Sunday, February 14, 2016

Random Recipes 15.06

Today's experiment - Ethiopian food

There was once a restaurant in Berkeley that I went to for years as a child.  It was an amazing Ethiopian restaurant, and it was called "The Blue Nile."  Critics might say it was not perfectly authentic, but you know what?  For two kids (my sister being autistic and very picky about her food) who have sensitive palates, somehow we gobbled it up every time.  Their injera (flat foamy bread used to pick up food) was so delicious my sister and I would basically just eat it by itself.  It wasn't as hard, dark, or sourdough-y as all the other injeras I have tried since.  Their chicken was yellowish and buttery, their beef was in a dark red-brown sauce, they had buttery spiced carrots, and a couple other curries and lentil dishes that I can't recall perfectly.  When people asked me what kind of food I like, I would answer, "Japanese and Ethiopian" and they would usually answer with something stupid like, "What?  They have food in Ethiopia?" and I'd glare at them and sigh.  I don't particularly like Italian food (blame the pastas I had as a child...), Mexican food (hot stuff - meh), or Chinese (except dim sum).  

At any rate, that restaurant has closed and I have not eaten food similar to it for about ten years.  I desperately wanted to share it with my (now) husband, but even when he was at Berkeley eight years ago, it had closed.  Hard to believe it has been so long.  I have tried a couple places, but never found quite the same flavors and definitely never found the same injera.  I suspect they used some variation without Teff (the standard grain of Ethiopia used for injera).

Finally, I bit the bullet and decided to attempt it.  Injera, I'd been told by several Ethiopians, is actually quite challenging to make.  I didn't doubt that, so I put this off for longer partly due to that.  After all, without the injera, you might as well make curries.  The following recipes were ones I used - Beef Wot (Zilbo, but not dried)Chicken Alicha, and African Roasted Carrots. I know Doro Wat Chicken is THE dish of Ethiopia, but the chicken I remembered getting frequently was yellow, not the brownish red of Berbere spices, which I'll get to in a minute.  Perhaps in the future I'll try Doro Wat Chicken, but not at this moment. 

The other cornerstone of Ethiopian cuisine is Berbere, their blend of spices.  It is to Ethiopian food what "Cajun blend" is to Cajun food, or barbecue sauce is to Texan grilled meats.  It requires several spices that we can't quite find here in the US, or at least not easily, so I approximated it as best I could.  This website was helpful in differentiating berbere from mekelesha, a 'finishing' spice.  The blend (though there is a lot of variation) tends to include paprika (sweet Hungarian), paprika (Spanish), chili pepper, ajwain, dried basil, cardamom (Ethiopian or black), fenugreek, ginger (powdered), and black cumin (nigella).  Mekelesha is a sweeter blend, as seen on the website.

Another new thing I learned about Ethiopian cuisine is that it is often finished in the last 5 minutes or so with Ethiopian spiced butter, which contains the spices koseret (closest sub I could find was marjoram), korerima (black cardamom being a next best equivalent), tumeric, and ginger.  In my cooking, I didn't exactly make it spiced butter, I added the spices and the butter at the same time near the end - effectively it's somewhat close and saves on the work.  In the future perhaps I'll make the butter as shown here.  

Here's a picture of most everything in progress - the beef takes the longest time, so I started it first and worked on the other items while it simmered.

Here is the injera - it looks good from this angle, but I did run into a problem with the batter - it was plenty bubbly, and I used a Teff-free version, but it was too thick - as a result, I didn't want the one side getting overly cooked but the top stayed somewhat raw and didn't have the best 'eye' (holes) distribution.  The texture was legit, but the rest... leaves a lot to be desired.  It also wasn't as savory as it could have been.  Perhaps just using a different blend of flours and adding a little sourdough would be better.  

Ultimately, the food came out fairly well - the flavors were Ethiopian, the chicken was nearly the same as I remembered, the beef - similar, but not slow cooked quite enough, and the carrots were slightly different, I think due to the absence of butter.  Next time, adding butter.  

Overall, it came out better than expected, despite the injera not quite working out as well.  It'll take a little trial and error.  Overall, pretty delicious, and will consider making again.  Kit gave his verdict as well, as essentially the same and approving of the spice blends, just wishing the injera were better.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Gardening 21.01

After waiting for quite a while, I finally went out and got myself some berry plants.  I've always loved the wild blackberries that grow around California, but the store-bought ones never measure up.  I now know that the wild ones I like are Himalayan Blackberries, and are an extremely invasive species.  Anyhow, I went to a small nursery in Davis, Redwood Barn Nursery, and found myself a Thornless Triple Crown Blackberry plant, and a Thornless Boysenberry plant.  The place was fairly helpful and laid out what I need to do to keep these plants alive and productive for years to come.  They also had tons of empty plastic buckets in the back that they give away for planting!  

I'm going to take pictures periodically to monitor growth - here's how they're starting out!  I don't have much of a green thumb, but I am committed to making these work!

The plants I bought are bare root stock, so there's the roots and a couple sticks, but essentially no leaves.  The basics - plant them in a good soil, the inherent fertilizer/nutrients in the soil last about one year.  After that time, supplement with a helping of special fertilizer / plant food per directions on the bag you choose.  It was recommended I get the citrus mix, and based on watering directions I found online, the first 3 weeks after planting root stock, you don't want the soil to get dry at the top.  After a bit, you can start watering on a weekly basis, about an inch of water.  They need the first six inches (approximately) to be moist.  Watering more frequently may be needed as the plants are starting to produce.  I will need to investigate trellising at some point.  Also, once a shoot produces fruit, it will not produce any fruit the subsequent year and it is best to remove it then and there after harvesting.  I may mark these with little tapes so I can wait until the plant has finished the full season for sure, but we shall see.  It should be pruned right at the base.  

This page has some useful information about the plants!  

By comparison, here's my Trader Joe's-bought mint plant - honestly, I'm kind of disappointed in the quality of the leaves, maybe it's just not the right species or it needs a larger planter.  The biggest problem was the terrible insect infestation when I bought it - moral of the story: never buy plants from Trader Joe's, or actually any others that just let their plants sit out.  Also don't over water... that leaves the soil moist enough for insects to breed and grow.  Since with mint I'm growing it specifically to use the leaves, I tried to find a non-toxic solution for the insect epidemic, in my case: white flies.  The best one I found, which also helped with mold, was spices.  Cinnamon worked great, and when I ran out of that I actually switched to Curry Powder, but it seems to make the top layer of soil somewhat resistant to molds and insect larvae.  I just pull the leaves aside and layer it on the top of the soil everywhere.  Full disclosure: this planter once contained marjoram and thyme as well, but those died.  I think it was when I left it without water for too long on a vacation... and mold and insects.  In any case, I'm now being more regular about supplementing with plant food every 3 months or so, and carefully monitoring soil moisture to prevent over-watering.  Mint is pretty hardy, so I'll keep at it and see what comes of it!  And yes I need to prune it, I know...I'll get some rum and make mojitos.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Imbolc Trial Run! 20.02

In celebration of the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, we had our first Imbolc feast.  The celebration traditionally involves sheep milk, cheeses, yogurts, and seeds.  Imbolc time tends to coincide with the birth of lambs, and male lambs were often slaughtered as they were not as valuable as the females.  That provided a nice feast in the wintertime.  Candles are lit, people make guesses about how long winter will last, a la Groundhog Day, and in pagan circles, Brigid is worshipped.  Brigid was originally a celtic, pagan goddess but the celebration was combined with the celebration of Saint Brigid of Catholic lore to better convert pagans, of course.  There are other traditions involving goddess worship, but we didn't particularly delve into that ourselves - plenty more information about that here.

In terms of our feast, we started with a cheese plate of sheep cheese, along with some mead - probably a bit sweet for the pairing, but was enjoyable for me anyhow.  I hadn't had mead for a while.

While we ate, some lamb shanks were slowly cooking in the ceramic pot on the stove

And finishing with some moist poppyseed cake

We made some weather predictions as well - specifically for Davis, CA.  Temperature ranges are in Fahrenheit - so we shall see!  I'm thinking it'll be more winter-y for the next month, Kit was planning on it being more spring-y.