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.
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