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A multinational rice salad. September 27, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I recently treated ourselves to supper at Alando Kenyan Cuisine (http://www.alandoscuisine.com/), a delightful, tiny little restaurant tucked away at the back of a coffee shop on Main Street in the historic district of scenic Bethlehem, PA.

The food at Alando is distinctly Kenyan, yet reflects the strong Indian influence on the area’s cuisine. Our favorite appetizers are lentil samosas and bhajia, out-of-this-world fried potato slices with pili pili sauce (a hot, housemade dipping sauce). And we can never resist splitting a cardamom-studded chapati, served warm and delightfully fragrant. (Actually, I’m sure we’d prefer splitting a whole basket of chapatis, but only if we opted to forgo food. It might even be worth it.)

Our friend Ben ordered coconut chicken (chicken in a coconut curry sauce) with sauteed cabbage and basmati rice. My entree was a rice pilau, which in this case is basmati rice mixed with masala spices. (Kenyan masala contains garlic, black pepper, coriander, ginger, mustard—presumably black or brown mustardseed—and cinnamon, according to the menu.) The rice was topped with kachumbari, a Kenyan-style fresh salsa containing chopped tomato, fresh peas, diced green and red bell pepper, scallions, and shredded red onion with cilantro, lemon juice and herbs.

The rice pilau and the kachumbari were both delicious, but I couldn’t help but feel that the combination wasn’t right. Strange as it might sound to put a fresh salsa over a masala-spiced rice, the combination wasn’t the issue: It was hot rice and fresh (cold) salsa. You don’t want to heat fresh salsa, since that would kill the crunch and flavor, so it seemed to me that the solution was to chill the rice. Fortunately, since Alando serves boat-sized portions, I was able to bring home a huge container of leftovers, refrigerate it, and experiment today when it was time for our lunch.

Poor OFB! I had big ideas but no idea what I was doing. But as I explained to him, if it turned out badly, the chickens would love it and we could try again with a more conventional lunch. Nothing ventured, nothing lost. Ben proved to be game, especially after being plied with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.

You see, after thinking it over, my idea was to toss the chilled spiced rice and salsa with crumbled feta and extra-virgin olive oil, add pepitas (roasted pumpkinseeds) for crunch, and serve it as a cold rice salad. Mixing elements of Indian, Kenyan, Greek, and Mexican cuisine could have proved disastrous, but it didn’t. In fact, it was delicious. “This is really good!” said OFB as he ate half my plate after polishing off his own. And it really was. Well worth recreating from scratch next time you make basmati rice and have leftovers. (I always make extra so I’ll have plenty for fried rice or to add to other dishes anyway.)

To put it together from scratch, here’s what I plan to do: Make a big batch of basmati rice, enjoying some hot with an Indian meal or as a side to chili, black bean soup, refried beans, a Chinese or Thai dish, or what have you. (We also love basmati rice as a side to conventional foods like baked sweet potatoes and broccoli or green and yellow wax beans, and of course it would be great with chicken, shrimp, or gumbo.)

While the food is cooking, saute masala spices in extra-virgin olive oil. You can use a blend of fresh-ground or powdered spices to make your own masala mix (such as the Kenyan mix), or use your favorite garam masala or chat masala mix. Don’t go overboard with the oil, since your goal is not to create greasy rice but to release the flavors of the spices and to help them adhere to the rice. Add the leftover rice to the masala mix and stir well to blend. (In Alando’s version, this creates the look of “dirty rice.”) Refrigerate the leftover rice.

When you want to make the salad, thaw a package of frozen peas. (America’s Test Kitchen swears that thawed frozen peas are sweeter, more tender, and generally far better than shelled fresh peas. I have no idea, so I’ll go with their assessment.) Finely dice a red and a green bell pepper, chop two red tomatoes, mince a bunch of scallions, chop a bunch of cilantro, and shred or dice a large red onion. Mix everything together and season with the juice of a fresh-squeezed lemon, salt (we like RealSalt), and fresh-ground black pepper to taste, stirring the seasonings into the salsa. Cover the salsa and let it sit, refrigerated, for 1/2 hour so the flavors can marry.

Toss the cold masala rice with the fresh salsa and crumbled feta cheese to taste (we like plenty of feta, half a carton for a two-person serving). Taste and adjust seasonings, including olive oil; add more, a little at a time, if the salad seems dry. Sprinkle on pepitas (again, we like lots). Serve each portion on whole Romaine leaves with halved cherry, pear, and plum tomatoes, a trimmed scallion, and fresh cilantro sprigs on the side. Yum! 

Our friend Ben and I found the rice salad to be a very satisfying lunch. But if you’d like an accompaniment, I’d think warm chapatis or chilled baked or grilled chicken breasts would be ideal. Or maybe some Kenyan soup, such as the African peanut soup or coconut lentil soup Alando dishes up. (I’m still dying to try them, along with Alando’s 16-bean veggie chili. OFB and I will be back!)

               ‘Til next time,

                               Silence

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Rice, Kenyan style. August 13, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I recently stumbled upon a marvelous little Kenyan restaurant tucked away in the very heart of nearby Bethlehem, PA. We had never encountered Kenyan food before, but the reassuringly familiar menu items (samosas, masalas and pilaus), not to mention the enticing aromas drifting through the open door, made us abandon our long-anticipated plans for a Thai dinner and rush into Alando’s* without a backward glance.

OFB and I launched into our meal with glasses of spicy Kenyan iced tea (no milk or sweetener for us, thank you) and a pair of shared appetizers: yummy lentil samosas, served with their spicy housemade pili-pili sauce (I came home with a bottle) and heavenly bhajia, served with piquant tamarind sauce. Kenyan bhajia is described on the menu as “thinly sliced potatoes marinated in turmeric-cilantro batter then fried to perfection.”

“Perfection” was no exaggeration when describing these fried potatoes. They were a beautiful golden yellow, thanks to the turmeric, delicately and uniformly crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. The tamarind dipping sauce and (of course) liberal applications of salt set them off perfectly. Normally, I’m content to have a couple of bites of an appetizer and leave the rest to OFB and his famous appetite. But one bite into a bhajia potato slice and I was fighting him tooth and claw for every slice, reminiscent of the extraordinary papier-mache masks of African animals adorning Alando’s walls.

But much as I loved the bhajia and samosas, I knew I could never make them at home. Deep-frying is not for me. Not so, however, for my entree, the veggie pilau. I love Indian pilaus, so I felt on safe ground ordering the Kenyan version. But the dish that arrived took me somewhat aback. First, the rice was brown, and not because it was brown rice, but because of the spicing. And mixed with the brown rice were peas, raisins, and diced fresh tomatoes. Not only did it look dull, it didn’t strike me as a felicitous combination.

Maybe it’s just me, but I despise fresh tomatoes in cooked food. Mind you, I love fresh tomatoes. I not only can but do eat them twice a day, every day, throughout tomato season, in salads, on TLC (tomato, lettuce and cheese) sandwiches, sliced as an accompaniment to Middle Eastern food or (when OFB is away for the evening and I’m feeling really self-indulgent) as comfort food sliced as a side with rice and cottage cheese. And, of course, by the quart in fresh salsa. But keep the fresh tomatoes off my pizza and out of my pasta, please. There’s just something so wrong about the texture and raw flavor in an otherwise-cooked dish.

I tried to keep my face from falling as I beheld the boringly brown pilau with its curious combo of ingredients, especially since our friend Ben was digging into his chicken masala and chapati with his customary enthusiasm. (He shared a piece of the cardamom-seed-laced chapati with me, and let’s just say that next time, I’m getting my own, with a pile to bring home for later.) But then I tasted it.

Yum! It was ever so good and delightfully fragrant, light but still flavorful and satisfying. The portions were huge, so I’d planned to take two-thirds of it home, but Someone Who Shall Remain Nameless saw to it that not so much as a grain of rice was left. (Said personage confirmed that it was really, really good.) All righty, then: Not fried. Simple ingredients list. All I needed was a recipe.

Thanks to my good friend Google, I found several, but needed to meld them to come up with the dish I enjoyed at Alando’s. I’ll share the recipe in a sec, but first just wanted to note the deliciousness of OFB’s dessert—yes, he somehow managed to cram one in on top of everything else—a sweet potato pie with scoops of ginger and mango ice cream. Even Ben was somewhat daunted by the prospect of eating the entire dessert by himself, so he insisted that I try a representative forkful. Normally, I can’t manage food and dessert at the same meal, but I was intrigued, and I’m so glad I had a taste. Ben was right: It was amazing. Thanks, Alando! We’ll be back. And next time, we’ll each get our own plate of bhajia!

Meanwhile, here’s that recipe: 

                Kenyan Veggie Pilau

3 cups basmati or jasmine rice

6 cups water

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger

1 large sweet onion, finely chopped

2 tomatoes, peeled and diced

1/2 cup raisins

1 cup green peas, frozen or lightly steamed

salt to taste

vegetable oil for sauteeing

dried unsweetened shredded or grated coconut (optional)

Mix the dried spices and seasonings and set aside. In a heavy pot or Dutch oven, add oil and saute the onion over medium heat until it softens and begins to brown. Add the ginger and garlic, stirring well. Once you can smell them—about 5 minutes—add the rinsed rice, stirring well to make sure it’s coated with the oil. Add the spice mix and stir until it’s completely distributed into the rice/onion mix. Add the water, stirring it in. Add the tomatoes, peas, raisins, and coconut (if desired), stir, turn heat to low, and cover. Simmer until all the water is absorbed, the rice is cooked through and the peas are tender. Check and adjust by adding more water if needed, a little at a time. 

Hmmm. That’s the tradition, but that’s not the way I’d make this dish. instead, I’d make my basmati or jasmine rice in the rice cooker while I sauteed everything else, to make sure both the rice and sauteed ingredients were perfect, then stir the saute into the cooked rice and let it “set” for 10 minutes before serving. I also find that two cups of uncooked rice in the rice cooker makes plenty for our friend Ben, me, and the chickens, but I’d keep the proportions of the other ingredients as is. (Proportions varied fairly widely in the recipes I saw; some called for as many as three onions. Experiment and see what tastes good to you!)

Howver you make it, I suggest you try it. It is oh-so-good! In Kenya, it’s traditionally served at weddings, with a beef or chicken stew. But I can tell you it stands alone, or maybe with a little plain yogurt or raita.

             ‘Til next time,

                             Silence

* Check out www.alandoskitchen.com for a tour and menu.