I never knew how magical it could be to be a part of a book club. I had known my mom attended one for the majority of my life but I didn’t really get it until I was a part of one. You see, it’s not really about the books. It’s about this sense of community. It’s this group of women who have grown together and journeyed through life together. In our group we’ve walked with each other through engagements and marriages, the births of children, medical scares, buying houses, the loss of parents, grandparents and of babies that we loved but never got to meet, new jobs and new roles at home. The beautiful thing is that like food, the books give us a reason to gather. An excuse to put Dad in charge and enjoy a night away. But once the books have drawn us together, sometimes we don’t even discuss the book. There is almost always laughter, and a lot of it. After each gathering I have a sense of being renewed and rejuvenated. If you don’t have a crew like this, take a step out and start seeking your tribe. When you find them you won’t be disappointed.
I tell you all of this about book club because in our group, when it is your turn to host, it is also your turn to make dinner for everyone. This way 11 months of the year you just get to show up and be fed. I sent a text and asked if they wanted a tried and true delicious recipe or if they wanted to be my guinea pigs for food from Eritrea. I got a resounding request for the Eritrean food. I had promised pizza if the meal was a flop, but overall the meal ranked in the 8s and 9s and seemed to be a success.
We made Zigni, a sort of beef stew. The recipe started with dry roasting whole spices for a Berbere spice paste. I sprinkled cumin seeds, cloves, coriander and fenugreek seeds onto a cookie sheet. The other whole spices took a little preparation. I cut a ½ inch of a cinnamon stick and added it to the pan. The last spice to go on was cardamom seeds. Extracting these from the cardamom pods was a labor of love. I was making a bigger batch to serve all 12 of the women in book club so I sat at my counter dutifully splitting cardamom pods for a long time. As the spices roasted they began to fill our home with a combination of scents that I don’t quite know how to describe. The recipe called for roasting them until aromatic, and aromatic they became! The scent let me know that I was cooking something that my kitchen had never seen before.
Once roasted, Colin ground the spices, first with a magic bullet and then with a mortar and pestle, until a thick paste formed. The paste is called Berbere and can be used as a seasoning for other dishes too. For the stew, we seared the beef until browned on all sides then added garlic and onions. The smell of the Berbere and sauteed garlic and onions is incredible. It had my mouth watering hours before it was time to eat. I added the rest of the ingredients and let the zigni simmer while we made Injera, a teff flour flatbread.
Teff is a grain that is typically grown in Africa. It is naturally gluten free [which was a bonus because we have some girls with celiac disease in our group]. Zigni is often eaten with Injera or rice as a base for the stew. The flatbread was a little finicky and took some thinning before it reached a consistency that allowed us to make a bread that was close to the pictures we saw online. When we got the consistency right we poured the batter into the pan and they bubbled up nicely.
I’ve watched my share of cooking shows and listened to judges talk about depth of flavor, but that came alive for me in a whole new way with this dish. Each bite had an initial taste and then the flavors just kept coming. All of the little steps of this dish, extracting cardamom seeds, roasting, grinding, etc. really did add to the dish. None of the steps were hard, just time consuming.
The women in my book club are not afraid to disagree with each other. We rarely all like the same books and we often have spirited discussions about what we read, but also about life. I think it’s safe to say, they are an honest enough bunch that they would have asked for the pizza if they had really disliked the food. So for this recipe you have 12 unbiased people giving it a thumbs up instead of just trusting whether Colin and I thought it was good.
Our book club has a theory that every situation in life can relate back to an episode of the TV show Friends. So this little blurb is for you guys. I’m sorry I didn’t title my other post “The One Where Allie Goes to Yemen”. I know you thought it was a shame. I was a little afraid that serving you this food was going to be like when Rachel makes an English Trifle, but I think it more closely resembles the one with all the cheesecakes. You are my friends, and if I had to, I’d pee on any one of you.
Next up we are heading to Somalia