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  • Writer's pictureJulie

There's a rhino in my backyard!

For readers who don't know, I've been living on and off in Kenya for the last 9 months. While my blog was originally intended to document the development of the upstate New York hops project, I can't resist writing about the backyard savanna that inspires my cooking here. Enjoy!

My Kenyan backyard, courtesy of our neighbor, Nairobi National Park

In Kenya, the months that Americans think of as spring are when the long rains drench the land. March, April, and May transform the savanna from a tired-looking brown carpet, worn out in patches down to the bare soil, into a lush and vibrantly green place. This year, the rains were worrisomely late, disrupted in their arrival by a devastating cyclone in Mozambique that impacted weather patterns throughout East Africa. Mercifully, in mid-April rain arrived to color up the grasses and acacia trees of Nairobi National Park, which forms my backyard here in Kenya.

The advantage of the dry months from my perspective is that I have the pleasure of sipping my coffee each morning on the veranda, watching abundant wildlife gather on our hillside.

Coffee in the garden

We are fortunate that a permanent stream runs at the base of the hill – it is this stream that separates our yard from the Park itself. The presence of that water is an attractant, drawing herds of impala and eland, along with buffalo, giraffe, and ostrich. One day I watched in utter astonishment as a chubby hippo trotted up the hill out of our stream, bent for another nearby water source around the bend.

Once the rains come and the bare acacias leaf out, it becomes hard to see the wildlife, although I take great pleasure knowing they now have plenty to eat. Especially the fuzzy, brown and white baby zebra that are born in May, and are off the charts on what I refer to as the baby zebra cuteness factor.

wildlife on our savanna

Baby zebra cuteness factor off the charts!

So, you can imagine my delight when, just yesterday, I glanced out at the thick brush on the hillside to find….a rhino browsing! Black rhino, which this was, snack on twigs and branches with their prehensile lips, a feature that distinguishes them from their larger relatives, the white rhino. “Our” rhino, which we have affectionately named Romulus Dumbledore Rhino, spent the better part of a day napping under a cluster of acacia trees in between his bouts of feeding.

For wildlife security reasons, I have not posted a photo of Romulus Dumbledore. Since black rhino are highly endangered, Kenya Wildlife Service takes extraordinary efforts to protect the rhino population in Nairobi National Park. It might seem strange to read a post entitled, "There's a rhino in my backyard!" and not see the animal, but I ask you to use your imagination. And thanks for understanding that protecting these magnificent creatures takes precedence over my desire to share a beautiful photograph with you.

The rains continued into June, and that is one of the cold months here in Kenya. We are at about 6,000 feet of elevation in Nairobi and while the days are warmish when the sun breaks through the clouds, the nights are cool.

Last night was not just chilly but also rainy, the kind of night that calls for a warming meal in a bowl, along with a lively fire. We had just visited our local greenmarket, so I made a Thai-style vegetable green curry with the broccoli, bell peppers, and zucchini I had just bought. I added fresh garlic, ginger, lime juice, lime zest, and fish sauce to a couple of tablespoons of my jarred curry paste to jazz it up, and toasted the paste in some canola oil in my pot to dry it out. To this I added a chopped tomato and a can of coconut milk and, when warm, I added my vegetables to simmer until tender. Then I remembered that we have a lime tree growing in the backyard – and I know that the limes from that tree are excellent in my gin and tonic (I am sipping one right now!). Served over steamed brown jasmine rice, the curry was delicious accompaniment to an evening movie.

Dessert called for something equally cozy, and I thought a bar cookie would be perfect. Paging through Dorie Greenspan’s tempting book of desserts, Dorie’s Cookies, I came across a recipe called “Cabin-Fever Caramel Banana Bars.” Apparently, Dorie dreamed this up while stuck at home in a Connecticut blizzard. While drenching tropical rains are not quite the same thing as a winter snowstorm, the idea of salted caramel and bananas seemed genius on a cold wet night – we always have bananas on hand, because we put one out every night to feed our resident bushbaby. On top of that, Dorie’s recipe calls for cardamom, cloves, or star anise, and I have all of those spices from our trip last year to Zanzibar and its famous Darajani spice market.

I was excited to use the spices, so I included a bit of both cardamom and star anise, ground up in my recently acquired olive-wood mortar and pestle. I had local groundnuts (peanuts) on hand, but they aren’t salted like those called for in her recipe, so I increased the salt a bit in the batter recipe, and also used a chopped-up salted caramel chocolate bar for the topping, instead of milk chocolate. I figured that in addition to the salt, the extra caramel would help with the bars’ flavor balance, since brown sugar is awfully hard to come by in Nairobi, and I bake with cane sugar instead. The chocolate bar needed much more than the listed 3 minutes in the warm, turned-off oven to melt properly, but I eventually got it to spread evenly over the pan’s surface, and then pressed a quarter cup of groundnuts into the warm chocolate.

I didn’t have an 8-inch square tin, only a 9-inch, so I used an 8-inch round instead, planning to cut pie slices rather than bars. My dessert came out with a more cake-like texture then the chewy bar-like one I anticipated, which I attribute to the lack of brown sugar for my caramel. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t eat two slices warm out of the pan!

My version of Dorie Greenspan's cabin fever caramel banana bars

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