SAVEUR.com's Sites We Love Saveur Magazine has listed The Skinny Gourmet among its "Sites We Love"

I've been having a great time checking out Nashville's high end dining on the cheap thanks to Groupon. Have you tried it yet? Its awesome. I don't know why I ever hesitated.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Food for Thought: Wrap Up

All of the time I have spent living in Africa over the past few years has given me a special appreciation for those things that tie you to memories of home. So this January I decided to dedicate myself to recipes that were vehicles for memory. I was having a pretty good time at this myself, so I invited some other bloggers out there to join me and submit the recipe that made them feel nostalgic.

I want to thank those who participated for your delicious looking recipes, as well as for the thoughtful and beautifully written stories of the memories they evoked. Thanks also to those who wrote to say how much they enjoyed this opportunity to eat their way down memory lane.

Val at More Than Burnt Toast describes how much she lovesdolmades, Greek stuffed grape leaves. They remind her of times with friends past, but I also love how she uses the taste of the dolmades to transport her forward in time to a dreamy anticipated trip to Greece. Her post tugged at my heart-strings, because my Armenian grandmother always made Armenian-style dolmas in huge batches after my great-uncle harvested the grape leaves he grew in his yard. Val's entry made me feel a little nostalgic myself!





NĂºria from Barcelona submitted the savory Cargol treu banya - Snail show me your horns a dish of snail, garlic and mint on her blog Spanish Recipes. Nuria remembers hunting for snails with her younger brother after a heavy rain, and the heavenly scent of her mother cooking the snails in the kitchen. She even includes and adorable photo of her and her brother as children, as well as an audio file of her singing (in Catalan) the song for which this dish is named.





Manuela from Bakinghistory submitted a mouthwatering Crostata di Marmellata (Jam Tart) that takes her back to her earliest memories of learning to cook with her mother. The recipe dates back to 1891, and is full of home and hearth baking before the days of premade refrigerated pie crusts. Her entry definitely made me wish I had an oven here in Ghana to make this tart with some of the tropical fruits here.





Susan from Sticky, Gooey, Creamy, Chewy submitted Pasta e Fagiola. She shares an absolutely beautifully written remembrance of her Italian grandparents and learning about gardening in her gentle grandfather's urban garden. She tops this homey Italian dish with "wish flowers" in honor of her grandfather. Curious about wish flowers? check her recipe out for more info.





Christy from Balance wrote about a lemon pudding cake. Christy's mother mailed her a few recipes from her childhood, and Christy discovered the amazing magic of intense lemon can be experienced quite differently as an adult. Her childhood recipe uses a meringue base to produce a cake that sounds delightfully light. I'm a big fan of lemon, so this recipe had me drooling.





Kellypea, of Sass & Veracity, writes from southern California about her decision to rediscover a childhood comfort food. I smiled as I read her post, because it reminded me of my childhood too: she describe a mother who worked hard and long to provide for her kids, and how that sometimes translated into food that was quick, inexpensive and filling. She embraces her childhood by returning to try her own, home-made take on the Swanson Pot Pies of her youth: Skillet Steak Pie.





Jen from Milk and Cookies wrote about her experience learning to make a childhood sweet, the Polvoron, from scratch. She describes polvorones as "a Filipino sweet that is somewhat like a toasted wheat cake that consists of flour, powdered milk, sugar and melted butter, and is compressed into a cake using a polvoron press." Like Kellypea, her post describes trying for the first time to make for herself something that was a purchased food from childhood. Her photos are sublime, documenting the steps involved in creating these tasty little treats. She uses a special press for making the polvorones, but she tells me that if you are feeling industrious, and you don't have access to the special equipment, you can certainly try to press them in whatever you have handy.





Kaykat, from Cooking From A to Z, wrote about a nostalgic comfort food that reminds her of growing up in Chennai, India. Thayir Saadam (Curd Rice). This dish combines home made yogurt curd with some carb-induced comfort to whip up a dish that is both hip and homey. The pomegranate garnish adds a great sparkle of color to the presentation.





Psychgrad from Equal Opportunity Kitchen submits a funny story about the ups and downs of making lasagne, which is one of her favorite comfort foods. She writes openly and honestly about learning to cook, and the bumps in the road en route to making a mouth-watering lasagne. In the end, she presents a unique recipe that smothers mushrooms spinach artichoke and tuna in three kinds of cheese, and tops it off with a ragu sauce. You can practically taste the steamy, melty goodness in every photo.





Deeba from Passionate About Baking... & beyond sent in a mouthwatering
Simple Home-style Lamb Curry. Deeba opens the post with the insightful quote from Lin Yutang, "What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?" I think this observation summarizes well what nearly everyone who posted experienced: the profound sense that the most dearly held food memories are those from our childhood. This dish reminds Deeba, now writing from North India, of her mother's masterful cooking. As a fan of Indian food myself, I fully intend to try this savory delight as soon as I can get my hands on all those spices!





My good friend Julie from Happy Mouth Experience wrote about Peanut Butter Balls. Although each of the women in her family had a slightly different way of making these bundles of tasty goodness, these peanut butter balls were the one infallible tradition that her family kept year-in and year-out. These are a delightful Midwestern treat. Folks from Ohio call them Buck-eye balls, but in Wisconsin (where Julie and I are both from) we mostly call them Bucky balls. Because we have a rivalry with folks from Ohio, and because the University of Wisconsin Madison mascot is Bucky the badger.

It must be said that when I lived in Ghana by myself for nearly ten months in 2003, Julie and her husband Jeremy were almost single-handedly responsible for keeping me feeling fed and loved.




Krissy from I think I have a recipe for that... wrote about Chili Mussels. She doesn't include a photo, but she writes a vivid picture with her words. I particularly love the way everything about the experience becomes part of the "recipe" from the salty breeze, to the depth of the river, to the generosity of a good friend with a backyard and a barbecue.



Want to see my own month-long contribution to food nostalgia? Check out:

Thanks to everyone who participated for sharing your memories and you recipes! I hope you enjoy.

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Caramel Popcorn Balls

As the holidays in Accra drew near, I found myself fixating on the idea of making popcorn balls. And so I began my nearly anthropological foray into the weird and wonderful world of strategically heating sugar. As a novice sugar-heater I learned to decode (perhaps a bit too late) the secret language of expert sugar-heaters. I develop techniques for shaping popcorn balls (again, perhaps a tad too late) that don’t burn the heck out of my hands. Ultimately, this is a post in which the recipe is just the centerpiece, memories of my Great-Grandmother set the stage, and the process had me alternately cursing and giggling. All in search of that crunchy sweet food nostalgia.



I have been thinking a lot lately about food nostalgia, in no small part because I have just spent the holiday season thousands of miles from home and family. When my husband and I decided to try to create a familiar sense of the holidays here in Accra, the first thing we both turned to was the food. Particular dishes are emblematic of the holidays. Terry fondly remembers his mother’s roasted red pepper soup with sambuca cream followed by a hearty roast. I have fond attachments to a patchwork of foods: gherkins and deviled eggs at my Grandma Pfingsten’s house on Christmas eve, my mother’s cinnamon rolls hot on Christmas morning, my Grandma Dottie’s mostacholi with Christmas dinner, Great-Aunt Joan’s pecan crescent cookies for dessert. But in particular, I remember my Great-Grandma Richter always brought two things to Christmas gatherings: a two pound bag of peel-and-eat shrimp and a brown grocery bag full of red and green popcorn balls.


My Great Grandma
My Great-Grandma Richter was sweet and gentle in a way that always left the inescapable sense of sass buried just below the surface. I wish I had a photo of her, it was written all over her face. I remember she was once in a photo in our local paper for a story about senior activities. She was playing cards with three other ladies, and in the full color news photo she is captured quite clearly sneaking a peek at her opponent’s hand of cards.

She was fiercely independent, as though living through the Great Depression had forever endowed her with a commitment to be on the side of the helping, rather than the helped. Even when her fingers were arthritic, she knitted continually; she simply downgraded from full sized afghans to small lap blankets for other seniors at the nursing home. Until the day her health finally forced her to give up her little bungalow home, she mowed the small lawn with a manual rotary lawn-mower rather than a gas one. She had a full cloud of white hair, always set with a permanent wave. She had an endless array of pants, which were all ultimately exactly the same but for the specific color or pattern. Her pants were always some synthetic blend, always high on her hips, with straight trouser legs that were cuffed just above her sensible beige orthopedic shoes. The trousers had a seam permanently sewn down the front of each pant leg, as though pressing a seam in with the iron was simply not enough.

She would often press her teeth into her lower lip and quickly suck air in short bursts, producing a characteristic sound. That was her signature move, and from time to time I catch myself doing the same thing when I get lost in thought and am trying to sort something out. I also have a particular affinity for wearing old fashioned trousers in unusual plaid or hound sooth patterns.

The other thing I inherited from my Great-Gram Richter was her sense of cooking by feel. My mother and grandmother both cook religiously by recipes. More often than not, I prefer to get into the kitchen and muck about with one part experience, one part forethought, and one part luck. Like my Great-Grandma, I have cultivated an uncanny sense of pinches and dashes and other such unspecified quantities. Unfortunately, I was too young to really learn from her experienced cooking before she died. All I was left with were the sensory impressions of what her characteristic food looked, smelled, and tasted like.

Every fall she canned delicious home-made cinnamon applesauce. I have never perfectly replicated that taste. For the holidays, she always came with a two-pound bag of peel-and-eat shrimp, and a large brown grocery bag full of red and green popcorn balls.

Recipe Search
Most of my Great Grandma Richter’s recipes did not survive her. She was someone who cooks by feel. Her ingredient list would contain “just enough apples” and the directions would tell you to stir “until they are right.” In other words, she didn’t have recipes a novice would understand, and certainly not a novice who was attached to the idea of measurements or precise directions. We have, thankfully, her old fashioned cranberry sauce, which I am sure I will trot out on this site in honor of some Thanksgiving in the future. But this didn’t help me with the popcorn balls.

So naturally I began poking around the internet in search of something that seemed right. Many of the recipes were actually for caramel corn balls, although few of them mentioned caramel directly. I could just tell from the inclusion of the butter in the ingredient list. After five or six recipes I was starting to see a solid pattern, but there was just one big problem. One hurdle between me and the recreation of a fond Christmas wish: almost all the recipes used corn syrup. It turns out that despite all my diligence, I could not find a bottle of corn syrup anywhere in Accra. It is just not used in any of the cuisines that are often made here. But I found one recipe using honey, and that seemed darn promising.

Although my Great-Grandma’s popcorn balls were not caramel corn (because I remember them being light pink and green, not caramel brown), I decided that it might not hurt to tweak tradition a little. Because caramel corn was sounding incredibly tasty right then, and was sort of stoking a little longing for my home and Chicago-style popcorn. Ultimately then, this recipe became a fusion of longing for Christmases past, with my Great Grandma, and present, in Chicago. Of course, to be fully faithful to my beloved Chicago-style popcorn, I would have had to dip the caramel corn into cheese. Mmmmm. But save that for another day.



Ingredients

Popcorn. approx 1/4 cup kernels. Roughly 8 cups popped.
1 slight cup honey
½ cup white sugar
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup water
20 grams salted butter
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract

Makes 8-10 medium popcorn balls.

Directions

Combine honey, white sugar, brown sugar, water, and salt in saucepan. Place over low heat, stirring until mixture begins to boil. Add butter. Stir and add vanilla just as the mixture begins to thicken. Cook to firm ball stage (248 degrees). Coat popcorn and press to balls.

No really, that’s all you need to know.






Okay, those are really only the expert directions. If you know what “firm ball stage” means, you probably have all you need to make tasty delicious caramel corn. For the rest of you, or those of you who will be entertained by my trial-by-sugar, read on.

People who routinely heat sugar have a secret language known only among other sugar-heaters. In this dazzling lexicon, terms like “firm ball” and “hard-crack” stand in for years of experience evaluating subtle qualitative differences. Of course, these phrases also correspond to temperatures on a candy thermometer. But being in the heart of Africa, I don’t even have a measuring spoon, let alone a candy thermometer. So I decided to try to do it by following the one-paragraph description of process for which “firm ball” is the short-hand.

Many other corn-syrup based recipes advocate cooking until the “hard-crack” stage, which apparently means when you drizzle the liquid into a cup of ice water it will form thin threads that get immediately hard. These other recipes caution against stopping early at the “ball” stage, because then you get gooey caramel corn, rather than crisp corn.

Generally being cavalier about trying new things, and inclined to combine the best from several recipes into my own particular approach, I used a honey-based recipe (because I couldn’t find corn syrup anywhere in Accra), but decided to use butter (because its delicious) and thought I would try to reach this mythical stage of enlightenment known as “hard crack.”

What is hard crack? An experienced sugar-heater online explained it: “When it has reached hard crack stage, it will form treads in the water. When you take the threads out of the water, they will be hard and brittle. If they are still soft and pliable, or if it forms a ball instead of threads, keep cooking and checking until you get hard, brittle threads.”


Observations from a first time sugar-heater. First it all melts together but is grainy. Then you keep stirring, and lo, it is all melted together with no discernible grains. Then it starts foaming. This foaming business was a bit unexpected because none of the recipes mentioned foaming, but I believe this is something all expert sugar-heaters take for granted. Undaunted, I stir on.

At some point all this foaming is making me nervous, and I feel like I have been stirring for a long time. This is probably because I am sweating bullets standing over the stove in 90 degree weather. That sort of thing tends to distort ones sense of time. So I decide to turn off the heat so the foam will settle down and I can get a look at the liquid. My husband T. is of the opinion that it is probably done. We peer into the amber liquid trying to divine its secrets. I prod it a little more with the spoon and decide it doesn’t seem nearly thick enough. “I think” I proclaim, “if we use this we will wind up with soggy popcorn soup.” Onward, we decide. Back to boil/foaming. Constant stirring. Constant vigilance is demanded of the novice sugar-heater. I think I may have stirred for at least 15 minutes.

By this time I am not heating it on high, but on the lowest setting on my little stove. My stove really has no concept of low, it is much more like hot, hotter, hottest, so I do not know what this would correspond to on my stove back home, but I will say the foam was about 1 inch high when heating on low, whereas it got 2-3 inches high when heating on the highest setting.

While stirring I keep drizzling little bits into the cup of ice water I have at my side. First it just blends into the water, leaving no discernible shapes behind. Then it forms little lumps at the bottom that are quite soft and delicious when you scoop them out and pop them into your mouth, as you really should. After the soft lumps each progressive drizzle got me closer and closer to firm round globes.

In retrospect I would say I should have stopped when I noticed that they formed those little balls almost as soon as they hit the water: they paused on their descent to the bottom of the cup, formed up, and then continued on down. When I scooped these little balls out of the ice water they reminded me immediately of caramel in consistency. They were chewy and a bit insistent, rather than soft and totally pliable. This would have been the moment to stop.

But ahh, hubris. I was still hunting that illusive hard-crack phase. Onward I plunged, oblivious to the danger!

It all happened so suddenly. It was more than a little surprising. I had T. standing at the ready with the already-popped popcorn and a slotted spoon for stirring the goodness onto the popcorn. All of the sudden I realized the caramel color had darkened quite rapidly and I could smell that it was starting to burn.

I rapidly completed the last bit of the instructions: Remove from heat; add vanilla and stir only to blend well. Pour slowly over 3 quarts of popcorn in large bowl.

“Ack! Quick quick, get ready!” I nudge over towards him, cramped in our small kitchen. I am wielding a burning hot pot with scalding sugar goodness, so I am trying to pour carefully and he is trying to stir and all without bumping into each other. I can smell already that the caramel is a little burned. But I have my fingers crossed that it is still edible. I don’t want to have to toss this one into the follies file.

No one warned me of this “things can go south pretty quickly” hazard. But commenters online did warn that forming the popcorn balls can be a challenge. Do it too early and you scald your hands. Wait too long and fahgettaboutit, the corn is all stuck to itself and your pan in one impressive discus.



These challenges mean a little bit of foresight can save you a lot of ache. In advance set out a row of baggies and a kitchen mitt or kitchen towel. You can work right out of the pot (although some in the end will be stuck unless you work quite quickly), otherwise try turning all the corn out from the pot onto a waxed piece of paper. If you want to be extra cautious, butter the waxed paper a bit. Scoop a big ladle of hot popcorn into a baggie. Then, using a hand in the mitt or wrapped in the towel, firmly press on the outside of the baggie to form the popcorn into a ball. You want to press fairly solidly, perhaps even using two hands. Of course you don’t want to pulverize it into popcorn dust.

If you are working alone you will have to work fairly quickly to get through all the popcorn before it cools.



Was it all worth it in the end? Absolutely. The caramel was a tad, but just a tad, overcooked. My husband dubbed the final effect, “sweet and smokey” but I found them oddly addictive once I got started. They became my little advent calendar counting down to Christmas. I wound end each night sitting in front of our little tree, crunching away on a popcorn ball by tree-light.

And in the end the whole trial of the process, follies and all, made me feel much more connected to my Great Grandma than I ever expected when I began. Somehow I found myself imagining her when she was a young woman, experiencing those challenges for the first time herself. It was wonderfully comforting.

Nutritional Information (10 servings) 209 calories, 1.9 grams fat, 1.0 grams fiber, 259 mg sodium.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Christmas Cinnamon Rolls



Let’s just get one thing straight. Is there anything more delightfully, sinfully, homey than warm home-made cinnamon rolls? I think not. They are, perhaps, the perfect vehicle for food-induced nostalgia (and are my contribution to Food for Thought). In fact, I had been doing a lot of thinking about cinnamon rolls in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Growing up, my mom often made cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. No one quite remembers at what point this took on the aura of an inviolate "tradition" but at some point it became inconceivable that we would have Christmas morning without cinnamon rolls. As the days to Christmas in Ghana counted by, I became more and more stubbornly attached to the idea of having my traditional cinnamon rolls for breakfast on Christmas morning. Even if, without an oven, I had to bake them in my ricecooker.

Christmas morning, perhaps moreso than any other day of the year, is a day replete with memory and tradition. In my home, it is my sister and I whispering across the gap between our twin beds in the room we share, because we are forbidden from getting out of bed before 6:30 AM. (This ban, as you might expect, was not as necessary as we grew older and more in love with sleeping late). We wake up, mismatched pajamas, hair askew, and padded out to the tree. We were allowed to open our stockings first, even before our parents were up. The stockings are hand-sewn felt stockings made by my Great-grandmother. Without fail the stockings will contain a tin of cashew nuts shaped like Rudolph the reindeer, and little foil wrapped Santa chocolates the size of my thumb.

When we were younger, presents would follow the stockings as soon as my mom was up and had her coffee brewing. As we got older, we learned to savor the anticipation better, and so we often had breakfast before exchanging gifts.

But there was always delicious breakfast. And when I think of all the Christmas mornings past, when I imagine them in my head, they always smell like cinnamon rolls baking. I knew, I just knew that I was going to make cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning.

But first, questions must be answered. Like why should we go through all this hullabaloo? Why not leave the cinnamon roll making to the good folks at Cinnabon? (Or for the Chicago natives, to the good folks at Ann Sathers). Or for those who like things just a touch more like home, why not pop open one of those convenient little cardboard tubes from Pilsbury and bake your “own” at home without all that fuss.

Because the fuss is half the point. To make cinnamon rolls from scratch for someone is a tangible message of love, a handwritten note in the digital age. Cinnamon rolls are a bit of a labor of love, but not as much as you might expect. The act of making them from scratch, endows these delightful treats with that extra little dose of love that is the makings of memorable traditions.

For those of you who have been following my adventures in Ghana, you know that I don't have an oven in my home here. It seemed oddly suggestive of the Christmas story itself: my Christmas tradition was almost, almost born in a rice cooker. But through a friend of a friend we found ourselves invited to join some other expats for a Christmas morning brunch. The kindness of near strangers inviting us to join their holiday celebration, as we all tried to meaningfully experience the holidays so far from home and tradition, is a memory I will not soon forget.

And they had an oven. And yes Virginia, these are awesome cinnamon rolls.





INGREDIENTS

Dough
1/4 cup warm water
1 tsp white sugar
1 package active dry yeast
1/3 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
4 tbsp butter, melted
1 tsp salt
½-1 cup milk
2.5-5 cups flour, more if needed


Filling

4-6 Tbsp softened butter, divided
1-1 ½ cup brown sugar
3-4 Tbsp Cinnamon, preferably Korintje

Optional:
Chopped walnuts or pecans
½ cup Honey

Icing

DIRECTIONS

Dough

Pour warm water into a small bowl or cup. Add 1 tsp sugar and stir to mix until dissolved. Gently pour yeast onto water. Set aside. The yeast will gradually combine and should slightly puff. It will smell slightly of, well, yeast and bread. This is called “proofing” and is used to ensure that your yeast is still active.

In a large bowl, mix milk, sugar, melted butter, eggs, and salt. Stir well to combine. When yeast has proofed, add the yeast mixture and stir to combine. Add half the flour and stir to combine.

Adding flour is always the tricky part of baking, more art than science. The amount of flour varies depending on the weather that day, the humidity of the air, of the flour. It probably depends on the barometric pressure for all I know. But the real trick is that more often than not people add too much flour rather than too little.


The amount of flour is an art, so I can only give you quantitative guides and some qualitative indications. I would add flour ½ cup at a time. You want to just just barely past the stage where it seems like slightly eager primordial ooze. It will be much wetter than you expect: if left to sit on a board, it wouldn’t run all over the sides like spilled milk, but neither would it hold a perfect ball shape. At that stage, dump it out onto a well floured surface and begin kneading. This is going to be messy, but if kneading by hand resist the urge to add too much flour. It will stick to your hands like a bit of an unholy mess, but persist. Keep kneading, adding ½ cup at a time until some structure begins to develop. It still wouldn’t hold together like a perfect ball if you shaped it and set it down, but that primordial ooze is starting to get some posture, some manners. Keep working it, adding flour in smaller increments until you get it just past primordial ooze stage. It still wouldn’t stand up like a perfectly formed ball (they way cookie dough would) but it will hold together like a slightly depressed balloon, but without totally flattening out.

Place in a buttered glass or plastic bowl, preferably with steep sides. Cover and rest in a warm place, free from drafts, until doubled in bulk. This might take about an hour, but I always hesitate to give these indications, because they are an invitation to walk away and do something else. I have had too many yeast breads fall flat into unappetizing rock hard disks because I left them unattended for too long. The rise depends a lot on the temperature. Here it took about 35 minutes to double. Watch your thermometer and peek in on it from time to time

Filling

Don’t skimp on the filling. Of course the amount of your generosity depends on your own particular interests in “skinny” versus “gourmet.” Decide on your own preferences for the use of butter and sugar, but feel free to go wild with the spices. If you are feeling a bit cutting edge, I would consider adding some complimentary spices, like nutmeg, even a pinch of ginger or ground coriander.

Divide the butter into two parts and smooth the soft butter over the entire surface of the dough. Next sprinkle each half of the dough with half of the cinnamon and sugar mix. If using the optional extras, drizzle with honey and/or chopped walnuts. Be sure to spread all your goodies all the way to the edge of the rectangle or the rolls at the end will be sad.

Roll the dough gently, working from the long end nearest you towards the other long end. When you complete the rolling, pinch the long edge of the dough slightly to seal. Cut the rope into six pieces. Place the pieces onto a slightly buttered baking dish. They can be baked together in a circular baking dish with sides. Alternately, space them out well onto a jelly roll pan. If possible I like to use stoneware for this type of baking, because it produces wonderfully light final product.

Bake for 20-30 minutes at 350 degrees or until rolls are golden brown. Cool rolls slightly before icing.


The Future of the Cinnamon Roll?
The success of this essential Cinnamon roll recipe has emboldened me to want to try some more creative variations. Keep your eyes open this spring for some interesting variations. I’m thinking bananas foster meets the roll. Maybe blueberry with lemon lavendar glaze. The possibilities are endless. Think of it as Cinnamon roll fusion.



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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Soccer Fever Sweeps Ghana!

There is a palpable energy on the streets of Ghana. I awoke on Friday morning not to the customary sounds of roosters and goats but to the trumpeting sounds of soccer fans blasting noisemakers. When I traveled down to the Ministries, where I was doing some interviews for my dissertation, every car seemed cloaked in Ghana's red, yellow, and green. Flags waved in the wind. In the downtown commercial district, everyone was wearing Ghana colors, and many were also boasting ostentatious hats to match. If I hadn't been coming to Ghana since 2000, perhaps this wouldn't amaze me. But when I first arrived in 2000, you could scarcely find a Ghanaian flag anywhere. The flags of political parties were far more prominent. Thanks to the Ghanaian Black Stars' strong showing last summer in the World Cup (and probably thanks to some enterprising manufacturing plant in Shanghai) Ghana now has a strong flag culture. Even I couldn't help getting caught up in the excitement!

Where did all this flag waving hulabaloo come from? Well, you wouldn't know it from ESPN but today the African Cup of Nations (CAN) soccer tournament begins. This year Ghana is hosting. And the excitement is everywhere. What is it like? And more importantly, what is the game-day food culture like here?


Tickets to the first game are nearly impossible to get. Most of them were apparently distributed to Ministries and major businesses, who in turn passed them on to employees as a perk. But Terry and I were able to score four tickets to the second game, where Ghana plays Morocco. Even though we won't be at the game today, we are still getting caught up in the excitement. We both have our official Ghana supporters shirts on, and I am even wearing a Ghanaian flag head wrap. We'll go to a local drinking "spot" to watch the game on TV with other supporters.

So while Americans eagerly anticipate the food gluttony of the Superbowl, how to Ghanaians eat their way through a big sporting event? Well, first off, there is not much of an official "concessions" presence at games. Terry and I went with friends to the final of the four-nations cup (a kind of precursor to the CAN 2008 tournament) and I vaguely remember folks walking around, but it was nothing like the beer and peanuts guys who sell at Wrigley Field.

But just outside the stadium gates, vendors swarm. You can buy Guinness at the brightly marked yellow Guinness tent. You can get spicy African beef or gizzard kebabs, rubbed with a mixture of spices, pepper, and ground peanuts. You can get "kofi brokeman" which is grilled not-quite-ripe plantain, served with a side of roasted peanuts. You can also get waakye (pronounced waa-chay), rice and beans with a spicy red fish sauce. And those are just the people who will set up little stations.

Women carrying their goods on their heads rove miraculously through the thronging crowd, and yet never drop their loads. These roving hawkers sell fried plantain chips, cut up fruit (pineapple and papaya), and Asian-style shrimp crisps. Still others will sell light and puffy fried dough, think of it as a less-sweet donut that is the size of your fist. And not covered in sprinkles.

Terry and I will likely be chomping spicy kebabs and beer at our local spot. Perfect game food!


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Monday, January 14, 2008

A Memorable Playlist

My husband is a music fanatic. When we first started dating we would often wrap up dates sitting around while he played songs on his guitar. Sometimes, if I thought the neighbors couldn't hear, I might be brave enough to sing along. I always sing poorly but with gusto, so singing in front of others means I really like you. That was probably one of the early indicators that I was hopelessly in love.

At any rate. He is also the one who laboriously puts together perfect music playlists for whenever we entertain. He always manages to hit just the right note to create a warm and inviting atmosphere. This past summer we had friends asking him to send them the mixes from some of our parties. So recently I thought I might ask him to create a playlist to go with the month's theme--Memories--that would make great background music for a dinner party or cocktail gathering. Here is his creation for your perusal and enjoyment. And no, there are no Broadway showtunes included.


January: Memories

1. "Caramel” – Suzanne Vega
2. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” – Lucinda Williams
3. “Photographs and Memories” – Jim Croce
4. “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine” – Beth Orton
5. “And It Stoned Me” – Van Morrison
6. “The State I Am In” – Belle & Sebastian
7. “Everything Reminds Me Of Her” – Elliott Smith
8. “Summer Skin” – Death Cab for Cutie
9. “Firefly” – Alpha
10. “In My Life” – The Beatles
11. “Hickory Wind” – Grant Lee Phillips
12. “Railroad Lullaby” – The Twilight Singers
13. “The Fitted Shirt” – Spoon
14. “Here's Where The Story Ends” – The Sundays
15. “Nightswimming” – REM
16. “Lil Wallet Picture” – Richard Buckner
17. “Our Way to Fall” – Yo La Tengo
18. “Watch Her Disappear” – Tom Waits
19. “The Three of Us” – Ben Harper
20. “I'll Be Seeing You” – Billie Holiday

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Peanut Butter Kiss Cookies for My Father

Yesterday I went to great lengths to bake peanut butter kiss cookies to reminisce. Sometimes the weight of what we remember seems to dictate and equally weighty act of commemoration. But memories don’t always conform to this neat little formula. More often than not the most absurdly mundane things get embodied with special significance in the stuff of memories. My father died two and a half years ago. Immediately afterwards I discovered all the small mundane things that I had quietly and persistently associated with my father, because now seeing those things brought back a thousand little memories of him.



My father was a consummate junk food eater. I never really knew him to cook much himself, although I believe he grilled a burger now and then. The first time I went to visit him after my parents separated we ate nothing but Dominos pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a full seven days. I couldn’t so much as smell Dominos without feeling ill after that overload. However, after his death the sight of a Dominos left me feeling nostalgic for the image of my father as a bachelor.

My father lived in Michigan and I lived in Wisconsin with my mother, so visits to him were always bookended by car-trips. Without fail, whenever we stopped at gas stations he would buy a small bag of Lays Cheddar Cheese and Onion potato chips, a stick of beef jerky, and a giant bottle of Mountain Dew. The Cheddar Cheese potato chips also made featured appearances (with chip dip) every time he watched motorcycle racing on TV. But the beef jerky and Mountain Dew were somehow particular to car travel. To this day whenever I am driving distances in the car I crave the saltiness of beef jerky and the sweet Caffeine jolt of a Mountain Dew.

I know only a few of my father’s favorites, but I know his favorite cookie was a peanut butter cookie with a Hershey’s kiss on top. Every Christmas grandma made a variety of cookies, but my father and I would always wind up competing for the last of the peanut butter kiss cookies.

His birthday was yesterday.

So I am eating Mountain Dew, Chips, and Beef Jerky for lunch. And I am going to try to make peanut butter kiss cookies, even if I have to substitute for the kisses and bake the darn things in the rice cooker. The act of making these cookies was one part memory lane, one part strange recipe search, and one part odd baking experience (in a rice cooker, people!).



A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to This Recipe…

A funny thing happened while preparing this post. I’m living far from home which also means far from all my most familiar and time-tried recipes. I have a recipe for peanut butter kiss cookies that is the only peanut butter cookie recipe I have ever used but it is at home in a dog-eared recipe file. Many of my newer recipes are in soft copy on my computer, but the real golden oldies, the ones I inherited from my mother or grandmothers, those are all in paper form back in my home in Chicago.

Peanut Butter Cookie Who?
I wanted a good variety, so I investigated the recipes from Southern Food, Elise, Betty Crocker, Cooking for Engineers and one from Recipes.com that I apparently forgot to get the link for.
So I took to the internet, rounding up some of the most highly rated peanut butter cookie recipes. I thought I would get about five recipes, give them a gander, and work from there. Sometimes I wind up just picking one recipe outright, but more often than not I look through them for similarities and differences, get a sense of the range, make a few educated guesses and pop out my own take on the recipe.

But this time around a funny thing happened. All five recipes were almost exactly the same. They all called for the exact same amount of peanut butter, fats, and flour. They all called for the exact same combination of brown and granulated sugars. They all had one egg. What was going on here?

Even stranger than their marked similarities were their few differences. The area where these recipes diverged the most was in the amount and proportion of leavening agents. I have never seen such reckless abandon in the arena of leavening agents. Normally this is something I respect with an awe comparable to gravity: this is a fundamental law governed by unseen but awesome principles and frankly shouldn’t be messed with. But here were these recipes, so nearly identical in every detail. And the only detail where they varied widely was in the leavening agent. What is up with that? One recipe calls only for a half teaspoon baking soda. One calls for a half teaspoon each of baking soda and baking powder. Another calls for ¾ teaspoon of baking soda and half of baking powder. Another called only for one teaspoon of baking powder, no baking soda at all. It was mayhem and, I admit, totally crushed my previously meticulous respect for leavening proportions.

The other slight differences was that while they all called for the same basic amount of fats, some called for only butter, some only shortening, and others called for a mix of the two. I remember a Home Economics teacher in high school explaining why a mix of the two always made for a great cookie, but I can’t recall the explanation now. Shortening is some pretty scary stuff in terms of health, so I rarely use it in baking anything other than a pie crust.



In a flash of insight I thought that the differences in baking powder to soda proportions would be explained by variations in using butter and/or shortening. I thought there was some nearly unfathomable chemical process in the two fats that meant something different for leavening. That may still be true, but nothing from these recipes suggests a correlation. There was no discernible relationship between fats and leavening agents.
Sweeten Up!
More often than not when baking I like to add a little extra extract and reduce the sugar by a bit. Refined sugar is, by most accounts, pretty terrible for you. But natural extracts gives a lot of sweetness without all the hassle and heartache of refined sugar.


Only two of the five recipes called for any vanilla extract, but I like it, so I figured it could go in. One of those two also called for adding some ground black pepper. While it may make for an interesting cookie (and I’ll admit it had daydreams of spicy cayenne peanut butter cookies, an homage to Ghanaian flavor sensibilities) I figured it wasn’t particularly a part of a nostalgic cookie for me, so it stayed out.



The Recipe

Ingredients

1.25 cups flour
½ cup peanut butter
½ cup butter and/or margerine shortening
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup brown sugar
1 egg
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp vanilla



Directions

In a large mixing bowl mix butter and peanut butter until roughly combined. Do not overmix as it will melt the butter and affect the structure of the cookie. This is a particular risk if using a high powered mixer rather than mixing by hand.

Add granulated sugar and brown sugar. Cream together.

In a separate bowl, whisk together egg, salt, leavening agent, and vanilla. Add to the large mixing bowl. Mix to combine.
Chill Out?
For softer cookies be sure that you refrigerate the dough for an hour after mixing. Then form the balls and shape with the fork. Then back into the chill for another 15 minutes to allow the formed proto-cookies to firm up before heading into the oven. This gives the fats in the cookie better structure, so the cookie won’t spread as much while baking, resulting in a chewier final product!

Add flour gradually. Mix to combine.

Cover or wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for about an hour. Elise actually recommends chilling the dough for three hours, but I can never ever imagine having that much patience with cookies on the line. Most days I am too impatient for this chilling process at all, and so I can tell you with certainty that your cookies won’t totally suck if you skip it. Although chilling the dough does make them just that much more yummy for the waiting.

Shape dough into 1 inch balls by rolling gently between the palms of your hands. This is also a great chore to give to any nearby children, as it will both delight and occupy them with little chance of death or dismemberment.



Roll balls in granulated sugar. Place balls on cookie sheet. I like to use stoneware, which has a natural nonstick surface that is the product of years of use, so I rarely have to worry about greased vs. ungreased vs. lined. But the recipes I looked at suggested everything from greased to ungreased, so I believe it probably doesn’t matter all that much. Greased will always make it marginally easier to remove the cookies after baking, so if you are having any trouble removing the first batch, go ahead and grease the pan thereafter. I like using a spray of olive oil from a oil spritzer.

For Plain Peanut Butter Cookies: Using the tines of a fork, gently flatten the balls. Press the tines in to make a criss-cross pattern on top of the cookie. The cookie will spread out while cooking, so resist the urge to completely flatten it out now, or later you will be eating a wafer thin cookie.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Bake for nine minutes. Remove from oven. Nudge the cookies off the sheet onto a wire cooling rack.

For Peanut Butter Kiss Cookies: Instead of crossing with a fork before baking, pat the rounded balls down into disks. The cookies bake without the chocolate kiss. When you remove them from the oven onto cooling racks immediately press one unwrapped chocolate kiss onto each cookie. If you like a higher chocolate to cookie proportion, you can also make the dough balls slightly smaller than one inch.

For the softies: If you love your cookies super soft, try baking them at a lower temperature. Cooking for Engineers recommends baking the cookies for 15 minutes at 300 degrees.

Save ‘em for later?: You can also freeze the dough pretty well for up to a month. I find it easiest to roll the dough into individual balls before freezing. That way you have little single serving cookies waiting to be baked whenever the cookie monster strikes you.

More on baking with rice cookers For the less fortunate like myself: Gentlemen, start your rice cookers! Because the rice cooker heats at a lower temperature than an oven, the cookies will need to “bake” for longer. I tried repeatedly to trick the rice cooker into staying on “cooking” rather than flipping to “keep warm” with no success. But if you press the cook button on our rice cooker it will stay on that setting for at least three minutes, so I just kept pushing it, waiting, and then pushing again. I tried cooking all the way through on warm and that didn’t really work.

The astute observer will notice two particular oddities of baking these cookies that I was forced into by the rice cooker and the nature of Ghanaian chocolate. Because of the rice cooker I was forced to flip the cookies halfway through heating them, so they are flat on both sides rather than delightfully puffed from oven baking. Some even turned out a bit “scrambled” when I burned my wrist on the hot edge of the rice cooker and dropped the cookie from a great height. Second, chocolate produced in Ghana for local consumption is differently formulated than the chocolate we usually eat in temperate regions. I have no idea whether this is from science, local taste preference, or some combination, but the chocolate is made not to melt at room temperature, which hovers between 85 and 92 year round. Yet, once heated the chocolate is nice and soft and melty goodness. Because of this, I had to add the chocolate pieces to the tops of the cookies two or three minutes before removing them. If you are baking at home in an oven just bake the cookies, remove them, and press the unwrapped kiss into the still-hot cookie.

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Monday, January 7, 2008

Mango Salsa Sushi Fusion

I recently agreed to participate in a food blogger exchange of sorts, called Taste and Create. You are paired with another blogger and then challenged to look through their site, pick a recipe, make it yourself, and blog about the experience. I have been impressed by all the high quality blogs out there, so the exchange sounded like a perfect way to get my feet wet. I hesitated, only for a moment: I am living in a rented house in West Africa, which currently means that I do not have an oven (no baking recipes) and I have somewhat limited access to exotic foods (no pomegranate syrup) and even some "regular" ones (sporadic access to fresh basil). But then I realized I only had to find one recipe, one on an entire site, and of course there had to be one recipe I could make, even with my limitations.

And then I got the email and saw who I had been paired with: Sushi Day.

I was simultaneously thrilled and concerned. I was thrilled because I had really been craving sushi for some time. I had actually brought nori all the way from home, tucked away in my suitcase, so that I could scratch that sushi itch when it struck. But I was concerned because ahi grade fish is absolutely unavailable anywhere in the country. There are a few high-end sushi restaurants, but I am told they fly their fish in themselves daily. There is no nice little fishmonger at the Whole Foods counter ready to wrap me up some ahi grade tuna. I know of a Japanese girl living in Accra for who makes her own raw fish sushi with fish she buys in the market here, but let us just say that my desire not to get ripping ill combines with my highly doubtful fish evaluating skills to preclude raw fish sushi that isn’t certified by someone more expert than I.

I figured that I could easily put together some tasty vegetarian sushi. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell Sushi Day doesn’t feature much vegetarian sushi. The only fully vegetarian offering I was able to find was for Kappa Maki (avocado roll), which just seemed so basic that it wasn’t really in the spirit of a blog exchange.

Memorable Maki? Youbetcha. Growing up in Wisconsin, we only really like our fish fried and served at a bar on Friday night. But when I got to college my incredible roommate Shira introduced me to sushi. She started slowly with vegetarian rolls. I fell in love with Futomaki and from there just took the plunge and never looked back. Even still, every single time I have sushi or maki rolls I have a little moment where I think back on my fabulous friend and all the experiences she introduced me to.
After browsing through mouthwatering pages of delicious “I must try that later” raw fish makis, I finally found one that really captivated me. Sushi Day created the Mango Salsa Sushi roll after being inspired by the popularity of mango salsa. The elements of mango salsa are then reordered into a gorgeous, colorful, and unique maki roll. It had shrimp in it, but I figured I could wrangle up some shrimp (cook it) and I’d be set.

I went on an epic journey in search of shrimp or some reasonably similar crustacean. The first two stores I went to had nothing. This is significant because there are really only about four or five cosmopolitan grocery stores in the entire capitol city, so I was burning through options fast. I went looking through two fish markets hoping to score some fresh crustaceans. They often sell something that the hawkers call a lobster, but I imagine that is really because the term commands a higher selling price, and I suspect they are langoustines. At any rate I couldn’t find any creepy-crawlers of the sea. So I boarded a tro-tro and went to the newly built Accra Mall. A grand mall on the order of anything you would expect in the US, this mall features a South African owned Supermarket called Shoprite. If it could be found anywhere, I reckoned it could be found at Shoprite. And I was sort of right. Finally, after prowling through every fridge and freezer section, in the very back of the store, I found one sad, freezer-burned package of shrimp. There were five, count them: five, shrimp inside. The quarter-pound of shrimp was $11. With all due apologies to Sushi Day, at that moment I decided I would be making this roll without the shrimp.



Gathering the rest of the ingredients wasn’t difficult. I was actually concerned that I would be unable to find cilantro. They do cultivate and sell it locally but it is still a relative specialty product, so there is no guaranteed supply. Sometimes you go to the market and it’s there in little baggies and suddenly you revise your imagined food plans for the upcoming week because you can get cilantro. But you can never plan on it. However, the foodie gods were smiling on me, perhaps taking pity on my failure to secure shrimp, so I got the cilantro with no problem. The mango, avocado, and red onion are regularly available in this delightful tropical climate, so I was set.

I boiled the rice vinegar and sugar on the stove as the recipe instructed. I was a little concerned about the quality of our rice vinegar. It comes from Ghana’s only Asian grocery store, but the bottle is entirely in Chinese. I believe it is rice vinegar only because that was what the label on the shelf said. When I got it home and popped it open I was a tad concerned that it smelled like rubbing alcohol. T and I put our heads together in the kitchen.

Me “Do you think it is rubbing alcohol?”

Him, wafting the scent dramatically from the bottle, “Mmmm, no. It smells like a cross between rubbing alcohol and rice vinegar. But they were selling it in the food section.”

Me “Okay, well, lets hope it tends more to the rice vinegar side when you eat it.”





I knew all about boiling the vinegar and sugar together because of a handy little link of the recipe. I have to say the Sushi Day website is very well put together. Ever recipe is cross-linked to detailed descriptions elsewhere in the site. That way expert sushi-makers do not have to wade through overly tedious details about routine particulars (making sushi rice) but unskilled novices can readily access all the details they need to build competence at sushi making.

So where do I rate on that scale? Funny thing. Right after Terry and I had first started dating, we made dinner together with another couple. Terry, ever the maven in the kitchen, decided he wanted to teach me to make maki rolls. His friend Ryan, who was joining us with his girlfriend Maggie, was also a sushi-roller. One or two California rolls into the experience I had really picked up the knack of rolling. I think it actually steamed T a little that I had so quickly surpassed him at a kitchen skill. So while I recognize myself no great master, in my little heart of hearts I don’t think of myself as any great sushi slouch either.






So I was totally unprepared for how awkward it was to try to roll the maki “inside out” as the recipe directed. I have eaten rolls with the rice outside innumerable times and taken that little bit of artistry totally for granted. Well no longer. As you can see from my pathetic exemplar here, I managed to get the rice spread on the sheet, and even to flip the sheet. I managed to roll it, mostly, and press it as directed. I was, in fact, thinking that maybe I didn’t totally suck. Ha. And then I tried to cut the darn thing. Perhaps the rice was still a bit too warm. Perhaps my sad little knife was a bit too dull. Whatever the reason, I soon wound up with something that more resembled some grand rice and seaweed salad than the gorgeous maki from Sushi Day.

If you try this recipe: I recommend becoming comfortable with rolling rice inside before you attempt the more advanced artistry of rolling the rice outside. If you are a beginner, I recommend putting all the goodies inside to start, and then work your way to the advanced moves as you become more comfortable. I think the shrimp would be perfect in this roll, but if you are vegetarian I thought the omission was also perfectly delightful.

My failure to secure shrimp also forced me to alter Sushi Day’s presentation in another way. Sushi Day presents the roll with the shrimp and onion on the inside, the rice on the outside, and the avocado and mango thinly sliced and alternating like gorgeous colorful “scales” on the outside. It is really a stunning presentation. But without the shrimp it seemed sort of sad and strange to roll it with only onion on the inside. So I put the onion, cilantro, mango and avocado all inside and tried rolling one with the rice on the outside.

I probably should have persevered, but I confess that I was feeling really protective over my hand imported nori wrappers. I didn’t want to waste wrappers producing lumpy inferior makis, so I reverted to my comfort zone and rolled that darn tricky rice inside the nori wrapper. This was as easy as I remembered it being.


I thought the maki was beautiful when putting it together, and took tons of photos. This is a very strong flavor combination. It can be a bit sweet depending on the quality of your mango and the proportion of mango to avocado. I think the shrimp, if I could have found it for less than $40 a pound, would have been a great addition and really balanced out the flavors. I found myself fixating on the pretty shapes of the cilantro. I think if I could have accomplished the rice-outside rolling technique, I might have tried to press the whole cilantro leaves into the rice, because I think it would have been beautiful. The touch of the unexpected cilantro and red onion was just the right amount to surprise the palate.

Eating this sushi was an absolute treat that scratched all my sushi desires. The only trick was that it made quite a lot. My husband and I found it hard to get through all the maki we had made because the flavor of the roll, which is so powerful and delicious, can be a bit overwhelming if you eat 15 or 20 of them yourself. If anything, I think this is a compliment to the really unique and delicious taste of these rolls. I will definitely be making them again, particularly in combo with some more traditional rolls.

The final word. This beautiful east-meets-south fusion maki is a unique and memorable flavor combination that I will definitely make again. It would be a great show-stopper served along with more traditional makis, like tuna maki, salmon maki, or even California roll. The presentation is a bit advanced, and not for the faint of heart, but will definitely impress if you pull it off!



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