Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Eating with my fingers - Ethiopian food

Last night my sweetie and I went to Blue Nile, an Ethiopian restaurant here in Kansas City. I've had and enjoyed Ethiopian food before, so this was a treat. We had a groupon, given to us by my friend Priscilla, which gave us an appetizer and a sampler platter.

If you've never had Ethiopian food before, here are a few things you need to know.
  • Ethiopia is a land-locked Western African nation. It was a rich and turbulent history with many linguistic, cultural and religious influences. It's not a wealthy nation, so this influences the cuisine.
  • The cuisine consists of vegetable or legume stews and spicy meat dishes. It's common for meat dishes in tropical climates tobe quite spicy; this acts both as a preservative and to mask mild decay. These stews are served on a large platter, on top of a spongy flatbread called injera. It's often slightly sour tasting, since it's a natural sourdough.
  • You eat Ethiopian food by tearing off a bit of injera with your right hand (because in Ethiopia and other places the left is used for unclean functions) scooping up some of the stew and popping the morsel in your mouth. 
It's this last point that makes most Westerners hesitate. Eating with your hands from a communal plate? Isn't that unsanitary?! We are quite germaphobic, scared of any little possibility of infection, so this seems like a terrible risk. When you eat Ethiopian food you pretty quickly learn to pop the injera morsels into your mouth without touching lips, tongue or teeth. It's really no less sanitary than many of the ways we eat here, it's just more visible, since there are no utensils.

I love it. I love the sensual moment of feeling the bread, finding the right morsel, eating with my fingers as my ancestors did. It increases my awareness of what I'm eating and how precious it is. What's more, because this is a non-Western way to eat and one that seems riskier, it's something intimate. I'm sharing the plate with my beloved. 

Blue Nile is good. We started with a beef sambusa, a light pastry wrapped around spiced ground beef. The meat was fragrant with cumin and other spices while the pastry was very light and crisp. Frankly, this alone would be a good, light lunch, satisfying and tasty.

It was followed by a sampler platter (pictured above) which consisted of 8 veggie dishes and 3 meat; collards, lentils, potatoes and carrots, split peas, green beans and carrots, chickpeas, potatoes, chick pea dumplings, beef, lamb and chicken. It was an enormous amount of food, more than we could eat. Each dish was notably different from the others with its own texture and spicing. I thought the beef was the best of the veggie dishes while the collard greens and the chick peas were exemplary. Nothing wasn't good.

I recommend Blue Nile. I recommend eating with your fingers with people you love. I recommend pausing in the rush and feeling your food, as well as tasting it. I recommend savoring the moment.

20 E. 5th St.
Kansas City, MO

(c) 2013 Laura S. Packer

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Some thoughts on dinner parties and geography

Our recent move to Kansas City means I've discovered some wonderful new foods. It's been great, exploring the local restaurants and markets. It also means a few of the things I am accustomed to just aren't available or have become prohibitively expensive. 

Moving to KC also means developing new relationships. One way to do this is by mining your connections; work is the most obvious, so last week Kevin and I hosted a dinner party for some of his work colleagues. When he first arrived at his new job he was teasingly told that the new guy needs to feed all of his new work buddies. We asked what they wanted and they suggested something from New England. 

Now, although I lived in New England for over 20 years, I never really took to the local cuisine. I loved the fresh seafood that is so abundant, but most of the New England food I experienced was  either fresh, simple and seasonal (yay!) or bland, solid and designed to get you through a long, cold winter (eh). Yes, I know there are quite a few exceptions, but this, generally, was my experience. With one notable exception.

My favorite and most New England of meals is called a clam boil. Basically it takes the traditions and seasonings of the Portuguese fishermen who immigrated to southern Massachusetts and rams them into the local ingredients. It's a pot full of sturdy vegetables, sausage and clams.

We decided to feed Kevin's co-workers, and our potential new friends, a clam boil. We invited everyone over, told them what to expect and I got to work. 

It was only on the day of the dinner that I remembered one crucial thing. I am in Kansas City, a minimum of 800 miles from a coast in any direction. FInding clams might be a challenge and I certainly wasn't going to find the New England favorite, steamer clams.

It took the better part of four hours and as many markets, but I was able to find an assortment of clams at a reasonable price in one of our Asian markets. The first hurdle was overcome.

I went home, assembled the clam boil, got it cooking and soon enough, our guests arrived. A total of 8 lovely people gathered in my new home for dinner and conversation. As dinner time drew near everyone gathered at the table and I explained what a clam boil is, some of the tradition behind it, and the ingredients. 

It was then that I encountered the second hurdle., Several people looked up, with great anticipation, and told me how excited they were because they had never eaten a clam before. I was startled, this hadn't occurred to me. Think about it. If you've never eaten a clam before, there isn't really much to recommend it. It's one of those foods most appreciated by those who have grown up with them. You eat the whole animal. Sometimes it's a little gritty. It's often a bit chewy, not a western texture at all. It can be daunting.

I have to give my guests credit and deep appreciation. They were lovely, polite and brave. They all lept that hurdle, overlooking my questionable hostessing. They all tried a clam or two and enjoyed at least some of the meal, though how much I will never know. They certainly appreciated the effort I went to and were genuinely pleasant, kind people.

I learned a lot with that meal. Regional cuisine is regional for a reason. Kindness is a wonderful thing to receive. And maybe serving seafood in the midwest for a first dinner party is something I won't do again. But then again, how often will I have a chance to introduce a room full of people to clams?

New England Clam Boil, more or less.
  • You must use a large pot. The bigger the better. The pot I have could comfortably hold a medium Thanksgiving turkey.
  • Layer the following ingredients in the pot, from the bottom up:
    • potatoes. I like red skinned potatoes, but use any kind that boils well
    • peeled onions
    • a handful of peeled garlic cloves
    • Some people also add a sweet potato or carrots or other veggies. I never have
    • Add cold water to the pot until it all the veggies are covered and then an inch or two more
    • Add hot pepper flakes. It's better to err on the side of too little than too much. For this crowd I used maybe a teaspoon and it was still too spicy for some. 
    • Add salt. More than you think you should, you want the water to be salty, like the ocean. I used at least a tablespoon. Taste it to be sure
    • Add lots of sausage including:
      • breakfast sausage (really)
      • hot dogs, natural casing is better
      • linguica and chorizo, if you can find it. If you can't some other spice sausage will do. I used andouille
      • italian sausage
    • Remember everyone will want at least one piece of each kind. I usually go for at least a pound of each. What, you thought something called a New England Clam Boil would be healthy?!
    • Add a shucked ear of corn for each person
    • You can, if you like, put whole raw eggs in. They become hard-boiled by the time you eat
  • Put the pot on the stove over a medium light, let it come to a boil and leave it alone for at least 30 minutes. 
  • Meanwhile, put your clams - an assortment of littlenecks, steamers (if you can find them) and a couple of quahogs, in cold water to soak. Add a teaspoon of white (or red if you don't have white) vinegar to the water. This irritates them so they spit out more of the sand. Some people also use mussels.  I never have but think that would be yummy.
  • After 30 or 40 minutes check the pot. Poke the potatoes. Make sure there is still water in there. If the potatoes seem to be cooked, carefully layer the clams on top. I put them into loosely tied cheesecloth bundles to make the serving easier
  • Let it steam until the clams are open. Some people will add lobsters as well, I never have. 
  • Turn off the heat and CAREFULLY pull out the food. Don't burn yourself. I put different things into different serving bowls - clams, sausage, veggies. It will all be very hot. And dispose of any unopened clams, they could make you sick.
  • Put some of the broth into a bowl. It's nice pouring some of the broth over the potatoes, some people dip the clams in the broth.
  • Bring it all to the table and feast.
  • As a side note, I save any leftover broth and use it to make chowder, but that's another story.
(c) 2013 Laura Packer