What? A Break Already??

I swear I have a good excuse though!!

So, I have to say that I’m pretty proud of myself for sticking to this little project. I am, once again, floored that so many of you have taken a liking to this and I can’t wait to get into more complicated dishes – because those are REALLY some of my favorites. I’m proud of how well most of the dishes have turned out and I’m growing my confident in my ability with each day.

What I am still struggling with is sharing more about my personal history. I know that I will grow more comfortable with this over time, so please be patient with me.  In the short time that I knew my mother, I learned what my young mind allowed me to learn about her. I think I am hanging on to a lot of random memories that aren’t allowing me to see the bigger picture about her and my connection to her. I guess I hoped that is what this project would help me accomplish. Especially since a huge lifeline to her memory is something I lost access to long ago.

Anywaaaaaaay – Back to the reason why I won’t be cooking this week and possibly next. I’m going on a “vacation” of sorts. I’ll be heading to Austin on Friday to attend this year’s SXSW Festival. I’ll be in Austin the entire span of the fest; from interactive to music. I’m simultaneously excited and anxious. I’ve covered the music portion of SXSW in the past when I wrote more about music. This will be my first foray into the interactive portion and I can’t wait! I’m hoping the information I learn will be invaluable for the company I co-own with two good friends of mine. I hope to be blogging about the panels I attend and the cool people I meet. You can check out the blog at Your Name [Here] Media’s site (we’re in the process of revamping our site, so please excuse the clutter! We will be running at full speed before you know it!) and Girlyfight – a new site I am working on with another close friend. I’m sure I’ll also be tweeting away from both the YNH and Girlyfight accounts.

So, don’t fret! I’ll be around and be back to cooking before you know it, so stick around.

Happy Eating!


Spaghetti with a Twist

Earlier this week, I met one of my many cousins for lunch. He was helping me take care of some boring adult-like stuff, but we managed to spend a majority of the afternoon talking about food. We are both now motherless adults and speaking to him made me realize, once again, how much comfort and connection food holds. His mother was the closest thing to a mom that I had after my mother passed away. Even though she had 4 children of her own, my aunt was always there to provide me with memories and a warm meal whenever I took the time to drop in for a visit. Like most of my aunts, this one was short and feisty and took no shit from anyone.

I miss having all these awesome women in my life. Women I didn’t appreciate nearly enough when they were around. I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s just how I’m feeling.

On to the food! I know that combining spaghetti with lamb shoulder, cinnamon, allspice and tomato paste (with other ingredients, of course), and then baking it doesn’t sound all that appealing to most people, but I assure you it’s delicious.

Amazingly, the cooking process for this dish was pretty accurate to the recipe I posted earlier. Just note that you’ll need to use about 6-7 cups of water when boiling the meat and then using two small cans (or one large) of tomato paste. I seasoned the meat pre-tomato and then again after. Pre-tomato you should aim for about 2/3 tsp of allspice, tsp. of cinnamon, pepper and salt to taste. After the sauce, I added a few shakes of allspice and cinnamon and at least another 1/2 tbs. of salt and pepper.

I’m really happy with how this turned out. I still think it was missing a little something, but I’m thrilled with my first attempt. I think I’ll used beef next time around because I just prefer the taste. But, the feeling I got from tasting the dish before it went in the oven brought back so many memories. I was 7 years old all over again.  Eventually, I’ll be able to get to a point where I can effectively communicate to everyone how emotionally overwhelming cooking these dishes really is for me. In time, I’ll be more comfortable moving past the food and sharing more about the women, my mom in particular, who helped define the woman I am today.

This is what it looks like when you sautee meat.
...and the two shall meet.
This is what baked spaghetti looks like.

Thank You!

The idea for this project has been a long time coming. I mulled it over in my head for months. I told people I was going to do it for months after that. Then, I did nothing. After the nothingness, I bought a domain name, started a new blog, wrote one touchy-feely post and then…nothing.

I’m not sure if it was timing, a momentary burst of courage, or the memory of my mama that helped me get from point A to point B, but I’m beyond happy that I found the motivation to kick this idea into high gear.

And it paid off, because last week, this lil’ old blog was featured in a post by the Houston Press food blog, Eating… Our Words.

And though I went through a range of emotions that included everything from elation to anxiety, I was reminded by one of the closest people in my life to remember the major purpose of this project and now I’m calm.

I just wanted to take a moment to thank the Houston Press and all of you who decided to join me as I figure this cooking/personal journey thing out.  Y’all are awesome.

New recipe coming tomorrow as soon as I can figure out what the heck I’m in the mood to make.  Stay tuned!

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!
A Meeting of the Minds - Pre-Sauce
A Meeting of the Minds - Sauced
Kifta + Batata + Tahineh = Yummy
Kifta + Batata + Tahineh + Rice = Yummy + Carb Overload

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!

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.

The History Behind Zayt and Za’atar

zandz 070
Zayt wa Za'atar

Zayt and Za’atar is a Middle Eastern snack consisting of oil (zayt) and a thyme-spice mix (za’atar) that I grew up eating as a kid. It may not sound all that appetizing, but dipping warm, fluffy pieces of pita bread into the zayt and za’atar was a source of real comfort for me growing up. It is still one of my favorite snacks – no matter what time of day it is – and it is probably even more comforting for me now than when I was young.

So, when I came up with the idea for this blog (which I will get to eventually), the concept of Zayt and Za’atar seemed like a natural fit. Two strong and savory flavors that work as beautifully apart as they do together. Two flavors that stand boldly on their own – but compliment each other in unforgettable ways.  Just like my mother and me – when she was still alive.

My parents grew up in Ramallah, Palestine. I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. I was a fat kid who loved food. My mom was a self-taught cook who used food as a way to nurture her kids both nutritionally and emotionally. So many of the memories I have from childhood include food. It’s not  just the eating of her food that remains with me, but also the time and energy my mom put into picking the best ingredients and preparing the Arabic dishes that I miss so much today.

Making traditional Arabic food – not the stuff you get in most water-downed versions of Middle Eastern restaurants – takes a lot of time, patience and skill. I was too young to appreciate just how labor-intensive cooking this food was for my mom and she died before I realized it would be something I’d miss as much as I miss her.

I was 13 when my mom lost her battle with breast cancer and it wasn’t until recently that I conceived an idea that might allow me the opportunity to connect to her memory in a way that would feed both my inner fat kid and that part of my soul that has been missing for almost 20 years.

Which brings us full circle back to Zayt and Za’atar.

Over the years, my mother taught herself how to cook using recipes from her family and from random other sources and she compiled it all into this notebook that she titled “Nawal’s Cookbook”.  A lot of the recipes are written in Arabic, so it is currently being translated by one of my aunts.

It’s important to me to learn how to make the food I grew up eating. It connects me to my culture, my personal history and to a mom I never really got to know. My hope is that as I teach myself how to cook using my mother’s cookbook, I will be able to learn more about her short life, more about me and more about the food that helped create my culinary palate.

%d bloggers like this: