Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ants and Rats - Tropical Delicacies

The heat has finally set in. Yes, I'm sure it's here to stay. You know how I know? The ants. Little sugar ants have started crawling across the kitchen counter. It reminds me of something...oh, the Berenstain Bears "A" book. "Ants. Ants advance. Ants advance across all Arizona and Otehlia's kitchen."

Today my husband threatened poison.
"They get in my sandwiches," he said.
"What?" I cried. "They're just sugar ants, they're harmless."
And then I threw in for extra measure, "And if you cleaned the counters more often, the ants wouldn't have anything to eat."

He asked if I would like to eat them, and I assured him I already have.

Living in Guyana, Africa and Brazil and traveling in Australia, I have ingested a fair number of ants. And as a kid I ate them as a dare, but that's another story (like the beginning of my culinary prowess?).

The thatched roofs and open-air environments in the tropics allow all sorts of wildlife in. Ants were just one of many. At night after cleaning the kitchen, and dishes, a towel was thrown over the leftover food and just-cleaned dishes to prevent ants from throwing late night parties. But they made their way in, nevertheless, and enjoyed the powdered milk, and of course the sugar. Those small crunches were the involuntary ingestions.

In Australia, however, eating ants can be voluntary. There is one species of ant, the green ant, that is actually favored for it's burst of "citrus" flavor that comes from it voluptuous behind. I tried those, too--once.

That got me thinking about some of the other weird food I have eaten. Here are some of my top picks:

Cameroon: After traveling for many hours to visit a friend's mother in the bush, we gave her the fish we had bought from the market that day. I love Cameroonian fish and was looking forward to a delicious meal. But as the honored guest, the local village men went out to hunt for me--and came back with a forest rat (I just realized it is probably a cane rat). I had to try to be polite and chew some of the stringy rat meat. Not yum.

Mali: Again, after traveling for hours, by bus, donkey cart and foot, to visit a friend's family in a remote village, we were treated a meal of goat's meat. The goat stew was delicious, but I noticed the next day that the legs and head of the goat were laying on a mat inside an empty hut. I wondered if the were going to bury it, or offer it as a sacrifice. On the third day it finally disappeared from the hut--and showed up that evening as the most foul smelling dinner I have ever been offered. I tried to, but couldn't, eat it. Rotten goat's head must be loaded with B vitamins and protein, but I couldn't get it past my lips. They forgave me because I am a foreigner. I think.

Cameroon: (Again?) Cows stomach and snails. Tough and chewy. Enough said.

Guyana: I was always hungry for protein (read "meat") during the two months I lived among the Makushi tribe in Guyana, and one of the most readily available meat was fish. Villagers dried the fish and brought it around to sell. Since I was no fisherwoman (the women killed the fish by biting the heads of the fish--I am not that brave!), I eagerly bought what I could. I remember cutting into one hunk of dried fish to find it crawling with worms. When I showed it to my friends there, they told me to just cut the worms out. So I did. No point in wasting good meat!

Husband, ants are a treat. Just try them with chocolate! It could be worse...

What is the weirdest food you've ever eaten?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Ginger-Lime Platanos Maduros with Coconut-Curry Dipping Sauce

Ginger-Lime Platanos Maduros with Coconut-Curry Dipping Sauce

Credit to Greta! Thanks for cooking up a storm with me!

Ginger Lime Plantains
2-3 ripe plantains (we tried sweet potatoes, too, but I didn't like them as much)
4 tbsp lemon or lime juice
4 tsp fresh ground ginger
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp ground hot pepper (or to taste)
2-4 tbsp palm oil
1/2 cup or more canola oil

Mix lemon juice, ginger, allspice and cayenne in a shallow bowl. Slice plantains on the diagonal and place in mixture until coated.
Heat oil in skillet over medium heat (should generously cover bottom of skillet) until the plantain sizzle when placed in it.
Cook plantain on both sides until golden. Place on paper towel to drain oil, and enjoy hot with dipping sauce.

Coconut-Curry dipping sauce
1 cup coconut milk
1-2 tsp lime juice
1-2 tbsp honey
1/4-1/2 tsp cayenne
1/4-1/2 tsp curry powder

Mix and enjoy!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Cooking up a (Tropical) Storm: Tamarind Glazed Chicken in Masa Crepes with Goat Cheese and Pineapple Salsa

I rarely cook with friends. It seems that my days and weeks revolve around shopping, cooking and chopping somewhat frantically, just trying to get a nutritious meal on the table.

Except for the occasional helping hand from my husband or kids, I usually do it solo. I can't imagine that watching me run back and forth from the computer to the stove as I throw together a must-have Pad Thai, and yanking greens out of the garden to ensure we get our daily dose of vitamins, would be much fun for a friend anyway.

The other day, however, my spirit sister, "G", came over to cook with me. Oh, yeah. Daughter napping, son at a playdate, a fridge full of ingredients, and I had a grownup to talk to?! It was lovely.

I just made that word up "spirit sister," or I should say it's the first time I've used that phrase in conjunction with someone in my life. Sounds a little hokey. But I've known G for years, and I've watched her bounce off to live in the Caribbean and Africa, and to throw away perfectly good jobs for the sake of adventure, just as I did (and still do?). She recently told me of her dream to become a professional African dancer (not easy for us tubabs), the same dream I held onto for years.

G and I cook together the same way we live life--spontaneously, full of flavor and ideally south-of-the-border.

She pulled some peppers, plantains, limes and avocado out of her bag. I marinated a few pieces of chicken in olive oil, garlic and lime, and stirred together a concoction of tamarind, sugar and chipotles. We chopped pineapple, habaneros, and cilantro, and stirred corn masa with eggs and milk.

The result? A great afternoon of cooking and talking. And lots of food! We enjoyed Tamarind Glazed Chicken in Masa Crepes with Goat Cheese and Pineapple Salsa as a main dish and Ginger-Lime Plantains and Sweet Potatoes with a Coconut Dipping Sauce. One bite catapulted us to the warm waters of the Caribbean. It's a great place to go with a friend.

Tamarind Glazed Chicken in Masa Crepes with Goat Cheese and Pineapple Salsa
Tamarind Chicken
(adapted from Mark Miller)

1-2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast (or try pork)
1 cup olive oil
juice of 1 lime
3 clove garlic
2 tbsp chile flakes
2 tsp sugar

8 oz tamarind puree (at Asian food stores)
1.5 cups water
1 clove roasted garlic
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 chipotles in adobo
2 tbsp adobo sauce
juice of 1/2 lime

Marinate chicken overnight, or for a few hours. Grill chicken turning halfway through cooking, until almost done. Glaze on each side during the last 10 minutes of cooking.

Masa Crepes
(adapted from Deborah Madison)

3 eggs
1 1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup masa
1/2 cup flour
pinch chile powder (optional)

Mix all ingredients together with a whisk and ladle onto greased crepe pan. Cook 'em up!

Pineapple Salsa
1 small ripe pineapple
1 green bell pepper
1/2 habanero
1 jalapeno
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 small red onion chopped

Mix all ingredients in a bowl and let sit 10-15 minutes. Eat with everything.

To assemble: Chop the hot grilled chicken or pork and roll in crepes with goat cheese (I love Dreamfarm!). Top with pineapple salsa and enjoy!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

LaraBar- A Short Story of Love and Betrayal (and a giveaway)

I recently received not one, but two boxes of LaraBars--free! I was feeling so excited because I had sampled, and loved, the bars and was (notice past tense?) going to blog rave reviews about them. I wrote to the company and told them how much I loved the bars. They sent me a first sample.

They must have known that I needed more incentive to complete the post, but not even two free handouts can bring me to write the glowing reviews I had in mind.

After some research, I found that LaraBar is owned by General Mills, whose principle investors include GE, Target, Phillip Morris, Exxon Mobile and Pfizer.

I felt betrayed. You know that feeling you had as a kid when you realized that your best friend was actually someone else's best friend?

I had finally found an energy bar that I liked. I normally can't stand too-sweet, carob-flavored, protein-powdery energy bars. They never seem worth the caloric intake--I'd rather eat some fruit and nuts, and of course chocolate. But LaraBars are actually delicious!! They are simply raw fruit and nut bars (hence the reason I love, I mean loved, them?) that are date sweetened. The bars come in flavors such as pecan pie, apple pie, banana bread, peanut butter and jelly or cocoa mole bars.

It is hard to accept that your best friend is not the person you thought they were. I'm sure if I looked in my pantry I would find many other brands of food that share a common bond with the LaraBars. That is why I don't always delve too deep--and why I try my best to buy fair trade, local and organic. But I did look deeper at the LaraBars, and now I know. I feel betrayed, yet also enlightened. I guess that's part of growing up.

I can't be sure that the bulk fruits and nuts that I buy are any better, but until I know differently, I will stick with them, or indulge in some homemade energy bars such as this Vegan Bar recipe by Rcakewalk. Hey, maybe I'll even wander the cookie and chocolate aisle more often; it never hurts to make some new friends.

Giveaway! Send me your favorite family-friendly story of love and betrayal. I will send the winner a small, unopened box of Larabars (If you still want to try them after reading this post:)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Spinach, Strawberry and Goat Cheese salad with Microgreens and Balsamic Vinaigrette

I think I blinked and missed the transition from winter to spring. Or maybe it's that I'm getting older and everything seems to move faster. All of the sudden once-tiny plants are knee-high. They have erupted into bloom, with shouts of purple, red and orange heralding each day, and verdant greens and sunkissed yellows signing off each night.

Wasn't it just winter? Wasn't I just checking each branch of the trees I planted last year for signs of life? Now the flowers have dropped from my cherry tree, and I am anxiously awaiting the impending tart cherries--and of course, the resultant cherry crisps, lusciously draped in vanilla ice cream.

The small cotyledons of the greens I planted have leafed out, thanks in part to the fencing I put up this year (the rabbit salad buffet has gone out of business!). I never label the rows when I plant. It's sort of like being pregnant and leaving the baby's sex a surprise--I like finding out what I planted as the plants grow.

Awesome! I planted parsley! Just when I was thinking about going to the store for some, I checked my rows of greens, and spied the tell-tale fringed leaf. The thinnings were perfect for my couscous salad.

Yes! I knew I planted some lettuce. Thankfully I didn't plant three rows of kale instead. One row of kale--is that the lancinato kale?--will do. Oh! I forgot about the sunflowers I hastily stuck in the ground, which are shamelessly exposing what nature gave them--broad green leaves, firm and rippled with veins.

Aw, snap! The peas are up. Sweet! I planted five rows, are those sugar snap or golden? Golden there, and sugar snap here...I think. Who cares, really?

I can't blink now because it's time to put green beans in the ground, and maybe some pickling cucumbers. And I don't want to miss a bit of summer. Meanwhile, I'll make my favorite spring-summer salad--Spinach, Strawberry and Goat Cheese salad with Microgreens and Balsamic Vinaigrette.


2 large handfuls of spinach, washed and tough stems removed
1 large handful of thinned greens, or baby greens, or arugula
2-3 tbsp toasted and salted sunflower seeds
2 tbsp finely chopped red onion
5 large organic strawberries, sliced
4 tbsp crumbled goat cheese
1/4 cup grated parmesan or asiago

1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic and red wine vinegar, mixed to taste
squeeze fresh orange juice
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar or maple syrup

Shake dressing well and dress salad on plates.