Monthly Archives

September 2016

book review, recipe

Behold the Dreamers + Chicken Suya

Jende and Neni Jonga have come to New York City (Harlem) from Cameroon to achieve the American Dream. After struggling to make ends meet for a few years in the States, Jende secures a meeting with Clark Edwards, a high-level executive at Lehman Brothers. In 2007, this seems like another step closer to Jende’s dream.

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In Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue examines the American Dream from both sides – the Jengas’ desperate pursuit of it serves as a stark contrast to the Edwards’ comfortable lifestyle and achievements. Jende is overjoyed at the opportunity to chauffeur the entire Edwards family around the city so that Neni can complete pharmacy school and take care of their son.

In the driver’s seat, Jende is privy to many of Clark’s important conversations in the car but never lets the sensitive information slip. Even when tensions arise between the Jongas and the Edwards, Jende remains ever-loyal, not wanting to upset the careful balance that is keeping him in America. Mbue’s novel is a reminder that even those comfortably at the top should never get too comfortable, and sometimes it’s important to take a step back to determine what will truly make you happy.

Even though Jende and Neni are all too happy to be in the U.S., their kitchen table is filled with foods that remind them of home. One of the first meals we see Jende eat in the novel is African pepper chicken. I found a recipe online for Chicken Suya, commonly found in Cameroon, served with an African Pepper Sauce. Neni also serves fried ripe plantains throughout the novel, so I added those to the menu. Together, I thought it would make the perfect meal to accompany their story.

I started with the sauce and tried to remain unintimidated by the number of hot peppers it required. After cleaning and chopping them, I also roughly chopped the onions and tomatoes. Everything went into the food processor.

It came together pretty easily (as most blended sauces do), and while it simmered on the stovetop, I began prepping the chicken. I trimmed and cut the chicken thighs, dividing the pieces onto the skewers.

For the rub, I combined all of the spices, peanut butter and bouillon, working it into a paste of sorts. It ended up being extremely thick – to the point that it was nearly impossible to “brush” on the chicken as directed. I thinned it out a bit with water and ended up forcefully painting it onto the chicken with a rubber scraper.

It’s up to you, but it might be worthwhile to thin it out a bit more (either with oil or water) so that you can cover your chicken more thoroughly – mine ended up rather blotchy.

While the chicken baked, I let my oil get up to temperature for the plantains. The sauce was done by this time, so I removed it from the heat, allowing it to cool off a bit before we ate.

For the fried ripe plantains, I tried to find as a ripe a plantain as I could at the store. Thinking it would be similar to peeling a banana, I ended up having a difficult time. I would’ve benefitted from a handy guide, like this one. (Hopefully your peeling experience will be much easier than mine!) Once the pesky peel was off, I sliced it on the diagonal into large oblong coins.

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Frying them proved to be much easier than peeling them, thanks in part to my adventures in frying the johnnycakes the week before.

After a few minutes, they were a nice golden brown. I scooped them out onto a paper towel and sprinkled with salt. They proved to be not only a nice complement to the seasoning of the chicken and the spiciness of the sauce but a break from the heat as well!

I was happy to be able to make a dish that paired so well with such an enjoyable book, but truth be told, this wasn’t something I would make again. Not one for super spicy foods anyway, I could only use about a tablespoon of the pepper sauce over two skewers of chicken. My boyfriend (who loves spicy food) thought the sauce went well alongside the chicken but probably not something he’d eat without it. And, heads up, the recipe makes a decent amount of sauce – at least 4 cups.      

Chicken Suya with African Pepper Sauce

  • Servings: 4-6
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From: African Bites [Annotations from me]

Ingredients

    Suya Chicken

  • 3 pounds skinless chicken thigh
  • 4 tablespoons peanut butter or groundnut paste
  • ½ – 1 tablespoon cayenne (depending on heat preference)
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon white pepper
  • 1 tablespoon Bouillon
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 – 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 6 – 8 wooden skewers
  • African Pepper Sauce

  • 10 peppers (habenero or scotch bonnet)
  • 1 medium onion
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 2 tablespoon bouillon powder [I used chicken]
  • 2 basil leaves [I used 1 teaspoon dried basil]
  • 2 tablespoon parsley [I used 2 teaspoons dried parsley]
  • 1 – 3 roma tomatoes (adjust for spiciness)
  • ½ – 1 cup vegetable oil
  • salt

Directions

  1. Coarsely chop the tomatoes, onions, and discard stems of the peppers. Put the tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic, parsley, basil, bouillon in the food processor along with as much oil as desired. [I used ½ cup, which seemed to be enough for my sauce.]
  2. Pour the pepper mixture into a small sauce pan bring to a boil and slowly simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent burns. Add salt and adjust as needed.
  3. While the sauce is simmering, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Soak the skewers for at least 20 minutes totally submerged in water before using it to prevent burns.
  4. In a medium bowl, mix garlic powder, onion powder, smoked paprika, white pepper, cayenne pepper, peanut butter and bouillon. [Mine formed a pretty thick paste, making it difficult to brush/spread on the chicken. I would suggest adding some water or oil as needed to thin it out a bit.]
  5. Pat the chicken thighs dry with a paper towel. You want to have a completely dry chicken before cooking. Trim and slice the chicken into thin slices or bite size cuts (suggest cutting on a diagonal).
  6. Lightly spray or oil baking sheet or roasting pan to prevent the suya from sticking to the pan. [I covered mine with foil to make cleanup easier.]
  7. Thread the chicken onto the skewers (about 4 per skewer), making sure the skewer is fully covered with slices of chicken.
  8. Brush the chicken skewer with spice mixture on both sides. Place skewers on the sprayed/oiled roasting pan or baking sheet.
  9. Drizzle with oil and bake for about 20-25 minutes, flipping halfway through baking until chicken is fully cooked through. Towards the last 3 minutes of baking, switch to broil to get a nice crisp brown on the outside.
  10. When the pepper sauce is finished, let it cool. Pour in a mason jar or a container with a lid and store in a fridge for about a week. In order for your pepper sauce to last longer, make sure it is fully covered in oil.
  11. Serve chicken suya warm with a side of African pepper sauce [and fried plantains, if desired].

book review, recipe

Land of Love and Drowning + Lobster Rolls

The magical Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique is set in the newly transferred United States Virgin Islands. The sparsely populated island of Anegada, formed from coral, has more lobsters than people. It is surrounded for eight miles by a submerged reef; it is also surrounded by shipwrecks.

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Though Antoinette Stemme is of Anegada, when she marries Owen Arthur, he whisks her away to St. Thomas. Their two daughters, Eeona and Anette, are born and raised there, never setting foot on their mother’s homeland. The young red-headed Anette is like her mother in many ways and a bit rough around the edges, like Anegada. Beautiful Eeona is very much her wealthy father’s daughter, always concerned with the proper way of doing things and sharing an unusual bond with him from a young age.

It is surprising then, that on a later-life trip to Anegada, Eeona is able to ultimately find herself and begin to accept who she truly is. When she first arrives, a local woman gifts her a lobster. Eeona is startled and almost drops it, having never touched or eaten one before. The woman tells her that on Anegada, they “eat lobster for breakfast and lunch and dinner.”

Unlike Eeona, I have eaten lobster before. I hadn’t cooked it before – until I made LoLo’s Caribbean Lobster Rolls for lunch this weekend. It felt a little extravagant to make lobster for lunch, but considering the circumstances, it seemed right.

I began by prepping the johnnycakes, since the dough had to rest for an hour. I mixed them by hand, as directed, resulting in some messy dough-covered fingers. I had to add a touch more water (about a tablespoon) to get all of the dry ingredients to really come together, but then I was easily able to form the dough into a large ball (and then four smaller ones).

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Towards the end of the hour, I put on the water to boil for the lobster tail. I also combined the mayo, mustard, pickles (I used about 1 spear, once diced), lemon juice, zest and salt to make the remoulade.

In lieu of a tortilla press, I used my cast iron skillet and some parchment paper to form the johnnycake dough balls into thinner patties. I fried them in the same skillet, using vegetable oil.

I was both excited and nervous to cook a live lobster, but in the end, finding one locally proved to be a little difficult. At the seafood market, they had both Maine lobster tails and rock lobster tails. Because of the Caribbean connection, I bought an 8-ounce rock lobster tail. (They are also known as spiny lobsters and live in warmer waters than Maine lobster. They are commonly found the Caribbean.)

Here it is after cooking and its ice bath – notice the little spines along the side:

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I rescued the lobster meat from it’s slightly-dangerous shell and chopped it into bite-size pieces. I tossed it with a generous amount of remoulade (probably closer to two tablespoons). I sliced the johnnycakes, slathered on a bit more sauce and added the lobster meat for a tasty Anegada-style lunch.

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Caribbean Lobster Rolls

  • Servings: 4
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Remoulade Ingredients

  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons pickles, finely chopped
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Lobster Filling

  • 1 1½-pound lobster

Johnnycake Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups flour
  • ¼ cup cornmeal
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 ½ tablespoons sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon scallions, chopped
  • ½ teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
  • oil, for frying

Directions

  1. Place all dry ingredients for the johnnycakes in a mixing bowl and mix together by hand.
  2. Add 1/2 cup of water and knead the dough until it forms into a ball, then portion the dough into 4 balls of equal size.
  3. Place the balls of dough on a pan and cover with plastic. Allow to rest for 1 hour at room temperature.
  4. While the dough rests, place all remoulade ingredients in a mixing bowl and mix well. Set aside.
  5. Poach the lobster in boiling water for 6 minutes. Remove the lobster from the boiling water and soak in an ice bath to halt the cooking process.
  6. De-shell the lobster and cut it into bite-size pieces tossed in 1-2 tablespoons of the remoulade sauce. Set aside.
  7. Flatten each ball of dough in a tortilla press. Heat the oil in large, heavy pot to 350°F and fry each for 3 to 4 minutes, flipping intermittently, until the cakes are golden brown.
  8. Remove the cakes from the oil and let them rest and drain.
  9. Once cooled, slice and fill each johnnycake with the lobster and remoulade filling mixture and serve.

book review, recipe

The Joy Luck Club + Pork Dumplings

Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club is about four Chinese-American mothers who immigrated from China to San Francisco and their daughters. Like a mahjong game, the novel’s sixteen chapters are organized into four parts, each with four sections. Two sections focus on the Joy Luck mothers and two sections focus on their daughters, with one chapter devoted to their childhoods and one chapter devoted to their lives as adult women.

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The story Tan tells is at once distinctive and familiar. While I couldn’t directly relate to what they faced as immigrants in a foreign country or more specifically as Chinese-Americans, I easily related to the growing pains they experienced through childhood, their struggles within relationships as they matured, and the ongoing, ever-changing connection between mothers and daughters.

Every week the women of the Joy Luck Club meet to play mahjong (one woman for each corner of the game table), raise money and feast. The hostess always served special foods to bring good fortune – “dumplings shaped like silver money ingots, long rice noodles for long life, boiled peanuts for conceiving sons, and of course, many good-luck oranges for a plentiful, sweet life.” The women would play all through the night and into the morning, until the sixteen rounds of mahjong were finished, and they would feast again.

I was quite excited to be able to make dumplings to go along with this novel. I found a recipe that sounded promising (The Only Dumpling Recipe You’ll Ever Need) and got a great Asian market recommendation from my coworker. I paid a visit to 168 Asian Mart one evening and picked up all the ingredients for the dumplings + some cute little sauce dishes I couldn’t resist + some mochi for dessert.

 

I assembled all of my ingredients and got to work.

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I wrung out each of the three thawed packages of Shepherd’s purse and chopped them as finely as I could. Then, I spent 7-ish minutes combining the greens with the pork and vinegar, wine, soy sauce and spices. Look at all that green:

I used water to wet the edges of my first dumpling skin, I plopped a generous dollop of filling onto it, and I realized I didn’t remember how to fan fold them. (Side note: I once worked as a “dumpling girl” at a restaurant folding several different kinds, each with their own unique fold. Over two extremely long weekends, I mastered all of the folds and made thousands of dumplings.) I watched some YouTube videos to jog my memory before deciding to stick with the simplest fold.

I boiled two of them to try out the filling. They passed the test, so I enlisted the help of my boyfriend and together we made about 90 before needing a break. A break meant it was time to eat! We pan-fried and then steamed them before enjoying the fruits of our labor.

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They were very vegetable-y but still quite good. If I made them again, I’d probably reduce the amount of greens or increase the amount of pork until I got the ratio I prefer. Since we’ll be eating these ones for quite a while, I’m not sure when that will be!

Pork Dumplings

  • Servings: Yields approximately 150 dumplings
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Ingredients

  • 3 lbs green leafy vegetable (like shepherd’s purse, baby bok choy, napa cabbage, or Chinese chives)
  • 1½ pounds ground pork (or ground chicken or beef, as long as they aren’t too lean)
  • ⅔ cup shaoxing wine
  • ½ cup oil
  • 3 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • ¼ teaspoon white pepper
  • ⅔ cup water, plus more for assembly
  • 3-4 packages dumpling wrappers

Directions

  1. Wash your vegetables thoroughly and blanch them in a pot of boiling water. Transfer them to an ice bath to cool. [If using frozen shepherd’s purse, make sure it is fully thawed before continuing.] Ring out all the water from the vegetables and chop very finely.
  2. In a large bowl, stir together the vegetable, meat, wine, oil, sesame oil, salt, soy sauce, white pepper, and ⅔ cup water. Mix for 6-8 minutes, until very well-combined.
  3. To wrap the dumplings, dampen the edges of each circle with some water. Put a little less than a tablespoon of filling in the middle. Fold the circle in half and pinch the wrapper together at the top. Then make two folds on each side, until the dumpling looks like a fan. Make sure it’s completely sealed. Repeat until all the filling is gone, placing the dumplings on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Make sure the dumplings aren’t sticking together.
  4. If you’d like to freeze them, wrap the baking sheets tightly with plastic wrap and put the pans in the freezer. Allow them to freeze overnight. You can then take the sheets out of the freezer, transfer the dumplings to Ziploc bags, and throw them back in the freezer for use later.
  5. To cook the dumplings, boil them or pan-fry them. To boil, simple bring a large pot of water to a boil, drop the dumplings in, and cook until they float to the top and the skins are cooked through, but still slightly al dente.
  6. To pan-fry, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a non-stick pan over medium high heat. Place the dumplings in the pan and allow to fry for 2 minutes. Pour a thin layer of water into the pan, cover, and reduce heat to medium-low. Allow dumplings to steam until the water has evaporated. Remove the cover, increase heat to medium-high and allow to fry for a few more minutes, until the bottoms of the dumplings are golden brown and crisp.
  7. Serve with soy sauce, Chinese black vinegar, chili sauce, or other dipping sauce of your choice!


Find the dumpling skins fresh at the Asian grocery store. Look for the white, round ones. If they start to dry out, wrap them in a damp paper towel and put them in a sealed plastic bag for a couple hours to soften back up.

Freeze any unused dumpling wrappers in an airtight sealed plastic bag for later.


book review, recipe

The Girls + Watermelon Lemonade

Emma Cline’s The Girls turned out to be the perfect novel to close out summer. It follows 14-year-old Evie Boyd during the last summer before she leaves her home in Northern California to begin boarding school. Although heavily based on the Manson cult, it is not the charismatic leader who draws Evie in but one of the girls instead.

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After wondering at the girls from afar, it seems fated when Evie’s busted bike chain leaves her stranded. The girls (and Guy) pull up in their bus and rescue her back to their ranch for the summer solstice party. The celebration is nothing like a traditional party, watermelon broken open on the picnic table while greedy children dig at it with their fingers. Evie sees past the dirt, decay and deviance. She is entranced.

Suzanne, one of the girls, is entranced as well – but with the group’s leader Russell, always attuned to his presence and ready to follow his every whim. Over the course of the summer, Evie becomes similarly obsessed with Suzanne. Though she leaves the ranch often, it’s the thought of Suzanne that keeps Evie going back, and it’s because of her that Evie pushes the boundaries of her prior life.

Dependent on donations and stolen food, meals at the ranch are meager and infrequent. As the summer lolls by, the girls reach near-starvation yet remain devoted to Russell. Any appearance of food is a cause for celebration, any remaining sense of etiquette gone until the food, too, has disappeared.

Lemonade is a drink that invokes long, lazy days – a summer classic. When you add in some watermelon, to call back to the summer solstice party and the “sticky juice” one of the girls drips all over the floor during a trip off the ranch, it makes an excellent fit for Cline’s novel.  

I found Cooking Classy’s recipe for watermelon lemonade and made some this past Labor Day Weekend, a fond farewell to summer.

I cubed about a quarter of my too-large watermelon and pureed it, using my food processor in two batches. Starting out with 4 cups of puree, I ended up with about 3 cups of juice once I strained out the pulp.

I ended up using 5 lemons for the juice, with an extra leftover for garnish. I combined the water, lemon juice and sugar using a wooden spoon until the sugar was dissolved. I only needed to use the ⅔ cup recommended – it was a little tart, but it worked really well once mixed with the watermelon juice. Add some fresh mint and ice and serve on a hot day.

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Watermelon Lemonade

  • Servings: 6-8 (Yields about 8 cups)
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Ingredients

  • 6 cups cubed seedless watermelon, chilled* (2 lbs after peeling)
  • 4 cups cold water
  • 3/4 cup fresh strained lemon juice, chilled*
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar (more or less to taste)
  • Ice and fresh mint for serving

Directions

  1. Add watermelon to a blender and pulse until well pureed (there should be about 4 cups). Pour through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl.
  2. In a large pitcher whisk together water, lemon juice and sugar until sugar has dissolved. Stir in pureed watermelon. Stir in ice and mint (alternately add ice and mint directly to individual cups and pour lemonade over). Store in refrigerator.

*If you don’t have time to chill the ingredients then just use more ice in place of some of the water.

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As a bonus, here’s my puppy Beta, who enjoyed her first taste of watermelon while I made the lemonade.

book review, recipe

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry + Swedish Dream Cookies

Almost-eight-year-old Elsa’s best friend is her eccentric grandmother. Like her granny, Elsa is different. Different in a way that makes her good at running, because “that’s what happens when you get chased all the time.” Different in a way that allows to her to relate to adults with wisdom beyond her years.

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As in Fredrick Backman’s first novel, the successful A Man Called Ove (which I also loved), My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry revolves around a cast of Swedish neighbors, whom we meet as Elsa embarks on a so-called treasure hunt to find and deliver apologetic letters from her grandmother.  

When the story begins, Elsa seems to know some of the neighbors well enough. Maud and her husband Lennart, for example, are the nicest and second nicest persons in the world, respectively. Elsa likes them because they “always have dreams and hugs – dreams are a kind of cookie; hugs are just normal hugs.” On the other hand, there are The Monster and Our Friend. The idea of either of them emerging into the hallway terrifies Elsa.

The letter deliveries help Elsa to conquer her fears and bring the entire house of neighbors together. Sad yet uplifting, Backman’s charmingly written novel carries you to the Land of Almost-Awake and back again, as you uncover the unexpected truths behind Granny’s fairy tales with Elsa.

Since I recently made cinnamon buns (Granny’s favorite food), I was so happy when I found out that dreams are an actual cookie! Apparently a staple in Sweden, they are beloved by both Elsa and Our Friend.

I found the recipe searching around online and immediately set about to obtain some baker’s ammonia – the only ingredient not readily available in American grocery stores. After 48 hours I had it (thank you, Amazon Prime!), and cookie baking could begin.

After creaming the butter and sugar, adding the ammonium carbonate, almond extract and flour, I ended with a sort of crumbly mixture that looked like this:

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It looked unlike any cookie dough I’d made in the past but I kept on and added the flaked coconut. I was convinced the chilling process would bring it all together, so I formed my disk and popped the dough into the refrigerator.

Even after a long chill, the dough remained crumbly as I tried forming it into 1-inch balls. I recommend doing this with your hands, as opposed to a scooper, which I tried first to encourage uniformity. It ended up being much easier. I think the heat of the hands helped them keep their shape a bit better.

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I baked three batches of one cookie sheet each (16 cookies), closely following the recipe’s recommendation of using the top-third of the oven only. I was a bit disappointed that the recipe only made 52 cookies, well short of the 72 it was supposed to – even after carefully making sure they were as close to an inch as possible. Still, they turned out beautifully!

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I’m usually not one for coconut, but to me, they were more like an amazing sugar cookie. These dreams may have required tracking down an obscure ingredient online, but they were worth it. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

Swedish Dream Cookies

  • Servings: Yields about 4 dozen
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Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon crushed ammonium carbonate (also called baker’s ammonium)
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 1/2 cups sweetened flaked coconut

Directions

  1. Sift together flour and salt.
  2. Beat together butter and sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Beat in ammonium carbonate and almond extract until combined well. Mix in flour mixture at low speed just until blended, then stir in coconut.
  3. Form dough into a disk and chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, about 1 hour. [You could probably skip the chilling, if you’re short on time. A few comments said they didn’t chill it and it made no difference. I chilled mine, but the dough was essentially the same consistency after an hour as it was before.]
  4. Preheat oven to 300°F.
  5. Roll dough into 1-inch balls and arrange 1 inch apart on greased baking sheets.
  6. Bake cookies in batches in upper third of oven until pale golden around edges, 18 to 22 minutes. [Mine baked for 21 minutes.] Transfer cookies to a rack to cool.