Wednesday, October 28, 2015

What's Cooking?

While I've posted about what types of things I can buy at the market, and I assume this will change seasonally (I can't wait for mangoes and avocados!!), I haven't actually talked about what or how I cook.

For those who know me, cooking is one of my favorite activities. I love the science to coming up with a fantastic meal even though my non-recipe-following habits can drive people nuts. Here in Benin, cooking has presented new challenges. Not just in the types of food available but in the manner in which they are prepared.

When we moved to post, peace corps gave each volunteer an empty gas canister. This was a kind gesture as the cans themselves cost around $50, but after four failed attempts to fill the damn thing, I was seriously questioning their intentions. I finally got the can filled in Glazoue and hooked it up to a three burner stove that I inherited from a volunteer on their way out of country (score!!). So, that's my kitchen set up.

While I have been enjoying the basic stove top preparations, I branched out over the weekend and explored the world of the dutch oven. To do this, one uses a large pot, a smaller pot and a couple empty cans; i used tuna fish cans. Place the cans in the bottom of the large pot, place your small pot on top, uncovered, and place a lid on the large pot. This creates a hot chamber similar to an oven. Hello Baking!!

My first test recipe was a simple vanilla cake that turned out moist, flavourful and unlike anything else I have eaten so far in Benin. I used a modified "wacky cake" recipe to account for the small size of my pan and the lack of certain ingredients. Either way, it was easy, delicious and even my neighbors enjoyed it!

Modified Wacky Cake:
3/4 c flour
1/4 c sugar
1/2 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
3/4 t vanilla extract
2 1/2 T veg oil
1 c water

The beauty of a wacky cake is that it doesn't even require an extra mixing bowl! Just pour the dry ingredients into your baking dish, create two depressions (or three as the original recipe also calls for 1/2 t white vinegar), pour the wet ingredients in and stir. Bake until no longer liquid- it took about 15 minutes in my dutch oven but keep checking with a knife.  Voila! A simple stove top cake.

Motivated to try even more culinary concoctions, I decided to prepare brunch for myself on Saturday morning.  I settled on a Spanish style breakfast torta, which is very similar to a frittata.

Dutch oven torta: potato frittata
Potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
Onion, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

The key to this is the preparation of the potatoes and onions. Instead of quickly pan sautéing them, you want to slowly cook them in the olive oil. Cook sliced potatoes and onions in about 1/2 inch of olive oil for roughly 30 minutes on low heat, or until the potatoes are soft and golden. I know this sounds like a ton of oil, but you can save it after for future recipes!! (I store it in a jar and use it for everything). Once your potatoes and onions are cooked, strain out the oil (and save!) and pour the mixture into the bottom of your baking dish. Add scrambled eggs seasoned with salt and pepper so that they cover the potatoes and onions and fill in the cracks in between. You don't want them swimming in egg but that wouldn't hurt. Bake until the egg is light and fluffy on top and the dish is crisp around the edges, again this was about 15 minutes for me, but keep checking it!

The result was a delicious breakfast treat that I ate the entire weekend!

Although my options are not extremely limited, I try to eat healthy and aim for balanced meals. Since I don't cook meat here, I've been learning how to cook dry beans and different ways to make canned tuna more exciting. Another new item on my repertoire is okra, which is basically the only vegetable regularly available in village (because the local farmers grow it).  Despite its slimy consistency, I've learned that its great roasted and adds texture and flavor to a veggie curry.

If you have any great okra recipes (not fried!), easy bean dishes or inventive canned tuna suggestions (next up is tuna burgers!), send them my way!


  1. Motivated to try even more culinary concoctions, I decided to prepare brunch for myself on Saturday morning. I settled on a Spanish style breakfast torta, which is very similar to a frittata.Viet Hoa

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