Thursday, July 28, 2011

A letter to Karkadeh, my sweet hibiscus tea.

Dear Karkadeh,
Did you know that they call you Bunga Raya in Malaysia and that you're their national flower? I think it's a different kind of hibiscus flower though. Still, it sounds a little obscene to me but then again, karkadeh might sound just as indecent to them. Your street name, as you know, is Roselle while your birth name is Hibiscus Sabdariffa. Sorry to break it to you this way. Regardless, I'm glad that the Egyptian you decided to travel all the way from Egypt this year to spend the holy month of Ramadan with us. I know we're a lot quieter than what you're used to - what with the entertainment-driven Cairene Ramadan tents where you get to spend night after night in the hands of beautiful and not so beautiful ladies equally preening and ready to be as unholy in a holy month as possible. If you're being naughty and I suspect that you will be (be naughty for me - since I'll be fasting and won't be as naughty), you'll spill some of your self to stain them forever with your sweet purple dye. I know that you've been subjected to humiliation before in Malaysia when you were asked to be diluted - they didn't mean it, they're just not used to how sweet you can be and sometimes that intimidates them. I'm sorry that I offered you to them - they did not appreciate you for the shining star that you are. This year, I promise to use you in more than one way. I shall not only drink you for you are worthy of more attention than what you are given. And best of all, you will not have to share our home with Amar-el-din, that orange-spray-tan-like apricot juicy tart. I'm sorry I said tart. I'll be trying to curb my tongue from now on. Anyway, I'm glad you're visiting. I'm excited to be spending a lot of time with you. Until you meet my lips again, good night. 
Warm fuzzy feelings your way,
P.S. I painted that swirly designed stool in the last photo. 
Egyptian Karkadeh (Sweet Hibiscus Tea):
You'll need: 
2 scant cups of dry hibiscus flowers 
10 cups of water
3/4 to 1 cup of sugar (depending on your preferred sweetness)
Rinse the dry hibiscus flowers lightly and place in a large pot over high heat. Pour the water, stir, and allow to boil for 5-7 minutes. Lower the heat, add the sugar and stir until it has dissolved. Allow it to simmer for 40-45 minutes, stirring every now and then. Give it time to cool when you're done then strain it three times to get it as clear as possible. Place in your bottle or jug of choice and refrigerate. 
Serve with or without ice. Drink. Get a sugar rush.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Roasted pepper dip for the pepper-averse

I have a penchant for bell peppers. Eagerly consuming them in all colors and shapes, I cannot begin to comprehend why someone could be averse to their sweet tanginess. After marrying one of those pepper-averse people we were just talking about, it became clear that I would have to do everything in my power to get him to switch to the other side, my side, the sexy peppery side. I have tried calling it "capsicum" the way my mom taught me to sway him. I have disguised it in a plethora of chopped bird's eye chili.  So far, I have succeeded on two counts: 
1. Adding it to prawn will lead to consumption.
2. Roasting and puréeing it will befuddle then befriend my husband's taste buds.  

Below is my column featuring this recipe in The Daily News Egypt dated Saturday, October 22nd, 2011.

I love the sweetness of the humble bell pepper, or as I called it growing up, capsicum. I search for it when tasting new dishes and try to incorporate it into lots of meals. Raised in a home of pepper-loving parents, they would invite the many colored peppers to many of our lunches – red ones peeping out of a corn salad and green ones generously spread on a pizza. We'd have shrimp baked with peppers and onions after school; at night, they would come out, freshly sliced, to bring up a grilled cheese sandwich. I've been programmed for years to love these things and needless to say, I'll fall for most recipes that use bell peppers, especially roasted, to accent a dish.

When I got married, I rushed excitedly to the grocery store, picking up ingredients I was already familiar with and came to a screeching halt in front of the peppers. Look ma! They have all kinds of colored peppers including purple peppers, black peppers and even baby colored peppers!

This is going to be so much fun. I'm going to make chicken fajitas and it'll be great,” giddy me thought.

The giddiness didn't last long. A few polite lunches later, my husband decided to break the horrible news. He didn't like peppers – not on pizzas, not in salads, not stuffed. No way, no how.

And then I started roasting them, featuring them in tarts, pizza sauce and tangy eggplant salads, luring him into believing how magical these sweet fleshy fruits are. After two years of tirelessly experimenting to allow him to enjoy peppers, he found a midway love for them and has even promoted them at the table when we're hosting a dinner party.

There are a number of ingredients that may not sit well with the people you love. It is said that it takes 15 to 20 times of eating something to get used to the taste. Instead of deliberately avoiding these ingredients, gather the courage to serve these individual items in different ways, sometimes disguised and at other times as a side, until you find some acceptance from the disbeliever.

This recipe - served alone as a dip, used as a sandwich spread or an addition to a sauce – has worked to my benefit. It makes way for the sweetness of the peppers and adds punches of flavor to whatever you're working with. If you're not keen on serving it alone, stir it into some freshly cooked pasta or under a layer bubbling melted cheese sitting unsuspectingly on a slice of toast.

Successfully overcoming the minor problems peppers brought to our home, I've now moved onto battling with cardamom, that little pungent pod that imparts much flavor to a dish. Still in the phase of disguising it, I'll let you all know when it shines as the star of a dish in our home.

Roasted Pepper Dip
You'll need:
2 red bell peppers
2 yellow bell peppers
3 garlic cloves
1-2 bird's eye chili, sliced (optional)
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons of white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar
salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Roast your peppers according to The Wednesday Chef's instructions. I find that this method yields the best results. Once they're roasted, de-seeded, peeled and ready, place them in a food processor along with the garlic and chili.  Pulse until chunky then pour in the olive oil and vinegar. Continue to purée until smooth. Refrigerate. Keeps for 3-4 days.  
We used papadums this time but you can use anything - from crusty bread to crudités. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Warm Potato Salad (minus the mayonnaise)

Below is my column featuring this recipe in The Daily News Egypt dated Saturday, July 16th, 2011.

A dish that puzzles me to no end is potato salad. I've spent many moments questioning why people insist on calling it just that, “potato salad” despite their variations of it being so far apart. In my mind, a few things were certain. Potato salad is generally eaten in the summer. You'll never know what kind of potato salad you're getting until it's plopped in front of you. The inclusion of carbohydrates into a salad doesn't always make it good.

My mother's potato salad is one I enjoy. With her incorporation of fragrant herbs, potatoes that crack under the slight pressure of my fork, and the light drizzle of a zesty vinaigrette, it never fails to startle my taste buds into summery freshness. It has also traveled with us to any city we moved and has been a stable constant in a constantly changing household.

As you grow older, you begin visiting friends' homes and you begin to find out that their mothers, too, have potato salad on offering. Initially, I thought it was just that one friend's mom that adds a gloppy mess of store-bought mayonnaise to a bunch of other ingredients that I could never decipher. It turns out I was wrong and even at the age of 11, I could begin to tell that gloppy mayonnaise was a trend by the sheer abundance of it.

This made me realize then and there that while my mother's approach to cooking was still heavily influenced by the French kitchen, other mothers were well on their way to becoming well-versed in the ways of the Nineties' American kitchen – frying, substituting sauces with melting cheese, and using mayonnaise as a key ingredient in as many salads as possible.

This mayonnaise-laden salad began to make an appearance at barbecues, potlucks and picnics. It was easy to pack and the ladies proudly putting them together could ensure that there would be no wilting greens staring sadly up at them when it came time to serve. While those ladies rejoiced, the people who did not participate in the cooking were served double helpings of a potato salad that fell to pieces at the gentle prodding of their fork - potato salad that would rather be called Mayo-mash.

Usually, the equation of store-bought mayonnaise plus potatoes and not much else leaves me recalling childhood memories from my registry of regret but as I approach my 27th birthday, I realize that this registry cannot take much more salad sadness so I've decided to put a list together of some basic potato salad suggestions.

A good potato salad needs texture so it's best to use a low to medium-starch potato. These are generally known as waxy potatoes and are the sort that hold their shape well so they don't take a beating as easily.

Try to use fresh herbs and spices to bring up the flavor or you'll end up with a bland, avoidable dish. Always add the spices to the potatoes when they are hot as they tend to absorb more flavor that way. If you're feeling more adventurous, you can add almonds for a bit of crunch or green beans to the mix.

If you insist on using mayonnaise, experiment by flavoring it with a dollop of whole-grain or Dijon mustard and a bit of garlic. Know that if you decide to eliminate the mayonnaise or creamy dressing, your potato salad will hold up better for a longer period of time, especially if you're making it for an outdoorsy summer event. That and the fact that it'll be lighter on the stomach.

Using mayonnaise or creamy dressings also means that your potato salad should remain chilled at all times to avoid the dressing spoiling because of the heat.

Look at your potato salad as a dish that should take some attention off the mains instead of being an unnoticeable accompaniment made up of creamy, starchy stuff. You could skip the mayonnaise all together and make a vinaigrette of lemon juice, mustard and olive oil. You could even replace the waxy potatoes with roasted sweet potatoes. The ideas are endless, the way it should be and only after writing this do I understand why people call it Potato Salad. There's not much else you can call it without sounding esoteric. Here's my version that can be served without chilling but works equally as well straight out of the fridge.

Indian-inspired Warm Potato Salad
You'll need:
4 potatoes
2 teaspoons of whole cumin seeds
1 teaspoon of mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1-teaspoon coriander powder
½ teaspoon chili powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 fresh whole chili, sliced
2 tablespoons of sunflower oil
The juice of 1 lime
¼ cup of hot water
1 handful of chopped coriander, to garnish
Salt to taste

Par-boil the potatoes for around 15 minutes until slightly tender. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. Peel the potatoes then cut into large cubes. Heat a large frying pan over a high flame then add the oil. Add the cumin and mustard seeds along with the sliced fresh chili.

Leave for about 30 seconds then add the cumin, coriander and chili powders as well as the turmeric. Lower your heat to medium and stir to combine all the spices. Once fragrant, add the potatoes and mix until they are well coated in your spice mixture then add the salt and water.

Allow the water to be absorbed by the potatoes but stir every minute or so for around 5 minutes so that the potatoes don't stick to the bottom of the pan. When the potatoes are almost dry, squeeze the limejuice on top, stir to combine then turn off the heat and allow to cool. Before serving, add a handful of fresh coriander.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Tom Yum Goong - The Egyptian Way

Here's my new column for The Daily News Egypt.

My husband relocated to Malaysia a few months before I did. While I was busy boxing up what little we had made of our first makeshift home and saying my weepy goodbyes to Cairo, he was getting acquainted with Kuala Lumpur, what was to be our new home and what is often highlighted as a honeymoon destination.

By the time I arrived, Husband had developed an affinity to the scandalously hot Thai soup, Tom Yum Goong, or as he liked to call it, “Yum Yum soup.” Being a lifelong soup lover, I became excited at the prospect of finding this magical soup around every corner of Kuala Lumpur.

What I couldn't understand was why he, who generally looked down on soup, had suddenly become enthralled with that particular combination of flavors lying in a pool of steaming orange water. That was until I had it myself, in its true form, the way it is prepared for beggars and kings alike, with its fiery goodness defying the humid heat of Kuala Lumpur.

Combining the elements of Thai cooking this spicy, sour, and salty but sweet soup, pungent with fresh aromatics and savory depth, came alive with the final lashings of limejuice. Considering the abundance of Tom Yum Goong I consumed, I rapidly started understanding the delicate balance of flavors. It became instinctive; you would know the minute an ingredient was lacking. Was it the chili powder? Did they use fresh shrimp stock? Are those canned mushrooms?

One sip, my nose runs. Second sip, my eyes water. Third sip, this is child's play, I think. I'm half Indian and I'll continue to hydrate myself with the spiciest of liquids consumed in Asia. Who knows? Establishments serving the soup might be overtaken by neighboring fast food chains sooner than we think.

It took me three years in Malaysia to gather up the courage to make it. I prepared all of the ingredients carefully and operated as though I was being tested. If I failed, the disappointment would be great. Little did I realize that it was in fact quite a simple dish in need of a little attention and a mouth that constantly tastes to find the answer to the equation.

This week, I found myself trapped by a storm at home with fresh prawn, a craving for Tom Yum Goong, and a lack of fresh Thai herbs. After finding a great recipe, taking the tom yum jump and succeeding at recreating it at home a month ago, I decided to try the method out using flavors that were more particularly Egyptian. If it goes horribly wrong I thought and I can’t get the salty, sweet, sour, spicy combination right then I’ll call it something else, won’t tell anyone and eat it anyway.

It worked! Yes I’m as surprised as you are. It all boils down to the fundamentals of a cuisine and in this instance, Thai. I don’t have magic in my fingers and my skills are not gasp-worthy. Not at all. The sweetness came from the aromatics, the peppers and the prawn, the spiciness from the fresh ground chili, the sourness from the tomato paste and lime juice and the saltiness from the salt and accompanying spices. In essence, you’re just tossing it all into a pot and watching the magic unfold from a simple simmer. Use as much chili as you can handle. Live a little.
Beginners' Egyptian Tom Yum Goong
1 kg of medium-sized prawn, deveined
1 medium green pepper, diced
1 medium red pepper, diced
2 medium onions, finely sliced.
½ a cup of chopped celery
2½ teaspoons of ground cumin
1 teaspoon of ground coriander
salt/pepper to taste
2 heaped tablespoons of tomato paste
2.5 cups of shrimp stock or water
3 bird's eye chili, sliced (Feel free to increase the amount of chili.)
½ teaspoon of chili powder (I used 1 teaspoon)
Juice of 1 large lime
A handful of chopped parsley, to garnish
You can make this on the stove for a quicker meal but I prefer the richness that it develops in the oven if I have the time. Place the peppers, onions, celery, and sliced chili into a deep oven-proof dish. Add the ground cumin, coriander and chili powder then season with salt and pepper. Mix together until the spices coat everything evenly.
In a separate bowl, Add the tomato paste to 2 cups of freshly boiled shrimp stock or water and stir until the paste dissolves. Pour the prepared liquid onto your vegetable mixture and cover. Place in a preheated oven of 200 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes. Lower the heat to 180 degrees Celsius, remove the lid and allow to simmer in the enclosed heat for another 20 minutes.
Remove from the oven, add the lime juice then the prawn. Make sure it is immersed in the soup. Return to the oven and continue to simmer for another 20 minutes. Garnish with chopped parsley. Serve in a bowl with a side of rice or crusty bread.
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