28 June 2014

A Catalog of Culture Shock in America

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.


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.


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

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
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.


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.


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.

photo 1-8 photo-9

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

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.

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
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

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.


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!


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.


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.