Recipes and Food Stories from the African Diaspora
It seems creativity is an innate gift of the African diaspora. From hand made jewellery, intricate hairstyles to expressive art, and indeed food, we have been blessed with the talent to apply our resources in ways that make our lives and community better. Today we celebrate Kuumba, which means “Creativity, and “Making the community better and more beautiful.” I am very happy about the theme as to me, it represents the core of who we are as a people.
Many of us have travelled far from our original homeland and we have for generations been adapting to new environments while still maintaining our unique essence. This is creativity. We have also come across new foods and ways of cooking and have made them our own.
When it comes to food we are big on taste and as a chef, taste is everything to me. So, in light of this, I will hone in on the sense of taste, and how to really amplify it in your dishes. I am giving you a few suggestions as to how to take it up a notch in the taste department so that you and your guests will fall in love at first bite.
Season food well
You can add a whole bunch of seasonings to a dish but if particular seasoning is lacking, you will taste nothing. Can you guess what it is? Salt. If your guests always ask to pass the salt mill at the table, this may be an indication that you could add a bit more. Salt is the most important flavour enhancer. Chefs use it liberally to bring out the flavours of food. Try to cut down on spice mixes and sauces that have salt and if you have to use them, taste before you add extra salt. Too much salt will also work against you.
Use fresh ingredients
That lovely Wagyu ribeye that has been sitting for days in the supermarket and then parked for a week in your fridge will not do the meat justice. Try to buy fresh meat on market day and use within 24 hours. If you cannot use within that time, it is best to freeze it in an airtight freezer bag and pump out all the air to prevent frostbites.
Buy produce in season
I recently wrote an entire column about the importance of cooking in season because of how much this contributes to the taste of food. Produce that is harvested and eaten during the season nature intended is much tastier than when not. These days many items are available year-round but it is best to use them when they are optimal.
Do not overcook food
Cooking is chemistry. Heat changes the structure of food over time and time is an important part of the equation. Some of us are from food cultures that love to cook the life out of food and then some more to make sure they are dead but overcooking makes meats tough and vegetables soft and mushy. This is why many dread Brussels sprouts. A steak that is black on the inside is cooked way beyond perfection.
Watch your cooking temperature
Make sure pot or oven temperature is not too high. In cooking, you do not want to shock your ingredients, especially meat or fish because they will toughen. It is better to cook on medium heat for longer if necessary.
Do not boil veggies
Unless you are cooking stock or soup, do not boil vegetables because most of the nutrients and flavours will leech out into the water. If you are cutting down on fats for dietary reasons, steam them instead. Other tasty cooking methods that use less oil are stir-frying and roasting in the oven.
Never cook frozen foods
Defrost frozen foods thoroughly before cooking. Never try to speed up the defrosting process in the pot or in the microwave because foods will overcook and meat/seafood will toughen. Put frozen foods in the fridge to defrost slowly and safely without biohazards. Never buy cooked frozen shrimp/seafood because by the time you reheat them, they will be overcooked. It is best to buy those frozen fresh.
Let soups sit a while
Allow soups to sit for about 30-60 minutes before serving. You may reheat if necessary. The flavours come together better after they have been sitting together for some time. This is why day-old soup is so delicious.
Cook braised meats the day before
When serving braised dishes, cook overnight, cool and then refrigerate. Warm up on stove or in the oven before serving the next day. Since braises are all about making the pan gravy, meat, vegetables and seasonings all meld together, the flavours will intensify and be even more mouth-watering the next day.
Marinate, Marinate, Marinate
Marinate meats with aromatics, and herbs and even a little oil and some acid like vinegar, lemon or yoghurt to help tenderize tougher cuts. You can leave meats in marinade for up to 24hours in the fridge and fish/seafood only need about 30 minutes. Leave out the salt until after cooking meats or just before cooking fish/seafood.
Infuse your oils when cooking
When stir-frying, frying or searing, infuse your oil in the hot pan with whole spices that are used in the preparation of the dish. This adds another layer of flavour to your dishes. Remove them before they burn, especially if cooking on high heat.
Let them rest
After cooking steaks, roasts and whole roast chicken or poultry, allow them to rest at room temperature for at least 10 minutes before serving or carving. This will enable the juices to redistribute throughout the meat and make it juicier. Otherwise, all the juices will flow out when you cut it and the flesh will be tough. Fish and other seafood should be served immediately.
I will leave you with a simple but tasty Apple and Roasted Beet Salad, which is perfect for this time of year and is quite festive.
Apple and Roasted Beet Salad
1 small beet for every apple
apple cider vinegar
light olive oil
salt and pepper
After washing and drying beets, use a paring knife and pierce holes all over each beet. Remember to snip off the little rough part that was attached to the leaves.
Rub whole unpeeled beets with oil, salt, pepper and ground allspice. Cover in foil and place in the oven at 130C until cooked. The knife will pierce without resistance when cooked. Cooking time will vary according to the amount of beets you are roasting. 500g/1lb of beets should roast in 30mins-45mins.
Allow beets to cool then peel. But feel free to peel them hot if you have fingers of steel. Dice them into small squares.
Slice apples in round, then stack the rounds to julienne into long strips. Slice those strips in the opposite direction to dice.
Add about 1 Tbsp apple cider per apple used in the recipe to the apples in a bowl.
Combine the beets with apples. Add about 1 tsp of oil per apple used in the recipe. Tear a few mint leaves and combine. Add the mint sparingly because you do not want it to overpower the other flavours. Add salt and pepper to taste. Toss again. Garnish with fresh mint sprigs and serve.
CHEF’S NOTE: This is a great side salad and can be made ahead of time. One of the major mistakes we make with beets is that we boil them. Yes they cook quicker, but when boiled, you lose the sweetness of the dates and the texture changes as it gets waterlogged. Refrain from boiling beets unless you are simply using them in a purée. Roasting them in the oven is a better alternative though it is more time-consuming. However, If you want to convert your family into beet lovers, it is worth the wait!
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Kari & Chef Lij Heron aka Chef and Steward is a husband (chef) and wife (writer) team on an epicurean journey. Life is bland without good food and good times. We are intrigued by gastronomical delights and aim to balance kitchen and bathroom scales. Food is medicine but that doesn’t mean it ought to taste like it!