Recipe? I Don’t Need No Stinking Recipe!

Well, I mentioned in my last post that I wasn’t 100% sure if the recipe I had for Mulukhiyah was the right one. My dad’s recollection of the dish was pretty different to what I had recipe-wise. He said he didn’t recall my mother or his mother making Mulukhiyah with onions or by boiling the raw meat first and marrying the two major ingredients together.

I haven’t been feeling well the last few days and didn’t have the energy to investigate alternate recipes, so we made adjustments to the recipe I had based on his memory. Though the ingredients were the same, the way in which it was cooked was very different to what I had.

I get that you have to be open-minded when it comes to cooking. You need to be willing to steer away from the recipe – to create a spin off that fits your tastes and your personality. I really do get that concept. I was just hoping that literally recreating my mom’s recipes would bring me back to simpler times – before she was gone – before I stopped feeling like a kid.  I was hoping it would help me remember her better because  nineteen years is a long time.

Anyway – I couldn’t find a decent cut of lamb that wasn’t overpriced, so I opted to use beef instead.  We sautéed the beef chunks in olive oil before boiling in water. It cooked on medium high heat for about 10 minutes. The beef was cubed in pretty generous pieces, so the cooking time may vary depending on size.

Dad also mentioned that mama and tata (his mother)  never used onions in their Mulukhiyah – which is fine by me. I like the taste of onions, but I can’t deal with them in their raw state. I’m slowly getting over this phobia – but we’ve got a long way to go with that. : )

We boiled the sauteed meat with a tsp. of salt, pepper and about ¼ tsp. of  allspice in about 6 cups of water and boiled for about 15 minutes before adding two 14 oz. packages of thawed leaves. I sautéed garlic in a separate pan with olive oil and a pinch of ground coriander.  It’s important to note here that we ended up buying frozen leaves from a different local market that didn’t carry dried Mulukhiyah leaves.  I don’t think I’ll try this dish again with fresh or frozen leaves.

One of the reasons I didn’t like Mulukhiyah as a kid was due to how “slimy” the leaves would make the stew. Think okra. Making it with fresh leaves doesn’t help that slimy consistency one bit. To top it off, it turns out two bags was way too much. So,  we added two more cups of water and adjusted the spicing by adding about 2 more tsp. of salt, ½ tsp.  more of pepper and a dash more of allspice.  We added the garlic at about the 10 minute  mark. After adding the garlic, we cooked everything for another 20-25 minutes for a total of about 30-35 minutes of cooking time WITH the leaves.

We finished the stew by adding about 3 tbs. of lemon juice – then another cup of water and some salt and simmered for another 5 minutes. I usually add more lemon juice to my bowl because I like tart flavors – this is up to your discretion though.

Final verdict: I don’t care for Mulukhiyah. My dad seemed to really like it and that made me happy. It could have used more spicing, though.  It’s been a long time since either of us had eaten it – which seems to be the case with at least half of the recipes I plan on cooking.  I’m willing to give it another try with the dried leaves because I do think that will make a difference in the consistency of the broth. I’d also opt to use smaller cuts of meat to ensure optimal tenderness. I think it might also taste better with chicken or lamb vs. beef.

This week made me realize that even if I don’t feel well and don’t like the food I’m making, I still enjoy the act of cooking and being able to make food my family likes – or, well, pretends to like. : )

Mmmm...boiled meat
Garlic!
Yep. That's Mulukhiyah alright...
Mulukhiyah over Rice - Actually looks pretty good, yes?

My Mama’s Version of Meat and Potatoes

This week’s culinary adventure was a bit more complex than weeks past.  I went all out, people. That’s right – I cooked an actual meal.  Granted, it wasn’t the most nutritionally balanced of meals, but it was surprisingly easy to make and a meal nonetheless.

I chose my mom’s recipe for Kifta wa batata in tahineh. This dish roughly translates to meat and potatoes.  Kifta, as mentioned previously, is an oblong meatball seasoned with finely chopped parsley, onion and spices. You throw it, figuratively not literally, into a big pan with chopped potatoes and the sauce variation of your choice. I opted for a tahineh-based sauce this time around.  You can eat this alone or make it a true carb-festival and serve over rice.

Guess which version I chose?

I mentioned in my last post that I was looking for a recipe for the rice that included sharieh. Sh’arieh is vermicelli noodles browned in either butter or oil before adding the rice. Not everyone loves rice this way, but I think the added texture makes it a lot less bland. I didn’t find one (please share if you have your own), but my dad walked me through his take on it – fairly simple and probably a lot healthier than what I had in mind.

He coated the bottom of the pan with a little olive oil and added about 4 tbs. of the sh’arieh. Once browned, we added 4 cups of white rice and about 8 and a half cups of water.  We brought the rice to a slow-rolling boil and let it bubble away for about 5 minutes before reducing to low heat and covering. According to my pops, you can tell  the rice is ready when you lift the lid and hear nothing but silence.  Huh. Who knew?

I also learned something many of you seasoned chefs probably know – the varying intensity of spices. Specifically, the three main spices used in this dish: allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon. Apparently allspice is the most pungent of the three and should be used most sparingly. Nutmeg is less potent and cinnamon follows closely behind. This was a great lesson to have learned because the spicing on the meat and potatoes was pretty dead on.

I was really surprised to learn how easy this dish was to make. I have more memories of eating kifta and batata than I have of watching my mom make it. I gotta say, it was a pretty amazing feeling to make something like this and have it come out so well.  There’s much room for improvement, obviously, but it was a much-needed reminder that cooking takes time and patience more than it needs inherent skill. One added bonus I wasn’t expecting  – being able to cook something for my family that they haven’t eaten in years. It was nice to have old, familiar smells wafting through our house the way they used to when we were munchkins.

Raw Meat!!
Into the oven we go!
Potatoes!
A Meeting of the Minds - Pre-Sauce
A Meeting of the Minds - Sauced
Kifta + Batata + Tahineh = Yummy
Kifta + Batata + Tahineh + Rice = Yummy + Carb Overload

Recipe of the Week – Kifta wa Batata in Tahineh

I decided to be a little more adventurous this week and try to make an actual meal.

Eek.

I have to admit, sadly, that the most anxiety-provoking aspect of this dish is making the rice. I don’t think I’ve ever, successfully at least, made real rice before. What do I mean by ‘real rice’? Well, I don’t think I’ve ever made rice that wasn’t instant rice. I’ve never made rice that wasn’t held hostage inside a plastic bag that required nothing more from me other than throwing  it into a pot of water and watching it come to a boil.  Shameful. I know.

Considering that like 95% of the food I hope to make include rice, I figured now would probably be as good a time as any to get over the anxiety of rice-making.  Ooooh, this should be fun!

So, getting back to the actual dish I picked. I decided to make Kifta wa Batata with Tahineh this week. Kifta is basically an oddly-shaped meatball. It’s shaped more like a football than a meatball and is spiced with cinnamon vs. garlic or oregano. You can make kifta with either ground lamb or ground beef. My mom’s recipe calls for beef, but I haven’t decided which I’d rather use.  The kifta is cooked with wedged potatoes (batata), and I’ve chosen to make this in a tahineh (sesame seed paste) sauce vs. dry or with a tomato-based sauce.

This is my favorite way to eat Kifta. It’s one of the few dishes I actually got excited about eating when I was a kid.  It’s meat and carbs – how could you not love that?

Kifta wa Batata in Tahineh

To make the Kifta:

2 lbs. finely ground lamb or beef

Onion chopped finely – (to taste – she suggested 1 small onion)

1 cup parsley – finely chopped

Around 2 tsp. of salt  – might need a little more depending on which meat is being used

1-1 1/2 tsp. of ground pepper

1 tsp. allspice (probably use a little more)

Cinnamon to taste

Mix all ingredients together well and mold into roughly 3-4 inch rolls. Think – half version of a kabob almost.

Once molded, put kifta into a circular, greased baking pan and bake alone for 10 minutes. (She didn’t give me a temperature to cook it at, but Sahtein says 400 degrees).

While kifta is cooking, peel and wash a handful of potatoes. (more or less depending on taste and size)

Cut potatoes into wedged slices – cut to desired thickness (just keep in mind, not too thick since it doesn’t cook super long)

For Tahineh mixture:

About a 1/2 cup of tahineh

Salt and pepper (not too much)

Lemon juice (to taste)

2 cups of water

Mix (blend if necessary) to thin out the sauce

Add potatoes and tahineh mixture to the kifta  and continue to bake for another 35 minutes or until done.

You can eat this as is or over rice. I’ll opt for making it with the rice.  I haven’t been able to find my mom’s recipe for rice that is cooked with vermicelli noodles. That’s how we ate rice when she made it, so I’d like to keep to that recipe. There’s one in the Sahtein cookbook, but I think I might try to get  a hold of one of my aunts or a cousin and see if they have a better recipe.

I’ll post that recipe up either before Sunday’s attempt or with the weekly update.

Wish me luck!

B.S. – Sorry for the excessive use of the word rice. There really isn’t a suitable synonym to replace it with. I just ended that sentence with a preposition. These are the things you must get used to when reading this blog.  : )

Mmm…Mmm…Muglee

I decided to follow another craving this week and picked a simple but super yummy dessert-ish type dish. Muglee is essentially a supercharged version of cream of rice. My mom would make it often and usually during the winter time because it’s hearty and perfectly nourishing when it’s cold outside.

I realized I haven’t had muglee since I was a kid – like most of the dishes I’ll be making over the coming months. There isn’t much to the making of this dish, but I had a hell of a time obtaining the ingredients. I guess cream of rice isn’t a popular item around these parts. My dad, who really is such a trooper with all this cooking/blogging experimentation, scoured 4 different stores only to come home with rice flour vs. cream of rice.  I have no idea if rice flour could be an adequate substitute and I had no intentions of finding out this time around.

Journey number one led me to a nearby specialty market where I found a box in seconds. Excited, I got back home only to discover we didn’t have sugar (who doesn’t have sugar??) anise or caraway seeds.

Ugh.

Back home and 20 bucks poorer than when I decided to make this dish, I was ready to get cooking. There isn’t much to making muglee – you throw all the ingredients into a pot and stir until the mixture boils. What starts out as a bland-looking, watery concoction transforms slowly into a thick, aromatic hot cereal of sorts. It’s muglee’s aromatherapy that brings back so many memories for me. The combination of cinnamon, anise and caraway hit my long-term memory  in a way that transported me right back to the kitchen where my mom cooked.

I was a kid again, chubby and pumpkin-toothed, sitting impatiently at the kitchen table waiting to be fed. My mom, as  short in stature as I am, stood over the stove stirring away and most likely yelling in Arabic at either me or my equally chubby and pumpkin-toothed brother.  I remember the little glass bowls we used to pour the muglee into and the antiquated nut-grinder-funnel-thing that barely worked.  I remember waking up in the morning and grabbing one of the cellophane covered bowls of muglee to munch on for breakfast.

There’s just something really warm and nurturing about this dish and I couldn’t be happier that it turned out exactly as I remembered it – a considerably different experience from last week’s attempt.

I even got my dad’s stamp of approval!

Check out the recipe for muglee in my previous post. I’d love to know what you think or if any of you have ideas for tweaking the flavor.

The stars of the show
Stirring that pot
Guess a mortar & pestle will have to do!
Mmmmuglee!

Comfort Foods – I Heart You

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few days trying to figure out what I’d like to make next. To be honest, there’s  a lot I’d love to try, but I don’t think I have the time or the skill to tackle them just yet. For example, the other night my cousin stopped by – because I hounded her repeatedly until she did so – to drop off her mom’s shushbarak bi laban. Shushbarak is probably my favorite Arabic dish and one of my favorite meals period. It’s essentially meat dumplings swimming in a tart, creamy yogurt soup of sorts. It is an incredibly time consuming  dish to make, and I think I’ve maybe had it a dozen times over the course of my lifetime. This dish is responsible for my relentless obsession with dumplings of any kind.

I will make this dish some day. But today is not that day.

: )

This week, I’m going to cook  a simple dish – a dessert in fact. One that always reminds me of winter, comfort and my childhood home. It’s nothing fancy and every culture probably has their spin on this recipe. I figured with winter close to being over, it would be a good time to try making it.

I’m just offering my mother’s recipe this time around.  Give it a try some night when you want  the edible equivalent of something warm and snuggly. It  happens to be just as yummy when it’s cold.

Muglee

1 cup Cream of Rice

7 cups of water

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. anise seed

1 tsp. caraway seed

1 cup sugar

Garnish –

Chopped nuts (use walnuts or pistachios)

Golden raisins

Pinch of nutmeg, clove, cinnamon

Mix and stir above ingredients. Place on medium heat, stirring constantly until mixture comes to a boil. Reduce to low heat and cook until the liquid mixture thickens slightly. Pour the pudding into small dishes and garnish with nuts, raisins and spices.

Arabic Cooking 101: Back to Basics

So…it’s Sunday. The day I’ve chosen to get things done. I’ve clearly overlooked the whole ‘day of rest’ business. On this day, I’ve decided to fulfill a long time craving for Mishat – a savory cauliflower pancake/crepe concoction.  My mom’s recipe looked simple enough and the basic ingredients were fairly affordable.Turns out I was kinda wrong on both those fronts.

To be honest, I don’t do much grocery shopping.  I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a head of cauliflower or a bunch of parsley before. They weren’t as inexpensive as I initially thought – but still affordable.

The prepping took a little longer than I suspected. I finally understand now why making tabouli takes so long – chopping parsley takes forever!!I managed not to draw blood this time around – so I claim success. Everything beyond the prep point required patience, understanding and a hungry dog that sat directly beneath the stove waiting optimistically for someone – namely me – to flip a piece of mishat right out of the pan and into his eager mouth. The upside to standing at a stove for an hour pouring batter, waiting patiently and flipping over and over again is that I knew the pieces didn’t need to be perfect. I cared more about flavor than aesthetics. The first few attempts lacked seasoning but after adjusting with more flour, cumin, salt and pepper –  the taste and texture was markedly improved.

Lessons Learned:

1. I realized I don’t remember the taste of Mishat as well as I’d hoped. It’s probably been 20 years since I’ve had it. I hoped I would know just the right combination of flavors when I tasted it – but I think I have a ways to go in getting it to taste anywhere near where I remembered it.

2. Cooking is so subjective. I don’t know why I never got this before. I wonder if chefs with refined palettes cook to their tastes or if they have the ability to create flavors they know will satisfy a range of eaters. I wanted this experience to mirror the way my mom cooked – to get an understanding of her preferences and to get even a small taste of my childhood back – of her back. I’m not sure how feasible that is going to be though. My dad was there with me through this process. I feel like more of the success of the flavor came from his adjustments vs. my attempts and that is where I’m conflicted. While it’s an amazing opportunity to be able to cook alongside him – working in some ways together to recreate her recipes – I sometimes wonder if this is a project that needs to be done alone.I’m open to adjusting the initial blueprint, but I don’t want the original goals to change. I guess that’s to be expected along the way.

3. I also had to adjust my mom’s  recipe. Where she called for 2 cups of water, I used varying amounts of water to milk. I also made a much larger batch – using 11 eggs and a head & a half of cauliflower. In terms of flavoring – this is going to take time to get down. She didn’t have specific measurements for spicing – so that is something that is just going to need perfecting over time as well.

Ah, time. Methinks you are the key to being a decent cook.

All in all, despite the over-emotionality of the evening, this first foray into Arabic Cooking 101 gets two thumbs up. No clue what I’m making next week, but stay tuned!

Look! It's Batter!
...Aaaaand Flip!
Pièce de résistance!

Recipe of the Week: Mishat

Mmmm… Mishat. I have been craving this dish for weeks now and that craving led to my decision to try out my mom’s recipe. This recipe is actually a good one to start with because it calls for only a few affordable ingredients and the overall prep/cooking time is under an hour. Mishat can best be described as  a savory cauliflower pancake/crepe concoction.

I’m going to include two recipes in this post. The first is my mom’s – translated from Arabic to English by one of my aunts. I’m beginning to learn that a lot of my mom’s cooking was trial and error. Many of the recipes didn’t include exact measurements of certain ingredients – namely the spices. I know that, at some point, I will be able to cook these meals to my own taste buds, but for the time being – I’m going to also reference the Sahtein cookbook just to make sure I don’t totally screw things up.

Sahtein (which more or less means bon appetit in Arabic – though not a literal translation)  is a Middle East Cookbook that features regional recipes from Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. I don’t know a single family member that doesn’t own this cookbook – even if they are bad ass cooks.

So – here are the recipes and I’ll be back later in the week to let you all know how it goes!

Mom’s Version: (Note: this may not be an exact translation of original text)

Put the cauliflower in boiling water with some salt and then drain it. Cut into rosettes. Chop onion – very fine –  and add some salt and pepper. Add 4 eggs to it and stir together. Add 2 cups of water and some flour to make a batter similar to pancake batter – not too thick.  Squeeze the cauliflower and put it into the batter. Using a big spoon, but some of the batter into a skillet with warm oil. Put only the batter at first and then add a couple of the rosettes  – do this one at a time. Fry until brown on all sides. Take out and place on a paper towel to absorb excess oil. Wait until the oil cools down – almost cold and then add another spoonful of the batter. Repeat until batter is done. The spices are: salt, pepper, cumin, turmeric and parsley.

Sahtein Version:

Cauliflower – “Mishat”

1 small head of cauliflower

4 eggs

2 tbsp. flour

4 tbsp. butter

salt and pepper to taste

Drop cauliflower in boiling water and leave for 5 minutes. Drain, cook, and cut into rosettes.  Mix eggs, flour, salt, and pepper in a bowl to make a batter. Drop rosettes into a batter and in the hot butter (one at a time). Cook on low heat until all sides are golden brown. Makes 4 servings.

Aside from trying to figure out why the two cups of water is necessary, I’m fairly certain my mom’s recipe is the way to go. I have to trust her instinct on this one, because Mishat was one of the best dishes she made. Wish me luck!

Lessons Learned

My First Attempt @ Homemade Bruschetta - via Twitpic on my iPhone
My First Attempt @ Homemade Bruschetta - via Twitpic on my iPhone

My new literary and culinary endeavor has started with more of a whisper than a bang, but I’ve opted to be more forgiving of my shortcomings as this project unfolds. Even though I haven’t really started anything just yet, I am realizing the enormity of this commitment the more time I’m given to just sit here and stew on it all.

  1. Cooking is hard. I don’t give a shit how much the Food Network tries to convince me otherwise.  It took me an hour to make bruschetta tonight and there is no actual cooking involved in that dish. How the hell do I expect to make complex, time-intensive meals that require so much more skill and patience? Ugh.
  2. Just because I am excited about shopping and chopping and cooking and preparing food, it does not mean anyone else is obligated to care. I guess I finally understand now how frustrated my mom/aunts/tata were when they’d spend all that time cooking and I’d spend all that time bitching about it and wishing I was eating pizza instead.
  3. I am mortified at the thought of constantly failing at something.  Yeah, yeah, yeah – cooking is supposed to be one of those things that you get better with in time. I *get* that – but I don’t really *get* that.
  4. This project is also an opportunity for me to flex my “skillz” as a “writer”. I am also pretty mortified at the possibility of genuinely sucking at that, too.  I thought starting a writing/cooking project that was familiar and close to my heart would unleash the repressed literary genius being held captive by insecurity.   Yeah – not so much.

This isn’t going to be easy – which I hope means I am going to grow leaps and bounds as a result of all the blood and sweat lost and pounds gained.

Project Update: My mama’s cookbook is still in the process of being translated. I’m just trying to get in the habit of cooking by making things here and there.  Tonight was bruschetta with two kinds of vine-ripe tomatoes, fresh basil, mozzarella, hearts of palm, fresh garlic, salt/pepper/oil/vinegar. The salad part came out pretty yummy – despite my inability to cut tomatoes uniformly.   I used a baguette for the bread and was less than impressed. I’ll opt for ciabatta next time – unless someone can offer a more suitable alternative.

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