Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Virtual Potluck with Gojee

Have you been on Gojee before? A while back, I had spotted it and was so excited at the prospect of screen-sized food photos at the touch of a button that I was on it all the time. Getting a little more engrossed, I decided to get in touch with the great team behind Gojee to see if I could contribute. Veronica emailed me, informing me that they weren't looking for new contributors. Oh, the heartbreak.  

A while later, Veronica contacted me again telling me that they've accepted my recipes and that my blog was now included. Happy day! Today, Gojee is hosting a potluck that I can't be there for but Veronica asked me so kindly to join the fun in Gojee's virtual potluck. 

Starting on Thursday, January 26, check out other potluck dishes fellow gojee contributors shared. Go to and enter "gojeepotluck" into I Crave. You can also follow #gojeepotluck on Twitter. This is my contribution. 
One last bit of niceness to Gojee before I go: Gojee has now been nominated for "Best Design" at the 2011 Crunchies. I wish our wonderful team plenty of luck, hugs and food to keep the anxiety away. I can honestly say I'm very proud to be part of such an exceptional group of people who spend time, money and effort to bring homemade food to the world.
Basterma Pasta Bake
You'll need:
4 cups of pasta
100 grams of butter
110 grams of basterma
2 long red Italian onions, sliced
¼ cup of all-purpose flour
2 cups of full cream milk
½ a teaspoon of whole-grain mustard
½ cup of heavy cream
2 egg yolks, beaten
½ cup of Mozzarella cheese
½ cup of Cheddar cheese
½ cup of Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 175 degrees Celsius. In a large pot, cook the pasta until it's tender but undercooked. Drain and set aside. In a medium-sized pan, pan-fry the basterma in a drizzle of oil until it changes color and becomes slightly crispy around the edges. Keep the basterma fat that has melted in the pan on the side to use for later. In the same pan, melt 50 grams of butter and saute the onions over medium-low heat for approximately 10 minutes. They should have started to slightly color but should remain soft. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a medium-sized pot, melt 50 grams of butter. Add the basterma grease you previously reserved and add the flour. Whisk constantly as it cooks for around 1 minute. Add the milk and cream and cook for 3-5 minutes or until it begins to thicken.
Add salt and pepper and turn your heat down.

In a separate bowl, combine the egg yolks with 4 tablespoons of your bechamel-like sauce. Stir quickly then pour the egg mixture back into the sauce. Let it combine for a minute. Add the cheese and stir. Once the cheese has melted, add most of the basterma and onions and mix. Keep some on the side. Add the pasta and coat it all with the sauce. Tip your pot over a baking dish and pour your pasta mixture. Sprinkle with the rest of your onion and basterma mix and bake for around 20-25 minutes. Serve steaming hot. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Three-cheese Baked Eggs in Tomato Cups

I will never run after donuts, long for frosting or fantasize about a smooth square of chocolate coating my tongue with its melted magic. Shiny black olives, bubbling cheese, crunchy pickled carrots and crusty bread smeared with salted butter — this is what I crave. On naughty days, my leering appetite lends itself to crispy potato chips and thirst-inducing mixed nuts. My sweet tooth is not so sweet after all.

When I left Cairo four years ago, there were two main brands of potato chips on the market: one that had been around for as long as I can remember and whose name has become as generic in Egypt as using “Kleenex” in place of tissue. The other was entering the monopolized market hoping to satisfy if only a small percentage of the Egyptian people's hunger for cheap snacks.

Of course, there were others as well that would appear one day and disappear the next but due to their lack of availability I've chosen to disregard them.

Today, walk into any supermarket and look for a bag of Egyptian chips. A large number of brands will be waiting to greet you, to entice you with their colors and cartoonish food images. You'll find the spicy ones, the not-so-spicy ones, the cheesy ones and the plain old salty option. There are thick ones, thin ones, crinkle-cut ones, puffy ones, and ones made with powdered potatoes. They all share one common trait: the level of secrecy involved in the ingredients used.

Conduct an experiment: pick up three different Egyptian brands of chips (because most of us indulge anyway regardless of the mysterious nature of what we're devouring). Read the ingredient label and begin to ask questions. I've found that the ingredients listed are usually as follows: fresh potatoes, vegetable oil, salt and so-and-so flavor. That is it.
There are over 100 types of vegetable oil and at least 11 of them are major oils used worldwide. So which oil is it and how processed is the oil they're using? Is it a blend or is it one type of vegetable oil? Do they add an anti-oxidizing agent (sulfites that can trigger an allergy or asthma attack) to prevent rancidity? And it’s only the oil that we’re now discussing.
What about the potatoes? Have they been stored and treated with chemicals to improve color? Oh my. Why do we forget to think of these things, Egypt?

After potato chips are fried, they're usually passed through a drum that coats them with powdered seasonings. Artificial seasonings? I'm sorry, the text on the chips pack doesn't clarify.

How can I “Buy Egyptian” when I don't know what's in my food? Why should I “Buy Egyptian” when I cannot foretell if my child, my guest, the person I am feeding, will get an allergic reaction because I was not told the truth?
Why are we progressing on the surface level alone?

Since we cannot control the food industry and what they are disguising behind friendly commercials with catchy beats, I only ask you to start reading the ingredient label while you're munching on that snack. Question what is in local products and most importantly, have breakfast. I've found that the only thing that limits multiple bad-for-you cravings throughout the day is indulging in a proper breakfast. You won't reach out for the mixed nuts or the salty chips by noon and the chocolate pangs might never come.

Buy Egyptian, not processed Egyptian but real Egyptian food: fruit, vegetables, eggs, cheese. I don't know about you but I'd rather eat real cheese than bulk up on empty calories from cheese-flavored powder.

2 large tomatoes (variety of your choice)
2 large eggs
¼ cup of white cheddar cheese, thinly sliced
¼ cup of Gruyere cheese, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons Egyptian roumy cheese (can be substituted with parmesan), finely grated
1 tablespoon of thyme, preferably fresh
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 220 degrees Celsius. Slice off the top of each tomato. Using a sharp knife, carefully carve around the inside of each tomato and remove the pulp and seeds. Place the tomatoes in a shallow oven-proof baking dish, with or without the tops. If your tomatoes don't stand upright, you can lean them against the sides of the baking dish. This allows the egg to stay centered as well. Depending on the size of the tomatoes you use, layer the white cheddar and gruyere cheese at the bottom. Over the cheese, sprinkle some fresh thyme leaves. Crack one egg into each tomato cavity. The trick is to keep all the egg whites contained in the tomato with minimal leakage. Do this slowly and don't rush it.

Bake your egg in a tomato for 10 minutes. By this time, they will begin to set. After 10 minutes, slide your oven rack carrying your baking dish out and sprinkle with roumy cheese. Push it back into the oven and bake for another 7-10 minutes or until the eggs are set to your liking. Remove the eggs from the oven and allow them to rest for two minutes. Remove from the baking dish and sprinkle with salt and pepper then garnish with fresh thyme. Serve.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Food Myths and a Roasted Aubergine Salad

We sit in the sticky tropical heat, a lone cat observing us from afar, wondering with a tilt of its head, why we have occupied her bench with our derrieres. In reality, it is not the cat's fault. We rarely sit on my friend's bench in her garden except for when she forces me to smoke outdoors (which is good for my manners). Staring at the cat as I enjoy my guilty pleasure, she asks me if I wash my chicken before cooking. Should I lie?

I knew that many Egyptians scrub their chicken to oblivion before cooking — some with salt, some with flour, some with both and some even choose to douse it in vinegar — not to improve its texture but for cleanliness.
“No, maybe a quick tap rinse if it's been leaking,” I answered, secretly afraid that my level of hygiene would fall victim to judgment.

“Mmm. That's what I learned in class. The French chefs are saying it's pointless. You kill the bacteria when it cooks. My mom still washes hers the old way,” she says, exasperated.

The reality of it is that many of your older relatives will do this. What's sad is that they will try to pass this habit on to you, which will only lead to tough, chewy chicken. A year later, when I took the same class, I was taught the same — do not wash unless necessary. Yet still, the Elders refuse to listen to their youth, despite my certificate and official entry into adulthood through the golden gates of marriage.

In countless modern cookbooks today, you'll find recipes that do not include rinsing chicken. It is not because it is a given, it is due to research that confirms washing your chicken leaves room for cross-contamination in your kitchen by scattering its juices unnecessarily thus leaving you more at risk of contracting salmonella.

The next time you are unsure of a tedious kitchen habit that you have been dictated, do your research or learn from a professional. You'll understand that many food myths have been debunked throughout the years. Let's run through a few.

Fat-free is not calorie-free. Adding salt to your water will not make it boil faster. Microwaves do not zap away all the nutrients; neither does boiling your ingredients. Best of all, you have no excuse for the extra calories you consume because your body does not crave something when it is deficient in one of its nutrients. You are not a deer despite how svelte you are and you are not prone to salt licks. My apologies for breaking it to you so bluntly, but chocolate cravings are indeed emotional.

Learn that you are not a sheep. There are habits worth following and others that you can dismiss to make room for better ones. Instead of scrubbing your chicken dry, blow dry it (yes, with a blow dryer) until the skin loses its moisture. This will result in beautifully crispy golden skin. New habits, new start.

Today, I'd like to share one of my favorite salads with you. One that is regularly found in my mom's fridge and now with a few updates, in mine, making this one of the good habits I'm willing to carry the torch for. Taking more time to prepare than a regular salad, it rewards you by sticking around longer than a fresh salad and can be eaten at just about any time of the day. It's also worth the garlic breath.
Roasted Aubergine Salad
You'll need:
4 small yellow bell peppers
4 medium-sized aubergines
2 cups of button mushrooms, sliced
1 teaspoon of whole grain mustard
10 raw almonds, peeled and finely chopped
2 handfuls of flat leaf parsley, chopped
5-7 cloves of garlic, minced, depending on the strength
Juice of 1½ lemon
1 large chili pepper, finely diced
1 teaspoon of chili powder
40 ml + 1 tablespoon of olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Place the bell peppers on the sheet. Pop them in the oven. Every 20 minutes, turn the peppers using their stems so that they aren't lying on the same side throughout the roasting process. Their skin will start to puff up and char all around. Rotate the peppers evenly throughout the process. After an hour, they should be evenly browned. Take the peppers out and let them cool in a covered bowl. When the peppers have cooled, peel them. The peel should slip off and the peppers themselves will be slippery. Slice them and set aside.
At the same time, place the aubergines in a hot pan on high heat. Every few minutes, rotate them until they become black and blistered all around. Continue to do this for half an hour and remove when they become very soft. Cool and peel. Mash in a bowl, add the peppers and set aside. On medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon of oil. Add the mushrooms, mustard and a dash of salt and sauté for 5-7 minutes. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, combine the aubergine, peppers, mushrooms, garlic, chili pepper and chili powder, salt, pepper and almonds. Mix then and then add the chopped parsley at the end. Add the lemon juice and olive oil. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Chasing the Scent of Suji Halwa

As featured in The Daily News Egypt

Pressing play, my sister begins showing the first few minutes of a home video — our trip to France and Italy in 1995. We throw our heads back in laughter, discuss our bizarre choice of clothing and animatedly point out funny moments to our husbands, those that missed the awkward years of our lives.

I spot a lost moment in time, one that I cannot recall; a father leaning against the railing of the Bateau Mouche chats with his young daughter, so engrossed in the conversation they forget to see the river Seine. It is then that I forget to continue watching.

Eyes fixed on the screen, I drift away to a garden I once knew; there are teeth piercing through thick mango skin to release its pulp redolent with notes of honey, frogs croaking at the Indian monsoon downpour, glimpses of women walking barefoot on the cool terrace, a single strand of my father's silver hair falling to the ground and scents of ghee tinged with cardamom, of melting sugar, swirling in the pan, sputtering like raindrops popping upwards, breaking free.
I have spent the last few years chasing a smell. Evading me on the streets of Cairo, escaping me in even the most Indian of quarters in Malaysia, it seemed at one point that I would only find it again in India, in the home of a man I have not seen in 13 years — my father.

In the past few years, I have started to build an invisible relationship with my father — one that is there but is not yet a functioning reality. I have come closer to him through the beautiful knives he left behind; through Claudia Roden's “A Book of Middle Eastern Food” (1968) that was hiding in the midst of his countless classic cook books collecting dust in my mother's bookcase; through my moods, my traits, my hands — the same ones I share despite the time spent apart. 
Could it be possible that my affair with the kitchen, good knives and intimidating cook books comes from my father?

Another year is coming to a close and I have ended my search for the magical scent that would take me back to my father's home. Finally hunting it down and finding out the name of this rich dessert that I've had only in my dad's house, I made suji halwa today and sat alone in my own home with my warm bowl, taking mouthfuls of bittersweet memories, willing them to melt away in my mouth.

Failing annually at keeping my elaborate new year's resolutions, this year I will strive to achieve the first thing on my list — the most difficult resolution: to find the Indian in me by getting to know my father for the first time. If this one works, the rest shall follow.

Find the family you've fallen out of sorts with, re-establish your relationships with friends. Reconnect the dots and search long and hard for the roots to your passions. Feast on the food of your people. Follow the trail of your own suji halwa — that elusive scent, difficult as it may be.
Suji Halwa
This dessert is often brought to temple or puja (prayer) as prasad, an edible offering.

You'll need:
1 cup of semolina
1/4 cup of ghee
3 cups of water
1 cup of sugar
3 cardamom pods, peeled and crushed
10 almonds, peeled and thinly sliced
6 pistachios, finely chopped
A small palmful of raisins
Over moderate heat, combine the water and sugar in a saucepan. Stir to dissolve the sugar entirely. Allow it to boil once then reduce the heat to low. Cover your syrup with a tight-fitting lid and let it simmer.

On low heat and in a pot, melt the ghee. Add the semolina and stir in the ghee for about 15 minutes. Fry until it reaches a golden color and becomes aromatic. Add the almonds and pistachios to the semolina after about 5 minutes of frying.

Turn up the heat under the syrup and add the raisins and cardamom. Bring to a boil. Raise the heat under the semolina and stir continuously for 1 minute. Take the semolina off the heat and carefully pour the syrup into the semolina, stirring always. At first, it might splatter but will quickly absorb the liquid and stop.

Bring the semolina-syrup mixture back to the stove on very low heat and stir steadily until the semolina has absorbed the syrup completely. The halwa will now start to look slightly like pudding and will begin to pull away from the sides of the pan. Cover and cook for 5 minutes over the lowest flame possible. Remove from the heat and allow it to steam for 5 minutes before serving. Halwa can be served for breakfast with a side of fried puri bread or as a rich dessert. Always serve hot.

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