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!


  1. Can't wait until 'free zucchini season' in our mountain community so that I can cook this on a regular basis.

  2. Wonderful account of the World Travelers 'Sen Family. Thanks for the recipe, and would love to know more about your exploits on Off Grid Electric, sounds like a world saver.
    Peace and love from San Freakcisco ;Darrell, Jules and Lady dog.

  3. Love hearing updates. I wish they were from Asheville, but I suppose Africa has a certain charm too.
    (blog is newly added to "priority status" on my RSS reader)