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.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Taste Junction & a Koshari-inspired Spaghetti

I was recently asked to guest post for Anamika of TasteJunction, which got me a little more excited than I should be seeing as it was the first time for me to guest post. Thank you, Anamika, for giving me this opportunity and for sharing your fabulous blog with me. For the recipe of the koshari-inspired spaghetti along with what it means for an Egyptian to go without koshary, please visit her blog here.

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