Tag Archives: Memories

There should be 3 P’s in “happy”

Pineapple, melted butter and brown sugar...yum!

1. Pineapple Upside-down Cake: when I was a child, my mom would occasionally make this cake, full of sugary buttery goodness and topped with that delight of all delights, maraschino cherries.  Somehow in the “sophistication” of my twenties, I forgot all about it, and it was only recently brought back to memory by a recent Food in Jars post on an adaptation made with jam.  I almost went with a boxed yellow cake mix, but thankfully Betty Crocker saved the day, and I whipped up a homemade Pineapple Upside-down Cake (sans maraschino cherries, which I now find frightening in their over-chemicalized state) in a few simple steps.  Here’s a link to Betty’s recipe, because Betty does it best!

Oh so golden and sweet.

2.  Peanut butter.  I will not go into a full treatise on the glories of real peanut butter right now; suffice it to say that I am a peanut butter snob.  I have high expectations and will generally refuse to eat any that includes ingredients other than peanuts.  However, I have recently found myself desperately in need of an easy way to get a lot of extra calories, and unexpectedly finding three jars of (highly processed, not even as good as JIF) crunchy peanut butter in my local shop, I decided that, at the least, it is a better option than eating an entire Pineapple Upside-down Cake every two days.  The good news is that since it’s been at least 11 months since I last tasted peanut butter, even this plasticky, gooey mess seems wonderful and delicious.

3. Pregnancy!  Yes, I am now almost 12 weeks pregnant with our first child–hence the need for extra calories.  Between our normal diet, which is very high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes but low in meat and fats, and the normal first trimester of pregnancy eating discomforts, I have actually lost a few pounds the past two months.  I didn’t start this pregnancy with much extra weight to spare, so I am trying to be very conscious about adding in healthy, high-calorie foods whenever I can.  (And Pineapple Upside-down Cake only when really needed!)  Little Baby (henceforth to be known as LB) is due June 22, and so far is normal and healthy and, as the doctor proclaimed during my ultrasound yesterday, “very active.”  Hungry Husband and I are very excited, although he did ask me if this is going to turn into a blog where I talk about nothing except pregnancy and the baby.  Um…I don’t know, but if it does, well, it’s my blog and I suppose I can write about whatever I want!

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STUFFED GRAPE LEAVES (EGYPTIAN-STYLE)

Stuffed vegetables, and particularly stuffed grape leaves, are one of the most famous Middle Eastern appetizers.  There hot versions and cold versions, meat-based stuffings and rice-based stuffings, rolls that are short and fat, and rolls that are long and skinny.  Because Hungry Husband particularly favors the style commonly found in Egypt, that’s the recipe I make most often and what I am going to share with you today.

But first, a funny story.

The first year we were in the Middle East, I made a very concerted effort to learn how to cook from my neighbors, and grape leaves were one of the most difficult things.  It was several months of many attempts before I felt like my grape leaves were ready to be presented to anyone, but finally decided to serve them one night when we had guests.  Our friends came over, with their four boys, and I proudly (and nervously) put out plates of stuffed grape leaves, stuffed zucchini and eggplant, macaraoni with béchamel sauce, and a few salads.

One of the boys, who was about 8 years old then, took one look at the table and whispered something to his mother, who burst out laughing, much to her son’s apparent dismay.  He repeated himself, out loud to the rest of us this time, and said, “I want white man’s food!”  Trying to maintain composure, his mother asked, “What is ‘white man’s food’ exactly?”  To which he confidently answered, “Popcorn!”

Turns out he had recently studied the story of the American Thanksgiving tradition in school, and learned that popcorn was one of the featured dishes at that meal, making it (in his mind) a white man’s food.  (I’m pretty sure it was the Native Americans that brought the popcorn.)  So he naturally expected that, if dining at the house of Americans, he would be served popcorn.  Poor guy; he was so traumatized by our laughter that he refused to eat anything that night, and to this day the story still comes up every time we see our friends.

If you are in America, you probably won’t be able to find fresh grape leaves, which is a pity as they are the best, but you can most likely find canned varieties in either the “ethnic foods” aisle or near to the pickles.  Make sure to soak and then rinse these very well in hot water to remove the brine.  Fresh grape leaves are best early in the summer, when they are very tender and somewhat small (about the size of an adult’s palm), and women will buy crates to freeze for use in winter.  Not having had that luxury this year, I too am relegated to purchasing the preserved variety from a grocer.

STUFFED GRAPE LEAVES (EGYPTIAN-STYLE)

  • 1 cup short-grain rice
  • Equal amounts cilantro, flat-leaf parsley, and dill, finely chopped to make about 1 cup total
  • 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 onion, as finely diced as you can get it
  • ½ lb. grape leaves, rinsed well and any stalks removed
  • 2-3 tomatoes, sliced (optional)
  • 5-6 cloves garlic (optional)
  • Enough boiling chicken broth or water to cover rolled-up leaves (amount will vary depending on your pan)

Making the rice: heat the oil in a pan, add the onion and sauté until soft.  Add the tomato paste, chopped greens, a healthy amount of salt and pepper, and stir for a moment.  Add the rice and cook, stirring, for 3 or 4 minutes until all the grains are well-coated and everything is evenly mixed.  Take off the heat and let it cool.

Assembling the grape leaves: I suggest getting your assembly line set up in this particular order (assuming you are right-handed): grape leaves on the left, cutting board or plate directly in front of you, rice mixture behind the cutting board, and cooking pot to the right.  This will make it easy to keep everything in order.  Take a grape leave and put it vein-side up on the cutting board in front of you, with the base of the leaf closest to you.  Take about 1 tsp. of the rice mixture and spread it in a thin horizontal line as pictured:

Then, fold the bottom of the leaf up over the rice.  Next, fold the sides in, and then roll the leaf up from the bottom, tucking in any stray pieces.  You should end up with a tight roll; if it’s loose do it will come apart during cooking so you probably want to re-do it.  I usually use my finger as a guide for how big it should be so that they all turn out approximately the same size.

1: bottoms up!

2: pull those sides in!

3: roll 'er up!

My hand model shot.

Cover the bottom of your cooking pot with any torn pieces of leaves, or, alternatively, slices of tomatoes.  Place the rolls into a deep cooking pot as you make each one, trying to keep them as tightly packed as possible.  I like to place a clove of garlic here and there, a tip I picked up from a neighbor, although I’m honestly not sure it does anything in terms of adding flavor.   Depending on the width of your cooking pot, you may end up with multiple layers, which is fine.  Once they’re all in, place a heavy plate or lid on top of the layers inside the pot to hold them in place; this will help them to not come apart during cooking.  Pour in the boiling water or chicken broth, enough to just barely come up to the top layer of leaves.  Cover the pot and simmer over the lowest heat possible until the leaves are tender and the rice is cooked thoroughly.  Remove the plate/lid weighing down the leaves, and—assuming there is no or very little liquid left at this point—turn the pot upside down onto a plate so that the grape leaves fall out in a nice little pile.  This will save your fingers from the agony of trying to remove each one individually.  Serve hot and with a dressing of yoghurt, garlic and mint on the side.

MOLOKHEYYA (EGYPTIAN-STYLE)

Fresh molokheyya; picture from pinakbet.wordpress.com

This is molokheyya.  It is a member of the jute family.  It does have an English name (Jew’s mallow) although I highly doubt anyone in Europe or North America is at all familiar with it unless they have some Middle East connection.  It has a lot of the good vitamins you tend to find in dark leafy greens, but this plant is its own kind of special.  In the Middle East, you can buy it fresh, dried, or, if you’re lazy like me, frozen.  (Although no good Arab woman would ever admit to using frozen molokheyya, its presence in supermarkets all over the Middle East makes me think otherwise.  Someone must be buying it–and it’s not the foreigners!)

Spot the irony in this picture...

Because, see, Egyptian-style molokheyya is a food that, mostly, only Egyptians love.  Egyptians, and me.  It is the Egyptian national dish, and the one food that I craved when we were back in America last year but could not replicate.  Towards the end of August, I did find a bag of frozen molokheyya at a food shop run by an Afghan man in NorthEast Portland; he had no idea what it was or how to prepare it.  I bought that molokheyya and put it in the freezer at my cousin’s house, but she had already prepared salmon for that night, and then we left the next morning, and I never got to eat my molokheyya.  Later I emailed instructions for cooking it to my cousin, but I think my description of the final product kind of turned her off and she probably never ate it.  Maybe it will still be there next time we visit?

The problem for most non-Egyptians is that when Egyptians make molokheyya they mince the leaves very, very finely before turning it into a soup.  And when you mince molokheyya leaves and then cook them, they turn slimy, like cut-up okra.  Viscous.  “Mucilageinous” according to Wikipedia, although neither spell-check nor my computer dictionary recognize that word…As far as I know, Egyptians are the only ones who eat molokheyya this way; cooks in every other Arab country keep the leaves whole or add vinegar or lemon juice to avoid a snot-like texture.  Egyptians also add a LARGE quantity of mashed garlic, as in 20 or more cloves.  This may be the real reason I love molokheyya so much…

Mmmm...garlic...a whole head of it!

Plain molokheyya or molokheyya with chicken is a standard dish on many Egyptian tables.  But for a really special treat, they like to make it with rabbit.  Rabbits that are waiting, alive and fluffy and big-eyed, in cages at the market.  Fortunately, I grew up in a family that, on occasion, raised and killed animals for eating, so I am not squeamish about that sort of thing.  Also fortunately, the nice man who sells the rabbits also kills and cleans them, because although I have no problem choosing the cute little bunny to be slaughtered, I don’t actually know how to do it myself.

Not so cute and fluffy anymore (insert maniacal laughter here)

At this point, I doubt you have much appetite for molokheyya or anything else, so while I am still going to give you a recipe, it will be the “cheater” version that I use, which does not require me to look like a fool while trying and failing to hand-mince the molokheyya leaves with a large, double-handled curved knife or mash the garlic in a mortar and pestle, two essential Arab cooking skills that I have yet to master.

Molokheyya (Egyptian-Style)

  • 1 400g bag frozen minced molokheyya (do not thaw it)
  • 2-3 cups chicken or rabbit broth, depending on how thick you want the soup
  • 1 head garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbsp. coriander (dried coriander, for you non-Americans)
  • 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • Salt

Bring the broth to boiling in a pan large enough that the entire block of frozen molokheyya will fit into it.  Add the molokheyya and turn the heat down to med-low, and stir regular so that the molokheyya thaws slowly.  It is important that the soup does not return to boiling, because if you overcook it, the molokheyya will not remain suspended in the broth but will separate, and that’s not a pretty sight.  Once the molokheyya is thoroughly thawed, turn the heat to low and keep an eye on it while you prepare the garlic.

In a frying pan, heat the oil and add the garlic, coriander, and a big pinch of salt, and fry until the garlic is golden.  Pour this mixture into the molokheyya and hopefully it will make a very pleasing sizzling sound.  This means everything is hot enough!  Stir to combine and serve over rice or with flat bread.  If perchance you made the broth yourself and have the chicken or rabbit meat available, feel free to add the meat, chunked or shredded, to the soup.

BEANS AND RICE, “CREOLE”-STYLE

While rice and beans will most likely never have a moment of glory in the world of high-falutin’ foods, it is a long-time favorite of mine. My first experience of rice and beans was in a food court of a ridiculously huge mall in Orlando, Florida; my family was on vacation there but I, having a lifelong disdain of malls, spent the afternoon with a book (The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy) in front of this little Cuban food stand. Coming from small towns in Eastern Washington, I didn’t know squat about Cuban food so I ordered black beans and rice, which I reasoned to be a safe bet, and I sat there eating simple food, reading a complicated story, and trying to block out the overwhelming anxiety of being surrounded by conspicuous consumption.

Beans and rice are remarkably calming. I think it’s the cumin, a spice which smells like warmth and earth and understated goodness. I may be only slightly exaggerating when I say that food saved my sanity that day.

Although there is an Arab beans and rice dish (check out Mimi Cooks for a recipe), I went with what I had in the cupboards and refrigerator, and ended up with a more Creole-inspired dish. At least, I call it “Creole.”  Truth be told, I have no more knowledge of Creole food than I did of Cuban food those many years ago. No matter…the important thing was that it cooked in one pot, was ready to eat in only 30 minutes, and lasted two days. You could easily modify it to work with whatever beans and vegetables you have on hand.

A pretty pile of ingredients

I feel funny writing a recipe, given that there’s hardly a formula to this meal, but here’s approximately what I did:
Ingredients:
• One large onion, roughly chopped
• Vegetable oil
• 2 large cloves of garlic, smashed and chopped
• 3 carrots, diced
• 1 green pepper, chopped
• 3-4 tomatoes, chopped (if you’re picky about tomato skins floating loose in your food, make sure to peel them first)
• 1 bay leaf
• 1 Tbsp. cumin
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 1 vegetable bouillon cube
• 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
• 6 cups of water
• 1 can red beans, drained and rinsed
• 1 cup rice
Heat the vegetable oil in a large pot, and throw the onion in, stirring occasionally, until it is slightly translucent. Add garlic, stir for a minute or two, and then add the carrots, cooking for about five minutes. Add the green pepper, tomatoes, spices, tomato paste, and water, bring to a boil, cover and cook for another five minutes or so, until the carrots are mostly tender. Add the beans and the rice, stir well, and bring back to the boil. Simmer, covered (but stirring occasionally) until the rice is tender and most of the liquid is absorbed.