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Thursday, April 5, 2012

I Had A Farm In Africa

Moments before boarding a plane to leave Africa behind, Ababa cupped my face in her calloused hands and kissed my forehead with her dried sun-parched lips.

My family lived in Ethiopia, Africa for a few years while my father was stationed at Kagnew Station. It wasn't a farm, by any means. Kagnew Station, located on the dusty outskirts of Asmara, was a sprawling military base  surrounded by 20 foot concrete walls topped with tangled webs of razor sharp barbed wire. As a kid, I wasn't sure if the walls were there to keep people out or to keep us in.

The lone school building, perpetually covered with hot windswept  sand,  housed every grade level. Although rigid, the  International American School academics were fairly standard except for the fact that we were required to master the Italian language. We were the pupils of a post war Mussolini influence that still remained intact from the World War II Italian occupation of Ethiopia. Between astronomy and paper-mache puppet making classes, I learned the Italian language. Army life.

My brother played high school football. Our school was the only American school in Ethiopia.  The only school......with a football team. Because they had nobody to play, they fielded two teams that played against each other over and over and over again. Weird.

The isolated self-contained army base had everything we needed. Aside from  occasional weekend jaunts to the Red Sea or adventurous Kenyan safaris, we happily lived our lives within our walled-in fortress.

Ababa, a native Ethiopian, was our housekeeper and nanny. She was bussed onto the base daily with other off-base domestic workers. With a gentle grace and quiet serenity, Ababa took care of my family and me. I adored her.

Every day, before boarding the final bus to return  home, Ababa cooked for us.  Intermingled with Swanson pot pies and TV dinners, she'd prepare her curious interpretations of American food. But, on occasion, Ababa would pull out the big guns and cook her food.  Ethiopian food. Her intoxicating spicy doro wat with tangy injera bread captured my tender young heart.  I've craved it my entire life.

Without any nearby Ethiopian restaurants to satisfy my cravings, I'll occasionaly cook doro wat at home for Michael and me. It never compares to Ababa's humble long braised chicken smothered with spicy blood-red berebere sauce, but the epic labor of love it requires to prepare keeps her sweet spirit with me as a reminder of our time together on my  military farm in Africa.

There are countless methods for preparing doro wat. One very old method matter-of-factly suggests air drying a beheaded plucked rooster under the hot African sun for three entire days. Nope. While cooking doro wat can be fairly straighforward, the process reveals its essence and soul.

Niter Kibbeh.
I melted 1/2 pound of unsalted in a small cast iron skillet. When the butter started to foam, I added 1 cup of diced purple onions, 2 whole garlic cloves, 1 tablespoon of grated fresh ginger, 1/4 teaspoon cardomom seeds, 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, 1/4 teaspoon tumeric, and three whole cloves. After the onions turned translucent, I covered the skillet, turned the heat to low, and let the butter steep for 45 minutes before draining it through cheesecloth to trap the solids. Spiced clarified butter. I slid it into refirgerator and started the berbere paste.

Berbere Paste.
After toasting 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon cardomom seeds, 1 teaspoon fenngreek seeds, and 4 whole cloves, I pulverized them in a coffee grinder before mixing them with 1 tablespoon kosher salt, 1 1/2 ounces of paprika, 1 1/2 ounces ground dried pasilla pepper, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1 teaspoon ground turmeric, 1/2 reaspoon ground allspice, and 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg.  I added 1/2 peanut oil and 1/2 cup dry red wine before blending the berbere into a thick fiery paste.

Injera Bread.
Injera can be tricky. To achieve the characteristic tang of injera bread, a sour starter needs to be proofed and fermmented for several days. There are methods for quick starters, overnight starters, and three day, five day or seven day starters. I chose a four day fermenting process.

On the first day, I added 3/4 cup warm water to 1/2 cup teff flour.  After sprinkling a pinch of yeast over the mix, I covered the bowl with a kitchen towel and set it aside. Every morning, I added 1/3 cup teff flour and 1/2 cup warm water to the bubbling starter. As it slowly  fermented, gurgled, and popped, the starter exuded the familiar pungent aroma of injera batter.

 On the fourth morning, I pureed the starter before adding 2 cups each of self rising flour and teff flour.  After kneading the dough for 10 minutes, I added enough warm water to form a crepe-like batter, covered it with a kitchen towel,  and let it rest for a few hours.

After cranking an electric skillet to 400 degrees, I ladled 1/2 cup of injera batter into a corner of the skillet and tilted it to swirl the batter around the bottom of the pan.  When it covered the entire surface, I let it cook for a minute or two until holes appeared through the batter and the bread was cooked through. As each spongy injera crepe came off of the skillet, I stacked them between sheets of waxed paper before rolling them up to serve with our doro wat.

Alrighty, then. Doro Wat.
After breaking down a small chicken into serving pieces, I marinated them in fresh lime juice for an hour.  Working over a medium low flame, I slowly sauteed 3 cups of thinly sliced purple onions for 45 minutes until they were deeply caramelized.  When the onions were meltingly tender, I added 1/2 cup niter kibbeh, 1/2 cup berbere paste, 1/2 cup dry red wine, and 1 cup chicken stock.  I brought the sauce to a boil and reduced it to a simmer before adding the chicken to the bubbling blood-red bath. I covered the skillet and let the doro wat braise for an hour, adding boiled eggs during the final 15 minutes.

After lining a large platter with injera, I topped the spongy bread with doro wat, Kai Sir (Ethiopian beet and pepper salad tossed with fresh lemon juice), Gomen (braised collard greens with cheese), Fosolia (green beans and carrots sauteed with caramelized onions), and Spiced Cheese.

No knives or forks. We used the injera and ate it all with our fingers.
Sensory overload.




1 comment:

Cookie said...

Are you a member of Kagnew Kids Facebook page? It is peopled chiefly with Brats who went to school at Kagnew, but, since there are so few of us, we also include people who worked at the school, parents, children born at Kagnew, and we even have a GI or two. You should stop by, have a look, and, if you're interested, drop Gene an email and ask to join.

Caroline Z