Sunday, July 31, 2011

AVL to ATL to Ethiopia

When you think of Atlanta and food, what do you think of? Chicken and biscuits? Chicken and waffles? Pork and anything? While there is plenty of traditional southern fare to be had in the ATL, there are also loads of good options for the modern foodie. Even the vegetarian ones. On a recent quick trip to our former home, however, we ignored the farm-to-table, locavore places that we'd normally slobber over and dove deep into that slice of the Atlanta food scene you don't hear much about: world cuisine.

Driving down from the mountains, we set aside the reality that we'd only have a few meal opportunities before having to high-tail it back home and passed the time talking about all the places we'd like to go. We reminisced about going for Ethiopian or Peruvian food on Buford highway, having proper Chinese dim sum and high-end authentic Mexican cuisine in the ubiquitious strip-mall restaurants, enjoying the spectacular dosas of south Indian cuisine at Udipi in Decatur, and Turkish kayak pizzas right next door. Sure a little American food slipped in as I still regularly fantasize about the gingerbread waffles with lemon curd at Java Jive but mostly our thoughts stayed global.

My number one priority was getting a taste of authentic South African food--something I've only found in the U.S. in Georgia. Strangely, both Atlanta and Savannah have great South African restaurants. We had been to 10 Degrees South shortly after it opened in the mid-90s. We remembered the Buckhead bungalow with its warm tones, casual atmosphere, and spot-on renditions of staples like bobotie, sosatie,and  boerwors with mealie pap. 

When we arrived, we were shocked to find the house had been turned into an unrecognizable modern building (hideous from the outside, it looked like a dreary medical office building) with valet parking (complimentary). Buckhead seems to have rubbed off on the place as it seemed to have gone more upscale for the dining and much more nightclubby for the bar. Fortunately, the food was as good as ever. There's not much beyond the vegetable curry for the non-carnivores but I was in heaven. I shared a biltong carpaccio ceasar salad with our friend and host for the weekend and she kindly let me steal a bite of her Kingclip--a favorite South African fish. Best of all was the dish I crave the most: bobotie. This Cape Malay spiced meat dish is often described as having a custard as part of it but that gives the wrong impression. It is like nothing else and needs to be tried to be appreciated. No photo will do it justice. And I didn't take my camera anyway. Make friends with a South African and have them make it for you.

Of all the wonderful cuisines brought to us by immigrants, this was the only one that didn't have the cheap-and-cheerful aspect that we usually enjoy. Still worth every penny and the strange looks we got for arriving in a pickup truck and not wearing black in the 95-degree heat. 

To make up Jim's protein deficit, we lunched the next day at the new northside location of one of our favorite haunts from Little Five Points: the Olive Bistro. The owner, Steve, takes what seem like fairly ordinary
Mediterranean dishes and somehow makes them spectacularly good while keeping them at cheap bistro prices. We gorged ourselves on hummus, falafel, grape leaves (his are about the only ones I like other than my own), and baklava. And one other thing: Tuscan beans. This dish of white beans, olive oil, lemon, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and herbs is completely addictive. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since we left ATL 10 years ago. It is deceptively simple--deceptive because for the life of me I cannot recreate it. So. Damn. Good. 

For our second dinner, we tried to keep it simple since we were still full from lunch. Our plan was to picnic at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival before seeing The Tempest. After a brief stop at Dancing Goats so Jim could pick up some of his beloved Batdorf and Bronson coffee, we headed over to the DeKalb Farmers Market. Note to our Illinois friends: the "l" in DeKalb is silent. But the market is not. This international market has some of the best food and best people watching--or more to the point, listening--in Atlanta. Here is where you go when you need 50 lbs. of jasmine rice, a durian fruit, fresh squid, pomegranate molasses, dried porcini mushrooms, dried shrimp, fresh oyster mushrooms......and on and on. Bulk spices, fresh produce fit for nearly any cuisine, incredible fresh seafood, fascinating dry goods, and an excellent wine section. The place is always jammed with folks from so many different countries loading up on the things they need for their own versions of good home cooking.

We really went to load up at the hot bar (sesame tofu, three kinds of samosas--lamb, beef, and veggie, fried chicken, lentil salad) where dinner for three came to $12. But I couldn't help looking through the whole, huge store. We did, afterall, bring a cooler with us thinking we'd load up at Trader Joe's before heading home. Instead, we loaded up here. So many fun things but two items just blew us away: Tej and injera.

Big fans of Ethiopian food, we have long lamented the lack of it here in the mountains. We have made a few attempts to cook it ourselves but two things are especially tricky: the honey wine known as Tej which should accompany the meal and the spongy, fermented bread injera on which and by which the meal is eaten. I have made injera twice. The first time fairly successfully with a non-traditional recipe out of a Moosewood cookbook. It takes three days but it's worth it since there is no good substitute. I tried making it the authentic way with Teff flour and it was a disaster. Inedible. I probably just needed a different recipe since I was using a different flour but I was gunshy after that experience and gave up. Since we had only ever found these two things at restaurants (and often the Tej only if we asked for it--most restaurants seem to have a secret stash), we resigned ourself to eating this most wonderful cuisine only when we were in cities with Ethiopian restaurants. 

Imagine our shock when perusing the wine aisle and spying a bottle of Tej in with the German white wines. We snagged it immediately and hoped that the reasonable price tag (c. $10) wasn't a harbinger of bad things to come.

I grabbed a South African pinotage for good measure, then headed out through the produce area. Mere moments after drooling over the fresh oyster mushrooms and looking to see who was brave enough to put a durian in their cart, I found myself in the bread aisle. Really, I was just cutting through to get to the hot bar but then I saw it. No way! Injera. Fresh-made injera for sale. Injera is so delicate and not at all shelf-stable so this was a huge surprise and a huge score. We grabbed up two packages of the giant round breads (easily 16 inches across) with the idea that we'd freeze them for future use. 

When we got to the checkout, the lovely east African cashiers looked at our Tej with amazement. They, too, couldn't believe the farmers market sold Tej. They passed it around and made us tell them exactly where it was. I think the market was going to have a lot of internal sales that night. Then they noticed me cradling our injera like a newborn in my arms. More amazement as they inquired about my plans for the bread. While one cashier asked me what I cooked (I replied "zil zil tibs" which got a great reaction) another was grilling Jim as to whether I was a good cook. I think we scored big points. 

Sadly, the bread did not survive the trip home intact. No matter. It still was as tasty as ever; it just wasn't photo-ready. They are a wonder to behold when they are properly cared for. Instead, we just made a whole bunch of dishes to cover our shame. First, I had to make the basic elements of nearly every Ethiopian dish: berbere (a hot spice mix) and niter kebbeh (spiced clarified butter). In the process of clarifying butter, you separate out the solids. I love that one of my recipes called both for the niter kibbeh but then also wanted me to add back the solids:

Once you have these basic ingredients, the recipes all go ridiculously fast. The vegetarian dined on Gomen (a mix of two kinds of kale, swiss chard, and carrots) and Yemisir Wat (a.k.a., Mesir Wet), a lentil dish often made with red lentils but we went with the more substantial brown lentils. A healthy dollop of Greek yogurt helped to offset the heat of the berbere.

The omnivore enjoyed all of those things plus Zil Zil Tibs made with sirloin steak and Doro Wat, the chicken stew which  features two kinds of chicken: meat and hard-boiled eggs. Try picking up a whole hard-boiled egg with injera and eating it gracefully the next time you're in an Ethiopian restaurant. Much hilarity will ensue. 

The spice level can easily be turned down when you make your own berebere mix. Since a well-made berbere is much like great Indian spice mixes where the heat doesn't drown out the myriad complex flavors, we prefer to keep the heat and use the yogurt to provide some variety. That, and the sour notes from the injera, set up some amazing taste sensations. But suit yourself. I'd rather you eat Ethiopian mildly spiced than not eat it at all. 

One last note: although Tej is called honey wine, it is not the same thing as what is called mead or honey wine in the U.S.. Try to get the real deal if you can. It is sweet, but not as cloying and viscous as many domestic honey wines. We normally don't care for honey wine but we make an exception for Tej and for meads from our friends at Fox Hill Meadery who make wonderfully balanced, dry, and complex meads--definitely not the stuff of dorm rooms and renaissance fairs.

Phew! All this writing has made me hungry. Fortunately, I have leftovers for days.......

Thursday, July 21, 2011

From Mulberries to Chanterelles

Summer is speeding by at an alarming pace. I'd hoped to write about a bunch of things, giving each one its own post but I fear now that if I keep that goal, I'll never get to any of it. Before life gets any busier and while I listen to the calming sounds of the bullfrogs and a most-unfairly named screech owl, here's a bit of what we've been up to over the past two--now make that three--weeks or so:

In doing a little orchard maintenance, we discovered that we'd missed some blossoms on one of our young, heirloom (is than an oxymoron?) apple trees. We try to keep the trees from fruiting at this age so all of their energy will go to making a strong tree. Our neglect of the Horse tree resulted in a fine illustration of why a sapling shouldn't be allowed to fruit too early--the entire tree was bent over to the ground under the weight of the fruit. We didn't get a picture in our rush to relieve the pressure on the tree (i.e., pull the fruit off) but here's a shot of the developing apples. Yes, Horse apples. Can't wait 'til we can let these beauties grow properly.

Speaking of fruit, a neighbor tipped us off to the location of some mulberry trees with ripe berries on public land nearby. We spent part of our 4th of July harvesting free fruit--ours for the staining, I mean picking. Neither of us had seen or eaten fresh mulberries before and they were a revelation. Gently sweet and slightly floral, their deep purple juiciness was refreshing in the awful heat and humidity. We gathered what we could reach and bemoaned the lack of longer arms.

After snacking, we had about three cups worth. Not enough for jam but almost enough for pie. I grabbed some of last year's blueberries out of the freezer to fill out the filling. All the mulberry pie recipes that I consulted said to leave the stems on. Looks weird but I understand why. The stems run down through the fruit so if you try to pull them off, you just end up juicing the berry and still not getting the stem detached. Plus, your fingers make you look like an Iraqi voting for the first time.

I didn't feel like going to the trouble of making a lattice top crust so I went for a crumb topping instead. It was absolutely the right idea even if the recipe I used went too heavy on the sugar--that's easily fixed next time.

Even though I really had to steel myself for turning on the oven, it was worth it. Overflow was an issue despite  the scant amount of filling but fortunately I had remembered to stick a cookie sheet under the pie plate.

So tasty! The only real downside was the stems. Not that they're tough to eat, they just create a weird texture issue--I kept thinking I was about to eat something I shouldn't. Next time, I'll snip them off as close to the berry as I can get.

Shortly after the mulberry madness, this guy showed up:

Normally, I just let the stray dogs sans identification wander back where they came from but this guy just kept hanging around. Neutered and very familiar with the concept of porch, I figured he had been kept by someone at some point. He was, however, quite emaciated and covered with a cloud of fleas and more ticks than I could count. It took me awhile to get him to let me close enough to check him out (he was very head-shy as though he was expected to be hit) but eventually his sweet self couldn't resist some attention. I pulled as many ticks as I could before I got so flea-bitten that I broke out the Frontline and dosed him for both our sakes. My plan was to take him to the pound the next day if he was still around. Normally I would not feed a stray but when I found that he had eaten my snapping turtle shell, I realized just how desperate he was for food and I took pity on him. I gave him some dog food but I didn't want to give too much at once, so I also gave him a zucchini (yes, there's one more use for all those squash you have lying around this time of year).

He happily wolfed it down, thus earning him the name Zuke. At some point during the night, Zuke wandered off. We know this because we a certain howling hound kept us up most of the night making noise from not too far away (but far enough that we couldn't do anything but close windows and insert earplugs to little avail).
No sign of Zuke in the morning, so off to the pound he did not go. That afternoon, he showed up again. But this time he brought a friend. Another hound whom we'll call Red, for his reddish patches. Now, I'm starting to feel like someone painted "sucker" on my forehead and "easy mark" over the back door. Red didn't look hungry or parasite-infested nor did he have any of Zuke's shyness, so I expect he is actively cared for by someone. I couldn't manage to take both dogs in nor track down their owners with company about to arrive, so I let them run around and apologized to the buffalo for Red's incessant barking (I now suspect it was he, rather than Zuke, who kept up the barking all night). They disappeared before the company arrived and I haven't seen either of them since.

We had enough rain and warmth at the beginning of the month to make a foray worthwhile. I went to my favorite mushroom patch on the farm and found all sorts of interesting things. Best of all were these lovelies: chanterelles!

Because there was such a variety of shapes and sizes among the examples I found and there are a number of poisonous look-alikes, I took my fungi to the Asheville Mushroom Club for positive identification before eating. Once given the all-clear, I quickly dug out a favorite recipe for creamed chanterelles with sage over wheat crostini (made all the better for having wheat walnut bread from West End Bakery). So decadently rich, so decidedly delicious! If only I'd had time to go looking for more....... 

Friday, July 1, 2011

Eschol Moos

It started last spring when our neighbor whose house is behind our big barn moved back home with her two kids. The buffalo were so fascinated with the kids playing in their yard that they'd run up to the fence to watch whenever the kids were out. One day, instead of the usual little grunts that the buffs make whenever they're on alert about something (usually the prospect of a tasty treat), I heard Eschol moo. Buffs aren't supposed to moo and this really wasn't a classic moo. More of a grunt that got stuck in the on position.

I think Eschol was a little surprised himself but he just stood there and listened to the sound coming out of his mouth and went with it. For a few days after that, every time he saw me, he would moo at me. He'd moo when I walked up toward the barn and again when I'd leave. Sometimes in the mornings, I'd hear him mooing as I was coming out of the house as if to say, "Hey lady, it's getting late. When are you going to come bring us some hay?"

By the time the grass was growing again, he had largely stopped making any noise. Until this week. The moo just came back. I think he's trying to tell me that they've lost interest in the plants that are left in the main pasture and would like to be moved (no, I refuse to do the obvious pun here) to lusher pastures. I've been giving them brief forays in the fish pond as a reward for passing through the chute/stanchion.  Today, I saw them eating the giant ragweed that's growing like crazy in the fish pond. Good buffs. Yes, you may eat as much of that as you like.

On a sad but not unexpected note, the swarm of honeybees did not take up residence here. They left a little more than 24 hours after they appeared. Oh well. I'll take my weedeating buffalo over a fickle swarm any day.