27 March 2015

Orange-Scented Cream Triangles (Sha'abiyat bil Portuqal)

One of the "problems" of living with someone who conducts food research as a serious hobby is that we almost never make anything more than twice. Oh that chickpea curry thing you really liked? Don't worry, I might make it again in about five years. Oh you wanted pizza for dinner? But I've been experimenting with curing my own basterma and I thought I'd try this new vegetable I've never heard of that I found at the market. Oh you didn't want carrot soup for the third time this week? But I'm perfecting the recipe! Welcome to life with yours truly.

Which means that poor Paul has been asking me to make cream-filled baklava (baklava muhallabiya) again for about the last 4 years. Searching for something to bring to my office one day, I finally caved and picked up the ingredients at the market. But of course my mind, which seems to never stop churning over different permutations of what I can make with things in the refrigerator, remembered that another type of cream-filled baklava, called sha'abiyat (شعبيات), is made with the same ingredients as baklava muhallabiya. Like the baklava, sha'abiyat are a specialty of Syria, in particular popular in Aleppo, and are often found at Ramadan. Sha'abiyat are triangles of baklava filled with a simple cream filling and baked and then covered in syrup.

In somewhat of a comedy of errors (although sometimes I think living in Egypt in general is a comedy of errors) I went to three different grocery stores to try and find orange blossom water, which was sold out or absent at all three. I ended up making the baklava syrup with fresh orange zest, and everyone loved it, so much so that when I made the same recipe the following week to re-test it, I stuck with the orange water. It adds a brightness and clean taste that I find is so often missing from baklava.

Before I let you go, let's have a quick review of baklava technique. (1) Baklava is not that hard to make. (2) Use some form of clarified butter, the water in un-clarified butter makes the baklava have burnt spots. (3) Cold syrup + hot baklava from the oven = crispy baklava. (4) Fresh baklava is infinitely better than pre-packed baklava.

Final food-nerd notes:
  • Lonely photo of sha'abiyat taken on the car seat next to me on the commute to work, because living in Egypt means endless time commuting and not enough time for photos.
  • Sha'abiyat are also sometimes made with a softer homemade dough instead of fillo dough, and are sometimes made with a semolina custard instead of clotted cream. (See picture here.)
  • Like the idea of having more routine in your dinner life? I loved Shauna's post about that here.
  • A rare piece of good news from Syria: the Icarda genebank is preserving seeds for traditional food stuffs and plants.
  • Poor Paul is still waiting for his baklava muhallabiya.

Orange-Scented Cream Triangles (Sha'abiyat bil Portuqal)
Using only two fillo sheets will initially seem like a thin dough, but trust me, once you've done the folding of the triangles it's just the right amount. Ghee can be purchased at most grocery stores these days, samneh is the Middle Eastern equivalent, and can be found at Middle Eastern shops. If you can get your hands on clotted cream it is worth it, as it makes this recipe both faster and tastier.

1 box fillo dough, fully defrosted
1 1/2 cups samneh, ghee, or clarified butter
1 pint clotted cream or 'ashta, if you can get it, or heavy cream
1 tablespoon cornstarch, if using heavy cream
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) honey
zest of half an orange, or 1 mandarin
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
zest of half an orange, or 1 mandarin, plus 1 tablespoon of juice

1. Make the syrup: Place the sugar and water together in the saucepan and place over medium heat. Heat the mixture, stirring occasionally, until the mixture starts to bubble and the sugar is dissolved. Remove the pan from the heat, then grate the orange zest directly into the syrup and add the tablespoon of juice. Set aside and let syrup cool completely. (This can be done several days ahead and kept in a sealed jar in the fridge.)
2. Make the filling: If using clotted cream simply stir together the cream, honey, zest and salt. If using heavy cream, place the cream and flour in a saucepan and heat over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thick and bubbly slightly. Remove the pan from the heat and add the zest, honey, and salt. Taste for sweetness, it may need a touch more honey. Set aside to cool. (This can be done one day ahead and stored in the fridge.)
3. Make the baklava: Preheat the oven to 350F. Get out a large rectangular rimmed baking tray. Melt your samneh or butter in a bowl and have a pastry brush ready.
4. Remove the fillo dough from the box, place it on the counter with plastic sheets both underneath and on top of the dough. Place a damp kitchen towel on top of the top plastic sheet over the fillo dough. Working either directly on your counter, or on a large marble board, lightly butter your counter or board. Place one sheet of fillo dough down, lightly butter it with you pastry brush, then place another sheet of fillo on top and lightly butter that sheet. Slice the fillo dough into four strips lengthwise (so you''ll make 3 cuts to create 4 strips). Place a spoonful of the cream filling at the top corner of one strip of fillo, then fold the fillo over on itself in a triangle, and keep folding up, as if you were folding a flag, until the whole fillo strip is used up. Use a bit of butter the secure the ends of the fillo strip to the triangle. Place on the baking sheet seam-side down. Continue with the remaining strips, then continue making triangles until you've used up all your fillo dough. Crowd the triangles into the pan as close together as necessary.
5. Brush the tops of the triangles with a bit more butter. Bake the triangles until a medium brown (not too dark, not too light), about 30-35 minutes.
6. Remove from the oven and immediately pour 1 cup of cold syrup over the hot triangles. Let absorb for 10 minutes. Then drizzle another 1/2 cup of syrup over the triangles. Let the triangles cool completely. Serve with additional syrup on the side, for people to add as they like.

Want more like this? Try the (easy!) regular baklava recipe.

20 March 2015

Nile Nachos

Since my last post on here was all into nitty-gritty food philosophies and things otherwise known as deep thoughts, I thought we should do something fun and irreverent for a change. Sound good? I thought so. And so was born the idea for a Middle Eastern fetteh meets Mexican-American snack food love child: the Nile Nacho.
I know, I know, sacrilege you say! But this idea actually came about because nachos, a food I almost never eat, are surprisingly popular in Cairo. One of our favorite local restaurants, Tabla Luna, does a rendition of them so good it could transform even the most nacho-averse eater. And it got me thinking, layering tasty gooey things with tortilla chips isn't really that far from layering tasty things with pita chips, right? Plus, putting tahini on said pita chips can only make them better. Then I started thinking about substituting the usual black beans from some spicy roasted chickpeas, and how pickled jalapenos are surprisingly common in Cairo, and the whole idea just made sense.

The Nile Nacho consists of pita triangles layered with a tahini-yogurt sauce, spicy roast chickpeas, smashed chickpeas, tomatoes, radishes, herbs, and sumac. If you think it's heretical to have nachos without cheese, then by all means add some feta or Middle Eastern-style string cheese (I'm lactose intolerant, and wanted to save myself the stomach cramps). These are surprisingly delicious, fun, and a great way to introduce people to new ingredients like tahini and sumac in a familiar format. Also: NILE NACHOS!


Nile Nachos
When I made these the first time, I roasted the pita triangles in the oven. While the nachos were still delicious, the pita got soggy, so I switched to frying the pita triangles so they stay crispy. The roasted chickpeas are so good they are worth making on their own. I like to use canned chickpeas here since they are crispier than freshly cooked from scratch chickpeas. Whatever you do, rinse and dry your chickpeas before using. Feel free to experiment with your own toppings, my friend Nick recommended some crispy roast schwarma meat would be a good addition, and I agree.

3 large thin pita breads, preferably stale, cut into triangles
neutral oil for frying
1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas (1 can)
2 tablespoons tahini
1 lemon
1 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1 tomato, seeds removed and discarded, flesh cubed
2 radishes, halved and sliced
4 sprigs mint, leaves sliced
optional: 1 pickled chili or jalapeno, sliced (or you could use chile flakes)
optional: creamy feta cheese or Middle Eastern string cheese
sumac, for serving

1 cup thick Greek-style yogurt
3 tablespoons tahini
1 teaspoon salt

1. Prep all your ingredients. Set up a draining/cooling rack over some paper towels on your counter.
2. Heat about 1-2 inches of oil in a wide deep-sided skillet or saute pan. When the oil is hot (test by splashing a teeny drizzle of water in it) add a few of your pita triangles. Cook the triangles, turning frequently, until they are lightly browned and crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon or spider to the cooling rack and repeat until you've fried all your pita.
3. Preheat your broiler on high. Divide your chickpeas in half, place half in a small bowl. Place the other half on a baking sheet, add the cumin, paprika, two pinches of salt and a glug of olive oil and roll everything around to coat. Place the chickpeas under the broiler. Broil the chickpeas, stirring occasionally, until they are deep brown and crispy on the outside, about 10-15 minutes. When done, switch the oven to 350F.
4. Meanwhile, add the 2 tablespoons tahini and the juice from the lemon, along with a pinch of salt, to the chickpeas in the bowl. Using a fork or a pestle, smash up the remaining chickpeas into a rough smash.
5. Mix together the sauce ingredients. Add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the sauce is a thick but pourable consistency. If you accidentally make it too watery, add more tahini.
6. Place half the pita triangles on an oven-proof platter. Dab half the chickpea smash over the pita, sprinkle half the roast chickpeas and half the tomato over top. Add a few of the radishes, mint, and chile and cheese if using. Drizzle the whole thing with some of the yogurt sauce. Repeat layering the pita chips, toppings, and yogurt sauce. Set aside some of the mint and radishes for the final serving. Sprinkle sumac over the whole thing. Slide the dish into the oven and let heat just for 5-8 minutes or so, you want to heat the dish not cook it. Remove from the oven, finish with the mint and radishes and serve warm.

Want more irreverent untraditional takes on Middle Eastern food? Try the brussel sprout fattoush.

07 March 2015

Filed Under Deep Thoughts

 photo 1
I made a comment on Instagram recently about a cookbook I had received, very kindly, as a gift. The whole pan-Arab Mediterranean Israeli cooking thing has become extremely popular in the wake of the Ottolenghi boom, and I receive and read a lot of those cookbooks. I commented that this book in particular, a sort of Middle Eastern Iranian Ottoman mish-mash, had some lovely looking recipes, but that I felt by lumping all of the Levant, North Africa, Turkey, the Gulf and Persia together,  something really got lost in the middle. It probably helped that I thought the book badly needed a copy editor, as there were numerous seemingly strange observations in the book. (My favorite of which, the statement that "potatoes aren't very common in Middle Eastern dishes," made me laugh out loud for its bizarreness. These are the same people who invented the french fry sandwich, but I digress.)

This is not meant to be a criticism of any one cook or cookbook, and I should add that I have tried a few recipes from this cookbook that came out wonderfully. Part of my criticism comes from a frustration that the approach to the Middle Eastern cooking trend is all about cherry-picking. Everyone talks about harissa, preserved lemons, za'atar, dukkah, and labne. No one talks about jameed, ashta, qawarma, malawach, or home-made couscous. Those are all great ingredients, wonderful things, but each one comes from a unique tradition and a different style of cooking.  And yes I know, some things will always be more popular than others. But, would you call something an Asian dish just because it involved a bit of soy sauce?

Of course, I don't expect anyone to be as nerdily excited as me in studying Middle Eastern food traditions, nor should they be. But, I do think there is the responsibility on the part of the cookbook writers who write about these foods, and their editors, to dig a little deeper. I expect more than just some pretty pictures and four sentences about sour cherries. Maybe I'm asking too much.  Maybe 90% of your readers just want to look at the pictures, but what about the 10% who bought your book because they actually wanted to learn something. It takes a lot for someone to buy a real hard-copy cookbook these days, and I want the author to make it worth my while.

The thing is, it's sad if people only know about harissa sold in jars. If someone has gone far enough to buy your book about Middle Eastern foods, then they deserve to learn about hand-rolled barley flour couscous and cooking with argan oil and salty creamy ijben cheese (all those are Moroccan, but you get my drift). I think you should explain to them that good labne and good preserved lemons, one from North Africa and one from the Levant, would not historically have found their way into the same dish. Innovate with knowledge of tradition.

There is a lot of pressure on cookbook writers, Instagrammers,  bloggers, chefs, to produce food that is PRETTY. The NYTimes Pete Wells has talked about that here, and I loved Tim's recent thoughts about the boringness of pretty things here. I don't want food to only be pretty, I want it to taste good and if it's a really good meal or a good cookbook, it should be food that makes me think. My recent meal at Lokanta Yeni in Istanbul was an example of that, modern food rooted in Turkish tradition, with a carrot dip that made you rethink everything you knew about carrots. If you're a chef that's using the traditional spice blend dukkah on your menu, but that's the only thing you know about Egyptian food, then I think there's something wrong with that. Maybe that makes me obnoxious, or a snob, or maybe just someone with really high standards. I'm okay with that.

I read an interview with Anissa Helou recently, where she was asked if anyone was doing really truly innovative modern Middle Eastern cuisine, and she answered honestly, no she could not think of anyone. There are plenty of Middle Eastern influences in restaurant food these days, especially with some well-known chefs, but I'm inclined to agree with her opinion. Because there is very little understanding of the depth and history of these food traditions, there cannot be real innovation. Your food cannot make someone think if you do not know what you are saying, and if you do not know how the ingredients you are using are traditionally used, then how do you know what you are saying with them? I think often of a profile of the Italian chef Massimo Bottura that ran in the New Yorker last year.

However, all is not lost when it comes to this (endlessly long rant by yours truly). Greg Malouf's books always ring true to me, as someone who has traveled and researched the food he writes about, but takes the flavors in a new direction. (His salmon samkeh harra recipe is a classic example of this.) Leila's Haddad's wonderful Gaza Kitchen book, that introduced the world to roast baby watermelon fetteh, is another example. I love reading Joumana's Taste of Beirut, which highlights both traditional and contemporary Lebanese foods, and I'm looking forward to Felicia Campbell's Taste of Oman coming out this year.

This is all just a long winded way of saying that all these articles, these books that arrive in my mail box, the food I eat in restaurants, have gotten me thinking about demanding higher standards for myself, and for this blog. I write this unpopular food blog out of love and joy and occasionally out of frustration and a sense of duty to my six readers. But mainly, I write it to keep track of things I've liked and things I've learned. I work full time, commute battling donkey carts in the streets, spend an inordinate amount of time scrubbing vegetables, and don't have time to photograph perfectly styled shots of what I cook in my late night dimly lit kitchen. I routinely search twitter to find out if the explosion I just heard was an IED, a transformer exploding, or fireworks (all are regular occurrences). In between all that, I hope that I can write something meaningful for a few people in this tiny corner of the internet.

back soon with something tasty.....
photo 2
Photos from Wadi Degla, Cairo, Egypt.