The word exotic gets tossed around quite a bit in cookbooks, in kitchens, in dining rooms and - to be fair - in articles about cooking.
Tessa Najera, a woman who shuns overstatement of orderliness in the kitchen are remarkable, would probably wince if her cuisine where called "exotic."
But ask her for a sample of her cooking repertoire. With nary the bat of an eyelash, she mentions an Afghan soup, Greek taramasalata, North African tobboulah, kibbe, a Spanish tortilla, a Nigerian spicy fish dish, curry, the Indian dessert gulab jamun and English trifle.
Najera concocts these recipes in a very American kitchen in Bethesda: electric burners, department store cooking utensils, plastic wrap at the ready. She also tends to two school-aged children, Tanya and Mekhela, a dog, a cat and a wondrous array of beautiful plants that fill her house and spill out onto a terrace and backyard plot.
But there the American image ends. The exotic becomes more comprehensible, if no less appealing, when one discovers that her life has been something of a Foods of the World series. Born in England, she grew up in Malaya and East Africa, absorbing cultural winds from England, Africa and Asia. She then married Jose Najera, a Spanish scientist. His work in tropical medicine brought him to the Pan American Health Organization here eight years ago. Since then, South American colleagues and friends - and South American foods - have played an important part in their lives.
"I like people and I lkie people to come to the house for dinner," she said recently, "although I hate cleaning up after it. What I make depends on who is coming, what their nationality is. I try to find out what they like and what they don't like or can't eat for religious reason. With Americans I try to avoid high seasoning."
She admits to enjoying her time at the stove and therefore cooks from scratch and shuns convenience foods ("I don't like them, they taste synthetic"). But she is not fond of helter-skelter preparation ("I make Chinese food only for us, it's a mess and I like everything put away by the time people arrive. The make-ahead aspect of her recipes appeal to American friends.
"I make my soups a day ahead always," she said. "The flavors mellow. That's true for trifle, too. My cooking hasn't changed here. I can get everything I need at the supermarket and some small shops. But I have learned a lot more desserts. People are so oriented to sweets. They don't want fruit at the end of a meal. They want desserts. When we go back to visit Pepe's family in Spain I find myself tasting something, even a croissant and thinking something is missing, then realizing it hasn't any sugar as it does in America."
Called on frequently to entertain, she has experimented with freezing here and finds it useful, though not for curries. The great problem in giving her recipes to friends, other than reducing seasoning for tender palates, is that Tessa Najera is an instinctive cook. "If you know what a food should look and taste like," she said, "It's okay to say 'use about this much of something.' It's hard for me to be exact because I don't measure. I just look and taste."
For them, and for us, she purchased a set of measuring spoons. Here's what emerged when she used them. AFGHAN SOUP (Serves 8 to 10) 3 cups water 3/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 pound thin egg noodles 1 can (20 ounces) chick peas with liquid 1 can (3 ounces) red kidney beans with liquid 3 to 4 teaspoons dried mint or 3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint 1 clove garlic, minced 2 teaspoons dried, minced onion Freshly ground pepper to taste 1 carton (8 ounces) sour cream 1 carton (16 ounces) yogurt 1 recipe meat balls (see below)
Bring water to a boil. And salt and noodles and cook until just tender. Add chick peas, beans and seasoning and simmer for 10 minutes. Pour some soup into a bowl with sour cream and yogurt. Blend well, then pour all into soup along with half the meat balls. From this point soup must not boil. Cook for several minutes, cool and store in the refrigerator. To serve, reheat soup and remaining meal balls separately. Portion out soup, then spoon meat balls and sauce atop each portion and serve. MEAT BALLS 1 pound extra lean ground beef 1 1/2 medium onions, peeled and grated 1 1/2 teaspoons coriander seeds, ground in a blender 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 can (15 ounces) tomato sauce 1 large (or 2 small) clove garlic, mashed with 3/4 teaspoon salt
Work beef, 1 grated onion, coriander and cayenne together. From round, marble-sized balls and set aside. Heat oil in a deep pan (there will be splattering as meatballs cook) and cook remaining 1/2 grated onion until golden. Add tomato sauce. When it is hot, set heat at low and drop in the meat balls. Don't stir as they will break. Instead shake the pan to prevent them from sticking. As they become firm, stir so they cook evenly. After they are done, about 45 minutes, or when oil rises to the surface, pour off most of the surface fat. Taste, adjust seasoning and transfer half to the soup. Cool and store the remainder. Reheat with the mashed garlic and salt before serving. NIGERIAN FISH (Serves 4 to 6) 1 whole fish (rock, snapper or sea bass), 5 to 6 pounds, gutted with head and tail removed Flour Salt and pepper 1/2 cup vegetable oil (about) 2 onions, peeled, cut in half and thinly sliced 1/3 teaspoon ground ginger 1/3 teaspoon ground cloves 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper 3 tablespoons tomato paste 2 beef bouillon cubes 1 heaping teaspoon dried fish powder*(FOOTNOTE)
* Dried fish powder may be purchased in Oriental groceries or made by cooking 1/2 pound tiny frozen shrimp, draining them, then frying them until very dry in a little oil on low heat. Let them dry on paper towels through the day and then process in a blender to obtain a dry powder. Store in a spice jar. (END FOOT)
Lay the fish on its side and cut through flesh and bone to make 1 1/2-inch-wide "steaks." Dust these in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Pour oil into a large frying pan to the depth of 1/4-inch. When the oil is very hot, add the onions and cook until golden, about 5 minutes. Remove onions and drain. Add as many fish steaks as will fit in one layer and cook until well browned on both sides. Repeat if necessary. Drain.
Pour off half the remaining oil, return the onion, plus the ginger, cloves, red pepper an-return the onions, plus the ginger, cloves, red pepper and tomato paste. Stir over medium heat to 2 minutes, then add 1 1/2 cups boiling water, bouillon cubes and fish powder. Cook another 2 to 3 minutes, stirring several times. Return fish to pan and add water as needed to bring sauce to half the depth of the fish steaks. Simmer, uncovered, until the liquid thickens into a sauce, 30 to 45 minutes. Turn fish steaks at least once. This may be stored and reheated in the dish. Serve with rice.
Chicken may be prepared in this manner by altering the recipe slightly. Follow the same beginning steps with chicken pieces instead of fish steaks. Blend the spices with two large tomatoes, half a seeded green pepper and a10-ounce can of tomato paste. Add this mixture, plus two chicken bouillon cubes and the fish powder to the chicken and onions after pouring off half the remaining oil. Cook as directed above, adding bouillon or water if the sauce becomes too thick. AMERICAN KIBBE (Serves 6 to 8) 2 to 2 1/2 pounds extra lean ground beef 1/2 cup bulger (cracked wheat), soaked in warm water for 30 minutes and squeezed dry Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 6 tablespoon finely chopped parsley 2 teaspoons dried mint or 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint 2 large cloves garlic, mashed with 3/4 teaspoon salt 4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in 1-in-slices 3 to 4 tablespoon clarified butter or olive oil 2 lemons 2 teaspoons beef extract (or 2 beef bouillon cubes) 2 tablespoons minced garlic 1 clove garlic, mashed
Mash together or knead with the hands well blended the beef, bulger, seasonings, 4 tablespoons parsley, mint and garlic mashed with salt. Make a stock by combining juice from the lemons with the beef extract, minced and mashed garlic, 2 tablespoons parsley and 3 cups water. Bring to a boil and simmer the potato slices - partly covered - in this until half cooked, 10 minutes. Drain, pat dry and fry them in butter or olive oil until golden brown. Sea aside. Reserve stock.
Spread the meat evenly on the bottom of a 10-in-square baking dish. Make some holes with a knife point so sauce will penetrate. Layer potatoes atop meat and pour reserved stock over all. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes. Let the dish cool, remove potatoes and cut meat into 1-by-3-inch serving pieces. Place in a heat-proof dish suitable for serving, layer the potatoes on top and pour the stock over all. Cover and refrigerate. Reheat to warm through. If sauce appears scanty, make some more and pour on before reheating.
This dish is traditionally made with ground lamb, but due to the price of lamb and the sensibilities of some of her guests, Najera makes it here with beef. GALAB JAMUN (Indian sweet pastries in syrup) (Makes about 2 dozen) 3 cups sugar 3 cups water 1 teaspoon ground cardamom, or 1 teaspoon rose water 2 packages (32 ounces) non-fat dry milk 1 cup self-rising flour 1 carton (8 ounces) whipping cream 1 quart vegetables shortening (about)
Boil sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed pan until syrup forms, about 30 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon cardamom or the rose water and keep warm over low heat.
Work the dry milk, 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom, self-rising flour and dough. Form into 1-inch balls. Melt shortening (to a depth of 2 to 3 inches) in a wide saucepan or deep-fat fryer and heat to 240 degrees. Fry the balls of dough, a few at a time, until they are completely golden and cooked thorugh, 5 to 7 minutes. Drain on paper towels, then place them in the syrup. Turn them so they absorb syrup evenly for about 10 minutes, then remove to a bowl and store covered. Store syrup separately.
To serve, cut the syrup with some water and pour into a heat-proof dish. Add pastry balls and place in a 250-degree oven to heat through, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve tepid, sprinkled with cardamom if you wish, with tea after a curry dinner.