Sunday, March 14, 2010

Zimbabwe - March 13th 2010

I hosted an Albanian dinner in early June 2005 so this means that it took me almost 5 years to go through the alphabet the second time round. That happens when work gets in the way of entertaining friends. But it is bad form to complain about working these days since I suppose one should just be happy one has a job. Mine has actually recently changed and since I can't complain about the job as mentioned 5 seconds ago, I'll leave it at that.

I had initially planned to have the last dinner of "Alphabetical Dinners volume 2" before the end of last year - in fact I thought I could have had a New Year's Eve dinner party - but Eric did not like the idea, and between birthday in January, seafood lasagna in February (my valentine's tradition) and weight watchers points falling off my iphone application, it took me a while to actually organize it. I had thought that perhaps I could try to cook a meal for Zimbabwe by substituting some of the fats and make it more weight watchers friendly, but how do you replace one cup of butter or one pound of peanut butter and still get the same yummy results? Let's face it, bacon won't help me get into the skinny jeans, but is there really something similar that tastes remotely as good?

Here is a challenge to all y'all that read this blog: can you think of a food that you would not pair with bacon? A few of us were having brunch yesterday morning and started thinking about it. I think I went through most food - and drink - groups and failed to come up with something that I would not eat with bacon. I thought of maybe pig/beef liver, than realized that I just don't like liver with anything... so that doesn't count. Anyway, think about it and please report back to me.

I had started researching foods from Zimbabwe a few months back and I had come up with quite a few options: there's also a lady blogger who I believe is British and live in Zimbabwe that has quite a lot of recipes posted so I picked a couple to serve as appetizers. After a bit of debate and Eric's opinion on the matter, I finalized the menu and sent out the invites. I had a nice group around the table last night: Katie and Barbara, Fulvia sans beau (couldn't finish his school work on time) and Tony sans Anne: of course I had invited both of them but one of them had to stay home to babysit and I am being told that they actually tossed a coin to decide which of the two was going to come to my dinner! And of course, Eric.

I have recently started watching American Idol: as a matter of principle I do not usually watch reality shows but one day I kind of started watching it out of curiosity (and because I had heard that Ellen DeGeneres was going to be one of the judges) and I liked it. Or at least I liked the singing and judging part. Don't really care for all the drama around the contestants... But I suppose if you want to be a pop star, you have to know how to deal with Tiger Woods' like tricky situations. But anyway, I am digressing here. The point of this is that I think that if I had to match the judges at my dinner table with the American Idol judges, Eric would have to be Simon. And it's not a bad thing at all. After all, he's a master gourmand, and usually he likes almost everything but I don't think there is much that WOWs him. Except for the love for his wife of course.

Anyway, back to Zimbabwe. Lots of peanuts - or groundnuts as they are called. I even served them with the welcome drink (red wine, I couldn't find a beer from Zimbabwe in Atlanta and I just wasn't going to brew my own one, although I did find a couple of recipes). Bought some organic salted peanuts at the farmers market and they were actually pretty good. Then again, please forgive me for saying that everything - even banal peanuts -was pretty good, I have been on weight watchers since the beginning of the year and am just craving fat.

In the excitement of getting back to my lovely alphabetical cooking, I completely forgotten to take pictures of the dishes although Katie did take a few photos which I'll post once she's sent them to me.

As an appetizer, I made three small plates:
  1. Avocado mousse. The recipe came from the above mentioned lady blogger who lives in Zimbabwe and I thought that given the precision of the measurements, it had to be easy. So I didn't spend much time thinking about it. Except that it gave the choice to dissolve the gelatine in either white wine or chicken stock. I went with wine and as a result, the flavor of the avocado disappeared. Moreover, the flavor of the wine really was overpowering and gave the dish a bit of a tart aftertaste which I tried to mask by adding paprika and olive oil. Aside from Barb who thought it was pretty bad, the rest quite liked it. Was supposed to look like a dome but it kind of fell apart when I took it out of the bowl so it was more of a very runny dip. I served this with some nice sesame flatbread that I found at the farmers market.
  2. Dried fruit wrapped in bacon. Eric suggested figs and dates (I wanted prunes but didn't have the good sense to buy them pitted...) and they were really yummy. Then again, see above for my take on bacon with anything. It was only upon eating the dates that we realized those also were not pitted... oh well, they were very tasty. Scored really really high (three 10s, one 9 and one 8 - yes, the eight was Eric, see I am not making this stuff up - and ok, 8 is really good). The recipe said to broil the fruits wrapped in bacon for 2-3 minutes and I kind of liked the charring around the edges).
  3. Chicken Chaat. This is cubed chicken breast that has been cooked in turmeric, cilantro and chili pepper. Also really good. I served it cold. I've got confused in reading the recipe and ended up using 1 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric instead of 1/4 teaspoon but I think that was a good mistake as the dish ended up tasting much like what you'd expect to eat in an Indian restaurant.
On this final point, Zimbabwe used to be a British colony and it makes sense that there would be a bit of Indian influence in the food. After all, real British food isn't the kind you really want to export (no offense Tony - I do like pork pies and fish and chips).
As a main course, I made Chicken Stew. The chicken pieces were cooked with tomatoes and 1lb of peanut butter. I cooked it the entire afternoon on slow and as a result the sauce was nice and thick which you would expect when eating something like peanut butter (mind you, it wasn't as thick as peanut butter but it did have that nice consistency). The stew was served with Sadza dumplings (which are made of white cornmeal - I think Sadza is the name of a person). Also, as a side dish, I served roasted butternut squash - I have not eaten a lot of butternut squash in my life but I have to say I really liked it. Tasted very much of sweet potatoes (and obviously the 5 tablespoons of butter made the squash really good). However, I'd really like to know how was this supposed to cook in 25 minutes as the recipe suggested? Is my oven really not as hot as I think (it's a Wolf for those in the known)? I think I cooked them for 1.5 hours. After 25 mins they were still mildly cold - they were wrapped in aluminum foil - and certainly not edible.
Finally, dessert: cornmeal cake. Ah, the memories this brought to me! It tasted very much like a lovely egg custard and when I was a kid I used to love eating custard. Also, it was covered with a thin layer of sour cream and the combination made it even better. I ended up having 1 1/2 slices with dinner and then probably another slice before going to bed (I had given up counting points after the third glass of wine, but this morning I just rounded up the whole dinner to 30 points - those of you who have ever done WW would know how much that is: 1.5 day worth of points).
Preparing the goody bag this time was actually quite a lot of fun: I had thought to go find some original African trinkets (maybe earrings or bangles) but most of the stuff I found that I like and that I could afford, was made in Indonesia which was just a bit too far from Zimbabwe. So I went for food. I found a recipe for sweet potato biscuits (the English word for cookies, not the biscuits that they serve here in the US - although they did not have much sugar so I suppose one could eat them with bacon. Not that one couldn't eat them with bacon if they had a lot of sugar. Remember the challenge!). Then I also found a recipe for mango candies. I have to assume these were supposed to be some kind of crystallized fruit but something didn't quite work out. After cooking for what felt like a day - well, 2 hours really - I finally decided that my candies had the same consistency as jam and so I used a hand blender to reduce it to a sticky pulp, found some little votive candle holders, filled them with the jam, packaged them up a bit and put them in the goody bags. I ended up having just enough to fill the 5 jars so I'd like some feedback from the dinner guests. Was it good? Also, it was a good thing that the little candle holders were green as I needed something to represent Saint Patrick - which is just a few days away. Finally, Eric and I found a Kenyan bottled beer. A disclaimer here: I realize that including a Kenyan beer in a goody bag meant to represent Zimbabwe is probably equivalent to give someone a Stella Artois at an Italian dinner but, in my defense, you just can't find Zimbabwean beer in Atlanta! Of course, being near Saint Patrick's Day, I could have just bought a can of Guinness...

The food overall scored really well:
Bacon-wrapped dried fruit: 9.4
Avocado Mousse: 6.6
Chicken Chaat: 8.6
Chicken Stew with Sadza Dumplings: 7.5
Roasted Butternut Squash: 6.9
Cornmeal Cake: 7.5
It had been a long day - Katie, Barb, Eric and I had ran a 5K race that morning so had to be up really early and Barb was falling asleep standing up - despite the entertainment provided by Katie and Fulvia as they were practicing belly dancing and so around 11pm we all said our goodnights and went to bed. But it was another memorable night.
Thankfully, the world is a big place so lots more alphabetical cooking in my future. I am really happy to have come to end of chapter 2 and am already looking forward to start it all over again: next on the agenda, Algeria.
Stay tuned...


Anonymous said...

Zimbabwe night was fabulous (as are all the alphabet dinners)...and I second that anything goes with bacon. I gave the bacon wrapped figs a perfect 10! I had forgotten that Fulvia and I busted some belly dancing moves...I blame it on delerium spon by sleep deprivation (b/c of our early race), gluttony, and wine.

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Anonymous said...

Sounds wonderful! (Lucky Tony) Love the American Idol analogy. Keep me on the list! Susan

Anonymous said...

Bacon on anything is awesome---but especially figs and dates. I'm still trying to think of what might not be good with it, but am completely stumped! Love the dinners, love the posts. Keep it up; your book is almost done! -Laurel

Eric said...

SIMON?!! I've never been so insulted! What next, I give a score below 5 and I'm Gordon Ramsey? In fact, the dinner was much better than I expected (think Zimbabwe cuisine is sort of like sausage - best enjoyed when you don't watch it being made), and the company as always a blast, even if nobody came with a chicken bone through their nose as I'd hoped.

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