Thursday, November 15, 2012

Chef's Table: A Night for Everyone

Apologies for the photos. Low light. It should still give you a general feel.

Alfonse and Fares: two of whom many will fail to remember but a most pleasant experience did they provide at this month’s Chef’s Table, the third installment of the pop-up event now held every month at Cellardoor Bistro in the narrow streets of Maadi. Tending to our shallow desires and our relatively generous wallets, these men, our waiters for the night, worked tirelessly to be remarkably courteous, bringing the different courses, one after the other on time, after a few leisurely sips of an ordered drink.   

Our table was a reunion of sorts and a meeting of new kindred spirits: old high school friends, work colleagues and newspaper editors. Every dish presented to the table brought about conversations:  childhood memories of mom’s cooking, scouting out Egyptian food on business trips in places as far as Hong Kong and stories of Puerto Rican sofrito, a base seasoning sauce, dominating the bulk of Puerto Rico’s dishes and giving them an aromatic punch.

Pumpkin soup was ladled carefully into their small containers and arrived hot with notes of orange and a sweet musky lift from the nutty brown butter and toasted pumpernickel croutons. All that was needed, a fireplace. Immediately after came a salad, a faraway relative of the classic Waldorf with pleasing autumn colors and complementary elements - beautiful beetroot and a considerate helping of walnuts, bobbles of blanched and peeled cherry tomatoes, consistent slices of almost transparent rounds of radish, batons of tart green apples, piquant rocket leaves and blue cheese; a flashier version of an everyday salad that new attendees would feel at ease with. A cumin focaccia crostini was served alongside this crowd-pleaser and although full of flavor, it retained some moisture and did not deliver on the crunch.    

A trio of tacos came next, propped up against a dainty stand with individually hand drawn designs. Interestingly, most went first for the vegetarian moussaka taco. Layered lentils and cubed aubergine were served at room temperature and were governed by the crumbled feta; a little dry as was the sea bass ceviche taco, they both could have benefitted from a little less restraint and a heavier hand as per the respective regions of those dishes.

As a separate ceviche away from the tortilla, it was delicate and sweet. After completing the first two, the brave tried to comfort those whose fear of consuming an animal’s tongue was troubling them. The beef tongue taco stood ominously, piled high but was seasoned well, tender and layered with flavors of a familiar taco. The hero on the plate making it all meld was the guacamole, chunky but creamy and especially fresh.  

Fourth was the the “White, Pink and Gold” with several components: an Old Bay belly of salmon with a roasted pepper ratatouille that far surpassed the salmon served at the first Chef’s Table; a simple sea bass, soft and barely opaque, perched atop a small mound of fava beans adding much needed texture; and tempura crayfish tails with a brilliant bright green dill oil and a mild red pepper aioli. I would have preferred a lighter batter but would still snack on a plate of these again.  

Next arrived one of my favorites of the night - what Chefs Ayman Samir, Wesam Masoud and Moustafa El Refaey named “Banzai!”, a quick shot composed of both fresh and pickled ginger, balanced with citrus and a swirl of greek yogurt, this clever palate cleanser takes me back to my short years in Kuala Lumpur and the fusions in food that I experienced there.

The main was unexpected - an oxtail faggot with crushed peas that represented classic British fare, slow roasted leg of goat with a berry demi-glace flaunting its French and Moroccan accents, a potato terrine and a caramelized carrot purée dotted with pickled pearl onions - but despite the few glitches on my plate, a bit of unrendered fat and underseasoned potatoes, I admired the insistence of the chefs to introduce their audience to the nose to tail eating concept, starting with the beef tongue enjoyed earlier and ending with these bold flavors to nudge the timid palates at the bistro that night.   

Dessert was a chilled soup of sour cherry and amaretto, vanilla ice cream with a pinch of fleur de sel and chocolate covered dehydrated beef bacon that had people holding it up to the light, perplexed by a concept new to Cairo. Ending on a light note, the chefs wrapped up the night with complex flavors.

Favoring a quick chat with the chefs post-dégustation, I realize that Chef Ayman  Samir has not slept the night before, Chef Wesam Masoud is down with a flu but has managed to pull through and Chef Moustafa El Refaey with the inner excitement of the arrival of his recent newborn is hiding away from the diners’ eyes, working to finish off his night on a high note and go home. This is achievement: three men working with their teams to provide Cairo with a contemporary outlook on food while maintaining a sense of comfort. Ayman Samir cinched the night after all was done, “This was meant to be a night for everyone.”      

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Browned Orzo Pudding

“Chili sauce? But where’s the ketchup?” I huffed and puffed at my bag of artery-blocking fries, limp after their trip to me on the back of a motorbike. Only having started to eat ketchup recently, I could not understand why my new home at the time, Kuala Lumpur, was not delivering on my need to fit into the ketchup-dunking French fry-eating globalized world of 2008. Surely I could not yet be expected to accustom my tongue to rojak (a mixture of fruit and a zingy shrimp paste dressing) when I was still so fresh off the Boeing.
When I ordered what I like to call the Cholesterol Special, I expected a thick double cheeseburger and fries with a side of the all-important pseudoplastic ketchup. No sweet chili sauces lay seductively in my fantasies and no downsized buns; but reality put them both in my path along with fried chicken that had none of the classic MSG-laden peppery KFC flavor. Instead, they were pushing something called “Tom Yum Crunch” for a limited time only that seemed to last for a lifetime and which was similar on your tongue to Chipsy’s unpleasant chili-lime flavor, industrial and heavy.
Now, let’s dismiss the fact that I was indulging in disgustingly corporate fast food in the largest of sizes, and in its place focus on the customization of fast food chains. Why couldn’t I find what I was looking for at a chain that was supposed to offer me the same product worldwide?
In my annoyance as a customer, I forgot about my background in advertising and that these corporations were willing to shake off some of their roots to embrace new cuisines thus achieving “market penetration” via bizarre offerings like the McArabia in the Middle East and the McSatay in Indonesia. It wasn’t their fault. I was just in the wrong “me” society — one that demands of companies to tailor their products to the culture to survive and dominate. I felt completely left out.
Amidst rethinking my relationship with ketchup and my taking it for granted at my neighborhood McDonald’s, I decided that I would teach myself to eat better, leap into the food culture that was presented to me and to eventually customize our own Egyptian recipes to tame, reinterpret or enhance the flavors for my Southeast Asian dinner guests.
This lasted a while and out of it came a remodeled koshari pasta dish without the added heaviness of the rice, a fillet of sole en papillote with dukkah, a brûléed lemon mehalabia and poached pears in spiced karkadeh among other things; but then it stopped and I became corporate, uniform, bland.
I took the easy way out: pesto pastas and brownie variations; recipes that you could easily find elsewhere; food that despite enjoying never became “me”. Like those fast food corporations, I did as I chose until I gained approval and found demand for ease, convenience and comfort.
So I’m slacking no longer, at least for as long as it lasts. I’m shaking up those old recipes I’m bored of and I’ll try not to be much of the staunch traditionalist that I’ve gradually become. I’ve already managed to embrace all the sweet chili sauces that have been thrown my way and will watch out for international interpretations of local favorites. Zooba in Zamalek has been doing it for a bit now and it’s about time we begin to experiment with what we’ve got, using the influx of new ingredients on the Egyptian market.
Browned Orzo Pudding
(Makes 4 small or 2 medium sized servings)
You’ll need:
½ cup of orzo
1 tablespoon of ghee
1½ cup of milk
¼ cup of sugar
3 large grains of mastic, crushed
½ a teaspoon of ground cloves
Zest of ¼ of an orange
1 heaped teaspoon of cornstarch + 3 tablespoons of cold water
In a medium-sized pot, melt the ghee on medium heat. When hot, add the orzo and fry in the ghee, stirring constantly until golden brown. Add the milk and bring to a gentle boil then turn your heat down, add the mastic, clove and orange zest then leave to simmer for around 7 minutes. Add the sugar and stir to incorporate. In a small bowl, add the cornstarch to the cold water and stir to dissolve. Pour your cornstarch mixture into the pot and again, stir to combine. Leave to cook for another 3 minutes or until the orzo is cooked through and al dente. The pudding should start to hold on the spoon. Pour into individual bowls and serve warm or refrigerate for at least an hour then serve cold.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Raisin Cake + New Friends

This past week, I did not write my weekly column for The Egypt Monocle. Sick and spent, I took the time instead to reconnect with my garden, to rediscover my other interests, to catch up on piles of reading and generally ignore the food world and social media networks. 
In this time, I lost seven followers on Twitter along with my appetite but made a new friend. I've only met her once but mobile technology has afforded us a faster way to connect without having to spend days and days at school, coaxing secrets out of one another. 
Thank you Abby for nurturing my tired spirit through your whatsapp messages, for allowing yourself to open up to me and for loosening me up in the process. I'll wait eagerly for you to make your mom's banana bread and share your memories in my kitchen.     

I found this recipe online but made a crucial mistake. I forgot to read the comments on the recipe and realized that the many who had tried it had instructed to add more milk. To save my cake from being a dry mess, I baked it for only one hour and ended up with a tender crumb, a thick crust and a beautiful sweet center. Next time (if there will be a next time), I'll try it out with the extra milk or will replace it with yogurt.  Right now, I'm going to sit my butt down on my couch and have a thick slice of this with a cup of tea with milk. 
Raisin Cake
(Adapted from the Sultana Cake at
You'll need:
250 grams of butter, softened
215 grams of castor sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
3 eggs
450 grams of plain flour
1 teaspoon of baking powder
125 ml of milk (I recommend you use 150-160 ml)
385 grams of golden raisins
butter, to serve
Preheat oven to 170°C. Brush a 9 x 19cm loaf pan with melted butter to lightly grease. Line the base and 2 opposite sides with non-stick baking paper. Use an electric beater to beat the butter, sugar and vanilla in a medium bowl until pale and creamy. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition until the mixture is combined. Sift together the flour and baking powder. Fold half the flour mixture into the butter mixture and stir in half the milk. Repeat with remaining flour mixture and milk until well combined. Use a metal spoon to fold in the raisins. Spoon cake mixture into prepared pan and smooth the surface. Bake in preheated oven for 1 1/2 hours or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from oven. Set aside in the pan for 5 minutes before turning onto a wire rack to cool. Cut into slices and serve warm or at room temperature with butter, if desired.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Story of Chicken Liver

As featured in The Egypt Monocle

I like chicken liver. It is a recent attraction. For the first 20 or so years of my life, liver had not been deemed welcome in my vicinity. At the times I encountered it, I could only smell rust and decided early on that it was not the kind of smell I’d like to have in my mouth.
Growing up in the Arab world, liver was a dish that was bound to come up, at a dinner, as a mezze, at a family gathering, on many a street cart; it was too everywhere for my liking. “What does it taste like?” I’d ask over and over, too displeased by the way it looked to try it. My mom looked over as she neatly dipped her bread into the drippings visibly bored with my question, “the only way to know is to taste it, Sarah.”
My narrow mind was scornful. I didn't want someone to tell me it was good or to just put the grey meat into my body. I wanted to know, in a very matter of fact way, what it would feel like on my tongue. Would it stick to the roof of my mouth? Is it chewy? Why are we eating the chicken’s filter that clears its small plump body of evil toxins?
Later, I would start to notice things about the liver experts in my life. If the liver was grey and clumpy, they would pick at it and its watery jus. If it was brown and buttery, they’d take it in, wiping the plate down with a french fry, warm bread, anything that would sop up that extra grease. Especially interesting to me were those drippings that pooled at the bottom of the pan, hot and waiting to be soaked up by my appetite and my arteries. So I devised a way to understand the flavor and took the jump — a simple step to only dunk into the surrounding grease without having to eat the actual liver. Liking it, I realized that it was a little ludicrous to keep mopping up the fat and not the iron it could be supplying me with, the mild anemic that I was.
Taking a deep breath and saying a little prayer that I would not be compelled to spit it out in the middle of company, I carefully chose my first ever piece of chicken liver. Crumbly and creamy in texture, seared to give uniform color — brown and glossy, it had no trace of the distinct metallic smell I abhorred and didn’t have me grinding my teeth involuntarily to the taste of metal like I felt it would.
Of course, my luck didn’t stay and I have had some terrible livers since (one from my own kitchen), but my mind remains focused on the first one and in this way I can approach it over and over again with confidence, especially after having countless surreal chicken liver experiences in Lebanon.
This recipe is aromatic, warm and sweet. If you’re puzzled about the milk, it’s there to dull the edge of the liver flavor. This way, some, children included, might be more accepting of this slice out of a large array of offal. If you’re a liver lover, this step might not be necessary. In either case, make sure your pan is hot or you’ll end up with a plate of grey.
Garlic & Pomegranate Chicken Livers
You’ll need:
500 grams of chicken liver
1 cup of milk (optional)
1 tablespoon of ghee (you can also use olive oil)
Juice of ½ a large lime
2 dried chili peppers, sliced (eliminate the seeds if you can’t handle the heat)
3 large cloves of garlic, finely minced
½ teaspoon of smoked paprika
1 teaspoon of ground coriander
¼ teaspoon of allspice
1½ teaspoons of coarsely ground black pepper
1½  tablespoons of pomegranate molasses
2 tablespoons of water
Salt to taste
Soak the chicken liver in a cup of milk for up to an hour. Before cooking, drain from the milk. Place a large heavy-based pan on high heat. Make sure your pan gets very hot before cooking the chicken livers. Pour in the olive oil once your pan is hot and carefully add the chicken livers. Cook on high heat until seared on all sides. Remove from the pan and set aside. In the same pan on medium heat, add the garlic, ground coriander and dried chili into the leftover olive oil and liver drippings. Cook until the garlic is soft then add the paprika, allspice and coarsely ground black pepper. Season with salt then pour in the pomegranate molasses and water. Leave to cook on for a minute then pop in your seared chicken livers. Toss to coat the livers and cook off for another minute or two.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Rehashing Croquettes

I was one of the few children allowed into The Ranch without a second look, a bar with Western saloon-style swinging doors that slapped me on the way in a few times too many. My friends by then, nighttime, would have left the hotel for their own homes — the hotel that we played at on weekends, a place my father worked at the time as Food and Beverage Manager, a collective country club of sorts.
Recovering from the greeting smack of hard wood against my upper back, I would make my way to the highest ground in the place, the bar, to ask the bartender if he had seen my dad. Pointing in the direction of a corner table this time, I spotted him — his strong green eyes looking over at me from across the room for a moment before turning back to the conversation with an important guest he cared not much for.
Walking over, I was oblivious to the drinking surrounding me but snuck quick glances at tables lining my path to feed my appetite after a long day of swimming in the Abu Dhabi sun. Plopping myself on a chair next to my dad, I smiled as my father introduced me to his guest then focused on why I was really there — to eat. I ordered a t-bone steak with a side of turned root vegetables that would guarantee a deep sleep on the car ride back home then diverted my attention to the Filipino band performing international songs to an audience that barely saw them.
Singing John Denver’s Country Roads, a song I gathered was cool for older intoxicated people from the response it received, the band rattled on together with the aggressive growls of my rumbling stomach. A plate arrived quickly but it was not mine; instead it was to share, along with the mixed nuts and crudités, untouched by the adults entangled in their drinks and discussions. Left unnoticed after our initial hellos, I tuned out of the grown up debates that I couldn’t keep up with and bit into a crisp, fried cylinder, picking it over the raw vegetables drying out in the smoky room.
Scorching smooth centers and crunch from the twice-breaded crust, I had one after the other until there were none. Little space was left for my main but I trudged through the steak, happy to ignore my vegetables if my father was too busy to remind me.
Croquettes, a word coming from the French croquer — “to crunch” with a potato purée filling, a trend that died out  before I was born in the early 80s, were still making me happy in the confused 90s and remain the naughty section of perking up leftover mashed potatoes. This week, they featured in my kitchen with the twang of mustard, a hit of fresh parsley and some soft mozzarella bocconcini. Outdated or not, the croquette is versatile. Mix in flaked fresh salmon, using the potatoes to bind the fish or stick to a vegetarian option with spinach, some Parmesan cheese or even some sharp rocket. You can use Japanese panko for a crackling crust in place of finer bread crumbs more common in Egyptian kitchens that appear more uniform, almost as one when fried. This recipe below, with its oozing center is open to change.
Mustard-Parsley Potato Croquettes
You’ll need
800 grams of potatoes, washed, skin intact
20 grams of butter
1 egg yolk, beaten
4 grams of ground mustard powder
15 grams of parsley, roughly chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 ball of mozzarella, approximately 66 grams
2 eggs, beaten
130 grams of finely ground bread crumbs
Wash the skins of your potatoes well then dry. Arrange the potatoes on a baking sheet after pricking each one a few times. Make sure not to crowd them. Bake for 1 to 1½ hours in an oven heated to 200 degrees Celsius until tender. Remove from the oven then slice each potato in half leaving it to cool.
Using a spoon, extract the potato flesh into a medium-sized bowl, season with salt and pepper then mash, eliminating any lumps, until smooth. Add the butter then fold in the chopped parsley and ground mustard. Mix in the yolk of one egg until all is combined then begin to shape the croquettes.
Mould a little at a time, depending on how large you want them, into a cylinder. Make an indentation along the length of the croquette with the opposite end of a teaspoon and add a few thin slices of mozzarella. Pinch the indentation you created to seal the mozzarella into the potato. Adjust the shape by rolling once very lightly, back and forth. Dip each cylinder into the breadcrumbs then the beaten egg then back to the breadcrumbs. Repeat until you’ve finished the potato mixture.
Place your croquettes in a freezer-friendly box lined with baking paper. Between each layer and the next, add a size-appropriate sheet of baking paper to avoid the croquettes from sticking once frozen. Freeze for an hour or until ready to fry. Fry in hot oil (around 7 cm) in batches until the croquettes are crisp and golden. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Granitas for Summer's End

My sweet tooth was a late bloomer with a so-so desire to occasionally inhale shortbread biscuits, chocolate mousse and carrot cake — in that order of preference. Away from those, there was little that captured my attention.
I was the child at the party that might forgo a slice of birthday cake topped with a clean cut of the marzipan superhero’s head. I’m still the person at the wedding who really doesn’t want any sharbat, who’d rather not have the sugar-coated almonds offered when a baby is born, who’d be a dull partner at a cupcake shop.
As I grew older and gave way to my appetite, my sugar cravings leaned mostly toward the frozen kind: ice cream, popsicles, sorbet (which comes from the Arabic word sharbat), semifreddo, granita, and recently, ais kacang, the Malaysian shaved ice dessert with peanuts, sweet corn, red beans and a generous drizzle of thick condensed milk.
These frozen desserts stand out as distinct memories:
1. the, unapproved-by-mom strawberry popsicle of my Cairene childhood summer in 1991, sold in a clear plastic tube that you’d have to dig for in your neighborhood grocer’s aging deep freezer that smelled like cheese. Nothing was more artificial, but with the thrill of eating it behind my mother’s back in the corner of our building’s courtyard, right under the balcony where she sat, nothing was ever sweeter.
2. the crema gelato I ate in Rome in 1995 after one of many pizzas. I am still on the hunt for its equal and being 11 at the time, I cannot for the life of me remember where I ate it.
3. the moment I realized that my date who had taken me to Ramses Hilton’s Windows on the World in the early 2000s was not the man for me when he asked, me already half-way through my bitter lemon sorbet, why they were “serving ice cream in the middle of dinner”.
4. fried ice cream and caramel sauce with my dad as the ceremonious closing to our Chinese dinner; later the memory resurfacing as I sat alone at Genting Highlands theme park with my own freshly fried ice cream, cold in the center, looking up at my husband and step-kids screaming from the top of a crazy ride.
5. walking into Stavolta, the gelato store in Maadi, and taking a moment to happily embrace the fact that we Cairenes had a place that was finally using up the ingredients around us to create among their flavors ones that taste like the many pleasant smells of Egypt: sweet-smelling guavas bursting from the cup, karkade scoops that are delicate and could easily replace our traditional cold jug of karkade.
Now today, I didn’t have enough cream to make ice cream and I didn’t have an ice cream maker to pull off the smoothest sorbet so instead, I made a granita — essentially effortless except for the fact that you need to be at home for a few hours to get this done. Granitas can be dressed up or down to use as you please. Your guests will be thankful for being served this on a hot summer day and you can use the liquid you prefer to make it — fruit juice, coffee or one of those stronger drinks for adults only. It’s rustic, it’s textural and it melts on your tongue. Experiment with the basic idea – blend, freeze, rake — to find your balance and to determine how coarse you like it. This particular granita brings with it notes of the coming fall and scents of a warm carrot cake.
Orange-Carrot Granita
You’ll need:
450 grams of carrots, peeled
300 ml of fresh orange juice
300 ml of cocktail juice, unsweetened
2 drops of orange blossom water
A small piece of ginger, peeled, around 3 cm
¼ teaspoon of ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon of ground cloves
3 tablespoon of honey
Finely dice the peeled carrots and the ginger. Throw them into a blender. Add the orange juice and cocktail juice then pulse making sure your blender is sealed well. Add the honey, ground cinnamon and orange blossom water then blend once more until smooth.
Strain the mixture using a fine mesh strainer then pour it into a shallow baking dish. After pouring, your mixture should be around 2.5-3 cm thick. If it’s thicker than that, it will take a much longer time to freeze. Place your baking dish in the freezer then freeze, removing it from the freezer after 45 minutes to rake the mixture with a fork. Repeat this step every half an hour after that. Try to avoid scratching the bottom of your baking dish with a fork. Don’t forget the corners because they harden quickly. The final texture should be fine, fluffy and light. Mine froze in around 2½ hours. Each freezer is different and so you will have to look out for when it’s ready.
If you prefer, you can space out the times you rake to end up with bigger crystals.
Remove from the freezer 10-15 minutes before serving, depending on the weather. When you’re ready to serve, rake with a fork to collect the layers of shaved ice. Serve in glasses that have been chilled in the refrigerator.

Lunchbox Pasta: Pesto Pasta Salad

My lunch box was not a friend. I didn’t bond with it, would not look forward to hearing it snap open and found no pleasure in its content. Considering it a waste of my arm’s energy, I slugged it over to school reluctantly, with a new trick I had learned — the eye roll. The only thing I liked about it was that I’d choose a new one each year, reflecting my ever-morphing personality through brightly colored images glued onto boxed plastic.
In the first grade, I was dubbed a “cookie monster”, protesting against sandwiches until I was allowed to carry only cookies. That bit of excitement didn’t last long. The lunch box tradition died out as I got taller but a persistent packed lunch was shoved into my backpack pocket by mom; and when I’d return home, intact sandwich and bagged apple would be stuffed in secrecy into a deep corner of my desk, left to darken and rot.
Lunch boxes came back to haunt me in 2010. My two stepchildren, wanting to fit into their new school — a melting pot of nationalities, were heavily depending on me to do their lunch boxes justice, to compete with moms preparing tiffins packed neatly with fresh parathas, curried vegetables and a side of mango pickle. Sandwiches just weren’t going to do the trick when the kids are coming back with stories of snacking on seaweed with a Korean friend during recess.
So I pushed back with pasta salads, homemade burgers and juice boxes that doubled as ice packs on hot days; and on rainy days, a bowl of packed rice, slow-cooked beef and root vegetables then for later, a mini dessert muffin. On occasion, the leftover molokheyya would make an appearance, which apparently had been fed to many mouths hailing from different countries with the same plastic spoon.
It could be said that I am no one to encourage many Egyptian moms to put a little more thought into their kids’ lunchboxes because it may seem that I try hard only to compensate for the fact that I am not, in reality, my stepkids’ “real” mom. Yes, there is truth in that I am over-delivering, overreaching to try to please the hearts of two young ones that found themselves in my home, but what I have learned is that most children, when given the opportunity and the right circumstances, will enjoy a variety of different foods that we as adults might not think to feed them.
It’s tiring to see the same things on kids’ menus everywhere and now in their lunch boxes to replace the regular white bread Nutella sandwich — chicken nuggets, french fries and pizza. If Chinese children are gobbling up slices of baked tofu and wolfing down plates of kai-lan, and Indian children are scooping up mounds of coconut rice and fleshy bits from a fish head curry, what are we doing? If we’re a culture that enjoys eating so much, where is the depth? Why is there fear in training our children’s palate — an automatic “no, he/she won’t like this”?
What so many of us are sending to school is afterthought food, with little consideration of the boredom that ensues when eating the same things for a few long years. Here’s a different idea below and if you don’t like it, there are many other recipes and ideas on blogs and popular food websites about lunch boxes. Visit Lunchbox Blues, a blog where J.M. Hirsch chronicles 180 days of school meals as well as how his son grows to accept certain foods. You can go through Shirmiya’s blog, Happy Little Bento, where she outdoes us all with her delicate hand and creative presentation. If those don’t work for you, there’s always Googling “best lunch box ideas for kids”. Whatever it is, just do something different this school year.
Pesto Pasta Salad
You’ll need:
2 cups of dry pasta (around 200 grams)
½ cup of basil pesto
½ cup of peas, cooked (around 75 grams)
1 medium-sized colored pepper, thinly sliced
½ a cup of seeded black kalamata olives (around 90 grams)
3 tablespoons of almonds, roughly chopped (around 30 grams)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
The juice of half a lemon
Basil Pesto:
(Recipe adapted from Elise Bauer)
2 cups of basil leaves, fresh
⅓ cup of pine nuts
½ a cup of Roumy cheese, grated
½ a cup of olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, minced
Salt and pepper
To make the pesto:
Combine the garlic, basil leaves and pine nuts in a food processor and pulse several times. Drizzle the olive oil into the food processor while continuing to blend. Pour in a thin stream until finished. Pulse until smooth then add the salt, pepper and cheese. Pulse 2 more times before pouring out.
For the pasta:
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil then add your dried pasta. Cook until tender but firm. When done, drain and set the pasta aside. In a separate bowl, combine the peas, olives, colored pepper and almonds then add the pasta. Toss and store in an airtight container. Put the pesto and lemon juice into a separate covered container. Refrigerate both. Remove from the refrigerator when it is time to pack. Whisk the pesto and lemon juice together before pouring it over the pasta and accompanying vegetables. Toss gently and separate servings for packing.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Chocolate Mousse

Today was the first time I realized that Julia Child shared the same birthday as my now 9 year old stepdaughter. If there's one thing I've noticed about Talia in the kitchen, it's that she doesn't tire. While her older brother, Youssef, has no patience for laborious baking, Talia can knead for as long as she can if you let her, she'll whisk until her arm goes stiff and she'll be sure to eat every last bit of whatever it was she helped with. 
So this August 15th, it was appropriate to whisk aggressively, to get out the tension of today, a day that reminds me that we haven't been able to speak to them, to see them since January 2011. Happy birthday Talia, may you grow to be a master baker and one that we know. Happy birthday, Julia, it would have been nice to have you around a little longer. Egyptian custody laws, may you be reborn fair to both parents equally.  
This is Julia Child's recipe for chocolate mousse adapted by David Lebovitz. Airy, gummy magic. 

Here's my column for The Egypt Monocle featuring this recipe:

I’ve just returned from the north coast, where my days learned to slow themselves down, to breathe to the beat of the sea. There, all that pressed me was the urge to pick off those white specks of sand that had plastered themselves onto my now darker skin.
Leaving the beach has left me with only one thought that is really nothing new. We are so rushed in Cairo and so stuck in traffic that there is time left for little. It has affected me faster than I would have imagined and I fell for a short while into the deep dark hole of quick recipes and shortcuts that will allow me more time in other domains.
When I first got back to Cairo, I started watching Fatafeat, a food channel held in high regard by many in the Middle East. Ignoring all the English-speaking shows I was familiar with — Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Rachel Ray — my focus stayed on the Arabic shows to catch up with the chefs, trends and techniques pleasing the Arab world these days.
At the next big Cairene family lunch, I then easily fit into the trivial chit chat on favorite TV chefs and finally found myself familiar with names I had heard of when I was away but found no easy access to in Southeast Asia. My input was that I liked Nermine Hanno. Crickets, silence, then finally collective input — the final word was that she was good but slow and too elaborate. Slow being the key word, a fault in production.
Watching her show, every move is deliberate, clean and precise; every slice identical to its predecessor, every plate consisting of minute details that make her dishes truly beautiful on screen. Because of the channel’s understanding of Hanno’s skilled interpretations of both modern and classic cuisine, they have boxed her into a slow-paced show that gives way only to the softness of her voice and the occasional saxophone playing hotel lobby music. The average viewer, with a million and one things lined up on their to-do list, doesn’t care to make their home cooking so detailed and may easily tire of the languid manner of the show.
We are becoming a culture that won’t wait it out for a better end result and it is for this reason that you see Egyptians following Emeril’s “Bam!” instead of Nermine’s subtle and sophisticated flavor combinations, the same Chef Nermine Hanno that left a career in English literature at the University of Alexandria to attain the Grand Diplome in cuisine and pastry at London’s branch of Le Cordon Bleu and later apprenticed under Michelin-starred chef Chris Galvin at The Orrery. She’s also the chairman of the World Chefs without Borders, helping to send trucks, along with the Egyptian Chefs Association, filled with bags of food to the Salloum border where people were crossing with their heart-wrenching stories between Libya and Egypt.
While Hanno continues to achieve, many Fatafeat viewers I’ve met see her as a television personality with much talent and a flat show;  a shame because they’re missing out on a lady that will teach them that labor-intensive recipes usually yield spectacular results if followed correctly with the utmost discipline. A little bit of Julia Child in an Egyptian woman’s body.
This recipe below belongs in essence to Julia Child. It uses up many bowls and lots of butter. It will take time to make. It will take time to set. It will force you to appreciate the simple ingredients it contains. But if you make it right, it will be a recipe you’ll hold close for life.

Chocolate Mousse
You'll need:
170g bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
170g unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup (60ml) dark-brewed coffee
4 large eggs, separated
2/3 cup (170g), plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons (30ml) dark rum (You can make it without adding extra vanilla.)
1 tablespoon (15ml) water
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Heat a saucepan one-third full with hot water, and in a bowl set on top, melt together the chocolate, butter and coffee, stirring over the barely simmering water, until smooth. Remove from heat. Fill a large bowl with ice water and set aside.
In a bowl large enough to nest securely on the saucepan of simmering water, whisk the yolks of the eggs with the 2/3 cup of sugar, rum, and water for about 3 minutes until the mixture is thick, like runny mayonnaise. Remove from heat and place the bowl of whipped egg yolks within the bowl of ice water and beat until cool and thick, as shown in the photo above. Then fold the chocolate mixture into the egg yolks.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with the salt until frothy. Continue to beat until they start to hold their shape. Whip in the tablespoon of sugar and continue to beat until thick and shiny, but not completely stiff, then the vanilla. Fold one-third of the beaten egg whites into the chocolate mixture, then fold in the remainder of the whites just until incorporated, but don’t overdo it or the mousse will lose volume. Transfer the mousse to a serving bowl or divide into serving dishes, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, until firm.

Cakes & Careers

There is usually that one thing you wished you were when it comes to your career: bolder, smarter, luckier. I have none of those desires but feel that it might have been easier to climb that ladder in the male-dominated food industry if I was born a man.
“So, what’s next? Knitting?” asked a friend, a previous colleague who could not wrap his head around the idea that I had left a well-paid job in advertising, in selling fantasies to people, for a career in, according to him, frosted cupcakes. The fact that I did not have a single published cupcake recipe mattered little. If I was an Egyptian woman who chose a career in food, it must be cupcakes, cookies or both. In his mind, I had unexpectedly transformed from Destiny’s Child’s independent woman in 2000 to a 2012 cross between Betty Draper and Martha Stewart, a meek and modified version of me that wears a pink polka dot apron tied neatly around her waist.
Upon receiving news that I had started a food blog early in 2010, my mother urged me through phone calls from Cairo to Kuala Lumpur to start looking for a job in my field, advertising that is, so as “not to let it go to waste.” My friends encouraged me through a sympathetic click on Facebook’s like button to cheer on their friend who had recently become domesticated.
A little while later, my family and friends embraced this new identity of mine but only when I got a job to write a weekly column about food, to share my recipes in a reputable printed newspaper, ink stained fingers and all. After returning to Cairo, I was contacted to develop recipes for a new product line at a popular local chain. Being a lady, I was graciously allowed to work in my own home until the time came to train the staff — chefs that had been in the business for years, who had worked in the kitchens of restaurants like the ever popular La Bodega.
Entering the factory where I would be teaching, I was asked what I wanted to drink then was offered the only seat in the room. These guys had never worked with a woman in a professional kitchen and in reality, didn’t like it much now that they were. The knife was pulled out of my hand several times. I was asked how I wanted the lettuce chopped in their lingo, them wholeheartedly believing that I wouldn’t understand their fancy badly pronounced French terms. It was also decided that I would have the owner accompany me throughout the day to make sure that I, the lady, would not be bothered much.
Weeks later, I attended a private dessert tasting at a crowd-pleasing Zamalek restaurant. Getting to know the chefs afterwards, I asked what I would need to do to study at the Egyptian Chefs Association, previously having completed a few short courses with the French Culinary School in Malaysia. One of them eagerly suggested that I register for the “housewife diploma.” I didn’t know there was such a thing and quickly changed the subject trying to shake off the thought that I was still perceived as a housewife.
It seemed that I didn’t fit into many Egyptian restaurant kitchens because even if there were women in those kitchens, they were always underprivileged, seen as workhorses with no creativity. There was no space for me, except as an intern at a cupcake shop.
I could say that it is much easier today to break into the Egyptian restaurant industry as a woman, especially with the right connections, but it almost always revolves around catering, becoming a pseudo-celebrity and getting your photo taken at every gig, becoming a television persona that cooks to teach people who don’t know much about food or becoming a food writer who works to bring a unique voice to the scene. For a city packed with places to eat, a female chef isn’t a common sight in Cairo. What’s also disappointing is that when a female cook gets the recognition it is usually for being a woman, for contradicting the norm and not at all for the food she’s plating up.
By all means, be enthusiastic about finding yourself in the Egyptian culinary field as a woman but prepare for the awkward answers you’ll receive, the challenges you’ll be presented with. Understand that you might be seen as a pretentious socialite who has nothing better to do with her time or that your profession may be considered menial and that it is unnecessary for you to place your hands in the cavity of a chicken if someone can do it for you. It takes much effort and a lot of time to get anywhere in Cairo regardless of the traffic.
Walnut Caramel Cake
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine, January 2008
You’ll need
2 cups + 2 tablespoons sifted cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
Caramel glaze
1 cup cream
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Candied walnuts
¼ cup of sugar
¾ cup of walnuts
A pinch of salt
Heat oven to 175°C. Butter a medium cake pan. Line with baking paper. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Beat butter and sugar in a large bowl at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then add the vanilla. Add the eggs, beating well after each addition. Beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture may look curdled). Add flour mixture in 3 batches until each addition is incorporated.
Spread batter in pan then rap pan on counter to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean — 40 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes, then run a knife around edge of pan. Invert on a wire rack then cool completely for one hour.
Bring cream, brown sugar, corn syrup, and a pinch of salt to a boil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Boil for 7-10 minutes depending on how thick you want it then stir in vanilla. Put rack with cake in a shallow baking pan. Pour glaze over top of cake. Cool until glaze is set — 30 minutes.
In a pan toast the walnuts then set aside. Pour sugar into the pan and cook on medium heat. Stir when the sugar begins to melt and continue until it turns a medium amber. Add the walnuts to the caramel to coat each one. Once done, spread onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper and separate the walnuts using two forks. Sprinkle with salt, cool then arrange on the cake.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Samosa, Sambusak

Thinking back, samosas may have been the first food to confuse me, a never-ending love affair that was tedious to understand. Never knowing what I should call them when chatting with people hailing from different places, never understanding just what were to go in them, I went on a mental hunt quite early on in life to find out just what a samosa was.
Stuffed with curried potatoes and peas then folded into tight triangles, these were the samosa I was first acquainted with. Popping them straight onto my tongue from the bubbling oil without a second thought would have me letting off the steam with my gaping mouth between grins and greasy stained fingers from the turmeric stirred into this magic mix. These were general fixtures in my Indian grandmother’s house served with a side of mint chutney and later, dominated Ramadan as a simple accompaniment to soup in my Egyptian mother’s home.
At many oriental iftar buffets and at homes of friends from the Levant, I’d spot these little lovelies, shiny skinned and crisp to the tooth, next to others — soft half moons and the doughy tetrahedrons, sported in many contrasting pastry crusts and fleshy fillings to suit the various cravings of those breaking their fast. If I had given in to my whims, I don’t think I would have eaten anything during Ramadan but fat stacks of these Indian-influenced vegetable samosas and Lebanese crescent-shaped sambusak, filled with ground beef and made lively with pine nuts. In fact, I enjoy these pastries, Asian and Middle Eastern alike, so much that I would probably eat them in secret and in defiance if the Middle East decided to adopt Somali group Al Shabaab’s fatwa banning samosas that, according to them, are too western and resemble the Christian Holy Trinity.
Believed to have originated in Central Asia before the 10th century, the Uzbeks still call it somsa, similar to its original name, samsa. The Iranians, as my friend in Malaysia introduced me, call them sambusa these days, but were once recorded in Persian history as “sanbosag”. Similar to the pasties that were eaten by tin miners in Cornwall for their easy handling, samosas were also thought to be injected into Indian culture by the Muslim traders and soldiers who carried them in saddlebags on long journeys after preparing them, many at a time, during their rest stops.
This is a simple recipe, given that you’re fine with the heat of frying. In essence, all you need to do is begin preparing early, make large quantities at a time and freeze them in between layers of baking paper to avoid them sticking to one another as they love to do. There are recipes for all kinds of dough and the filling may be used to stuff your own homemade dough. I chose the easy way out with these store-bought wrappers because I can use Ramadan as an excuse for a little laziness as most of us do.
Beef & Pine Nut Samosa
You’ll need:
30-35 samosa wrappers
500 grams of ground beef
1 large onion
2-3 cloves of garlic, depending on strength
¼ cup of beef stock
½ teaspoon of cinnamon
¼ teaspoon of cumin
¼ cup of pine nuts
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 large egg + 1 teaspoon of flour, beaten to make a paste
Keep the samosa wrappers covered with a damp towel while preparing the beef to keep them soft. In a large pan on medium-high heat, add the onions and garlic until fragrant and translucent then the ground beef. Stir the beef into the onions and garlic until combined then cook, stirring every few minutes, until browned. Add the cinnamon, cumin, salt and pepper and mix then pour in the beef stock and stir in the pine nuts. Lower your heat and leave to cook until the stock has been absorbed. Turn off your heat and leave to cool.
At the bottom of each samosa pastry strip, brush the bottom of the side closest to you with egg wash then fold over the pastry from the opposite corner to create an open-sided triangle. Spoon some of the beef filling (1 full teaspoon to 1½ teaspoons) into the pocket you’ve created. Tuck the filling into the pocket and fold it over more than once until you reach the end of the wrapper. Before sealing, tuck in any protruding samosa paper then seal the edge by brushing with egg wash. Repeat with the rest of the wrappers. Freeze the ones you won’t fry for later at this stage. Deep fry in hot vegetable oil (not olive oil) for a minute then remove when golden and crispy. Do not crowd your oil with samosas to allow each one adequate space. Drain well from the oil before serving.
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