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.
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