Sunday, November 06, 2011

Rwanda, October 29th 2011

The lilies have bloomed!  Elaine was a bit worried that the lovely vase of lilies she brought Eric and I wouldn't open up but instead we woke up to find some really beautiful flowers on our kitchen island. Now, a week later, they are still really beautiful and their scent is almost powerful enough to almost cover up the smell of the great chili Eric made on Tuesday, and of the pork roast & the split pea soup he made on Thursday. 

I have no excuses to give to the tardiness of this blog update.  I was just lazy.  I put it off like I put off trying to figure out what the health benefit changes for next year are all about.  Since Eric and I were able to navigate through that maze yesterday and make our selection for 2012, I figure I could deal with sitting in front of my computer and narrate the events of last Saturday night.  After all, this is my favorite subject:  food and travel. Mostly food since I have not been in the position to cook a meal in the actual country yet.  But I am not giving up that idea quite yet.

Rwanda is infamous for genocide(s).  I recently read some articles about the entire area (called the Albertine Rift and covers DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda) in a very interesting ipad app by National Geographic called 7 billion; it was very interesting to read how overpopulation is in part to blame for the mess in that region.  Side note: the world population has recently hit the 7 billion mark. When I was born in 1971, there were about 3.5bn people in the world so we've doubled in the last 40 years.  I struggled to understand how big this number is, but to put it in perspective: if you were to count from 1 to 7bn at a pace of 1 number per second, it would take 2 centuries.  If you were to go around the earth (at the equator not the poles) at an average stride, 7bn steps would mean 33 laps. 
If you have time (and some kind of electronic device that works with apps), download this free application.  It's really enlightening.  Or if you want to find out a bit more about the genocide but have a short attention span and not a delicate stomach, you can watch a few movies (e.g. Hotel Rwanda) and then cry. 

Going back to cooking, probably because of its infamousness - is that a word? - there are quite a few resources about Rwanda and so finding recipes was not very difficult.  Deciding the menu was.  Chicken or beef?  Or vegetarian?  A bit of everything? What about dessert?  Plantain cake... that was classified under dessert in the website I visited but as I was reading the recipe to make up the list of ingredients, I realized that the phrase "serve with meat" was probably an indication that this was a savory dish... so I improvised dessert.  But I'm jumping ahead.

I went shopping at the Dekalb Farmers Market and was able to find almost all ingredients with the exception of piri-piri chilies (which I substituted with serranos) and cassava leaves (which I substituted with kale).   

Eric was flying back on Saturday evening from London so I had to plan properly as I would not have been able to enlist him to help me in a frantic effort to serve dinner on time.  So I tried not to make anything that required too much preparation and even managed to squeeze in a morning run (and also vouched not to drink or eat too much that evening.... yeah, right). 

I almost had everything done by the time the first guest, Elaine, showed up with the above mentioned lilies.  We opened up a bottle of wine for Eric and me and a bottle of Cascal for Elaine who is on a diet that doesn't permit alcohol (but that's a good sub). 

By the time Dan & Peter arrived we were all hungry and so armed with our drinks, we made our way to the table ready to start our culinary journey. 

As an appetizer I served goat brochettes.  The recipe called for a tomato marinade made with piri-piri peppers which as I mentioned I could not find and I've got the feeling that one of the ingredients might have been wrong (did they mean 1/2 of a small tin of tomato paste vs. tomato puree?).  The marinade was a little too runny in my view and it didn't really give the red color to the meat that they described.  I didn't have too many choices on the cut of meat so I ended up with goat stew meat which is a bit chewy... but as someone pointed out (can't remember who), in Rwanda it is about the flavor not the substance.  In fact, a lot of chewing is probably a good thing since there probably isn't an awful abundance of meat. 
I should also add that I didn't have any wood brochettes (I must have used them at some point but since I was so sure I had them, I didn't put them on my shopping list and it was too late to go to the store by the time I've realized I was out).  So I used some long metal skewers but they weren't enough and I've realized pretty quickly that if I wanted the meat to cook properly I needed to remove the skewers.  Hence, I served the "brochettes" sans "brochette". 

As a main course I made Chicken with Tomato Sauce.  Yes, another tomato sauce but I figured that the goat being grilled and the chicken being stewed, it wasn't going to matter to my guests.  Since nobody even commented on the fact that we had tomato sauce again, I obviously was correct. 
Typically, I tend to cook the food a lot longer that the recipe required but this time I figured that there was no need and one of the comment I had was that it would have been better if the chicken had cooked for longer.  It wasn't raw, but in some parts it was not perfectly cooked through.  Since I've not received any messages from my dining companions that they have been bed ridden with a bout of salmonella, hopefully it was cooked enough.  The recipe called for a whole chicken cut into pieces but I chose to buy chicken pieces instead (with skin and bone) and save myself the trouble.  Plus I've got to choose which pieces I wanted so my chicken had 4 legs, 1 breast, 4 thighs and no wings.  Well, I bet that with all the shite they feed chickens in chicken farms, it wouldn't be really surprising to one day raise such a monster (sigh of sadness). 

To accompany the chicken, I served isombe (veggie) and plantain cake (carbs).  Isombe is a vegetable stew made with cassava leaves, spinach, eggplants and peppers cooked with a bit of peanut butter but I used kale since I could not find cassava leaves at the farmers market.  I love kale but I think I bought a bit too much and ended up eating it all week (I'm sure Eric was so sick of it!).  It's got lots of potassium and it's very versatile.  My mother used to boil it and then saute it in olive oil, garlic and rosemary and it was delicious.  It is also wonderful with pasta.  As it turned out, apparently kale is bitter and coupled with eggplants (apparently also bitter) it was a bit of a... well... bitter combination.  Who knew?  I didn't notice to be honest.  I never really noticed that eggplants are bitter.  They are my favorite vegetable.  Another comment was that it was a bit too watery and that's probably due to the fact that the recipe didn't say how much water should have been used to boil the kale.  I actually took out quite a bit but obviously not enough as you couldn't really taste the peanut butter. 

The plantain cake promised to be really good.  A baked concoction of fried plantains, cottage cheese, eggs, olive oil and breadcrumbs sounds like comfort food right?  Sure, except that the timer didn't work (another ipad app) and as a result it cooked quite a bit longer than the prescribed 40 minutes.... it looked lovely but it was a bit dry.  A shame really.  I think I will try this again.  I really like plantains but we only eat them when I am making one of my alphabetical dinners.  It's not a staple at our dinner table (that's because Eric isn't too fond of them and since he does most of the cooking we don't get too see plantains too often).  Adding the chicken sauce on top of the plantain did improve the consistency however so it was not a total disaster. 

As I mentioned earlier for dessert I had to improvise. Since plantain cake was no longer an option, and given that from what I read, Rwandan tend to eat fresh fruit for dessert, I decided to serve some papaya with syrup on toasted homemade Rwandan honey bread.  This bread was really delicious.  Very soft and flavorful but not too sweet so it didn't overpower the papaya.  The sweetness was accentuated by the syrup but overall it was a really good combination. Even Eric ate it and he liked it.  I had some leftover so I gave a chunk to my guests to have for breakfast. 

For the goody bags I had made a peanut nougat (it was sooooooo good, we ate pretty much all the leftover after dinner as we were polishing off the last of the wine - not that we would ever run out in this household) and kachumbari which is a relish of tomatoes, onions and chilies flavored with coriander  I've not heard back from anyone if they enjoyed this relish.  I didn't make any for us to keep so I've no idea if it was any good.  It looked like a salad to me... 

We had a bit of a discussion over my decision to rid of the scoring cards.  Apparently they were a good idea.  But that led into a discussion of the whole scoring the recipes process; Elaine just couldn't do it.  As a southern lady, it's really not possible for her to criticize the food that someone offered her.  I understand.  Dan, Peter and Joanne (who had joined us for dessert and some wine) all had a point of view about it but I've decided that I am not discontinuing this.  It's too much a part of the dinners... it's actually quite fun for me to go back to my notes years later and think back to the evening.  So, here you go, the menu and the scores:

Goat Brochettes: 7
Chicken with Tomato Sauce: 7.8
Isombe: 5.2
Plantain Cake: 4.7
Papaya on Toasted Rwandan Honey Bread :7.3

Another lovely evening.  Next we go back to the Caribbean for what is hopefully the last of the St. countries:  St. Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Stay tuned...


Anonymous said...

Hi Rossana,

As usual, I enjoyed reading it!

Too bad the plantain cake didn't get good score. I love plantain. Also too bad about the scoring note as I also thought it was a good idea...


Peter Wallace said...

It was a lovely dinner and a fantastic evening! If I were a Rwandan I'm sure I would think I died and went to heaven with this meal. Thanks, Rossana!

dan le said...

How are we going to resolve the question of world peace and the "chicken or beef" dilemma? :) I broke out laughing when I read that on your blog. For sure, the company and stimulation conversation have exceeded the vittles. Thanks R&E.

SalMonela said...

Understand that Pilot Whale is one of the dishes enjoyed on St. Vincent & the Grenadines. Do I need to go sharpen my harpoon?
- Eric