24 September 2010

Samkeh Harra (Spicy Fish from Tripoli)


With an entire section of our library devoted to cookbooks, some of which often go unused for months (umm, years) at a time, I will occasionally force myself to cook something out of one of my old cookbooks from time to time. It's a good deterrent from buying that big new glossy book you want that you'll probably cook two recipes out of and then relinquish to the shelf.

Flipping though Paula Wolfert's "Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean," I spotted a recipe called "pepper fish" that I thought looked good. Later, when I checked the recipe again, I realized, with the sort of slow realization of seeing something through frosted glass, that this was in fact a classic Lebanese dish from Tripoli known as samkeh harra, or spicy fish.

While Ms. Wolfert's work done on Moroccan cuisine is unparalleled in its accuracy and detail, her work in other countries often strikes me as odd. Her Levantine recipes tend to wring a false note with me, as if someone came to America for a few weeks and discovered a recipe they called "beef patty with sesame bread and sweet tomato reduction." Aka, a hamburger.

But I digress. I decided to go ahead and make the classic samkeh harra, which is a red snapper stuffed with chopped herbs, walnuts, and chile peppers, and topped with a garlicky tahini sauce. This is a celebration dish in the best sense, not that it is particularly complicated or difficult, but that it just feels festive to eat and serve. It is traditionally served with long grain rice (a sort of red wild rice is traditional) and with all the herbs and nuts, practically makes a meal of itself. When you serve it make sure to top everyone's fish portion with some more of of the tahini sauce and herb-chile mixture.


Samkeh Harra (Spicy Fish from Tripoli)
This festive dish is found along the Northern coast of Lebanon and the coast of Syria. Snapper is traditional, but a similar fish can work, and if you dislike the idea of a whole fish, it can be made with two fillets as well (adjust the baking time accordingly). Serve with wild rice.

1 red snapper (about 3-4 pounds), scaled and gutted
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
1 c walnuts, chopped
2 chilies (jalapenos are fine), finely chopped, seeds set aside
salt and pepper

tahini sauce:

1 c tahini
2 large garlic cloves, mashed in a mortar and pestle
1-1/2 c water
juice of 3 lemons
1 tsp cumin

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Combine the chopped cilantro, walnuts, chilies, and salt and pepper. (If you don't want to do the chopping, you can also toss the ingredients in the food processor and give it a few pulses, everything should be just coarsely chopped). Add in the reserved chile seeds, as few or as many as you want depending on your tolerance, you can omit them if desired.
2. Make three slashes on each side of the fish with a knife and rub the fish inside and out with olive oil and salt. Stuff 2/3 of the herb mixture into the cavity of the fish. Place on a baking sheet and roast for 25 minutes, or until the fish is slightly under-done.
3. Meanwhile combine the tahini sauce ingredients in a saucepan and stir until very smooth. Place over medium heat and heat the sauce, stirring, just until warmed.
4. After the fish has cooked for 25 minutes, pour half of the tahini sauce over the fish, and return to the oven for 10 more minutes, or until the fish flakes easily.
5. To serve, fillet the fish. Place some fish on a plate, top with some reserved tahini sauce, and top with some of the stuffing from inside the fish. Place extra bowls of tahini sauce and stuffing mixture on table for people to use as they like.

16 September 2010

Kebab Karaz (Cherry Kebabs)


This dish is a specialty of Aleppo, Syria, where sour cherries are prevalent. I ate this dish for the first time at the famous Beit Sissi in Aleppo, a must-visit for anyone interested in Levantine cuisine. I'd never made kebab karaz because sour cherries are very hard to come by in my neighborhood. But if you're determined, possessing of friends from Michigan, or willing to order frozen or canned cherries, it is possible to get your fix. You can check out Middle Eastern or Persian/Pakistani groceries too.

At its simplest version, kebab karaz involves stringing sour cherries and little meatballs on a stick and grilling them. The idea is always to have the cherries and the meatballs approximately the same size. In a slightly more complicated version, you make a sauce with the cherries and add the grilled meatballs to it afterwards, and in the most complex version, you make kibbeh (follow this recipe) and then add it to the cherry sauce.


I prefer the middle version, since it's easy and the cherry sauce that coats the meatballs is a beautiful glistening red, and delicious. The photo here really does not do it justice. I'm not a big eater of red meat, and yet I made sure I got the last portion of this to take for my lunch the next day. I think that says a lot.


Kebab Karaz (Cherry Kebabs)

Be sure to serve this over flattened pieces of pita bread, or over rice, to absorb the juices.

1/2 an onion, finely diced
4 cups sour cherries, pitted
2 generous tablespoons pomegranate molasses
2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
1 pound ground lamb or beef
2 teaspoons baharat
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cumin
2 teaspoons salt
black pepper to taste
cilantro, pine nuts, for garnish

1. Prepare meatballs: knead the meat and remaining ingredients together until the mixture is smooth and sticky (you can also pulse it in the food processor if you want. Shape the mixture into balls the same size as large cherries and string onto kebab skewers. Refrigerate.
2. Preheat grill.
3. Saute the onion in some olive oil in a large skillet until it is translucent and tender. Add in the cherries, pomegranate molasses, and sugar and stir to combine. Simmer for 5-10 minutes, just to combine.
4. Grill the meatballs until nicely browned on the outside and cooked through. Add meatballs to the cherry sauce. Garnish with cilantro and pine nuts as desired. Serve immediately over rice or bread.

12 September 2010

Romesco Sauce


I always think the sauce section of a cookbook gets short shrift. Everyone is always drawn to the big meats, the glistening shrimp, or the towering desserts. The poor little sauce section sits, crammed in the back of the book, unillustrated, hoping someone might notice or even use it. But I think sauces are often the best thing a cookbook has going for it. After all, a competent cook knows how to grill a steak or pan-roast a fish, and those techniques don't change, and they don't take hundreds of cookbooks to master. But what you do to that fish or meat, how you dress that salad, that's where the "wow" factor can lie.

Another reason I like sauce, particularly thick ones, is that they're just good to have a round. You can put them under shrimp or over chicken. You can drizzle them over vegetables. You can spread them over bread or in a sandwich, you can add them to part of a cheese plate.

I think of great sauces, like sauce gribiche, which make an excellent dressing for cauliflower. I think of Mexican mole, or Thai peanut sauce, or tzatziki, which I'd happily plop over any rice dish I encounter.

Today, we have romesco sauce, the Mediterranean cousin of muhammara and salvitxada and ajvar. It is a thick sauce made of roasted red peppers, tomatoes, spicy pepper, and thickened with bread and nuts. You can serve it as a dip, you can serve it as a sauce for shrimp, you can plop it over grilled leeks, or you can just sneak spoonfuls of it from the fridge, like I do.

P.S. We're going on vacation (sans internet and phones) for two whole weeks. We can't wait, but comments and posting around here will be a bit slower than usual. Don't worry though, we've got new posts ready to go up in our absence, so stay tuned!

Romesco Sauce

1 large red bell pepper
1/2 cup blanched whole almonds
1 small ancho chile, or other dried hot chile, seeds removed and soaked in hot water
1/2 cup cubed firm white bread
1/2 a garlic clove
2 small plum tomatoes, halved, seeds removed, and chopped
2 tbl sherry vinegar
olive oil, about 1/3 - 1/2 cup

1. Roast pepper directly over a gas flame or under the broiler, turning frequently, until charred all over. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 15 minutes. Peel, core and seed the pepper and cut it into thick strips.
2. Pulse almonds in a spice grinder to grind to a coarse grind.
3. Place all the ingredients (roasted pepper, almonds, chile, bread, garlic, tomato, vinegar, oil, salt). Pulse to form a paste, it should be fairly smooth, but still have some small chunks. Taste for seasoning. Refrigerate until ready to use.

02 September 2010

Pita Bread

Believe it or not, despite the fact that I make homemade bread every few weeks, and despite that I've made Middle Eastern breads like mishtah and qurban, I've never actually made pita bread. In my defense, very few people in the Middle East make their own pita bread either.

One of my favorite routines in Damascus was to go to my local bakeries, where the fresh baked bread tumbled down on a sort of bread escalator, and was sold to a waiting crowd by the ounce (see pictures here). Young boys could be seen carrying stacks of bread taller than themselves while simultaneously munching on a round of fresh baked khobz.

Old ladies could be found practicing a bizarre form of bread maintenance on view across the Middle East: spreading their fresh bread out to dry on whatever surface available. And yes, that included spare railings, cars parked on the street, and even patches of sidewalk. As unhygenic as it might sound, there is a logic here: fresh baked bread releases steam, and if you immediately stack all your breads together that steam will lead to moisture and to mold.

But on to making pita bread. It won't ever be the super-thin large rounds you find at a Middle Eastern bakery, but homemade bread has its own puffy charm. As for getting your breads to puff, I have no special tricks here. Like making pancakes, the first few never quite turn out right, but luckily even the un-puffed ones are just as tasty.

Pita Bread (Khobz)
It is important that the dough is very moist, and it helps to have a moist environment in the oven, so spritz a bit of water in there if necessary. However, don't worry about the dough being too wet, it's okay to have a little flour on the dough to keep it from sticking to the baking surface. Keep in mind pita bread goes bad pretty quickly, so keep it in a sealed moisture-free bag, and store it in the fridge after the second day or so.

3 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1/4 cup more for kneading (16 oz. total)
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/4 cups water, at room temperature (10.4 oz.)

1. Mix all ingredients with wooden spoon. Knead the dough in the bowl until it comes together. Sprinkle the additional flour on a work surface, turn dough out and knead until the dough is smooth and slightly sticky, at least 5 minutes. Pita dough needs to be very moist so try not to add additional flour.
2. Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover and let rise until doubled in size (in a warm room this will take 1 hour, but in the winter it could take as long as 3 hours).
3. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 500 F at least 30 minutes ahead of time. You want to make sure the oven is nice and hot. Place a pizza stone in the oven if you have one, or a greased sturdy baking sheet.
4. Separate the dough into 8-12 pieces and keep them covered with a cloth. On a very lightly floured surface, roll out 3 of the breads to just under 1/4 inch thick. Let rest a few minutes, then place them in the oven. It is important that the oven is moist, so you may want to spritz some water in it before you put the bread in (if you live a very humid climate like Beirut or Washington DC than you should be fine). Bake the breads for 3-4 minutes each until puffed but not browned.
5. While the breads are baking, roll out the next set of breads. Continue baking until all breads are done. Let cool at room temperature.