19 November 2014

How To Make Your Own Harissa (and Why You Should)


Harissa is all over the place in America these days, everywhere we turn there's the North African chili paste on menus and condiment lists and every cooking magazine you open. I find this extremely frustrating. After spending two years in Algiers, while I may not have learned much, I definitely learned about harissa. I learned that there is bad harissa and good harissa, and the reason the harissa craze in America is so frustrating is that most of the harissa in America is over-priced and mediocre.


I suppose I should be happy that people are actually learning about what harissa is in the first place, but it wouldn't be me if I didn't have higher standards than that. However, there is an easy cure to this problem, the problem of the $8 a jar sub-par harissa, and that is to make your own harissa! It is surprisingly easy and doesn't even necessitate a trip to a special grocery store.

Now, a bit of background, harissa is made in North Africa, primarily Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Most connoisseurs will tell you that the Tunisians make the best harissa, Algerians the spiciest, and the Moroccan version is often simpler and milder. The primary principle of harissa is that it is an oil-based chile paste, basically all you need is oil + chiles for the most basic version. There are about as many recipes for harissa as there are cooks in North Africa or salsas in Mexico, there is even a famous version of harissa from southern Tunisia that involves rose petals. However, most harissas are based on a simple equation of chiles (fresh or dried), a few spices, salt, and oil. For a basic harissa, there's no need to add red bell peppers, fresh herbs, tomatoes or any other detractors.

My harissa recipe is based on my efforts to recreate the harissa from my favorite vendor in Algiers' Premier Mai market. While I can no longer buy a big bag of harissa from him, it's surprisingly easy to recreate at home, and we use it to top just about everything (eggs, pizza, grain salads, tagines, harissa-roasted potatoes). 

For the chile peppers you want thin red chile peppers about 3-5 inches in length, the best substitute I have found are chile de arbol and chile japones, available in most groceries. Generally, they should be very very spicy chiles. I strongly recommend wearing gloves when preparing the harissa, my hands burned for two days after making this, and the chiles were so strong I also sneezed a lot while handling the peppers. If it's not strong, than it's not really harissa. Despite all this, our harissa mellowed after two days of sitting, and was pleasantly strong but definitely not mouth-burning.

200 grams (7 ounces) dried red chile peppers, see headnote
3 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon ground caraway (freshly toasted and ground is best, but it's not the end of the world if you use pre-ground)
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed
2 teaspoons salt, kosher salt or sea salt is best
1/2 cup olive oil, plus more for covering

1. Snip the ends of the peppers and shake out any seeds. Try to get all the seeds out of the peppers and then discard them, otherwise your harissa paste will be unbearably hot.
2. Heat a wide skillet to medium heat and add the dried peppers, allowing them to just warm up in the dry skillet, stirring them to distribute the heat. Do not allow the peppers to toast or brown!
3. Place the peppers in a bowl and cover with warm, but not boiling, water. Let the peppers soak for 20-30 minutes, pressing them down after the first five minutes to make sure they submerge in the liquid.
4. After the peppers have softened (they should be pretty soft but don't worry if there are still some firmer bits to the peppers), drain them, and then working in the sink, peel open the peppers to discard any remaining seeds. I run the peppers under running water to remove any remaining seeds. If you sneeze during this point, just remember to rinse off the affected pepper.
5. Transfer the peppers to a cutting board (preferably plastic, as wood will stain). With a knife, very finely chop the peppers, and continue going back over the peppers with your knife until you start getting an almost paste like mixture.
6. Scrape the peppers into a bowl. Press the garlic through a garlic press and add to the bowl. Add the caraway, coriander, and salt. Using the pestle from a mortar and pestle (or any large round thing you can use for smashing), smash the whole mixture together. Add half the olive oil and continue smashing with the pestle so that the oil starts to emulsify in the peppers. Add the remaining oil and continue smashing until you have a nice paste. Taste for seasoning.
7. Transfer the harissa to multiple small jars. Cover each jar with a little olive oil to cover. Harissa will keep about 1 month in the fridge, but be aware that it definitely will go bad. I like to keep small jars of harissa in the freezer, and just pull one out at a time when I need it.


12 November 2014

Moving, Reading, Flying, Sighing

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Now is the time (finally!!), the time when we pick up our lives and move it half way around the world again. We are Cairo bound, with four suitcases, a cello, a yoga mat, and more handbags than one girl should admit to carrying.

I've been living in the Middle East for the larger part of 10 years now, and overall I love it. Normally, I'd be tearing at the door to be on the plane and on my way. But this trip, for the first time ever, I'm actually a little sad to leave America. We have a home here now, and friends, family to have lunch with, yoga friends to see, and weddings to miss, and suddenly I find it very hard to leave.

I've always said I wanted to do this moving around gig while I'm young, before there are school-age kids to worry about and all that, but I guess the truth is that I'm rounding the edge of that curve. I'm no longer the 21 year old who hitchhiked from Beirut, and the idea of a home is more appealing than it used to be. But I know we will hit the ground in Cairo and I'll hear the sound of the call to prayer and eat some fuul and be happy as a clam.

As usual, at least half the things I wanted to do before we left didn't get done, most importantly the redesign of this blog. I imagine that we won't have internet right away in Cairo, so there may be a bit of silence on this end. In the meantime, here are some things I am reading:


A lovely piece about the shortcomings of starred reviews.

Elissa's writing always makes me want to live in a cozy farmhouse which I imagine is full of good smells and creaky floors and fireplaces, especially this piece.

Did you see this article about trahana, which is the cousin to Middle Eastern kishik? I definitely want to try her homemade version, and then maybe bust out some mana'eesh bi kishik.

Things that make me dream about having a garden again, and this article which made me excited that in a few short months I can order my annual copy of the Pushcart Press's yearly anthology.

This green soup!

This pie!

Many years ago I had the privilege of taking a graduate class in comparative Israeli-Palestinian literature with the esteemed Lebanese writer Elias Khoury. (This experience in itself was a riot, he only ever referred to the Israelis as "the cousins," peppered every sentence with at least three expressions of "yannni," and assigned Arabic texts not translated into English or available for print in America.) Nonetheless, the class has a big impact on me, and though I general shy away (run away) from any Israeli-Palestinian politics, I have been enjoying the New Yorker's dialogues between two writers from said backgrounds. See also, Kashua on moving to Chicago.

 I have an on-again off-again relationship with Zadie Smith, but this piece was great: Find Your Beach.

Long live the bookstore!!!

Thanksgiving Ideas! The cornbread dressing recipe is also up on the site now.

27 October 2014

Pumpkin Hummus with Mushroom, Date, and Chile Topping

If you are like me, you make dinner most nights. Some nights it's good, some nights you are lucky to hit the mediocre mark and comfort yourself with the thought that at least dinner was homemade and relatively healthy. Other nights dinner might be very simple but very good -- recently we made a pureed soup with leeks, butternut squash, celeriac, broth, cream, and apple cider, which definitely fell into this category.

And then, every once in a while, you make something and go WOAH, let's definitely make that again! Which was the case, for me at least, with this version of pumpkin hummus. First of all, we talked about pumpkin dip , or mouttabal bi yaqteen (متبل يقطين) many moons ago on this blog, and it continues to be a favorite of mine. Syrians love pumpkin and tahini together, whether in a dip, in a stew, or in a salad, though admittedly the latter is not traditional. The traditional dip does not involve chickpeas, but at some point I seem to have forgotten this and instead of making mouttabal bi yaqteen I started making hummus bi yakteen and I never looked back.


If you are currently in the midst of lovely North American fall, full of crisp leaves and pretty squashes, then you know that pumpkin hummus is a phenomenal idea. It is also a delicious idea. For dinner, I wanted something heartier, so I topped it with a topping of sauteed mushrooms, dates, and pine nuts. The topping adds just the right amount of meaty-ness, with sweet and spicy notes. The following day we ate the pumpkin hummus topped with a topping of ground beef, jalepenos, and tomatoes, which was also great.


Pumpkin Hummus with Mushroom, Date, and Chile Topping
This would be a great dish for a vegetarian dinner party or as an offering for a vegetarian at Thanksgiving.

1 recipe pumpkin hummus, follows

1 box (8 oz) button mushrooms, sliced
5 large medjool dates, pitted and cut into small cubes
1 clove garlic, minced
1 handful flat leaf parsley leaves, sliced
salt, olive oil

for serving:
chile flakes (Aleppo pepper, Urfa biber, or your preferred mild red pepper flakes)
extra tahini
1/4 cup pine nuts

1. Prepare hummus, scoop into serving bowl. Set aside.
2. Heat a generous splashing of olive oil in a medium sized heavy bottomed pot. Add the mushrooms to the pot and sprinkle with salt. Allow the mushrooms to saute, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms have expelled their juices and deep brown and soft. Add the dates and garlic, stir, and let cook for another 3-5 minutes, stirring periodically, until the garlic is cooked through and the dates are soft and there are charred spots on the mushrooms. Season again with salt. Stir in the parsley, remove the pot from the heat, and set aside.
3. Drizzle extra tahini and chile flakes over the hummus. Pile the warm mushroom over top and sprinkle with more chile flakes if desired.
4. Wipe out the pot, toast the pine nuts in the pan over high heat, being careful they don't burn. Pour pine nuts over the dish and serve.

Pumpkin Hummus

1 mediumish butternut squash, about 1 1/2 lbs
2 cups cooked chickpeas, plus a little of their cooking liquid or water
juice from half a lemon
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon each cinnamon, allspice 
1/2 cup tahini

1. Preheat oven to 425F. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and place on a baking sheet. (I don't bother rubbing the squash with olive oil, but feel free to if this suits you.) Place the squash in the oven and roast for 45 minutes, or until browned on the outside and completely tender when pierced with a knife. Set aside.
2. Scoop the squash flesh into the bowl of a food processor. Add all remaining ingredients. If it is very thick add a bit of the liquid or water, no more than 3-4 tablespoons though. Blend the mixture thoroughly in the food processor, letting it run for several minutes to mix thoroughly. Taste for seasoning and set aside.


19 October 2014

Diners and Chocolate Crispy Treats

Right before we closed on our apartment, I watched a sweet little video about the dying (extinct?) art of neon sign making in New York City. Which is why, shortly after moving into our new Chicago apartment, I couldn't help but noticing the classic neon signs that seemed to be everywhere in this town. There are at least five within a short radius of our home, and one of my favorites is the neon flower sign on LaSalle Flowers, which sticks out at a funny catty-corner angle to the street. The flower shop sits not far from an original Howard Johnsons, the kind with the sweet peaked roofs, which is itself home to the Cafe Luna. The Cafe Luna is exactly what I want a diner to be: a no frills place with endless coffee refills, eggs prepared a thousand ways, pancake combo platters, and a great grilled cheese.

Given its proximity to our home, Paul and I spend many Sunday mornings at the Cafe Luna, where our conversation often circles back to the things we love about Chicago. You see, those things like the neon signs and the diners symbolize something that cities like New York and Washington DC have managed to price themselves out of. In Manhattan or D.C. you would be hard-pressed to find a diner that doesn't charge $15 for pancakes and offer an array of cocktails, an ironic theme, and expect you to vacate your table as soon as you have finished eating. And, in those cities, the neon signs are gone because corporations and businesses have bought up the majority of the real estate, and no one bothers to fix neon anymore. Which is why the LaSalle flower sign always makes me smile.

Thus, we were very sad to hear a few months ago that the Howard Johnsons has been sold to a real estate developer to be demolished. The Cafe Luna can stay open for another year, until the demolition happens, though the owner's son recently told me he wasn't sure they would have enough business now that the hotel has closed.

I want to be clear that there was nothing write-home worthy about the cafe, it's not a gastropub, nor a Shopsin's, it's just a small family-run place where I can walk in and get coffee and waffles, which is exactly as it should be. Cities need places like the Luna Cafe, where a cabbie can stop and get a omelet to go, or someone hard up for cash can come in and count out their exact change next to an (admittedly more well off) local home owner like myself.

I've been thinking a lot about why I'm drawn to places like this. Many of my friends would probably tell you, not unjustifiably, that I'm a food snob, and I've been known to be a harsh critic of restaurants on occasion. So what makes me love a place that has no issue with putting whipped cream out of can onto its pancakes? Diners and breakfast cafes are a huge part of the American experience to me, not just the food culture but the culture-culture. A diner is in many ways like the first hamsani (local hummus place) I wandered into as a twenty-year-old in Beirut, alone, where I sat and had a meal of hummus and chatted with locals and where my eyes were opened to a whole culture for the first time. I had spent three years studying Middle Eastern studies, but it wasn't until I sat in that cafe and talked to people that I really got it.

These places are also places where people of all social strata not only cross paths, but might actually sit and eat together in some tangential way. And in our society these days, I fear there aren't many places where that happens often anymore.

*** In other news, our move to Cairo is impending shortly, where I hope to find my local koshari place (and whatever the Cairene equivalent of hamsani/ful vendor there is). If you readers have suggestions please do send them this way. Also, though it would probably be most appropriate to follow this post by a recipe for pancakes, the truth is I buy all my pancakes at diners, and so instead you get this recipe which I make every once in a while for a twist on rice krispie treats. They are guaranteed to disappear from your office in under 10 minutes. ***


Nutty Chocolate Crispy Treats
This recipe was inspired by something I found online, deep in the internets, when I was trying to use up a bunch of things in our pantry like agave and coconut oil. You can also try topping the treats with a schmearing of melted chocolate and sea salt.

6 cups rice crisp cereal
1 cup agave syrup
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup nutella
1/2 cup almond butter, peanut butter, or soynut butter
1/3 cup chocolate chips or chopped chocolate
3 tablespoons coconut oil or butter
2 pinches (about 1/2 teaspoon) sea salt

1. Measure out your cereal and have it at the ready. Line a 9x12 inch pan with parchment paper.
2. Get out a large deep pot (a small stock pot works nicely). Place the agave and maple syrup in the pot and bring the mixture to a roiling boil. Watch the mixture so it doesn't boil over, but luckily you're using a deep pot! Let the mixture boil for one minute. Turn off the heat and immediately stir in the nutella, nut butter, chocolate, oil, and salt. Stir well to combine. Fold in the rice crisp cereal, working quickly to mix everything together.
3. Spread the mixture into the prepared pan and press down using a nonstick spatula or damp fingers. Let the treats rest for at least 3 hours before slicing. Cut into bars using a knife or sharp-edged spatula.

12 October 2014

Roast Broccoli Salad with Pomegranates, Walnuts, and Creamy Dressing

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Remember back a couple weeks ago when we talked about broccoli? Maybe you thought I was kidding, that only a crazy person would OD on broccoli before moving to Egypt? Ah, well! Clearly you would be wrong, because for several nights last week I ate multiple whole heads of broccoli in one sitting. What? Is that weird? It really shrinks down when you roast it.

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Have we ever talked about how one of my favorite childhood snacks was raw cauliflower, followed closely by raw broccoli? Also known as "trees," in classic childhood parlance. It is unclear to me as an adult what exactly about raw broccoli would have been appealing to me, but it was a great source of frustration to my mother, who had difficulty getting her underweight to child to eat anything more substantial.

Broccoli, now preferably in cooked form, continues to be a favorite of mine, which is why I was surprised to realize that there are almost no broccoli recipes on this blog. Perhaps it's because broccoli is not available in the Middle East, where I spend most of my time living and writing about food cultures therein. However, there are plenty of Middle Eastern cauliflower recipes, for which you can try swapping broccoli (though I'm sure someone would call this heretical, frankly I'm not that much of a traditionalist). This broccoli salad is basically a play on my favorite roast cauliflower salad. Instead of my usual tahini-yogurt dressing, I reached for some leftover sour cream which goes very nicely with the broccoli. Pomegranates and walnuts make this perfect for the fall dinner table. Or, so that you can eat multiple heads of broccoli all by yourself.

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Roast Broccoli Salad with Pomegranates, Walnuts, and Creamy Dressing
Broccoli really shrinks down a lot when you roast it, so though four heads seems like a lot, this dish really only serves 2-4 as a side. This would also be good with a few dried currants or using pine nuts instead of walnuts. I save my broccoli stems and use them to make a potage-type soup, pureed with some turnips, onions, stock, and cream.

4 medium-smallish sized heads of broccoli
1/2 a red onion
pomegranate seeds from about 1/3 of a pomegranate
1/2 cup sour cream (or thick yogurt)
a squeeze of lemon juice
1/2 cup walnuts
Urfa Biber or Aleppo pepper chile flakes, for sprinkling
salt, olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 425F.  Line a large baking sheet with foil or silpat. Stir the sour cream together with the lemon and a pinch of salt and set aside.
2. Place the first head of broccoli on your cutting board parallel to you, so that the stem end is at your left hand and the floret end at your right hand. Slice the broccoli heads cross wise, as seen in this diagram: YouDoodleDrawing
You'll get some teeny tiny florets and some larger florets, which gives a nice texture variety to the roasted broccoli. Take any particularly large florets and cut them down to smaller pieces. Repeat with all broccoli heads. Discard or set aside the broccoli stems.
3. Place all the broccoli on your baking sheet and toss with a generous amount of olive oil so that the broccoli is nicely coated with oil. Spread the broccoli out on the baking sheet, and sprinkle all the broccoli with salt and two pinches of the chile flakes. Place the broccoli in the oven and allow to roast for 20-25 minutes. Keep a close eye on the broccoli, if it seems to be cooking unevenly then stir it around and redistribute it. When the broccoli is cooked through and the ends of the broccoli are dark and crispy, remove the broccoli and set aside.
4. Meanwhile, slice the red onion into thin slices. Heat some olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Saute the onions slowly, stirring occasionally, for about twenty minutes, until softened, translucent, and beginning to caramelize. After about 20 minutes, turn up the heat to high and saute the onions, stirring frequently, so that you get a nice brown crisp edge on some of the onions. Set aside.
5. Place half the broccoli and half the onions on a serving dish. Dollop half of the sour cream over the broccoli. Place the remaining broccoli and onions in the dish, and dollop with the remaining sour cream.
6. Wipe out the saute pan you used for the onions, place it over high heat, and toast the walnuts in the pan for a few minutes, watching carefully so the don't burn. Pour the toasted walnuts over the broccoli, top with the pomegranates, and sprinkle the whole dish with some more salt and chile flakes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

05 October 2014

Za'atar Cured Salmon

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I hate saying that we've been busy. It's one of those American things that has come to annoy me the more I live outside the country, in the same way that I try to avoid asking people what they do for a living at cocktail parties. It always results in far more interesting conversations.

So instead we've been pleasantly occupied, traveling here and there to visit family and friends, working, doing a lot of yoga, trying to organize our life so that half of it ends up in Chicago and half ends up in Cairo. I'm on a first name basis with the people at Maersk shipping. My spare moments have been filled with painting and fixing up our apartment and the bare bit of cooking I have done consists mainly of buying a nice piece of fish at the market, seasoning it, and sticking it under the broiler until it is just barely done, and then eating it with some simple vegetables. Also a lot of toast. You can never go wrong with toast.

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I have also been playing around with home cured salmon, which has the great benefit of taking up almost no time at all. I had no idea cured salmon was so easy, slap a sugar/salt mix on your salmon, leave it for a few days, and voila! The perfect bagel-and-schmear topper, salad addition, or light lunch.

The curing mix is a simple ratio of 2 parts salt to 1 part sugar, and then any spices you add to the mix penetrate the salmon surprisingly well. When I first made the cured salmon with za'atar, the Lebanese herb mix, I wasn't sure if the flavor would translate through to the final product, but I was pleasantly surprised that it did. The herby-ness is a bit like the Middle Eastern twist on your classic dill and salmon pairing.

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Za'atar Cured Salmon
I keep several types of za'atar in the cabinet, some higher and lesser quality, for this dish I recommend using average grocery-store quality za'atar. I imagine this would also work really well with the Egyptian spice mix dukkah.

3 cups salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup za'atar (available from mail order sources or Middle Eastern groceries)
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon fresh black pepper
1 large fillet of salmon (1 1/2 to 2 pounds)

1. In a bowl, mix the salt, sugar, za'atar, lemon zest, and pepper.
2. Place several sheets of plastic wrap on a working surface. Pour about 1/3 of the curing mix over the plastic wrap and spread it into a rectangle. Place the salmon fillet over top the curing mix. Pack the remaining curing mix around the salmon (you may not use all of it).
3. Wrap the plastic wrap up around the fish, then wrap some more plastic wrap tightly around the fillet. Then wrap the fillet in a layer of aluminum foil and place in a rimmed baking dish. Place a smaller plate or baking sheet over top the fillet and weigh it down with heavy items cuch as a few large cans of tomatoes.
4. Place the whole thing in the fridge to cure for 3 days. About halfway through, flip the fillet over to the other side. After about a day liquid will begin to release from the salmon.
5. After 3 days, unwrap the fillet, brush off and discard the salt. Rinse the salmon under running water to remove any excess salt. Thinly slice the salmon on an angle and serve as desired.

29 September 2014

Reading the Headlines

I wrote this piece last week and originally decided not to publish it here. I felt it was too serious for something that is a cooking blog, and that readers might rather hear about blueberry crumble bars and smiley happy things. However, it continued to nag at me, and then I read about Herve Gourdel's tragic terrible death, and I read Matthieu Aikens' truly extraordinary piece of reporting here, and well, here you are:

I do not scan pages of the news for familiar faces anymore. When the conflict in Syria first broke out I, like many who once lived in Syria, looked obsessively through the photos in news reports, the online videos, trying to find familiar places, familiar faces. Is that the corner of Baghdad road there, where the sweets shop always had a huge line during Ramadan? We'd peer into grainy photos, pause on stills of videos.

Now I sit in my apartment in Chicago and read headlines about Deir al-Zour, Raqqa, Idlib and Hasake. All places I have passed through, stopping to get gasoline and packages of biscuits as the only way points between the interminably empty and dusty landscape of the Syrian desert. Deir al-Zour and Raqqa were always terrible places, though I remember once a decent rotisserie chicken eaten in Deir. Even the Syrians I knew hated them, dry dusty outposts of nothing, filled with terrible memories of their one year of mandatory military service.

What all these places had in common was that they were poor, which is why I, doing relief work and canvasing, knew them well. Hasake had good spicy food and fun Kurdish music, but overall these were places that no one had heard of. Places, I wrongly assumed, would continue to be forgotten dreary towns.

Now I cannot read the pages of the news reports too closely. Most Syrians I knew have left if they had the means, and those that remain have drifted away in my mind, as if to another planet. Syrians I speak to in America say the same, that the thought of people still there is almost too hard to bear.

I think of the people of Algeria, all those who left, who fled the civil war to France and Canada, and all those who stayed behind. How different those two psyches are, the fear the implants itself so deeply. Yesterday a French tourist was taken hostage in Kabylie, he was captured not far from an area that I drove through only three months ago, albeit I was with a security detail. He was an alpiniste, and I can picture how beautiful those mountains are, the fields of wheat below them undulating down to the sea. I cannot help but thinking, the Algerian people deserve better.

All those place names dot the news articles: Tizi Ouzou, Raqqa, Idlib. I cannot read them too closely because each one has meaning, each one has a memory, a picture in my mind, so instead I make coffee and get ready for another day.

A tiny tree grows amidst the lava path on Mount Etna, Sicily. Top photo of Aleppo taken by yours truly circa 2006.