot a couple of men scaling the steep slopes planting wherever they could by poking a hole in the ground with a long stick, dropping in a seed, then tamping the soil with a foot. Then we found a father and his two small boys harvesting their plot of beans by hand, bending over to pull up the plants with the dried beanpods attached. From there we filmed a man threshing the beans, and then wind winnowing, all by hand.

It gradually dawned on me during the day that these were black beans, much smaller than kidney beans, dark and beautiful. I learned that these are the preferred beans of this area of western Honduras and of Guatemala. And I learned, as I ate them for lunch made by the local women who cooked for the archaeologists, that they are delicious. From that point forward I've loved black beans, of course because of the taste, but more because of seeing those beautiful descendants of the Maya eke out a simple living in a most beautiful place. To this day I feel privileged to have been allowed into their world, and to record a way of life that may, for all I know, be long gone.

Black Bean Chili

3 cups black turtle beans
2 bay leaves
2 large onions, quartered and thinly sliced
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbsp corn oil
1 ancho chili
1 Tbsp ground cumin
1Tbsp oregano
1 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1 1/2 tsp Hungarian paprika
1/4 to 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 to 1 tsp chipotle chili in adobo sauce
1 26 oz box of chopped tomatoes
salt to taste
juice of one lime
1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro

Soak the beans overnight in water to cover. The next day, drain the beans and cover with fresh water. Add the bay leaves, bring to a boil, then turn down heat and simmer until beans are just about tender.

Place ancho chili in 350F oven until it's puffed up. Stem and seed the chili, then tear it into small pieces and grind it in a spice mill. Add to that the cumin, oregano, the paprikas and the cayenne.

While the beans are cooking, saute the onions and garlic in oil until the onions are golden. Add the chili mixture and stir for a few seconds, then add the tomatoes. When the beans are nearly tender, add the tomato mixture to the pot. Add the chipotle. Simmer for a while until the beans are fully cooked, then add salt to taste, lime juice and cilantro.

I like to make this chili a day or two ahead because it really improves with time. Serve garnished with any combination of cheese, more cilantro, chopped egg, green onions, sour cream or anything else you can think of.

We ate the chili with quesadillas. It's a stick-to-your-ribs meal for cold and snowy weather, which is what we've got here now.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Turkey at the Wall

Back in the 1980s my son Drew and I spent some time in West Berlin. We lived in the Internationales Begegnungszentrum in Wilmersdorf and Drew went to the John F. Kennedy School.

Germany is not so different from America, but living behind the Wall we were constantly reminded of WWII and the cold war, from the lines of tanks rumbling down the street in front of Drew's school to the guards armed with machine guns in the center of town. Both sides of the city were still rebuilding forty years after the end of the war and even in the West there were areas that had not yet been scrubbed of the evidence of the Battle of Berlin.

Berlin, like London, is a collection of small villages that were gradually knitted together, with the districts retaining their unique character and atmosphere. We especially liked Kreuzberg, a working class neighborhood along the Wall where the buildings were still pockmarked with bullet holes and the population was more immigrant, more radical, more punk.

At the time we lived there Berlin was the second largest Turkish city in the world, right after Istanbul. Our favorite destination in Kreuzberg was the Turkish Market, a lively, exotic mashup of German and Turkish culture on Maybachufer. The market offers everything from socks and yard goods to spices and produce, and we bought olives, feta, hot peppers, chick peas, tahini, grape leaves and all the other ingredients for the Turkish and Lebanese food that we love so much, including delicious fresh, soft pita bread.
Because of the large Turkish population, döner kebab and falafel have joined the ubiquitous currywust as favorite Berlin fast  foods. We had a falafel shop right on the corner and we'd send Drew down the street to pick up the delicious sandwiches -- warm, fragrant pita filled with crispy falafel patties, lettuce and onions, and dressed with a creamy tahini sauce.

I'll never be able to make falafel as good as what we got at the corner shop, mostly because the pita available to us here in Pittsburgh is the same dry cardboardy imitation pita that's sold in every grocery store. But making homemade falafel definitely beats the mixes you can buy in grocery and health food stores and it's not hard to do. You just have to think ahead.


2 cups dry chick peas, soaked in water to cover for 24 hours

Drain soaked chick peas and put in food processor with:
1 large onion, cut in chunks
1/2 cup fresh parsley
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
2 tsp. salt
2-4 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
1/4 tsp cayenne

Pulse until the chick peas are coarsely ground and everything is mixed, but don't overprocess. You want the mixture to be somewhat crunchy. If you grind the beans too much you end up with a mushy texture and you might as well have bought the mix.

Turn into a bowl and stir in:
2 Tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp. baking powder
about 1/3 cup flour
black pepper

Stir until well mixed, then squeeze a handful and see if it holds together. If not, add a little more flour. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours.

Heat a couple of inches of oil in a wok or deep fryer. Falafel comes in all shapes and sizes from round balls to patties. I use about 1/4 cup of the mixture and form it into a flattened ball, kind of a small rounded puck.

Fry in oil, turning once, until a deep mahogany color. Drain on paper towels.

Wrap pita in a clean dishtowel and microwave for 30-60 seconds, just until softened and fragrant. Cut pita in half. Fill each half with as many falafel as you want, depending on the size of your pita and falafel. Add sliced tomatoes, lettuce and onions and tahini sauce (tahini, lemon juice, crushed and minced garlic, salt, thinned to taste with water) or for a lighter sandwich, yogurt sauce (yogurt, lemon juice, cilantro, crushed and minced garlic, salt.)