19 July 2014

Almond-Crusted Fish

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Over two years ago, when we left for Algiers, I set aside a small batch of a our nicer cooking equipment and put it in storage. I figured some of this stuff was good quality, and I wanted to spare it a 4 month trans-Atlantic voyage, and I knew that at some point we'd be coming back to America and might need some kitchen things on hand.

Now granted, this was actually a very good idea since, while we still have no furniture, we have plenty of plates and forks and things. But I would probably be remiss if I didn't mention those plates and forks are my mother's china and silver, and all my pans are copper. Along with an impractically large mandoline, a fish poacher, and hand-blown glass tumblers, let's just say we don't have the most practical of kitchenware.

(Side note on our copper pots: They are all from E. Dehillerin and my mother bought them in France in the SIXTIES people. I few years ago I sent them off to these amazing people in Colorado to have the insides re-tinned, since they had worn away over time. They did an amazing job, they even restored the little Dehillerin labels in the copper, and I love them!)

I've been using the copper pans for everything from roasting fish to searing skirt steaks to great effect. (Given our lack of equipment, meals are pretty simple around here.) One night I reached in the cabinet and chopped up a bunch of almonds to put on top of a fillet of fish I was roasting. I just mixed the chopped almonds with some butter, dabbed over the fish, and baked the whole thing and we haven't stopped talking about it since. If this blog is any testament, I'm not usually one for the "3-Ingredient Recipe" schtick, but this is dead simple and really delicious.

The only stipulation I will make is that you need to chop those almonds by hand. One, I think you get more variation in texture by chopping by hand, the fine bits and the coarse bits. Two, it's the only thing you have to do for this recipe! All you have to do is spend a few minutes chopping and the rest is basically done. Plus, it's a chance to work on your chopping skills. So, what do you readers make when you only have a few basic kitchen implements around?

Almond-Crusted Fish
If you want to get fancy, adding a bit of chopped thyme to the topping, or alternately some chile flakes or other spices, could be fun.

1 heaped cup skin-on whole raw almonds
2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
salt
1 large fillet of whitefish, about 1 lb (or sable fish, lake trout, etc)
lemon wedges

1. Preheat the oven to 425F. Grease a casserole dish with some butter. Place your fish in the pan and sprinkle the top liberally with salt.
2. Chop up the almonds with a large chefs knife. You want to chop the almonds so that some of the almonds are totally pulverized to almost a powder, but you still have quite a few chunks of almond left. The variation in texture is key.
3. Transfer the almonds to a bowl and add the butter and a good pinch of salt. Rub the butter and almonds together until the mixture resembles a crumble topping. Dab the crumble topping all over the fish so that the fish is totally covered in the almond mixture.
4. Transfer to the oven. Bake the fish for 15-18 minutes, or until the almond topping is nicely toasted on top. It's a bit hard to tell if the fish is done since you can't see it, but press gently on the center of the fish, it should be semi-firm. Serve with lemon wedges.

14 July 2014

Algerian Kesra Bread

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I am writing this post from a folding chair and a card table in our new (!) Chicago flat, in a rather dimly lit empty room that one day will be our library. Aside from our bed, and the folding chairs, we have precisely zero furniture, and yet I couldn't be more thrilled with our new home. Meanwhile, our stuff is floating on a Maersk ship somewhere out in the Atlantic Ocean, working its way infintessimally towards us. Paul and I are convinced that not having furniture means you burn a whole lot more calories not-sitting everyday (the by-product of not having furniture), which is a great excuse for regular trips to get ice cream.

Meanwhile, all of my GRAND SUMMER PLANS have gone the way of Brazil's world cup dreams. Which is to say, I've been doing a whole lotta not much these days. And if you think several weeks of unstructured vacation sounds great, then clearly you have not met me. I need structure, I crave schedules and order and charts and routine.

Naturally, knowing I would have this long summer break, I did what people like me do, which is I created the Perfect Summer Schedule. I would take some Arabic classes (my Algerian patois is not going to serve me well in our next assignment), I would work on our new home, sorting through our old stuff that's in storage. I would update the design of this blog and go on a trip to visit my family.

Of course, this being the Perfect Summer Schedule that I had meticulously planned in advance, it was bound to fail. Our home closing got delayed, which meant rearranging my training schedule, which then threw everything else off course, as I should have expected. So instead, I did what any self-respecting world traveler does: I watched the World Cup.

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You guys, as someone who was obsessively supporting both Argentina and Algeria, can we take a moment to recognize the utter stress and heartbreak these past 4 weeks have been?

Thank you.

I also did what any new-home owner does, that is: design my dream kitchen. Realize I can't afford my dream kitchen. Think we really need somewhere to sit (like a couch). Obsess over looking at couches. Deal with the Comunistcast guy. Learn how to fix plumbing, since apparently it is a law that immediately after you own your new home, something must break. Destroy things:

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Then call a carpenter.

I have a bunch of recipes saved up that I need to work my way through, so first up it's Algerian kesra bread. Also called aghroum, and a cousin to Moroccan harsha bread, this is a staple of the Algerian diet and probably one of the things I will miss most from Algiers. It's a very simple bread, but it takes a bit of technique and practice to get it right.

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The concept is basically like making biscuits or a pie crust, it's a very flaky bread, and you don't want to overwork the dough and make it rubbery. (Speaking from experience, rubbery kesra is the worst.) If you've never worked with semolina doughs before, they absorb liquids and develop gluten very differently than white flour doughs, so that may take a bit of getting used to if you're new to working with semolina. The semolina flour needs to rest a bit in order to absorb liquid, which it does quite slowly, but semolina doughs also develop gluten more slowly, which makes it slightly harder to over-work the dough, to your advantage. You'll probably have to seek out a good Middle Eastern or Mediterranean grocery for the two types of semolina.

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Algerian Kesra Bread
You can see an example of fine and medium grain semolina in the photo above. Recipe adapted from interrogating many Algerians about kesra, lots of practice, and Heni over at the Teal Tadjine.

1 1/2 cups fine-grain semolina
1 1/4 cups medium-grain semolina
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/4 cups water plus 3-6 tablespoons more as needed

1. Melt the butter in the olive oil and set aside and let cool slightly. In a bowl combine the semolinas, salt, sugar and baking powder. Rub the butter/olive oil mix into the semolina mixture until it forms crumbles. Add in the 1 1/4 cups water and gently mix to form a dough. If still crumbly add more water until it comes together. Do not overmix.
2. Let the dough rest 10-15 minutes to absorb the water. (you can wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest as long as 1-2 hours also.)
3. Rub a small amount of oil in a cast iron pot or flat griddle and heat over medium heat.
4. Divide your dough into three balls. On a stone surface (marble or granite countertops work nicely) pat one ball round out into a round about 1/2 an inch thick. Prick the dough all over on one side with a fork to prevent puffing.
4. Slide the dough into the preheated pan. Let the dough cook for 3-4 minutes on the first side. You may want to rotate the dough and take a peek at the bottom to make sure it doesn't burn. Using a spatula, carefully flip the dough onto the other side (alternately you can flip the dough onto a plate, then back into the skillet). Let cook another 2-4 minutes on the second side. While the dough is cooking, pat out the next round of dough. The dough should be golden and have some deep brown spots on it, but should not be burned. Repeat with remaining dough rounds. Let cool before eating.

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28 June 2014

A Catalog of Culture Shock in America

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Here are a few items of culture shock upon our return to the U.S. :

-- $10 coconut water
-- It is so darn hot (says the person coming to the U.S. from North Africa) and I don't own a single item of clothing that comes above my knees. I bought my first pair of shorts in oh, about 7 years, and I felt uncomfortable wearing them for about 5 minutes. Then I thought shorts, what a marvellous idea!
--Wait, my 220v adapter doesn't work here?
-- The Middle East: where your herbs are free from your vege vendor Muhammad. America: where you pay top dollar for herbs in tiny plastic boxes.
-- People are so orderly on the airplane!!
-- So I can actually drink the tap water? Really?
-- Americans are OBSESSED with guacamole. Guacamole is delicious!

Among other things that I'm enjoying is rediscovering ingredients that I haven't had access to in years: snap peas! asparagus! rhubarb! We are briefly staying with Paul's parents, and we made a beer-can chicken the other night that shall go down in the legendary catalog of best chickens I have ever eaten. It was THAT good. 

If you are wondering where we are headed now that our time in Algiers is over, the exciting news is two fold. First, we will be headed to another Middle Eastern post in the fall (yay! my poor husband seems content to be dragged around by his wife to learn even more about things like hummus and meshwi and how many things you can do with a chickpea.) But first, we get to spend several months in America, visiting our family and friends and rediscovering the joy of concerts in the park and picnics and going for long runs out of doors.

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Speaking of chickpeas, today we have a sandwich that is a Moroccan favorite of ours. This is a simple sandwich of fresh cooked chickpeas smashed into some bread and topped with chopped hard boiled eggs and a bit of red pepper and cumin. It is the simple kind of cuisine that I think America has lost, preferring to stuff our sandwiches with piles of meat or fried balls of cheese. But after happily devouring chickpea sandwiches on the streets of Fez, we've begun to make them at home too.

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Fassi Chickpea Sandwich
This simple sandwich really relies on the quality of the ingredients. You really want to have fresh cooked chickpeas, warm, and steaming, and soft. You want good olive oil and spices and bread too.

For the chickpeas:
2 cups dried chickpeas
1 teaspoon baking soda
salt

For the sandwiches:
bread (you can use baguette style or pita style)
hard boiled eggs, chopped, usually 1/2 an egg per sandwich
olive oil
paprika or red pepper flakes
cumin
salt
optional toppings: tomatoes or chopped herbs

1. For the chickpeas: Soak the chickpeas in cold water overnight, or for 8-12 hours. Drain the chickpeas. Add the chickpeas to a heavy-bottomed pot and add the baking soda. Turn the heat on to medium and cook the chickpeas with the baking soda, stirring constantly until the mixture begins to foam. Now add plenty of water to cover and two big pinches of salt. Bring the mixture to a low simmer.
2. Allow the chickpeas to simmer uncovered for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The time will vary greatly depending on the freshness of your chickpeas. You want the chickpeas to be completely soft and to smush easily when pinched between your fingers. They should be just shy of falling apart. Drain your chickpeas, sprinkle with a bit more salt and set aside.
3. Make the sandwiches: Reheat your chickpeas if they have gotten cool. (I usually add a bit of fresh water to the pot and reheat them on the stove.) Split the bread. Add a little olive oil, salt, cumin, and paprika or red pepper to the bread. Now lightly smush the chickpeas into the bread. You want to kind of pack it with chickpeas. Top with the hard boiled eggs and then sprinkle liberally with more olive oil/salt/cumin/paprika. You really want to be generous with the seasonings. Eat warm.

18 June 2014

Barley Fields and Bubble Wrap

It's here!! Our moving day that is! I can't believe our time in Algiers has already some to an end, and I am both sad, nostalgic, relieved, overwhelmed, and excited for the future. But at the moment, I'm just surrounded by boxes. 2014: Year of the Nomad!

I have more to say about our time in Algiers, but until I can sort through all this bubble wrap, I'll leave you with some photos from our recent trip to Morocco.

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Pictures: Pastry shop in Marrakech, Dar Seffarine Fez, bread in Fez, worker in barley fields, fruits of a cooking class in Fez, sheep along a mountain pass, tagines ready for the kiln, view of mountains from the Ourika Valley, madersa in Fez, Jmaa al Fna Marrakech, Dar Seffarine Fez.

13 June 2014

How I Came to Love the Hammam, and Other Tales of Life in the Levant

I've always thought hammams were kind of weird. Getting scrubbed to death by a burly old woman in a hot steamy room with other naked ladies? It's just not my thing. Recently, a friend described his utter and intense fear of the male attendant at his hammam, who scrubbed his cheeks so vigorously that he nearly drowned in the overflow of bubbles coming out of the sponge and pouring down his face. That, I said, is not for me.

But recently I've had a change of heart about the hammam. It came after a long and tiring day of driving in Morocco, during which a "scenic detour" had turned into a gorgeous and terrifying drive that involved driving on some of the worst quality roads I have ever seen with a slowly dwindling tank of gas. We finally found gas by way of a guy with a jug and a funnel and later completely trashed our rental car bouncing through the rocky Todra Gorge at dusk.

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We arrived at our hotel, in the dark of night and smack in the middle of nowhere, exhausted and happy to have survived. A French Polynesian woman welcomed us warmly, showed us to the loveliest warmest room I could imagine and then said, "why don't you go have a sauna and a hammam, and then we'll have some wine and dinner for you when you are done." Looking back on it, it's one of those experiences that almost seems too good to have happened at all, as if I dreamed the whole thing.

I knew how to self-hammam because for several months in Damascus it had been my only bathing option. The bathroom in the apartment I lived in contained a square tiled room with a big water heater in the corner and a faucet and some buckets. My Syrian family instructed me on how to do the whole thing, the water heater made it nice and warm and steamy inside, and I'd vigorously scrub myself with a home-dried loofah sponge and local olive oil soap, ladling hot water over my head. It was a labor intensive way to bathe, but never have I felt as clean as I did then, rubbing the wintry Damascus soot out from between each toe. Afterwards, back in my room, I'd hear the sounds of the two youngest girls having their hammam together, often giggling and splashing water at each other, or singing popular Arabic songs.

Back in Morocco, sitting in the sauna, I thought back on those days in Damascus which seem like so many decades ago now. I'm older now, and less adventurous than I used to be, and the Syria I knew isn't there anymore. After the sauna, I went into the hammam, and carefully slowly spread the black soap over myself and scrubbed it away. This is the hammam I like, the careful slow rhythm of a common ritual.

Now whenever I see a hammam that has a self-hammam option (and good ones, with local clientele always do), I go for it. We were in Oran for the weekend recently and stayed at a hotel with a truly gorgeous tiled sauna/steam hammam facility, and I was the only one in the whole place. It only took me 7 years to put together that my bath ritual in Damascus was just like the hammam touted in guide books, but I'm glad to have found it again.

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I didn't really think talk of hammams and recipes went together, but for some additional fare, I've been reading the following:
Photos from Qasr el-Bey, Oran, and the Bardo Museum, Algiers

06 June 2014

Local Ingredient Spotlight: Khlea

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Today's local ingredient spotlight isn't exactly local, in the sense that it is hard to find where I live in Algiers. But it is very common in Morocco and in western Algeria, and I have a stash of it in my fridge that I carefully carried home from Marrakech.

The spotlight is khlea, which is essentially lamb (or beef) confit. A friend of mine noted that she had heard khlea (also pronounced khlii) described as "lamb tail preserved in sheep tallow fat" which has got to be the worst description of a food ever. It's not a terribly accurate description either, and in the sense that duck confit is simply duck rendered down and preserved in it's own fat, khlea is essentially lamb confit.

There are a few key differences that I should note though. The process of making khlea is to first cut your meat into strips or chunks, and then to coat it in salt and spices and let it age slightly. If you let the lamb dry out completely in this stage it is called qadid, and is basically jerky. To make the khlea, after the lamb/spice mixture has dried for a day or so, it is then slowly cooked in a mixture of fat and oil and then allowed to cool and solidify. The resulting mixture can then be kept for up to two years.

Obviously the practices for making khlea can vary widely depending on whether beef or lamb is used, how long it's dried, what spices are added, and the quality of the fat and oil it is preserved in. In Morocco you will see khlea piled in huge piles in the stands, or sold in jars, usually alongside a kind of fermented butter called smen.

(Note: In the photo above you see khlea, both the chunks and then the tiny bits of meat that are scooped out of the bottom of the pan. I prefer the chunks, but the bits are cheaper. Also pictured is yogurt and the local ijben cheese, which we talked about before here.)

If you are looking to buy khlea, definitely ask a local which stand he prefers, or find the one that has a really long line of locals in the morning. Often people stop and buy a tiny portion of khlea in the souq, and then take their tiny portion of khlea to a guy who will make them an omelet. Or they may take their tiny portion of khlea to a bakery in the souq, and have the baker warm up the khlea tucked inside a freshly baked piece of bread.

Khlea is immensely flavorful, and can also be used in stews, but in true North African fashion, it is best enjoyed with eggs. (North Africa has got to be the egg-eating capital of the world.) If you can get your hands on some khlea, this would be the first thing I'd make with it.

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Tagine Khlea
I make this in a cast iron skillet because I don't have the more traditional small clay pan (one that looks like the bottom if a small tagine dish.) The word tagine can refer to any kind of pan, which is why this dish is traditionally called "tagine khlea."

4 eggs
5-6 pieces of khlea
salt
harissa or hot sauce of choice
optional: chopped herbs, tomatoes

1. Take your khlea out of the jar. If the pieces are very large then you can cut them with scissors. There will still be some fat clinging to the khlea, but you can rub off any of the really large chunks of fat. (Don't rinse it or anything!! The fat has lots of flavor.)
2. Heat up a small cast iron skillet and add the khlea over medium heat. Allow the fat to melt and the khlea to heat up and crisp a little bit.
3. Meanwhile, crack your eggs into a bowl and season with salt and a pinch of harissa. Beat the eggs with a fork. Add herbs and tomatoes if using.
4. Pour the eggs into the skillet and lower the heat to low. Partially cover the pan and allow the egg to cook until just set. Do not overcook them!! Serve immediately with more harissa and some warm bread.

01 June 2014

Sweet Pepper Salad

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We have been going on a series of roadtrips around Algeria over the past few weekends. We want to see some more of the country as our time here comes to a close, and the weather over the past month has been absolutely perfect. Though you probably won't believe me when I say this, Algeria totally reminds me of California sometimes. From a climate and agriculture perspective of course (there's no burgeoning Hollywood industry here!!). But seriously, driving past rolling fields of wheat, pretty green hills, apricot farms, and gentle mountain tops, you could easily mistake yourself for being in Sonoma County. That is, until you pass a colorful Tizi Ouzou taxi, or get frustrated because every single car seems to be occupying all three lanes of the highway.

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Every time we head out on the road, I realize how much potential is here -- that they could build up a big tourist industry if only the state decided to invest in the requisite infrastructure. The Roman ruins and Ottoman mansions and interesting cuisine are already here! But though there are many beautiful and interesting things to see here, it is so hard to figure out how to find them.

Case in point: I have been trying to find this special pan to make kesra bread for nearly a year now. (It is hard to describe but it's like the bottom of a tagine pan but with a raised design in the clay. It can also come in cast iron, called a tawa.) I kept finding an electric version, like a hot plate, and I found some not good quality clay ones, but nothing that was worth buying. Finally, in a big housewares store, I pointed to the electric tagine thing and asked if they had a more traditional version. After a few more questions, the lady finally realized what I wanted, marched over to a display stand, reached underneath, into a tiny 1 inch gap between the bottom of the stand and the floor, and pulled out just the pan I've been looking for. Of course! It was so obvious!

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This recipe is for another Algerian pepper salad, much like this felfel (a.k.a. chlita) we talked about before, only this time made with sweet red and yellow peppers. I realized when looking back at that recipe that it's one of the very first things I posted from Algiers, and here I am posting another pepper salad in what will likely be one of my last few posts from Algeria before we leave. Funny how that works, isn't it? Looking back at the recipe, I thought, "oh man, my pepper chopping technique has really improved since then," followed by, "look! I didn't even know what to call the dish." So today, after two years here, we have a little more refined, more knowledgeable version of a pepper salad. Which I hope is also reflective of my own journey here, that I am more grounded, more experienced (I'll leave the knowledgeable and refined parts up to you to decide!) than the person who first showed up to Algiers and wrote that pepper salad recipe two years ago.

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Sweet Pepper Salad 
This a great thing to serve as part of a mezze spread, or you can make a variation of chakhchouka by poaching eggs in the peppers. I also like it cold, stright from the fridge. 
The tomato sauce base is a very traditional North African way of making tomato sauce. Though you may find the grating annoying, it goes by very quickly, and is an easy fast way to get a tomato sauce with a smooth texture.

for the tomato sauce:
1 small white onion
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tomatoes
olive oil, salt

3 bell peppers, preferably a mix of red, orange, and yellow
mint for garnish

1. Halve the tomatoes (cut around the circumference, and not through the stem) and then grate the tomatoes on a box grater into a bowl. When you get down close to the tomato skin, simply discard the skin.
2. Chop the white onion. In a medium sized pan, heat the olive oil and add the onion. Cook until the onion starts to soften and becomes very translucent. Add the garlic and some salt and allow the garlic to soften for a minute. Then add in your tomato puree. Season more with salt and pepper and let the sauce simmer over low heat. It's up to you how much you want to reduce the sauce, but you do want it to thicken up and not be watery. I usually let it simmer for 15-20 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, grill your peppers over a grill or directly over a gas burner, turning with tongs, until blackened all over. Place the peppers in a ziplock bag, or in a bowl covered with plastic wrap and allow to steam for 5-10 minutes.
4. Remove the peppers and core them. Scrape the blackened part off the peppers and then rinse clean with water. Slice the peppers into long strips.
5. Add the peppers to the tomato sauce. Taste for seasoning, and allow the peppers to simmer for another 10 minutes so that the flavors meld. Remove from the heat. Serve warm or at room temperature garnished with mint.