Monday, December 26, 2011

Sugar Cookies for cookie-cutter women

On the 10th day of the 10th month of 2010, I broke my finger and made an unexpected friend.

Irrespective of the pressing need to operate, it was not until a week later, after the kids were cured of their cold, that I would have to submit to surgery. This friend who stood by me and cooked fragrant Iranian food for our household while I was incapable, whose own little girl attended the same school as my stepchildren, would link some awful truths to the picture I drew of Iran in my mind.

She would come and keep me company, refilling my white bowl with steaming spoonfuls of Iranian biryani and my ears with the warm drawl of her accent. It was easier to sit on our balcony on the 21st floor. It was easier to stare into the distance when words failed you, the adult that you are, responsible for children and a home.

With a casual laugh and a toss of her hair, she talks about her country's past and my country's future, about the ways of oppression and alienation, forgiveness and trust and most importantly, the price of being a woman.
Stories of ladies beaten in the streets for wearing nail polish - “You cannot pray like this,” of ladies who could only show their fringe if it was brown - “Blond hair is for your husband at home,” of men who had enforced haircuts deemed acceptable by the government and a vast majority drinking themselves into oblivion to avoid the reality of day-to-day living.
As I cracked the delicate crust of sholeh-zard, a sweet saffron-infused almond rice dessert tinged with turmeric and aromatic spices, I felt blessed that we had not become what she was so bitterly describing.

Today as we approach the end of 2011, I do not feel as secure because I cannot yet determine what to expect and I wonder what I will have to adapt to or become. I fear that I might not be able to take part in a male-dominated kitchen because I am a woman or that an ultra-conservative man will one day come and accuse me of being a gastronomic pimp caught up in the dirty business of food pornography.

I cannot lie – Egyptians on all levels are still afraid; the barrier of fear has not been broken.

Scraping the bottom of my small cut-glass bowl, my friend's nonchalant attitude begins to shift. With a wavering voice, she remembers her daughter asking her, upon leaving Iran, why she wasn't wearing her “uniform” anymore, and how she noticed that people smiled in the street, questioning why they were happy – a detail most adults would not take note of.

This beautiful lady with a constant bounce in her step, a hair color that changed with the month and a broad and cheeky grin had left her country in search of a better life for her daughter. I cannot bear to see this happening to our daughters, to our children; it is unfortunate to say that I currently consider it a blessing that I do not have any of my own.
With Christmas literally around the corner, the only thing I truly pray for is a little more forgiveness in this country and a lot more compassion because Egypt is tired and needs a pick-me-up, a sugar rush, some good news, an attempt at positivity and a more united spirit.
Sugar Cookies:
1 ¾ cups of all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ cup unsalted butter
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Royal Icing:
1 large egg white
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. With an electric mix, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy (3-4 minutes). Add the vanilla and egg. Mix for a minute then add the flour mixture. Beat until it looks smooth. Split the dough in half. Wrap each half in cling film and refrigerate for an hour.
Preheat oven to 177 degrees Celsius. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll out one half of the dough to a 1 cm thickness on a floured surface. Make sure the dough does not stick by rotating while you roll. Cut out the cookies using a floured cookie cutter. Place the cookies on a baking sheet and chill for 15 minutes. Bake cookies for 10 minutes or until they begin to slightly brown around the edges. Cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes before moving them. Frost with royal icing. Royal icing must dry entirely before storing. This can take hours. Store cookies in an airtight container between layers of parchment paper.
Royal Icing:
Beat the egg whites with lemon juice with an electric mixer. Add the powdered sugar. Mix on low until smooth. Increase speed to medium and beat for 7-10 minutes until stiff and shiny. Royal icing has to be used or covered immediately so as not to harden. Split into different bowls if you wish to color it. Put the icing in a piping bag with a plain tip. Pipe a border around the cookie. This recipe is to create the hard border before “flooding” the cookie. To flood the cookie, add teaspoon by teaspoon of water to the remaining icing until it reaches a thinner consistency to fill the cookie border. Remember to allow the border to dry before flooding then rest it until it dries completely before storing.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Predatory Instincts & a Spinach Chicken Roulade

I put my new clothes on, tugged on my pretty jacket and straightened my back with my head held high, trying to preen in front of the mirror. Watching my mother from the sidelines applying a sleek stroke of liquid eyeliner, I wondered when I too would be able to watch my own face transform from the clean-faced little girl to a mascara-laden wide-eyed spectacle.
Minutes later, I received a sealed envelope with my name written in a personal hurried cursive - "Sarah." Peaking inside was my annually dependable stroke of luck, my "edeyya" or Eid money, that which was handed out to children to buy whatever it was their little hearts desired on Eid Al-Adha, a special occasion in most Muslim households. Of course, kids weren't allowed to buy the item of their choosing because it was never suitable for their age.

Driving over to my aunt's house, we'd watch children, unlike us who sat politely in the car, clapping to a beat that pounded from a small truck spilling droplets of blood along the road. They'd dip their hands into the freshly slaughtered sheep's blood, teasing each other in between giggles, finally wiping their hands down on the sheep's shorn woolen fleece hung along the side of the puttering truck. I had never seen anything dead before. The only blood I had ever touched was mine. This remained until I was much older.
On the cold morning of this Eid Al-Adha, I, now 27, hurriedly piled layers of clothes on without a second look in the mirror; dragged, with a trained hand, my eyeliner onto my eyelids and slipped into my comfortable old sneakers. There was nothing new except for the house we were now living in and that I would watch a sheep's last moments only moments later; the same sheep we bought the night before and carried home in our car – the one I talked to, fed and marked with green paint.
Driving over to the designated area, I hopped out of the car, straightened my back, hung my head low and walked toward the sheep already being dragged out by the burly men, their white shirts drenched in red. Pinned down, the sheep surprisingly remained calm, despite his fellow companions laying motionless beside him. In retrospect, if my voice hadn't chosen to disappear deep within me at the time, I would have tried to pleasantly ask the butcher to shield the sheep's eyes from the its unpleasant surroundings.

In moments, it was all over. Children clamored to hold the carcass as the man blew it up to prepare it for skinning while others waited to receive their annual share. A woman was busy at work, cleaning out the contents of exposed stomachs while I stood and watched. I had never felt more useless in my entire life.
When it came time to share the meat, a middle-aged man carried the bright hot liver triumphantly and presented it to my husband; the blood dripping down the side of his arm as he grinned on. “Come! Take the liver!” he urged, but something told us that he was urging us to let it go, to let it belong to him, to allow him to enjoy the rarity that is fresh liver.
Many Egyptians today shy away from slaughtering animals and prefer to give money to those that will slaughter for them, preferring to play the innocent predator who will eat from the kill but will participate in none of the butchery. We have killed insects at the very most.
It is easier to consume mass quantities of meat when you forget the tiresome process that gets meat to your table. It is easier to forget and avoid the knife because you are not a killer. I cannot see myself running away anymore.
In our home, we have decided to learn how to slaughter and butcher. I know that we will not be able to sustain it but if we are to use our teeth on cooked chicken, we should be able to place a knife against it and learn the most efficient way for the animal to die humanely. Until I gather the courage, I'll watch the butchers do their job and await hate mail from vegetarians around the world asking me to save the chicken.

You'll need:
6 skinless boneless chicken breast halves
7 button mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 cup of chopped spinach
4 scallions, finely sliced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 full tablespoon of black sesame seeds
2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups of ground breadcrumbs
2 eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons of butter
3 tablespoon of vegetable oil

Place a pan on medium heat. Gently heat 1.5 tablespoons of oil. Add the scallions, garlic and black sesame. Let it cook for 2 minutes before adding the mushrooms to sauté. Cook for 5 minutes. Add the spinach. Once it has wilted, add the Worcestershire sauce. Toss the mixture. Remove from the heat and allow it to cool. Place each chicken breast between 2 sheets of plastic wrap. With a rolling pin or a meat pounder pound each breast to 1/8-inch thickness. Discard plastic from the topside of each breast. Salt and pepper the chicken. Spread your cooked mixture along the middle of the breast. Using the bottom layer of plastic wrap, roll each breast lengthwise. Tuck in the ends. Hold the seams together with toothpicks. Repeat with each breast. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight. After chilling, remove the plastic wrap. Dip each rolled breast into the beaten egg then roll in the breadcrumbs. Heat a pan on medium heat. Melt the butter in the remaining oil. Place each breast in the pan, sealed side down. Cook for 18 minutes or until golden brown and cooked through. Remove the toothpicks and serve.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Half-browned rice - a family tradition

Special to The Daily News Egypt
When my mother is in the kitchen, she likes to talk about my grandmother; I don't think she realizes that it has become a pattern. As she stirs, today a creamy mushroom soup, tomorrow some strawberry jam thickening on the stove, she remembers her own mother's hands, how they tailored dainty dresses and kneaded soft and supple biscuit dough.
My mother-in-law skims her freshly chopped molokheyya soup as it simmers, the same method used to skim greasy fat rising to the top of a bubbling chicken stock. She does it out of tradition, a custom that was never intentionally passed on by her mother but viewed through the eyes of growing children who would one day instinctively emulate what they once saw long ago. She retells stories of her mother, a refined woman from the city traveling through the countryside in the 1930s with her doctor-husband and eight children in the making, and of how she would awake early and trundle out to cook the day's meals thus eliminating the smell of cooking in the house if she were to receive visitors later in the afternoon or how she would exercise her fingers on the piano or listen to the radio as she sewed on her treasured sewing machine every morning.
My newly married sister has picked up on preparing food beforehand and freezing it for a later date in the same fashion that my mother continues to do today. I have a feeling that she will always have homemade burgers on hand and will offer them up readily to the hungry stomachs that visit.
A close friend insists that the only way, her mother's and grandmother's way, to make goulash, a savory beef and phyllo pie, is without a trace of tomatoes and a healthy dose of beaten egg and milk; another friend explains that it can only be made with stock to give it a crunchy base like that of the one she grew up with and a rich tomato sauce to complement the ground beef filling. This is the way of tradition and preserving identity.
We are constantly shaping the way our traditions look for future generations. I wonder if our children and grandchildren will know half of what we today are learning from the generations that grew up in an Egypt that they wanted to remember. Will we too pass on these same traditions or are we forgetting our heritage? Why is it that when I talk about Egyptian food, many Egyptians insist on notifying me that there is no such thing as Egyptian food?
What of Upper Egypt's sun bread known as “shamsi bread” that is left to rise in the sun and is baked today in a method that dates back to the ancient Egyptians? What of Egyptian desert truffles known as “terfas” rumored to be created by a magical lightning bolt and also highly appreciated in ancient Egypt? How many Egyptians begin to preserve their leftover fruit in jars of jam or pickle their vegetables for the winter?
No longer do many of us know our own history away from the wars and military achievements.
While countries everywhere embrace the little that they have been blessed with, the relationships they have formed or the cultures they have cultivated, we continue to run to the French and Lebanese for inspiration, the Gulf for religion or live forever trying to find ourselves like the Americans on television.
Even today, many of us are looking toward Malaysia in hope that maybe we could become “like them.” Malaysia has now officially banned protests and political marches, its Muslims cannot enjoy a glass of wine in public without being monitored or arrested by plain-clothed police and the differentiation between the three Main Malaysian races — Malay, Chinese and Indian — is clear to anyone willing to question bravely. When did we become tired of our own fertile ground?

Today, take a look around you and learn from an Egyptian that knows more about a facet of Egypt than you. Disregard the political parties you don't agree with for a moment, turn a blind eye to the unknown future and take note of a tradition from our past. This recipe belongs to my grandmother who used to feed me chicken soup and boiled chicken for the first years of my life believing that it was the way to true health. Introduced to me by my mother, it has become part of my home as well and has found a place in my husband's heart.

Egyptian Half-Browned Rice
You'll need:
1 cup of short-grain rice
1 ¾ cups of water
1 ½ tablespoons of ghee
Salt to taste

Begin by rinsing the rice in a sieve. After draining, separate the rice into two equal halves. Place a pot on medium heat. Add the ghee and wait for it to melt and ripple. Add half of the rice to the ghee and mix together with a heatproof spoon. At first, the rice will stick together and seem like it won't come undone. Continue to mix. Gradually, the rice grains will start to break apart to form the loose grains they were at first. Keep stirring the rice for 2 minutes. It will begin to turn a light gold color. Continue to stir until it reaches a deep golden shade. Once you have reached the desired color, add the second half of the rice. Mix to combine both and add 2 cups of water. Bring the water to a quick boil and reduce the heat to a low flame. Cover the pot and leave to cook undisturbed for 15 minutes. Uncover the pot, taste to test the grain of rice. If it remains resistant, cook for another 3-5 minutes. Serve hot.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Coconut milk mussels & unlikely flavors

My latest for The Daily News Egypt
There's an odd story recanted to me that goes like this: A four year old girl, upon returning to Cairo and being invited along with her parents to her relative's house for dinner, glared intensely at the thing presented at the table then slowly moved her head sideways to blankly stare at her mother. “Mommy, it's fish with eyes.”

I had never seen fish with eyes at a dinner table before, only boneless fish fillets and fish fingers coated in breadcrumbs before delicately frying up to crispy tenderness. Fish with eyes belonged in gleaming fish tanks, also in the big blue sea. They ate the bread you would throw at them, similar to the ducks at the Giza Zoo that I too used to love feeding; and if you were feeding something, it would be unthinkable to fish it out and consume the thing, eyes and all. I bet I was thinking, “Why are people eating fish with eyes and not the fish fingers that are so much more humane?”
That sensitive being that was me was repulsed by the fresh oysters her parents loved and didn't like much other than pizza. Of course, I still have a penchant for pizza but have thankfully moved beyond thinking that shells belong solely on a beach to be collected by little girls in frilly swimsuits.

Getting a little older, I would sit at the table with my feet dangling off the chair and eat bone marrow from the mutton curry I'd share with my father. Since the dish didn't have eyes or a face, it didn't strike me as strange or disgusting. It was just a bone; nothing there to give it personality.

Today, vegans would hate me. I prefer to cook my fish with eyes and happily whistle as I look down at the dead body staring up at me. Without a second thought, I stick my fingers under a chicken's skin to butter it up before it's placed in the rotisserie. I try to coax as much flavor as possible out of all that I've bought. I make shrimp stock out of the heads and peeled shells and leave the tails on for presentation. My childhood empathy is lost when I try to maximize flavors. Am I so wrong?

If I'm not going to become a vegetarian or even a vegan overnight purely because of my selfish love for meat, then I would think it the honorable thing to do — to cook not only quality cuts but also those neglected cuts of meat and join the nose to tail eating movement. Fergus Henderson, an English chef and father of nose to tail eating, explained his philosophy in an interview with the Daily Telegraph newspaper some years ago: “It seems common sense and even polite to the animal to use all of it. Rather than being testosterone-fuelled blood-lust, it actually seems to be a gentle approach to meat eating.”
It seems today that inviting people for dinner comes along with beautiful beef fillets from a moist tenderloin but lacking at the table are slow-cooked briskets and seared livers, chicken and beef, spiced up and served right off the stove. Elegant guests shudder at putting their lips to a bone and most unstylishly drawing in the insides as they would the contents of their sparkling drinks.

If you too aren't planning on becoming a vegetarian anytime soon, open your mind up to the countless cuts presented to you on a daily basis and create something new. Introduce your young children or narrow-minded friends to seafood besides fish and teach them to appreciate fish still attached to the bone. You'll end up with copious ideas for meals and will probably, at times, spend a little less on the cuts of meat that most people aren't buying.

This recipe bathes the mussels in coconut milk and doesn't need much more than good bread and a cool night that holds the promise of winter.

Coconut Milk Mussels
You'll need
4 tablespoons of vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 bird's eye chilis, sliced
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
2 cups coconut milk
1 cup of water
salt and pepper to taste
1 kg of mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
Handful fresh coriander, chopped

Pour the oil into a large pot over medium high heat. Add the onions to the pot and cook, stirring often, until lightly browned. Add the minced ginger and sliced chili and cook for a minute, stirring constantly. Add the coriander, turmeric and chili powder and cook for another minute, again stirring often.

Pour in the coconut milk with one cup of water. Bring to a boil and then add the mussels. Add some salt and pepper and stir until the mussels are well coated. Cover the pot, reduce the heat and cook for about 7 minutes. Turn off your heat. Add the lemon juice and coriander and spoon into bowls. Serve.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

LadyBrille's Woman of the Month

Hello, hello. Dropping in quickly to let you guys know that I've been chosen as LadyBrille's Woman of the Month October 2011 for this blog that started as a self-improvement project and continues to be. Here's the full interview. Thank you, LadyBrille. I'm honored to be a part of this growing list of inspirational women. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Poached Pears in Spiced Karkadeh

There was a minor issue troubling me concerning a certain bottle of karkadeh lounging lazily in our fridge. No one wanted to drink it. We had both had our fair share of it in Ramadan and this bottle menacingly promised to stay until next Ramadan. I couldn't pour it down the sink because I carefully carry Karkadeh all the way from Cairo. It would be a little more than insulting to my poor suitcase to throw it away. So today, I had two pears left and decided to poach them in a spiced karkadeh. It turned well.  Really well.  
Below is my column featuring this recipe in The Daily News Egypt dated Saturday, 15th, 2011.

This week in Egypt carries the weight of crisp white cotton shrouds and the shiny wooden caskets of those we lost.

Silence descends as I listen to the news, to the wailing of women at the morgue abruptly deserted in life by their sons. I, stunned by the recent events at Maspero, position my fingers on the keyboard to make my mark, pound out my thoughts into 140 characters on the Internet. Three days in, it never comes and instead, a rising fear throttles my voice.

A Spanish proverb springs to mind - don't speak unless you can improve on the silence. I stay quiet but is the stagnantly comfortable Egypt I left behind three years ago gone or does it remain?

Throughout the past 8 months, I have often become despondent – my faith slowly faltering until I could only see loss in the promotion of new ideas revolving around our cuisine, our food culture and in keeping our land clean, away from the chemical companies who, once producing agent orange and stain-resistant carpets, are now feeding us genetically modified foods and controlling a high percentage of American seed. Since almost complete domination of the American markets, these companies view Africa as an ideal spot to continue to bring close the complete control of the world's food supply.

How can we protect ourselves let alone the well-being of our farmers? How many of us are educated enough and more importantly, interested enough to be aware of the dangers concealing themselves behind the pretty picture of strong and vibrant corn fields? How many of us know about giant agri-business, corporate farming and how it's run?

What I'm sure about is that we will start seeing many smaller farms looking to gain a place in the huge agricultural market instead of competing with the big boys. Our agriculture will be sold off and owned by others because of something as simple as selling the rights to our old seed to create a new genetically modified one.

And what of the homeless children? If they aren't going to school or learning anything at public school for that matter, will we leave them to grow into glue-sniffing, prostitute-peddling adults or what we now like to call “thugs”? With the number of NGOs in Egypt, I'm surprised that not one has created a cooking school to teach homeless children and give them careers, turning them away from the grime of fixing cars for almost nothing or worse.

The kitchen will teach almost anyone work ethic – show up on time, stay sober, keep clean, overcome anger and you're set. Sadly, we are not so concerned about our homeless just as we aren't about our farmers. Egyptian food industry plays no part in helping out the community, away from serving free food during Ramadan and if they are, no one knows about it.

The upcoming generations need skills or they'll end up in the street, fighting for a mere semblance of a life and dying an untimely death. Again.

I, like many Egyptians, have ideas but don't know what to do with them anymore or where to start so instead, I sharpen my own skills, hoping that one day I'll be able to do more good with them than cook in my own kitchen and talk to anyone who'll listen.

Trying, as ever, to come up with better ideas for the ingredients presented to us in Egypt, this pear recipe put a skip in my step until noticing, only two nights later, that most Egyptians won't notice my pure and organic pear, steeped in deep red, just like they aren't noticing the blood-stained sidewalks because they choose not to look. For what it's worth, try this out and share in this week's bitterness tinged with a sweet glimpse of hope.

Poached Pears in Spiced Karkadeh

You'll need:
2 medium sized pears
3 cups of pre-made karkade
1 cup of water 
2 cinnamon sticks
3 star anise 
1.5 tablespoons of candied mixed peel
Peel your pears leaving the stalk on. If you prefer, you can halve the pears through the center. Pour the karkade and water into a large pot. Add the cinnamon and star anise. Bring to a quick boil and reduce the heat immediately. Allow it to reach a gentle simmer. Plop your pears and candied peel into the simmering karkade. Cover the pot. Turn your pears occassionally to make sure they're fully immersed in the liquid. Cook for 15-18 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove from the pot. Serve hot with warm karkadeh or cold with some nuts and ice cream. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

A basmati pilaf and scents of home

It is always different writing my column in Cairo. The smells and tastes are changed and bring back many memories; and so when I write on my mother's bed, I live in the past. Writing from Malaysia allows me to reflect on my present and on what I am regularly learning. It reinforces the relationship my bum has with my sofa and how I huddle in a particular corner to type up a new piece for The Daily News Egypt. This week, I write about rice, being of much bigger importance in my life than I realized. 

Below is my column featuring this recipe in The Daily News Egypt dated Saturday, October 15th, 2011.

No longer can I put a number on the times or ways I've eaten rice. Minimally integrated into a meal or making up the bulk of a dish, rice has repeatedly required me to come to terms with its sticky staying power in my life and the world's obsessive need to consume this starchy staple.

Before the creamy Italian risotto rose to a place of power and prominence in the culinary world, I grew up on Egypt's simple and salty ghee-laden rice as well as multiple servings of steaming Indian basmati rice.

To me, white rice was characterless and only got slightly exciting when Ramadan came – the Muslim holy month that propelled cooks into the kitchen, doing their best to gussy up the simple, almost invisible humble grain.

My 10-year-old self would tell you there were only two kinds of rice: short-grained white rice, usually eaten with a saucy tomato-drenched vegetable; or long-grained white rice, buried beneath an spicy Indian curry – both equally fluffy, flavorful and often forgotten; or, being the finicky eater I was, used as a filler when I turned my nose at the accompanying dishes laid out before me.

As I grew, my changing palate began to grow fonder of this flavor magnet and found ways to utilize it to bring stardom and cultural diversity to the table; but it would take many a trial and error before I succeeded.

After a few months of living in Kuala Lumpur, I came to the realization that Egyptians eat minimal quantities of rice next to South-east Asians. These people are rice connoisseurs, eating rice for breakfast and buying it at a whopping 3 to 5 kilos at a time. Everyone has a rice cooker. The rice aisle is host to brands and types of rice I have never before seen. This, at first, is overwhelming and confusing and I've often been asked by fellow Egyptian expatriates what brand I'm buying and if I've found a suitable substitute for our beloved Egyptian rice.

In the three years I've resided here, I've switched brands 3 times. As I previously said: a confusing issue and one that is taking up far more of my time than I ever expected.

After finding comfort in cooking rice, I began actively seeking new recipes that took advantage of this world favorite. At dinner parties, I would use rice, the highly valued inexpensive grain, to bring Lebanese cinnamon rice with ground beef and pine nuts, Indian turmeric rice, Golden Egyptian seafood rice and rice puddings to the warmed plates of guests – these recipes serving as welcomed highlights that allowed my newly acquired friends from Kuala Lumpur a glimpse of where I came from, away from their steamed and salt-less fragrant rice, chicken rice and banana leaf rice, not to mention a dear favorite of mine, pineapple fried rice. It is now hard to recall how many moments I've spent in Southeast Asia discussing rice and the many techniques used to achieve the perfect bite.

Whether you've found appreciation for it later in life or have been raised on rice, its ability to create a magical sense of home has won over the hearts of humanity over the centuries.

This recipe, adapted from Gordon Ramsay, combines the bold flavors of eastern spices with a few popular western alterations. Baked in the oven, a wholesome basmati pilaf can be transformed into a rustic and rich deviation from the norm.

Spiced Basmati Pilaf
(Adapted from Gordon Ramsay's Chef's Secret)

You'll need:
a round casserole dish
250 grams of basmati rice
3 tablespoons of ghee
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
2 cinnamon sticks
5 cardamom pods
Finely pared lemon zest, in pieces
1 sprig of thyme
2 star anise
2 cloves
500 ml of chicken stock or water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Rinse the rice until the water runs clear to remove excess starch. Make a cartouche by cutting a circle, slightly larger than your casserole dish, out of greaseproof paper. Cut a small hole in the center to create a vent for steam.
Melt your ghee on medium heat in a flameproof casserole dish and sauté the onions for approximately five minutes until softened. Add the rice and stir to combine. Add the herbs, spices and lemon and cook for a minute until aromatic.
Boil your stock or water then pour into the rice along with the salt and pepper. Cover with the cartouche, pressing down to turn the edges up and create a neat fit. Make sure the vent is visible. There is no need for a lid.
Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to stand for 5 minutes before removing the cartouche. Fork through the remaining tablespoon of ghee until the rice grains are fluffy and separate. Serve. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Turons for Luz and Gojee

Below is my column featuring this recipe in The Daily News Egypt dated Saturday, October 1st, 2011.

Already ma'am?” laughed Luz.      

I had outgrown yet another pair of shoes only recently purchased; and Luz, our Filipino housekeeper, calmly tidying my room, couldn't contain her chuckle. I, an 11 year old, was passing down spanking new shoes again to a lady gradually growing shorter than me despite the long years of life she had lived ahead of my birth. My feet just wouldn't stop growing.

We can't keep up,” my mother laughed along while I internally panicked that I would soon be dubbed Bigfoot, unaware that my menacing feet would soon halt their unruly lengthening and allow the rest of my body to play catch-up.

Between the blossoming but often contradicting interest in boys and food and counting down to becoming a teenager, eleven was an age of befuddlement. Mundane routine kept me in check: donning my uniform and heading to school, scheming to gain in popularity, vaguely listening to the teacher, recess, doodling in class and returning home for lunch.

Lunch was a bizarre event. My sister and I were still adjusting to having our own apartment away from our familiarity with hotel rooms and room service. When served what my mother made for breakfast one morning in our new kitchen, my sister looked at her plate and exclaimed, raising her eyebrows as if to declare something of monumental importance, “I didn't order this.”

The displeased expression on my mother's face told us that there was to be no ordering in our house. We were to be raised as normal children and living at the hotel was a transitional phase because we all needed our own rooms and a kitchen. From now on, we were to visit the hotel but not reside there. Daddy worked there and that's about it. A strong determination in my mother's eyes confirmed that we were not to become spoiled nor bratty.

Every afternoon, seated at our dining table, I would pretend to be older than my years and babble with anyone who would listen. My sister, in between singing funny little songs, would spend a good fifteen minutes on each bite and Luz, now finished with our housework, would bring a banana and hot sauce to the table to eat with us before heading home. It didn't matter what we were eating; from molokheyya to stewed okra, we would be exposed to the wild taste buds of Luz, ones we hadn't yet developed or thought of even attaining one day. Fusion Filipino-Egyptian cooking was being constructed right in front of us but we were too young to think beyond “ Look at what she's mixing together. How weird.”

Did we know much about the Filipino diet? No, not beyond noodles and the sweet Filipino polvorons, a buttery powdered milk candy, that Luz would bring us as a pasalubong, or gift for overseas friends, on her return from her yearly vacation in the Philippines.

Pasalubong in Tagalog literally means “something meant for you when you welcome me back” so we would welcome her back by chomping on the sweets as she recanted stories of busy streets and karaoke-loving people, welcoming us into a culture far from our own.

Although at the time we weren't ready to experiment with our palates, Luz is today someone I think back to when I am in need of some inspiration in the kitchen.

As I was trawling for recipes, I came across a Filipino street snack that is as simple as it is scrumptious. Called a turon, this snack is essentially a banana wrapped in spring roll pastry, also known as lumpia in the Philippines. Each vendor puts their own spin on the mighty turon. Some will add jack-fruit while others might grate some cheddar cheese or coconut onto the banana before sealing the wrapper.

I chose to eliminate these flavor combinations and opted to bring some heat to these crispy rolls by utilizing the Indonesian long pepper I had lying around as well as freshly ground black pepper.

If Luz was coupling the creaminess of bananas with the red hot heat of Tabasco sauce and roll it around in Arabic flat bread then dip it into a bowl of Molokheyya, it was inevitable that I, too, would one day add some heat to the sweetness of a fruit I've never known to mix with much.

Honey-pepper Banana Roll
You'll need:
3 ripe bananas
2 tablespoons of brown sugar 
12 spring roll wrappers
Vegetable oil, for deep-frying

To dip:
1/2 tablespoon of honey, per roll
1/2 a teaspoon of ground Indonesian long pepper
1 teaspoon of ground black pepper per roll
Peel the bananas and split them down the middle. Cut lengthwise down every half. Place each banana slice on an individual large spring roll wrapper (21.5x21.5cm). Sprinkle the banana with some sugar. Fold the top of the wrapper over the banana then fold the right and left sides and roll until the wrapper is tight and closed. Moisten the top flap with water to seal. Heat your oil over medium heat. Deep fry until golden brown. Drizzle with honey and black pepper. Serve hot. 
This turned out to be really good stuff. The banana melts with the sugar and becomes custardy and soft. Really good stuff. Concerning other things, I am now a contributor on Gojee, a website I saw a while ago and loved instantly. I had no idea I would be part of such an amazing team and was happy to have discovered Gojee right from the start. When they rolled out the new list of contributors I was surprised to see such popular blog names contributing along with tiny little Buttered-Up here. If you're ever craving something, head over there and plug it in. You'll find many, many ideas.  
Related Posts with Thumbnails