Thursday, January 31, 2013

creamy mushroom polenta

My sister and I cooked constantly while she was visiting.  I guess I'm always cooking constantly now that I think about it.  But when I am inflicting that much time in the kitchen on a guest, it opened my eyes to just how much time it really is.  Some days, breakfast meshes into lunch and then shortly after is the prep for dinner and any baking gets squeezed in between and what do you know? The entire day is spent in the kitchen.  I don't mind.  I love it.  Megan was a good sport about it too.  She's the perfect assistant.  And in all honesty, it's not like there is a whole lot else going on in Addis Ababa at any given moment.  So anyway, we cooked a lot and this recipe is a new one I tried while Megan was here.

I've made this creamy mushroom polenta twice now and I have to share it with you.  It's delicious, easy and a nice alternative to the same old potatoes or rice that accompany most things, most nights for dinner. It can get old, am I right?  The trick to getting this dish flavorful, is having good broth to cook the polenta in.  If you cook polenta in water it's going to be bland and flavorless.  Using broth adds depth.

If you're the type of person who buys mushrooms because you like them but they usually end up either slimey or dried out in the back of the fridge; this is the perfect dish for you.  First of all, store mushrooms in a paper sack that can breath.  Plastic bags create slimey mushrooms.  Grab those old (1-2 weeks old not two months old) shriveled mushrooms and put them in about 3-4 cups of water and boil to make a mushroom broth.  Use this broth for creamy mushroom polenta, mushroom barley soup or risotto.

Creamy Mushroom Polenta (my adaptation from the original recipe found in A recipe a day, 365 Recipes)
Cook time: 15 minutes
Serves 2-4 adults, depending on portion size
1 medium white onion chopped finely
1-2 Tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
3 cups warm broth (mushroom, chicken, turkey or vegetable)
6 oz or roughly 3/4 cup polenta
2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
1 big handful of largely diced button mushrooms (fresh or canned)
1/2 cup graded or chopped cheese (provolone and Parmesan)

Heat the oil in a dutch oven or large pot.  Add the onions and a pinch of salt and saute until the onions are translucent.  Add the broth and bring to a slow boil.  Whisk the polenta into the broth and stir.  Add the rosemary and turn the temperature down to let it simmer for 5-10 minutes covered with a lid.  The polenta should be thick and creamy at this point.  If it's too thick add a bit more broth or water (1/4 cup at a time).  Taste for salt and pepper.  Right before serving, stir in a portion of the cheeses and mushrooms.  Sprinkle the remaining cheese and mushrooms on the top for garnish.  Best served hot right from the dish.  If allowed to cool to room temperature the polenta will harden a bit.  It still tastes great but you won't get that smooth texture.

This dish is a great side for pork loin or roasted chicken.  Or you can serve it as the main course accompanied with a green salad.  Ashlynn loves this dish.  It's the perfect thing for toddlers.  

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

the people in Lalibela

It was fascinating to see how these ancient churches were deep in the trenches of the city.  We passed from one church to another through small secret paths and sometimes even tunnels.  They were well protected and some were even hidden from the outside.  It's amazing that these churches are not built by stone bricks, they are actually carved from one huge piece of stone.  Essentially the churches are carved from the mountains.  Chiseled bit by bit into these amazing structures.
The priest inside a church. holding the cross of Lalibela.  A worshiper rests his head on the painting.
young pilgrims 

I didn't have a wide angle lens with me so it was hard to get shots of the entire church being that we were so close to them.  I prefer scenes, things and people so that's what I tried to capture.
shoes must be removed before going in the churches.  We didn't stay long inside the churches because they were very crowded but if we had we surely would have flea bites like most visitors to Lalibela churches

the churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia

We were guided an entire afternoon from one amazing ancient stone church to the next.  Our guide was wonderfully understanding when we explained that we probably wouldn't have time to see all 13 churches or hear all the historical details that he had to share.  He agreed to take us the most spectacular and we'd simply see as many as we could before we all collapsed for dinner that evening.  He even carried Arabella the entire way.  Ashlynn rode on my back and front again and Addie walked.

 I was camera happy the entire time.  It was as if we had walked into history come alive again.  We had come to Lalibela two days before Ethiopian Christmas.  Thousands of pilgrims had made the trek to Lalibela to spend Christmas worshiping in the churches.  I had been nervous about the crowds but seeing the Ethiopians using these ancient churches just as they had for eternity was absolutely fascinating.  The people made the churches come to life.

All the photos in this post are of the most famous church, St. George (supposedly dug from the stone by King Lalibela with the help of angles), both from above and then at the base of the church in the ravine. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

the descent from Hudad

We were packed and fed and ready to descend the mountain bright and early the morning of our third day in Lalibela.  Going down was so much more fun than going up.  I had more opportunities to take in the scenery and Ashlynn fell asleep on my back for at least an hour of the trek down.

A large portion of the steepest descent had to be done on foot because the mules weren't steady enough to carry us and I found it refreshing to rely on my own feet to climb down.  When we reached the city the mules just kept on walking.  They carried us all the way to the Mountain View hotel where we would stay that night.  The difference between Hudad and Mountain View couldn't be more apparent as you arrive.  We all couldn't wait to take showers and wash the grit our from under our fingernails.  Our clothing and hair smelled like smoke from the fires we sat around for meals on the plateau.  We were filthy from the dust and grime from hiking up and down the mountain.
Mountain View hotel
We had just enough time to check in to our extremely modern rooms with electricity! Warm water! A bathtub! Toilet! It was amazing how luxurious these basic things felt after spending our time at Hudad.  The bath water was brown after we were finished bathing the children.  Feeling refreshed and famished, we caught a cab to an Ethiopian restaurant owned by a Scottish woman. The place is called Ben Ababa and it's like dining in Dr. Seuss' lair.  The views were spectacular along with the food.  With our bellies full we geared up to meet our guide for the second half of our adventure.  It was time to finally get a chance to see the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.
Overjoyed to be out of the ergo carrier

Ben Ababa restaurant 

crossing the rock bridge to the other side

Snuggled up next to Ashlynn and Adelaide all night kept me warm and cozy up on the plateau.  We all woke bright and early with a hunger in our bellies.  Our entire crew hiked to the dining area and ordered fresh eggs with vegetables, hot coffee (loads of it for Justin and I) and tea (for Megan and Bella).  We had the entire day ahead of us with three small children and absolutely no desire to complete any major hiking adventures.  We were told the baboons weren't up on the plateau because all the farmers in the valley were harvesting their crops. So that was out. We really wanted to see the baboons.  We attempted to get Ashlynn a nap and when that completely failed we asked our guide to show us the way to the connecting plateau for a short hike.
the rock bridge connecting one side of the plateau from the next
the plateau we hiked to from the view point of Hudad before we started

We all stood looking out to the other side, as he explained that there was a small path among the rocks on the rock bridge.  We didn't believe him until we saw a group of villagers and their donkeys traverse the rock bridge using what looked like ancient stairs that had been worn into the rocks.  After seeing the villagers do it, we decided we could too!

Our guide helped Addie across, Justin held Bella (there was a lot of deep breathing from my husband), I had Ashlynn strapped to my back and Megan helped carry all our water bottles and snacks (a serious undertaking). Poor Megan was wondering how she got into this terrible mess with us in Africa!  Especially after the trek the day before.  I nearly gave my sister and husband a heart attack when I stopped on the rock bridge to take a few pictures-not the best call on my part.  Having Ash with me gave me more confidence in my steps.  I knew I had to be steady for my sweet girl. There was never a moment of panic for me.
my lapse of judgement photo while on the rock bridge
the face says it all!
 After reaching the other side we looked back at Lalibela Hudad. The lodge looks majestic on the plateau.  The views from other plateau were spectacular as well.

View of Lalibela Hudad from the other plateau
Amazingly, this plateau holds an even higher plateau where an entire sprawling village calls home.  As we hiked around we watched swarms of villages descend the plateau above us, some running, barefoot, women carrying their children and immense loads on their backs.  Our guide explained that there was a funeral today further down the mountain and the villagers were descending to attend.  It was the speed of their descent that shocked us.  These people go up and down these plateaus every day.  It's was absolutely mind blowing.
Villagers running and hiking down the mountain.  They started at the top of plateau you see in the background.

I felt like a complete wanker in my tennis shoes and sunglasses.  Seriously. We looked like aliens up there. 

The children that live in these villages high on the mountains aren't allowed to attend primary school until they are nine or ten years old because they have to be strong enough to go down the mountain every morning and then back up every afternoon!  Unbelievable.  The only school is at the very bottom, in Lalibela, where we started our trek the previous day.  The good news is that our guide explained that the same Ethiopian man who built Hudad has plans in the works with the local government to start building a school on the plateau so the young children in these villages can attend school at a younger age.  Amazing!
Addie has no fear. She trekked around with our guide all day
We watched herds of goats, sheep and donkeys pass us as well as men, women and children.  I snapped a few shots of the birds and the landscape.  It was a lovely place to explore.  It was wonderful to have Megan on this adventure with us.  Definitely once in a lifetime!

the sunset on the plateau

One thing I learned about myself after spending two nights on the top of a plateau, is that I am not afraid of heights.  I am not fond of seeing my children close to the edge of a cliff but I do not mind being there myself. On the first evening at Hudad, we kept the girls up a little late so we could all experience the spectacular view of the sunset.

Our guide walked us down to the edge of the plateau and Justin, Addie and Bella found a precarious rock overhang they decided to camp out on for the sunset event.  Megan was less comfortable by the edge and I didn't trust Ashlynn anywhere near the edge (seriously, having a feisty independent toddler on the plateau was scary), so the three of us sat a bit further back and tried to entertain Ashlynn and keep her from literally running to the edge of the cliff.  The dusk light that blanketed the plateau that evening was a dream come true.  I was itching to take some lovely pictures on this trip.  I attempted to multi-task by saving my youngest daughter's life over and over, AND photographing everything I could.