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!