Two hands and a harvest

The past four weeks saw me bringing in the harvest, which turned out to be a solitary pastime. I took on the just-short-of-two acres of corn that we planted, and then went back to harvest about an acre of beans that had been intercropped with the corn on one side of our farm.

The sun shows itself and beats down in the afternoon, so most days I tried to get an early start. Neither of my neighbors on either side had started harvesting theirs, so some days passed where I didn’t leave our property and didn’t see a single other soul. The sound of rustling corn husks and the snap of cobs being broken from stalks filled my ears.

Our neighbor dog, Master, came over several days to keep me company, finding a shady spot in the field to snooze and watch me from. My flock of chickens patrolled the rows I already harvested, looking for earwigs and stray kernels that had popped off the ends of the cobs.

It seemed like a large task, but as I tackled it hour by hour and day by day, it didn’t seem so bad. Getting an early start to avoid the midday sun and taking frequent ginger tea breaks definitely helped make it more doable.

After about two and a half weeks, all the cobs were in, mounded on a blue tarp in one of our spare unfinished rooms. Then I started the task of shelling. I have a small aluminum hand sheller, with which I can shell about 10 to 15 kilos of corn in an hour – about 20 or 25 pounds. That’s enough to fill the basin I was shelling into; then I take a second basin and go outside to winnow the corn.

On a windy day, the distance between a woman’s hip and the ground is just the right distance to winnow. Pour the corn from one basin to another and the chaff and bits of cob that mixed in with the kernels will separate and fly off with the wind. The kernels rattle and hiss against each other.

Corn is heavy, corn is cool in your hand. Corn is what we harvested, and corn is what we will eat.

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You mean I don’t have to buy greens again? Forays into foraging

A few weeks ago I didn’t have a clue that there were edible weeds growing on our property. I came home one day and found Omari and one of our house painters preparing themselves a meal. I did a double-take at some small, bright green leaves in a bowl waiting to be cooked. “What… what are those?” I asked. The painter laughed. He had harvested them right off our property and was cooking them for lunch.

I had never tried to forage before, either in the States or here in Tanzania. I guess I was too scared I would accidentally poison myself and anyone else I had over for dinner. But once I learned about one edible green growing abundantly and freely on our property, I started getting interested in what else was growing out there, ripe for the taking. I can now identify five different local greens that can be cooked and eaten in various ways.

(Above: this amaranth plant has already put out seed heads.)

Those delicate leaves the painter cooked are called mchicha pori – wild amaranth. They grow rampantly in this part of Tanzania, where cultivated varieties are also grown. Both the seeds and leaves of amaranth have a wide variety of health benefits, having high levels of protein, iron, and vitamin A, among many other vitamins and minerals.

(Above: this purple amaranth is similar to the cultivated varieties here in Tanzania. This is a volunteer growing on our farm.)

Once you know what you’re looking for (and where you’ll be looking for it!), the actual collection process is pretty easy. This is what I did:

Snip off young, healthy-looking branches or leaves of the plant. Many wild greens (at least in my area) have a tendency to be bitter. The youngest growth will typically be the best-tasting. Also, don’t decimate one single plant; take a little from many different plants, if possible.

Once you’ve collected enough greens, remove the leaves from their stems if necessary. To “stretch” the greens, you may be able to peel or de-string the stems or stalks so that they cook quickly. But remember, you’re eating weeds. You’re getting something for nothing. So don’t make yourself crazy. If you just cook the leaves and throw out or compost the stems, that’s fine.

Rinse well in cold water and drain.

Saute or cook however you want. I saute onions and garlic in sunflower oil first, then add the greens and salt and pepper and cook until the water is all gone. Cook to taste; and if it tastes awful, remember, you didn’t buy those greens anyway! You can try again another day.

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert. I know what grows on my property, but not on yours. If you’ve never foraged before, please go with someone knowledgeable about the edible plants growing in your neck of the woods!

That being said…

How empowering does it feel to be able to walk out your door and into the backyard, alleyway, or fencerow, snip a few wild greens, and go back and cook them up for your next meal?! So cool. 

What can you forage for in your area, and how do you like to cook it?

Spilling the beans: harvesting and cooking beans, made simple

It’s hard to think of a food more universal than beans. The United States is the fifth largest producer of dry beans in the world, producing about 1.5 million metric tons in 2010. Tanzania is, incidentally, the seventh largest producer, producing about 1 million tons per year. From delicious burritos at the bus stop’s taco truck on the Pennsylvania turnpike, to experiencing beans on toast as a breakfast food in the UK, to being fed makande (a dish of beans cooked with cracked corn) in Tanzania, beans have been a part of the diet everywhere I’ve lived.

Nevertheless, cooking fresh beans can be intimidating, especially when harvesting and shelling them yourself. The beans we planted on our farm have been blighted by a range of pests, so I have been harvesting them little by little to cook most days, before the insects munch their way through every last pod.

If you’ve planted beans in your garden or farm, harvesting them before they completely dry is a great way to get fresh and delicious beans that cook faster than dry, stored beans. You can also keep shelled beans in the freezer… if you have a freezer….

beans 2

Harvest pods that have started to turn pale or dry out. If the pods are still as green as the plant (like the one on the left in the picture above), the beans have not firmed up enough and it will be a pain to shell them. You should be able to see or feel the beans through the shell, which should have started to turn pale green, yellow, or tan, and may have a papery feel to it.

beans 3

Don’t wait too long to harvest or the pods will shatter. Unless you want to be hunting around on the ground for your beans, make sure you catch the pods before they dry out completely and drop their beans to the ground. I (unwisely) planted several different types of beans all together, some of which evidently have matured much faster than others and have begun to shatter.

beans 4

“String” the beans from the stem end, along the outside of the curve. Then slide your thumb down the inside to push the beans out of the pod. I’ve found this is often the easiest way to do it. You’ll get into a rhythm once you start.

Rinse the beans in cold water. Strain them from any dirt or sand that may have dropped off the pods. Also throw out any wrinkly beans; all should be filled-out and smooth.

Bring to a boil in plenty of water, then simmer. Make sure the water doesn’t dry up – it sounds obvious but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accidentally burned beans. The water will eventually get a reddish-tea look to it. The beans will turn wrinkly, then smooth again. The skins will start to look loose on some of them. Taste periodically until they are the consistency you prefer. The process usually takes less than two hours for me. (I also always make sure to cook my beans a little longer than I think they need; they get creamier the longer you cook them.)

At this point, you could let the beans cool, then store them in their stock in the fridge or freezer for later use. If I’m eating them right away, my favorite simple method is this:

-Chop up two or three small- to medium-sized onions for every two cups of cooked beans.
-Saute the onion in oil (I use sunflower but any cooking oil will work). Add a few cloves pressed garlic and cook a few minutes more.
-Add the beans along with the cooking water. Watch for hot oil splatters.
-Add chopped or grated carrot. One or two per two cups of beans is enough.
-Once carrots begin to soften, add one or two chopped or grated tomatoes (grating tomatoes?! Yes, they do that here in Tanzania).
-Add salt, pepper, and chili powder (if desired) to taste.
-Cook until the mixture thickens and turns creamy.

And that’s it! What do you do differently when cooking beans? What are your favorite bean recipes?

What’s for dinner? Something somewhere outside

The sky drops mist and a light scatter of rain in the mornings. It tings against the metal roof of our house with a noise that sounds like a rainstick when you’re inside. In Tanzania, rain is a blessing, but now it just serves as a bitter reminder of the end of the rainy season. We will not see rain again until October.

We have two acres of corn growing, with beans and cowpeas mixed in as well. At harvest in a few months, those two acres should, God willing, render about 5 gunia bags, or about 500 kilograms, of corn – maybe more, maybe less.

Considering Omari, the dog, and I have been slowly munching our way through less than two gunias from last year (and still have half a bag left!) I think all that corn should be enough for the coming year.

In Tanzania, corn is king. Hard white corn is grown, predominantly for human use as corn flour, which is cooked into ugali – a starchy, stiff porridge not unlike polenta (but white). One of my favorite meals is ugali dagaa – ugali served with a dish made from small, anchovy-like fish (dagaa) cooked in a tomato sauce. (We add chili powder because it’s delicious spicy). If I were to have a comfort food here in Tanzania, that would be it.

The beans growing on our farm have been hard-hit with a plethora of insects, as well as intermittent rain that encourages rot. I have been harvesting beans little by little most days to cook for dinner, because if they are left in the field, most will not dry out or set up properly.

So far, in terms of food groups, that takes care of grains and protein (supplemented by the hens’ eggs, and the inevitable extra rooster to slaughter). We still have to buy vegetables at the market; we moved in right at the end of the rainy season and do not have running water, so planting veggie beds would be rather impractical in terms of water use. There are, however, many harvestable greens growing on the farm, as I found out a week or two ago. (Whatever would I do without knowledgeable neighbors to point out the edible weeds?) Wild mchicha (amaranth) is everywhere, and is delicious when sauteed. Tender cowpea leaves are also often commonly harvested and cooked.

What’s left – fruit? Well, that’s a long time coming. We planted banana “trees” at the end of our long narrow farm, and I have been slinging water buckets every evening to keep them from drying out. Maybe in a year or so we will have bananas.

What’s left to buy? Salt, oil, sugar, tea leaves, rice, wheat flour, spices.

Milk, fish, and meat when we need it (not very often).

And the veggies – until the next rainy season, that is.