So What's This All About?

My family is traveling the world one forkful, or kuĂ izi ful, or handful at a time. Follow our blog to see what interesting facts we learn, which country's food becomes our favorite, and which cuisine makes us feel healthiest. There will also be postings of some projects/arts and crafts/activities for preschoolers that we do in our home preschool. Grab your appetite and let's go!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Irio and Githeri - Simple, Supple, and Satisfying

So now that you have perfected ugali - Ha! Don't worry. I've read on some sites that it can takes months to do such, so don't fret. You will need a Kenyan dish or two to accompany it! What I've found about these few Kenyan/East African recipes I've been trying is that they are usually quick to make and quite filling.

(My unabashed side note: With poverty levels high in many of these countries,"filling" would be of great importance. Here's an idea: with the money saved making these inexpensive dishes, make a donation to help an impoverished East African family. Some sites to check out: World Vision Gift Catalog or Special Hope Network. Share below in the comments an organization or missionary you support!)

A truly simple, protein dish you can make up in just a few minutes is Githeri. Here's how:

Place 2 cups corn (fresh off cob or frozen) and 2 cups canned or cooked beans (kidney, pinto, black, etc) into a saute dish with enough water just to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 5 - 10 minutes or till warmed through. Toss in salt and pepper.

That's it! Serve it with Ugali.

But... if you are like me and can't resist adding more flavors, you can toss in some chopped fresh herbs (like cilantro or basil), a tablespoon of curry powder or paste, and a handful of chopped greens (like spinach or chard). Another idea is to saute a small, chopped onion before adding the corn and beans into the pan.

A sister to Githeri is Irio. The concept is very similar. Here's how:

Boil 4 potatoes (peeled and quartered) in salted water until soft. Drain (reserve water, though) and set aside.

In a saute pan, add 2 cups fresh or frozen corn, 2 cups cooked beans (kidney, pinto, cranberry, etc), 2 cups chopped spinach or other green. Cook on low for about 10 minutes or till the vegetables are very soft. Add potatoes and salt and pepper to taste to the vegetables, continuing to simmer and smashing the mixture with back of fork. You may need to add some of the potato water if it gets too thick. It doesn't have to be pureed, just mashed enough to create thickness while preserving chunks of vegetables.

This can be served alone, with rice, or with Ugali.

goodnight nobody, goodnight mush

ugali, mealie pap, pap, nshima, nsima, sadza - all different words for a similar concept throughout east and south africa. this (typically) cornmeal mush serves a unique purpose beyond filling your tummy: it is also your spoon. a technique, which is NOT as easy as it may seem, perfected certainly through much time spent living in east africa, is taking a small handful of this very thick mush and kneading it into a mini ladle of sorts. you then skillfully dip it into the accompanying stew or vegetable dish, bringing a nice portion of food with you to your mouth - without spilling or streaming the juices down your arm. And of course, there is the skill of making the ugali thick enough not to fall apart as it handles the liquidy food.

try it, really. it's a fun experience, especially if you have toddlers who would prefer to ditch the spoon anyway.

there are numerous variations on ugali, but here's a good base for you:

Pour 1 cup milk into a bowl and slowly whisk in 3/4 cup cornmeal. (I have found recommendations for both using stone ground or coarse and fine ground, and both from reliable "been there, done it" sources. You will have to experiment with both; I started with finer ground assuming it would hold together better.)

Heat 1 cup of water in medium saucepan to boiling, then slowly add the milk/cornmeal paste to it till smooth, reducing the heat to low. Add an additional 1/2 cup cornmeal, stirring frequently. When the mixture begins to pull away from the sides (just a few minutes), remove it from the heat and allow to cool. Roll it into a smooth ball into a serving dish, and serve at room temperature.

Allow guests to "tear off" small pieces, form their ladle, and dip in stew dish. Good stew dishes are Sukuma Wiki, Irio, or Githeri. (Blogs about these to follow...)

...and goodnight to the old lady whispering "hush".

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Groundnut Stew with Chicken

Good friends of ours are off the Zambia soon to work with children with special needs. They have developed and will begin incorporating an amazing ministry, as I believe they are flying to Zambia this week. Please check out their website: At a farewell luncheon for them, I wanted to make a dish that was Zambian. Being an impoverished country, where survival is key, googling "Zambian cuisine" was an oxymoron, really. I was able to find this dish, but it may actually be more of a common West African food than Zambian. Nonetheless, it was very good!

Peanuts and sweet potatoes are quite prevalent in many parts of Africa, as well as inexpensive. What I have been discovering about foods of different African countries is the ability to take simple, cheap foods and, with help of a few key spices, creating a tasty dish - a great lesson for us Americans immersed with such plenty and with a certain haughtiness or sense of deservedness of all sorts of gourmet and expensive foods. Another characteristic is food that is filling, as it may be the only meal for the day, and it also needs to fuel them for the hard labor that awaits them in their day.

I made this once overnight in a crockpot and another time in a dutch oven for about an hour. Both were delicious.

Remove the skin from 8-10 chicken pieces (bone-in for best flavor). Wipe dry with a paper towel, and season with a little salt, pepper, and sugar. (The sugar is a little trick from my friend's Laotian mother-in-law!)

Melt 2 or 3 tablespoons oil or butter in a large skillet, browning the chicken on all sides. This will take 5-10 minutes. Remove chicken to dutch oven or crockpot.

While chicken is browning, chop 2 or 3 butternut squash, acorn squash, or sweet potatoes (whichever you prefer), chop 2-3 onions, mince a couple cloves of garlic, and chop an inch or two of fresh ginger.

Saute onions in the pan that you browned the chicken. Add squash or sweet potatoes, adding some water so that it is slightly immmersed, deglazing the pan with a wooden spoon. Add spices: cinnamon, ginger (if not using fresh), garlic powder (if not using fresh), garam masala, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, cumin. If you need measurements, start with 1 teaspoon of each (except the cayenne, of which you should start with 1/4 teaspoon) and add more to taste of the ones you like best!

Mix together till it starts to boil, covering it with lid and simmer 5-10 minutes to soften vegetables. Add cinnamon stick as well.

Pour entire mixture over the chicken (adding stewed tomatoes, if you'd like) and cook in covered dutch oven on medium-low heat for one or two hours or in crockpot on low for 6-8 hours or high for 4 hours.

Serve with cooked rice to soak up the juices!
Silly me, I forgot to take a picture of the final product, but it was very good! You'll just have to trust me on that.

West With the Night

So there are many Africas. There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa... Whoever writes a new one can afford a certain complacency in the knowledge that his is a new picture agreeing with no one else's, but likely to be haughtily disagreed with by all those who believe in some other Africa.

I just dusted off a crisp book that has been sitting on our shelf for several years now, cracking open the cover and creating the first creases that accompany a first read of a paperback. The book: West With the Night by Beryl Markham. The inspiration: my husband was recommended this book after asking for a good read on Africa several years ago.

Only on page eight, and I found the above quote and much comfort (not to mention a vortex of consumption that takes over when you find a book of such excellent calibar!) Though I don't intend on writing a book about Africa, I have felt apprehension in trying to share its food and people, as it will only be "my Africa", my interpretation, my impressions. I cannot try to claim new insight, or even completely accurate ones, but I now feel at liberty to share despite those obstacles.

I'm on page 67 now, and I'm hooked. Get this book! There may be an underlying bias or European haughtiness to the author, but it must be noted that the book was written in 1942, still seeped in the general acceptance of such things as colonialism, hunting, taking Africa's resources, etc. I haven't figured out the author's take on these things yet, but it is clear her life mingles within them.

One more quote to share that I liked: Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer's paradise, a hunter's Valhalla, an escapist's Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just 'home.' It is all these things but one thing - it is never dull.

Well, there's just one more Africa sumation she makes that I was intrigued with: It is still the host of all my darkest fears, the cradle of mysteries always intriguing, but never wholly solved. It is the remembrance of sunlight and green hills, cool water and the yellow warmth of bright mornings. It is as ruthless as any sea, more uncompromising than its own deserts. It is without temperance in its harshness or in its favours. It yields nothing, offering much to men of all races.
But the soul of Africa, its integrity, the slow inexorable pulse of its life, is its own and of such singular rhythm that no outsider, unless steeped from childhood in its endless, even beat, can ever hope to experience it, except only as a bystander might experience a Masai war dance knowing nothing of its music nor the meaing of its steps.

For an overview and comments about this book, read here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


If you subscribe to receiving emails of new posts and just received an alert for a new post, I hope you did not get it! It was edited and done, but the wi-fi at the coffe shop I'm at had disconnected briefly and thus the draft that was saved was the incomplete and unedited version.

I fear I've lost my cleaned up draft, but I hope my memory will serve me well and get it out in the next couple minutes.

Sorry for that!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

the system, revised, and Introduction to Africa

I've got at least five other middle eastern dishes that I've cooked over the last two months of which I'd love to share with you. My idealistic nature believes I will do such, but my slowly-growing-but-still-infantile realism is forcing me to give the disclaimer that they may not all appear.

However, in reworking the system for keeping up-to-date on this blog, my brilliant husband won me an Olympus digital voice recorder on ebay in order for me to record my thoughts and stories as they come to me or while I'm cooking. This is the perfect choice, for when the time comes that I can actually hop online to post, it's the end of the day and I'm looking for my pillow instead of the publish button!

I am currently reading and researching African cuisine as we move westward from the Mideast. To connect the cuisines, I believe I will start with Eastern African countries. Inititially (and ignorantly), I hoped to tackle this in a lumped group of Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia. What was I thinking???
I seem to suffer from this foggy notion of Africa as an enormous country instead of the enormous, incredibly rich, diverse continent that it is. Ethiopia has preserved its own cuisine, largely due to its naturally isolating geography; Kenya alone has over 40 tribes, resulting in unique cuisines among each. I've realized that I must tackle Africa country by country, highlighting each one's everyday and festive foods.

But even in going country by country, I must be careful to not be bound by geographical lines. A good friend of ours, who spent his teen years living in Kenya, noted that the people of Africa define themselves by tribes, and not by the country divisions that Europeans have created. In A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa by Howard W. French, he says, "The continent is simply too large and too complex to be grasped easily, and only rarely, in fact, have we ever tried. Instead we categorize and over simplify, willy nilly, ingnoring that for the continents' inhabitants, the very notion of Africanness is an utterly recent extraction born of Western subjugation, of racism and of exploitation."

In order to understand the cuisine, I must understand the people. I read a fictional book while cooking Middle Eastern, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, but I am now reading the above mentioned non-fiction African memoir to expand my incredibly, and shamefully, limited knowledge of Africa. I've also put a number of holds on books from the library in hopes that I may better understand the beauty, the traditions, and the pain of this great land.

Certainly, I hope to highlight amazing food from this continent, but more so I pray that God will create in me a love for this land and its people and give me insight into easing her pain and seeing her beauty.

Friday, March 12, 2010

discovering borani

I've always liked yogurt, plain yogurt that is. Many people I know detest it unless it's vanilla flavored or sweetened with lots of sugar. If you fall into that category, consider using it in a savory way, instead of trying to stomach it alone. You can use yogurt just as you would use sour cream. It's a great (and healthier) substitute for some recipes that call for heavy cream; it's great on top of rice, burritos, tacos, and squash or sweet potato soups. The active live cultures in yogurt are incredibly important as I'm sure you've been hearing lately in health/food news - or at least you've heard the term "probiotics". If you haven't heard, check out these sites:
Surprising Uses and Benefits of Yogurt - this one is an answer to a question on one problem, but the author discusses the numerous problems yogurt can help lessen, cure, or prevent

In many parts of the Mideast, Mediterranean, and Africa, yogurt is a staple on or mixed in food. One common Middle Eastern dish is called borani, which is, as Faye Levy describes, "a simple, refreshing medley of vegetables and yogurt". Remember my post a while ago about shopping at the Afghan market? Rahim referred to one of his favorite dishes of roasted eggplant and yogurt, a type of borani.

An often looked-over vegetable that I love is the beet. My kids absolutely love it as well, though it stains their hands, we make them wear bibs, there is the after effect of slightly reddish, um, well, pee! They have such wonderful, almost sweet, flavor on their own that I simply boil them whole, peel the skin, and then slice it. You could add salt or butter if you like, but it's truly not necessary.

So, of course, let's combine those two loves of mine - beets and yogurt - to make a Beet Borani!

Trim the bottom of and cut off the greens of 4 medium beets. (Save the greens to chop and saute with garlic and butter!) Don't fork the beet as you might a potato. Simply rinse off any dirt gently then place in a steamer over water or directly into water, covering completely. Cover tightly and steam for 40 to 60 minutes, adding more water as necessary. (The age of the beet will determine how long it takes to soften; fresher takes less time.)

Cool the beets by running them under cold water and resting for a few minutes. The skin will easily slip off when you gently rub the beet. Cut into wedges, and let cool completely.

In a bowl, mix 2 cups plain yogurt, 2 tablespoons fresh mint (or 2 teaspoons dried), a pinch of salt, and a pinch of pepper. Add beets to the yogurt and fold in gently. Serve chilled.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I Can't Get Enough Dates!

... the fruit, that is. (Though any offers of babysitting so my husband and I can go on a date are always accepted!) I love dried dates, but getting whole dates is a treat! If you have a sweet tooth, just pop a date in your mouth at the end of a meal for a healthy, satisfying treat. (Be careful not to eat the pit, though!)
Besides being a great snack, dates are wonderful for binding other healthy ingredients together, replacing flour, sugar, and butter! They are also scrumptious wrapped in bacon and broiled! See for other recipe ideas.

The recipe below is for halvah, popular in Egypt and also similar to haroset, a Passover dessert.

Finely chop 1/2 to 3/4 cup pecans, walnuts, or almonds (or mix) in food processor, then transfer to bowl.
Halve about 8 - 10 dates, removing the pits. Put dates in the food processor along with a scant cup of dried mixed fruit such as apricots, figs, or raisins and 1 to 2 teaspoons of cinnamon. Process till very smooth, adding a teaspoon or two of orange or lemon juice if it's too dry to process.
Remove and mix (with hands) into the finely chopped nuts, adding another teaspoon or two of juice if needed till mixture comes together. Mix in 2 teaspoons of orange or lemon zest.

Roll fruit mixture between your palms into small balls. Place on plate and serve.
These are simple, fast, a packed full of goodness! I popped one of these in my mouth when I needed a little boost of energy during the day.

Baked Kibbe

Kibbe is a fried meaty bulgur dough with meat and nut filling. This version, from Feast From the Mideast by Faye Levy, is a quicker and healthier version. I've made a few changes to her recipe. It is slightly dry, but it should be served with a bowl of tahini or yogurt on the side for dipping and moistening - which makes a world of difference!

For the dough:

Place 2/3 cup bulgur wheat (finest grind) into a bowl and cover with 3 cups cold water. Refrigerate and soak for 10 minutes. Drain in sieve, squeezing excess liquid out. Place in large bowl.

Finely chop 1/2 onion in food processor. Add 12 oz. ground beef (1 1/2 cup), 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, and 1 teaspoon cumin seeds (or ground) processing to a paste. Add 3 tablespoons of cold water and process briefly. Add this mixture to the bulgur, mixing well with hands. (C'mon! You know you want to get messy - and it's easier!)

In 2 batches, return mixture to processor and blend well. It should make a slightly sticky dough. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make filling:

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy medium skillet. Saute 1 medium chopped onion till golden brown. Add 3/4 cup slivered almonds, sauteing for 1 minute. Add 12 oz. ground beef (or lamb), salt and pepper, 1 teaspoon coriander, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon cardamom. (Drain excess fat if desired.) Transfer to bowl and add 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings. Let cool completely.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and grease a 9-inch square pan. Divide dough in half, pressing one half in an even layer in pan. Top with filling. Divide remaining dough into small pieces, flattening each piece out. Set dough pieces on top of filling, and with moist fingers, press dough pieces together to seal them.

With a point of a sharp knife, score top in lines to make square or diamond cuts through to the bottom. Brush top generously with 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil. Cover with foil and bake for 10 minutes. Uncover, brush again with oil, and bake for 20 minutes more or till cooked through and browned.

Remove with a slotted spatula to remove excess oil before placing piece on plate. Be sure to serve with yogurt or tahini. We enjoyed ours with a spinach salad on the side.

Baklava, Ooh, La, Va!

I look forward to Greek festivals for one reason, and one alone: the baklava! Now, yes the dancing is enlivening and the spanakopita is scrumptious, but there's nothing like a bite into a flaky, rich, perfectly sweet piece of baklava.
The mideast does give Greece much credit for their perfection of baklava even though the first records of it come from Syria. They do, though, hold to their own version of this sweet dessert. So in making a Middle Eastern version, I combined Persian, Turkish, and Greek recipes. I certainly hope I can recall it well to you, as it was one of the best flavor combinations I've had! (Beginner's luck, really.)

1. Crush 3 cups of nuts in a mortar and pestle, such as almonds, pistachios, or walnuts. (I used almonds.) Place in a bowl and add to it: 1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar, 2 teaspoons cinnamon, 2 teaspoons cardamom.

2. Melt 2 sticks of butter in a small pan and have hot and ready. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

3. (This part can be tricky!) You will need 8 to 10 oz. phyllo sheets, which you can find in the frozen section of most grocery stores. It will dry very quickly, so remove only what you think you will use and place it on top of a lightly damp, clean cloth as well as cover it with the same. You will also want to cut it to the size of your pan. I used a 13x9 pan, and I found that cutting the sheets in half were the perfect size.
Using a basting brush, grease the bottom of your pan. You will now start adding layers of phyllo dough, completely, but lightly, basting EACH layer with butter and covering up the sheets that are waiting to be used or they will dry and become flaky and very difficult to work with.
This was my layering: 5 phyllo sheets, coating of nut and spice mixture, 5 sheets, coating, 5 sheets, coating, 5 sheets, coating, 10 sheets.

4. Bake for 25 minutes. Cover loosely with foil, reduce the heat to 300 degrees, and bake for 20 minutes more or till golden brown. While it is cooking, make the syrup: mix 1 1/2 cups sugar and 1 cup water in a saucepan and cook on low until sugar is dissolved. Bring to a boil, reduce heat slightly, and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes or till thickened. Add 1-2 teaspoons lemon juice, simmering 5 more minutes. Remove from heat and add 1 to 2 tablespoons rose or orange-flower water. (Typical Greek baklava uses honey instead of sugar and rosewater, which you may do if you prefer!)
5. When baklava is done, carefully cut it (still in pan) into squares or diamonds. Drizzle the syrup in the cracks of the cuts you have made, around the edges, and then finally on top using as much of it as you'd like. You may serve leftover syrup on the side for anyone who may want his or her piece sweeter.

6. Let baklava stand for a couple of hours before serving. It can keep for several days at room temperature covered with saran wrap.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

You may THINK it's tzatziki, but it's not! It's better!

Classic Cucumber Salad with Yogurt, Garlic, and Mint (Cacik or Khyar bi Laban)
from Feast From the Mideast by Faye Levi

Slice, half, dice, or grate 4 Middle Eastern, 2 Japanese, or 1 hothouse cucumber. Dice 1 to 1 1/2 cups tomatoes or red bell peppers or radishes. [Note - I did a mix of tomato and red pepper.] Mince 2 small garlic cloves, and chop 2 tablespoons of fresh mint.
Mash garlic with pinch of salt in bowl, using back of spoon. Add most of the mint (reserving 1/2 tablespoon) and 2 1/2 cups thick yogurt*, plain yogurt, or kefir cheese (labneh). Blend well, thoroughly mixing in garlic mixture.
Fold cucumbers into yogurt mixture, adding a little more yogurt if needed. Fold in tomatoes and/or red bell pepper. Add a little salt and cayenne pepper to your liking.
Refrigerate at least 30 minutes before serving. Serve sprinkled with remaining mint.

I served this with the Green Herb Kookoo, and it went really well together.

*To thicken plain yogurt, place it in a sieve, strainer lined with coffee filters, or cheese cloth over a bowl and let drain covered with a paper towel and refrigerated. It can drain for 24 hours if you were so inclined, but two hours does wonders. Every hour you drain it, it will thicken up till it becomes texture similar to cream cheese!

Persian Souffle (Kookoo)

In Persian Cooking, by Nesta Ramazani, I came across a category of recipes called "Kookoo". And when you've got a name like that, you just have to give it a go!
Here's some of her description of the dish: The delectable Kookoo was called a "fritter" or "omelette" by early travelers to Persia. Neither word is quite adequate. The kookoo looks somewhat like a souffle, and both are made with eggs and other ingredients. But there they part ways, for the kookoo is browned in butter, cannot collapse, and can be prepared ahead of time and reheated.
There are recipes for String Bean Kookoo, Fava Bean Kookoo, Eggplant Kookoo, Cauliflower Kookoo, Chicken Kookoo, Brain Kookoo (yes, that's right - of a cow or lamb), and a few others. So you can easily adapt the recipe below to fit any couple ingredients you have on hand. I chose Green Herb Kookoo (Kookoo-ye Sabzi)
because she says, "This is the finest and most delectable of all the kookoos," so it was only logical!

Serves 6
Chop and have ready: 1 cup leeks or scallions, a few lettuce leaves, 1/2 cup dill weed (not included in picture), 1 cup parsley, 1/4 cup cilantro
[Note: I substituted spinach for the dill and added a few sprigs of thyme.]
Saute the greens for 5 minutes in 1 tablespoon of butter, stirring frequently.
Beat 8 eggs well with 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
Add the sauteed greens to the egg mixture and combine.
Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in skillet, and pour in the egg-herb mixture. Do not stir.
Cook over a medium heat until well browned, about 8-10 minutes. (Lift edge of the kookoo with a flat utensil to see if brown.)

Flip it over, as you would for a pancake and brown other side (about 2 or 3 minutes).
Serve with yogurt or labneh. May be eaten hot or cold.

(I served this with Classic Cucumber Salad - which is in the following post.)

Breakfast, Middle Eastern Style

In an effort to stick to my original goal - eating ALL meals from the country of present - I have asked and searched for different middle eastern ideas for breakfast. In all the helpful tidbits I found, the "dish" that both my husband and I have been devouring is very simple, yet divine!

Take a piece of middle eastern flat bread (or pita or naan) and toast it in the toaster oven till just crispy. Take it out and spread with a Middle Eastern soft cheese. Sprinkle the top with Zahtar (or Za'atar). The cheese we've been using is in this picture near the center, written in Arabic with red around the edges. If you live in C'Ville, get to Rahim's store and buy some! It's similar to goat cheese but saltier - and oh, so addicting!

A few other things I read about breakfast....

from Lebanese Cuisine: "It is rare to go into a Lebanese kitchen that does not have a bowl of olives ready to be put on the table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner."

from Feast From the Mideast: "Even for breakfast, if someone is eating an omelette, there has to be a salad on the plate alongside it. Indeed, this custom is one of the most healthful aspects of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern diet."

from "Saudi Aramco World", an old but interesting article on Middle East breakfast is worth a full read here.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Creamy Persian Eggplant

My kids, though willing eaters, aren't fond of eggplant. But this recipe either fooled them or reformed them! We stuffed it inside pita bread (which when warmed up in a toaster oven is the best!), and they ate it up. It can be served hot or room temperature.

A note on kashk from Feast from the Mideast by Faye Levy:

Kashk [is] a creamy dairy product made of dried whey mixed with a little water... if the jar's label lists whey, salt, and water but no other ingredients, you have the right thing for htis recipe. Kashk has the texture of very thick sour cream but has a more tangy, concentrated flavor and is lower in fat. If you happen to find kashk, try it; it's intense flavor gives the tastiest result.
(For blog readers who are local, Rahim carries kashk at his store!)

Creamy Persian Eggplant
from Feast from the Mideast by Faye Levy

Makes 4 servings
1 medium eggplant (1 pound)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon dried mint
4 tablespoons kashk, yogurt, or labneh
salt and freshly ground pepper

Grill, broil, or roast eggplant, then peel it.
(I broiled mine: Prick each eggplant 5 or 6 times with a fork. Set them on broiler rack or broiler pan lined with foil if you like. Broil eggplant for about 40 minutes, or until they feel soft when you press them, turning them over occasionally. Let stand until cool enough to handle. Cut off caps and remove peel with the aid of a paring knife.)
Chop eggplant with knife to a chunky puree. Transfer to bowl.
Heat oil in large skillet. Add onion and saute over medium heat for 10 minutes, or until tender and golden brown.

Add garlic and saute for 30 seconds, then add dried mint and saute for a few more seconds. Reserve 3 tablespoons of the mixture as a topping. Add the rest to the eggplant and mix well.
If substituting yogurt for kashk, drain off any liquid before measuring it. Add 3 tablespoons kashk to the eggplant and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve the eggplant at room temperature.
To serve, spread eggplant dip in a dish or a shallow bowl. To finish, if using kashk, mix 1 tablespoon of it with about 1/2 tablespoon water to a thick sauce and pour it over the center. If using yogurt, simply spoon a dollop over the eggplant. Sprinkle with the reserved onion mixture.

A Lebanese Quick Dish

We were off to friends' house for a little party, and so I needed to quickly put something together for the kids. Only having Middle Eastern ingredients in the house, I searched for a recipe that wouldn't take long. I found this in Lebanese Cuisine by Anissa Helou and deviated slightly from the recipe.

On a side note, and I feared this would happen, Ms. Helou says in her introduction:
Lebanese cuisine as we know it today has evolved through these successive invasions with each culture leaving its mark. Those who seem to have left the most perceptible signs of influence are the Egyptians, Persians, ancient Greeks and Ottomans. The French... had in their mere 25 years in the Lebanon a strong refining influence on the local cuisine. This probably explains why Lebanese food is that much more varied and refined than that of its Middle Eastern neighbours...
It might be difficult to dissociate our food from that of Syria, Jordan and Palestine but our cuisine is quite distinctive from theirs. There is one main geographical difference... in that there is no desert land and therefore no nomadic Bedouin population with its culinary tradition...

She continues on various topics as to why Lebanon should not be bundled with Middle Eastern cuisine. I do see her point - and I think other countries could argue the same. I've made a few recipes from a Persian (Iranian) cookbook that seem quite distinct as well. I will cook from some solo countries - and I'd love to do that with the Middle Eastern region - but it may be 80 years before we complete our journey, so I'm bundling some cuisines together. Hopefully, I am covering a little from each country within the ME while respecting and highlighting their differences.

So let's get this recipe up! It's called Minced Meat, Tomato, and Onion Bread (Lahem bil-Ajeen).
Serves 4
4 Naan bread ovals or other flat bread
1 medium onion, very finely chopped
1 medium tomato, peeled (if desired) and diced into 1/4-inch square cubes
salt to taste
5 oz. lean minced (ground) lamb or beef
1 teaspoon lemon juice, or to taste
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice or garam masala
1/8 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
3 tablespoons plain yogurt or tahini (optional)
1 tablespoon pine nut (optional)

Mix onions, tomatoes, and salt together with your fingers to soften the vegetables. Drain any juices.
Add rest of ingredients except the pine nuts, and mix together until well blended.
Spread a quarter of the mixture on top of each bread piece, and then sprinkle with pine nuts.
(Pre-baked picture: )
Bake in a preheated oven for 10-12 minutes or until the breads and nuts are golden brown.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

On Tuesday, I finally got to my Middle East shopping! I arrived at Afghan World Market and scoped it out with a bit of apprehension. Why? It was a bit difficult to tell what it was like inside; I wasn't really sure what I would be getting and if they'd have it; we all fear the unknown to some degree. Does the store owner like Americans? Would I do something offensive to his/her culture?

Such silliness, I'm sure you are saying. And you would be right! My little shopping excursion turned out to be one of those unique and impressing moments where you truly feel that the world is small and must be intertwined by one Being. The simple JOY of food can chisel away effortlessly at barriers of religion or culture or misunderstanding that seems to plague us all too often.

I entered the store to find an older Afghani man standing to the side sipping tea, and he gazed at me with the same uncertainty and apprehension I had upon entering the store. I quickly grabbed a basket and scanned the store for a safe place to locate myself while I figured out what to buy from my list. Sidling up near the "bulk" section, I noticed a common middle eastern snack that I was pleasantly surprised to find: toasted chickpeas. It seemed like a perfect, healthy snack to give the kids, and I was very curious of it's flavor. So I grabbed a plastic baggy and began filling.
A man behind the counter, who appeared to be in charge, asked if he could help me find something. "Well, I have a long list," I replied.

"You tell me what on your list. I find," he replied abruptly. So I quickly scanned for something I was committed to buying and asked for Bulgur. "Many kinds of this we have. What kind you need?"

"I don't know. Maybe some fine and some coarse." (In the mideast, there are various dishes that use different coarseness of bulgur wheat ranging from very fine to very coarse.)

"What do you mean, you don't know? Do you cook our food?"

"I'm learning!"

"Who teaches you?"

"Me. A cookbook I have..." I stumble.

"Your husband. He is middle eastern?"

"No..." I say, feeling almost guilty about it.

"Do you move there?"


"I don't understand. Why do you want to cook this way?"

"I'm just, I've really liked the middle eastern food I've had, and so I want to cook it and learn about it. Maybe you can help me pick out good things?"

And then, a smile, an almost full-out grin actually. The owner, who I later found out was named Rahim, was absolutely delighted that I liked the food and wanted to know more. He shared one of his favorite recipes: lamb over rice with carrots, raisins, almonds, and pistachios. He couldn't remember the name, but he told me to look up Afghani food on the internet!
Another one of his favorites, which after he said it's name, I wrote down as "branhi", was eggplant sauteed and then topped with kashk (or kishk) mixed with garlic and salt. I searched this term after I got home, and he may have been saying "borani", which is an extremely common appetizer in the mideast. Basically it's a blend of yogurt and vegetables, and you can honestly use whatever veggie you like. The most typical ones to pair with yogurt are eggplant, beets, and spinach. The yogurt is drained for a few hours so that it will be thick. Rahim pointed me to kashk, which is a dried whey used to thicken and enliven the flavor of soups and stews. He may have been referring to the same concept.

He helped me pick out spices, and instead of buying individual ones, he handed me garam masala - an Indian spice - and said this would work. He told me that he sprinkles a little of this on almost everything, that everyone in Afghanistan uses this. The ingredients are very similar to mideast Seven Spice, which I'll blog about later.

Rahim was conservative, too, telling me not to rush into buying too much. He advised that I try a little of some things first, and then I can come back for more. "Don't spend too much," he urged.

While his son was freshly grinding some beef for me and slicing some chicken breast, he gave me a cup of green tea fused with crushed cardamom pods. It was lovely. Earlier, while Rahim was with another customer, the intimidating older gentleman from when I first arrived watched me as I tried figuring out what a bag with little dried, pruned-up like, green pods was. His apprehensive demeanor quickly changed to a knowing and pleased look as he ripped the bag open and urged me to eat. After a few guesses, I was able to figure it out: cardamom.
This gentleman, who seemed to know very little English, was please that I had recognized the spice. He proceeded to help me fill other bags from the bulk section, urging me to try each one first, then holding the top open for the ones I chose. It was the extent of our exchange, and he left shortly after, but I wondered where he went. What does he do in our town? Does he have family here?

Another man came in at one point, said "Shalom", and enjoyed a cup of tea with Rahim. They discussed a recipe, going through all the ingredients they would use and how to cook it. When his cup was finished, they said their goodbyes and he left. He didn't buy anything.

As I checked out my overflowing basket of foods, Rahim kept advising his son to "discount, discount." I believe he probably gave me many things at 25 to 50% off. While I was picking things out, he would encourage me to choose the one I want, and he'd give me the same price even if I chose the more expensive one.

And so we've been cooking and eating all week with these scrumptious treasures found at the Afghan World Market, and I'll be posting those up for you shortly. The food is scrumptious, and from what I experienced, the people are sincere.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

And we're off...

I don't have my complete ME menu or shopping list because I'm still waiting for one more book from the library that I have a hold on, and I spent some of this morning figuring out where to shop for the more unique ingredients I will need - mainly fava beans, lavash, rose and orange-blossom water, pomegranate paste, and such. (If you live near me and know where, please enlighten me!)
But I couldn't resist the recipes any longer, and yesterday I made Chicken Breast Saute with Curry Spices (feerakh bel curry) and an improvised Pilaf of my creation that stemmed from a couple recipes in Feast From the Mideast.
Here I have ground the cumin seeds, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, cayenne, turmeric, cinnamon, and black peppercorn. Mmmm... and look at that color!

Instead of chicken breasts, I used bl/sl chicken thighs, and it was so tasty.
The improv consisted of millet (which I was trying to use up) sauteed with onions, garlic, pinenuts, and chopped dried apricots then simmered in chicken broth till softened. I tossed some scallions in at the end.

We topped both dishes with a drizzle of plain yogurt, and then we savored. Ohhh, so good! The picture shows the food in such a small portion because we were chowing away before I remembered to get a shot! But I think you get the idea. :)

Eating Habits of the Middle East

I've been reading this great book and resource, Feast From the Mideast by Faye Levy. Here are just a few of the many eating variances of the Middle East:

"A popular practice is beginning the meal with a bite of freshness - whether it's an Israeli-Lebanese diced salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions; a profusion of herbs rolled up in lavash flatbread with a little feta cheese in the Persian manner; or a selection of fresh and grilled vegetable meze."

"Food fusion, a modern concept to many of us, has been happening here for millennia as a result of commerce, conquests, and the movements of tribes and ethnic groups."

"Locals love grapes but do not usually cook with wine. Instead, they use pomegranate, citrus, and other fruit juices, as well as dried fruit like raisins and dried apricots, to give a tangy sweetness to their entrees. They also use treasured fruits, such as dates and figs, to sweeten the daily diet and make desserts."

"Certain key ingredients, such as fava beans, pomegranate paste, baharat spice mix, halloumi cheese, and lavash flatbread , give dishes their Mideast identity." [My note: Lavash is so, so, so good! Trader Joe's sells a really tasty version. I will attempt to make it, but I've read it's quite difficult to do well.]

"The Middle Eastern menu has the same nutritious characteristics as the Mediterranean diet... The research found less chronic disease and the highest life-expectancy rates in southern Italy, Greece, and notably, the island of Crete, which had the lowest heart disease rates of all... Crete is the gateway to the Middle East and its people share many of the eating patterns of the other eastern Mediterranean countries."

By the way, the countries I'm including in "Middle East" is Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, countries of the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and Iran.

Food and Romans 1:20 and Psalms 19:1-4

As you follow along on this project that may seem silly or "just for kicks", I do want to stop and ponder how food shows the glory of God. Okay, stop laughing. Really. Think about it for a moment. Why did He bother with all this detail? Why did He create spices, for example? You know, we could all just eat manna day in and day out, just getting the nutrients and not the flavors.

There are over 100 fruits, a hundred! and I'm sure that's on the small side. Check out just the list of tropical fruits here:

There are over 200 culinary herbs and spices! That doesn't include any medicinal herbs that He created. When I finish making my latte in the mornings, I take that first warm, comforting sip and think, "What a wonderful thing, the coffee bean!" - or 'seed of life' as the Indians called it. I'm awfully glad God made the coffee plant!

Maybe you are still laughing, but I think even the small fact that God has given us a gift in food, is an incredible truth of His love for us and His creativity. Evolution couldn't have come up with such a master plan!

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. Romans 1:20

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun... Psalms 19:1-4

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Menu a.k.a. An Introduction to My Project

I have had this idea for a while now to dive into one culture of food for at least a month, such as only Japanese or Mexican or Scandinavian! And by dive in, I really mean it. My grocery list will be almost exclusively as a native family would shop. To fully experience the cuisine, I will try to imitate breakfast, lunch, and snacks, as well as dinner meals, though I may need to have some alternates based on availability and possible disdain of food choice by my family. (They do have rather adventurous palettes, though, so I think they'll be game.)
Since I also have three children under 5 and nanny part-time for three children under 5, I run a sort of home school preschool to keep things sane and safe! This project will merge with my teaching plans. There will be geography lessons, cultural music (and perhaps dance if my husband will oblige - rhythm have I none!), basic greetings, typical dress, and of course, cooking, all on a preschool level anyway.

My reasons?

1. My family could really learn about different people groups and the food they enjoy - and hopefully some of their techniques and inspirations as well. Knowledge breaks down many barriers.

2. It'd be more economical this way verses cooking a different region of food each night. I'll be able to buy more of certain ingredients, and I'll be able to make from scratch some of the core sauces or condiments of that culture. This will taste better and be cheaper.
3. I've always been curious about the health impacts of different ethnic foods, especially after skimming through a book on my shelf, 30 Secrets of the World's Healthiest Cuisines. I plan to keep track of my family's health during each segment, and I also plan to keep track of their preferences toward or against certain foods.
4, I love to cook and people generally like (and sometimes rave!) about it. (Thank you!) But I honestly have only had my own experience and my few recipe books as teachers. Since I can neither afford the money or the time right now to attend a culinary institute, I truly hope the books I read and the youtube videos I watch and any advice from the few of you I think will read this will be my teachers. I hope to emerge from this actually understanding things like samosa, sopapillas, pate, saffron, la choucroute, sukiyaki, tagine, etc., and find out some answers to questions like, "Are the French really the best cooks? Why does Crete have the lowest rate of heart disease? What do they eat in Siberia? Is the U.S.D.A. food pyramid really accurate?

Regions/countries that are on my list:
Indian, Japanese, Scandinavian, Middle Eastern, Italian, French, Mexican, South American (I'll have to research how this continent will best divide), Balkan, South African, Thai.
This project could have no end! But it must have a beginning, and so I am beginning with Middle Eastern Cooking. I will begin my notes on that in a new post! :) I don't know how long each region will take, but I'm currently assuming it will be about a month to cook the main and most popular dishes and learn a few key things for each place. Perhaps it will take more like 3 months... we shall see.

Feel free to teach me anything you have learned or steer me toward a book or website or blog. I'm ready to absorb the flavors I've been missing out on, and embrace the ones I've come to love!