A white (faranje) adoptive mother to two Ethiopian (habesha) girls wends her way through
Exotic Ethiopian Cooking by D. J. Mesfin

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Samma We't (Spinach-Like Plant Sauce "Nettle")

"Samma is made on very rare occasions and only during Lent.  It is made from a hairy, leafy shrub which grows wild and stings the skin when touched.  Use of rubber or plastic gloves will prevent skin irritation.  It looks like spinach after it has been cooked."  ~ D. J. Mesfin, Exotic Ethiopian Cooking, p. 179

According to the random number generator, I was supposed to have made this dish back in February, but random.org  failed to take into account the fact that stinging nettles are a very seasonal crop and aren't ready until late March/early April (and then their growing season is really only about a month long).  

Despite knowing exactly where I could find a lush, healthy wild crop I decided to take the easy way out.  Back in February, I signed up to receive an e-mail when the nettles came back into season, and I received that e-mail a couple of weeks ago or so.  Last Monday, these were waiting for me on my doorstep! 

 the apparent discoloration is only an illusion 

My original intent was to hold off until the weekend to make this dish, but by Thursday, I noted that the nettles were starting to wilt, so I steamed them up so that they would then keep a few more days until I could finish the dish.  The book says to rub the leaves through a sieve, chop them, and put them into boiling water.  I kind of did things a bit backwards and just steamed them to start. 

two pounds is a lot of nettles

Because these were very young nettles, I didn't notice any sting (and I do know what nettle stings feel like).  I handled them with my bare hands without any problem.  They steamed up well, just like spinach, and turned a most gorgeous dark shade of green.  

steamed and packaged for later

When I was ready to finish the dish, I put the cooked nettles into the food processor and chopped them up.  I skipped the sieve part, largely because I wasn't sure what the purpose was.  

Back into the big pot the nettles went (though it had decreased a great deal in bulk, there was still a sizable amount vegetable matter to be dealt with) and they were mixed with some barley flour:

Then the instructions said to add a little warm water until the mixture became thin, so I started to do just that: 

A minute or two into this process, I wondered to myself if there might have been a specific amount of water mentioned in the ingredient list, as I wasn't sure how "thin" I was supposed to get it.  Sure enough, there was.  I wasn't sure how much I had added before I realized this, so I just added the whole amount anyway, figuring I could always boil it down if I needed to.  Some garlic was also added:

The we't was cooked for about 15 minutes, after which salt was added.  At this point, the instructions became a little unclear: "When done, add salt, remove from heat, pour into bowl and cook before serving".  Wasn't I just cooking it?  Perhaps it's a typo and was meant to be "cool"? 

I chose to eat it hot and liked it.  The flavor of the nettles is quite crisp; stronger than spinach, but not unpleasant, in my opinion, but I like wild greens (dandelion greens, burdock greens, miner's lettuce, really any greens, except for mustard and watercress).  I've been eating it for lunch this week.  

My husband refused to even taste it.  The Ethiopians had a few bites the day I made it and take a bite or two when I'm having it for lunch, but they're not passionate about this dish, perhaps because it lacks berbere and wasn't served with injera.  It's certainly not a vegetable aversion, as they were eating their weight in Brussels sprouts at lunch today.  

If you're not interested in working with the nettles, I saw it suggested somewhere on-line that you can try watercress instead, or, frankly, you can probably just make this with spinach.  I do think that a stronger-tasting green, like watercress, will work better than mild spinach, however.  

For the health benefits of nettles, and more nettle recipes, click here

Monday, April 12, 2010

Ye'assa T'ibs (Fried Fish)

"Ye'assa T'ibs, Ethiopian style, may also be prepared with whole fish.  Cleaned inside and out with water and lemon and fried the same way coated with flour.  Serve with a wedge of lemon." ~ D. J. Mesfin, Exotic Ethiopian Cooking, p. 156

Ye'assa t'ibs on the right; the rest of the plate consists of iskunfur.

I present to you now an authentic Ethiopian dish that I think almost anyone would eat, except my brother or anyone allergic to fish.  No, not the stuff at the top of the plate (definitely not the stuff at the top of the plate; good luck finding anyone to eat that, save for my 2-year-olds).  The stuff on the right.  Where I grew up, we called that "fish fry" and Ted's was the place to get it.  I know, I know, I forgot the wedge of lemon.  

In Amharic, it's called ye'assa t'ibs.  And if there's anything the (my) Ethiopians like better than berbere, it's seafood.  I come from New England stock and can think of few things better than a lobster bake on a beautiful summer evening.  Chowder, lobster, clams, fish...pass them all, please!  This is one of the great passions shared between myself and the Ethiopians; if I can manage to get any after they've finished eating it, that is.  Despite their being from a landlocked country*, they have yet to meet a fish, a crustacean, or a mollusk that they don't like.  

I was going to be making ye'assa t'ibs anyway, but due to a business trip and Easter, I had gotten a couple of weeks behind, so I decided to make the ye'assa t'ibs in conjunction with something that I knew wasn't going to go over quite as well: the iskunfur.  As it turned out, the ye'assa t'ibs were delicious with the sauce from the iskunfur, even if one didn't partake of the stuffed tripe itself.  

Ye'assa t'ibs is quick and easy to make, and you probably have all of the ingredients at hand: fish, flour, black pepper, salt, and oil!  Nothing exotic and no need to stop by the Asian grocery!  

If you wanted to be most authentic, you could go with tilapia or catfish, species of which are found in the lakes of Ethiopia.  I decided to go with cod, however.  

You start by mixing the flour with the black pepper and the salt:

Then you dredge the fish in the mixture.  I usually like to use a big plastic bag for coating and dredging, but I happen to be all out, so I did it in a bowl.

all dredged and waiting for the frying pan

Heat up the oil and throw the fish in:

And fry until it's nice and golden.  That's it!  See how easy that was?  And it's authentic....or else it wouldn't be in the book!  

I do have to admit that I had to resist the very real temptation to add some tartar sauce.  


* There are, however, beautiful lakes in Ethiopia that are fished and we even visited a fish market at Lake Awassa when we were there.  Here are some pictures:

Iskunfur (Stuffed Tripe Stew)

"Iskunfur is a delicious sauce prepared for special occasions.  It may be eaten with injera or bread as a main dish or served with rice and vegetables as a side dish." ~ D. J. Mesfin, Exotic Ethiopian Cooking, pp. 132-3

Iskunfur, top, with its sauce on the left; on the right is ye'assa t'ibs.

I dreaded this day.  When I first looked through Exotic Ethiopian Cooking, I noticed there were a few recipes that involved offal.  According to Wikipedia, "People in some cultures shy away from offal as food, while others use it as everyday food, or even in delicacies that command a high price."  Let me be perfectly clear that I am in firmly embedded in the first camp: those that "shy away from offal as food".  Indeed, I actually shy away from it even when it's merely a concept.  I don't even like trimming meat at home, though I do it.  

I figured it would be inevitable, though, and, sure enough, suddenly page 132 was staring me in the face.  What to do, what to do?  I am fairly confident in believing that few, if any, of my followers would blame me if I just skipped a recipe, but I felt like to do so would be entering morally ambiguous territory.  Julie Powell didn't skip over the less-appetizing recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  Not only that, but she then moved on to write a book about butchering, which is is officially where any resemblance between us falls away.  Far, far away. 

So, in the interest of full accountability, I bring you iskunfur, or stuffed tripe stew.  While making this recipe, I had to totally dissociate myself from what I was handling, but if you're interested in details, you can head here

The beginning of the recipe is quite familiar:

 Cook the onions in a dry pan, then add the nit'ir qibe and berbere.


I used one tablespoon less of butter than was called for in the recipe simply because the sauce called for one cup and the stuffing called for a tablespoon.  I really hated to dig into a whole container (holding one cup) of nit'ir qibe just for one tablespoon, so I decided to just take it from the sauce's allotment.  

To this was also added (clockwise from top) some false cardamom (black cardamom), ginger, black pepper, and garlic.  

False (black) cardamom is an interesting creature and entirely different than the cardamom that you can find in your grocery store (which is green cardamom).  Unlike the tiny, fingertip-sized green cardamom pods, false cardamom pods are about an inch long.  They carry the strong scent of antiseptic (camphor some would say, but despite being a devotee of Campho-Phenique as a child, I don't quite pick up the camphor notes).  

I have to run them through my coffee grinder to get them into a powder form:

After setting the sauce mixture aside, I assembled the stuffing for the tripe, which involved using one tablespoon of the nit'ir qibe, a small amount of chopped red onion, some more false cardamom, ginger, and black pepper, and some cooked rice.  I cheated on the rice and used already cooked, frozen rice:

This was all combined together, but it seems I neglected to snap a picture of it by itself in the bowl.  

Next, I finally had to confront the tripe.  I'll understand if you need to leave now:

I had no idea Ethiopian cooking would involve geometry problems, but sometimes it does.  For instance, I needed to cut 4- to 6-inch squares from something that most assuredly is not square.  Or even regular in shape.  I took out the ruler and measured 6 inches, but thought that was too big, so I elected to go with the 4-inch squares.  I just used my scissors to cut the tripe into the squares. 

Into this, I put a tablespoon of the stuffing (now you can see what the stuffing looks like):

I was then instructed to "sew them up with needle and thread".  I was a bit uncertain as to what kind of thread to employ and what kind of stitch (running? blanket? back?) and worried about how easy it would be to undo the thread so that it wouldn't be eaten (I did plan on trying some).  I also didn't really want to be in such close, sustained contact with this stuff, so I opted for toothpicks, which did the job, even if they left a bit to be desired aesthetically.

this was the first one I did

I eventually changed my technique and more or less 
just folded over the square, securing it on three sides with the toothpicks

These little packets were then added to the berbere sauce to simmer while I went to the Abyssinian and picked up the injera:

I knew my husband wasn't going to even try the tripe, so I made another dish -- ye'assa t'ibs -- to go with this one (due to Easter, I was a bit behind with the recipes, anyway, so it was also an opportunity to catch up a bit; the post for the ye'assa t'ibs should be up later today) and plated them together on the same injera.  I knew the berbere sauce would be eaten, so I ladled some of that out separately.  

a cross section of the stuffed tripe

The Ethiopians loved this and even ate the tripe.  They will turn their nose up at boxed macaroni and cheese and SpaghettiOs, but will eat stuffed tripe.  Sad to say, they won't be getting a lot of it.  I gave it a try, but couldn't get past the texture.  I rank all of my culinary adventures next to one I had in Thailand, which involved eating something called "jumping shrimp salad".  And the reason the shrimp were jumping was because they were still alive.  I'll take jumping shrimp over tripe any day.  

The sauce, however, was very good.  I think I prefer a more traditional we't sauce; this one had a bit more false cardamom in it than the others and the flavor definitely reflected that, but it was good in its own right and it did make a great dipping sauce for the the ye'assa t'ibs!  

In other news, the stinging nettle leaves have come into season and I have ordered some for the samma we't that I had to skip over earlier in the year (precisely because the nettle leaves are only in season for about a month, and February was not the month).  

And if you're wondering where the yebunna t'ej went, it's done and I meant to decant it at Easter, but forgot all about it.  My husband and I will have to have our own private t'ej tasting and I'll get a post up (and if anyone wants me to send them some, just e-mail me with your address and you can join in the tasting, too).  

Look for a post about the ye'assa t'ibs a bit later in the day!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Little Break for Easter

I haven't forgotten my mission here; it's just been a hectic couple of weeks, starting with some minor elective surgery and a week's recuperation for my husband and ending, tomorrow, with Easter dinner, the only holiday I host at this point in time.  I've got the plans, though, and I need to get back into the groove next week, as the Ethiopians are feeling the lack of Ethiopian food.  At one point last week, they were playing outside with us and I had to go in to start dinner.  With eyes and face full of excitement and hope, one of them ran up and asked "are you going to make 'opian for dinner, Mama?"  Sadly, I wasn't.  

Tonight, as I worked on preparing all that I could ahead of time for Easter dinner, I was reminded of what my husband said to me after my nit'ir qibe post: "Why don't you ever show the aftermath?"  He can ask this because he's in charge of aftermath 99% of the time; we long ago brokered a deal where I cook and he cleans up.  The greatest part is we both think we got the best end of the stick, except, perhaps, for nights involving nit'ir qibe or starting a holiday dinner for a dozen adults and three children.  Then I think he begins to have his doubts. 

So, without further ado, I offer the aftermath of tonight.  It's not an Ethiopian-inspired mess, but it's prodigious.  I dedicate this post to my husband.