On New Resolutions

Image[tweetmeme source=”ThatchRoom” only_single=false]If you’re anything like the vast majority of people, somewhere right around the first of January you probably thought in your head something along the lines of “I’ll get a gym membership”, “I”ll pay those parking tickets”, “I’ll finally go bungee jumping/fishing in Alaska/discover “myself” in a nudist commune, and so on and so forth… But maybe as the fireworks went off and you clinked those champagne glasses, you never thought, “I’ll ditch the high-salt, MSG-loaded, additive and preservative-ridden stock cubes” and why should I blame you? It the last thing on anyone’s mind especially if you’ve grown up as I did, never questioning what really those little cubes were that everyone popped liberally into the soup/stew/egg/whatnot. For many of us, especially in British West Africa, our moms cooked with them and even our moms’ mothers cooked with them. Today, every villager, no matter how remote the village has heard and accepted the gospel of the cube. The marketing was and still is THAT good. I was shown an ad recently which ran on many molue buses in Lagos that proclaimed “Real women cook with Maggi”. It’s in too many“traditional” cookbooks as the sole source of seasoning; you would think people didn’t season their food before Nestle and Unilever showed up. At this point, we almost don’t know any other way to cook and we’re too lazy to bother to find out. We’re robotically programmed to reach for the cubes and as a result, everything we cook tastes the same – no surprises. And that is a shame because the health risks of stock/bouillon cubes and MSG – especially the cheap, synthetic types which proliferate back at home – are well documented and need no elaboration.

And if you’re in the die-hard bucket of people who excuse health risks with “we must all die of something someday”…then here are five positive reasons for you. Using natural seasonings:

  1. Tailors the seasoning to your particular dish which helps you create much better tasting food
  2. Avoids overpowering strong flavors which concentrated stock cubes add to your dish
  3. Adds significant nutritional value (and not laboratory chemicals!) to your food
  4. Forces you to eat fresher and by the seasons and gives your food an identity
  5. Helps you become a more creative cook who can be versatile in the kitchen

Now, if this was a 12-step Stock Cube Anonymous group, my intro would be “hi I’m Ebele and I’ve been clean three years”. But its not, so all I’ll do is summarize quickly how you can get started on a bouillon-free 2012 while hoping you can make it through the first 11 steps of admission, repentance, etc on your own. First things first – get a stock pot and practice making some stock. Not for nothing do the French (my new heroes, but more on that later) call it Fonds de Cuisine. A good stock truly is the foundation of successful cooking and all you need is some meat or some bones, a little salt, black or white pepper and a few fresh local herbs. Since I live in America I frequently use fresh Parsley, Bayleaf, Thyme, leeks, onions, garlic, and fennel … Of course if I was elsewhere, west Africa for example, I’d want to tailor this and substitute for fresh locally available herbs – curry leaf, palmbutter leaf, or African basil for instance.

These are some of the essentials but the idea here is to be creative and experiment. Stock for goat meat should taste very different to stock for chicken or stock for fish. For example, I go nuts with the garlic and sometimes curry on the chicken but when boiling goat, I do not want to upset the delicate gamey flavor of the goat so I use fresh ginger, teeny crushed garlic, some smoked salt, a little dried red pepper and some fresh savory. Stock should also not be too watery, it defeats the purpose. In fact you should err on the side of concentration. Afterall, you will be diluting the stock with water and sauces etc.

Once you’ve made your stock the sky is the limit. You will want to de-fat the stock by leaving it for a while and then scraping off whatever fat rises to the top (i save mine for other uses – stir-frying, omelettes etc). A nice little trick is to then pour the stock into an ice cube tray and freeze into tiny blocks which you can use as needed. Add a little bit to beans along with dried porcini mushrooms for that tasty, smoky undertone. Of course add it to your favorite stews and sauces. Use it to season jollof rice and other rice dishes. The secret really is to consider using stock everytime you have to use water. For example in boiling vegetables like ewedu or okra as a side to tomato stew, you’ll be amazed how much better it tastes just substituting half of the water with stock. As long as your stock is good of course and you keep in mind whats appropriate for what – you don’t want to add goat stock to your chicken stew,  etcetera. Also do not forget natural seasonings are much more subtle than the lab-made stuff and therefore work best as a team with other natural ingredients. In addition to stock you want to have in your pantry assorted seeds (njansang for instance), spices and dried or smoked anything – shrimps, fish, mushrooms, snails etc. In appropriate amounts not to overwhelm the dish, these things pack unbelievable flavor and really seal the deal on that special dish.

Of course, there is much more to learn about living “cube-free” but as with many things, you learn as you go along once you have the fundamentals. As I said, it’s been a long rocky road these past three years to free myself from the salty chains of la bouillon but I tell you my friends, the benefits are well worth it. I’ll be posting a few more suggestions on the topic but meanwhile feel free to email me with any questions and I wish you a way more delicious and healthy 2012!

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