28 January 2010

Ful - Beans for Breakfast

First of all, this is not a recipe for ful medammes. This is a recipe that uses ful, or dried fava beans. Ful medames is the national dish of Egypt, the breakfast beans that people line up around the block for, that workers eat in the morning for breakfast, and revelers eat at 3 am after a night of arglieh and arak. It is popular across the Middle East, but in Egypt it is a simple stew of small pinto-bean shaped aged dried fava beans that is practically a religion.

The most suprising thing about ful, for those cooks raised in the European tradition, is that those are in fact fava beans. No, they are not the delicate soft first-of-spring fava beans that you have to peel twice in a labor of love. No, these fava beans are aged and dried, with a thick tough outer skin and a soft tender interior. Some people actually pull the tough skins off the beans as they're eating, and along side construction sites in Damascus you might see a pile of skins on the ground where the workers ate their lunch.

The ful you find in Syria are larger, like the ones pictured here, which I found in the grocery of my very average Safeway, in a foreign looking package. They are usually eaten in a simple stew with bits of tomato and garlic, scooped into pita breads with a squeeze of lemon and washed down with a glass of sugary hot tea. You can also find ful in yogurt, fu on top of hummus, and one of my favorites, ful in a tahini lemon sauce.

If the idea of eating beans for breakfast seems weird to you, think of them more as brunch or lunch, and when served alongside a fried egg they are quite reminiscent of a Mexican pinto bean and tortilla breakfast. Personally, I think beans are under utilized as a satisfying healthy breakfast, so why not start here.

If you can't find frozen ful (broad beans), you can probably find them dried or canned in your local Middle Eastern grocery. Cook dry beans according to the package directions and then proceed with the recipe.

2 cloves garlic, diced
1 small onion, finely diced
1 small tomato, finely diced
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1 lb frozen, canned, or cooked from dry broad beans (ful)
a squeeze of lemon
to serve: lemon wedges, pita bread, chopped parsley

1. Place all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 15 minutes, until onions and beans are soft. Remove a heaping spoonful of the beans and smash them with a fork, then mix them back into the pot to thicken the dish, Simmer a few more minutes, then serve.

20 January 2010

Sort of Tom Kha

When it comes to cooking, I know how to cook a lot of Middle Eastern food, a lot of American Southern food, a fair amount of Mediterranean food, and a bunch of one-off dishes from other cuisines around the world. I make a mean aloo ghobi, but I'd never claim to be proficient in Indian, I love making bao, but kung pao baffles me. This dish is one of my "one-offs," a Thai soup called tom kha gai.

I've made this version with shrimp, but it's more commonly made with chicken and can also be done with tofu. Tom kha, as we call it in my house, is one of our favorite appetizers when we go out for Thai, it's flavor packed with coconut, chiles, fish sauce, kaffir limes, and more.

It calls for a few unusual ingredients, but it won't be the end of the world if you can't find kaffir lime and galangal, though they're nice if you can. I like making it with shrimp because it's very easy to make a quick shrimp stock that gives a bright clean flavor to the soup, as opposed the powerful taste of canned stock. Also, unlike some soups that take lots of sauteeing and building of flavors, this soup comes together in minutes. There's a bit of prep work, but after that you're home free.

Tom Kha Gai
The word "tom" mean chicken, so I'm not sure what the proper recipe name would be using shrimp. No matter what you use, it should be tasty. If using chicken or tofu, substitute the appropriate stock and skip step one. Also, be warned the coconut milk separates out when the soup sits overnight, you can stir it back together and it tastes just the same, but it's not the prettiest thing in the world. Serves 4 as an appetizer.

6 cups water or stock
1 lb shrimp, or shredded cooked chicken or cubed tofu as desired
1 knob ginger, peeled and diced
1 1-inch cube galangal, thinly sliced
3-4 small pieces (about 2 inches each) lemongrass, bruised
2 kaffir lime leaves, or 3 tablespoon lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar, or to taste
1-4 whole red chiles, your choice
a handful of shitake mushrooms, enoki mushrooms are also nice
1 1/2 cups coconut milk
cilantro leaves for serving

1. If using shrimp, peel shrimp, reserving the peels and setting aside shrimp. Heat a small amount of oil in a pot and toast the shell under thickened but not completely pink. Add the water and a pinch of salt, and let simmer for 15-20 minutes (no longer). Strain out the shells and any debris and discard.
2. Place the stock back in the pan and add the ginger, galangal, lemon grass, kaffir lime, and shitake mushrooms. Let simmer 5 minutes or until the ginger is softened (test one, no one wants crunchy ginger in their soup). Add the fish sauce, brown sugar, chile pepper, shrimp, and coconut milk. Simmer 2-3 minutes, until the shrimp are cooked through but not overcooked They should be plump and pink, but not curled into a tight little ball. Taste for seasoning.
3. Serve immediately, garnished with cilantro.

12 January 2010

Pomegranate Yogurt Dip

Last year I had a holiday party and at the last minute I realized that all those people I invited? They were actually coming. And that feeding 80 people was going to be a bit of a stretch. Some one had brought a bunch of freshly sliced vegetables, and I reached into the fridge to see what I could find to go with them.

What I found was sour cream, yogurt and pomegranate seeds. I doctored them with a touch of lemon juice and a sprinkling of allspice, and voila, a dip was born. It was so good, bright and crunchy and creamy, I've made it several times since. It goes well with celery sticks, but I like it on its own for breakfast, or spread over enchiladas.

Pomegranate Yogurt Dip

1 cup low-fat sour cream
1 1/2 cups Greek-style yogurt
1 large pomegranate, just the seeds
zest of half a lemon
1/8 teaspoon salt
sprinkling of allspice

1. Combine the yogurt, sour cream, lemon and allspice. Stir well, then gently fold in the pomegranate seeds. Serve as desired.

07 January 2010

Mashed Carrot Salad

I'll just say it. I have a problem with Claudia Roden.

Claudia Roden, the doyenne of Middle Eastern cooking. Published by Judith Jones, who brought us French cooking with Julia Child, and then Italian cooking with Marcella Hazan, Claudia Roden brought an English language compendium of Middle Eastern recipes to a wider public. Without her, you may not have hummus and taboule in prepackaged versions on your grocers shelves.

But my problem is that when I open her Book of Middle Eastern Food, I don't see things that jive with what I've eaten living and traveling in the Middle East. Which is not to say that her recipes aren't well-researched and tasty. My problem is that her book doesn't contain recipes for common dishes like fetteh and pretty much omits regional breads or Yemeni cuisine. And she uses ingredients like red wine vinegar or serrano chiles, unheard of in traditional Middle Eastern cooking.

Part of the problem is that Ms. Roden, born in Jewish Cairo, spent most of her life in London, speaks little Arabic, and when she wrote her first book she had little experience traveling in the Middle East. And so, it makes sense that the recipes of a woman who has not lived in the Middle East since 1956 would not synch with someone who was wandering a souk just a few weeks ago.

All this is not to excoriate the huge contributions Ms. Roden made, her books have been updated to include more contemporary recipes (the new edition now has fetteh), and I love her orange-almond cake, her molokhia, hamine eggs, and many other dishes. And I could never denegrate someone descended of the famous Douek family of Syria (also the family of cookbook author Poopa Douek).

A friend served a mashed carrot salad at dinner the other night, and it was so delicious I had to go right home and replicate it myself. Searching around, there was Claudia Roden's mashed carrot salad recipe, and so I riffed on that, omitting the red wine vinegar (?!), and adding a dab of butter to enhance the sweetness of carrots. Lots of cilantro leaves and feta sprinkled on top add herby, salty notes to the dish. I ate the entire thing in one sitting. An entire pound of carrots. It's pretty good.

I guess what I'm saying is that Ms. Roden was a great foundation, but maybe it's time for the second generation. Of course, I'm also saying that this carrot salad is pretty damn good so you should make it soon.

Mashed Carrot Salad
If you don't have whole cumin seeds, ground cumin will do.

1 lb of carrots, peeled and chopped
1 small clove garlic
1 pat of butter
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon salt
a sprinkling of red pepper
some crumbled feta for serving (goat cheese can work too)
a small bunch of cilantro, leaves picked off (about 1/4 cup packed leaves)

1. Cook the carrots and the garlic clove in boiling salted water until very tender.
2. Lightly toast the cumin seeds in a skillet, then add them to the bow of a food processor or chopper.
3. Drain carrots and add them to food processor with the butter, salt, and red pepper. Pulse until a chunky puree is reached.
4. Scrape carrot mash into a serving dish, crumble the feta and scatter the cilantro leaves over top. Serve.

01 January 2010

New Year Vegetable Plate

This year was my first time spending the holidays without my mother, and I'll admit I was terrified. I pictured myself, the child with no parents, no siblings, no grandparents, lonely and sad on the holidays. And you know what? It was fine. There was Thanksgiving in Texas with my uncle, and Christmas with wonderful friends, and someone even made me a stocking, and gifts of cookbooks, and kobenstyle pans, and novels and jewelry. And it all went by, and I have to say it was pretty fun.

And at the same time I was stuck with this nagging feeling, the feeling that it just wasn't the same. That without my mom, Christmas will never feel like it used to, there will never be all those presents with her handwriting under the tree, or her silly wearing of the those crowns that come with firecrackers at Christmas dinner. And what I felt wasn't so much sadness, but rather this clear delineation between childhood and adulthood. This stark black line between 2008 and 2009 that said now you have to fend for yourself. Some people never have this line, some people slip between childhood and adulthood in a series of slow transitions, they go from spending Christmas with their parents to spending Christmas with their own children and a slow natural progression. They do not have the black line.

I think of 2009 as the year I spent mirred amidst the headlines. As the news droned on about the housing crisis, I fought with mortgage companies to sell my mother's house, perplexed at how the act of giving them their money could be so confoundingly complex. I filed claims with health insurance companies while 3 blocks away the House and Senate debated much needed health care reform. And in the midst of all this, I packed pounds of body armor into my car, and sent the boy I love off to Afghanistan. I think we need some better headlines.

I'm glad 2009 is over. For the new year, it would be traditional for me to make hoppin' john, and greens, and cornbread. But I went to the store yesterday, and I just bought all sort of vegetables, because I thought this year needs a new start. A healthy, vitamin-enriched way to begin the year. And so I present to you, the new year vegetable plate.

We have pan-roasted brussel sprouts, mashed carrot salad with feta and coriander, braised red cabbage, and okra with apricots and prunes. The okra is a traditional Syrian recipe from Aleppo, a place where ingredients like apricots and tamarind paste are common fare. The most popular Syrian preparation for okra is a simple stew with tomatoes and olive oil (bamia b'il zeit), but I like the sweet-sour profile or this recipe. I chose the tiniest okra possible, which I think reduces sliminess and helps them cook quickly. It's a nice compliment to a plateful of vegetables.

Hello 2010. I'm looking forward to it.

Okra with Apricot and Prunes
The okra you get in Syria are so tiny they can be the size of the tip of your pinky, so we never trimmed the ends. However, if your okra are larger the ends may be tougher, you can trim the tips before cooking, or I prefer to leave them on and just trim them as I'm eating. This is definitely a recipe for okra-lovers, so just keep that in mind.

12 oz whole baby okra, as small as possible
splash of olive oil
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon tamarind paste
juice of half a lemon
1/2 cup water
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 pinch sugar
1/2 cup chopped dried apricots
1/2 cup chopped prunes

1. Combine the tomato paste, tamarind, lemon juice, water, sugar, and salt in a small bowl
2. Heat the olive oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the okra, tossing to coat, and saute until the okra is browned in spots and beginning to soften.
3. Add the water mixture and add the apricots and prunes. Bring to a boil, and then simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the sauce has formed a thin glaze and the okra are cooked through.
4. Serve immediately, perhaps over rice.