28 February 2014

Orientalist Pavlova

I tried to make a pavlova once long ago, and failed miserably. It is a dessert constructed of large meringues, topped with whipped cream and lots of fruit. They are lovely, refreshingly light and with crispy edges and a gooey marshmallow center. Recently, I saw a recipe for online for a Sultan's pavlova and, smitten, decided to try again.


Sultan's pavlova, it is amusing that I was so swayed by the title alone. It smacks of orientalism, that thing we, us Middle-East enthusiasts, are taught to disdain. In the academic world where the Middle East and post-colonial studies collide, professors frown dismayingly over those European images of a romanticized Middle East. The 19th century rage that captivated westerners with tales of harems and snake charmers and pyramids coincided with Napoleon's take over of Egypt and cruel studies assessing head circumference and lesser intelligence. The beautiful Alma-Tadema's and Delacroix's were constructed under a back drop of colonialism and conquering. How we view the Orient, the Arab world, the Middle East, the Levant, is inherently tied up in a dialogue of subjugation.


But of course, the same is true of many foreign cultures, and it's possible we've become over sensitized to the issue. I still cringe when I hear expats around Algiers unquestionably praise the Battle of Algiers - a masterpiece of cinema for sure but also one that must viewed in a larger context oh how the capital-W west conjures "Arabness." At the same time, it is those very images, the Orientalist paintings, the old daguerreotypes of the pyramids, the intricate carpets, that captivated me as a child. Academia can take the fun out of things, and I see no reason why we shouldn't all be swayed by a little Sultan's pavlova action.


I wanted to make the pavlova with seasonal fruit, and I thought candied quince would be a nice touch. Citrus wedges, persimmons, and kumquats round out the bunch. Because the meringue is quite sweet, a little tartness in the fruit is welcome. I would have liked to add pomegranates, but they are difficult to come by in Algeria and almost never properly ripened. Orange flower water in the whipped cream adds that Orientalist touch ;) 

I promise, this blog is not going to go full out Edward Sa'id on you all. (Sorry, nerd reference!) However, if this interests you, I recommend the articles here, here, and here.

Orientalist Pavlova 
I had always made my pavlova's with one layer of meringue before, but making a two or three layer pavlova was a total revelation -- it is so much better! You get this great kind of marshmallow-y chewiness, and the cream helps cut the sweetness of the meringue. That said, this is still quite a sweet dessert, but it is also very light and the perfect finish to an elegant meal. The candied quince here is the classic Syrian recipe for helou sfarjal.

8 large egg whites
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 cups sugar (superfine if available)
zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Whipped cream:
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon honey
1-2 drops orange flower water

2-3 clementines, peeled and sliced into rounds
1 firm-ripe persimmon, peeled and cut into wedges
4-6 wedges candied quince, from below
4-5 kumquats, sliced and any seeds discarded
Pomegranate arils for topping, if available
Small mint leaves for garnish, optional

Make meringues:
1. Preheat oven to 220º C (approx 420˚F). Place a sheet of baking paper on two large baking trays and draw two 10-inch circles, or four 6-inch circles on your paper.
2. Separate your eggs making sure not to contaminate the egg whites with any egg yolk. Beat your egg whites until they are stiff, then add your sugar slowly, one tablespoon at a time, and beat until stiff peaks form. Add the lemon and vanilla.
3. Shape the meringue into the two or four rounds on the baking paper/trays. Smooth out the tops so there is a little valley or basin in which you will put your whipped cream. Place meringues into oven and immediately turn temperature down to 120˚C (250˚F). Bake for 70-75 minutes. If they start to brown too quickly lower the temperature 25 degrees. (Our oven is very small, so it took slightly less time to bake the meringues -- the meringues should be firm but should not brown). After 70 minutes, turn off the oven, prop the oven door open a crack with a dish towel, and let the meringues cool completely in the oven. This is very important! Do not take the meringues out before they are fully cooled!
Whip cream:
1. Using a chilled metal bowl, beat the heavy cream until stiff peaks form. Fold in the honey and orange flower water.
Assemble pavlova:
1. Place 1 meringue disk on a serving dish. Add half the whipped cream to cover. Top with the second meringue dish. Mound more heavy cream on top of the meringue (you don't want the cream to overflow, so you may not use all of it. Your meringues may crack a little but that's okay.) Pile the fruit artfully on top of the pavlova. Scatter with mint and pomegranate if using. Let the pavlova sit for at least an hour or two before serving -- that way the cream and meringue meld into each other and form a big marshmallow-y cohesion.

Candied Quince
1 large quince, cored, peeled, sliced into wedges
1 1/4 cups sugar
1. In a medium saucepan, cover quinces with sugar and cook over medium-low heat. The sugar will melt and liquefy.
2. When mixture bubbles, reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour, or until quinces are thoroughly coated with a thick, gooey syrup and have turned a dark and rosy color.

21 February 2014

Chickpeas in Tomato-Tamarind Sauce

photo 5-1

If you have never had the pleasure of experiencing African airline travel, I can tell you it's a joy. That time you boarded the plane for Algiers and you landed (oh oops!) in Oran and no one bothered to announce they changed the route? Yes. The guy bringing the chickens and sappling onto the plane? We've met.

Just last week I was thinking about how it's been over a year and a half since I've had any sort of sniffle/sickness/bug, when, of course, BAM! Hello, stomach virus! E coli I did not miss you. After trying in vain to change my flights, my 24-hour bug ended just in time for me to make it to the airport. Traveling while sick is just miserable, traveling while sick in North Africa is worse. There was the guy from Chad who kept wanting to take selfies with me on the plane. There was the entire (entire!) planeful of Berber old ladies returning from the Hajj with their white shawls and ink-dyed finger tips. Myself and my French compatriot may have been the only people on that plane above 4 feet in height. And then I caught a cold.

So, it's been a rough week. I'm looking forward to plenty of hot tea and rest and some minimal cooking. I made up this recipe the other night and it was exactly what I needed -- extremely easy to make, healthy, and with enough flavors and spices to cut through a sniffly nose. With some yogurt on the side, because salty yogurt with rice is the best comfort food this girl can think of.

photo 4-2
 Chickpeas in Tomato-Tamarind Sauce
If you want to take this in a more sweet-sour direction, try adding some minced ginger and golden raisins to the stew.

olive oil, salt
1 large red onion
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
2 teaspoons garam masala (or curry powder)
1 teaspoon harissa (or other chili paste, adjusted for spiciness)
2 cups tomato puree
1 tablespoon tamarind concentrate
3 cups chickpeas
1 cup chopped cilantro

1. Quarter the onion and slice it into half moons. Heat some olive oil in a pot. Saute the onions over medium heat, stirring, until they soften and start to caramelize, at least 20 minutes. Don't rush this step. When the onions are soft and brown, add the garlic and the spices and let cook a minute or so, until fragrant.
2. Add in the tomato puree, tamarind concentrate, chickpeas, 1 cup of water, and salt to taste. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then lower the heat and allow to simmer uncovered for at least 30 minutes, so that the flavors combine and the sauce reduces. The mixture should be thick. Taste for seasoning and stir in the cilantro, mixing to combine. Serve warm -- it is good over rice with some plain salted yogurt on the side, or with bread.

15 February 2014

What We're Reading

It is a balmy sixty degrees here while I watch all my friends in America get snowed in (again and again!) and marvel at how skiers hurtle down the slopes at the Olympics. I miss snow, not to mention snow days. It's been a while since we did a reading/seeing/watching list, so here we go!

-- After reading so many good reviews, I was very excited to hear that The Square, the documentary about Tahrir Square in Cairo, was available on Netflix. It is definitely a story told from a specific perspective, but I highly recommend it. See also, al-Aswany's latest dispatch.

-- On the cooking end of the spectrum, we also loved Haute Cuisine, about Francois Mitterand's private chef. (There aren't really movie theaters in Algiers, so we watch a lot of Netflix!)

-- The preview for Return to Homs is beautiful, though I know watching it will break my heart. (Also, oooo, how I miss hearing Syrian dialect!)

-- This song, Zina, was voted best Algerian song of the year and I agree! Algeria has a great independent singer/songwriter scene. It's even on iTunes.

-- I always pick up a copy of the Brown Book at the airport. Case in point: this little story about Algerian Coffee Stores.

-- Karl Ove Knausgaard's famous tome is awaiting me on my Kindle, but I'm procrastinating by reading the 2014 Pushcart Prize volume (highly recommended), stories in the New Yorker, and Osama Alomar's latest slim volume of poetry, here.

-- Finally, because we all need more jumping cows in our life.

(Photo taken in Palermo, Italy.)

08 February 2014

Stuffed Eggplants with Quince

As I was cooking this dish over the course of a quiet Saturday, the sky slowly darkened. The wind started to pick up, pressing the leaves against their branches, soon howling around our house and its creaky windows. Rain sputtered, the city got quieter. By the time I had dinner on the table, a full hail storm was in effect. The Algerian rainy season has begun my friends.

It hailed for nearly two days, pelting us with chunks of ice that found their way down my coat to melt coolly against my back as I dashed across the street. I always thought hail was an intermittent thing, something that happened only for a few minutes, but Algiers seems to have the hail thing down.


When we didn't have internet at home (thank goodness that's over), I spent a lot of time re-reading some favorite cookbooks. It's interesting how your perspective of cookbooks change over the years as you yourself change as a cook. I can always find something new to appreciate in some of my favorites. I was flipping through Aromas of Aleppo when the recipe for stuffed eggplants with quince caught my eye. Such an odd combination of flavors, I thought I had to try it.

My usual vegetable vendor is closed for renovation, and I feel a bit bereft without them, but I headed over to Premeir Mai to get some quince. Quince with meat is quite common (the Turks stuff quince with ground lamb, while Iranians serve braised quince with lamb shanks). The eggplant combination is unusual, but it actually works quite well.


The recipe seems a bit long, but it is actually quite simple to make. If you haven't hollowed an eggplant before use a proper coring device (even an old school peeler/corer works fine), and after a bit of practice you'll be a pro. Plus, you readers were really into the last absurdly complicated recipe I posted, so what's one more?! I really like the technique of braising the stuffed eggplants in the oven, it gives the dish a more concentrated and deep flavor. Perfect for a cold rainy, hailing day.

Stuffed Eggplants with Quince
My eggplants were not tiny, so I used only six when I made this, and I regretted it. The eggplants cook down a lot and so I'd advise that, even if your eggplants aren't tiny, you use at the least 9-10 medium smallish ones. You'll be surprised at how quickly they disappear! The quince will not turn rosy red during cooking, but will be a bit closer to the flavor of a savory baked apple.

12 small eggplants
1 large quince (or 2 small)

for stuffing:
3/4 lb ground beef
1/3 cup short-grain white rice, soaked in water for 30 minutes and drained
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 onion, chopped
1 cup pine nuts (optional)
1/2 cup chopped parsley (optional)

for sauce:
3 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt

6 pieces candied quince, for garnish (optional)*

1. Make the stuffing: Pulse the onion in a food processor with the spices, salt, and pepper until the onion is very very finely chopped. Add the ground beef and parsley and pulse to combine. Transfer the mixture to a bowl, fold in the rice, and refrigerate the stuffing.
2. Prep the quince: Prepare a large bowl of water with a spoonful of vinegar. Peel and core the quince and cut the quince into slices. Add the slices to the acidulated water to prevent discoloring.
3. Core the eggplants. Stuff the eggplants with the stuffing (you may have extra filling). 
4. Preheat the oven to 300F. Place the stuffed eggplant and the quince in a pot, packing them tightly. In a bowl, combine the tamarind, lemon, sugar, salt, and 1 cup of the quince soaking liquid. Pour the mixture over the eggplant.
5. Place the pot on the heat and weight the eggplant down with a heavy weighted heat-proof plate. Let the mixture come to a low boil until the eggplant releases its liquid -- you will be able tell as there will be a lot more liquid in the pot. The liquid should come up 3/4 of the way over the eggplant at this point (if not, add a touch of water). Let the pot continue to simmer over low heat for 30 minutes.
6. Transfer the pot to the oven, cover with a lid, and let braise another 45 minutes. Uncover the pot and let braise uncovered another 30 minutes. There should be a thin syrup of liquid left int he bottom of the pot. Remove from the oven, garnish with candied quince if using. Serve the eggplants warm, with rice, spooning some of the sauce over top.

* Candied Quince: I did not do this, but I think serving this with the candied quince garnish would make it even better. I will have a candied quince recipe forthcoming, but in the meantime, there are lots out there on the internet, and this poached sweet quince recipe would also work.

** What to do with the eggplant stuffing? Chop it finely, then cook it in a pan with lots of garlic and olive oil over very low heat, until you can mash it all together with the back of a spoon. Season with salt, scoops it into a bowl, and garnish with mint and Aleppo pepper. Serve as a dip.

04 February 2014

Moroccan Spiced Sunchokes


Did you know that in French sunchokes are called tompinabours? Toommmm-pinA-bourrrrs. I feel like I should be saying it while sporting a feathered cap. So the legend goes that French explorers from the New World would bring things back to display at the French court -- vegetables, animals, grains, people. And an Indian tribe called something sounding like Tompinabour were on display at the court at the same time as the sunchokes, and the names got mixed up, and that was that.

Leaving aside questions of colonial exploitation, sunchokes were quickly adapted into French cuisine, and presumably made their way to Algeria. In Algeria you're more likely to hear them called batata tefs in Arabic, where they might be used in a stew like a tagine.

I've called this dish "Moroccan spiced" sunchokes only because experience has taught me that anything "Moroccan" sells a lot better than anything "Algerian" or vaguely "North African." (I routinely have to explain to people that it's ALgeria, not NIgeria, which is always disconcerting when you're making a flight reservation.) Anyway, this spice mix would be at home across North Africa, where caraway seeds, ginger, and turmeric are staple ingredients. Caraway seeds are an under-used pantry item is you ask me, so here's your chance to dig yours out of the cupboard and put them to good use. This is an easy weeknight side dish to whatever you're serving for dinner.

Moroccan Spiced Sunchokes
I prefer to leave my sunchokes unpeeled, I like their texture better that way. If there are small crevices where you can't wash the dirt away, just trim that area with a knife to remove any dirt.

1 bag of sunchokes (about 20 medium), washed well and quartered
1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon salt
olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 425F. Mix together the spices and the salt in a small bowl.
2. Heat a generous amount of olive oil in the bottom of a heat-proof skillet (cast iron is great) over medium-high heat. Add the spices and fry the spices until bubbling and fragrant. Add the sunchokes and stir to coat with the spice mixture. Let the sunchokes cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until browned in spots and starting to soften, about 10 minutes.
3. Transfer the pan to the oven and let roast 7-10 minutes, or until the sunchokes are tender when pierced with a knife but not soggy. There's nothing worse than a soggy sunchoke! Your sunchokes may take longer depending on their size and density. Remove from the oven and serve warm.