After nearly five years of working on this book, it was released into the world this week! I am equal parts proud and terrified and excited and exhausted and relieved and overjoyed. Basically, as per usual, I am feeling allll the feelings. All of them.
The idea for a memoir had been floating around in my brain for a long time. I know that I’ve lived an awful lot of life in my 38 years, and though many chapters of my story were brutally painful, I can also look back and see how much I learned and grew during those times. It’s no secret that I believe wholeheartedly in the power of stories. Prior to the written word, history was passed from generation to generation through oral narrative. Visual storytelling, using rudimentary drawings on cave walls, dates back 30,000 years at least. It is human nature to use the power of story to inform, instruct, and inspire. And every single one of us has our own story: things we’ve experienced or learned, things we can share with the world to help others feel less alone. If there’s one thing I know to be true, it’s that being brave with our own stories gives others permission to be brave with theirs, too. That’s what this book is for me: a gift, an offering, a way to help others find the light in their darkness and understand that the world needs their stories, too.
I spent Launch Day at our family cabin in the Adirondack Mountains with my husband, children, and in-laws. I was a bundle of nerves the whole day, but the good kind of nerves; it was thrilling to see orders coming in, share reviews from my launch team, and hear about the impact this little book-baby of mine has had on those who’ve read it. I got to see it on shelves of a real, live bookstore, and in less than 48 hours, the Book House had already sold out!
The thing that has meant the most, I think, is seeing my children react to this book. In many ways, I wrote it for them. It’s the story of journeys: my journey before them, and how our journeys entwined to make a new one. My daughter, who is quiet and typically scarce with her praise (hello, teenage years!) wants to read it for her English class. My son, while watching me print labels for shipping, had the sweetest conversation with my husband in the other room, one that I don’t think he knew I was listening to.
Atticus: “Dada, Mama is doing a good job with her book!”
Kyle: “She sure is, buddy!
Atticus, after a pause: “And she never, ever gave up. Even when it was hard.”
Kyle, smiling: “Yeah. I’m pretty proud of her.”
Atticus: “I’m proud of her, too.”
Cue the sobs. My kids are watching, and they’ve heard me talk about this book for actual years now, and they know how important it is to me. It’s been such a gift to have them witness this process and that they know they are in integral part of this whole story.
I wanted an easy recipe this week since I was heavily preoccupied with the launch of Until the Bones Shine, so you can imagine my little happy dance when I found out about brigadeiro. Only two ingredients? Homemade chocolate? Squeeeeeal!
These are essentially caramelized chocolates, so the trickiest part is making sure that the chocolate is the right consistency and nothing burns. You combine cocoa powder and condensed milk in a pan and stir continuously. This is key. You’re looking for something that is called ponte de brigadeiro, which is when the mixture is thick enough to kind of pull away from the pan when you scrape it with your spatula.
After that, it’s just a matter of letting it cool, rolling the brigadeiro into little balls, adding toppings, and chilling! We left some plain chocolate and did crushed peanuts and shredded coconut on the others. I’ve seen more traditional recipes that have you roll them in chocolate sprinkles. The bottom line is that however you eat it, brigadeiro is delicious!
The lectionary text from a few Sundays ago was the one where Jesus preaches in his hometown of Nazareth, and what he says enrages the crowd so greatly that they try to push him off a cliff. It’s a strange story, one that has long puzzled me. But my husband’s sermon illuminated some parts of it I had never really noticed before.
First, Jesus is preaching about the work of God, that of ministering to widows, setting the oppressed free, healing the sick. And at first, the people are amazed. The passage says Jesus admits he knows the crowd want him to do this right there in Nazareth, for his own people.
But then he flips everything around. He says that while there were many widows in Israel during the time of Elisha, he was sent instead to one in Zarephath. She was a foreigner. And though there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet, it was only Naaman the Syrian — again a foreigner — who was cleansed.
This is what makes the crowd furious. They’re angry that “those people” got the blessing, got the miracle, got the goodness instead. What about me? What about mine? I deserve it more, you can almost hear them saying.
And sadly, it’s still the refrain of so many in today’s world. Why should we help refugees from other countries instead of taking care of our own? Why do the poor get handouts when I had to climb my own way to the top? It isn’t fair! It’s not right! We look at human rights as a pie, and we think if someone gets a bigger slice, then there’s going to be less for us.
I’ve heard people say these things. I’ve seen how angry they get. And it’s a tale as old as time, narrated right here in our ancient scriptures.
Jesus, remember, came to reveal what God looks like, acts like, thinks like to the world. So this passage makes it pretty clear from the get-go that the very heart of God, his care and concern and primary focus is the groups of people that we tend to other. The ones on the outskirts of our society. Liberation theology calls this God’s preferential option for the poor. In the words of Gustavo Gutiérrez, regarded as the movement’s founder, “God demonstrates a special predilection toward those who have been excluded from the banquet of life.” Does this mean God cares less about other people? No! But it does show his special consideration for those on the margins. People say, “God helps those who help themselves” and that’s just not true. The marginalized cannot help themselves. But it is to them that God goes first.
This is the Good News. This is hope. This is how we are meant to live, looking to others first — not me first, or mine first, or even America first. If we really claim to follow Jesus, we cannot simply ignore this story because it makes us too uncomfortable. We can’t just read and interpret the parts of the Bible that make us feel good. Paul tells us in II Timothy that scripture is for instruction and doctrine, yes, but also for correction.
God, it would seem, is speaking. Do we have ears to hear?
I’ve always dreamed of visiting Portugal, especially now that I know a large chunk of my DNA can be traced back to it. I envisioned walking the streets, stopping in little cafes for a cup of coffee and a bifana, or something equally tasty. Alas, it may be a while until I can get there, but luckily, cooking Portuguese recipes can help bring a taste of the country into my own home.
Enter rojões. Portuguese rojões is a traditional recipe from the Minho region. It used to be served only during winter, when fresh meat was available. It’s essentially fried pork bits that are served over crispy potatoes, and it is sooooo good. I’ve heard you can also serve the pork over rice, but I wanted to do it the traditional way, and I’m glad I did! This was delicious with some sriracha and cilantro on top, and leftovers are easily reheated by crisping everything up in a pan again. Saboroso!
I quickly discovered that many of the recipes I came across during my month of cooking from Spain are similar to the ones from Portugal (which of course makes sense, given the closeness of the two countries). The focus is on fresh, quality ingredients, and there is a lot of seafood. The only problem is that neither of my kids eat seafood, so I tried to stick to recipes that avoided it.
I came across a simple recipe for a dessert called serradura that is quite popular in Portugal. It’s also known as “sawdust pudding,” a nod to the crushed cookie layers that resemble…well, sawdust. The cream layer is made from whipping heavy cream and condensed milk, and then you simply layer the cookie/cream/cookie/cream to fill the glass. It’s best to let this chill in the fridge because it helps firm up the cream and turn it into a delicious custard. And you can top it any way you like! We’ve actually made these a few times, and we’ve used blueberries, strawberries, and chocolate chips.
For the cookies, I used Goya’s Marie biscuits, but I’ve seen variations of serradura using Oreos and shortbread, so you can definitely be creative with it. Let me know if you try the recipe; it is so, so good!
To finish my month of Senegambian cooking, I took inspiration from Guinea-Bissau and cooked cafriela de frango — spicy grilled chicken. Scotch bonnet peppers are key for the recipe; the chicken marinates all night in a mixture of pepper, onion, lemon juice, and garlic. When ready to begin cooking, the chicken is boiled in the broth until just lightly cooked through, and then it is finished up on the grill to get nice and brown and crispy. The veggies are strained out of the broth, and the broth is then thickened into a spicy soup that will be ladled over the chicken and rice when served.
The chicken itself was really good, but the soup was just a little too spicy for me. This meal is best served with a tall glass of ice-cold water!!
I have to admit that this week was a bit of a challenge. Many of the recipes I came across for Guinean cuisine involved fish, and my daughter doesn’t eat any seafood. Since she is West African, I wanted to make sure I made a dish she’s familiar with and would enjoy.
Enter palm nut soup.
Palm nut soup is a dish made all over West Africa, really, and every country has its variation. (In Liberia, we called it palm butter.) It’s a rich, buttery soup made from palm nuts that has a nutty yet oily (due to the palm oil used) taste. You can put meat or fish in it; I opted for chicken. The key is 1) making sure there’s enough spice (scotch bonnet peppers are used and grounded into a fine pepper dust using a pestle and mortar and b) making sure the palm nuts are soft enough from the boiling that you can easily grind them using the pestle and mortar as well. It’s a labor intensive dish; when my cook in Liberia, Ma Mary, would make it, she would be busy in the kitchen all day long!
Without access to palm nuts, I visited a nearby African market for the next best thing: palm butter paste, right from the can!
All I had to do was make the base of the soup (garlic, onion, tomato paste, pepper, oil, salt and pepper, bouillon cubes) and add the palm nut paste to make the soup. I added some cooked chicken and served it over rice with some fried plantains and pineapple on the side. It was, as we’d say in West Africa, sweet-o!
Despite having lived in West Africa for nearly five years, there are so many countries in the region that I never had the chance to properly visit. The Gambia is one of them; my experience with it is an hour-and-a-half layover on my way out of Monrovia, during which we weren’t allowed to leave the plane. However, much like Senegal, their cuisine has a distinctly French flair, so I was really excited to explore the country this week with one of its most popular dishes: poulet au yassa, or chicken yassa. (This can be made with a whole fish in substitution for the chicken as well, by the way.)
The yassa is almost a type of curry made from onions, garlic, salt, pepper, chilies, lemon and dijon mustard. The meat marinades in the mixture and then is seared in a pan before being immersed in the sauce to finish cooking. It’s served as a type of stew over rice.
What really makes it is the combination of the citrus and the mustard; it’s truly out of this world. My family ate the whole dish with no leftovers, which is rare for us! I’ve heard it can be made with limes instead of lemon, but I think I’ll stick to the lemon because it was just that good.
Perhaps the biggest shock from my DNA results came from seeing that a small portion of my ancestry has roots in Senegambia and Guinea. This area is located in West Africa, the very same place I spent nearly five years living and working in non-profit work. Obviously, I don’t exactly look like I come from West Africa, which has spurred me on to do a whole bunch of research about race, genetics, and the like. Now, of course I cannot be sure, but it would seem quite likely that my European ancestors likely colonized my ancestors in North and West Africa, procreated, and that led to…well, me.
I do know quite a bit about West Africa from my time spent there, and its cuisine is definitely in my comfort zone. Still, I wanted to find adaptations to well-known recipes, like jollof rice or stew, to see how it varies in different countries. That led to two delicious recipes I found from Senegal that I made this past week. The first is mafe, a Senegalese stew with a peanut butter and tomato base that is served over rice. I also discovered bissap, a popular drink from Dakar, the capital of Senegal, that is made with mint and a homemade hibiscus syrup. I made both this past week, and they were absolutely amazing! A couple of my friends, upon seeing my social media posts, were inspired to make their own versions of mafe, and it made me so happy to see others enjoying this incredible cuisine!
To read the post that started it all, click here!
I could not finish my month of cooking Spanish food without making what is perhaps the most famous dish of the entire country: paella. I’ve made Instant Pot paella before, and it was absolutely delicious, but I really wanted to do the whole thing from scratch. To start, I learned that paella requires a specific type of rice, one that I had to make a special order for.
The next thing I learned is that there are a lot of variations of paella. Some with all seafood, some with only vegetables, some with sausage and chorizo — possibilities are literally endless. I opted to make mine with chicken, sausage, and shrimp, and used bell peppers, roma tomatoes, onion, and garlic for seasoning and vegetables.
The recipe I chose was pretty easy to follow, and after about 30 minutes of prep work and 45 minutes cooking time, I had this:
That, my friends, is a pan filled with bona fide paella, and it was absolutely scrumptious! I couldn’t believe how easy it was and how good it turned out. Though I’m saying adios to Spain for now, this is a dish I will definitely be making again.