Janis Tester is an earth mother with an iPad. Slinging tweets while Chinese plum sauce simmers on her stove, declaring on Facebook “I wanna live on a farm” as the homemade kimchee goes into jars, Janis Tester is beloved in certain food circles because the pleasure she gets thinking about what she’s going to do with a goat shank or a regal globe of a homegrown cabbage cannot be contained on a computer screen.
Janis’s blog, Bite Me New England, a name only a woman transplanted to Marlborough after living a full lifetime in California is allowed to use, cannot be resisted by bloggers from Los Angeles to Gascony. As California as a surfboard, as re-tweetable as Deepak Chopra, as authentic as Alice Waters, as process-smitten as Grant Achatz, as warm as a Jewish grandmother, Janis Tester is a food blogger’s food blogger.
Follow her on Facebook and Twitter and you, too, will soon be sipping a Manhattan, and downloading her recipe for Malaysian Spatchcocked Spicy Grilled Chicken; “This would not be my blog if I didn’t give you ANOTHER chicken recipe,” Tester declares.
One post begins with Janis thinking about doing something with spherification, a favorite process of the Molecular Gastronomists in which unusual ingredients become caviar shapes by messing with negative and positive charges in an un-ionized solution. Janis had intended to make lime, cilantro and tequila spheres for topping salmon, and maraschino cherry spheres to go in those manhattans. Something didn’t work out; she made chicken instead, this one coated all over, even beneath the skin, with cilantro, garlic and chiles, filled with salsa, covered in Mexican beer, and baked. Just another argument for real food when choosing between that and ions. Vietnamese pork neck stew, Banana Blossom Salad, Morrocan Meatball and Egg Tangine — these are just some of the recipes you’ll find coming out of her kitchen and into the blog.
All this sounds nice, right, yet another foodie blogger willing to gut a fish and cure a duck? The story gets better.
“Recently, I’ve really been into Ethiopian food,” Tester told me when I asked what she was making these days. “You see, when my neighbors told me they were adopting two little kids from Ethiopia, the first thing I thought was, ‘what can I make them?’”
Tester started with dabo, a honey bread, and went on to full Ethiopian dinners. Staining pages from Jeff Smith’s “The Frugal Gourmet on our Immigrant Ancestors,” Tester made berbere, almost the whole spice drawer — from cumin to fenugreek — in a toasted paste, a fundamental flavor in Ethiopian cuisine. She made tibs, a lamb stew with cardamon, cumin and more berbere. She made doro wat, the traditional chicken stew with, yes, berbere, and hard boiled eggs. She made shiro, a spicy spread made with chickpea flour and berbere, which the kids spread thickly on injira and gobbled. Yes, Tester even made injira, the foamy disks of dough made with flour from teff, a native Ethiopian grass. Tester walked me through the recipe, multiple stages of adding and waiting and resting and watching it separate into layers, all with the hopes of achieving the wondrous foamy textured bread that scoops and wraps Ethiopian cuisine.
“Water is different in Ethiopia,” Tester said. She thinks that accounts for injira’s variability even over Ethiopia; for Tester that fabled texture was just short of impossible to achieve, but her neighbor declared it like what she’d eaten in a home in Ethiopia.
One evening after the children had been here for a while, and their English was solid, Janice had prepared much of the above —doro Wat, injira, shiro — for a special dinner. Everything was set; the house was redolent with all those spices; berbere hung in the air.
The children came running in the front door, and the little boy called out, “mmmm, it smells good!”
“What’s it smell like?” Tester asked. (They call her Auntie Janice.)
Janice and I discussed which recipe to include here, and we agreed that a recipe for berbere was the most important. Without berbere, doro wat is chicken stew with hard-boiled eggs; tibs is lamb stew with cardamon. Make a batch of berbere, and your pantry is ready for Ethiopia. Many of the recipes are available on Bite Me New England.
Yield: 11/4 cups
2 teaspoon cumin seed
4 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon cardamon seeds
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon whole allspice
1 teaspoon whole fenugreek seeds
1/2 cup dried onion flakes
3 ounce red new Mexican chiles, stemmed and seeded
3 small dried long hot red chiles, seeded
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup salad or peanut oil
1/2 cup dry red wine
cayenne to taste
Mix together the cumin, cloves, cardamon, black peppercorns, allspice and fenugreek seeds. Place in a small frying pan over medium heat. Stir constantly until they release their fragrance, about 1 to 2 minutes. Do not burn or discolor the seeds. Cool completely.
Combine the toasted spices and all the other ingredients except the oil and wine in a spice grinder or electric coffee grinder in several batches (I use the coffee grinder) and grind to fine consistency. Place the spice blend in a bowl and add the oil and wine. Add cayenne to taste (Jeff starts with 1 teaspoon and adds more as necessary). Stir until thick and store in a covered plastic container in the refrigerator.
Recipe by Jeff Smith in “The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors.”
Food for Thought runs weekly in the Times’ Taste of the Times section and is written by Heather Atwood, an author and mother from Rockport. Questions and comments can be sent to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her blog at www.heatheratwood.com.