Meal for a sad day
We had planned a special weekend barbecue. We have a wonderful grill set up on the lawn below our veranda, which overlooks Nairobi national park. It is a big rectangular metal contraption with a grill that moves up and down above the coals on a wheel turned by a spindle fixed to what looks like a bicycle chain.
I am the mistress of the kitchen, but P. is the master of the grill, extremely skilled at managing the heat of the coals and the time needed to cook different foods. Last night, we combined forces for a spectacular meal under the stars, accompanied by the nocturnal music of the savanna.
It had been a very sad day. My 15-year old dog passed away from cancer back in the States. Baxter was a special dog, an anxious, fearful, yet sweet rescue pup who required a lifetime of Prozac and love to reassure him that he was safe in the world. Out on our daily walks, we were always prepared to duck behind a parked car or hide behind a large tree if another dog was seen approaching, a stressful event that would send Baxter into leaping rages of what is called canine fear-aggression. One such instance of this behavior had broken my finger a few years back. But, over time and with patience, we learned to redirect his attention whenever Baxter fixated on the sound of barking or the sudden movement of another animal.
Back at home, he would sleep deeply, exhausted by the constant vigilance he thought was required of him on our daily outings. Yet going out “on strollies” was one of his two favorite activities – the other being eating. Peanut butter in particular although, really, anything from the barbecue was just fine as well, thank you very much. Also bits of excess pie crust, or the parmesan cheese that would “miraculously” rain down onto the kitchen floor.
Over the years, Baxter mellowed somewhat and late in life his fading eyesight and hearing actually made it much easier for him. He was able to enjoy his meals, walks, and naps without the constant watchfulness that before had prevented him from ever truly relaxing. He would even socialize at parties at the house, licking the floor under the table to find fallen crumbs or reaching out timidly for tidbits that various friends would surreptitiously feed him. The friend who brought goat meat skewers for the grill one evening was particularly beloved.
I hadn’t lived with Baxter in about two years but I visited him when I could. When I got the news that he had gone, as they say, over the rainbow bridge, I knew deep in my heart that it had been his time. I had a very hard cry. January 4, and already the new year is a sad one.
What to do in the face of grief? For me, only two things really help. One is to stand silently outside and breathe the air of nature, and the other is to cook. Yesterday, I did both. Hence the elaborate al fresco meal. A barbecue in Baxter's memory.
P. prepared the coals while we sipped Tandala wheat beer and Honey Badger blonde ale from the excellent local Bateleur Brewery and tried to enjoy the sunset. Quiet breathing ensued as I silently celebrated Baxter's wonderful long life.
The stars of the show were enormous head-on prawns from off the Kenyan coast. We decided to grill these unadorned, with no marinade or seasoning, just a dunk after shelling in melted butter flavored with roasted garlic (we stuck whole heads wrapped in foil directly into the coals).
Delicate mahi mahi needed something juicy to accompany it, so I prepared a fruit salsa with diced pineapple leftover from cake making, plum tomato, and cucumber mixed with fresh green chili, scallion, a huge handful of coriander (cilantro), and fresh lime juice.
Vegetable kebabs of courgette (zucchini), capsicum (bell pepper), and red onion were bright and fresh, the produce picked up that afternoon at the organic farmers market. I had also selected a few ears of local corn that I was eager to try. Knowing that grilled ears of corn is a popular street food here, I thought to try a Mexican version like I the one I used to do back home. I stripped the silks off the ears and removed some of the tough outer husk, then placed the ears directly on the grill to char.
Meanwhile I prepared a mix of sea salt and mild Zanzibari chili powder and cut up some limes. My original plan was to rub each ear with a wedge of lime then sprinkle it with chili salt, like we used to
do in Arizona. But the corn here is hard and starchy, not like the soft sweet corn we grow in the US. I think it is the equivalent of feed corn, grown for livestock. While too tough to eat off the cob, it was still tasty, so I cut the kernels off and made a kind of salad mixed with the lime juice and chili salt. It turned out to be just the clean-tasting side dish that our rich meal required.
Finally, I brought out my pineapple mango upside-down cake, baked earlier that day, before the sad news arrived. Slicing us two pieces to finish off the night, I tasted a perfectly moist, lightly spiced cake underneath the fruity caramel. With the whisper of ginger and the tang of mango it spoke of tropical nights such as this one.
And it had just enough sweetness to offset my sadness, at least for a little while, at least until my next meal.