Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Sweeter than Stained Glass

Here’s a fun picture from my life in Papua New Guinea. Can you guess what it is?

Any ideas? I think it looks like stained glass...but it's not!


Well then, read on, my friend, and let me introduce you to the thrilling world of dehydrating! Back in the States, my greatest exposure to dehydrating was to beef jerky or those bits of fruit found in my trail mix. But, after coming to Papua New Guinea, I learned that there are far more possibilities than I ever anticipated in the art of dehydrating!

Dehydrating is an extremely useful village preparation task because it takes a huge amount of heavy, bulky, and easily-spoiled food and compresses it down into extremely light, portable, and long-lasting (think months or years!) cuisine. “Light” and “portable” are key since most everything we bring into a village needs to be hauled in by hand, and we pay by the kilo to either fly or drive into remote locations.

Look at the weight of this pineapple--over 1.2 kilos!
Here's that pineapple dehydrated...just over 100 grams!

In addition, because the majority of Papua New Guineans in the village setting are subsistence farmers, sometimes it can be difficult for us to find local vegetables or fruit for ourselves, especially when it is the ‘taim bilong hangre’ (or the “hunger time”). Dehydrating allows us to bring a larger quantity of our own food, which helps us meet our own nutritional needs without burdening our local friends.

I couldn't get back far enough to show the fourth dehydrator
In this house of three translators, I can always tell when a village trip is forthcoming as the dehydrators begin humming day and night. Earlier this year, several of us were going out to the village at the same time, so we turned our office into Dehydrator Central with four different machines going at once!

When I was preparing to go out to the village this last August, I took a bunch of photos of the dehydrating process. Let me take you on a tour of my village preparations! (This time around I didn’t dehydrate meat, but I’ve done so before and it creates VERY tasty jerky or mince perfect for cooking or snacking!)

YUM! Look at all that tasty food!
First, it starts with a large market trip to collect a large stash of fresh, ripe produce. You can dehydrate practically anything—cucumber, capsicum, pineapple, banana, strawberry, mango, carrot, zucchini…you name it! (Though, I have always wondered what watermelon would look like dehydrated…) Then, you get a crick in your back and a cramp in your hand as you proceed to peel, slice, and dice all these veggies and fruits into very thin, very evenly cut slices (the more uneven or the thicker your slices are, the trickier it will be to get everything to evenly dry and will cause more headaches down the road).

Then spread them evenly and without touching on the racks and place them in the dehydrater. Different fruit and vegetables dry at different rates, so be sure to check that out ahead of time. Higher temperature does NOT necessarily equal faster drying :) Instead, you could promote plastic melting!

While my fruit and veggie slices were drying, I decided to make some fruit and vegetable “bark.” It’s the non-preservative, non-sugar version of those Fruit Roll-ups you ate as a kid. Actually, you can puree a lot of different things and then pour the liquid onto the drying sheets—I’ve made corn bark and pumpkin bark along with fruit combinations; the vegetables just taste like chips!

The start of corn bark and strawberry fruit bark

It’s important when you’re making the bark to spread it evenly, otherwise some parts will dry faster than others, and then it will crack into pieces when you try to package it up. My roommates’ rolling pin has special rubber bands that lift the pin away from the surface and help control the even-ness of the rolling.

Be sure to keep checking on your dehydrating food, otherwise it might dry into rock-hard oblivion and all that work of preparing will be for naught!

Package it all up into bags and into rat-proof, ant-proof, water-proof containers…and voila! Remember all that food in the beginning? Look at how small and light it has all become!

And, can you guess by now what that picture was at the beginning of the post?

That’s right—strawberry-banana fruit bark.

I bet you never knew that if you hung it up in the window, it looks like stained glass! Except, this kind is far sweeter than the chunks you might find in a rose window.