Monday, February 20, 2012

A roasted tomato macaroni for the unpresent

I know a boy with a golden smile that outshines his speckled eyes and curly locks woven with tones of clear honey and pale lager. A deliberately early riser, he gets high on dancing in front of the television and playing air guitar while the rest of our home sleeps. There are days I hear him, bumbling about, making happy sounds against his cereal bowl with the edge of a spoon; these noisy melodies help rainy mornings pass comfortably, as I snuggle deeper into my white duvet, imploring my adult self to find her hunger for new experiences and go forth unabashedly into the day.

Returning to the memory of the day I first met him, I remember thinking determinedly, “I want to be part of this.”

At the time, it did not occur to me that being a stepmother involved so much more than bearing the weight of an ugly stereotype; but oftentimes I do not rationalize things and so I leapt in, oozing with outward confidence, hoping to be that stepmotherly change I wanted to see in the world. With that, my plate had become surprisingly full.

Swept away by my stepson's passion, our clean-lined kitchen became a place bubbling with ideas as we opened ourselves up to new flavors. Always looking for more seductive ways to feed our newly assembled family, we all wanted to be do our part: my husband with his proficient grilling skills, my stepdaughter with her remarkable kneading abilities, my stepson with his delicate touch and discernible palate, and me — always trying to fit in.

Moving them farther and farther away from their bad eating habits, my stepchildren began to sincerely give in to their now ripened lust for good food. Do they still eat with the abandonment they learned in our home or have they reverted back to their plain-pasta-eating, bottled-salad-dressing selves? I do not know.

It has now been one year, one month and one day since we have last seen or spoken to the children. For reasons that stem from a bitter divorce, the children are paying the price of a dissolved marriage, the same way I once had to do with my parents.

Shutting our kitchen down for a few months except for the odd dish here and there to remind us that we still live in a functioning home albeit of two, it became difficult to find the inspiration to conjure up new dishes again. Equally harrowing was the meticulous making of previously cherished family meals. I have not had buttery mashed potatoes, pureed to a smooth velvet, since the first week of January 2011, or what I like to call “the incident.”

Will I only see the boy with the golden smile when his hair has darkened, older like his father's buzz cut, tinged with nuances of roasted stout and milk chocolate? Will I twirl through our living room again with my bright-eyed stepdaughter after a mutual chili-high from generous lappings of Tom Yum Goong? Should I forget about them and what I have taught them because I am their mere stepmother?

I cannot answer these questions. I can only say that it doesn't matter which house they're at, they'll always eat pasta with a tomato-based sauce and today for the first time I'm making a proper one without them. My growing girl would enjoy it with a thicker sauce while my boy with a sensitive stomach would prefer it light and fresh.

This recipe balances out both with a little bit of new: thick and chunky tomato flesh slowly roasted, a snappy sting of fresh chives and the elimination of heavy, concentrated tomato paste finished off with thin slices of unmelted Italian Pecorino cheese. I only hope that one day I'll be able to share this with them as I have with you. Until then, I'll hold on to a wish that someone with a moral code can take a look at our laws because I'd like to live in an Egypt where fathers can see their children and where I don't have to worry about what they're spraying on my food.
Roasted Tomato Elbow Macaroni
You’ll need:
4 large tomatoes
½ a sweet red onion, finely diced
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
¼ cup of breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1½ tablespoons of unsalted butter
400 grams of dry pasta
1 teaspoon of granulated sugar
A handful of chives, snipped with scissors
1/3 cup of Pecorino, shaved
Salt and black pepper to taste

Cook the macaroni in a pot of boiling salted water for approximately 8 minutes or until al dente. Reserve ¼ cup of the pasta liquid. Drain the macaroni. Place the tomatoes whole in a large baking dish and pop into the oven heated at 180 degrees Celsius. Roast for an hour or until the skin breaks and the tomato flesh becomes tender. If the tomatoes begin to brown, turn down the heat to 160 degrees Celsius. When the tomatoes are done, remove from the oven and set aside until they cool slightly. Remove the vines and crush with your hands into a bowl. In a large pan, toast the breadcrumbs then reserve in a small bowl. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil and 1½ tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and stir until soft. Pour in the crushed tomatoes and sugar. Cook for 5 minutes before stirring in the pasta liquid. Bring your sauce to a boil. Reduce heat and cook for 7-8 minutes. Season with salt and black pepper. Add pasta and cook for another minute while tossing to coat the pasta in sauce. Remove from the heat and sprinkle with shaved Pecorino, breadcrumbs and snipped chives.

A Sunny Lemon Curd

I stepped into a friend's cramped kitchen, cluttered with crusty teaspoons taking a mud bath in coffee-stained mugs, working to sustain the whims of a bachelor who would order out more often than not. Despite my friend's phony cries for help, there was not much I could do with a shiny fridge that housed a few soda cans and individual-sized bottled water alone.

Only a week after contemplating my friend's dilemma of having only a small electric cooker and a microwave to work with, I found myself in a similar situation, living for the most part in a single room that contains a small four-burner gas cooker with a pleasantly-sized temperamental oven, a sofa set, a television, a mini-fridge and a bathroom that worked twice as hard – also functioning as a wet kitchen.

Yes, this is temporary until the rest of our home pulls itself away from that construction site look it's sporting these days. Even so, the months living in this room have allowed me to advance in the kitchen and challenge myself, especially considering the lack of equipment.

Some people, in fact many friends, are not waiting for the rest of their homes to be finished and furnished and must make do with simple and often underrated appliances they have around; but fear not for there are many ways to make your small kitchenette work for you —— from creamy puddings and light-weight cakes to making jams and fashioning a well-balanced meal. All it needs is a little research, an attention to detail and a hungry heart.

Just as I was beginning to acknowledge that I was luckier than others to have a proper albeit small gas cooker available in our tight space, my luck ran out as I was about to start baking a dreamy dark chocolate cake studded with crunchy candied peanuts.

The dreaded day arrived when my beloved cooking gas canister ran out. The butane gas crisis disrupting other Egyptian families’ lives finally hit home. I had no source of fire and was left isolated with a cold white microwave.

Deciding not to panic, I called the nearest mini-market that exchanges these magical cooking cylinders. At first, the man on the phone promised he would send it that night. After a few minutes of prodding, he finally admitted that in reality, he could not tell me when he would be able to send me a refill because “as you know, there's a shortage in the country and other people paid for extra ones”.

It has been three days today. I know three things by now: I have received no gas canister; I am not alone in this problem; the price of a replacement canister has gone up to 40-50 EGP instead of the established 10 EGP.

Choosing to make do with what I've been handed although I've been generously offered to borrow an extra one, I wonder how many other families are trying to get by daily with no solution to their seemingly small disaster? Is it fair that many wealthier homes have an extra cylinder or three in case they run out of gas? I'm upset, Egypt. I'm upset because I don't have an answer and someone else has my share of gas.

The only solution I can think of is this: if you too use gas cylinders and you've got a handy microwave or a standby electric cooker, conserve your precious gas for now and kindly refrain from hoarding the cylinders because there are thousands of others out there that may need that extra one more than you.

A microwave has come a long way from reheating food. As of recently, microwaves have a variety of cooking modes, power strengths and grilling options. Funnily enough and although I've stared at the different buttons hundred of times, I've never actually thought to use any of them. It is a little silly of me to admit that I have just realized the capabilities of an invention that has helped me write this column today and that has given me a zesty lemon curd to spread on warm bread, stir into creamy yogurt, fill soft crepes and moist vanilla cakes, or eat straight from the jar.
Lemon Curd
You'll need:
3 eggs, room temperature
1¼ cup of granulated sugar
1 cup of fresh lemon juice (4 -5 large lemons), strained
The zest of 3 large lemons
½ cup of unsalted butter, melted

When you're squeezing the lemons for the lemon juice, make sure to strain it a few times to get a clear juice. This will give you a much smoother lemon curd. Whisk the sugar and eggs consistently in a large microwave-safe bowl until completely combined. Add the lemon juice, lemon zest and the melted butter and whisk again. On full power, cook at one minute intervals. After each minute, stir the mixture and return for another minute. This should take between 4 to 6 minutes. Each microwave differs depending on strength. To know when your lemon curd has finished cooking, dip a metal spoon into it. If your curd coats the back of the spoon, you're ready and shouldn't continue cooking. Remove your freshly prepared lemon curd from the microwave and pour into a clean jar. This will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks if the jar is tightly sealed.
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