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!

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!

In Pictures – Kibbeh

Here are some of the pictures we took on Sunday while we were cooking.

Sahtein!

Burghul - Let It Soak

The Main Ingredients

When Meat Meets Burghul

Who Knew Meat Was So Spreadable?

Let the Stuffing Begin!

Beef, Pinenuts, Onions, Spices and Lots o' Love

Meat On Top Of Meat. Genius Idea.

Cutting Those Diamond Shapes Ain't Easy! Pre-Baking.

Fresh Outta The Oven - Golden Brown Yumminess

Best Salad Ever.

YUM

Birthday Kibbeh!

Basim - The Early Years (a.k.a. My Dad!)

I want to start off this post by wishing my dad a very HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!! I decided to share (without telling him, of course. Hi Dad!!) an old photo of my pops to commemorate this special day.  He was a pretty cute kid, no? And, before I get into the boring food stuff, I just wanted to take a moment to share a little bit about my father.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I think the world of my dad. He is sincerely one of the kindest individuals I’ve ever known, and I’d like to think a lot of my “save the world” shenanigans can be attributed to his influence. He’s a beautiful artist who taught me a lot about the importance of creativity and supporting the arts.  He’s a great cook, a patient (well, somewhat patient) teacher and a awesome human being.

When we were younger, my dad used to take my brother and I over to the Arboretum on Sunday afternoons. We’d pack a small bag with stuff like water, lifesavers and snacks and we’d walk the trails together and explore nature. He called them ‘trust walks’.  There were times we’d meander through the trails with our eyes closed and trust that dad would guide us safely to our next destination.  I remember one such Sunday when I was instructed to open my eyes at our given destination only to discover he’d led me right over to a lizard. Now, I’m not a fan of lizards. I inherited that disdain from my mother, and my irrational reaction to their presence apparently served as great amusement for my father that day.  That little lizard and I were having a staring contest, y’all. We were that close to one another.

I never thought much about that story until now, and those walks really say a lot about my dad. No. Not that he enjoys freaking his children out with the things they fear most. Ok, well maybe a little. Mostly, those moments served as comic relief. They were there to remind us not to take everything so seriously and to enjoy the little things in life. I wish I could say I’ve taken those lessons to heart more than I have, but I suppose it’s never too late to get with the program!

So, in honor of his (undisclosed age) birthday, I decided to make a dish he loves – kibbeh. I have to say I was a bit worried about making this dish. After going through both my mama’s recipe and the recipe in Sahtein, I’d convinced myself this week’s attempt at cooking was going to result in an epic fail. I really wanted to try to make this on my own because it’s kind of lame to have your dad help cook his own birthday dinner. Alas, I needed his help throughout the process.

The recipe I shared last week was pretty spot on and I only  made a few minor changes. Instead of using lamb in the stuffing and beef for the raw kibbeh, I opted to use ground sirloin for the kibbeh stuffing and combination of lean ground beef and ground lamb (1 lb. of each) for the raw mixture. I added all the spices to the raw mixture and not just salt and pepper per the recipe. We also added about a tbsp. of a spice called ‘sumac’ because my dad likes the flavor. Sumac is a tart spice with a somewhat lemony flavor. I don’t know that sumac is traditionally used in kibbeh, but it was definitely a nice addition to the dish.

Aside from that, the only other minor change was the amount of burghul needed. Three cups proved to be a bit too much for the amount of meat we used, so we scaled it back a bit. I’d say we used about 2 and a half cups and it was just right.  I will also chill out on how much oil/butter I use next time. I underestimated the natural fat that the meat brings and used a wee bit too much added fat to the dish. I know butter is never a bad thing, but sometimes less is more.  It also took more than 30 minutes to cook. We did end up baking the dish at 400 vs. 450 and it cooked for a little under an hour. Make sure to keep a close eye on it after the 4o minute mark so it doesn’t overcook/burn.

The results, I am happy to say, were fantastic. It tastes just like I remember baked kibbeh to taste and, lemme tell ya, it’s been awhile. I paired it with some plain yogurt (I’m not brave enough to try making my own laban just yet) and a cucumber & tomato salad. I’ll share the rest of the photos tomorrow, but for now enjoy a lovely pic of the final product – cheesy mint leaf garnish included.

A Feast Worthy of A King

Pictures: Loubieh Siami

I made loubieh siami on Sunday. I wasn’t able to post pics in yesterday’s post, so here they are!

Green Beans of the Long Variety.

Green Beans - A Retrospective

More of the Same

Adding a Little Heat

Added Ingredients

Ignore the Shadow

Yes. I DO eat every meal w/ a sprig of mint.

And The Winner Is…Loubieh Siami

Earlier last week, I reached out to my friends and family and asked for ideas on what to cook this past Sunday.  I labored over my mama’s cookbook but nothing was jumping out at me.  I received a few great suggestions, but all of them required a great deal of time and effort and I think I’m at a place with this project where I can’t seem to give it my all right now. I’m sure that will change soon enough, especially because the next couple of Sundays are going to be very personal, emotional weeks and I’m curious to see how the cooking goes with all that in mind.

So, I ended up making a dish that I absolutely love. It’s called Loubieh Siami and it’s basically a recipe for vegetarian green beans.  I think I’ve had this dish a handful of times in my life and I guess that is in part to how hard it is to find the specific kind of beans my mama used to use for this dish. Now, there is another green bean stew of sorts called Fasoulia and this recipe is completely different in taste and texture. You also usually make that dish with meat.

Loubieh, on the other hand, is meant to be vegetarian and uses lots of oil, onion and is usually eaten on its own with bread vs. being served over rice. What I remember most about this dish is the beans that were used. I know the recipe calls for just a regular thin green bean (think haricot vert) , but my mama used to use this very specific bean that had such an incredible flavor profile. The strands of beans were really long – almost like a Chinese long bean and had  very pronounced and robust seeds that burst at the seams after being cooked for awhile.

I have no idea what kind of bean they are though, so I ended up traveling from store to store before I ended up just purchasing a few bunches of the Chinese long bean to use.  If anyone has any clue what kind of bean I’m talking about, I beg you to leave your suggestions in the comments below.

I seriously remember how excited my mom would get when she found these beans at the grocery store. I guess maybe her joy in cooking this dish is one of the reasons I have such fond memories of its taste and texture and I’d really like to get that feeling back – even for a moment.

Here’s the recipe I used:

Loubieh Siami

1-1 1/2 lbs. green beans

1 medium to large onion, chopped somewhat finely

1/2-1/3 cup of olive oil

1 28. oz can of whole or diced tomatoes (if whole, dice them yourself)

1 – 1 1/2 cups of water

1/3 tsp. of allspice and cumin

3/4 tbs. of pepper

1/2 – 1 tbs. of salt

1 whole hot pepper

Wash and cut green beans into smaller pieces. Chop up the onion (size should depend on how much you prefer the taste) and saute in the oil until the onions are tender. Add the green beans and saute them for at least 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the water to the beans and then add the spices to taste.  Let boil and then cook on medium heat for 30-45 minutes.

This dish shouldn’t have a great deal of residual soup to it. The beans and the tomatoes should thicken up quite a bit almost to the point where you can just scoop up a bit of the beans with some bread without the sogginess of the liquid.

Photos to come shortly!

It Takes A Village…

…to figure out how to pickle.

This week, I decided to try my hand at pickling. After failing to find a pickle that even remotely measured up to my mama’s, I took it upon myself to try to recreate the flavors I remembered so long ago. After looking at her recipe(s), I realized that this process of perfection is one that’s going to take awhile. My mama had at least 4 variations of the recipe alone. From her recipe, as well as from advice from my dad and aunt, I discerned that salt wasn’t a huge factor in this recipe. So, I went with 4 cups of water to one cup of white vinegar and added a couple of small handfuls of salt. We (my awesomely kind cousin Susan helped out this week since my pops was out of town this past weekend) boiled that up and poured them over the medium-sized (though I’d venture to say they were more on the large side) pickling cucumbers and sealed up the jar. There isn’t much to the actual process, it’s just finding the right ratio of salt to vinegar.

We also added a couple of large Serrano peppers to the cucumbers before we added the brine. The peppers are supposed to be red vs. green in color, but those suckers are a lot harder to come by than I thought. So, I opted for the few that I found that were on their way to turning red eventually.  We’ll see if that makes a difference at all.

I also made turnip pickles by chopping up fresh turnips in thinnish, half-moon shaped pieces and adding a little sliced beet (fresh) and the brine mixture I used for the cucumbers. The beets are what give the pickles their hot pink color – obviously.

I’m still unsure of the time frame for when the pickles will be ready. I’m assuming somewhere in the two week mark, but I’ve not been able to get an answer on that yet. Check back!! I’m sure you’ll be bursting with anticipation.

This week made me really aware of how important it can be to have knowledgeable cooks around to help you figure things out. I called a friend about the hot pepper dilemma (we weren’t sure which ones to use) and an aunt about the ratios. I consulted my dad about both. I’m sure I would eventually figure all this out on my own, but why should I go at something alone when I have people willing to help? It’s something I’m still working through, but it apparently does take a village to make me a decent cook.

I was sans a functioning camera this week, so pics are compliments of my phone. 🙂

Beet It.

What Falls Off the Turnip Truck?

Recipe(s)!

Chop, Chop, Chop

Perspective.

An Inside Look.

You're Screwed Now, Cucumbers.

Before.

The Way We Roll

This past week, I decided to give rolling malfoof a try.  Malfoof is the Arabic take on cabbage rolls and it’s always been one of my favorite things to eat. If they’re done right, malfoof can be automatically addictive. Doing malfoof ‘right’ means that each roll is rolled at just the right size ; preferably more on the thin side – think fat cigar. It also means there is a good ratio of garlic flavor to buttery sweet richness with the leaves. The meat/rice mixture should be just the right ratio of meat to rice, with rice taking the lead. The cinnamon shouldn’t be too overpowering, but the overall taste should have a nice peppery bite that compliments the subtle undertone of allspice and cinnamon, and all these flavors should marry perfectly once you’ve added a little acidity with the addition of lemon juice to the final steamed product.

That’s how I remember malfoof.

My first attempt at making malfoof went about as expected. I did a lot less of the work while I learned from my dad and I have a long way to go on the rolling front. All of my leaves rolled way too big and weren’t rolled tightly enough. I’m not sure exactly what I need to do to correct this fact other than more practice.  We also made way too much stuffing. I think the ratio was somewhere in the ballpark of 4ish cups of rice to a pound and a quarter of beef. We rolled two heads of cabbage worth of leaves and there was still about half the stuffing left. We ended up freezing it to use at a later date.

As an added bonus this past week, a few friends joined my dad, brother and me for dinner.  Our lovely friend Yasser was one of those people and he brought and cooked an amazing cut of fish for us all to share.  Yasser has been one person that has consistently inspired me to be a better person – a more creative person. He’s also an incredible cook and I hope to be able to learn a little more from him before heading back to Ethiopia.

1. I have no idea how to taste a dish that is raw to determine whether or not the spicing is right. This might be an obvious solution for some (like my dad who just tried a bit of the stuffing raw. yea. not happening.)

2. I learned that adding a bit of butter to the pot while it’s cooking helps add a little fat and a ton of flavor to the malfoof.

3. Rolling leaves of any kind is hard – for me at least.

4. Food tastes better when you share it with the people you love.

A Tale of Two Cabbages

Boiling Cabbage One Leaf At a Time

Le Stuffing

Let the Rolling Begin!

Rolled and Ready to Go!

Eat up!

It's Fish!

Yasser vs. the Fish - Yasser Wins!

Where My Family Breaks Bread

Baking 101: Sometimes The Cookie Doesn’t Crumble

Although I am beginner when it comes to cooking, I am somewhat of a veteran to the baking world.  My sweet tooth led me to baking long ago; we’re a natural fit. Cookies, pies, cakes, brownies – they are all filled with heaping spoonfuls of processed sugar and that makes my tummy happy. Beyond the obvious though, I love baking cookies for people and giving them as gifts. I get, usually, a great deal of satisfaction from being able to bake homemade cookies for the people I love. It makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something worthwhile and I’m genuinely good at baking most things.  So, when Easter rolled around, I figured now might be a good time to try making a dessert. I felt confident that I could conquer the recipe and provide my family with something yummy to eat on a significant holiday day.

A few weeks back, I’d stopped by my cousin’s restaurant to grab a bite to eat. While we were hanging out talking, one of my cousins offered me a bag filled with rock cookies. She’d brought them back from a trip to see some of our family in Tennessee and they were just as yummy as I’d remembered.

Rock cookies are nothing fancy. They look bland and uninteresting, but the taste is so addictive. I’m pretty sure they aren’t a traditional Arabic cookie, but one that has been embraced and perfected by my aunts and one I was excited to be able to tackle.

I followed the recipe almost exactly – with an exception of adding a bit more cinnamon to the final mixture – and was satisfied with taste of the batter. My main concern was making sure the cookies baked in the shape of bite-sized mounds. I wanted the texture to be a little dry, but crumbly with just the right amount of sugar to spice.

Well, that’s not exactly how the baking of these cookies went down. All three trays came out exactly the same – flat, spongy and dry as hell.  I’m still trying to figure out what went wrong. We considered the role humidity may have played in the baking process, whether using baking soda was necessary, and even tried adding a bit more flour in the last batch to see if that would make a difference. I could really use some insight from anyone who bakes regularly.  What could I have done differently to get the texture I wanted??

Needless to say, I had a really difficult time accepting my baking defeat. I know it’s merely a hiccup, but something about this experience left me emotional and, ok I’ll admit it, a tiny bit irrational.  I guess part of my reaction stemmed from the Easter holiday being such a symbolic holiday, and while I’m not exactly what one would call devout, the idea of rebirth and second chances was really resonating with me this time around.  I guess the cookies were a symbolic offering of sorts to my family (especially because it was my uncle’s 75th birthday, too) and I feel like I failed at making it a memorable one. My dad kept trying to insist that we take the cookies anyway; that they tasted fine. I refused.

It’s odd. When I cook and don’t such a great job, I am usually pretty forgiving of myself.  When I bake and fail, I go into complete hysterics. I know I was acting like a bratty pre-teen and my family was being encouraging despite the bad attitude.  I’ll also say that I was overcome by how encouraging my extended family has been about this project. You all have been so amazing for taking the time to read and share this endeavor with me.  And I’ll end this post with the words of encouragement from my awesome Uncle Vic: ” Just remember, none of us are born knowing anything. We learn by practicing.”

Y’all better get ready to eat some cookies, because I’m gonna make these suckers a hundred times until I get them right.

Butter...and plenty of it!

Flour with all the fixins'

Changing Batter - One Egg at a Time

Batter + Flour

+ Raisins and Walnuts

Batter Complete!

Final Product