26 January 2015

Syrian Stuffed Onions

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

02 January 2015


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