Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wednesday Snapshot: Turkey

This kind grinning man is the reason we have evil eye magnets on our fridge, an evil eye amulet hanging over Oscar’s bedroom door and the evil eye that replaced the spastic dashboard surfer in our car. Who could resist a face like his and the strong bond formed over twenty cups of burly tannic fiercely brewed tea? Not us- we ended up buying everybody stocking stuffers as well.

The evil eye, or nazar, is ubiquitous all over Turkey in the form of jewelry and trinkets; it can be found printed on bathmats, cemented into the façade of homes, and always pinned to the shirt of a newborn baby. The symbol, which looks roughly like an eye is used to ward off evil. A person can unknowingly have an “evil eye” and unintentionally bring harm to whomever or whatever he or she gazes upon. A person’s praises may be benign, but evil spirits can piggyback on their words or looks and sock you with a pesky curse.

The history of the evil eye goes back before the Muslim religion's emergence in the Middle East, and is seen among the Arabs, Iranians, Greeks, Indians, and even in Ancient Egypt.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

First Annual Horseradish Harvest Festival

Lake Forest, Illinios

Did you get the invitation? No?! Oh, man, you missed out on the fall harvest event of the year! The First Annual Horseradish Harvest Festival. The horseradish plant my parents planted last spring was ready to be dug up, grated, mixed and juiced into courses and courses of nostril cleansing, fiery goodness.

Just to continue the insanity of Fall Travel 2009, Oscar and I decided to squeeze in a trip to Chicago to visit my parents. Ok, an airfare fire-sale, trips to Target and the promise of a true vacation where I get to sleep in and Oscar gets to bask in the glorious pampering love of his adoring, wonderful, oogling grandparents also had something to do with the decision to jump on a plane hot off our lobster-Maine blitz. And, oh the surprises that awaited us!!

My dad comes from a long-line of gardeners and has learned much from his self-proclaimed past life as a farmer. His carefully planted technicolor flower beds have been the setting for summer cocktails for as long as I can remember. Last spring, in keeping with the current trend towards ecological efficiency, Dad ripped out the beds of eye-catching daisies, lilies, and irises in favor of edible beauties: rainbow swiss chard, spicy radishes, sweet onions, mixed lettuces, heirloom tomatoes, precious herbs and the somewhat mystifying horseradish plant. The consumable garden was a huge success and the last of the hearty greens have made their way into hungry bellies and the first frost has left the patch looking like the perfect place to stick a plastic tombstone and a cackling skeleton. Only the bright green bush of the horseradish top remained.

Technically, horseradish is to be dug up in late fall when the leaves have already been killed by frost, or early in the spring when green is just barely beginning to show on the top of the crown. The flavor will be at its best if the horseradish is dormant-- after two hard frosts. There have not been two hard frosts, I would say, more like one soft frost, but patience is not in the Hooker nature, and someone said the words, “prime rib”, so out it must come!

The gnarly intertwined collection of pinky-thin roots was not what we were expecting, but not really knowing what to expect, we embraced our albino Medusa head of a root mass and began cleaning it and processing it. Digging, scrubbing, peeling, cutting, and blending all these action verbs can make a family thirsty! Not to fear, horseradish is near! The obvious libation is a Bloody Mary and seeing that it was before noon, perfectly acceptable. So we mixed up a batch, and toasted to the beginning of The Harvest Festival!

The first official event was that evening, featuring poached shrimp with zesty horseradish cocktail sauce. The main event was the following evening. My brother was flying in for it (and some not-nearly-as-important-other-things). The menu (prepared to perfection by my mother):

The First Annual Horseradish Harvest Festival Main Event
Oven Roasted Prime Rib, Served Medium Rare
Wild Mushroom, Swiss Chard and Gruyere Tart
Blanched Asparagus Spears
*Creamy Herbed Horseradish Sauce*

Initially, I assumed the horseradish sauce would be just for the prime rib, however, it proved to be delectable slathered all over everything on my plate. In celebration of this extraordinary agricultural/culinary event, the farmer/sommelier was summoned and wine fit for entertaining in-laws to be, celebrating only the most special anniversaries, and deals of a life-time was busted out to kick off what will surely be a yearly event. Wine tip: if you have Caymus Vineyards Cabernet 1992 and 1993 in the cellar, bring it up! The 1992 was so delicious and smooth, if not a bit past due, and the 1993 is spot-on fantastic. Honestly, what are you saving it for?

The beauty of an annual festival is you can begin planning the next year the day after it is over. My mom has put her vote in and Roasted Horseradish Chocolate Gelato will be on the menu next fall!

**Awesome Fun Fact: 2/3rds of the nation’s supply of horseradish roots are grown in Southern Illinois!

***Do not forget to save a piece of your horseradish plant for next year’s crop. Horseradish is the magical regenerating plant! Keep it at 40̊ degrees Fahrenheit until it is ready to plant, stick it in the ground and start menu planning!

1. Dig it up and clean it up and peel it.

2. Put the root in a food processor or blender with a little water and woosh it until you have reached the desired consistency. A finer grind will produce a hotter final product.

3. After the horseradish is at the desired consistency, add vinegar to stop the enzymatic action that controls how hot the final product is. For a milder horseradish, add vinegar immediately after grating. For a hotter product, wait up to 3 minutes to add it. Use 2 to 3 tablespoons of 5% white distilled vinegar per cup of grated horseradish. A half teaspoon of salt can also be added, to taste. Put the mixture in a glass jars and screw lid on tightly. Store in refrigerator or freezer.

Note: Make only small quantities of horseradish at a time – the biting taste fades within one to two months, even when refrigerated. To best preserve the flavor, freeze the root whole and process as you use it.

Horseradish on Foodista

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Wednesday Snapshot: Sevel, Denmark

Starting today, we would like to introduce the "Wednesday Snapshot", a new feature on Smash and Sniff, a weekly postcard, a snapshot from the archives - near and far - just a photo with a brief caption relating to culture, cuisine or kids.

I have just had a few glasses of wine (and am therefore nostalgic) and have spoken with my dear sweet wonderful friends Kai and Fenja, ever so briefly back from Khartoum, and therefore would like to dedicate the first postcard to them. This is a snapshot of Kai, Fenja and Ingo on our first trip to Sevel, Denmark where Fenja grew up, a beautiful spot of Danish countryside that we visit as frequently as possible and each time we start on the four hour drive back to Hamburg we say, "siiiiigggghhhhhhh" - amazing company, long walks in the very brisk Danish-countryside air, followed by delicious meals and (aquavit)warmth. Fenjan, Kaijan and little Fridtjof: we miss you!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Postcard: Mauritania (sent from Hamburg)


I was a Community Health and Water Sanitation Peace Corps Volunteer in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania from 1997-1999. Usually, after a slight pause during which they scan their mental atlas, people will smile, „Ah, right. That island off the coast of Kenya." No, not Mauritius. Mauritania is a swath of Sahara stretching from the disputed territory of Western Sahara south of Morocco, to the northern tip of Senegal, from the Atlantic coast of West Africa to Timbuktu. It is the size of Texas and California combined and has a population of roughly 4 million people, two-thirds of which is concentrated in the coastal capital city of Nouakchott. I spent two years in a small Soninké village, population 500, located north of the regional capital Selibaby in the province of Guidimakha.

The first thing I did after finding out that I was about to spend the first two and a half years of my post-collegiate life in Mauritania was beeline it to the nearest bookstore and pull every guide book on West Africa from the shelves. „Don’t worry about it, you’ll never go there,“ one guide said. Another listed practical information and consular contacts, but compared to the thick chapters on Senegal, Mali and other neighbors, this meager showing made me nervous.

Tourist infrastructure in Mauritania is relatively obsolete. You may meet a few intrepid backpackers or wealthy French "explorers" who hire guides and Land Cruisers for week-long soujourns into the desert or you might be nearly run over, as several local villagers have been over the past few decades, by reckless off-road vehicles participating in the annual Paris-Dakar rally. Recent attacks on foreigners however, including the killing of four French natives in late 2007, are doing nothing to promote tourism nor do they represent this overwhelmingly hospitable people in one of the most physically inhospitable environments I have ever experienced.

My host mom and good friend Khujedji, trying to teach me how to pound millet properly.

In addition to recent reports of the activities of extremist cells in Mauritania, journalists often pen portraits of Mauritania’s culture of slavery (astonishingly only legally abolished in 1980, with many claims that it still exists today), the force-feeding of young girls (big is beautiful) and relatively frequent bloodless coups. But what you will read little to nothing about in the press is the fascinating nomadic desert culture of some of its peoples, the proud history of holy Islamic cities like Chenngeti, and the tough as nails villagers, like the Kebe family who adopted me, who work harder than anyone I have ever met, who will always make room around the communal bowl even when there is not enough to feed the family, who are loyal to a fault.

My living room, ten years later...

Washing hands

Unfortunately, what Mauritanians could offer in hospitality far outshined what they could offer at the proverbial table. Having traveled through much of West Africa I feel safe saying that Mauritanian cuisine is the worst of what this part of the continent has to offer. The grain millet was the bane of my existence during the first year in my village. I am not a picky eater but I had as much tolerance for millet as I do for elderly German pedestrians (see previous post). I just couldn't bring myself to eat it: mornings in a powdered milk porridge called Sombi which I politely lapped while everyone else slurped away. Evenings in molo ji, literally translated, bean water - it was like eating a bowl of wet sand and I cannot emphasize enough how little I am exaggerating. Wet sand. Go out and eat some. Every night. It will alter your personality.

As things go, at the intersection of necessity and lack of alternatives, I began to develop a taste for wet sand. I began to ENJOY eating millet for dinner every night. And at some point during this period where I too was shoveling handfuls of wet sand into my mouth, it began to rain, and with the rain came green (here I must note that “rain” and “green” in the Sahel are very relative terms). I helped my family gather what we could of the bean leaves before grazing herds of camels, sheep and emaciated cows thinned the growth. My lovely host mothers and sisters thinly - oh so agonizingly thin! - sliced mounds of bean leaves and boiled them together with freshly ground peanut butter to create what I firmly believe is Mauritania’s culinary redemption.

After assisting with the preparation, and then being demoted to a mere spectator – as I could never cut those damn leaves thin enough - I put together a recipe comparable to the haako I ate in Mauritania. Spinach, broccoli rabe and other leafy greens have replaced the bean leaves and the natural peanut butter in the health food aisle is the exact same thing as the peanuts we put through a manual grinder. The only thing that cannot be replicated is the millet – grown in the field near our village, beaten off the stalks by hand, dried, pounded, ground, pounded again and steamed until it had finally reached its grainy sandy texture -although I have heard you can track this down in traditional African markets around 125th and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem.

Fast forward about ten years to this past weekend...since Swabian Frank's delicious käsespätzle, a little group of us with an interest in culture, an appreciation for food and an existence dominated by a kid(s), have formed what we self-depricatingly call the International Dinner Club. After Frank's impressive representation of the homeland, I was up next to represent one of my adopted homelands. I think a few diners may have thought I was kidding when I emailed an advance warning: we'll be sitting on the floor and I hope no one is left-handed.

A typical meal in Mauritania is served out of a communal bowl. The men and any guest of honor are served first, then boys and then the girls and women - or at least that is how it went in my village. A bowl and tea kettle filled with water are passed around the communal circle and everyone washes their hands. When hands are rinsed, everyone is seated in a circle and the bowl has been placed in the center, the eldest or the host says "Bismi'allah" - the beginning of the Lord's prayer, literally, "in the name of God" - and everyone digs in. The rules: never start before your host; eat from the space in front of you, NEVER scoop something out from the other side of the bowl; make sure to roll the haako and millet together in a ball in your hand before putting it into your mouth - this cools the food down and makes it less messy; licking your arm from wrist to elbow, burping and talking with your mouth full are all considered good form; and finally and most importantly, always ALWAYS USE YOUR RIGHT HAND ONLY. And yes, that's why.

The IDC dug in, albeit somewhat timidly at first, and dare I say - they dug it.


Haako (Pulaar) or Futo do Deré (Soninké)

Serves 6

6 Pounds of Greens (About a pound of greens per person – spinach, collards, brocolli rabe all work well)

300 ml natural peanut butter (About 50 ml per person of natural/health store peanut butter (not Jif or Skippy but the natural kind made of nothing but ground peanuts)

One medium onion

2-3 cloves of garlic

1 smallish/medium red chilli



About 50 ml of millet per person

First, wash the greens. If they are really dirty, do it in the bathtub or another large tub. Several times, til all of the dirt is off. Once washed, grab a handful and ball it up, cut it into thin strips, as thin as possible. Discard stems. Put shredded greens into boiling lightly salted water for 15 minutes or so. Drain most of the water, leaving a little bit at the bottom. Stir in peanut butter. In a pan, heat oil and add diced onion and garlic. Add chilli – you can use fresh chilli or cheat like me and use sambal olek. Put a bit of the spinach mixture into the pan, return to large pot, all together. Let simmer over very low heat for 20-30 minutes. In the meantime, cook the millet (read directions on the package, it’s like making rice).

When ready to eat, spoon millet into one large bowl. Add the spinach sauce over the top, but only in the middle. Make sure everyone has washed hands and dig in... after it’s had a chance to cool down.

Makes great leftovers the next day. My kids absolutely loved it and its very nutritious – high in protein and vitamins.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Postcard: Maine

Thirty hours of travel. Forty-eight hours of trip. Six flights. Zero naps. Normally, this would not be the kind of adventure that would cause me to break out in hives. I mean, I have sat in second class on a train traversing India for thirty-six hours, spent a very uncomfortable night on the well-worn floor of the Calcutta airport, made friends with the over-night security team in an Indonesian airport in order to get in on their roasted sweet potato feast, hitchhiked east to west across the great continent of Africa…. Ummm, did I mention we were trekking from Mexico to Maine with a sixteen month gremlin? Thus the hives. The days of stillness and snuggling are over; these days, Oscar has the composure of a tornado. Mr.-I-don’t-sit-still-for-anyone has to experience his world. His must be a very existential mind. Is that man in front of me really there? I can’t know for sure until I pull his hair and get him to shoot bullets out of his eyes at my mom when I kick the back of his seat. What would make us crazy enough to consider such an adventure? Family, of course. What would make it all worth it? Copious amounts of Maine lobster dipped in heart-attack inducing amounts of melted butter.

Carter and I went to college in Maine, and it wouldn’t be the first time we tried to kill ourselves by gorging on the clawed crustacean. My senior year, I vowed to eat lobster until I could eat no more. It sounded decadent and indulgent and just the challenge for me. Hard to believe, but the day did come, and for many years I have preferred crab over lobster.

Two days. Six meals. Of the six meals, four were already spoken for, leaving only two for THE world famous Maine "lobstah". The moment we opened the squeaky screen porch door, giving way to the bubbling sound of the live lobster tank, I knew we were in a good place. Floors, walls and ceilings were all constructed of a blond highly-varnished wood and were adorned with lobster nets, ships in bottles, lighthouse debris and signs about sailors and loose women-- clearly Spinney’s Restaurant and Lodging was our spot. While taking in the unique and rugged Maine coast, we scarfed down our prize for surviving the long haul with the in-flight lap devil and a huge satisfying sigh of contentment came over us.
One lobster down. Many more to go. How to top the perfect lunch, setting and all? Do it yourself and do it better. We were staying in West Point, which is one of the oldest fishing villages in Casco Bay on the Phippsburg Peninsula. Our house was about fifty yards from an ocean inlet where lobster boats docked. Pete, my-brother-in-law, upon seeing a lobstah man mooring his rig into our front yard, cruised down to survey the catch. For $3.99/lb. we could have all of the freshly caught "lobbies" that we could eat. Uhhh, I’ll take two biggies. The shells were soft, which means the lobsters were molting and meat is at its sweetest and no shell crackers are needed. We filled a lobster pot with ocean water, brought it to a boil and plunged our lunch into its tasty demise. It really is a beautiful thing being on this end of the food chain.

These were, I kid you not, the best lobsters I have ever had. I attribute it to three things: 1) Fresh off the boat— you can’t beat it. 2) Soft-shells-- which you will rarely find if the lobsters have to be transported. Lobsters in this state are much more vulnerable and will most likely die during the journey. 3) Pete, the cook-- boil the lobbies in ocean water for the perfect cooking time of ten minutes for the first pound, three minutes for each additional pound. (Error on the side of undercooking, because they will continue to cook after you remove them from the pot. The meat should be tender, not rubbery- which can happen very quickly and result in a pointless death). In case you are wanting to go the whole nine yards, wash it down with a perfect pairing of 2007 Rudd Sauvignon Blanc- perhaps that is what all of those pounds of lobsters in college were missing…Gallo table wine out of a jug just doesn’t do the sweetness of buttery lobster meat justice.

Three lobstahs! One pound of buttah! One family wedding. What could be bettah?!