The Verdict – Baking is Hard!

So, last week I decided I wanted to make homemade fatayer bi sabanekh and sfeeha (spinach and meat pies).  When I say homemade, I more specifically mean that I wanted to make the dough from scratch. I knew baking bread wouldn’t be easy, but I wanted to give it a go anyway.

The act of making  the bread itself isn’t what’s  hard. What’s hard is making sure you have precisely the right amount of this to that in order to yield optimal results – in other words, learning to read and follow directions. I didn’t have a bread recipe from my mama, so I had to use the one in my Sahtein cookbook. Well, after carefully following the recipe, covering up the soon to be baked bread and waiting patiently for it to rise, I realized that I apparently don’t know how to read because I  followed the wrong damn recipe.

My dad, once again, was awesome and promised up and down that the recipe that we used was just fine. To be honest, the two recipes weren’t that far off. The only real difference was the absence of butter/shortening. Now, personally, I think this would have made a huge difference in the texture but my father and one of my aunts said butter wasn’t used in the dough. Who knows.

I have every intention of trying the recipe I planned on using to see if it better resembles my memory of these pies. And once I discover the difference, I’m going to forgo making the bread from scratch and use already-made dough like everyone else does. I just want to be able to know I can make a decent batch of bread if ever there was a need for it.

As far as the fillings go, the meat filling for the sfeeha turned out pretty yummy. I added more tahini than the recipe called for and I personally think it made it a bit more rich. We also added a generous tablespoon of sumac and probably not enough pine nuts for my taste. Overall though, I give my mama’s recipe a big bear hug.

The spinach filling still needs some work. I used two pounds of frozen, chopped spinach and something about it just wasn’t working for me. I don’t think using fresh spinach would have made much of a difference. I do think using a better quality brand and rinsing it several times would improve the taste. It also wasn’t tart enough for me. We used two lemons and a lot of sumac, but I just wasn’t getting that zing. I’m not really sure what I could do to improve that, so if y’all have suggestions – bring ’em!

We also used some of the leftover dough to make this “egg bread” that my paternal grandmother used to make. I have been trying to find someone, anyone, who had any clue how to make this bread. I guess it must have been a tata thing, because none of my cousins have any clue what I’m talking about. My dad loves it though and I remember really liking it as well. Basically, you flatten out the dough and create an edge of sorts  to hold the eggs. Use as many eggs as you think the bread can hold and then sprinkle with salt, pepper, zaatar and a little oil and then bake for 15-20 minutes. Make sure the eggs are fully cooked and the dough is evenly browned.  It’s like a more complicated variation of  egg in the basket.

I’m not unhappy with the results.  For a first try,  I suppose I it went better than expected. As much work as it is to complete the recipes – everything from the grocery shopping to the preparation – I’ve consistently found fulfillment and joy in the process. Yes, I’ve also found stress and anxiety, but, amazingly, the stress hasn’t been so overwhelming that I’ve ever considered not moving forward with this project.

I also really love how learning to cook has afforded me the opportunity to relate to my family in different ways. I like getting helpful tips from my aunts and uncles. I like being able to sit and discuss all the different tricks and tips for making a pickle taste better or where to get the freshest, most affordable produce. I imagine that was a lot of  what my mama’s day-to-day was like and it’s been nice getting a little glimpse into that world.

I really wonder if I’d be this interested in cooking if  my mama was still around.  Interestingly, she didn’t like people in her kitchen when she cooked.  Or, maybe she just didn’t like my dad adding his little twist to the food she’d spent hours preparing. : )

Pictures to come!

Recipe of the Week – Fatayer bi Sabanekh & Sfeeha

Don’t let these phonetically spelled titles for this week’s recipe overwhelm you.  It’ll be okay. They are just fancy Arabic words for spinach (sabanekh) and meat pies (sfeeha).  I am actually used to a different term for the spinach pies, I just have no clue how to spell it out phonetically.  It’s something along the lines of khrawseb sabanekh – but Google isn’t loving that term, so I’m just going to let my OCD fester for a bit and move on!

My mama used to make these pies in bulk and store them in big Tupperware containers that lived in our freezer for months. It’s just easier to make a bunch of them and take a few out whenever the mood strikes. The hardest part of this recipe really is getting the dough right. I’ve never, ever made bread or dough of any sort, so I think I’m going to have some frozen dough on reserve just in case.  I know – way to set myself up for failure, right? I’m actually excited about trying to make dough and making these pies because there is just something so comforting about a good spinach pie. We have plenty of Middle Eastern bakeries and restaurants that make pretty yummy versions of this recipe, but I want to be able to do this on my own.

Basic Dough For Pies

(This is from Sahtein since I couldn’t find my mom’s dough recipe – only the recipe for the fillings)

2 lbs. flour

2 tbsp. butter or shortening

1 envelope of dry yeast

1 tbsp. salt

2 cups lukewarm water (approx.)

1/2 tsp. sugar

Dissolve yeast into 1/4 cup of warm water. Sprinkle with sugar. Cover and let rise.

In a large pan, mix flour and salt. Add the yeast mixture and butter/shortening.

Gradually add the lukewarm water, mixing and kneading until the dough is smooth and tender.

Cover with a blanket and put in a warm place for 2 hours or until dough rises.  ( I remember my mom used to use heavy duty white table covers or big pieces of felt that my dad would bring home from his store.)

Cut dough into pieces 2″ to 2 1/2″ in diameter. Form into balls by tucking the dough underneath the balls to make them round and smooth. Let rest for 30 minutes between the blankets.

Spinach Stuffing

2 lbs. spinach ( you can use fresh, I’m going to use frozen)

1. Thaw the spinach and then cut up and wash it and make sure to drain it very well

2. Add chopped onion (since I’m not a huge onion fan, we’ll go with 1 large onion, maybe a little more)

3. Add lemon to taste ( I prefer it tart, so aim for 1 large lemon per lb. of spinach = 2 lemons for this)

4. Add about 1/2 cup vegetable oil to the mix

5. Add salt, pepper and a little bit of sumac

Meat Filling

2 lbs. meat ( you can use coarse ground lamb or ground beef – I’m going to use beef)

1/2 to 1 large onion finely chopped

1/2- 3/4 cup pine nuts that have been lightly browned in a pan

salt, pepper, allspice

Juice of 2 lemons

Tahineh

Cook meat until done and then add onions and seasoning. Lower the heat and let the meat brown a little and then add maybe a tbsp. of tahineh with a little water. Then add lemon juice ( 1 lemon per lb. of meat) and then the pine nuts.  Mix together and let cook for a few minutes more before using.

For Spinach Pies:

Pinch off about 2 1/2″ balls of dough and roll out into a 4″ circle.

Put a heaping tablespoon of the spinach filling in the middle of each circle. Fold up from the bottom to the middle and bring in sides to the center to form a triangle. Press down on the seams firmly and pinch ends together. ( From Sahtein)

Place the pies on a cookie sheet that has been brushed with butter or olive oil and place the pies on the tray. Brush the tops with oil and put in a preheated 500 degree oven for 15 minutes or until a little brown.

For Meat Pies:

Instead of making into triangles, the meat pies remain in circular shapes. Just add a tablespoon of the mixture to the middle of the circle of dough and make a little bit of an edge to hold the meat. Put on a greased cookie sheet and bake on 500 for 15 minutes.

I can’t wait!!

Food, Film and Moving Forward

May is proving to be one busy month!  This past weekend, I had the privilege of working with a group of local activists, organizers and artists on a project that I’ve been involved with for a couple of years now. We organize a local film festival that offers “an honest and independent view of Palestine and its diaspora’s society, culture, and political travails through the art of film.”

It’s a very intense thing to organize and I’ll admit that in my journey to ‘find myself’,  or whatever you call this period I’m going through, I seriously considered making this year my last year of involvement.  Sometimes, when I get too consumed by the voices in my head, I forget all the struggles that still need to be fought. This past weekend, I was reminded of those struggles and reminded of the responsibility I have in helping to make the world we live in a better place to inhabit.

Over the past several days, I have met women who had more strength, courage and beauty than I could ever hope to have. They are artists, musicians, filmmakers, mothers, daughters, photographers, engineers, organizers, friends, family, social workers, and writers. They are the inspiration I prayed for and found. I hope you all are reading this and I hope you know what an impact you’ve had on my life in such a short period of time. Even those of you I’ve known for awhile – I was able to see you in a different light.  I hope you all know how amazing you are and how lucky those of us who know you are to have you in our lives. Thank you.

And even though my intense weekend was a rather time consuming one, I did manage to make a little something to keep my culinary aspirations in working order. I decided to try my hand at hummus because I’ve never made it before and it seems like one of those recipes that everyone should learn to perfect at some point.

My mom and my aunts made hummus in a very specific way and I’m still working on trying to get that down. I happen to really love the way my dad makes hummus so I think my take on it was somewhere in the middle.  My mama’s hummus was thick and creamy with just the right balance of tart to tahini.  My dad’s recipe is a little more coarse in texture with a lot less tahini and a lot more garlic and lemon juice. There’s a hundred different ways to make hummus and you’d think it would be pretty easy to make. While it’s easy to make, it’s also equally as easy to screw up. I honestly don’t think you need to get all fancy with hummus. When you find the right combination, a simple hummus is perfection.

I have to admit, my favorite way to eat hummus when I was a kid was with Doritos. My mama was a big fan so we always had a bag or two on hand to eat with pretty much everything you could imagine. I’d make a big bowl of hummus and plant myself in front of the television for as long as it took to lick the bowl clean.

Here’s the recipe I used. How do you make hummus? Got a recipe I should check out?

Hummus

1 lb. (1 large can) of garbanzo beans

1 1/2 – 2 tbs. of tahini

2  large cloves of garlic – whole

3-4 tbs. of lemon juice

dash of salt

olive oil, paprika and parsley for garnish

Bring garbanzo beans to a boil. Once boiled, transfer to a mixing bowl and add the garlic, lemon, tahini and salt and mix together with a handheld blender (or throw it all in a blender if you have one) until smooth. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with a few whole garbanzo beans, dashes of paprika, a little olive oil and parsley.

Mother’s Day: The Outcome

Mama & Me - c. A Long Time Ago

This past Sunday was Mother’s Day (Yes, I know you all knew that. I just like stating the obvious. It’s fun.) and I had a heck of a time trying to come up with a recipe to make to commemorate a day that celebrates the inspiration for this blog – my mama.

I know I was stressing myself out, and subsequently my family, trying to come up with an idea. If I am being really honest with myself here, I guess I was so stressed because I hoped cooking the just-right dish would bring me some sort of clarity.  I hoped that all those things that are supposed to align would and I’d get a chance to feel her presence in my life again. Silly, I know.

Aside from my family, not many people knew my mother. I’m not sure I’d call her shy, but she definitely was wary of strangers, I guess.  She had an enormous smile and a laugh ten times bigger than that smile. You couldn’t ignore her presence and she wasn’t even trying to be noticed. She had an annoying habit of bursting  into song whenever a word or a phrase or a moment reminded her of a tune. I inherited this habit, but I keep the song-bursting on the inside. You’re welcome.

She laughed as much as she yelled. She hugged as much as she pinched. She loved as much as she fought. And, she cooked the kind of food that kept me pudgy, but satisfied throughout most of my childhood.

So, maybe now you can see why it was so imperative to me to cook something that spoke to the soul of who she was as my mama and as the individual who nurtured me through food. Hey, we’re Arabs. Food was at the heart of well, our hearts. When I finally settled on making Kousa Mahshi, I had to mentally prepare myself for how long this dish would take to cook. I failed to take into consideration how hard it would be to find the staple ingredient – yellow squash.

I learned a valuable lesson on Saturday. I spent the morning getting a lovely sunburn at the Art Car Parade, and the afternoon scouring the city for squash. I went from one side of town to another and eight grocery stores later, I arrived home empty-handed. I learned how much I take for granted that things will just be there waiting to be purchased when I want or need something. I never took into account which foods are in season. I didn’t take into consideration the myriad of reasons why squash or tomatoes or meat might be in short supply. The experience was humbling. It made me wish I knew how to garden. It made me ashamed to realize that I don’t pay enough attention to where my food comes from and what I eat.  My mama put a lot of effort into making sure the quality of the food we ate was the best she could find, and doing so takes a great deal of time and patience.

Making mahshi turned out to be  a rather relaxing experience overall. (Yes, Dad. I know you would beg to differ.) Once Once I stopped spazzing, I found the carving of the squash and the tediousness of cutting the lamb into tiny little pieces to be kind of calming. It was the first time in ages that I was able to focus solely on the task at hand and tune out my normal, obtrusive inner dialogue.  Mahshi entails carving and cutting and stuffing and boiling and waiting and it’s all worth it. It took us four hours worth of prep work and cooking to get from Point A to Point B and I loved it.

I felt like I accomplished something real and tangible. I completed a task that resulted in something that could be consumed and enjoyed and discussed. I created something that can be recreated at another time, only better and with less anxiety and more precision.  Let’s hope so, at least!

Mother’s Day: The Recipes

Happy Belated Mother’s Day to all my mamas out there!

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I was really struggling to find a dish to make that really represented my mama – or at least the memories I had of her cooking. After flipping through her cookbook over and over again and talking to anyone I could who might have remembered, I got a phone call from my dad.

Kousa Mahshi.

Now, I’d thought about making this dish. I had planned to tackle it at some point, I was just apprehensive because it is so time consuming. But, mahshi seemed to come up more often than any other meal I considered, so it won!

And, instead of trying to fit a million thoughts and images into one post, I’m going to break things up a bit over the course of this week. There is a lot I want to say and I need time to process it all out into words that aren’t all sappy and sentimental. There is a lesson somewhere in all of this; I just have to find it.

Today’s post will include the recipes for the kousa mahshi (Stuffed Squash) and this dessert I used to love when I was a kid. I didn’t have a recipe for it, so I went off of my hazy memory. If anyone, ANYONE has a recipe for this dish, please share. I think we (family/friends) all kind of deduced that this dessert recipe probably came off the back of a Jello pudding box. Gotta love the 70s!

Kousa Mahshi

4-5 lbs of yellow squash (about 15-20 pieces of about medium size)

1 1/2 -2 lbs. of lamb (preferably leg of lamb, but you can use shoulder)

3 1/2 rice

2 8 oz. cans of tomato sauce

Water

salt, pepper, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg to taste ( I think we did 1 tbsp. salt, tsp. pepper, 3/4 tsp. of allspice, tsp. of cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. of nutmeg)

Wash the squash and cut off the tips just enough create a hole large enough to core the squash. Save the tips to cook along with the mahshi. Use a vegetable corer and core out the squash until it is a thin, but sturdy shell. Wash and rinse the cored squash in water and salt.

The meat for this dish can be done one of two ways. If you don’t have the time to cut meat, you can use ground lamb or beef that is more coarse (as if using for a chili). If you do have the time, prepare the meat by cleaning the leg of lamb (removing fat, skin, etc.) and cutting into small, pea-sized pieces. This is really time-consuming, but the difference in taste and texture is worth the effort.

Once meat is cut, add it to the rinsed rice and mix. Add spices and a little butter if the meat is really lean – say 1-2 tbsp.

Fill the squash about 3/4 of the way. Don’t pack the mixture down inside the squash and don’t overfill. Lay side by side inside a large pot in stacks. Add the squash tips and the cans of tomato paste. Fill the rest of the pot with water and let it come to a boil and boil for about 5 minutes before reducing heat and cooking on medium for about an hour.

(Make sure to save the the squash pulp to make Lub Kousa – see recipe below)

Lub Kousa

Squash Pulp (from squash you carved)

Onion

Olive Oil

Salt, pepper, lemon

Saute the onions in a couple of tbsp. of olive oil until. Add the washed squash pulp and cook together for another couple of minutes before adding the spices (we added a serrano pepper, whole just for some additional flavor). Mix everything together and cook on low heat for about 30 minutes or so. The squash needs to be really soft – almost like mush. Serve hot or cold as a side with the Mahshi.

Pudding Dessert (because I have no clue what the actual name of this dessert is!)

1 large box of Cook and Serve Chocolate Pudding (should make 3 cups)

2 small boxes of Instant Pistachio Pudding (should make 4 cups)

Tea Biscuits(about 3 packages)

Make the puddings and while you are waiting for the chocolate pudding to cool, roughly crush the tea biscuits and place the crushed biscuits at the bottom of a glass pan. Just enough to coat the bottom and make a crust of sorts.

Add the chocolate pudding and then another thin layer of the crushed biscuits.

Add the pistachio pudding and sprinkle a little bit of the crushed cookie on top and some crushed pistachios for garnish.

Put in the fridge for a couple of hours to set and then serve like cake.

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!