Food for Thought

Don’t act surprised. You knew that cliche would be used at some point. I mean this is a food blog after all.

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day and shared with him my idea for Zayt and Zaatar. He was incredibly encouraging and shared with me some of his ideas for archiving his family’s history – a history that inevitably includes fascinating stories of food and the meaning behind its making.We’re both Palestinian, but our family histories seem to be drastically different. What also seems to be different is the food we ate.

One of the many reasons I started this project was to learn from others how the food we all grew up eating was prepared. I know this might seem like a “duh” concept, but aside from the Arabic food I ate within my family culture, and the watered-down version of Arabic cuisine you eat at restaurants, I have no real frame of reference for regional Arabic cooking.

When I told my friend, mentioned above, that I was making Mishat he didn’t know what I was talking about. Hell, I even mentioned it to my cousins and it took them awhile to figure out what I was talking about. Although our mothers spent a lot of time together sitting around coffee tables chopping slabs of meat, gossiping and watching soap operas, the similarities stopped there. And now that many of our mothers have passed on, we find a great deal of comfort in sitting around and remembering who made what best of all.

My hope is that we create our own versions of these recipes and perfect them so we can pass them on to future generations.

Food is in my family’s blood. It’s how a majority of my relatives earn a living. The funny part? I just made that correlation this evening. It just dawned on me that many of my family members all over the U.S., from New York, to Texas to Tennessee, either own fairly successful restaurants or companies that supply food to restaurants. This should have been a no-brainer but I’m slow.

Let’s hope I have some untapped culinary gene that kick into high gear once the real cooking begins. I’m still torn on what I’ll be cooking next, but I’ll hopefully have that figured out sooner than later. Stay tuned!

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!

Let the Cooking Begin!

Several months ago, I made a decision to start this blog in the hopes that I would learn a thing or two over time. I hoped I could learn to be a halfway decent cook by teaching myself my mother’s recipes. I hoped to reconnect with her through the process. I hoped I’d find my inner writer and eventually put the words that have been stuck in my head for decades out there for the world to see.

That was in, like, September. Clearly, if you’ve taken the time to check in, I’m a little behind on the getting started business. Now, if this was the Brigitte of yesterday – the Brigitte that tried to maintain a music-related blog for several years, I would be apologizing profusely to the three of you who are paying attention. I’d tell you I suck at this blogging thing, that I’m sorry and I’ll be around here more often. (All of which I did in the last post I wrote – and here I am saying it again!)  But, I’m not going to say any of those things this time around.

I’m just going to do more and say less. Well, only I’ll be saying lots because this is a blog and not a webcam. But you get the gist of what I’m getting at here.

I’ve got my culinary tools in tow and  I’ve even chosen my first meal to cook! I have had an intense craving for it the last few weeks, so I’m going to attempt to try cooking this for the first time. Check back throughout the week for recipes and more info!

My goal is to share recipes, stories, old and new photos and my thoughts with you over the course of the week.  The weekend will be devoted to the preparation of the meal I’ve chosen to make. Some of the recipes I plan on preparing are really time consuming, so planning is essential with my schedule.

I’m always open to suggestions for time management, useful culinary tools and I’d love to hear your stories.  And while this blog is a chance for me to learn and connect to my past, I want to make it a place that you can share and learn and grow with me.

And if you live in Houston, maybe we’ll be sharing a meal together – even one I’ve made – someday.

Sahtein!

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

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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.