Cooking with Coconut (with Recipe)

Coconut is king in Northern Madagascar.

Let’s talk food; is there anything better to talk about?

Someone asked me last week what I miss most about Madagascar. My answer: the food. Not a very common answer, actually. Since Madagascar is so geographically diverse, the food changes drastically depending on which part of the country you’re in. Happily, I lived in the Northwest, where coconut is king.

Before you go picturing me drinking coconut water out of a straw on the beach, know that people in my region cooked with mature coconuts (the ones you drink from are much younger), and typically, they don’t like to drink the water. That never stopped me, of course.

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Making fresh coconut milk using an ambozy, a traditional tool with a wooden seat and a metal grater attached to the end

Maybe you’re thinking of shredded coconut flakes, the kind you put in macaroons. Nope. When people cook with coconut here, they actually shred mature coconuts to make coconut milk. Here’s how:

  1. Whack open a coconut with a machete or a big knife. Pour the water into a zinga, filter it and drink!
  2. Shred each half of the coconut on an ambozy (pictured above). Make sure you have a large bowl placed below for catching the flakes.
  3. Next, add clean water to the shreds–just enough to cover. Start to squeeze the flakes and extract the milk.
  4. Pour the shreds through a strainer into another bowl set aside.
  5. Repeat the process a second and third time.
  6. The first press is always the richest. In my experience, you want to use the first press last, so that your food retains the coconuty-rich flavor.
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Coconut beans! My favorite coconut dish

Of course, if you’re in America, whole coconuts and ambozys can be hard to come by. Luckily, full fat coconut milk makes a decent substitute.

My favorite of all coconut recipes are coconut beans. They’re filling, cheap, and last forever. In Madagascar, I would cook my beans over a traditional fatana sarbonne like the one pictured below, because beans take such a long time to cook. However, if you soak dry beans overnight, they’ll cook up in less than an hour.

When I went home to America, I adapted this recipe and made it for my family using locally available ingredients. I found that I still preferred to use dry beans, because it allows more time for the coconut flavor to absorb. But I’m sure, in a pinch, canned beans would suffice.

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Beans cooking over a traditional fatana sarbonne, a charcoal cooking stove

Here’s my American recipe:

Malagasy Coconut Beans

Serves 8-10 people; can be halved or doubled easily

2 lbs dry dark red beans

3 cans coconut milk

2 large tomatoes

1 large red onion

1 head of garlic

Salt

Pepper

Cilantro (optional)

  1. Soak beans overnight
  2. When ready to cook, rinse beans and fill to cover with fresh water. Do NOT fill the pot with water; fill just enough to cover the beans with maybe an inch of water on top.
  3. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are starting to get soft but not completely cooked.
  4. When soft but not still not cooked through, add two cans of coconut milk and bring to a boil again. Reduce to simmer and continue to cook the beans until they are soft.
  5. While the beans are cooking, smash the head of garlic with generous amounts of salt and pepper (I like to use a mortar and pestle for tradition’s sake, but you could certainly blend it in a food processor). Add the garlic, salt and pepper blend into the beans and stir. Cover.
  6. Chop the tomatoes and onions and add them to the pot.
  7. Taste a few beans to see if they are soft. They should almost melt in your mouth. At this point, add the last can of coconut milk and cook for ten more minutes, covered.
  8. Taste for salt and pepper. Add more if you like.
  9. Chop the cilantro and add it to the pot. Stir and serve.
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Serve coconut beans with generous amounts of white rice and shredded mango salad.

 

 

Rice Cakes

I have a coffee shop in my village.

The decor is rustic–hipster chic. It’s full of wooden stools and green plants and it serves the best rice cakes in the world. Yes, in the whole world. It’s a fact.

The recipe is a secret passed down from generation to generation. It’s run by a local grandmother. Only, it’s not so secret any more. She shared it with me.

When my friend and fellow volunteer, Alyssa, came to visit me last year, she boasted that this coffee stand sold the best mokary vary in all of Madagascar. At the time, I had only been in Madagascar for three months, so I took her word for it. A year and a half later, I see now that Alyssa wasn’t wrong.

What makes this mokary vary (rice bread or rice cake in the Northern Malagasy dialect) the best? I’m not really sure. Maybe it’s the combination of yeast and baking powder. Maybe it’s the type of rice she uses to grind into flour. Maybe it’s just the right amount of sugar added, or the right amount of charcoal used…or maybe it’s just pure, natural talent.

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Whatever it is, I’m satisfied eating it every day. This place has become my daily routine. I wake up, throw on a salovana, sweep my house and then wander out of my yard up the road to drink coffee and eat mokary vary and listen to the gossip and the news. If it weren’t for this place, I’d have no idea what’s happening in the village.

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Local “Starbucks”

Before Alyssa finished her service, she came back to our coffee shop and begged the owner for the recipe. With a hearty laugh, she obligingly walked us through each step. It’s a two day process. Day two begins very early (“at the cock’s crow”) and we overslept and missed it. But I promised Alyssa that I would go back and observe the final piece of the puzzle, so that she could bring this little piece of Madagascar (my little piece) back to The States with her.

Well Alyssa, here it is. Let me know if it tastes the same over there.

PS: She misses you.

Dady's Mokary Vary Recipe:

Ingredients:
4 cups of rice flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp yeast
1 cup sugar
water

The Night Before:
1. Put 4 Tablespoons of rice flour in a saucepan (1 TB per cup of rice flour)
2. Add enough water to make a thin liquid
3. Place the saucepan over direct heat
4. Cook until the mixture (called koba) gets thick and becomes difficult to stir
5. Let the koba cool
6. Add the baking powder and yeast to the remaining rice flour in a large bowl
7. Add the cooled koba to the mixture and combine until it is incorporated. It'll be a bit lumpy
8. Let this mixture sit overnight. I didn't see this part, but I assume Dady covered it with a cloth.

The Morning Of (3 am or When the Cock Crows):
1. Add the sugar and enough water to make a very thin batter
2. Heat very small pans with lids over charcoal (or I guess in an oven if you're going that way)
3. Add enough oil to coat the pans
4. Pour about 1/4 cup batter in each pan. Cover and let cook for a few minutes.
5. Flip the mokary once it has had time to set on one side.
6. When the edges are brown, remove and let cool.

Make sure to eat this with some really mahery coffee. 

Mazotoa.

My first WWOOF Experience

If you’ve ever thought that spending time in nature sounded nice, have you checked out WWOOF?

WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and is exactly what the name says. It is an international network of organic farmers, who serve as hosts for eager travelers. It’s a chance to explore a different region/country/continent, practice some language, learn a skill, and develop amazing relationships you’d never expect.

I spent the last two weeks of my spring Eurotrip WWOOFing (yes, it’s a verb) in Basse-Normandy, France.

 

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A map of my route, for reference!

How did I choose a tiny town in Basse-Normandie? Simple. On the WWOOF website (you pay 20 Euro be a member for a year and then you have access to the catalogue of host farms in the country you choose) there is a list of filters including type of activity (IE permaculture, orchard, dairy, eco projects) and length of stay (one week, two weeks, 1 month). I had two weeks to farm; I was interested in orchards and eco projects. So I found La Fermette du Bellefontaine.

 

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A rainy day on La Fermette

La fermette means “little farm,” and that’s exactly what it was: a small scale organic farm owned and operated by a few friends. Each had his and her own plot of land and primary source of income: one is a vegetable gardener, one a seamstress, and my host, the master baker.

 

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For most French people, bread is life. It’s fresh, it’s inexpensive and it’s eaten three times a day. And why wouldn’t you eat it when the grain was grown and harvested three miles away?

As for eco projects, these included a composting toilet (of which I sadly did not take a picture, but I’ll leave that to you to research), an organic sewage system that uses water-loving plants to clean used water, and newspaper insulation. All created by my host out of his desire to “be as autonomous as possible.”

It’s amazing what you can learn when you least expect it, when you enter into a new situation with zero expectations. I left a lot more informed about steps I can take as an individual to reduce my impact and respect our planet. And I had the best cheese of my life.

 

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View of the town from a hilltop! Not pictured: the medieval fortress I climbed to take this photo.

 

 

 

 

Picture Highlights So Far, Again!!

 A trip to the Communist Museum (Prague, Czech Republic)

Hungarian Sweeties 🙂 (Budapest, Hungary)

The Parliament Building overlooking the Danube (Budapest, Hungary)

Full Moon #3 of my time abroad. It rose over Budapest as I waited outside St. Mathius Church to hear Requiem (I did, and it was beautiful. Budapest, Hungary)

Carthusians conquer the Golan (Israel)
Ein Gedi mountains (Israel)

A feast of pork goulash!!!! (Czech Republic)

15th Century Castle, the significance of which slipped my mind because it’s so darn BEAUTIFUL. (Czech Republic)

Prague!!!! I’m in Love. (Czech Republic)

Traditional Hungarian flat bread, cooked in a warm oven (Hungary)
Tour boat on the Danube (Czech Republic)

View from St. Charles’ Bridge (Czech Republic.)

As I sipped red wine, my future husband serenaded me with a beautiful rendition of Zhivago. I’m in love. (Budapest, Hungary)

PRAGUE! Can you smell it? (Czech Republic)

Budapest (Hungary)

Long, LONG overdue pictures 🙂 Europe and such!!!!

The Fig Tree and The Shuk

Two, almost three weeks now in Be’er Sheva and I feel much older. Soon I will have to do adult things like buy laundry detergent and toothpaste…permanent actions that mean I really am here and I really am staying. When I was planning for this trip, I planned for a lot of extraneous circumstances like two day hikes and outdoor camping trips. That’s all well and good, but I neglected the fact that my life would continue during these months!! The sun rises and sets here just like it does in Memphis and Yardley; the seasons change, the people yell, the cats scratch, politicians argue, beer gets brewed and drunk. You go to pubs, you study, and every Friday night you pray and thank God for all his infinite blessings. The weeks seem so long here, but time somehow moves more quickly. If i were lucky–not that I believe in luck, but if I were in a movie–I’d say I’m living someone else’s life. I look around and think about how I got here and I can’t but smile. And then I know that I really am here. I’m home! These are my pictures on the wall; these are my books; there are my clothes in the closet; there is my homework to be done; there is my tea to be drunk.
I went a few days ago to the Shuk, the daily outdoor market in the “Old City” by the central bust staion. Stalls and stalls overflowing with tomatoes and cucumbers, bursting at the seams with fresh fruit! So many varieites I had never seen before (cactus fruit, guava, passion fruit……). I stuck to what I knew: plums and fresh figs. FRESH FIGS! They’re everywhere here, even in the desert (truth: okay, it was planted a few centuries ago, but we hiked up sand dunes to the Mediteranean and picked fresh figs off the tree :)) I accidentally bought about four pounds of figs at the Shuk because I didn’t have the courage to ask for half a pound (I mean kilo. What?!) But that seems like a serendipitous problem. If I had more kitchenware I would make a fig and cheese tart with the excess, but alas, I’m back to basics in my apartment with gas stovetop and “travel” pot.
I also bought a mountain of pita bread (pronounced pee-tah, not pee-dah…glad I have Israeli friends to call me on my Americanism…), some cheese (I have no idea what kind because I still can’t read the signs…) and some fish–both fresh and smoked salmon.

SMOKED SALMON!!!!
So happy.
The Shuk also features huge sacks of grain (think Biblical times), nuts, dried fruits and spices. Next time I go I’m bringing someone with me to help translate 🙂
I’m so happy here. Happy in a very strange and liberating way. But I know I have so much responsibility ahead of me. My first weekend here, I was asked to think about and meditate on what I want out of my time here, and I wasn’t sure. I’m still not completely sure, but whatever it is, it is slowly coming into focus…
I’ve also been terrible about saying my prayers here. But I still find comfort in words:

“Since we have the same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak…for all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound in the glory of God.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward world is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.”

This country is overflowing with paradoxes. Paradoxes, or milk and honey…

The Great Cookie Project; an IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT!

(You can skip to the bottom if you are just curious what the IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT is 🙂
)

Something is amiss in the kitchen. Dishes, piled high in the sink, from two days ago–the dishwasher whirs and grumbles from its abuse– dried drips of chocolate, and, is that powdered sugar on the refrigerator door?


Powdered sugar on the refrigerator door. 


Yep. And on the freezer door, too. I’m pretty sure the next time I sneeze, I will expel powdered sugar. 


Let me explain. Every December, my Aunt Annie sends us all (that’s six plus families, all in various parts of the country) massive tins of cookies. Chocolate, butterscotch, raspberry, more chocolate, some peanut butter, and of course, more chocolate. They often arrive in a state of crumb like consistency, of which my sister and I justify our eating them–we’re not really eating ten cookies, just a lot of random cookie crumbs!!
But this year Annie, to my giddiness, I admit, enlisted me to help her out a bit. 

Well, three pounds of butter later, I’m not sure this was the best idea.


Don’t get me wrong; I love cookies, especially around Christmas time. But living at home has forced me for the past several months to get it through my head that I am not the only one in the house, and yes, four other people use the kitchen too!!! 


Oh, maaaan! Why can’t I just bake in PEACE? Well, because this isn’t my house. One can dream, though, and believe me I do. In my head I see a daintily decorated spacious kitchen with enough counter space to sleep on. I picture an art deco pale green on the walls, five wide gas burners, a white tea kettle nestled snugly in the background, and a large window inviting me outside into this:


But I digress.


In the midst of so much internal chaos, anxiously awaiting my final college letter, and writing pro and con lists (seriously), I spent the last seven days in a sugary haze, reteaching myself how to breathe.  But what to do when baking becomes the source of anxieties??? Oh, Lord, help me.


By the way, I think I have made a decision. The cookies are boxed up, my regretful impulsively bought boots are ready to be returned, and my pro and con lists, mathematical figures, packing lists, and to do lists are being scribbled down, scratched off, and continuously attended to. This is good. This is very, very good.


Happy Baking. 

-MEL
**At the risk of shamefully self-indulging, I have entered a short fiction contest sponsored by Seventeen magazine; the winner gets a cash prize that I am salivating over for my incredibly expensive yet ironically vital college education. So, please, PLEASE, head over to Figment.com and click the Heart button underneath my story. You don’t have to like it. Just pretend. God bless you!


Cake Therapy

Someday, when I open my own bakery in New York City and wear fur and am a very important person, I will call said bakery Cake Therapy.  I think the title is self-explanatory. I have also decided that I need more cake in my life. I mean, I need more cake baking in my life.

I also need more chocolate. Chocolate is good. Chocolate cake is even better.
My intention was to make red velvet cake, but I once heard that artificial dyes contribute to ADHD, and frankly, I can’t afford to take any chances.
So then I thought, Devil’s Food Cake, but I had my heart set on cream cheese frosting, and the thought of combining the two made me a bit sick to my stomach.
So, since I have very little experience making layer cakes, I thought I’d start simply: chocolate.
Somewhere during my project I remembered something: I think chocolate cake is weird. It’s not a brownie, so it’s not fudgey, and it’s not chocolate candy, so it’s not…chocolate! So maybe this chocolate cake didn’t turn out like a brownie, but the texture was nice and fluffy (thanks to separating the eggs and folding in the beaten whites at the last minute), didn’t crumble, and most importantly, held its frosting poi-fectly. I think the frosting is the best part, anyway. And that’s why I made two kinds:

Coffee Cream Frosting- This tastes like coffee ice cream in the best way possible. 
4 ounces softened cream cheese
2 ounces softened butter
One teaspoon vanilla extract
Two cups powdered sugar, divided
One third cup extra strong coffee, cooled

Beat together the butter and cream cheese. Add the vanilla and the powdered sugar, one half cup at a time. At one cup, add the coffee, beat, and add the rest of the sugar. Let sit in the refrigerator while your cakes cool. Frosts one eight inch cake.

 Peanut Butter Frosting- Super sweet, but nice for nutty people. 
2 ounces softened butter
1/8 cup crunchy peanut butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 teaspoons milk
One and a half cups powdered sugar

Cream together the butter and peanut butter; add the vanilla. Alternately add the powdered sugar, one half cup at a time, with the milk, and beat until smooth. Refrigerate for at least thirty minutes, then frost your eight inch cake.

The thing that is so great to me about baking, and all cooking for that matter, is that it is so easy to make someone smile and teach myself something new in the process. With that it mind, I am going to try to make more cakes, for which there are infinite possibilities and always reasons. At least something in my life makes sense.