21 March 2007
With Knife and Fork
Open the kitchen drawer of any Damascus household and you’ll find the usual assortment of knives, forks, and spoons. But spend a little time eating in those households, and you may begin to wonder how often those forks actually get used. Most traditional foods are meant to be eaten with the hands or with a spoon. Assortments of appetizers are scooped in thin bits of pita, kibbe meatballs are dipped into hummus, taboule lifted with elegant cups made of lettuce leaves. Soups and stews are ladled over rice and eaten with spoons, even pieces of fish and meat are tender enough to make knives obsolete. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen spaghetti or noodles prepared, then vigourously cut with into bite-size lengths and served with a spoon.
One evening when I was still staying with a Syrian family, I came home late, got a plate of eggplant parmesan I had fixed earlier, and sat down to eat. In the cold kitchen, my knife and fork clanked against the plate as I cut and chewed. The two young girls came dancing by me and immediately began giggling and pointing. “Look at how she eats,” they laughed, sitting down beside me and exaggeratedly imitating how I held my utensils. Obviously, they know how to use a knife and fork, but the whole picture, a girl sitting alone and eating in such a formal manner, was unusual to them, and became a joke with us for several months.
As much as I adore Syrian food, sometimes you get a craving for something different, in this case something texturally different. I wanted something light and delicate and when I saw a recipe for asparagus flan it hit just the right chord with me. Asaparagus wasn’t in the market but freshly prepared artichoke bottoms were, along with gorgeous bunches of mint. The batter came together easily and was soon in my temperamental oven. While it cooked, I fixed an accompanying tomato sauce, which was just the right thing for dressing this up, though the flan is wonderfully good on its own. Smooth, light, and delicately flavorful, it was the perfect thing to sit down and lunch on, knife and fork in hand.
Please don't be put off by the length of the recipe, it is really not that difficult and yields an impressive result. Serve with the following Saffron Tomato Sauce.
1 pound artichoke bottoms (from about 5 large artichokes)
1 tbl lemon juice
1-2 tbl fresh mint
4 large eggs
1 cup milk
2 Tbs freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
salt and fresh white pepper, to taste
1. If you have whole artichokes, trim away all the leaves and furry choke so that you have just the meaty bottoms. Keep the prepared artichokes in water with the lemon juice to keep them from discoloring. Chop up the artichokes and place them with the liquid they were stored in into a medium pot. Boil the artichokes until very tender, about 45 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool. (all of this can be skipped by using canned artichoke bottoms)
2. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and set a rack to the middle position. Butter an 9” square cake pan, line the bottom of the pan with wax paper, and butter the paper. Prepare the equipment for the hot water bath. You will need a baking dish large enough to hold the cake pan and deep enough to safely hold at least an inch of water; I used a large roasting pan. Fill a large pot with water, and bring it to a boil: this water will be used in the water bath.
3. Puree the artichokes with the mint in a food processor or blender until very smooth. Scrape the purée into a large sieve set over a bowl, and press and stir the purée through the sieve into the bowl. This takes a bit of arm strength, but it is well worth it: when you are finished, you should have about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of very smooth purée in the bowl. Discard any fibrous bits that remain in the sieve, and set the purée aside.
4. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs to break them up. Add the milk, cheese, salt and pepper, whisking to blend. Add the asparagus purée, and whisk to thoroughly combine.
5. Pour the artichoke mixture into the prepared 9” pan. Place the pan in the larger pan. Gently slide the pans into the oven, and, taking care not to splash, pour the boiling water into the larger pan until it comes about halfway up the cake pan. Bake until the flan is set and beginning to pull away from the sides and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 50 minutes to 1 hour. Transfer the cake pan to a rack to cool slightly, about 10-15 minutes.
6. Run a thin knife around the edge of the flan to loosen it. Invert a serving plate over the pan, and invert the pan onto the plate. Remove the pan, and discard the wax paper. Cut the flan into squares, and serve over tomato sauce.
Yield: 6-8 servings
Saffron Tomato Sauce
If you are using this to serve with the artichoke flan, you want the sauce the be very thick and not liquidy, otherwise it will seep into the soft texture of the flan.
1 tbl olive oil
2 small shallots, chopped
1 small garlic clove, minced
4 medium tomatoes, diced
1/4 cup stock or water
1 pinch saffron threads
1 tbl minced basil
1. Heat the stock until very warm, then add the safrron threads to dissolve.
2. In a saucepan, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot and garlic and saute until soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes, stock with saffron, basil, and season with salt and pepper. Simmer the sauce 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until most of the juices have eveaporated and the mixture is thick but not dry.