Friday, June 29, 2012

Fusilli & Fuss

As featured in The Egypt Monocle
Educated Cairenes are a funny bunch, often blurring the lines when it suits them, merging reality with a glorious fantasy world where they are “better” for speaking English, where they are proficient based on a skill learned, in no detail, online.
​Among the new things that have recently astounded me in Cairo is the ability of some to flounce around the city introducing themselves as chefs without toiling in the grease of a hot kitchen — day in, day out. Some could argue that a chef in essence is the mastermind behind the menu, the director of the show — but how can we take control of the laborious task of coordinating a kitchen if we have received neither the education nor the training to apply commands correctly, let alone delegate them?
​It is unfortunate that Egyptian chefs who deserve to be called chefs aren’t the ones gaining that recognition. They are not the ones asked to be stars of an article praising both their skill and knowledge. They are not busy celebrity “cheffing” but are caught up in cooking and management, often not being the ones to get the likes on Facebook. These people are behind the scenes, cooks waiting to take the next order, invisible; and there are thousands of them in Egypt.
​So what is the difference between a cook and a chef?
​According to the three-starred New York restaurant Le Bernadin’s co-owner, Chef Eric Ripert, “A chef is a title. So, as a chef, you’re manager, basically, of your team — with many duties including the creativity and the leading role of the kitchen. Being a cook, it’s understanding the ingredients; it’s being good at the act of cooking, which is craftsmanship.” He goes on to say, “Now, I don’t think you can be a good chef if you are not a good cook.”
​This is not what I’m seeing, Cairo. Far from it. Instead, I’m seeing Egyptians and inefficient foreigners hired by Egyptians who believe they’ve been reincarnated as prettily boxed gifts bestowed upon Cairo’s food scene, doling out their PR routine at one event after another, popping open one unfinished restaurant after the next, with minimal focus on the food.
​This is not how awarded restaurants are made and it is far from what the food service industry truly represents — skills, humility and patience. Instead, we are rushing to wear our made-for-us branded toques, filling them with ambition, desires and dreams of reality TV.
​Creativity in food is no easy feat, especially once you’ve taken a long hard look at the international food world, old and new, and what people have been bringing to the table for years.
​By all means, become a chef in Cairo and call yourself one but if I’m speaking to you about outdated classics, it would be beneficial to have an idea about those I’m referencing as well as how to cook for a party of a hundred or more. If I criticize the way you cook your eggs, address my concern instead of unfollowing me on Twitter.
​It is exactly this behavior that is putting us nowhere on the global food map — all fluff and no substance.
​If you’re toying with the idea of finding a career in Cairo’s strange food world as a chef, begin as an apprentice and not the featured chef of a one-night-only event. Work your way up through the ranks of the iron-fisted restaurant kitchen hierarchy to learn the trade. Accept the advice you’re handed graciously. Don’t drink on the job. Study and hide your ego.
Creamy Cinnamon Fusilli with Broccoli & Chicken
You’ll need
350 grams of fusilli
1 small onion, diced
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
7 grams of butter
1½ cups of cream
½ cup of chicken stock
A pinch of cinnamon
50 grams of Edam cheese
½ teaspoon of white pepper
½ a head of broccoli in florets
3 chicken breasts
1 tablespoons of vegetable oil
5 grams of butter
Salt and pepper to season

For the pasta, bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. It should be a little underdone when removed from the water. Set aside. In a large pan on medium heat, add the butter. Once it has foamed, add the garlic and onion. Cook for a few minutes until softened. They should not change color.
Add the cream and stir into the onions and garlic then add the chicken stock and bring to a high simmer. Lower the heat then add the cinnamon, pepper and salt. Leave on a low simmer for 5 minutes to thicken. Add the cheese and stir to combine. Add the pasta to the sauce and allow to cook for another 2-3 minutes until al dente.
In a separate pot, boil a pot full of salted water and add your broccoli florets. Cook for around 3-4 minutes then remove. Drain then add to the pasta.
While the sauce is left to thicken, heat a pan with a lid to medium-high heat then add the butter and oil. Swirl the pan to coat. Season the raw chicken breast then add to the pan. Leave to cook for approximately 7 minutes on each side, depending on how large the chicken breast is. Once done, allow the chicken breast to rest for a few minutes before slicing.
Slice the chicken. After plating up the fusilli with broccoli, rest the chicken on top. Feel free to add the chicken into the pasta pot to coat it with sauce before serving.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Jam Cakes & Wild Food

“What are those?” I asked, looking down at my sneakers, at the stains beneath them sprawled over the floor of my friend’s garage, free of cars and quietly enclosed behind the looming gates of their villa. “I can’t remember their name,” Jinan shrugged, “but we can eat them.”
Away from today’s trends of foraging for plants we can eat, I hesitated at the notion back in 1994. “Are you sure?” I said making way for the burgundy stains to show themselves, to reassure my insecure self that they were ingestible as she comforted me — 10-year-old to 10-year-old.
I, after all, belonged to the supermarket generation of expatriate Abu Dhabi — one that did not see fresh markets except on our trips back home to our respective countries. Things were delivered, clean; the entirety of it had to be deemed safe before reaching our homes.
Popping it into my mouth, street dust and all, I smiled as it burst and started collecting more of these little bumpy purple gems with my foraging friend. Rinsing them in tap water and setting them down on the floor, we surrounded the bowl, descending on it to consume the fruit forbidden for us to pick up off the ground in vacant garages.
For years, I thought that what I had secretly shared with Jinan were blackberries. Only later did I find out that these were mulberries, grown in our region, sprouting high up on smooth-stemmed trees, seemingly black in the shade, plump and sugary. Blackberries on the other hand are grown on thorny vines, round and fragile-skinned, more uniform and smaller. The fact is that most people cannot differentiate between them and these days, most kids at first instinct would tell you that the blackberry is a phone and not a fruit that stains the spot it falls on.
I remember watching the stain on my fingers spread, creeping further on my skin, leaving tangible memories for me to take home, for me to ask my mom what those beautiful berries are called.
“Toot,” she said and so I trailed through my childhood calling them “toot” unable to understand that we Egyptians call most berry-looking berries “toot” with the exception of strawberries, holding a special place in our hearts.
“Blackberry jam” I read today on the jar’s label — “toot shami” neatly typed in Arabic. We as a market, still remain confused, unable to determine the genus of the plants around us. “Toot shami” were in fact Levantine mulberries, juiced in the hotter months by the sellers on the streets of Damascus for passersby to quench their thirst. I do not know what to do about this problem of misidentifying ingredients except to single them out, to make things easier for the interested to know.
I am lucky to live in one of Cairo’s gated communities but find that not many actually use the sprawling gardens away from the children’s playground. While walking our dog, I’ve come across ingredients lying around, often growing out of control. I’ve spotted a fully grown button mushroom but did not eat it out of fear that I picked the wrong kind. Instead, I pulled it out of the ground, broke it in two and examined it; feeling the same anxious excitement I first did with that tall mulberry tree. What I have managed to pick regularly is fresh basil for my caprese salads and saucy pastas.
I can barely even call myself an amateur forager but I’m curious to know if our gardens are full of edible wild plants that might serve our weak fine dining scene well, changing the way Egyptians perceive their weeds. If RenĂ© Redzepi of Noma, chef of the best restaurant in the world 2010, 2011 and 2012, can deep fry moss and roast lettuce to make juice, it’s about time someone steps up to the plate to dig up the resources around us that have long been neglected. I wait eagerly for the day one of our restaurants, old or new, serves something intelligent, inspiring and wholly ours. Until then, I’ll keep on searching for the discrepancies and point out the correct names and origins of our region’s food.
Mulberry-Strawberry Jam Cake
You’ll need
1 stick of unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups of sugar
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups of cake flour, sifted
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
3 tablespoons of mulberry jam (Toot shami, often marked as blackberry jam)
3 tablespoons of strawberry jam
Icing sugar, to dust
Butter a round cake pan and dust with flour. Tap out the excess flour and discard. In medium-sized bowl, sift together the flour and the salt. Combine the cream and vanilla in a cup and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter and sugar and whisk at high speed until pale, light and fluffy. Begin to add the eggs one at a time making sure each one is incorporated before the addition of another. Beat hard for two minutes until it begins to slightly rise in volume. Add the flour in three batches alternating with the cream. Begin with the flour and end with the cream. Mix just until all is incorporated. Pour the thick batter into your greased pan and smooth out the top. Dust each dollop of jam with flour before adding it to the top of the cake. Once done, swirl the jams around with a knife. Pop into a cold oven at 175 degrees Celsius and bake for a little over an hour (approx. 65 minutes). Remove from the oven. Cool before turning out of the pan. Slice; dust with icing sugar and an extra spoon of jam of your choice. Serve.  

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Finding Solace in Brownies

Featured in The Egypt Monocle

I was sitting on the floor of our apartment on the 21st floor. Sliding the balcony's glass door open, I let Malaysia's humidity touch our skin; my stepkids, me, barefoot. "Like this?" Youssef asked, sitting in his camouflaged t-shirt and mismatched shorts, as I took photo after photo to post for you to see, here. "I want to stir the brownies now, Sarah. It's my turn," Talia chirped at first, her voice quietly deepening, tensing up. "Only if Sarah lets me take a photo while you stir," Youssef teased. 
Placing the camera around his neck, watching him secure it in his hands, my stepson had grown from the three year old that I had first spent time with on a boat cruising down the Nile. 
And then it happened what it was that happened until we reach this time of year, his 10th birthday. But we are not there to see it, to see him. Not his dad, not his grandma, not me. This is our law, Egypt. This is the law that allows mothers to deny fathers their right to spend time with their children, to hear their voices, to watch them grow - become hot-headed teenagers with sex drives. 

What if the father, after succumbing to court, has finally received a court order to see his child? He sees them (if the mother brings them) in the presence of the mom and a designated official from the government. All that's missing is a glass wall. Of course, all of us on the father's side of the family are in no way entitled to know the children; exceptions may be made for grandmothers if their sons are away but stepmothers? Me? Never.

Little did I know that day on the Nile that I, who was not invited to his birthday before becoming his father's wife, would not be able to speak to him again on his birthday five years into being his stepmother. And so it stays, all of us in one city, all of us learning to adapt to a situation we have been forced into, all for own reasons. I hope you have a beautiful birthday, Youssef. You are on our minds today and I wish you were here to make (or eat) these brownies with us.       
Pistachio-Milk Chocolate Brownies 
(Adapted from Epicurious)
You'll need: 
100 grams of unsalted butter
230 grams of milk chocolate, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
3/4 cup of brown sugar
2 large eggs
3/4 cup of all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon of salt
A handful of pistachios, chopped
A dash of sea salt

Preheat oven to 170 degrees Celsius. Butter and flour a 20 cm pan (8x8"). Melt butter and chocolate in a saucepan over low heat, continuously stirring until smooth. Cool until lukewarm. In a separate bowl, mix together the brown sugar, eggs and vanilla then slowly pour in half of the chocolate until the mixture is glossy. Add the flour and ½ teaspoon of salt then half of the pistachios. Mix well, beating hard, to incorporate. Stir in the remaining half of chocolate and spread the batter in a pan and sprinkle with the rest of the pistachios and sea salt. Bake for approximately 25 minutes.
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