19 October 2014

Diners and Chocolate Crispy Treats

Right before we closed on our apartment, I watched a sweet little video about the dying (extinct?) art of neon sign making in New York City. Which is why, shortly after moving into our new Chicago apartment, I couldn't help but noticing the classic neon signs that seemed to be everywhere in this town. There are at least five within a short radius of our home, and one of my favorites is the neon flower sign on LaSalle Flowers, which sticks out at a funny catty-corner angle to the street. The flower shop sits not far from an original Howard Johnsons, the kind with the sweet peaked roofs, which is itself home to the Cafe Luna. The Cafe Luna is exactly what I want a diner to be: a no frills place with endless coffee refills, eggs prepared a thousand ways, pancake combo platters, and a great grilled cheese.

Given its proximity to our home, Paul and I spend many Sunday mornings at the Cafe Luna, where our conversation often circles back to the things we love about Chicago. You see, those things like the neon signs and the diners symbolize something that cities like New York and Washington DC have managed to price themselves out of. In Manhattan or D.C. you would be hard-pressed to find a diner that doesn't charge $15 for pancakes and offer an array of cocktails, an ironic theme, and expect you to vacate your table as soon as you have finished eating. And, in those cities, the neon signs are gone because corporations and businesses have bought up the majority of the real estate, and no one bothers to fix neon anymore. Which is why the LaSalle flower sign always makes me smile.

Thus, we were very sad to hear a few months ago that the Howard Johnsons has been sold to a real estate developer to be demolished. The Cafe Luna can stay open for another year, until the demolition happens, though the owner's son recently told me he wasn't sure they would have enough business now that the hotel has closed.

I want to be clear that there was nothing write-home worthy about the cafe, it's not a gastropub, nor a Shopsin's, it's just a small family-run place where I can walk in and get coffee and waffles, which is exactly as it should be. Cities need places like the Luna Cafe, where a cabbie can stop and get a omelet to go, or someone hard up for cash can come in and count out their exact change next to an (admittedly more well off) local home owner like myself.

I've been thinking a lot about why I'm drawn to places like this. Many of my friends would probably tell you, not unjustifiably, that I'm a food snob, and I've been known to be a harsh critic of restaurants on occasion. So what makes me love a place that has no issue with putting whipped cream out of can onto its pancakes? Diners and breakfast cafes are a huge part of the American experience to me, not just the food culture but the culture-culture. A diner is in many ways like the first hamsani (local hummus place) I wandered into as a twenty-year-old in Beirut, alone, where I sat and had a meal of hummus and chatted with locals and where my eyes were opened to a whole culture for the first time. I had spent three years studying Middle Eastern studies, but it wasn't until I sat in that cafe and talked to people that I really got it.

These places are also places where people of all social strata not only cross paths, but might actually sit and eat together in some tangential way. And in our society these days, I fear there aren't many places where that happens often anymore.

*** In other news, our move to Cairo is impending shortly, where I hope to find my local koshari place (and whatever the Cairene equivalent of hamsani/ful vendor there is). If you readers have suggestions please do send them this way. Also, though it would probably be most appropriate to follow this post by a recipe for pancakes, the truth is I buy all my pancakes at diners, and so instead you get this recipe which I make every once in a while for a twist on rice krispie treats. They are guaranteed to disappear from your office in under 10 minutes. ***


Nutty Chocolate Crispy Treats
This recipe was inspired by something I found online, deep in the internets, when I was trying to use up a bunch of things in our pantry like agave and coconut oil. You can also try topping the treats with a schmearing of melted chocolate and sea salt.

6 cups rice crisp cereal
1 cup agave syrup
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup nutella
1/2 cup almond butter, peanut butter, or soynut butter
1/3 cup chocolate chips or chopped chocolate
3 tablespoons coconut oil or butter
2 pinches (about 1/2 teaspoon) sea salt

1. Measure out your cereal and have it at the ready. Line a 9x12 inch pan with parchment paper.
2. Get out a large deep pot (a small stock pot works nicely). Place the agave and maple syrup in the pot and bring the mixture to a roiling boil. Watch the mixture so it doesn't boil over, but luckily you're using a deep pot! Let the mixture boil for one minute. Turn off the heat and immediately stir in the nutella, nut butter, chocolate, oil, and salt. Stir well to combine. Fold in the rice crisp cereal, working quickly to mix everything together.
3. Spread the mixture into the prepared pan and press down using a nonstick spatula or damp fingers. Let the treats rest for at least 3 hours before slicing. Cut into bars using a knife or sharp-edged spatula.

12 October 2014

Roast Broccoli Salad with Pomegranates, Walnuts, and Creamy Dressing

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Remember back a couple weeks ago when we talked about broccoli? Maybe you thought I was kidding, that only a crazy person would OD on broccoli before moving to Egypt? Ah, well! Clearly you would be wrong, because for several nights last week I ate multiple whole heads of broccoli in one sitting. What? Is that weird? It really shrinks down when you roast it.

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Have we ever talked about how one of my favorite childhood snacks was raw cauliflower, followed closely by raw broccoli? Also known as "trees," in classic childhood parlance. It is unclear to me as an adult what exactly about raw broccoli would have been appealing to me, but it was a great source of frustration to my mother, who had difficulty getting her underweight to child to eat anything more substantial.

Broccoli, now preferably in cooked form, continues to be a favorite of mine, which is why I was surprised to realize that there are almost no broccoli recipes on this blog. Perhaps it's because broccoli is not available in the Middle East, where I spend most of my time living and writing about food cultures therein. However, there are plenty of Middle Eastern cauliflower recipes, for which you can try swapping broccoli (though I'm sure someone would call this heretical, frankly I'm not that much of a traditionalist). This broccoli salad is basically a play on my favorite roast cauliflower salad. Instead of my usual tahini-yogurt dressing, I reached for some leftover sour cream which goes very nicely with the broccoli. Pomegranates and walnuts make this perfect for the fall dinner table. Or, so that you can eat multiple heads of broccoli all by yourself.

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Roast Broccoli Salad with Pomegranates, Walnuts, and Creamy Dressing
Broccoli really shrinks down a lot when you roast it, so though four heads seems like a lot, this dish really only serves 2-4 as a side. This would also be good with a few dried currants or using pine nuts instead of walnuts. I save my broccoli stems and use them to make a potage-type soup, pureed with some turnips, onions, stock, and cream.

4 medium-smallish sized heads of broccoli
1/2 a red onion
pomegranate seeds from about 1/3 of a pomegranate
1/2 cup sour cream (or thick yogurt)
a squeeze of lemon juice
1/2 cup walnuts
Urfa Biber or Aleppo pepper chile flakes, for sprinkling
salt, olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 425F.  Line a large baking sheet with foil or silpat. Stir the sour cream together with the lemon and a pinch of salt and set aside.
2. Place the first head of broccoli on your cutting board parallel to you, so that the stem end is at your left hand and the floret end at your right hand. Slice the broccoli heads cross wise, as seen in this diagram: YouDoodleDrawing
You'll get some teeny tiny florets and some larger florets, which gives a nice texture variety to the roasted broccoli. Take any particularly large florets and cut them down to smaller pieces. Repeat with all broccoli heads. Discard or set aside the broccoli stems.
3. Place all the broccoli on your baking sheet and toss with a generous amount of olive oil so that the broccoli is nicely coated with oil. Spread the broccoli out on the baking sheet, and sprinkle all the broccoli with salt and two pinches of the chile flakes. Place the broccoli in the oven and allow to roast for 20-25 minutes. Keep a close eye on the broccoli, if it seems to be cooking unevenly then stir it around and redistribute it. When the broccoli is cooked through and the ends of the broccoli are dark and crispy, remove the broccoli and set aside.
4. Meanwhile, slice the red onion into thin slices. Heat some olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Saute the onions slowly, stirring occasionally, for about twenty minutes, until softened, translucent, and beginning to caramelize. After about 20 minutes, turn up the heat to high and saute the onions, stirring frequently, so that you get a nice brown crisp edge on some of the onions. Set aside.
5. Place half the broccoli and half the onions on a serving dish. Dollop half of the sour cream over the broccoli. Place the remaining broccoli and onions in the dish, and dollop with the remaining sour cream.
6. Wipe out the saute pan you used for the onions, place it over high heat, and toast the walnuts in the pan for a few minutes, watching carefully so the don't burn. Pour the toasted walnuts over the broccoli, top with the pomegranates, and sprinkle the whole dish with some more salt and chile flakes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

05 October 2014

Za'atar Cured Salmon

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I hate saying that we've been busy. It's one of those American things that has come to annoy me the more I live outside the country, in the same way that I try to avoid asking people what they do for a living at cocktail parties. It always results in far more interesting conversations.

So instead we've been pleasantly occupied, traveling here and there to visit family and friends, working, doing a lot of yoga, trying to organize our life so that half of it ends up in Chicago and half ends up in Cairo. I'm on a first name basis with the people at Maersk shipping. My spare moments have been filled with painting and fixing up our apartment and the bare bit of cooking I have done consists mainly of buying a nice piece of fish at the market, seasoning it, and sticking it under the broiler until it is just barely done, and then eating it with some simple vegetables. Also a lot of toast. You can never go wrong with toast.

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I have also been playing around with home cured salmon, which has the great benefit of taking up almost no time at all. I had no idea cured salmon was so easy, slap a sugar/salt mix on your salmon, leave it for a few days, and voila! The perfect bagel-and-schmear topper, salad addition, or light lunch.

The curing mix is a simple ratio of 2 parts salt to 1 part sugar, and then any spices you add to the mix penetrate the salmon surprisingly well. When I first made the cured salmon with za'atar, the Lebanese herb mix, I wasn't sure if the flavor would translate through to the final product, but I was pleasantly surprised that it did. The herby-ness is a bit like the Middle Eastern twist on your classic dill and salmon pairing.

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Za'atar Cured Salmon
I keep several types of za'atar in the cabinet, some higher and lesser quality, for this dish I recommend using average grocery-store quality za'atar. I imagine this would also work really well with the Egyptian spice mix dukkah.

3 cups salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup za'atar (available from mail order sources or Middle Eastern groceries)
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon fresh black pepper
1 large fillet of salmon (1 1/2 to 2 pounds)

1. In a bowl, mix the salt, sugar, za'atar, lemon zest, and pepper.
2. Place several sheets of plastic wrap on a working surface. Pour about 1/3 of the curing mix over the plastic wrap and spread it into a rectangle. Place the salmon fillet over top the curing mix. Pack the remaining curing mix around the salmon (you may not use all of it).
3. Wrap the plastic wrap up around the fish, then wrap some more plastic wrap tightly around the fillet. Then wrap the fillet in a layer of aluminum foil and place in a rimmed baking dish. Place a smaller plate or baking sheet over top the fillet and weigh it down with heavy items cuch as a few large cans of tomatoes.
4. Place the whole thing in the fridge to cure for 3 days. About halfway through, flip the fillet over to the other side. After about a day liquid will begin to release from the salmon.
5. After 3 days, unwrap the fillet, brush off and discard the salt. Rinse the salmon under running water to remove any excess salt. Thinly slice the salmon on an angle and serve as desired.

29 September 2014

Reading the Headlines

I wrote this piece last week and originally decided not to publish it here. I felt it was too serious for something that is a cooking blog, and that readers might rather hear about blueberry crumble bars and smiley happy things. However, it continued to nag at me, and then I read about Herve Gourdel's tragic terrible death, and I read Matthieu Aikens' truly extraordinary piece of reporting here, and well, here you are:

I do not scan pages of the news for familiar faces anymore. When the conflict in Syria first broke out I, like many who once lived in Syria, looked obsessively through the photos in news reports, the online videos, trying to find familiar places, familiar faces. Is that the corner of Baghdad road there, where the sweets shop always had a huge line during Ramadan? We'd peer into grainy photos, pause on stills of videos.

Now I sit in my apartment in Chicago and read headlines about Deir al-Zour, Raqqa, Idlib and Hasake. All places I have passed through, stopping to get gasoline and packages of biscuits as the only way points between the interminably empty and dusty landscape of the Syrian desert. Deir al-Zour and Raqqa were always terrible places, though I remember once a decent rotisserie chicken eaten in Deir. Even the Syrians I knew hated them, dry dusty outposts of nothing, filled with terrible memories of their one year of mandatory military service.

What all these places had in common was that they were poor, which is why I, doing relief work and canvasing, knew them well. Hasake had good spicy food and fun Kurdish music, but overall these were places that no one had heard of. Places, I wrongly assumed, would continue to be forgotten dreary towns.

Now I cannot read the pages of the news reports too closely. Most Syrians I knew have left if they had the means, and those that remain have drifted away in my mind, as if to another planet. Syrians I speak to in America say the same, that the thought of people still there is almost too hard to bear.

I think of the people of Algeria, all those who left, who fled the civil war to France and Canada, and all those who stayed behind. How different those two psyches are, the fear the implants itself so deeply. Yesterday a French tourist was taken hostage in Kabylie, he was captured not far from an area that I drove through only three months ago, albeit I was with a security detail. He was an alpiniste, and I can picture how beautiful those mountains are, the fields of wheat below them undulating down to the sea. I cannot help but thinking, the Algerian people deserve better.

All those place names dot the news articles: Tizi Ouzou, Raqqa, Idlib. I cannot read them too closely because each one has meaning, each one has a memory, a picture in my mind, so instead I make coffee and get ready for another day.

A tiny tree grows amidst the lava path on Mount Etna, Sicily. Top photo of Aleppo taken by yours truly circa 2006.

24 September 2014

Fall News + Blueberry Custard Crumble Bars

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Weren't you supposed to be somewhere else by now? That's the phrase I keep hearing from friends and colleagues whenever I see them. Yes, I sigh with an annoyance all too familiar, we were hoping to leave in early October. The good news is that we are moving to Cairo, Egypt shortly! The bad news is that it probably won't be as soon as we would like. However, I am definitely making the best of this situation. More time to visit family? Check. Friends coming to visit us in Chicago? Check, check, check. More time to eat blueberries and broccoli and apples that have actual crunch, none of which are available in the Middle East? YOU BET.

After three years of spending the months of August-September outside of the country, I apparently forgot that fall was a) a season, b) starts a whole lot earlier in Chicago, and c) is cold!! Although, if I'm being totally honest, I did cave and buy a fleece at the Columbia sportswear in Amman three years ago because I was freezing on those cool desert evenings.

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Anyway, back to the blueberries. Do you ever make a giant portion of something, intending to give half of it your nice neighbors and then, "oh, oops, guess they're out of town this week, and we're just going to have to eat ALL these blueberry bars ourselves." So that's what happened here. It was really terrible, Paul was really suffering eating these bars for breakfast and after-dinner dessert.

I don't usually make this type of pastry because I tend to shy away from richer American desserts, but seriously this recipe is awesome. A small slice has just the right amount of crunch, ooze, and sweet-sour-salty tang to be imminently satisfying.

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Blueberry Custard Crumble Bars
This recipe comes together quickly and feeds quite a few. It would be great for a casual dinner party, a picnic, or in your lunchbox. It also freezes very well after it is baked. Inspired by this recipe for a similar blueberry custard pie. (You can also top it with ice cream if you want to go all out.)

12 tablespoons butter, cold
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups flour
1 cup sour cream
1 tbl lemon zest
1 egg
1 tbl flour
2/3 cup brown sugar
4 cups blueberries
1 cup brown sugar
2 cups chopped walnut pieces
3/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Get out a 9x12 inch baking pan.
2. Make the crust: in a large bowl, rub the butter together with the sugar with your finger tips. Add in the salt and the flour and rub everything together until the mixture is crumbly. Press the crumbly mixture into the bottom of the baking pan, trying to cover it evenly.
3. Make the filling: Using the same bowl, place the sour cream, lemon, egg, flour, and brown sugar in the bowl and mix well. Gently fold in the blueberries until coated with the sour cream mixture. Spread the blueberry mixture over the crust.
4. Make the crumble: In a bowl, mix the brown sugar, salt, walnuts, and flour. Slowly pour in the melted butter, stirring simultaneously, until you've added all the butter. Stir a few more times to make sure all the butter is spread around. Gently spread the crumble topping over the blueberries.
5. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake for 50-60 minutes, until the topping is browned and the blueberry juices are bubbling slightly underneath. Remove, let cool completely before slicing.

16 September 2014

In Praise of the Arab Breakfast

I wanted to take a moment to write in praise of the Arab breakfast. On those mornings when I'm not running out the door juggling coffee and keys, I like having a proper home-cooked breakfast. I used to never eat breakfast, but more and more I find breakfast a centering part of my day, even if it's just 10 minutes to sit down and pause before rushing forward again. Some mornings it's oatmeal, others it might be toast and eggs (always with plenty of hot sauce). But especially in the summer, I love having sliced tomatoes and cucumbers as part of the breakfast table, preferably with some yogurt and bread and steaming hot coffee, and if I'm really dreaming, to be eaten outside in the shade with chirping cicadas and time to linger over the newspaper or a good book.

I'm not sure where what most people think of as the Arab breakfast came from, but most Arabs I know don't really eat breakfast to begin with, unless strong tea or coffee counts. I've always assumed the concept of a solid breakfast was imported from the west, and that the Lebanese or Syrians or Egyptians just started to put out simple light things they had around anyway: bread, olives, yogurt, cucumbers, and so the Arab breakfast was born. I particularly love having tomatoes at breakfast, with a bit of salt and olive oil. If you've never thought of tomatoes as a breakfast food I highly recommend you try it.

This kind of breakfast is very easy to throw together, and involves almost no cooking or baking, which I find makes it great for hosting brunch or house guests, or simply lazy summer Sunday mornings.

Ideas for an Arab-style breakfast:

Sliced tomatoes
Sliced cucumbers (preferably Persian or very small thin skinned types)
Thick yogurt (labne)
Feta or ricotta type cheese
Pita bread
Eggs (fried, frittata, omelet, etc)
Za'atar flatbreads
Fruit (fresh, poached, or in syrup)
Other types of bread or pastries

For the table: chopped herbs, salt, olive oil

** special credit for the delicious homegrown tomatoes in the photo goes to our friends Lauren and Andy, who let us steal from their prolific backyard crop while visiting them this summer

31 August 2014

Sour Cherry Galette with Almond-Mahlab Filling

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It is the last weekend in August and, if social media is any clue, everyone I know is lounging on a beach, or sailing around an island, or hiking somewhere scenic, while I'm pounding the paths of the concrete jungle. Thankfully, in Chicago, I can wander over to the lakefront on a cloudy Friday afternoon, where you can sit and read a book with the seagulls and the cyclists and almost forget that you're in a city altogether.

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I also got to have brunch with a really cute 2 month-old baby and have the most amazing sushi meal I've had in a long time (ever?). We have been painting and fixing up around our apartment, a seemingly never-ending task of sanding and caulking and repeated trips to the hardware store. We have listened to a LOT of podcasts in the meantime, and, having exhausted my usual suspects, I found a new podcast called the Dinner Party Download. It is awesome and you should add it to you regular rotation.

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Also on the list this week:
      -- Radio Diaries: A Guitar and Cellist
      -- A moloukhiya schism?!
      -- You should be cooking to the latest Kishi Bashi album. Preferably while drinking a Kentucky Peach Barrel Wheat Ale.
      -- Good Food had a great interview with the Bautista Date Farm. Learn more about date varieties, like my favorite barhi dates, and order some, at their website.
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Today we're talking about this sour cherry galette that I made back when sour cherries were in the farmer's market for their brief two-week run. If you're like me, you bought a gallon of those sour cherries and pitted and froze them to use year round. If not, well, I'm terribly terribly sorry.
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For the sour cherries that I did not freeze, I made a galette with them. (I was just about to write "simple galette," but who am I kidding, we've got a mahlab scented layer and a rye crust!) Cherries and almonds are botanically related, and the Middle Eastern spice mahlab is made form a variety of sour cherry pit. Based on the old adage, "what grows together goes together," I thought I'd play around with these flavors in the galette - sour cherries, almonds, mahlab. They are almost always a winning combination.

Despite the seemingly complex title, this recipe is actually really simple. Really! If you don't have any mahlab on hand, don't sweat it. You can substitute some cinnamon or simply omit it. Did you get any sour cherries this year? If so, what are you making?  Happy long weekend everyone!
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Sour Cherry Galette with Almond-Mahlab Filling
You can make this with regular cherries, it just won't have that tart tang to it. If using regular cherries reduce the sugar to 1/3 cup. For extra credit, you can always brush a beaten egg over the crust before baking.

1 regular pie crust or 1 rye pie crust (I used half of this recipe)

2 heaping cups sour cherries
2/3 cup sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 tablespoon cornstarch

almond layer:
5 mahlab pits
1/2 a tube almond paste (4 oz)
1 egg
pinch of salt

1. Prepare your pie crust and chill it.
2. Preheat oven to 350 F.
3. Toss the cherries with sugar and cornstarch in a bowl. Let macerate.
4. Crush the mahlab pits in a mortar and pestle. In a bowl, smash up the almond paste with a fork. Add the egg and mahlab and salt and mix into the almond paste until the mix is relatively homogenous.
5. Roll out your pie crust and place on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. Spread the almond paste in a circle in the center of your crust.
4. Spoon the cherries over the almond layer. If there is a lot of accumulated juice in the bowl, leave it behind and discard it. I add a little of the juice to the galette, but you don't want to drown it.
5. Fold up the edges of the dough around the filling to form a galette. Sprinkle sugar all over the top.
6. Transfer to the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until bubbly and the crust is firm and hollow-sounding when tapped. Let cool slightly before eating.