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  • Writer's pictureJulie

Comfort food

The non-stop flight from JFK to Nairobi is nearly 13 hours. I mentally prepared for the long haul, dressing in my most comfortable clothes and loading books onto my e-reader. I had a comfortable seat and a friendly seat companion. My special-order Asian vegetarian meal was tasty and the service on-board attentive. It was a smooth flight. But it is still a grueling trip.

Awakening that first morning back at the house on the savanna overlooking Nairobi National Park, I sat on the veranda to relax and recover with my coffee. With my first look out on the park after a month’s absence to attend to business in wintry New York, I was delighted to spot 4 giraffes browsing the acacia trees in the middle distance. They looked like young giraffes, as they were quite small. They moved slowly from left to right across the slope, stopping to nibble the different trees and bushes, one joining another, who would then move on to the next tree, followed by its companion, and so forth across the terrain. One of the giraffes did a little loping jog for several steps, an improbable and humorous gait.

Young giraffes browsing in the backyard

For me, settling back into a place after a period of time away involves cooking and baking. It roots me and, through the ingredients I work with, reconnects me to the place. So, later that morning I visited the organic farmers market in Karen and happily made the acquaintance of a huge variety of fruits and vegetables, so different from that in US supermarkets. I bought a healthy bunch of delicious-looking greens that William, the farmer, told me were called Ethiopian kale, and a fat bunch of pink bananas that he said were a variety originating in Uganda. I also picked up a hedgehog-looking spiky oval fruit called a horned melon and some banana passionfruit, which looks exactly how it sounds – banana shaped and banana colored passionfruit, which I had never seen before. And I’m obviously a fan of passionfruit!

Horned melon, banana passionfruit, and Ethiopian kale, aka Abyssinian mustard greens

Back home in the afternoon, I toured the gardens around the house to reacquaint myself with what was growing after my month away. We have mango and pomegranate and lime trees, coffee bushes and rosemary plants among the roses. I was delighted to spot some small fruits growing on a spindly tree I had not noticed before. They were peaches. And while they were brown and mushy in spots, they were ripe. I picked 4 of the likeliest ones.

After a long trip like that transatlantic flight, I crave comfort food. For me, that usually means pasta. My go-to dish is pasta with sautéed greens, such as mustard, kale, or chard, and that’s what I decided to cook with my huge bunch of greens. An Ethiopian friend guessed that they were kosta, but from poking around on the internet I think kosta is what we call chard and what I bought is actually Abyssinian mustard greens. To prepare it, I trimmed off the tough stems, chopped the leaves, and blanched them for about 4 minutes in the water I was boiling for the penne.

I scooped them out and while they drained, I sautéed some roasted garlic in oil in a pan. The garlic was from whole cloves that P. and I had roasted in the embers below the barbecue grill over Christmas. I still had some, which I love for its creamy texture and mellowed flavor. To the garlic I added handfuls of the greens, together with a generous sprinkle of chili flakes. As the mixture cooked down I finished the penne, and when the pasta water was cloudy with starch I scooped a few ladles full into the greens mixture to make it saucy. When the pasta was ready I topped it with the greens and garlic mixture, adjusted the salt and pepper, and added a generous shaving of parmesan cheese (made by Browns, our local mountain cheese maker). Just the comfort I was looking for after a long trip home.

The next day, P. was returning from a week working in the Central African Republic. I wanted to surprise him with a special meal, as it was Valentine’s Day. Two years ago, we had spent Christmas in Zanzibar and taken a cooking class together, one of the highlights of which was a scrumptious dish of green bananas simmered in coconut milk with spices. I wrote about this dish, and the chef who taught us, in this article for Odyssa Magazine. I decided to cook a version of the dish using these beautiful pink bananas from the farmers market.

Pink Ugandan cooking bananas, waiting for the pot

I began with a version of a mirepoix, which is typically carrots, celery, and onion. I swapped in green bell pepper from the market for the celery and used our local red onion instead of the classic yellow. I pulled out the spices I had bought in Zanzibar and collected turmeric, curry powder, cumin, and cinnamon, to which I also added chopped fresh ginger. These were sweated in two tablespoons of coconut oil – the raw kind that actually tastes like coconut, which I think is wonderful. When they were fragrant, I added the vegetables to soften while I peeled and diced the bananas.

The key to the delicious version of this dish I was taught to cook in Zanzibar is the addition of acid, lots of acid. The dish we cooked there included fresh tomato, tomato paste, pickled garlic, and pickled ginger. I went ahead and diced up a plum tomato, and thought about what else to add to the dish for that undercurrent of acid, needed to cut through the creaminess of the bananas and the coconut milk. I settled on what I think was a brilliant idea – the quick pickled peaches I had made from the garden fruit I had picked the day before.

Since the peaches were small and spoiled in spots, the best use of them was diced. Recalling a watermelon pickle I had made some years ago, I prepared a quick pickling liquid with water, white wine vinegar, sugar, and some of my sweet Zanzibari spices: star anise, cloves, and cinnamon. After simmering the liquid for 5 minutes, I added the diced fruit and cooked until it was soft, just a few minutes. I filled a glass jar and topped it with the slightly cooled pickling liquid, then stored it in the fridge.

Back to the main course! Once all the vegetables were softened I added the bananas, coconut milk, water, and a generous helping of the pickled peaches and their liquid. This simmered for a mere 20 minutes before the bananas were tender. I served it over steamed rice, and P. happily ate two bowls full.

Green bananas in coconut milk with curry, turmeric, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, and pickled peaches

But he still had room for a home-made Valentine’s Day chocolate cupcake iced with chocolate ganache!

Valentine's Day treats!

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