15 February 2015

The Laziest Breakfast

photo 2
My mother always said February was the worst month. Certainly the dreariest and bleakest, weather wise, and with a holiday most people profess to hate. In Cairo, a dense cloud of pollution hangs above the city, and last week a dust storm left our houses and lungs coated with a dense layer of yellow dust. It is a month to burrow indoors and start spring seedlings, to dream of spring gardens, to make soups and bake breads and start long books.

I have been doing a lot of at least one of those things, cooking that is, but my results have been about as dreary as this month usually is. First, there was Daniel Boulud's stuffed pumpkin, a massive affair of pumpkin and cheese and bread and cream, mushrooms and bacon, all baked inside a pumpkin. We had people over, and while it was festive, something about the recipe fell flat to me. It's never a good sign when no one wants to eat the leftovers.

Then there was a stuffed cabbage (malfouf mahshi) which was fine, but I packed the rolls a bit too tightly and we pretended it was still okay by smothering them in yogurt. There was the terrible mistake of trying to make Alice Medrich's kamut poundcake with half coconut oil for the butter, which needless to say turned out miserably. I redeemed myself a bit with a riff on my usual soba noodles, topping them with a gingery stir-fry of edamame and cucumber ribbons alongside thinly sliced rare flank steak.

It shouldn't surprise you then that the best thing I made in weeks was something that took no more than five minutes to put together and was devoured nearly as quickly. It is possibly the laziest breakfast I can think of making, but surprisingly delicious. Someone recently told me that their mom used to beat eggs in the concave side of pita bread, then slide them into the oven to bake. It's totally a simple mom-on-the-run trick (no messy bowls! protein!) that kids remember fondly, and obviously I had to try it. I made ours using local baladi bread, which is a fluffier sort of pita, and topped the eggs with chunks of local soft creamy feta cheese and chili flakes. It may just be the best discovery of February.

photo 1

The Laziest Breakfast
  • pita bread -- I think a slightly puffy variety is best, although it doesn't really matter as long as it has a concave side
  • eggs, 1 per bread
  • salt
  • toppings such as feta cheese, chili flakes, herbs, avocado, etc.
1. Preheat oven with the broiler on high. Place pita bread, concave side up, on a baking sheet. Break 1 egg into each pita and swirl around with a fork. Sprinkle cheese, salt, and chili flakes over bread.
2. Slide the breads into the oven. Watch the breads closely, until the eggs are just set and the cheese is melty, but be careful the edges of the bread don't get too brown. It should only take a few minutes. Transfer to a serving plate, cut into wedges, serve warm.

26 January 2015

Syrian Stuffed Onions

photo 1-8
Well then. 2015! What does 2015 have in store for you? Last year, we came into the year knowing roughly how the year was going to play out. I started 2014 knowing that we'd be moving several times, and we did, a total of four times, which is why I dubbed it the Year of the Nomad. I also knew that we'd most likely be buying our first home, which we did (!), and which I couldn't be more than thrilled with. We went from Algiers to Chicago to Cairo, and just last week all of our possessions finally caught up with us in Cairo. You can see a few of them up there, in that picture that is cropped so that it does not picture the mountain of boxes and tissue paper behind me.

So 2014 kind of played out roughly how we expected, but 2015? I really don't know. We'll continue to settle in here in Cairo, hopefully squeeze in some fun vacations (ever since I read this piece I am dying to go to Crete). I have a new pile of cookbooks, as well as my old favorites, that I'd like to keep working my way through. Which brings me to todays recipe for stuffed onions, Syrian style.

I have been wanting to make these stuffed onions, which consist of a meat filling rolled inside onion skins and braised in a tomato-y sauce, for years (years!), but I was always intimidated by separating the onion layers. Somehow in my mind this dish seemed more difficult than the other stuffed dishes, like stuffed zucchini or eggplant. And, I know what you're thinking, you're thinking if SHE thinks this dish is complicated then there's no way I'm going to make it!

But hear me out here folks. These stuffed onions are actually surprisingly easy to make! Really, separating the onions is really easy, they basically fall apart on their own, and stuffing them with the meat mixture is super simple. It takes no more time than making meatballs, and is certainly easier than coring zucchini. You simmer the stuffed onions in a tomato and molasses-y mixture for a longtime, until the onions are as sweet and supple as caramelized onions. Caramelized onions stuffed with a flavorsome meat mixture is my idea of a good dinner. Despite my paltry kitchen photo below, the end result looks far more impressive than the amount of effort put into it. It's a good start to a what I hope is a good year!
photo-2
Syrian Stuffed Onions
This is one of those classic dishes that's all about making something luxurious with very little. The stew cooks for a very longtime, a total of nearly 2 hours, which really draws out the best caramel-y flavor of the onions. Serves 2-4, you could easily double this for more people.

for the stuffing:
olive oil
1 shallot, diced
6 cloves garlic, sliced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup golden raisins
3 tablespoons water
1 handful parsley, chopped
1/2 lb ground beef
2 tablespoons rice

for the stew:
7 very large shallots or 5 small onions
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 tablespoons carob molasses or date or regular molasses
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 cup boiling water
1 tomato (optional)

1. Make the filling: Heat some olive oil in a wide deep skillet. When hot, add the shallot and stir over medium heat until starting to become translucent. Add in the garlic, cinnamon, cumin, and the tomato paste and stir to combine. Let cook another minute or so. Add in the salt, water, and golden raisins and stir everything together to combine. Let cook for a minute, stir in the parsley, and then pour the mixture into a mixing bowl. Set aside the skillet
2. Add the ground beef and rice to the mixing bowl, and stir the filling mixture together to combine. (Use a metal spoon to mix, or knead together with your hands.)
3. Prep the onions: Meanwhile, heat a large pot of water to boiling. Remove the ends of the shallot or onions and peel off the papery skins. Cut a slit lengthwise through the onion only to the middle. Plunge the onions in the boiling water and let cook for 7-12 minutes, or until the onions are soft enough to be pliable. Drain the onions and set aside to cool.
4. Prep the pan: When cool enough to handle, separate the onion layers. Take the very center bits of the onion, with the smallest layers, and use those to line the bottom of your skillet. If using the tomato, use the slices to line the skillet over top the onion bits.
5. Stuff: Place a tablespoon of filling on one of the onion layers and roll up tightly. If desired, roll the stuffed onion in another onion layer. (I like two onion layers best, but sometimes you have to do one if you start to run low on onions.) Depending on the size of the onions, and the amount of onion/filling I have left, I roll the filling in anywhere from 1 to 3 layers of onion skins. Lay the stuffed onions in the prepared pan on their sides. Continue until you've used up all filling or onions, whichever comes first.
6. Cook: Preheat the oven to 350F. Dot the tomato paste in between the onion rolls. Drizzle the molasses over top the onions. Pour the lemon juice and the boiling water over top. Sprinkle the whole thing with salt. Bring the pan to a simmer on the stove, then cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Transfer the pan to the oven and cook for 1 hour, covered. Uncover the pan and cook for another 20-30 minutes, or until the sauce around the onions is reduced and caramelized. Serve warm with rice.

17 January 2015

A Narrow Place Can Contain a Thousand Friends

On Eating Syrian Food in Istanbul
photo 1-7
I have never been to Istanbul in the summer. The first time I went was right after my husband and I were engaged, deep in November when cold air and clouds blew over the Bosphorus. It rained nearly every day but we didn't care, happily lost in the Bazaar, waiting in line to tour the mosques with a scarf tied closely over my head. The cisterns beckoned with their steamy underground warmth. On that trip I dragged my now-husband along to find a famous roast chicken at a local Syrian restaurant, three hours tromping around in the cold and rain, all of which was quickly forgotten over a menu written in Arabic script and a flamingly delicious chicken.

On my most recent trip I am back again, this time in the cold first week of January. I am in town for vacation, having worked over the Christmas and New Year's holidays, and I have always loved taking vacations when everyone else is going back to work. Tourists are fewer, shopkeepers are more relaxed, more willing to chat and more generous with bargaining.  The presence of Syrian restaurants in Istanbul has a new meaning, providing sustenance and warmth to those who have made it out of the war-torn country. It is a topic of discussion all over the city, the rising rents, the begging on the street.
photo 2-9
We walk and walk and walk until our toes and fingers are unbearably cold, the air crisp and heavy like it gets right before it's going to snow. Up and down Istiklal, the main pedestrian drag, I hear Syrian Arabic everywhere, those long stretched out vowels, the slightly nasal intonation. We look at ikat fabrics in the bazaar, I buy gloves at a leather shop to help my frozen fingers, we eat steaming spicy kebaps and sticky chicken pudding bundled in our coats.

My husband has developed a taste for salep, a steaming milky drink thickened with powdered orchid root that is popular all over the Eastern Mediterranean. Steamed milk has always had a disturbingly putrid sour smell to me, but I indulge him in repeated coffee shop stops, ordering apple tea and fiddling with our phones. One afternoon, a small Syrian boy comes in to the tea shop where we sit, hand out stretched, and the owners generously empty their tip jar into his small hand. A Turkish customer nearby grumbles angrily, the shop suddenly turning quiet. I watch the boy go back to his two friends waiting outside and their faces light up, shrieking at their new found wealth, none of them could be older than seven or eight.

Ten minutes later the smallest boy comes back to the shop, marching up to the counter and speaking excitedly in a mix of broken Turkish and Arabic. He is showing off the new wool hat he has bought with their tip money, strutting about, pulling the hat up and down to cover his ears. The young men at the counter are exceedingly kind, ruffling his hair, trying to joke with him despite the language barrier. I ask the little boy what his name is and he points at himself in surprise, then says 'Abd-al-Salam, from Aleppo. As we talk I notice how small his waist is, I tell him it's going to snow tomorrow and he should stay inside. When we leave, I put a large bill in the tip jar.
photo 2-8
That night, over Turkish wines and cheese at Sensus we talk about the problems of refugees, about aid distribution and displaced persons policies, about the logistic problems of how to get the right things to the right people. It is starting to snow and I wonder if 'Abd-al-Salam has gloves. I feel silly for being such a sad sap, and remind myself of all the places that I've been and worked that were full of poverty and refugees and malnutrition. But Syria, of course, is different. As my husband says, paraphrasing a quote we once heard about New York, "you lived in Syria and never really got over it."

The next morning we wake up to a beautiful blanket of snow over the city. We abandon plans to go the Asian side to see a copper pot showroom, and instead take refuge inside the Pera Museum where we are the only visitors to see an exhibit on Polish Orientalist paintings, the sounds of wind whipping harshly around the buildings. Over the next few days we walk in the snow, shop, attempt to see a movie that ends up being in Turkish, and eat delicious meals at Mikla and Yeni Lokanta.
photo 4-4
On our final morning I tell my husband, who luckily travels on his stomach, that we're going to a Syrian place I've heard about and we tromp through the freezing snow. The corner shop is clearly marketing their chicken and schwarma, but it is early and I see that they have fetteh on the menu, both with fetteh with olive oil and fetteh with clarified butter, which is a good sign that these guys know what they're doing. I order a large bowl and we take a seat in the corner.

The restaurant is immaculately clean and several young Syrian men stand behind the counter alternately prepping things for the day and snapping pictures of the snow on their phones and talking about the virtues of Instagram vs Twitter vs WhatsApp. I learn that they are all from different parts of Damascus, which I chide them is evident from their menu, and we talk about Damascus's neighborhoods, about the felafel stand in Muhajireen and the best way to make hummus musabaha. One of the young men shows me a picture of my old neighborhood from that morning, its cars covered in a foot of snow from the freak storm that's covering the region. Like every conversation I have with Syrians, there is that lull in the conversation that happens right after you've talked about the old days, the pause where you are both remembering what has happened since.

The fetteh, a steaming bowl of hot chickpeas, yogurt, tahini, and fried bread, is the best I've had in years. It reminds me of the difficulty of recipe writing, those simple dishes like my mother's Thanksgiving stuffing that hinge delicately on technique and proportion. Several other Syrian men also come in and sit down to bowls of fetteh and hummus and tea, but of course that's not really what this restaurant is about. They show me proudly the copies of Souriatna, an independent newspaper, and it's clear that the restaurant doubles as a place where like-minded Syrians can meet and organize. When we leave, the cashier seems confused when I insist on giving him an extra large tip. Somehow the concept of Western liberal guilt doesn't translate well, but I go back out into the snow happy and encouraged to see people working to make the best of their situation. And well, that fetteh was really good.
photo 3-5

Recipes: Fetteh (plain) and Fatteh (with Eggplant)
See Also: Small Projects Istanbul

02 January 2015

Currently

conducting key research.....
photo 1-5
photo 2-6
back with stories and adventures soon, until then, I hope you had a lovely holiday and wish you all the best in 2015!


14 December 2014

Holiday Gift List

I don't usually do a gift round-up on the blog, but as we are headed to Beirut for the next few weeks, I don't think we'll be doing much cooking over the holidays - just plenty of eating! Living overseas we have to order gifts far in advance, but if you are looking for some last minute ideas, here are a few!

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 12.26.59 PM
Hand-carved olive wood utensils. I love my olive wood kitchen spoons, they are beautiful and useful. These are made by From the Earth, a fair trade organization based in Amman, Jordan. They have several different spoons, spatulas, wood bowls, and cutting boards. Ships from the U.S. $12-$18


Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 3.41.40 PMScreen Shot 2014-12-12 at 3.42.27 PM
Thelonius Monk and Booker Ervin recordings. These two recordings reissued last year have become my standard dinner party background music. They have just the right amount of pep without being too loud or distracting. Although recommending jazz albums does make me feel like this clip.

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 12.49.36 PM
Moroccan rugs and crafts from The Anou. Moroccan rugs are all the rage these days, selling for thousands of dollars in the U.S. Very little of this money goes to the Moroccan women who weave these rugs, who often get only $100-$300 per rug. A project called The Anou, started by Peace Corps workers, aims to fix this problem by letting you buy directly from the weavers and craftsmen themselves. The prices are ridiculously low ($200 for a handmade rug) and include shipping. I also like that the website tells you about the techniques used to make the crafts, and has small profiles on the craftspeople. On my personal wishlist are this cool green rug, this plush carpet, this handira blanket, and these earrings. The Hanbal rug shown above is $172.

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 12.27.45 PM
Canaan Fair Trade Olive Oils. I think olive oil is a great gift because it's something that people use frequently, but it's also a chance to give someone something nicer than what they would have bought for themselves. Canaan, a Palestinian fair trade cooperative, sells olive oils, za'atar and a kind of couscous called maftoul, which would also make great gifts. You can choose olive oil from two types of trees, Rumi or Nabali, and they also sell raw unfiltered olive oil (my personal favorite). Currently they only come in cases of 6, but you can give a few as gifts and keep a few for yourself. Ships from the U.S. $94 for 6 bottles

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 1.11.27 PM
Quitoquito Antique K Sabatier Carbon Steel Chef's Knife. My mother insisted on using only Sabatier carbon steel knives. We have a range of knives at home, but my Sabatier's are the ones I always reach for first. If you've never used carbon steel before, be aware that they will change color naturally. $165

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 1.17.12 PM
Fruit and Veggie Finger Puppets. I'd be happy with pretty much any gifts from Food52's store Provisions, but these are adorable for your littlest family members. $18

Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 4.12.55 PM
Brahms Mount blankets and throws. I am a total sucker for a good blanket or throw (or tablecloth, napkin, bedspread, scarf). Textiles, man. Brahms Mount blankets are all made in Maine and gorgeous quality and texture. The wool ombre blanket (above) is perfect for colder climes, whereas their linen leno stripe is light enough for somewhere like Egypt. $200-$300

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 1.39.28 PM
Charitable donations, for that person who has everything on your list. I have both given and received donations from Heifer International as a gift, and enjoyed the experience every time. They're a great organization and do a particularly good job of of make the gift giving experience fun. However, I also want to recommend a donation to an organization that is very near and dear to me personally, which is a donation to the World Food Programme Syria. WFP is a United Nations organization, like UNICEF, so you can feel assured that the donation is safe and secure and going to the right place. To learn more about their work in Syria, please read this Dexter Filkins piece and watch this 60 Minutes segment.

And, as always, homemade cookies, jams, liquers, and preserves make great gifts!

What are you giving for Christmas this year?!

10 December 2014

Hummus Musabaha

IMG_3251
I started to write a long-ish post about starting to settle in here in Cairo, and what it's like being an expat in a Muslim country over Christmas, but then I started to get long-winded about advent calendars, and I remembered that what I really wanted to talk about was not those little chocolates behind paper doors but hummus. HUMMUS. Oh wait, none of you are surprised?

I couldn't really figure out how hummus and the holidays went together, so I figured just screw it, let's talk about the hummus. As I've mentioned probably a bazillion times before there's a LOT of ways to serve and eat hummus, way more than you probably know about. But one of my favorite ways is called hummus musabaha. Hummus musabaha is basically warm hummus with chickpeas and a bit of hot water stirred into it until it becomes a sort of spoonable concoction. It's not the sort of thing you find in a fancy restaurant, but it's one of those things you might find at a corner shop or in your mom's kitchen.

I often make hummus musabaha right after I've made fresh hummus. I take the still warm hummus, thin it with some of the hot chickpea cooking water, and stir in a handful of fresh cooked chickpeas. You stir the whole soupy delicious mass together like a thick stew, and then you top it with lemon juice and tomatoes and herbs. It's warm and smooth and nicely lemony, and total comfort food. Which I guess does make it right for the holidays after all.

Hummus Musabaha
Though I may lose my cooking bonafides for saying this, you can make hummus musabaha from purchased hummus and canned chickpeas, which makes it a snap to whip together. The hummus needs to be very good quality though - I find most US grocery store brands taste disturbingly of citric acid and preservative. Try to find one that doesn't (Oasis is a decent brand), or buy your hummus from a local Middle Eastern grocery or take out place that makes their own.

for hummus:
2 cups prepared hummus, room temperature
2/3 cup boiling water
1 cup warm cooked chickpeas (I prefer the Whole Foods no salt brand for canned chickpeas, or cook chickpeas from scratch)
sea salt

for topping:
1 lemon
olive oil
chopped tomatoes
chopped herbs (parsley or scallions or mint, or a mix)
Aleppo pepper or sumac for sprinkling

1. Place your hummus in a very large bowl. If our hummus is cold from the refrigerator, you can microwave it or place the bowl over boiling water to take the chill off.
2. Pour in the hot water. Very carefully and slowly mix the hot water into the hummus until smooth. Adjust the consistency with more hot water or more hummus as desired. You want it soupy but not runny. Fold in the chickpeas. Squeeze half a lemon into bowl, add salt to taste, and mix together.
3. Top the hummus with your choice of tomatoes, herbs, and spices. Eat warm, with a large spoon.

** Please excuse the paltry photos, my camera and phone are on the fritz, and we have yet to set up home internet in Cairo, so my apologies if posting are a little slim.**

30 November 2014

Egyptian Meat Pies

DSC_0027
Hello from warm, sunny, smoggy, crowded Cairo! I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving. We are just settling in here, but are lucky to have some great neighbors and colleagues who adopted us and made sure we had turkey and stuffing and pie on the holiday. Anyone who makes sure that you have pie is a pretty good friend to have if you ask me.

Before we left for Cairo, I wanted a bit of exposure to Egyptian dialect (though every native Arabic speaker understands Egyptian dialect because of all the movies and TV shows from there, I am not a native, and Egyptian is very different from my comfort level in the Levant. And certainly two years in Algiers did very little for my Arabic at all, outside of understanding Souad Massi songs.)

DSC_0028
Anyway, this was basically an excuse to watch some Egyptian TV shows on YouTube, which obviously deteriorated into me watching Egyptian cooking shows. I watched a lady making homemade hawawshi حواوشى, or stuffed meat pies which are considered one of the national dishes of Egypt. Hawashi is usually made by stuffing leftover bread with a bunch of spiced ground meat and baking it, and is a way to use up slightly stale bread. The meat can be already cooked or raw, and the pies can be made in the oven or on a griddle. The lady on the cooking show, however, was making her hawawshi with freshly made dough, and explained that the filling was "Alexandria-style," which as far as I could tell just meant that it involved chile peppers.

Now that we've arrived I spotted a few hawawshis at Zooba and around on the street, but I haven't tried any to see how they compare to my homemade version. I've been too busy eating ta'amiya (Egyptian falafel) and fuul (broad beans), trying to figure out how to get to and from work, how to get groceries, unpacking our suitcases, and generally not getting lost. I hope you all are enjoying those turkey-day leftovers!

DSC_0029
Egyptian Meat Pies (Hawawshi) 

filling:
1/2 an onion, diced
1 large tomato, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeds removed, diced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 lb ground beef
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
 1/4 teaspoon paprika
salt, pepper, olive oil

dough:
3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 cup warm water, plus 2-3 tablespoons more if needed
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil

1. Make the dough: Mix the yeast and the water in a bowl. Add the flour, sugar, salt, and olive oil, and mix thoroughly. Knead the dough in the bowl until it comes together and becomes smooth. Cover the dough with plastic wrap or a damp towel and leave to rise.
2. Make the filling: Heat a splash of olive oil in a wide pan. Saute the onion until soft and translucent. Add the jalapenos, tomatoes, and garlic. Let the mixture cook over medium heat until the tomatoes have lost most of their liquid and everything is soft. Add the beef, paprika, coriander, salt, and pepper to the pan. Saute the mixture, breaking up the beef, until the beef is cooked through.
3. Preheat the oven to 425F. Prepare a baking sheet.
4. Form the dough into 8 balls and set aside. Sprinkle a work surface with flour. Using a rolling pin, roll out two dough balls into rounds. Place a heaping amount of the filling onto one round. Remember the dough will expand, so you really want to pile the filling on there. Top the meat pie with the second round of dough and pinch the edges closed. Cut a small X in the top of the meat pie. Transfer the pie to the baking sheet and repeat with the remaining dough and filling. If desired, you can brush the pie with olive oil before baking.
5. Bake the meat pies in the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until the dough becomes golden brown. Remove and serve warm.