Saturday, March 31, 2012

Fears, regrets and crust-less quiches

As featured in The Daily News Egypt

I stretched, laying flat, fingers flopping around my side table in search of something to pull my hair up and away from my pillow-creased face. Happy to see some sun moving stealthily into the farthest corner, my corner of our room, I turned to find our bed empty — my husband already stirring his sweet coffee as he spoke on the phone. Popping myself off the mattress at a healthy 7:30 am, I prepared for a day filled in my mind with dog walks, deliberating ingredients and food writing.

“Uncle Hassan passed away at dawn. I'm getting dressed.”

Core trembling, I hushed my voice as I spoke to the man who shared my life, “I'll go with you.”

Never having been to a funeral prayer or a burial, I prepared to battle the tears that came for a military man I had met six years ago; a man whose eyes beamed volumes of understanding despite his tired body, whose patriotic achievements, forgotten by the young, stood witness to his good intentions and bravery.

Although Uncle Hassan and I had shared few words and many a sincere smile throughout the home-cooked meals, burgers and ratatouille we ate together, I had never really gotten to know him outside of the stories, long and short, recanted to my listening ears; but as I sat praying for his soul, as my heart in constant sniffles merged with the Quran recited at his final place of resting, I could not have felt him to be nearer.

There are fears that arise in you during burials, those that subside and those that bury themselves deep in you, surfacing only as cracks in your face. Of all the things that preyed on my mind, going back to sleep in the Earth I walk on bothered me no longer.

Entering the wake days later, I watched as women walked in wearing their most somber faces to extend their condolences. As they sat on edge, slowly unraveling to reveal a more comfortable state, they went back to living — bejeweled hands caressing glasses of tea over a friend's endearing stories of those who have passed, distracted minds looking into bitter cups of concentrated coffee as they contemplated a smoke, teenage girls playing a quick game of “Spot the Handbag”. I could only think that I should have known him better, that I had never asked him what dish he missed most from his mother's kitchen, which meal he loved his wife to prepare, what he ate when he was busy fighting a war.

I was so intimidated by his war hero history that I didn't allow myself to break the barrier of age. That is what I regret the most; but away from regrets, will I too one day turn to find an empty bed with loss sleeping next to me? Will I be lucky enough to have my close ones embrace my home as theirs, make it feel alive if only for a while until I feel slightly right again?

When I am old, will the young forget that I was once young like them and uncomfortably shy away from my veiny hands?
If I am certain of one thing, in death there is always finger food but no appetite — aniseed biscotti passed around to maintain some semblance of energy, store-bought cakes and crunchy breadsticks to break the awkward silences and moments of heartache, mugs heavy with coffee making rings on tabletops and several cans of cola, all in the hands of people dressed in black.

The only solid decision I've made is to earnestly get to know the people in my life that I hold back from, ones that I will grow through because nothing replaces people's real life accounts of eras gone by, foods long forgotten and heroes of our past.
A long forgotten favorite recently learned is 'Egga, an Egyptian dish dating back to the Ancient Egyptians who often used duck eggs instead of our common chicken egg nowadays. Beaten egg, parsley and onions with an optional diced tomato or potato are poured into a baking dish and baked in a hot oven making this an ideal family dish. These days, it's commonly referred to as a crustless quiche, belonging to no specific country, versatile, neatly carried and easy on the stomach in times of hardship.

Crust-less Broccoli-mushroom Quiche with Green Chili Salsa
You'll need:
5 button mushrooms, sliced
1 medium onion, diced
½ a head of broccoli in florets, blanched and chopped
6 large eggs plus 6 egg yolks
½ cup of milk
¼ cup of cream
½ cup of grated cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable oil for greasing
For the salsa:
10 large green chili peppers
1 medium tomato, roughly diced
2 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
1 tablespoon of water
½ teaspoon of sugar
½ teaspoon of cumin powder

Preheat your oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Brush a mini muffin pan with oil. Place a medium-sized pan on medium heat. Sautee the mushrooms and onions until soft. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, milk, cream, salt and pepper. Add the mushrooms, onions and broccoli and stir. Reserve some on the side for later. Transfer to a jug. In the muffin pan, place some cheddar cheese to line the bottoms. Pour the egg mixture until just below the rim then sprinkle on top the reserved vegetables and cheese. Bake for 15-20 minutes. They should puff up and turn a light shade of golden brown. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before turning them out of the pan.
For the salsa, roughly chop the green chilis, deseeding if you want to eliminate extra heat. In a food processor, combine the chopped chilis and tomatoes with the garlic. Add the water, cumin and lemon juice. Blend until desired consistency; I prefer mine on the chunkier side.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Pan-fried aubergines with a ginger-mustard mayonnaise

I am so uninterested in shopping with friends that I cannot hide my indifference. A lone shopper, I saunter through the passages of ladies' fashion inattentive to the new styles emerging in place of past fads; I buy what sits comfortably on my hips, pieces I would take pleasure in feeling against the first layer of my skin. Immediately after, I rush out and do not return for months.

Seeking refuge in a nearby supermarket, open market or roadside stand, peace is found. Sweet red torpedo onions promising milky white juice, plump tart lemons in want of a squeeze, freckled strawberries packed to knit a tight pattern of royal red — I could spend hours here.

Regularly I am given a sharp look; a glare uncomprehending of the causes which would explain why I would spend more on food purchases, my motive for paying three extra pounds for a more yellow bunch of unspotted bananas.
Some women lust after shoes, I spend on pretty food. Justifying it I'll say, “This what I do, my job,” to soften the blow of buying good quality saffron, wiry and unaltered with added oils.

I deliver recipes and colorful food photos to people online and in print, to motivate them to cook at home; it's as simple as that. Photogenic foods are what make my blog work, they are what make my words weigh more than their real value; they are that promise of making something that brightens up the kitchens of both my home and yours.

Now that I've chosen this uneven path as a career choice, I struggle with the words “food blogger.” After moving to Kuala Lumpur and taking a break of a year (and a half) of unerringly doing nothing, I started writing about food and taking photos in my living room. Two years onward, I am made uncomfortable by the reluctant smiles sympathetically sent my way when asked what it is I do.

There must be a better title for “food blogger.”

Kathy Patalsky of “Healthy Happy Life,” an inspiring vegan and fellow “food blogger” (if we must call it that), has pushed me, along with many others, to start finding an alternative title for what we do. As recipe developers, part-time photographers, food writers and researchers, what can we be called?

“I'm an Internet Content Producer in the Culinary sector — specializing in vegan recipe development and food photography. I also produce freelance work in the print and mobile sectors,” declares Kathy. And I'm listening to her.

If I too manage to make something substantial out of my blog then why not? To some, it might seem a little unrealistic to call ourselves something other than what we initially started out as but throughout the last few years, bloggers of all kinds have moved on to becoming political analysts, journalists, television reporters, cooking show hosts and caterers. We just can't seem to find a better word for those who cook, write and photograph their work all at the same time. Food bloggers usually grow to become full-time writers, professional food photographers or hired recipe developers. When will all three merge away from the internet?

Hello, I'm Sarah and I'm an internet content producer in the culinary sector. I specialize in Middle Eastern food culture, recipe development and food photography. I also produce freelance work as a food columnist in the print sector.
Does that sound better? More like a cooking show? Let's continue.

Today, I want to share with you a recipe inspired by the way we Egyptians fry fish, sealed in a garlicky cumin crust, made crunchier with the cornstarch I learned to use in Malaysia and lifted with the heat of ginger and mustard, my flavors of India. Staying taut when you pick up a slice, it stays flat like an over-sized potato chip, able with its outer strength and soft center to hold dips, spreads and finely-chopped salads. This recipe simplifies what I'm about — an Egyptian-Indian tired of monotonous food, scouring the market to find a firm aubergine, widely eaten in Egypt and India, that will pose for a picture with grace and end with an adventure in your mouth and mind.
 Pan-fried aubergines in ginger-mustard mayonnaise

For the aubergine, you'll need:
2 medium aubergines, sliced lengthwise 6.5 mm thick
2 large eggs, beaten
½ cup of all-purpose flour
¼ tablespoons of cornstarch
1½ teaspoons of garlic powder
1 teaspoon of cumin powder
1 teaspoon of chili powder
1½ teaspoons of salt
¾ cup of olive oil

For the mayonnaise, you'll need:
½ cup of mayonnaise
½ teaspoon of yellow mustard
½ teaspoon of whole-grain mustard
½ teaspoon of minced garlic
1/8 teaspoon of ginger powder

Measure out the mayonnaise and place it in a small bowl. Add the garlic and ginger powder then the yellow and whole-grain mustard and stir until completely incorporated. If you're making this ahead of time, refrigerate. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, salt, garlic, cumin and chili powders. Set aside. Dip each aubergine slice into the beaten egg then dust with your flour mixture. Gently tap off any excess flour to avoid clumping and place each prepared slice on a clean baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

In a large pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil at a time over medium-high heat. Dip a few aubergine slices at a time until golden brown on both sides. This should take around 2-3 minutes on each side. Continue to add two tablespoons of olive oil to the pan before adding each batch. Prepare the rest of the aubergine in the same fashion and place on a clean plate. Serve with the ginger-mustard mayonnaise.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Unboxing fluffy vanilla bean pancakes

There's a calming medicament in our home for the common cold; it paints in tinges of pink the cheeks of the runny-nosed, enlivens the spirits of the feverishly faint, and layers the room with the luxurious scent of true vanilla: pancakes.

Taking short minutes to measure and mix, the batter comes together with ease, making it undemanding of me— the temporarily ill as well. In between the dappled sunlight and fierce winds of this Cairene winter, pancakes keep me warm.

There are as many kinds of pancakes out there as there are people who make them, but in essence the term “pancake” stems from an age-old world history of quick bread, cooked on a heated pan, eaten at any time seen fit and with a rich array of spreads, toppings and fillings. Tagenias, the earliest form of pancakes recorded in 5th century BC texts, were mentioned by comic poets, Cratinus and Magnes. Made from wheat flour, honey, olive oil and curdled milk, these pancakes were prepared on frying pans and served hot for breakfast. Today, tagenias, or pancakes, have been adapted by cultures worldwide to suit the unique taste buds of their region.

Visiting Paris as a child did not strike the chord in me that seemed to reverberate with emotion in many adults. I only cared to visit small sidewalk cafés in hopes that I would skim the foam away from my mother’s frothy café au lait and onto my dessert spoon making it mine; I only cared to watch slender ladies and gangly men evenly spreading out their secret batter to cover even the utmost edges of their griddle, making crêpes as thin as the finest and most translucent of chiffon.

As I grew older, my love for quick hotcakes, thick and thin, grew and extended to my affection for waffles, equally tempting with deep holding pots for warm syrup; but special is a pancake that retains its original pancake flavor, unmoved by the slosh of syrup, the heavy hand of clingy jam.

Saddened by the countless soggy pancakes I've had in my life that insist on behaving in sponge-like fashion, soaking up the wetness to make way for moisture, it was evident that there was need for better measurements and higher expectations; a way to prove that pancakes were indeed capable of imparting both sweet and savory notes.

These fluffy rounds of simplicity that I’m sharing with you, made up of butter, flour, eggs and milk, develop a thin crust, a shield if you may, from the tragedy that is spongy pancakes. Lightly resting atop the salt-edged pancake, your topping keeps its personality and substance, merging only in your mouth. Watching with excitement as my batter’s bubbles rise and pop, luxuriating in the satisfying smell of black vanilla woven through, there is no better remedy for the self-pity that comes when being sick.
Fluffy Vanilla Bean Pancakes
You'll need:3 cups and 2 tablespoons of cake flour
½ heaped teaspoon of salt
3 tablespoons of baking powder
2 tablespoons of sugar
2½ cups of low-fat milk
3 medium eggs
Paste of 1 whole vanilla bean
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
60 grams of butter
Additional butter for your topping
The toppings of your choice

In a large bowl, mix all your dry ingredients together. No need to sift. In a separate bowl, mix the milk, eggs and vanilla and whisk lightly to combine. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, stirring gently until combined. The batter will look and feel lumpy; this is the way it should be. Melt your 60 grams of butter and add it to the batter, gently mixing just until it comes together. Turn your heat on to medium and grease your large pan with butter or oil spray. Place on the heat and pour the batter in ¼ cup amounts. Cook on one side until set and colored. The batter will bubble on top; the bubbles will then begin to pop. Flip over carefully and cook for a minute before removing and stacking them, one on top of the other. When serving, add a bit of butter on your pancake stack then liberally add your chosen liquid topping before eating.
Note: You can choose to eliminate the vanilla bean and replace it with one additional teaspoon of vanilla extract.

Breaded fish tikka for the picky eater

I've been on a bad food binge. Throughout years of conscientious Asian-influenced eating in Kuala Lumpur, I missed the grease that many Egyptian dishes brought to the many mouths I've shared meals with. “Bring it on, Cairo!” I squealed as my big feet clumsily trampled onto the Egyptian soil that they so sorely missed, warm with coatings of blessed sunlight.

I had dreamed of a rice-stuffed peppered pigeon slipping through my fingers as I grip it with my teeth; thick flakes of green pistachios dotting old-fashioned stretchy mastic ice cream clinging to my dessert spoon. Four years of cravings abroad had resurfaced to thoughtlessly wreak havoc in my stomach. After a short three months, I've learned my lesson well.
What I am yet to comprehend is how we are not giving ourselves the chance to miss this nagging urge for some extra fat, how we are replacing our native dietary habits with fat-laden imported ideas. The only conclusion I can provide lies somewhere in the realm of distressed emotions that heavily influence our eating habits, today more than ever. With an overwhelming job or an overpowering family, Egyptians are sticking to comfort food like Velcro, letting out an aching screech when pulled away.

Maybe we continue to treat ourselves as repressed children who cannot become anything but picky eaters because that is the only escape, the sole personality trait we've got left to call our own.

Unmarried adults obligated to live in their parents' homes despite their age turn to eating out more often, openly chomping on snacks that their parents once said and still say they should not consume. Younger newlyweds, with various new pressures placed upon them, shun their homely eating habits to incorporate many hefty recipes that rely heavily on the packaged food industry, filling their lives with a heightened risk of illness and future heartache. And many of our children, especially children of the educated, are the biggest victims of their parents' lost values – frozen breaded chicken and French fries have become their ultimate companions at meal time.

Meeting many Egyptian honeymooners in Malaysia, you would think that those couples were filled with an adventurous spirit but adventure in Egyptians appears in many activities, seldom in their eating. Traveling far from home, many of us stay and sup in reminders of our beloved country, steering clear of anything remotely Eastern that is not “ours”.
After a while, I could predict more often than not that the majority of Egyptian honeymooners would end up at a place like Planet Hollywood. I've even known honeymooners to eat a double whammy of Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken for the length of their stay while tangy sauces, succulent seafood and soft and sweet Chinese bread buns were around the corner.

Why are we making way for flab? Why are we allowing it to become an extension of our emotions? Why can't we break free? I understand that it is not an easy habit to break but a seemingly minute change can make all the difference — all I ask is to stop or even limit your buying of frozen breaded chicken, frozen burgers, frozen kofta and frozen crepes. All it takes is one night of the week to prepare these and freeze them yourselves.

Let go of your old hang-ups. If you're still living in your parents' house, learn to cook already. You might teach them a thing or two. If you're not, search for your adult palate and give new flavors a chance to pop in your mouth. For the time being, marinate fish fillets in a revised way, ethnicize them with the ancient aromas of India, cover with breadcrumbs and pan-fry in sizzling butter. It's not a hard thing to do.

Besides, let's do what we're good at — let's batter those delicate flavors of life until we can learn to openly (and politely) express our honest feelings, tame our invisible flames of wrath and eat like grown ups should.
Breaded Fish Tikka
You'll need:
2 fillets of white fish
125 grams of yogurt
1 tablespoon of lemon juice (½ a large lemon)
1 teaspoon of chili powder
1 scant teaspoon of ground turmeric
½ teaspoon of ground ginger
½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon of allspice
¼ teaspoon of ground coriander
5-7 drops of hot sauce, optional
A pinch of black pepper
coarse salt, to taste
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
4 tablespoons of butter

Empty the yogurt into a bowl. Add the chili powder, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, ground coriander, pepper, salt and lemon juice. Stir until completely incorporated – no lumps or uneven tones.

Arrange your fish on a tray and pat dry with a paper towel. Place the fillets carefully, laying flat and side by side, in a large food storage bag. Pour the previously prepared marinade into the bag. Stick one hand in and lightly rub the marinade into the fish on both sides. When you're done, seal the bag and place it on a plate to avoid breaking the fillet. Chill it in the refrigerator until ready to cook. I prefer to leave it to soak in the flavors for a few hours.

When you're ready to cook, pour the breadcrumbs onto a plate. Cut the storage bag open with a pair of scissors and remove one fish fillet at a time dipping it first on one side into the breadcrumbs and then slowly turning it over to coat the other side and set aside on a clean plate. Repeat with the rest.

Heat the oil and the butter in a frying pan on medium heat. Once the butter begins to foam, lay your fish down and let it fry for 4-5 minutes on each side. Be careful when you're flipping over the fish. Salt and serve immediately. This can also be baked.
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