Thursday, April 28, 2011

Mango Sorbet for a Hot Day

It's mango season in Niger! The capital is overflowing with the large, warmly-colored fruit which grows well all over West Africa.

As you drive down the dusty roads, you can stop and buy a kilo or two from the young men who push neatly stacked piles of mangoes in wheelbarrows up and down the streets.

But if you have your own mango tree, you are truly lucky because their branches are heavy with the sticky, sweet fruit right now.

These Nigerien mangoes are smaller than their cousins in Benin and Togo, but they are no less delicious. Their only drawback is the large amount of fibrous threads embedded in the flesh. However, if you are going to make mango sorbet, these threads won't bother you a bit! This week, Paulina and I experimented with some local mangoes plucked from the branches of a neighbor's tree. We used the "Soft-Fruit Sorbet" recipe from How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman. While he suggests using an ice cream maker, we relied on patience and old-fashioned arm power.

Mango Sorbet

1 1/2 cups mango, peeled and seeded
1 cup milk
1 cup powdered sugar, or to taste
1 Tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice

  • Purée the mangoes in a blender.
  • Strain the fruit through a fine sieve or strainer to separate the fibers from the pulp. You may need to press it through the sieve with a spoon.
  • In a medium-sized bowl, combine the milk, sugar, and 1 1/2 cups of the strained mango pulp. Stir well to dissolve the sugar.
  • Put the bowl in the freezer and stir the contents every 20 minutes for the next 2 hours. This prevents it from freezing into a hard block of ice.
  • The sorbet is best eaten fresh when the mixture has frozen to the right consistency (I don't know how you like your sorbet, but I like it when it is a nice, firm slush that can hold its shape). Once the sorbet has formed, you can also keep it in the freezer until you are ready to eat. Just leave it at room temperature for a minute or two until it is soft enough to scoop out into bowls.

Monday, April 25, 2011

West African Peanut Sauce

2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cubed
1/4 teaspoon black pepper (or to taste)
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
4 small tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
4 Tablespoons peanut paste*
1 good bunch of oseille leaves, discard stems (or spinach)
1 green bell pepper, quartered
4 hot peppers (in Niger, we use the little tonkoté peppers, but any hot pepper will do)
4 shallots, cubed (substitute 1 onion)
1/4 Maggi cube

- Put the chicken in a medium-sized pot and barely cover it with water. Add the black pepper, salt, 2 cloves of minced garlic, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Once it reaches a boil, remove the chicken and water from the pot and set aside in a bowl. Do not discard the water!

- Lower the stovetop temperature to medium low. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, peanut paste, minced garlic, and 1/2 liter of water to the empty pot and stir well to combine. Bring this mixture to a boil, stirring periodically to prevent burning. Continue boiling until the oil begins to separate and you can see it pooling on the top of the sauce.

- In the meantime, cover the leaves with boiling water in a medium-sized bowl. This brings out the flavor. Set aside until you are ready to use them.

- Once the oil has separated from the sauce, pour the chicken water through a sieve into the sauce and add the chicken cubes.

- Strain the leaves and squeeze out any excess water.

- Add about 1/3 liter of water, onions, bell pepper, hot pepper, leaves, and Maggi cube to the sauce. Bring to a boil and cook for several minutes, or until thickened.

- Serve with rice or couscous.

*Western style peanut butter is too sweet, try the freshly ground peanut butter from Whole Foods.

A Little Maggi in My Life

When I was an ESL teacher at an international school in Japan, I always tried to work food into the curriculum. Procedural writing was an obvious outlet for combining my culinary interests with curricular demands. Each year, my students would pester their parents to show them how to make their favorite dish so that we could put together a class cookbook. One year, I had an Indian student who was having trouble deciding exactly what he wanted to write about. So, kneeling next to his desk, I asked him to close his eyes and think about what he would like to eat right then, at that very moment. It could be anything- birthday cake, curry rice, daal…My little third grade student opened his eyes and said very seriously, “Ma’am, I like Maggi Noodles.”
At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. But since he said it with such intensity and desire, I was not going to bog him down with too many questions. I gave him the OK and sent him on his way to ask his mother about her Maggi Noodle recipe. When our procedural writing unit was complete and the cookbook assembled, we had a class party. Everyone brought the dish they wrote about and we enjoyed sampling the different cuisines represented by our class. There was kimbap from Korea, yakisoba from Japan, and of course, Maggi Noodles from India. My Indian student proudly walked around the room with his plastic Tupperware box full of yellow, crimped noodles and served each of his classmates a healthy portion of the chicken-bouillon flavored Indian cousin to Kraft mac-n-cheese.
I never really thought about Maggi Noodles again until my arrival in Niger. When I drove up to the petit marché for the first time, I was greeted by a very large red and yellow billboard proclaiming, “With MAGGI, every Woman is a Star. Welcome to the Petit Marché!”
I couldn’t help but hear my Indian student saying to me, “Ma’am, I like Maggi Noodles.” His serious little voice pops into my head a lot these days, as Niamey is covered with Maggi advertising.
There are little street-side restaurants endorsing Maggi,
men with Maggi aprons,
Maggi BBQ,
festive Maggi banners,
and, of course, Maggi umbrellas to protect patrons, vendors, and products from the hot sahelian sun.

The Nestlé brand has successfully worked its way into the Nigerien kitchen, including mine. Maybe it is their team of industrious representatives like Bintou, “restaurant owner, mother, star,” who fuel our desire to be the successful, modern woman of the 21st century. Or, maybe, it’s just that we all crave that extra special “umami” taste that the iodine and MSG laden cubes add to our cooking.

Whatever the case may be, Maggi is a key ingredient in many West African sauces. If you’d like to sample some of the “umami” boosting power of Maggi, give Paulina’s Peanut Sauce or Tomato Sauce recipes a try. Both of these can be served on top of plain white rice or socoro. If you are not comfortable with the idea of adding MSG to your food, you can always omit the Maggi cube and play around with the recipe by adding a little homemade chicken stock and increasing the amount of salt and pepper. Just remember to "cook with joy!"