Sunday, July 8, 2012

Epic Homemade Bread on Sunday in Tanzania

Tenzing is horrified by the local bread.
For foodies like our family, living in Tanzania can be trying. The chicken tastes like fish, the fish... well, I wouldn't eat that if I were you (if you're not on the coast). The veggies are rarely refrigerated and often have questionable chemicals that may or may not have been sprayed on them. They are generally nutrient poor and lacking in any real flavor. Some more trustworthy products are airfreighted in and cost double or triple their Western price in the local expat supermarket.

Luckily humans are infinitely adaptable, and denial eventually turns to acceptance. In the case of food, this means making the best of what we do have that is good, paying the premium for quality products from abroad, and using cooking techniques to add flavor. It also means working extremely hard to find quality producers and buying whatever they have. We are very lucky to have a permaculture NGO called foodwatershelter that grows seasonal organic veg and sells it to us. Also, a lovely Dutch expat family runs a huge farm called Simba Farms on West Kilimanjaro that generally turns out nice produce, especially beautiful beets in season. 

The bread here is especially and universally awful. The main ingredients are generally GMO flour and "vegetable fat". Gross. 

We've never baked our own bread, in part because we believed the myth that you need a steam-injected professional oven to make really amazing artisan bread. We're happy to report that it is possible to make amazing bread in even our very humble kitchen. The secret is a technique invented by Jim Lahey from Sullivan Street bakery in NYC and popularized by Mark Bittman of the New York Times. Literally ANYONE can do this, though you do need a cast iron pot like a Le Creuset

Luckily, we just picked up a Chasseur Enamel Pot for $30 from some expats that didn't want to lug it back to the USA.

The utter genius of this recipe is that your cast iron pot becomes like a miniature steam oven. The other genius part is that you let time do all the work. So you let the bread rise for 12-18 hours, but you have to do almost no work. Most important, there is no kneading, zero, nada. Awesome.

So the only ingredients we used were flour, water, salt, instant yeast and a bit of whole wheat flour for the crust. But oh, what flour! We found this surprisingly well-stocked health food store in Nairobi, and they had imported flour from Glebe Farm in the UK. Utterly awesome organic flour from the English countryside.

If you want to try yourself (I bet you'll get it right the first time). Recipe: at NY Times , also best to watch the video here first.

We only ran into one hitch - the always unreliable power here went off just after we turned on the oven. Luckily the bread hadn't gone in, or all our hard work would have been lost! We should have our house largely "off grid" in the next few weeks, as we're putting in a backup power system. We're quite excited about that. 

 Now for Laura's turn to share in her joy of having fresh bread to eat... making a B.L.A.T.!


 As most of you know I used to be gluten-free, I'm now a little more of an opportunivore since living in the UK. How can you say no to fresh french croissants de buerre. I can't, nor shouldn't! I realized while living in Europe that I could digest bread made from more ancient wheat, wheat that's never been genetically engineered or altered. So... bread I eat, and love it although we really don't eat it that much.

Today I'm relishing in Xavier's creation and adding some extra pizzazz and flair, I'm making a lovely BLAT (bacon, lettuce, avocado, tomato). Since finding out I am allergic to eggs I have stayed away from mayo for the most part. So really the only true recipe here is my famous yogurt dijon eggless mayo!

Yogurt Egg-less Mayo
-3 Tbls. greek yogurt
-1 Tbls. dijon mustard
-salt and pepper to taste
*mix well, voila!

-Back Bacon ( it's much tastier than streaky bacon which I didn't know existed until living in the UK)
-Heirloom tomato (we obviously don't have those here, but please use them if you can get them!)
-organic mixed greens
-organic avocado
-Yogurt Egg-less Mayo
-Fresh made No-Knead Bread.
*I'm pretty sure you can figure out the rest.
Eat at least 2 of them and enjoy!
Love. love. love.

 Xavier, Laura and lil' Tenzing

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Much Belated Chronicle and Saturday Afternoon Caponata

As the Helgesen family neglects to remember sometimes in the incessant hustle of packing and unpacking, we do lead an interesting and lucky life. As a couple small-town kids instilled at birth with unhealthily high levels of wanderlust, we always seek out the magic, wonderful and occasionally pretty grubby corners of the world. We've realized that we share precious little of it with the people we love so much who we've met along the way. This blog, we hope, will be a way to tell those stories.

For those who we've been especially bad at communicating with, we are currently living on a coffee farm outside Arusha, Tanzania. Xavier is working on an ambitious new startup called Off.Grid:Electric (full website coming soon) trying to make distributed renewable energy actually work for the 1.5 Billion people who don't have access to the electrical grid, and more than a few of those that do. In Tanzania, an electrical grid connection is largely a luxury of the middle and upper class (roughly those making over $4000 a year here). Even that is only if they live in very select areas in a very big country. That covers 10% of the population, leaving the other 90% to fend for themselves with batteries, kerosene and diesel generators. Even those that do have power experience daily power cuts, averaging 8 hours a day.

Laura is crazy enough to come along for the ride, and has found a community teaching dance in every form from toddler creative dance to Zumba. She also continues to practice the healing arts of herbalism, and has already gone on walks with the legendary Maasai herdsmen to learn what medicines they use every day. She writes regularly about her work and practice separately at The Urban Herbalist.

Tenzing has basically turned into Tanzan boy. No diapers, dirt on face in every crevice, waving 6 foot bamboo poles around, and pushing his favorite trolley maniacally. His little stumpy feet now have pure hobbit leather on the bottom of them, as a result of a few months barefoot on gravel in our driveway. He's also learned the delightful habit of picking items up, throwing them as hard as possible on the ground and laughing maniacally. Our crazy little boy is turning 2 on the 21st of this month, so please do send wishes.

Switching to the "first person" {Xavier}, I have been hopelessly in love with the food and culture of Italy since I spent 6 weeks bicycling the length of the country in the late fall of 2002. From apple harvest in the Italian Alps (two days of barely pedaling as I went downhill through orchards) to wood-fired pizza in the home of it all in Naples, I dare say it changed the way I looked at food forever. The country had a similar effect on celebrity chef and food activist, Jamie Oliver, one of my personal heros. His books basically taught me to cook and brought a voice and a style to the unfussy, uncomplicated, adventurist style I always wanted to have as a cook but didn't know how.

Recovering from my first bout with a random African stomach virus (not recommended) I finally started to get my appetite back. Still resting up and dreaming of Italy (Africa is many things, but Italy is not one of them) I started reading Jamie's Italy (can't recommend enough) from cover to cover. As miracle would have it, I only needed to get to page 8 to find a recipe that was delicious, authentic, and I was delighted to find we had all the key ingredients.

Caponata is essentially a southern italian eggplant stew. Cooked properly it is delectable - often served as an appetizer, or anitpasti, in Italy, it is great warm and cold. As long as you have eggplants and tomatoes, nearly every other ingredient is flexible and it is a great way to use those capers and olivers haunting the back of your fridge.

Ingredient List:
  • 2 big eggplants (chopped in big chunks)
  • 6 ripe tomatoes (chopped roughly including middle bits)
  • 1 small onion (finely chopped)
  • some parsley stalks (chopped finely)
  • 3 cloves of garlic (Jamie uses 2. Slice thinly)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary (Jamie uses oregano. use less if dried. or other italian herbs are good)
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (Jamie uses herb vinegar)
  • some capers (drained)
  • some green olives (pitted)
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil

OK, simple simple. Put a few big glugs of olive oil in a big stovetop pan and get it HOT. Keep the olive oil handy in case the pan gets too dry. Saute the eggplants for 5 minutes or so, until nicely browned on both sides. They shouldn't burn if you have enough oil. Turn the heat down or take the pan off if anything starts to smoke. Now throw in the rosemary, onion, parsley stalks and garlic. Keep things moving for a couple more minutes, but don't burn your garlic!

Now it gets even more fun. Put the vinegar in (don't be scared) and let the moisture cook off, stirring things around. About 2 minutes likely. Now throw the tomatoes, capers (make sure they're drained) and olives (make sure they're pitted) in. Simmer for at least 15 minutes until the eggplant is fully, fully, I do mean fully cooked. It should be soft and not bitter.

As always, you need to add salt and pepper and check the seasoning. I found this tough to learn as a beginning cook for some reason, but basically you just need to keep tasting and adding until it tastes really good. Other than dramatically oversalting, this is hard to overdo (if you are tasting regularly), but easy to underdo out of fear of overseasoning.

Serve sprinked with chopped parsley and really good olive oil. Some freshly grated parmesan (don't you dare use that canned junk) certainly couldn't hurt. Great by itself, as a topping for toast, as a pasta sauce, etc., etc.

Thank you for your indulgence - more soon!