January stressed me out, but for a reason I can’t put quite into words, I am excited for February. The month of February brings me joy for three reasons: 1) sowing seeds of abundant love 2) celebrating Lunar New Year with a feast and 3) Black. History. Month.
Just a few months ago, I found myself jobless, hopeless, and damn near broke in this panny. And when I could not take care of myself, I found myself becoming a Mother to the many plants I took in. From seeds I grew: three types of basil, two types of oregano, cilantro, tomatoes, cucumbers, gourds (that were continuously stolen) various peppers, and loads more I can’t remember.
I found solace knowing that the plants needed me to survive. I’d found a purpose—a morale-boosting purpose. As the plants began to grow and did so abundantly—I also needed to use them. For me, peak luxury is utilizing my bounty in cooking and this year is dedicated to more of that. I have even taken a liking to ordering the catalog seeds from seed companies and elated to share the seeds I’ll be putting in the ground this February:
- African Basil, native to the African continent and southern Asia, is a mammoth variety of the basil we all love and enjoy. In my home country, Cameroon, this basil variety is called Masepu and it is used as a base for many sauces.
2. Chinese String Eggplant, native to East China, are a long and thin distant cousin of the eggplant variety grown in the States. However, these deserve to be on their own delicious pedestal. They have little to no seeds and are significantly less bitter than all other varieties.
3. Scotch Bonnet Pepper is ubiquitous to West Africa and also widely grown in parts of the Caribbean. It is one of my favorite peppers and the only variety I’ll add to Jollof rice. I’ll also be growing Aji-charapita aka the “Mother of All Chilis.” It is apparently the most expensive pepper in the world, so I am glad I am getting seeds and (hopefully) the harvest for just under $3.00.
4. Believe the hype when they tell you that San Marzano tomatoes are it: sturdy, sweet, and full of depth. San Marzano tomatoes, traditionally grown in San Marzano sul Sarno, Italy, are the star of most of my tomato-based dishes and the only one I’ll use for sourdough pizza.
If there’s anything I am looking forward to doing this year, it is growing these plants and showing you all the generosity of the natural world. The next few issues, I’ll be sharing growing tips and recipes which use the above spices. I hope my sharing of this journey serves as an invitation to join in on the solace that is growing your own food.
February is also home to one of my most cherished holidays: 春节 (Lunar New Year). While the Western world observes the New Year on January 1. 春节 (Lunar New Year) is celebrated on the day that the new moon falls on, typically between January 21st and February 20th. This year it is on February 12th. I celebrated my first Chinese New Year in 2015 when my Mandarin professor invited a few students and I to her home for a spread I can still taste: 韭菜餃子 (pork and chives dumplings), 水煮鱼 (Sichuan-poached sliced fish in hot chili oil), cucumber salad, and my very favorite dish to eat: 家常豆腐 (Home-style Tofu). 家常豆腐 is a Sichuan dish of fried, unbattered tofu fried in a spicy chili bean paste (辣豆瓣酱, la doubanjiang) based sauce with the perfect amount of ginger and garlic.
家常豆腐 Jia-Chang “Home-style Tofu”
500g super firm or extra firm tofu
2 stalks of oyster mushrooms, chopped
1 2-inch piece of ginger, minced finely
4 cloves of garlic, minced finely
1.5 tbl chili bean paste
4 stalks of green onions, chopped and green and white separated
¾ cup of vegetable stock
1 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp of starch + just a few tsp of water to make the starch into a liquid (~ 2tbsp)
1. Completely drain and dry tofu.
2. Preheat fryer oil to 375. Cut tofu block horizontally through its shortest side, leaving yourself with two thinner sheets of tofu. Place sheets on tops of each other and cut into fours horizontally and three times vertically. You should be left with 24 pieces.
3. Fry pieces in small batches, until golden brown.
4. Pour a decent amount of oil in your wok. Add chili bean paste and fry until fragrant. Add mushrooms and fry until cooked. Add ginger, garlic, and white part of onion and let fry for about 1 minute. Add vegetable stock and let come to a roaring boil.
5. When the stock is visibly boiling, add in the fried tofu and let cook for 5 minutes until tofu has absorbed some of the liquid. Add ½ teaspoon of brown sugar, 1 tsp of sesame oil, and 1 tsp of light soy sauce. Let cook for 4 additional minutes.
5. Slowly add in the starch liquid and allow the dish to thicken up. Add green part of green onions and immediately turn off heat. Serve warm!
Every month is Black History Month in my house. But there is symbolism associated with the month of February that I choose to embrace. I’ll be honest, I do end up learning during Black History Month. Stories I’ve never heard of before, come to light and dishes I’ve never eaten are tried. There is no right way to celebrate the holiday but the way I am doing it this year is by sharing a dish from the land of Gabon.
Poisson Salé: Gabonese Salted Cod Stew
2 tablespoons peanut oil
4 garlic cloves, minced finely
1 1-inch piece of ginger, minced finely
2 handfuls (~1/2 cup) fresh parsley, chopped
1 large onion, diced
1 full leek, sliced thinly
2 habanero peppers, minced
3 large fresh tomatoes, diced but keeping juices intact
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoon berbere spice
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 white cabbage, cut into thin shreds
1 large carrots, cut into thin rounds
1 bell pepper, julienned or cut into larger strips
3 cups vegetable broth or water
1 lb piece of cod, well salted overnight
½ lb shrimp, deveined but with shell still on (optional)
- Soak salted cod in a bowl or shallow dish filled with cold water for 30 minutes before cooking.
2. Heat peanut oil in a large Dutch oven or saucepan over medium-high. Add minced garlic and ginger and cook for 1 minute. Add chopped parsley and mix well for two minutes.
3. Add onions, leeks, and habanero and cook for four minutes, until ingredients are visibly sweated.
4. Add chopped tomatoes and juices and tomato paste. Incorporate well.
5. Add berbere spice and mix until well incorporated. Allow to cook for three minutes and when the berbere is fragrant, add salt.
6. Add cabbage, carrots and bell peppers. Stir well and cook until cabbage is soft, about three minutes. Add vegetable broth and allow to cook for about 4 minutes.
7. Remove salted cod from cold water, rinse and add to the soup. Submerge cod with broth and vegetables. Cook uncovered for 30 minutes.
8. Add shrimp and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Remove from heat and salt to taste, if needed.
9. Serve with boiled plantains, saffron rice, or my personal favorite: corn fufu
May the days ahead be better than the ones before it. And may your meals be tasty down to the very last bite. Happy cooking!
-Stephanie Eyocko, Mixed Mag Food Editor
Cameroonian turned Texan, Stephanie Eyocko, is the Mixed Mag food Editor. She’s passionate about locally-grown food and locally-sourced stories.