27 October 2012

Poached Quinces


Quinces look like big gnarly very hard apples. We see them growing on trees in our neighbor's yard, hanging heavily on branches, and for sale in the markets in the last few weeks. In the past, my attempts to cook quinces have always been rather disastrous, perhaps because of poor recipes or user error, or perhaps also because of the poor quality of American quinces. They always turned out mushy and I would just end up pureeing them into a big batch of membrillo (Spanish quince paste).

Paul was out of town a few weeks ago and I went a little quince crazy. Having purchased several of them, I poached and roasted them in a variety of ways. The poached quinces came out perfectly, tender but not mushy, the perfect golden hue, they reminded me of the wonderful quinces we had in Istanbul, though slightly less sweet. Like in Istanbul, we ate them with whipped clotted cream and a sprinkle of pistachios on top. This recipe makes a great baseline for other concoctions - think of sauteed pork chops with quinces, or a quince tart. And in our next post we'll talk about a quince and pear pie (just in time for Thanksgiving!).


Poached Quinces 
Quinces are very hard, so it's important to be careful and use a very sharp heavy-weight knife to cut them - if you're using a dull knife it could slip and injure you. Adapted from David Lebovitz.  

6 cups water
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons honey
4 large or 5 medium quinces
the juice of 1 lemon
optional spice additions: 1 vanilla bean, or 2 star anise plus a cinnamon stick
equipment: parchment paper

1. Place water, sugar, honey, lemon juice, and spices in a large pot and bring to a simmer.
2. Meanwhile, peel the quinces,cut them into eights, and cut out the hard center pit of each section. Slip each quince slice into the poaching liquid as you work. This will prevent discoloration of the quinces.
3. Once all the quince are in the pan, cut a round of parchment slightly larger than the top of pot, cut a small hole in the middle of the parchment and place over the just-simmering pot of liquid.
4. The cooking time can vary greatly depending on the size and quality of your quinces - you want them to be rosy colored and tender but not falling apart. It should take at least two hours, mine took about 3 hours. Check on the pan occasionally.
5. When the quinces are done remove them from the pot to a plate, and let any remaining liquid boil down to a light syrup (it will thicken significantly as it cools). Pour the syrup over the quinces and let cool to room temperature. Keep covered in the fridge, keeps 1-2 weeks.

22 October 2012

The Big Eid


The eid is almost upon us, the usually quiet park next door is slowly filling up with sheep, and every afternoon the neighborhood kids come and gather round to take part in the endless pleasure of poking and prodding at them. The five-year olds in particular seem entranced by the game of child versus sheep, the children trying to topple the sheep by pushing them over, while they stand nonchalantly chewing leaves. As if seven days of torment by young boys were religiously prescribed to preceed their slaughter.

Eid al-Adha is known colloquially as the big eid, like American Thanksgiving, only with four times as much food, and with the ritual animal (sheep rather than turkey) slaughtered on your doorstep. Even the neighborhood feral cats, battered, one-eyed, always perched on top of the piles of garbage to dig up chicken bones, seem to know the holiday is coming up.

We'll be enjoying a quiet holiday of our own over the weekend. We're having a few people over for hummus, muhammara, labne, roast pumpkin salad, and Aleppo-style kebabs. The weather has finally turned cool, just right for jackets and scarves in the morning chill, but sunny and warm at lunch time. This poem came up in my podcasts this week and I liked how it captured the melancholy and beauty of fall:

In Heaven It Is Always Autumn, Elizabeth Spires

Philip Glass Solo Piano Live


Photos of Algiers' Jardin d'Essai

13 October 2012

Breads of Algeria


An Algerian told me the other day, "eating a lot of bread is one of the few things we really took from the French." Well, nevermind all those other things the French left behind, but Algerians do really love their bread. Bread here is subsidized, and arrives in the form of baguettes, delivered by truckloads twice a day. I wish I had a picture of this but I am shy about taking my camera out in public. Because of the subsidies, at 5 dinar or .05 euros a loaf, most of the baguettes are spongy and dry not very good. However, you can find some good baguettes scattered throughout the city.

But what we really love here are the local breads, the various flat breads you see piled next to the cashier's stand. Because everyone buys the baguettes, all the local forms of bread are usually sold in small batches, either made by the shop owners themselves or by a small local bread maker. Many Algerians make these breads themselves at home.

There are a couple unique things about these breads, first they are usually made with a semolina dough, either completely semolina or semolina with a little regular flour mixed in, so they require a lot of kneading and a long rise time. Second, several of the breads are made on special pans, such as a clay pan that looks like the bottom of a tagine, but is made of unglazed clay with little spikes all over the bottom (see here). Below are some of the breads we've discovered in our first months in Algiers:


Kesra Matlua'a

This is probably the most common kind of bread available. Called kesra bread, this version is leavened (matlua'a means risen) and is made on the clay pan described above. You can see the little pin-pricks left from the pan in the photo aboove.The bread is light and spongy, with a heartiness from the semolina. The bread is really only good the day it is made and gets dry quickly.


Kesra Rakhsis

Above are pictured two versions of the flat, or unleavened, kind of kesra. It is dense and chewy and slightly sweet. I really like this one for breakfast, alongside my yogurt and honey. This bread supposedly lasts a long time but we always devour it quickly, so we've never found out.



This is probably my favorite kind of bread here, but as the name implies (messemen means greasy or buttery) it is a bit rich. This is a semolina based dough that is stretched out very very thin and then cooked on a wide flat griddle with butter. It resembles Lebanese markouk bread, but a bit more free form and of course more greasy/buttery to the touch. I especially like to make sandwiches by spreading the bread with labne (strained yogurt) and sprinkling mint and olives over and rolling it up. Labne and sour cherry jam roll-ups are another favorite for breakfast.


Of course, there are many other kinds of breads - round hearty whole wheat and bran loaves, a bread called pain mahonais, named from Spanish immigrants who came to Algeria from Mahon, Minorca, and flavored with anise seeds and herbs or olives. Special breads for eid or flat pancakes cooked on one side and sprinkled with honey. We look forward to sharing more of the breads here with you as we explore.

06 October 2012

Leek and Spinach Pie


I wish I had a picture to show you the interior of this beautiful green pie, but I'm afraid we ate it before there was time. Paul is the usual pie-maker in the house, but he's been slacking recently, and I thought I'd give our pie pans some exercise with a savory pie.

Since we work long hours, the weekends are usually the only days that we hit the markets before the greens are wilted from sitting outside all day. On Friday mornings I always make sure to get some greens, herbs, and lettuce, and then follow my trusty cleaning and storing mechanism to keep them fresh for the week. The spinach here is sold in big shaggy-leafed bunches, and it was looking particularly vibrant the other day so I picked up some along with leeks, and some other newly-arrived fall produce.

I thought a spinach and leek pie would be a great convenient thing to take for lunch during the week. This is sort of the American version of spanikopita, vegetables with just enough cheese and buttery crust to keep them from being too virtuous. The cornmeal crust came out fantastically, and I'll definitely be using it again in the future. In fact, this whole pie is going on the 'save and repeat' list.

Leek and Spinach Pie with Cornmeal Crust
If your cornmeal is a bit coarse, as mine was, just grind it in a coffee or spice grinder until fine. In place of the yogurt in the filling you can always use creme fraiche. Adapted from food52.

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup fine-ground yellow cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons (150 grams) butter, cold and cut into small pieces
5-7 tablespoons ice water

1. Mix the flour, cornmeal, and salt in a bowl. Add in the cubes of butter, and work the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or 2 forks. Work until the mixture has lumps the size of small peas. Using a fork, slowly pour the ice water into the butter/flour mixture until a dough just forms. Be careful not to add too much water. Gather the dough into a ball and refrigerate (this can be done a few days ahead of time).
2. Pull the dough out of the fridge and let warm up for 2-5 minutes. Divide the dough in half, and on a floured surface, roll out half the dough and fit it into a pie pan. Roll out the other dough half into a large round. Chill the pie pan and the round of dough while you make the filling.

2 large bunches spinach, cleaned and torn into bite-size pieces
1 clove garlic, minced
4-5 leeks, cleaned, halved, white and light green parts sliced
1/2 cup grated cheese (something like Gruyere, Cantal, Emmentaler)
1/3 cup plain yogurt
2 eggs
olive oil
salt and pepper
prepared cornmeal crust

1. Preheat oven to 350 F (180C).
2. Heat some olive oil in a wide pan, and add the leeks and saute until golden and soft, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic, spinach, and salt and pepper, and saute until the spinach is dark green and any liquid is cooked off. You may have to add the spinach in a couple batches as it wilts. Transfer greens to a bowl and allow to cool slightly.
3. Mix the cheese, eggs, and yogurt into the greens and season again with salt and pepper.
4. Place the filling into your prepared crust. Fit the top pie crust on top, trim and crimp the edges,and slice 4 slits into the top crust. Bake 45-55 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool at least 20 minutes before serving.