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Image taken from The University of Texas at Austin
For the month of March I decided to head over to Africa. My original intentions were to cook South African food. I checked out a few cookbooks from my library and sat down to look them over. What I quickly realized is that if countries went to high school, the popular crowd would consist of countries like India, Morocco, Italy, Japan, Thailand, and Mexico (I left a few major ones out, but you get the point). South Africa would not be at the cool kids table. Likewise, if I want recipes for any of the more popular countries cuisine I have my pick, but for those countries that are not so popular I am going to have my work cut out for me. Every cookbook that was available to me for Africa was for the whole continent. This seems a little absurd to me. I don't consider Moroccan food to be very akin to food from Sudan. This was one of the original reasons that I divided the world "by ocean" as opposed to "by continent". *Sigh* It's OK though. I have my trusty old friend the internet to fill in the gaps where the cookbooks left me hanging.
Speaking of cookbooks the two that I am currently (and quickly) working my way through are; The Africa Cookbook Tastes of a Continent, by Jessica B. Harris and The Soul of a New Cuisine, by Marcus Samuelsson. I'd say that The Africa Cookbook seems more authentic and if I was going to keep one of these two cookbooks that's the one I'd choose. It doesn't have any pictures though, which I always like in a cookbook. I realize that pictures don't "make" a good cookbook, but they make me hungry for the food, and I like that. The Soul of a New Cuisine seems like a lot of fluff if you ask me. Marcus Samuelsson has some good ideas but there is a lot of fusion food instead of straight traditional African recipes, which is what I'm looking for. There are a bunch of good recipes for the specialty spice mixes and condiments, and he also has some good ides for tweaking things which I'll get to more in a minute.
Last night we had our first meal from Africa. Remember that I am sticking to the East Coast of Africa here. I decided on a Green Mealie Soup as the main course with a side dish of Mashed Eggplant a la Zeinab served with a spiced pita bread. From what I'm reading soups are not a very popular dish in Africa. They make stews more often than not. This is fine by me but the Green Mealie Soup which is from South Africa is made from corn, and I've got a ton of corn frozen in my basement from last summer that I need to use up. I figured this was a good opportunity to break into my stash. The soup was just OK. It was good but there wasn't anything special about it that would prompt me to make it again. Jude had 4ths of it, but he has 4ths of almost everything so I try not to judge how good a meal is by him.
Everybody loved the pita bread. I used a recipe from The Soul of a New Cuisine, while I would not use Marcus Samuelsson's recipe for the actual pita bread again (I think there are far better recipes like this one from lapidia over on Food52) I thought his idea of incorporating spices into the dough, was brilliant. I added some cardamom, ginger, and garam masala. The spices were just sort of in the background and added a little more flavor to what you were dipping them into which was really quite lovely, and I will be doing this again.
What we were dipping the pita into was an Eggplant spread from Sudan called Mashed Eggplant a la Zeinab. I was...hesitant...when I first read over the ingredients. The first was eggplant (I'm good with that), then salt, olive oil, coriander, lemon juice (yup, yup, yup), and peanut butter (wait! Hold the phone! Did that say peanut butter??? With Eggplant?!?). One of the things I learned with Persian cooking is that what I know can be stretched. Take the chelow for example. Before I cooked chelow I never would have thought you could cook white rice for almost 1 1/2 hours and end up with a fantastic dish. I'm learning here. One of the things I am learning is to shut my mouth when it comes to opinions and open my mouth for new flavors and ideas. I'm glad I'm taking that mindset because that spread was fantastic. Brian and I "might" have not let the kids try it so we could scoff it all down between the two of us. Now before you go and judge us be happy because I adapted the recipe slightly and am going to give it to you so you can make it and
Oh...one more thing before I give you the recipe. I took a horrid picture of it that I am going to include, so brace yourself. Two things: 1. Pretty soon I will have natural light to work with at dinner time so my picture quality will pick back up again. 2. I don't want to hear any comments from the peanut gallery about what it looks like. It's good, and sometimes good means you hush up about the looks ;-P
Mashed Eggplant a la Zeinab
Adapted from The Africa Cookbook, by Jessica B. Harris
- 2 pounds of eggplant
- 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon of ground coriander
- Juice of 1/2 lemon (you may decide to use the juice of the whole lemon)
- 3 tablespoons of smooth peanut butter (use a natural peanut butter without any added sugar)
- Salt and red pepper flakes to taste
- Wash and peel the eggplant. Slice it lengthwise into 1/2 inch thick slices. Place the slices into a bowl sprinkling both sides of each slice with a small pinch of salt. Weight the slices by placing a plate on top of them and adding some heavy soup cans on top. Allow the slices to sit like this for 2 hours. (This process helps to remove extra moisture and bitterness from the eggplant)
- Discard the liquid. Rinse of the eggplant slices with cool water and thoroughly pat them dry with paper towels. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet and fry the eggplant slices, a few at a time, for 5 minutes, turning once. Place the cooked slices in a serving dish.
- When all the slices are fried, mix the coriander, lemon juice, and peanut butter in a seperate bowl and pour them over the eggplant slices.
- Mash with a fork until everything is incorporated.
- Serve warm with wedges of pita bread.