Sunday, November 29, 2015

Post-Thanksgiving Pumpkin Pie Muffins

After two years in Niger and another two in Jerusalem, I am back in the States for the next couple of years. It isn't 2016, yet, but I figure that major transitions in your life are good points at which to make new resolutions. Keeping up with this blog is one of mine for this domestic tour!

My diet and cooking habits change with each of my "homes." I try to only use what I can find in the stores wherever I am living. The U.S. has an amazing variety of ingredients, so I'm happy that I'll be able to keep up those culinary habits I picked up in Jerusalem, Niger, Morocco, and Japan.

Speaking of being thankful, we just celebrated our first Thanksgiving back in the States in five years. While I always celebrate my holidays wherever I am, there is something super special about being able to celebrate them in your homeland. For starters, my neighbors didn't look at me quizzically when I said "Happy Thanksgiving!"

I haven't hosted Thanksgiving in a long time. I had almost forgotten that the leftovers from your Thanksgiving feast are just as delicious and fun to prepare as the main event itself. On Friday, I made a nice batch of broth from the turkey carcass, giblets, neck, and vegetable scraps from side dish preparations. I measured it out into mason jars and froze it for later use. On Saturday I made a southwestern inspired turkey hash. And, today - Sunday - I am making pumpkin pie muffins.

My new house smells awesome.

This recipe is adapted from Ellie Krieger's The Food You Crave: Luscious Recipes for a Healthy Life. I've used it in Niger and Jerusalem, so I am pretty certain that you can make these muffins almost anywhere in the world. In Niger, I would buy chunks of fresh pumpkin at the market and cook it down until it was soft enough to use. You can substitute honey or maple syrup for the molasses. If you don't have all of the spices, just omit the one you don't have and increase the others a little. I imagine you could use minced candied or dried ginger if you don't have ground ginger. Nutmeg could be substituted with more clove, cinnamon, or allspice.

1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup whole-grain pastry flour or whole-wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 cups firmly packed brown sugar
3 tablespoons unsulfured molasses (or honey or maple syrup)
1/4 cup canola oil (or olive oil)
2 large eggs
1 cup solid-packed pumpkin
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup buttermilk (or measure out 3/4 milk squeeze in a little lemon and allow it to sour for while you prep the other ingredients)
1/4 cup unsalted raw pumpkin seeds (If you're industrious, you would have seeds saved from Halloween pumpkin carving. I'm not, so I used pecan halves. You can omit the nuts if you want. They're just for decoration).

Preheat the oven to 400F/205C. Grease a muffin pan with room-temperature butter or oil.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, baking soda, salt, and spices.

In a large bowl, combine the sugar, molasses, oil, and one of the eggs. Add the other egg and whisk well. Stir in the pumpkin and vanilla.

Alternate stirring in half of the flour, then half of the buttermilk, then the remaining flour, and finally the rest of the buttermilk.

Pour the batter into the greased muffin tin and bake for about 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean.

Once they're done, let the muffins cool on a wire rack for about 5 to 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the muffins to pop them out of the tin.

You can keep these in a sealed container for about 3 days in the refrigerator or 3 months in the freezer.


Friday, December 5, 2014

From the Sahel to... the Holy Land!

It's been a long time since my last post. But, I have an excuse. My husband, dog, and I packed up and moved away from Niger. We spent the better part of a year studying Hebrew and Arabic, and the last year getting to know our new home...


Now, I'm sure you are wondering why on earth it has taken me so long to come up with something to write about as the food in Jerusalem is amazingly varied, delicious, and famous. There are numerous cookbooks highlighting recipes from this region, like Yottam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's Jerusalem.

Well, that is exactly the problem. For someone who loves all kinds of cuisines and whose spice drawer is overflowing with re-purposed jam jars full of cumin, coriander, and za'atar, this place is heaven.

Where to begin?! That has been my conundrum. I've also been distracted by the beautiful scenery and plethora of things to see and do...

Finally, tonight, I've decided to just start with what is cooking in my oven at this very moment.

Yes, the humble stuffed cabbage leaf.

It's not sexy looking, and it certainly doesn't scream Jerusalem. But, it was inspired by the organic veggie box I have been getting weekly for the past six months. Chubeza is a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm located about 36 km west of Jerusalem. Every week, boxes bursting with whatever they have growing in their fields are packed up and ready for pick up or delivery.

Recently, cabbage has been making a regular appearance. Not being a huge fan of cabbage, I've been kind of at a loss for what to do with the cabbage heads waiting patiently in my fridge. So, I turned to Claudia Roden's, The Book of Jewish Food, for inspiration. According to Roden, "Cabbage is the historic Ashkenazi vegetable" (p.161). People in Central and Eastern Europe prepare the leaves in various ways - stuffing them with meat being one of them.

Roden's recipe seemed a little lean to me, and I haven't had much luck baking uncooked rice, as she suggests, in vegetables before. So, I combined her recipe with another one from Extending the Table, a useful little cookbook my mom bought for me before my first move overseas. The resulting dish is surprisingly simple to prepare, light, yet filling, and the perfect combination of savory-meaty flavors that define good comfort food. Enjoy!

Stuffed Cabbage Leaves

12 large leaves from a medium to large head of cabbage
1 medium onion, finely chopped
olive oil
1 lb (500 g) ground beef
1 cup cooked rice
1.5 teaspoons dried rosemary
1.5 teaspoons dried oregano
2 medium eggs, beaten

3 cups finely chopped tomatoes, or 1 can tomato puree
juice of 1 lemon
2 Tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup chicken stock

Remove the core of the cabbage by cutting a deep cone around the stem-end of the head.
Immerse the whole head of cabbage in a large pot of salted, boiling water.
Carefully remove the leaves one at a time as they begin to soften. I did this with two wooden spoons, placing the detached leaves in an empty bowl next to me.
Next, prepare the filling by frying the onion and beef in about a Tablespoon of olive oil.
When the meat begins to brown, season it with salt, pepper, the rosemary, and the oregano.
Remove the meat from the heat and allow it to cool while you prepare the sauce.
Combine the tomatoes, lemon, sugar, and chicken stock in a large bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Once the meat has cooled a little, mix in the eggs and the cooked rice.
To stuff the leaves, lay one cabbage leaf on a plate.
Put approximately 2 rounded Tablespoons of meat mixture on the leaf near the stem end.
Fold the sides over the meat and roll the leaf up creating a little packet.
Place the stuffed cabbage leaf in a rectangular baking dish, seam-side down.
Continue with the rest of the leaves and meat mixture until the baking dish is full.
The stuffed cabbage packets should be packed in fairly tightly.
Next, pour the tomato sauce over the cabbage rolls.
Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and place in a preheated 350F/180C oven.
Bake for about an hour and a half.
I served the stuffed cabbage leaves with polenta and a balsamic and oil dressed salad, prepped by my hubby.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Grasshopper - It's What's for Dinner

"Before you cook them, you have to remove the wings. Like this."

My two friends and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised, before grabbing a grasshopper from the large pile on my dining table. We gingerly pinched off the delicate wings as our teacher, Aishatou, had shown us.

Grasshoppers are a popular snack food in Niamey where you can buy them out of wheelbarrows on the outskirts of Katako Marché. Though they are available year-round, the best time to eat the insect is during the rainy season, when they feast on green shoots breaking through the soil.

"Do you eat grasshoppers often?" inquired one of my friends as we continued to de-wing our dinner.

"Oh all the time! But you, you shouldn't eat too many. You're not used to them, so you might get a stomach ache," replied our teacher.

I wondered to myself if "grasshopper belly" couldn't be attributed to the use of insecticides. Each year, swarms of locusts (the migratory phase of grasshoppers) come down from Algeria and Libya in the North. Typically, the size of these swarms is kept in check by the use of pesticides. However, a representative from the Centre national de lutte antiacridienne (National Center for Locust Control) assured me that it is not these locusts that are gathered for consumption.

The grasshoppers for sale at Katako Marché are brought in almost year-round by villagers who sweep them up very early in the morning when the insects are too cold to move very much. At home, they boil the grasshoppers in a large cauldron full of salt-water. Afterwards, the insects are laid out to dry in the sun before being taken to market.

Once we had a neat pile of grasshopper heads and thoraxes, we moved into the kitchen. Our teacher's recipe involved sautéing the insects with onions, hot peppers, and spices until fragrant and crispy.


"You'll know if the grasshoppers are bad by the way they smell when you fry them," said Aishatou over the loud, spluttery popping sounds coming from the pan. An earthy, piquant smell that stung the inside of my nose filled the kitchen.

"So, do these smell like good ones?" I asked.

"Oh, yes. You bought some very nice ones. The eyes are clear and shiny, and they smell lovely, don't they?"

"They smell like nothing I've ever smelled before," I said laughing.

"Of course! But I'm sure you are going to like these," said our teacher as she piled the well-cooked grasshoppers on a plate for us to share.

I have to admit that the final product looked pretty appetizing - as far as grasshoppers for dinner goes. Aishatou served the browned morsels with fresh tomatoes, onion, and a sprinkling of minced tonkoteo peppers.

Sitting around my dining table, my friends and I each took a warm grasshopper, silently wished each other luck, and popped them in our mouths. I braced myself for a crunchy, then squishy sensation based on a previous experience eating barbequed crickets at my grandmother's house. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how crispy and flavorful the grasshoppers were. It was a lot like eating spice-rubbed Pringles potato chips. They just sort of dissolved into feathery nothingness once you crunched through the brittle body.

Although I can't say that once I leave Niger I will have cravings for sautéed grasshoppers, I do know that if push comes to shove, I'll know how to turn those garden pests into something palatable!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Corsica, France: A WWOOFer's Paradise

Sitting beneath the shade of some old olive trees, munching on freshly made yogurt cake, Anni, the organic farmer I was staying with as a WWOOfer (a volunteer with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) asked me, "So why did you choose Corsica?"

I paused and thought of this scene from the previous week when I was just a plain old tourist careening down narrow roads with my husband in our rented Hyundai:

Corsica is the most mountainous island in the Mediterranean, situated west of Italy and southeast of France. The sapphire blue water of the eleven kilometer Strait of Bonifacio separates it from Sardinia - its Italian cousin to the south. With abundant fresh water, fertile soil, and numerous vantage points across the ocean, the island has been a location worth defending since Mesolithic times. I would argue that its stunning coastal scenery...

...and porky inhabitants might also have something to do with its appeal.

Scenery and food. Those were definitely at the top of our list of reasons to visit Corsica. My husband was mostly interested in discovering the best coastlines for swimming and exploring tide pools... well as tasting Corsica's little-known wines made from indigenous grape varieties like Nielluccio, Sciaccarello, and Vermentino.

Almost lost to industrial wine-making, which did not favor local grapes, these native varieties are making a huge come-back thanks to people like Marc Imbert of Domaine de Torraccia and Elisabeth Quilichini of Castellu di Barrici. These heritage winemakers strive to produce quality wines that reflect the flavors of the strong Mediterranean sun and granite soil of Corsica.

But viticulture and oenology are not the only things going for Corsica, gastronomically speaking. The once self-sufficient island also produces flavorful fruits, vegetables, and nuts - like figs, citron, Swiss chard, and chestnuts - that are transformed into rustic dishes that please the palate and soothe the soul. Pungent but deliciously meaty charcuterie is made from the acorn-fed pigs that roam the island, and shepherds still tend flocks of sheep and goats whose rich milk is turned into flavorful cheeses.

With its abundance of stunning scenery, good food, and twenty different WWOOF farms - ranging from vineyards to cheese-making sheep operations - to choose from, Corsica was the ideal place for me to give WWOOFing a try for the first time.

Anni and Philippe, the owners of L'Ortunlinu - the only certified organic farm in Bonifacio, Corsica - welcomed me into their modest home where I quickly adapted to a routine of:

...weeding rows of plants and clearing fields early in the morning...

...dining on simple lunches showcasing the rich flavors of freshly harvested vegetables from their farm...

...enjoying siestas on the beach in the heat of the afternoon...

...and finishing the day by harvesting produce to sell at Bonifacio's farmer's market or the Ortulinu shop front in town.

Thanks to jovial conversations with Anni, Philippe, and other farmers in the area, I learned a lot about Corsican agriculture and experienced first-hand the pleasures of a different rhythm of life spent outside working with the plants we set on our tables every day without even a thought.

Although a recent Stanford University study shows that there is no nutritional difference between organically and conventionally grown produce, Anni and Philippe have confirmed for me that there is a taste difference (and I suspect an overall health difference). I believe this comes from the absence of pesticides and fertilizers, healthy soil, and the fact that the produce is harvested right before going to market.

After leaving their farm, where I feasted on fresh, sticky-sweet figs for a week...

...the conventional figs I bought while in transit back to Niger just weren't the same.

L'Ortulinu Yogurt Cake

*This recipe uses the 125 gram yogurt cup as a unit of measure. Perfect if you don't have measuring cups around! It is featured in my article: Corsica, France: A WWOOFer's Paradise

3 eggs
150 grams melted butter OR 6 soup spoons of oil
2 yogurt cups of unrefined cane sugar
3 yogurt cups flour (can be all-purpose, whole wheat, or a mix)
1 yogurt cup
1 packet OR 1 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat the oven at 210 C.

In a large bowl, beat together the eggs and sugar with a wire whisk.
Add the melted butter or oil and beat well.
Add the yogurt and continue beating until well incorporated.
Add the flour and baking powder and mix until you have a smooth batter.
Pour the batter into a greased loaf pan.

Lower the oven to 180 C and place the pan on the middle rack.

Bake for roughly 30 minutes. The cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Kopto (Moringa oleifera): One solution to food insecurity and malnutrition in Niger

My travel companion opened a large Tupperware box and a very pungent, earthy-sour smell with a hint of sugar enveloped our old Toyota Land Cruiser. Her lunch consisted of roasted chicken thighs and some type of cooked leafy green. I turned my head away in a vain attempt to lessen the impact of her lunch on my nostrils and looked out at the dry, sandy landscape rolling by my window. Monoculture and deforestation had clearly taken their toll on the environment in this part of southern Niger. Men with handmade hoes were breaking through the parched earth to uproot desiccated millet stalks, piling them onto rickety wooden carts pulled by beleaguered donkeys. It had recently drizzled in this area of the country, so the farmers were preparing to sow their millet fields. If Niger does not receive an adequate amount of rainfall this year and these farmers’ crops die, the country, like many in the Sahel, will have to address a major food crisis. Desertification coupled with one of the highest population growth rates in the world increases Niger’s vulnerability to the consequences of crop failure - poverty, hunger, and malnutrition.

As we bounced along and my nose acclimated to the odors in the car, I realized that I was smelling something familiar. The greens in my companion's lunchbox were kopto, a type of leaf eaten in Niamey especially during the month of Ramadan. In fact, we were on our way to a kopto farm to talk to the women who cultivate it and to learn more about their proposal for packaging and selling their kopto harvests.

In Zarma, kopto means leaves in the general sense but has come to be associated specifically with the leaves from the tree Moringa oleifera. Zarma speakers also call it windibundu while Hausa speakers refer to it as zogala gandi. Moringa trees are native to northern India but are common throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Its ability to thrive in areas with poor soil and low rainfall make it an ideal candidate for fighting against desertification in the Sahel. In addition, its rapid growth rate and highly nutritious leaves and beans present Niger with one compelling solution to chronic issues of malnutrition. Some Nigeriens also believe that this panacea lowers blood sugar levels, making it an ideal food for diabetics.

A niébé field bordered by moringa and papaya trees
The farm we visited was lush and green, unlike the fields we passed to get to our destination. Moringa trees were growing along the edges to demarcate each plot and serve as a windbreak for other crops such as sorgho (sorghum), millet, and niébé (black-eyed peas). In return for their protection, the Moringa trees benefit from the weeding, fertilization, and irrigation of the other crops. The multiple harvests provided by the quick-growing leaves ensure that the farmers have a source of income and food when the other crops are not producing. One of the few drawbacks to this plant is the fact that it requires irrigation in the first months of its life until it becomes established and can survive on sparse rainfall alone.

After showing us their fields, the women took us to see their homes where they dried the Moringa leaves on their roofs. They explained to us that this situation is not ideal because the leaves lose nutrients when exposed to sunlight. In addition, they lacked proper storage and packaging facilities, so the dried leaves were kept piled-up on the dirt floors of their one-room huts until market day. Before leaving the village, one of the women gave me some freshly cooked moringa leaves in an effort to convert me. Although I love the kopto dish associated with Ramadan, I decided to try making a wheat-berry salad with the leaves. It has become a regular side dish at meals in my home, but it could easily be a light lunch since the wheat-berries are filling and the kopto is a good source of vitamins A and C, calcium, potassium, and protein.

Granaries along the road.
Crop diversity projects, like the women’s kopto cooperative I visited, benefit rural farmers who are most likely to be affected in a food crisis. By moving away from monocultures, promoting reforestation, and looking to alternative sources of food, farmers can begin to reverse the effects of desertification and improve their resiliency in times of low grain production. Organizations, like the Eden Foundation, are researching which native perennials can be planted amongst annual crops to improve soil fertility, discourage topsoil loss, and most importantly, diversify nutrition for the people. This focus on native plants addresses the issue of irrigation, a technology that is not available to everyone. Other initiatives that are working to better nutrition and food security in Niger are:

Helen Keller International: educating families about infant and young child feeding to reduce malnutrition and give children a better start in life

Africare - Niger: multiple projects addressing issues such as food security, good governance, education, and management of natural resources 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

West African Wheat Berry Salad with Kopto

This original recipe using local ingredients from my home in Niger is featured in my article, Kopto (Moringa oleifera): One solution to food insecurity and malnutrition in Niger.

1 cup wheat berries (available at Marina Market in Niamey, le blé dur in French)
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup to 1 cup cooked kopto, rinsed well (available pre-cooked in markets throughout Niamey)
1/2 cup peanuts
1/2 cup raisins
1 teaspoon ground cumin
salt and pepper to taste

Put the wheat berries in a medium saucepan and cover with about two inches of water. Bring the pot to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat and allow the berries to simmer until tender (about 30 minutes).

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a pan and add the onions. Stir frequently until soft (about 5 minutes over high heat). Reduce heat to medium. Add the cooked kopto, raisins, peanuts, cumin, salt, and pepper. Cook a few minutes more until the mixture is fragrant and glossy. Remove from the heat.

Drain the wheat berries and add them to the kopto mixture. Stir well to thoroughly combine the ingredients. You may want to add more peanuts or raisins. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Serve hot, room temperature, or cold.