Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Exploring the African Presence in Modern American Cuisine: Coffee, Cocoa and Black Bean Chili

Wow.  What a month!  February has been quite busy for me with work, traveling, blogging and trying to manage a social life.   

When I launched the Black History Month series at the end of January, I reverted to my 21-year-old self and recalled the searing enlightenment of my informative speech on soul food in my Persuasive Communication class.  I opened up the speech with a poem written by the phenomenal Pat Parker.  Then, I talked about the history and evolution of soul food, and I ended with some open-ended questions and a food tasting of collard greens and candied yams.   First of all, I must ask is it any surprise that I ended up with a food centric career?  Second, I was quite surprised how much I learned about myself and my culture by exploring a topic that seemed so obvious and familiar.   Life Lesson # 324:  No topics are off limits.  Depth is just as important as breadth.   Third, the professor, a legend in her field, gave me the highest compliment by saying she would never think of soul food the same way again after my speech.   When it was all said and done, my multicultural classmates had told me all about their cultural "soul foods" and one of the students in the class had surreptitiously tried to convince me to cook for a campus event.  Ummm... No sir!

Much like that speech some seven years ago, the Black History Month series has been quite eye-opening.  I've learned a lot and I'm better informed about foodways in the African Diaspora.  However, it has also been a major life adjustment restricting my food choices and having such a regimented meal plan for an entire month when my cooking style is pretty spontaneous and in sync with the time constraints in my life.  I had lots of ideas and not quite enough time to blog about peanuts (George Washington Carver), sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas, watermelons, patties, jollof rice, and injera.  I also didn't get around to organizing the Black Heritage Potluck that I dreamt about.    The fact of the matter is I have a full time job with a ridiculous commute.  I work out four to five days a week.  I travel a fair amount in the region.  I have a personal life.  This blog is simply a personal project where I let my creative juices flow.  So, the Black History Month series wasn't all that I wanted it to be, but I hope you enjoyed it and learned something new.  

The last food I will be featuring in the Black History Month series is coffee.  Ethiopia is widely believed to be the birthplace of coffee.  According to legend, a goat herder discovered coffee after noticing his goats were so lively and "spirited" after consuming the mysterious berries that they did not sleep at night.  The goat header confided in a monk who made a drink with the berries and subsequently extolled their virtues to other monks in the monastery.  Word of the "energizing" black beverage eventually spread near and far and coffee soon became a global phenomenon.   Hmmm... Quite interesting.  There's a conversation starter for your next cup o' joe.

I'm actually not a coffee drinker myself, but I decided to try my hand at this quick and easy recipe for Black Bean and Espresso Chili.  I halved the recipe, using two onions and 3 cans of black beans.  I also added 1 tbsp of cocoa powder, substituted dark roast coffee for espresso and substituted two diced chipotle peppers in adobo sauce for the chipotle chili powder.  I initially served it with these Pan-Fried Grit Cakes.  They were okay, but I much preferred it with cornbread.  In fact, the chili and cornbread combination was so tasty that I'd have to say this recipe is a keeper.  It's a breeze to make, loaded with fiber and protein, relatively inexpensive and quite tasty.   I'll just have to tweak the recipe some more to kick the spice factor up another notch for me.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Exploring the African Presence in Modern American Cuisine: Crawfish Mac and Greens

Baked mac and cheese is my favorite food.  Period.  It's the thing I most look forward to at holiday dinners (as long as there is no Velveeta, American cheese, cornflakes, ham, peas, tomatoes, Rotel, ground beef, fat free cheese or whole wheat pasta involved).  Just a personal preference, but don't mind me.  So, imagine my excitement when I saw S'MAC, a mac and cheese restaurant, in New York City this past weekend.  I stopped dead in my tracks, about-faced and studied the menu.   That's right, I studied the menu (and made a few mental notes, too).  Despite the serendipitous discovery and my overwhelming excitement, I decided to stick with the original plan and headed to Momofuku Noodle Bar for dinner.

Since we're talking about New York City and all, I'd like you to take a journey with me.  Let's leave the quirky East Village behind and head up to historic Harlem.  There's this eatery called Red Rooster that you might find interesting.  It's the brainchild of Chef Marcus Samuelsson.   He is doing some interesting thangs up there and his mac and greens are truly swoon worthy.  Trust me.  I mean I've even been convinced of the virtues of adding vegetables to mac and cheese.  Not to mention, the mac and greens at Red Rooster are made with rice milk, making them a light and healthier alternative to traditional mac and cheese.  I've been dying to replicate this dish for months so I figured it was finally time for me to take a stab at Chef Marcus' Mac and Greens.  And, of course, I put my own little spin on them.

Question:  So, how did mac and cheese become a staple of soul food cuisine?  Why is the cheesy pasta dished out at soul food restaurants across the country?   Why do my friends guard their secret family recipes so closely?  It's something I've always wondered, but I didn't know the answer until I started doing research for this blog post.  According to the Taste History Culinary Tours blog, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia is credited with introducing the dish in America upon his return from France, where he served as the American delegate.  While in France, President Jefferson supposedly "immersed himself in the art and cuisine of Europe and traveled to Italy".  In 1802, President Jefferson served a "macaroni pie" at a state dinner that is believed to have been prepared by slaves working as cooks and maids.  The slave servants would eventually take what was considered an upper-class delicacy and appropriate it.  "Thus explains the familiarity and duplication of the cuisine by African Americans."

You can find the recipe for Chef Marcus Samuelsson's Mac and Greens here: http://www.doctoroz.com/videos/marcus-mac-and-greens

I made the following substitutions and additions:

  • One 17.6 oz package of Barilotti pasta substituted for 1 package whole wheat orecchiette
  • 1/2 lb Quickes English Farmhouse Cheddar substituted for 1/2 lb low-fat cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 lb Emmi Cave Aged Emmentaler Unpasterized Cows Milk Cheese substituted for 1/4 lb gruyere
  • 2 cups sauteed baby kale and bok choy with mushrooms substituted for 2 cups cooked collard greens
  • Added 1/2 lb of steamed and deveined crawfish tails along with the collard greens
  • Optional garnishes: Squeeze the juice from the crawfish head over each individual serving of the mac and cheese or add a dollop of creme fraiche, 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Exploring the African Presence in Modern American Cuisine: Whipped Sorghum Butter

The topic of today's Black History Month post is sorghum.  Sorghum is a cereal grain that originated in Northeastern Africa.  The earliest known record of the crop has been dated at 8000 B.C. (1).  In Africa, the grain is often processed into injera, couscous, dumplings, beer, malt beverages and fermented and non-fermented porridges (2), and it is an extremely important subsistence crop, both in Africa (3) and developing countries such as Haiti (4).  It is actually the only viable food grain crop for many of the world's most food insecure people, who live in sub-Saharan Africa (2).

Grain sorghum made its transatlantic journey in the early seventeenth century when African slaves brought the crop to North America (5) and used it to make brooms, pudding and bread.   Another African sorghum variety--sweet sorghum--was later introduced in the United States in the mid-1800s, becoming the basis of the sorghum syrup industry (6).   Today, sorghum syrup production is concentrated in the U.S. South (7) and sorghum syrup (also erroneously referred to as sorghum molasses) is a staple of southern & soul food cooking (8).  The most common practice is to eat sorghum syrup with biscuits, pancakes or waffles.  However, it can be substituted for honey, molasses and sugar, and it's also thought to be more nutritious (9).  So, recipes abound.

Here, I use sorghum syrup to make a batch of whipped sorghum butter to eat with homemade sweet potato biscuits.  I plan to enjoy these biscuits and butter for dinner all week with glazed salmon, kale chips and caramelized purple cabbage and onions.

Whipped Sorghum Butter


  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1/4 cup sorghum syrup
  • 1 teaspoon ginger preserves


Combine ingredients in a medium-sized bowl and combine well until whipped smooth and creamy.

1. http://www.sorghumgrowers.com/sorghum%20101.html
2. http://www.afripro.org.uk/papers/Paper01Taylor.pdf
3. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=2305&page=145
4. http://chibas-bioenergy.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=30&Itemid=43
5. http://tinyurl.com/asy3vb7
6. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3743050?uid=3739704&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101791510917
7. http://nssppa.org/Sweet_Sorghum_FAQs.html
8. http://www.npr.org/2012/09/12/160946531/sorghum-travels-from-the-south-to-the-mainstream
9. http://nssppa.org/Cooking_with_Sorghum.html

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Cocktail Hour: Bloody Mary

Lost in Translation...
Setting: West Andrews Hall Common Area, Brown University, Providence, RI

Me: What are y'all going to do with the potlikker?

First-Year College Student A:  Liquor?!?!?  There isn't any liquor in the pot.  We don't put alcohol in our food!

Me:  No, not alcohol.  The potlikker that's produced from cooking down the vegetables.

First-Year College Student A: How is it spelled?

Me:  I dunno.

First-Year College Student A:  Well, liquor is spelled l-i-q-u-o-r and it refers to alcohol.  There is liquid in the pot.  It's a liquid not pot liquor.

Interestingly enough, the second definition for liquor, noun usage on freedictionary.com is "a rich broth resulting from the prolonged cooking of meat or vegetables, especially greens.  Also called a pot liquor."

If I had my choice, this Bloody Mary would be garnished with pickled okra.  In the Deep South, you can find pickled okra at most major grocery stores, but it's nearly impossible to find in Baltimore.  As I searched to no avail, I triggered my monthly Déjà vu and I've resolved to start ordering my southern speciality food items online and avoid the hassle of calling and perusing local grocery stores, only to be disappointed.

In my former life as a bartender, I'd always have people coming into the bar, first thing in morning, on the weekends to order a Bloody Mary (the drink is widely thought to help alleviate hangovers by replenishing the body with vitamins and minerals).   I would have seasoned drinkers complimenting me on the quality and taste of my Bloody Mary cocktails, and there's no better boost to one's confidence.  I decided to revisit the classic cocktail and remix it by adding the nutrient-dense elixir of life, potlikker.

Bloody Mary 


  • 6 oz Mr & Mrs T Bold & Spicy Blood Mary Mix with jalapeno, chipotle & cayenne peppers
  • 4 oz vodka
  • 1 oz potlikker (from collard greens)
  • 2 dashes Tabasco
  • 2 dashes angostura bitters
  • 2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
  • Ice
  • Premium blue cheese stuffed olives, carrot stick, red bell pepper, and lime wedge as garnish


Add the Bloody Mary mix, vodka, potlikker, Tabasco, angostura bitters, Worcestershire sauce and ice to a highball glass.  Cover with a cocktail shaker and shake until a thin layer of frost appears on the outside of the shaker.  Allow the cocktail to settle in the highball glass.  Add extra ice if needed.  Garnished with blue cheese stuffed olives, a carrot stick, red bell pepper strip and lime wedge.  Enjoy!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Exploring the African Presence in Modern American Cuisine: Twice-Cooked Collard Greens

Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow; Nought may endure but Mutability.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley

I can handle change.  It's my friends' constant reminders of change that give me pause.

"You've lost your southern charm.  You're kind of abrupt... slightly aggressive... and just a little rude.  You've become a true northerner!"
"Do you remember in college when you said you would never live above the Mason-Dixon Line?"   (For the record, Baltimore is actually below the Mason-Dixon Line)
"Do you still consider yourself a southerner?" 
"What!?!?  You don't eat meat?  You've lost your southern roots!" 

Hmph! I often think of myself as a cultural ambassador for the Deep South, showcasing the hospitality, style, quirkiness, wit and culture of the region through every fiber of my being.  I defy all those trite stereotypes about southerners, and I'm hospitable and kind.  While that may be true, I'm also a changed man.

In my stretch of the rural South, we have an open-door policy and it's completely acceptable for people to stop by my parents' house unannounced (Yeah, that's not gonna happen in Baltimore.  Let's schedule a time to get together so I can plan accordingly).  Some people come to chat.  Some people ask to borrow tools.  Some people come to pick a "mess o' greens" from the garden.   See, my dad would always plant rows and rows of mustards, turnips and collards, and the garden would be like a palette, overflowing with different shades of green. We would eat 'em, preserve 'em and let church members/relatives/friends of the family pick 'em, too.  It was like a psuedo community garden and my parents were doing their small part to nourish the community.

Collard greens are a true delicacy and staple of southern cooking.  In fact, they are the official state vegetable of South Carolina.  The dark green leafy vegetable originates in the eastern Mediterranean, but it was the African slaves who popularized their consumption in America.  White plantation owners at the time considered greens to be weeds, so it was one of the few vegetables that slaves were allowed to grow and harvest.  The slaves took the greens and ham hocks--relatively humble ingredients; scraps--and slowly cooked them down with a broth.  This cooking technique resulted in the rich flavorful broth known as pot likker, and the practice of drinking the nutrient-dense pot likker is truly African in origin.  For a more detailed history of collard greens, check out the following links:


In these recipes, I make some healthy changes (hopefully, that's okay with my critics) by skipping the pork, which is loaded with salt, fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, and packing on flavor with lemon, fresh herbs, garlic, onion, and sauteed mushrooms.  The collard greens are first braised (the traditional cooking technique) in a lemony, herbal broth and then sauteed (in a pan) with mushrooms, onions, hot sauce, sugar, crushed red pepper, vinegar, salt and pepper.  They are deliciously divine and completely vegan.  Dare I say, they're the best collard greens I've ever had.

Twice-Cooked Collard Greens

Braising Method

  • 2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
  • 1 tbsp flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp liquid smoke
  • 1/2 tsp white wine vinegar
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 tsp white pepper
  • 1/4 tsp onion powder
  • Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 lbs collard greens (washed, stems removed and roughly chopped)
  • 3 cloves garlic, whole


Heat the vegetable broth and water in a large pot over medium-high heat.  Season with the next 11 ingredients.  Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to a simmer.  Adjust seasoning, if desired.   Add the collard greens and garlic cloves, stir to combine and cover.  Cook until greens are tender, approximately 35 to 45 minutes.  Remove garlic cloves and bay leaves.  Enjoy.

Sauteing Method

  • 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 1/4 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 lb baby bella mushrooms
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 2 lbs cooked collard greens (about 6 cups), drain the pot likker and eat like soup
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp white vinegar
  • Louisiana hot sauce, to taste
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste


Stir together lemon juice, soy sauce, honey and Worcestershire sauce.  Heat a 14- or 15-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until very hot.  Add the olive oil and saute the mushrooms for about 2 minute.  Reduce heat to medium low.  Add the garlic, butter and soy sauce mixture.   Stir to combine.   Saute, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms are golden brown and a nice sauce has formed in pan, about 3-4 additional minute.  Set aside mushrooms and reserved sauce and allow to cool.  

In the same skillet, add the collard greens and onions.  Saute until the onions are translucent, about 8-10 minutes.  Add the mushrooms and reserved sauce, sugar, vinegar, hot sauce, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper to the collard greens mixture and stir to combine.  Saute for 2-3 additional minutes.  

Cook's Note: For a gourmet meal, these greens pair well with a pan-fried firm white fish, white wine and toasted French bread.  For a more casual preparation, pair them with your favorite protein, beer and cornbread.