30 November 2014

Egyptian Meat Pies

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.)

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!

Egyptian Meat Pies (Hawawshi) 

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

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.

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

 photo 1-5
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.