Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Making It Myself: Ethiopian Food

I think I’ve mentioned several times that we live on an island. Contrary to my husband’s grandmother’s perception of a sort of Robinson Crusoe scenario with indoor plumbing, it’s a pretty well-populated island. We’re just a short ferry ride from Seattle, but putting that water between us and the metropolis makes it seem farther away, more remote. I work in Seattle so I have access to lots of the comforts of an urban lifestyle, but every evening I get on the ferry and watch the city slide away. On the island side, a “traffic jam” is a line of more than five cars. “Downtown” is four blocks long and four blocks wide. We have seven traffic lights, and two of those are just constantly flashing red lights at intersections with four-way stops. Nothing is more than 20 minutes away from anything else.

Sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it? Where I came from, a “traffic jam” meant at least an hour sitting on the highway, barely creeping along, and it took 20 minutes just to get out of my neighborhood, onto the main road, and over to the grocery store (if you walked, which I did once or twice, it was about a mile as the crow flies, but there were no sidewalks, few cross walks, and the whole layout was pretty unfriendly to pedestrian traffic).

While this is island has a significant population, and that population generally quite well-educated and possessing fairly sophisticated tastes (generally speaking, of course), what we don’t have is a vast selection of restaurants. As these things go, we have a pretty good roster to choose from: a café that serves what I suppose would be termed “New American cuisine,” an Asian fusion restaurant, a couple of Mexican places, a couple of Thai places, a couple of seafood places, and a Chinese, and an Indian restaurant. There are a few more, including a couple of wine bars and pizza places, but those are the highlights as far as sit-down restaurants go.

However, you’ll notice that there are some omissions there. No Italian (although there is a little pasta shop). No steakhouse. No French. No tapas. All these things are available on the other side of the water, but sometimes we just want to stay on our little island. That means we either go without, or shop for unusual ingredients on our lunch hour and try our hand at making things at home.

This is a somewhat roundabout way of explaining how it is that Ethiopian food became part of my cooking repertoire. There are only a few Ethiopian restaurants in Seattle that I’m aware of (and if your awareness is guided by Zagat, there are none). I wasn’t really craving Ethiopian, but then I stumbled on a series of recipes in the March 2006 issue of Sunset magazine while I was at the hairdresser. They even had a recipe for bread (injera). Suddenly, I was dying for Ethiopian. The hairdresser let me tear out the page, and off I went.

These are only two of many dishes you’re likely to find at a true Ethiopian restaurant, but they’re representative of the things I love best about it. The stew is beef in a zingy tomato based sauce that thickens up to the point where you can pick it up with the injera. The lentils are a little different from what I used to get back east. The recipe calls for yellow lentils, rather than red, and they’re scented with lemon, which is actually a perfect foil to the warm spices of the beefy stew. I’ve made the injera, and it even turned out as I remembered it in the restaurant, but it wasn’t such a hit with *ahem* other members of my family, and since it takes a little time and effort to make and wasn’t appreciated, I stopped making it. However, just the beef and the lentils alone make a very filling meal, and the bread is not critical. What you get is a bowl of soupy sunshine with a spicy, beefy sauce on it.

This makes a lot of food. I take the leftovers the next day for lunch. The lentils aren’t all that pretty when they’re reheated, but they’re still delicious. The smell when it’s reheating will have your coworkers asking, “What is that? It smells great.” And you say, “Thanks, it’s Ethiopian food,” and they’ll ask where you got it, and you’ll respond, “Oh, I made it.”

You’ll impress them, but more importantly, you’ll impress yourself that you can make something so warming, so wonderful, and so seemingly exotic. You’ll start wondering what other culinary challenges you’re up for. The next hideous rainy afternoon when you’re thinking that you just can’t face another casserole, you won’t hesitate to consider some previously intimidating cuisine. After all, you’ll think, that Ethiopian food was really wonderful!

Beef Stew in Spicy Berbere Sauce
from Sunset magazine, March 2006
serves 6

If you can get the fenugreek, it really does add a little something. I’ve made it with and without, and there’s just a little more authentic flavor if you do use it. You can reduce or increase the amount of cayenne to suit your preference for heat. I’m not a huge fan of super spicy things, so I usually cut it down to a teaspoon or so.

2 medium onions, quartered lengthwise
1/4 cup butter
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon each ground paprika and cayenne
1 teaspoon each ground cumin and fenugreek
1/2 teaspoon each ground turmeric, cinnamon, and cardamom
1/4 teaspoon each ground cloves and allspice
1 can (14 1/2 oz.) crushed tomatoes in purée
1/4 cup dry red wine
2 1/2 pounds boned beef chuck, fat trimmed, cut into 3/4-inch chunks

1. In a food processor, pulse onions until very finely diced (almost puréed).

2. Melt butter in 4- to 5-quart pan over medium-high heat. Add onions and stir until browned, about 10 minutes.

3. Add ginger, paprika, cayenne, cumin, fenugreek, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and allspice; stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes, wine, and beef; bring to a simmer, then cover, reduce heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until beef is very tender when pierced, about 2 hours. Add salt to taste.

Lemony Lentils
from Sunset magazine, March 2006
serves 6

I always use yellow split peas for this, which I have to believe are the same thing as yellow lentils because I’ve never seen truly yellow lentils anywhere. Green, brown, red, yes; yellow, no. Even if I’m wrong and there really are yellow lentils, the yellow split peas work just fine and taste great.

2 tablespoons butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups yellow or brown lentils, sorted for debris and rinsed
4 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
Grated peel from 1 lemon (yellow part only)
1/4 cup lemon juice
Salt and pepper
Chopped cilantro and lemon wedges

1. Melt butter in a 3-quart pan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and stir until just beginning to brown, about 1 minute.

2. Add lentils and stir to coat with butter, then add broth. Simmer, covered, until lentils are tender but not mushy, 20 to 30 minutes. They will thicken as they cool.

3. Stir in ginger, lemon peel, juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve with chopped cilantro and lemon wedges on the side.

from Sunset magazine, March 2006
serves 6 (12 flatbreads)

You can use buckwheat flour, which is more widely available than the traditional teff flour. However, I found teff flour at my local grocery store after I’d already made the injera and it had been indifferently received, so I’ve never made really authentic injera. If you do, let me know how it turns out. It was fine with buckwheat flour. At least, I thought so. Humph.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups buckwheat flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 eggs, beaten
About 3 cups club soda

1. In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, and salt. Add eggs and club soda and whisk until batter is smooth. It should have the consistency of pancake batter; add more club soda if needed.

2. Spray a 10-inch nonstick frying pan lightly with cooking oil spray and set over medium heat. When hot, pour 1/3 cup batter into the pan, tilting to coat most of the bottom. Cook until flatbread appears bubbly and dry on top, 2 to 3 minutes; do not turn.

3. Slide bread onto a serving platter. Cover with a kitchen towel and keep warm in a 200° oven while you cook remaining breads.

4. Place one injera flat on each of six dinner plates and top with stew. Serve with remaining injera to scoop up the food.


Anonymous said...

The one and only time I've Eaten ethiopian, I was wondering why the waiter was bring over what looked like a pile of wet, dirty, folded dishrags. Then I discovered I was supposed to eat it.

I can do without it.


Anonymous said...

OK - when are you opening up your Ethiopian restaurant? The island could sure use one!

TD said...

Well, not anytime soon--wouldn't be much of a restaurant with only two things on the menu. However, I highly recommend these recipes because they're so easy and REALLY good!

TD said...


Try the stew, skip the bread and the lentils. I promise you won't be disappointed. It's really just sort of a chili/stew hybrid with great flavor.

The bread isn't very appealing looking, I'll grant you. It's kind of grey, which is never an appetizing color for food...

Chef E said...

Oh I found this post, I am a chef and am making Doro Aleche which is a cross between lemony lentils and a spicy chicken dish I used to cook in an Ethiopian restaurant!