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.
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