29 September 2014

Reading the Headlines

I wrote this piece last week and originally decided not to publish it here. I felt it was too serious for something that is a cooking blog, and that readers might rather hear about blueberry crumble bars and smiley happy things. However, it continued to nag at me, and then I read about Herve Gourdel's tragic terrible death, and I read Matthieu Aikens' truly extraordinary piece of reporting here, and well, here you are:

I do not scan pages of the news for familiar faces anymore. When the conflict in Syria first broke out I, like many who once lived in Syria, looked obsessively through the photos in news reports, the online videos, trying to find familiar places, familiar faces. Is that the corner of Baghdad road there, where the sweets shop always had a huge line during Ramadan? We'd peer into grainy photos, pause on stills of videos.

Now I sit in my apartment in Chicago and read headlines about Deir al-Zour, Raqqa, Idlib and Hasake. All places I have passed through, stopping to get gasoline and packages of biscuits as the only way points between the interminably empty and dusty landscape of the Syrian desert. Deir al-Zour and Raqqa were always terrible places, though I remember once a decent rotisserie chicken eaten in Deir. Even the Syrians I knew hated them, dry dusty outposts of nothing, filled with terrible memories of their one year of mandatory military service.

What all these places had in common was that they were poor, which is why I, doing relief work and canvasing, knew them well. Hasake had good spicy food and fun Kurdish music, but overall these were places that no one had heard of. Places, I wrongly assumed, would continue to be forgotten dreary towns.

Now I cannot read the pages of the news reports too closely. Most Syrians I knew have left if they had the means, and those that remain have drifted away in my mind, as if to another planet. Syrians I speak to in America say the same, that the thought of people still there is almost too hard to bear.

I think of the people of Algeria, all those who left, who fled the civil war to France and Canada, and all those who stayed behind. How different those two psyches are, the fear the implants itself so deeply. Yesterday a French tourist was taken hostage in Kabylie, he was captured not far from an area that I drove through only three months ago, albeit I was with a security detail. He was an alpiniste, and I can picture how beautiful those mountains are, the fields of wheat below them undulating down to the sea. I cannot help but thinking, the Algerian people deserve better.

All those place names dot the news articles: Tizi Ouzou, Raqqa, Idlib. I cannot read them too closely because each one has meaning, each one has a memory, a picture in my mind, so instead I make coffee and get ready for another day.

A tiny tree grows amidst the lava path on Mount Etna, Sicily. Top photo of Aleppo taken by yours truly circa 2006.

24 September 2014

Fall News + Blueberry Custard Crumble Bars

photo 3-1
Weren't you supposed to be somewhere else by now? That's the phrase I keep hearing from friends and colleagues whenever I see them. Yes, I sigh with an annoyance all too familiar, we were hoping to leave in early October. The good news is that we are moving to Cairo, Egypt shortly! The bad news is that it probably won't be as soon as we would like. However, I am definitely making the best of this situation. More time to visit family? Check. Friends coming to visit us in Chicago? Check, check, check. More time to eat blueberries and broccoli and apples that have actual crunch, none of which are available in the Middle East? YOU BET.

After three years of spending the months of August-September outside of the country, I apparently forgot that fall was a) a season, b) starts a whole lot earlier in Chicago, and c) is cold!! Although, if I'm being totally honest, I did cave and buy a fleece at the Columbia sportswear in Amman three years ago because I was freezing on those cool desert evenings.

photo 2-2

Anyway, back to the blueberries. Do you ever make a giant portion of something, intending to give half of it your nice neighbors and then, "oh, oops, guess they're out of town this week, and we're just going to have to eat ALL these blueberry bars ourselves." So that's what happened here. It was really terrible, Paul was really suffering eating these bars for breakfast and after-dinner dessert.

I don't usually make this type of pastry because I tend to shy away from richer American desserts, but seriously this recipe is awesome. A small slice has just the right amount of crunch, ooze, and sweet-sour-salty tang to be imminently satisfying.

photo 1-2
Blueberry Custard Crumble Bars
This recipe comes together quickly and feeds quite a few. It would be great for a casual dinner party, a picnic, or in your lunchbox. It also freezes very well after it is baked. Inspired by this recipe for a similar blueberry custard pie. (You can also top it with ice cream if you want to go all out.)

12 tablespoons butter, cold
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups flour
1 cup sour cream
1 tbl lemon zest
1 egg
1 tbl flour
2/3 cup brown sugar
4 cups blueberries
1 cup brown sugar
2 cups chopped walnut pieces
3/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Get out a 9x12 inch baking pan.
2. Make the crust: in a large bowl, rub the butter together with the sugar with your finger tips. Add in the salt and the flour and rub everything together until the mixture is crumbly. Press the crumbly mixture into the bottom of the baking pan, trying to cover it evenly.
3. Make the filling: Using the same bowl, place the sour cream, lemon, egg, flour, and brown sugar in the bowl and mix well. Gently fold in the blueberries until coated with the sour cream mixture. Spread the blueberry mixture over the crust.
4. Make the crumble: In a bowl, mix the brown sugar, salt, walnuts, and flour. Slowly pour in the melted butter, stirring simultaneously, until you've added all the butter. Stir a few more times to make sure all the butter is spread around. Gently spread the crumble topping over the blueberries.
5. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake for 50-60 minutes, until the topping is browned and the blueberry juices are bubbling slightly underneath. Remove, let cool completely before slicing.

16 September 2014

In Praise of the Arab Breakfast

I wanted to take a moment to write in praise of the Arab breakfast. On those mornings when I'm not running out the door juggling coffee and keys, I like having a proper home-cooked breakfast. I used to never eat breakfast, but more and more I find breakfast a centering part of my day, even if it's just 10 minutes to sit down and pause before rushing forward again. Some mornings it's oatmeal, others it might be toast and eggs (always with plenty of hot sauce). But especially in the summer, I love having sliced tomatoes and cucumbers as part of the breakfast table, preferably with some yogurt and bread and steaming hot coffee, and if I'm really dreaming, to be eaten outside in the shade with chirping cicadas and time to linger over the newspaper or a good book.

I'm not sure where what most people think of as the Arab breakfast came from, but most Arabs I know don't really eat breakfast to begin with, unless strong tea or coffee counts. I've always assumed the concept of a solid breakfast was imported from the west, and that the Lebanese or Syrians or Egyptians just started to put out simple light things they had around anyway: bread, olives, yogurt, cucumbers, and so the Arab breakfast was born. I particularly love having tomatoes at breakfast, with a bit of salt and olive oil. If you've never thought of tomatoes as a breakfast food I highly recommend you try it.

This kind of breakfast is very easy to throw together, and involves almost no cooking or baking, which I find makes it great for hosting brunch or house guests, or simply lazy summer Sunday mornings.

Ideas for an Arab-style breakfast:

Sliced tomatoes
Sliced cucumbers (preferably Persian or very small thin skinned types)
Thick yogurt (labne)
Feta or ricotta type cheese
Pita bread
Eggs (fried, frittata, omelet, etc)
Za'atar flatbreads
Fruit (fresh, poached, or in syrup)
Other types of bread or pastries

For the table: chopped herbs, salt, olive oil

** special credit for the delicious homegrown tomatoes in the photo goes to our friends Lauren and Andy, who let us steal from their prolific backyard crop while visiting them this summer