31 August 2014

Sour Cherry Galette with Almond-Mahlab Filling

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It is the last weekend in August and, if social media is any clue, everyone I know is lounging on a beach, or sailing around an island, or hiking somewhere scenic, while I'm pounding the paths of the concrete jungle. Thankfully, in Chicago, I can wander over to the lakefront on a cloudy Friday afternoon, where you can sit and read a book with the seagulls and the cyclists and almost forget that you're in a city altogether.

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I also got to have brunch with a really cute 2 month-old baby and have the most amazing sushi meal I've had in a long time (ever?). We have been painting and fixing up around our apartment, a seemingly never-ending task of sanding and caulking and repeated trips to the hardware store. We have listened to a LOT of podcasts in the meantime, and, having exhausted my usual suspects, I found a new podcast called the Dinner Party Download. It is awesome and you should add it to you regular rotation.

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Also on the list this week:
      -- Radio Diaries: A Guitar and Cellist
      -- A moloukhiya schism?!
      -- You should be cooking to the latest Kishi Bashi album. Preferably while drinking a Kentucky Peach Barrel Wheat Ale.
      -- Good Food had a great interview with the Bautista Date Farm. Learn more about date varieties, like my favorite barhi dates, and order some, at their website.
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Today we're talking about this sour cherry galette that I made back when sour cherries were in the farmer's market for their brief two-week run. If you're like me, you bought a gallon of those sour cherries and pitted and froze them to use year round. If not, well, I'm terribly terribly sorry.
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For the sour cherries that I did not freeze, I made a galette with them. (I was just about to write "simple galette," but who am I kidding, we've got a mahlab scented layer and a rye crust!) Cherries and almonds are botanically related, and the Middle Eastern spice mahlab is made form a variety of sour cherry pit. Based on the old adage, "what grows together goes together," I thought I'd play around with these flavors in the galette - sour cherries, almonds, mahlab. They are almost always a winning combination.

Despite the seemingly complex title, this recipe is actually really simple. Really! If you don't have any mahlab on hand, don't sweat it. You can substitute some cinnamon or simply omit it. Did you get any sour cherries this year? If so, what are you making?  Happy long weekend everyone!
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Sour Cherry Galette with Almond-Mahlab Filling
You can make this with regular cherries, it just won't have that tart tang to it. If using regular cherries reduce the sugar to 1/3 cup. For extra credit, you can always brush a beaten egg over the crust before baking.

1 regular pie crust or 1 rye pie crust (I used half of this recipe)

2 heaping cups sour cherries
2/3 cup sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 tablespoon cornstarch

almond layer:
5 mahlab pits
1/2 a tube almond paste (4 oz)
1 egg
pinch of salt

1. Prepare your pie crust and chill it.
2. Preheat oven to 350 F.
3. Toss the cherries with sugar and cornstarch in a bowl. Let macerate.
4. Crush the mahlab pits in a mortar and pestle. In a bowl, smash up the almond paste with a fork. Add the egg and mahlab and salt and mix into the almond paste until the mix is relatively homogenous.
5. Roll out your pie crust and place on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. Spread the almond paste in a circle in the center of your crust.
4. Spoon the cherries over the almond layer. If there is a lot of accumulated juice in the bowl, leave it behind and discard it. I add a little of the juice to the galette, but you don't want to drown it.
5. Fold up the edges of the dough around the filling to form a galette. Sprinkle sugar all over the top.
6. Transfer to the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until bubbly and the crust is firm and hollow-sounding when tapped. Let cool slightly before eating.

21 August 2014

Summer Blueberry Cake

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I have this pile of recipes that I want to share here sitting next to me. And yet, despite my excitement over home-cured salmon or these blueberry bars, or this cake, somehow whenever I sit down to write, I find myself closing the computer, or clicking away. Something in that blank page makes me turn away, which, of course, is actually why I should be writing in the first place. I tell myself that it's only blueberry cake, silly! Who can't write about blueberry cake in summer? But blueberry cake is exactly what it isn't about.
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Culture shock is usually something that hits me straight in the face, full on. Like when I returned from Syria and my mother was all excited about this new thing called YouTube, and I was shocked, in full disbelief, that you could actually put videos on the internet, and moreover that there was some market for people's cat videos. (oh, ho, ho, how wrong I was!)

But this time it is a bit different. Not culture shock per say, but more an uneasy adjustment to being in America. That makes it sound as if I'm moping around all the time, which couldn't be farther from the truth. I am loving, loving(!) this time in Chicago.

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However, it is easy, when you live very very far from you family and friends, to pretend that you don't talk as often as you should because of the distance. That you don't Skype with your parents as often because they are far away. It is harder, then, to come back home and remember that you don't Skype with your parents as often because you don't have any.

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I have been wondering also about how, so often we don't really say what we need to say to the people around us. "I'd really like us to spend more time together," or "how do we find a way to talk more." My extended family and I spend a lot of time sharing photos or funny anecdotes or short one-line emails. But how often do we ask each other, no how are you, really? How's your health? Are you getting enough calcium? Social media is great, but so often it turns into broadcast media, when what we need is a place to truly talk and listen.

My Jordanian teacher and I were joking that an Arab relative will ask you anything. How much did your dress cost? How's your marriage? How much money do you have in the bank? (Yep, I've been asked those questions.) And while it is both funny and totally nosy, there is something well-intentioned at the heart of these questions. A way to penetrate beneath the veneer of the, "oh I'm fine"-ness that all of us carry around.

Which brings us to cake. Cake can penetrate many veneers right? This one is quintessentially American in its form: blueberries! a sort of cross between a cobbler/grunt/slump! But it's also informed by those North African ingredients that have become a part of me: the fine semolina, the ginger, the honey. A cake that's a good starting point for a conversation.

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Summer Blueberry Cake
I invented the form of this cake, though perhaps it falls somewhere in the grunt/slump variety of Americana desserts. Our berries were very sweet, if yours are on the tart side I'd suggest adding a few tablespoons of granulated sugar to compensate. Fine cornmeal can be substituted for the semolina to good effect.

3 cups blueberries
1/4 cup honey
4 large flat pieces candied ginger, chopped

8 tablespoons butter, room temperature
½ cup sugar
1 cup semolina flour (the finest grain of semolina)
1½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
¾ cup milk

1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. In a bowl, stir together honey, blueberries, and ginger. Set aside.
3.  In a small bowl, mix together the semolina flour, baking powder, salt.
4. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add in the vanilla. Stir in half the semolina mixture, then add in the milk, then add the remaining semolina mixture, stirring until no streaks remain.
5. Scatter 2/3 of the blueberry mixture into an 8x10 inch baking pan. (an enamel or glass/Pyrex baking pan works nicely) Scrape the semolina batter over top, it does not have to completely cover the berries. Scatter the remaining berries over top of the dough.
6. Bake the cake for 40-45 minutes, or until the blueberry juices are all bubbling around the edges. Remove, let cool slightly before serving.

09 August 2014

Barley Salad with Eggplant, Peppers, and Herbs

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It's been a while since we did a reading list, and I feel like the internet has been particularly generous this week. Plus, last week I gave you all a two page typed recipe on a very esoteric bread you will probably never make, so it's time for something easy and fun!

-- If you're in New York before the end of September, check out the New Museum's contemporary art exhibit: Here and Elsewhere. Also check out this interview with Syrian-Armenian photographer Hrair Sarkissian.

-- This interview about Syrian traditional chants on Fresh Air made me all misty-eyed. Hearing the chants, I thought of the Syrian Orthodox church in Bab Touma where I celebrated my friend's girls' communion. Then I thought of the service driver who drove the regular route from Nazem Basha Street up to the heights of upper Muhajireen to my apartment, his Sufi chants always playing, the Allah symbol swinging from the rear view mirror. I thought of delicious meals at Beit Sissi, which is probably 90% of the reason why I write this blog at all, and which has been destroyed.

-- Following my wave of nostalgia, but on a more upbeat note, I watched an old episode of Ba'qa Diwa (a Syrian parody called Spotlight, only in Arabic) for a good laugh.

-- If that esoteric mhajeb recipe last week was up your alley (insert Arabic cooking nerds fist pump!), then you should really be following Cuisine et Traditions Culinaire Algerienne on Facebook. The posts are in English and French, and it is one of the best places to learn about unique Algerian cuisine beyond your standard couscous.

-- This old article on Philippe Petit is on my to-read list.

-- I loved Joumana's post on the book Akkar to 'Amel so much that I ordered myself a copy (fist pump again!).

-- George Packer's articles on what's happening in Iraq have been great, especially this one. Also this piece from Vox news.

-- This article on Buenos Aires is just so good. Only Argentine's would make a pizza with meat as the crust.

-- On the playlist this week: Fasateen and Herzan, via Lebanon, and an old Jaza'iri favorite Wilkoum y a Kawm.

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Barley Salad with Eggplant, Peppers, and Herbs
I made this with a type of pearl couscous from Algeria that is made with barley flour, called berkoukes sha'ir (بركوكس شعير). Given that you can't get this in the U.S. I recommend you either use regular pearl couscous (sold as moghrabiya, maftoul, or Israeli couscous in most groceries), or you could adapt this into a grain salad and use rye or wheat berries, or pearl barley, which more closely approximated the chewy earthy texture of the berkoukes.

2 cups pearl couscous, or rye or wheat berries, or pearl barley
2 Japanese eggplants, sliced and the slices sprinkled with salt
1 large red bell pepper, diced
1 large handful each parsley and cilantro leaves
3 scallions
1 lemon
1/4 cup pistachios
olive oil, salt
1/4 teaspoon Urfa Biber pepper (or Aleppo pepper)

1. Cook the couscous or rye berries in boiling salted water according to package directions. Drain and immediately toss with a generous amount of olive oil and a generous amount of salt to prevent from sticking.
2. Slice the scallions on the bias. Take the white parts of the scallions, place them in a small bowl, and squeeze the juice of the lemon over them. Let rest while you do the next steps.
3. Heat some olive oil in a skillet. Add the sliced eggplant and cook until nicely browned on both sides and softened in the middle.
4. When the eggplants are done, scrape them into the pot with the couscous, add a bit more oil to the pan, and this time saute your red pepper until softened and blackened in spots.
5. Add the red pepper to the pot with the couscous, and add the pistachios to the pan. Let the pistachios toast for a minute or two, then add them to the couscous.
6. Loosely chop your herbs and add them to the couscous with the green parts of the scallions, and the white part of the scallions and their lemon juice. Add the Urfa Biber pepper and stir everything together. Taste for seasoning and serve.

03 August 2014

Spinach and Goat Cheese Mhajebs

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Whew, you all, it is AUGUST?! I know, I'm going to say that thing every other person in North America is saying right now, which is where on earth did summer go? Maybe because it's been cooler than normal, or maybe because we continue to live in the land of furniture-less limbo, but I feel like summer should only be just be beginning. It seems like just a short while ago I was shivering in a hotel in Fez in the cold and being lectured by a lady named Fatima about how I shouldn't be afraid of dough (لا تخفي من العجين).

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Mhajeb (mahjab, mhadjeb, etc) is a stuffed flaky bread that is uniquely Algerian, and it's probably the number one thing any Algerian abroad would miss, followed by proper couscous and kesra bread. To make mhajeb you take the flaky flat bread known as msemmen and then you stuff it with chickchouka, a spicy pepper mixture. Mhajeb are great for breakfast or for a snack, but they are also really tough to make. For about a year in Algiers I had been trying to make them, following recipes on various Algerian blogs, with little to no success. A mhajeb should be wide and flat and soft and flaky, and mine were routinely lumpy and leaden.

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When I started asking around, saying I wanted to learn to make msemmen dough, I initially got some quizzical responses. (Msemmen dough is the base for msemmen bread, mhajebs, and some kinds of steamed pasta doughs in Algeria.) Oh, that's very hard, one man said, wouldn't you rather make a chicken tagine? I also annoyingly got the response, "oh it's just grandma's and women who make that," clearly implying that I shouldn't bother learning. Luckily, enter Fatima.

Fatima didn't speak French or English, and I didn't speak much southern Moroccan dialect, but we managed to work around that. I'm at whiz at hand gestures! She gave me several tips that make msemmen dough a lot easier. While very traditional grandmas make the dough using all semolina and no yeast, and spend hours kneading and working the dough to get the right elasticity, for novices like myself adding some flour and yeast makes the dough a whole lot easier. Letting the dough rest in the refrigerator also makes it easier to work with and gives you more flexibility as to when you want to make the bread.

Tutting at me unapprovingly when I was kneading the dough, Fatima demonstrated the force with which I had to knead the dough to get it to be supple and stretchy. You look like you are afraid of it, she exclaimed! Ashamed of my wimpy American dough-making skills, I quickly straightened up and began beating the dough with all the force my chattaranga-toned arms could muster. "Better," she nodded.

Back at home, while my mhajebs still aren't perfect, they are a very good approximation. Every time I make them, Paul usually pops his head in the kitchen and says,"don't be afraid of the dough!" Then we laugh, and then we eat a bunch of fresh-off-the-griddle mhajebs, because they are pretty addictive.

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Spinach and Goat Cheese Mhajebs
Spinach and goat cheese is not a traditional filling, but it got an approving nod from some Algerian friends, which is all I can hope for when messing with other people's traditional foods. See the notes below for tips on the dough and semolina. You can also find the more traditional chakchouka filling recipe here. Or use another filling of choice (merguez with tomatoes is another good one).

for the filling:
1 large bag of spinach, washed and sliced into strips
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 pinch of red pepper flakes or Aleppo pepper
4 ounces goat cheese
salt, olive oil

for the dough:
1 1/2 cups fine semolina (also sold as semolina flour, see note)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1/8 teaspoon SAF instant yeast
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup neutral cooking oil
water, approximately 1/2 to 3/4 cups, plus more for your hands

1. Melt the butter in the oil and stir gently to combine.
2. Mix together the flour, semolina, salt, and yeast in a large wide bowl (traditionally a g'sa). Scoop out 2 tablespoons of the oil butter mixture and add it to the semolina mixture. Rub the fat into the semolina mixture until it is distributed. Very slowly add the water to the dough, pouring it through your fingertips, then swirling your fingertips through the mixture, until a shaggy loose dough is formed. Knead this dough a few times so that is comes together. Cover with a damp towel and let rest for 15 minutes.
3. Place a small bowl of water near your work surface. Working in the g'sa or on your countertop, dampen your hands with the water, and then begin to knead the dough. You want to gather the dough into a ball and then use the heel of your hand to stretch the dough away from you against the countertop. Then with your opposite hand gather the dough back into the ball, and then stretch it out away from you again, it's a sort of push-pull method. You want to be very forceful with the dough and really knead it hard. Do this for about 8 minutes, or about 4 minutes past the point when your arm muscles are exhausted. Keep moistening your hands as necessary. See Note 2 for extra pointers.

The dough should be stretchy and elastic, like this:
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4. Coat a bowl and the dough ball with some of the oil mixture, and then cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator. Let rest in the fridge for a minimum of 1 hour or up to 12 hours. (if you're in a rush, just let it sit on the counter covered for 30 minutes.)
5. Meanwhile, make your filling: Heat some olive oil in a sautee pan. Add the garlic and pepper flakes for one a minute, until softened, and then add in all your spinach. Season with salt and turn the spinach until it is all wilted and cooked. Set aside to cool. Once the spinach is cool, stir in the goat cheese.
6. Back to the dough: Take the dough out of the fridge and let warm up for about 30 minutes.
7. Pinch of balls of the dough, smaller than your fist, roll each ball in the butter/oil mix, and place on the counter. Cover the dough balls with a damp cloth and let rest 10-15 minutes.
8. Have a greased griddle or heavy-bottomed greased pan ready and heated to medium heat. Also place a mesh colander or cooling rack nearby.
9. Oil your countertop with some of the oil/butter mixture, and oil your fingers. Then take a dough ball and gently press and stretch it out with your fingertips into a flat wide circle. Add extra oil to the dough to make working it easier. The dough should be thin enough to read a newspaper through it. It is okay if you get little tears along the edges of the dough, but try not to get any tears in the middle. (If you do get tears, just patch them with a spot of dough.)
10. Place a small amount of the spinach filling over the middle of the dough. Do not overstuff!! Then fold the edges of the dough up and rub with with a bit more oil. The mhajeb should be wide and flat and thin, not over stuffed and bulky. Immediately transfer the mhajeb to the griddle and cook for about 2-4 minutes on the first side, until browned in spots. Flip over and cook on the second side until lightly browned in spots, about 1-2 more minutes. You want the mhajeb dough to be cooked but you don't want to it to become stiff or rigid, it should remain supple. Transfer to a cooling rack or colander.
11. Repeat rolling out and frying the remaining mhajebs. The more practice you have, the better they will be! Mhajebs are best eaten on the day they are made or the day after.

Note 1: Many groceries, like Whole Foods, sell the Bob's Red Mill brand of semolina flour, which will work well here. A Middle Eastern grocery should sell many grades of semolina (smeed), you want the finest grain.

Note 2: There is a great video here of an Algerian lady making traditional mhajebs. It is in Algerian, but you can really see the technique for how to knead and stretch the dough from minute 1:30 to 5:00. She also makes the traditional chikhchouka stuffing, and sits at a traditional table for making dough called a maida. I totally want this lady to be my Algerian grandma.