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Monday, March 7, 2011

Mauritius: Rum-Banana Tart

On March 12, the island nation of Mauritius celebrated their independence, which they won in 1968 after more than 250 years of French and British rule. Sounds like as good a reason as any to join the party.

When first discovered by Portugese explorers in the 1500's, Mauritius was a lush island country with no human population - not surprising, given its remoteness; it's 560 miles east of Madagascar, itself almost 800 miles from the African mainland. What the explorers did find was the dodo. This flightless 40-pound bird, seemingly designed for helplessness, was quickly and famously exterminated by human settlers and by the boars the settlers brought.

In the dodo's place rose a diverse human community that now numbers a little under a million and a half, a cultural salad of European, African, Indian, and Chinese influence. Officially, the language is English, but the people mostly speak their own Mauritian Creole while reading the news or watching TV in French. Such an assortment would have to produce a fascinating cuisine, and apparently it does.

While reading up on Mauritian cuisine, I discovered that it's very big on tomatoes, chiles, onions, and garlic. Seafood, tropical fruits, hearts of palm, and the occasional coconut all feature prominently. I was mulling around some ideas along those lines when I discovered a treat so common in Mauritius as to be the unofficial national dessert: tartes bananes, or French banana tarts.

I then discovered that sugarcane is a foundation of the economy on Mauritius, growing on 70% of the cultivated land in a primarily agricultural nation. Much of the rest is growing bananas, which just happen to be one of my favorite fruits. There goes that savory thing - this installment of World Piece is going to have to be a dessert.

Most of the recipes I found for tartes bananes looked inadequate to represent all the spicy, flavorful Creole cuisine I've been reading about. So I filled a basic French butter pastry with a cooked banana filling, as is traditional, but I added some rum (which Mauritius has recently begun to produce in quantity) and a touch of vanilla (which is also produced there), and in a nod to the Asian community on the island, I threw in just a hint of ginger.

It's sweet but not too sugary, and goes beautifully with a cup of coffee and some company. I took this one into work and put it next to the coffee pot, from whence it quickly disappeared. I'll call that a success!


Pastry for lattice-topped pie
5-6 ripe bananas
6 Tbsp sugar
¼ cup rum
1 Tbsp vanilla
1 tsp ginger
1 Tbsp milk

Roll out the pastry, line the bottom of a pie plate with it and trim the edges, then pop it into the freezer. (Reserve enough dough for the lattice topping and keep that in the fridge until you're ready for it.) Let the bottom crust freeze in the pie plate for an hour, or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 300 F. Place a large sheet of parchment paper in the pie crust and fill it with dried beans or pie weights. Bake the crust for 15 minutes while you make the filling; remove the parchment and beans when it comes out of the oven. Don't turn the oven off!

For the filling, mash the bananas and sugar together in a heavy pot over medium heat. Add rum and ginger, and mash some more until it's mostly even; a few small banana chunks are fine. Cook, stirring often, until the mixture thickens and clumps together, pulling away from the pot. Take it off the heat, stir in the vanilla, and set aside while you roll out the crust for the lattice topping.

Spoon the filling into the parbaked pie crust, spreading it around evenly. Cut strips of pastry and arrange in a lattice pattern on top - this can be as open or tight a lattice as you like. Brush the top with milk and pop it back in the oven for another 45 minutes or until done. Let it cool at room temperature at least a half-hour, then serve warm or chilled.

Friday, March 4, 2011

(Native) American Pie

The journey of a thousand miles begins at your front door, the saying goes, so I'm going to kick off this project here at home with the U.S. of A. It was hard to decide what kind of pie to make. We often see apple pie held up as a symbol of American patriotism, but the fact is that apple pie was British long before it was American. Apples aren't even native to this continent. So I wanted to back up a bit further and create a pie that would actually be uniquely American.

Before the British and Spanish ever thought to test the roundness of the world, Native tribes cultivated three primary crops: corn, beans, and squash. Known to many tribes as "the three sisters," these crops were generally planted together in the most widely-known example of companion planting. The beans climb the corn and fix nitrogen for the squash, which spreads out over the ground to protect the beans and corn from hot dry soil and from raccoons (who don't like walking through the squash leaves). In this way, every plant benefits from each other and produces more food than each would have on its own.

Native tribes also hunted American bison, known commonly (if inaccurately) as buffalo. This is one of my favorite meats. Mainstream Americans don't eat it as much as we eat cows, chickens, and pigs - all European imports - but buffalo is delicious. One interesting thing that keeps it delicious is the fact that you cannot raise buffalo in a feedlot. This happy quirk might frustrate so-called "farmers" who would prefer to fatten them up on corn and disease like factory cows, but grassfed buffalo is a lucious, flavorful thing and nature evidently wants to keep it that way.

So to honor my own country's food history, I prepared a true American Pie: buffalo, beans, and squash in a cornmeal crust, held together with a Central American coffee gravy. This pie is exquisite, and it was remarkably easy to put together. Don't be intimidated by the long preparation time; most of it is just passive time in the oven. If you like, you can make the filling a day or two ahead, then just top it with the crust and bake it up when you're ready for pie.


1 lb. buffalo stew meat, cut into 1" chunks
½ an onion, diced
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp flour (see note)
1 cup strong coffee
⅔ cup beef broth or water
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 to 1 ½ lb. butternut squash, peeled and cubed
1 medium-sized carrot, diced
1 large stalk celery, sliced
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp crushed red pepper
½ tsp black pepper
¼ tsp cinnamon
2 cans beans or 4 cups cooked beans (see note)

NOTE: As I share my home with people who are gluten-sensitive, I made this gluten-free by using brown rice flour. You can use whatever flour you like. For the beans, I used a combination of Great Northern beans and Adzuki beans; again, use black beans, kidney beans, whatever you're into. I did like the combination of one dark kind and one white kind for visual appeal.

Start by heating a Dutch oven or deep, heavy skillet to medium-high. Add buffalo meat and onion. Saute 2-3 minutes or until meat is browned and onions have begun to soften. Transfer to a plate and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 ° F (175 ° C).

Add the olive oil and flour to the pan and mix into a paste. Cook 1-2 minutes until it begins to bubble, then whisk in the coffee a little at a time so it stays smooth. Cook another couple of minutes until the mixture simmers, then stir the meat and onions back in; add all the remaining ingredients except the beans and stir again. Cover tightly and transfer to the oven; let it simmer in the oven for 1 ½ to 2 hours or until the squash is cooked through. When you remove the filling from the oven, stir in the beans and keep covered until you're ready to make the pie.

1 cup flour (see earlier note - the same applies)
⅓ cup coarse-ground cornmeal
½ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
½ cup frozen butter
2-4 Tbsp ice water

Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Grate the butter with a cheese grater directly into the flour mixture; gently combine with your hands. Add ice water, 1 Tbsp at a time, and gently mix with a fork until the mixture holds together. Pat into a ball, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate.

Pour the filling into a deep-dish pie plate or a 9" square casserole dish; spread out evenly. Preheat the oven to 400 ° F.

Spritz a little water on the counter and lay a sheet of wax paper on top (the water will hold it in place so it doesn't slide around). Roll out the crust on the wax paper until it's about 2" larger than the dish. Slip your hand under the wax paper and carefully flip the crust on top of the pie filling, peeling the wax paper off the top. Fold excess crust under the edges and crimp. Cut a few vents in the top, making a pretty pattern if you want. If you like, you can also cut off some excess crust before crimping, and use it to cut out little shapes to decorate the top of the pie like I did.

Slide the pie in the oven and bake 30-45 minutes or until crust is golden-brown. The gravy may bubble a little through the vents, too. Let the pie rest at room temperature for 10 minutes or so, then slice into wedges or squares and serve with a salad.

And for dessert? Well... a caramel apple pie certainly wouldn't hurt, just for the sake of tradition!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Welcome to World Piece!

Time for The Obligatory Introduction, I suppose! I'm Kimberly. I also blog at The Urban Luddite and at Butterpat, the blog dedicated to my (hopefully) upcoming food cart. I cook a lot, and I like to bake. I especially like pie. I'm originally from Memphis, but now I'm in my forever home: beautiful Portland, Oregon. I got here by way of Australia's Gold Coast and then Hollywood, California, but it turns out I've been a Portlander my whole life, though I try to stay true to my Delta roots.

I'm interested in the world though, especially food politics and traditions. If you think there are no politics around food, then you're going to find this blog a fascinating read for sure. There is nothing more political than food! And as American corporations export a homogenous, malnourished culture to the rest of the world, there grows a pressing need to have a look at local food systems and the way they develop around the unique gifts that nature provides each region.

Originally, I set out to cook a meal from every country in the world. But I couldn't quite feel the point of the project while I was doing it, and it just didn't feel like it was the right thing to do. Then I realized that I should use my interest in (okay, obsession with) homemade pie, and bake a pie to honor every country in the world.

I'm not setting any wacky goals like doing this whole thing in a year. I'm a busy woman, and you're a busy reader. But I expect to contribute one national pie per week, maybe two every once in awhile, plus any political or pie-related musings I find relevant. If you like food, pie, different cultures, and the preservation of unique cultures, then follow this blog and share it around. It should be a pretty fun project.

Oh, and follow me on Twitter @UrbanLuddite!