Tag Archives: Middle Eastern Food

Makarona bil-Bechamel

So, when I pulled up my schedule today, I realized that TUESDAY (not Wednesday, as I said in my previous blog post) is my blogging day.  Guess it’s going to take awhile to get used to this new routine!

Here is a recipe that I can’t believe I didn’t share earlier.  It was one of the first dishes I learned to make, from my Arabic teacher in Cairo.  It is also the first dish that ever earned me a true compliment, from an old, old woman who I visited with nearly every day.  Her only critique was that it needed more salt!  This is one of Hungry Husband’s favorite comfort foods, and in Cairo I would make it with camel meat, although ground beef is a fine substitute for those of you without a local camel market 😛

MAKARONA BIL-BECHAMEL (macaroni with bechamel sauce)

Ingredients:

For the meat filling:

1 large onion, diced

1 lb. ground beef

1 Tbsp. tomato paste

Spices of your choice (for the meat): cinnamon, whole cloves, cardamom pods, bay leaves, allspice

Salt and pepper

For the noodles:

13-16 oz. penne pasta (it doesn’t have to be precise, just whatever size the container is at your grocery store)

For the bechamel sauce:

1 stick of butter or ghee

1 cup flour

2 cups chicken brother

2 cups milk

2 eggs

salt to taste

Directions:

1.  Brown the meat with the onions, tomato paste and spices.  You can vary the amount and type of spices depending on how savory you like your meat.  My teacher cooked the meat in a small pot for a long time, so that eventually it reabsorbed all the fat that initially ran out.  It was very, very tasty, but you can drain the meat if you prefer.  When the meat is done, remove any whole spices you used.

Meat browning.

Meat browning.

2.  Cook the noodles to al dente.  Drain and rinse them so that they cool enough to handle and don’t stick together, then return to their pot.

3.  In a pot, melt the butter or ghee over low heat, then add the flour and whisk together.  Cook it over a low heat for several minutes–you should be able to smell the flour cooking.  It may start to brown, in which case take it off the heat so that it doesn’t burn.  Add the chicken broth and whisk vigorously–the flour and broth will seize up and turn very firm, but you can add the milk right in and keep whisking, and it should smooth out.  Cook it for two or three more minutes.  It should be about the consistency of pudding.  Turn the heat off and let it cool for a minute, then whisk in the two eggs.

4.  Pour half the bechamel sauce onto the noodles in their pot and mix together thoroughly.  Spread half the noodles into an oiled 9 x 13 casserole dish, then add the meat layer.  Spread the rest of the noodles on top of the meat and cover with the remaining bechamel sauce, using a spatula to smooth it down.

Layers.

Layers.

Lulu spreads the bechamel sauce over the top.

Lulu spreads the top layer of noodles.

5.  Cook in a 375 F oven for 50-60 minutes, until it is heated through and the top is golden brown and firm.  If you can, let it cool in the pan for 20 or 30 minutes before you cut it, as this will help the layers solidify an be more casserole-like.  We never manage to wait that long, so it tends to fall apart a little bit when I am serving.

Finished!

Finished!

Not ready to come out of the dish, but we're eating it anyway!

Not ready to come out of the dish, but we’re eating it anyway!

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Havij Polow (Rice with Carrots)

I’ve been very slack lately in cooking in general, but especially in branching out and trying new things.  It is definitely a season when I am leaning towards my comfort foods (tonight for dinner: macaroni and cheese with peas–the way my mom has always made it–and garlic mashed potatoes), and not very excited about dishes that make me think.  However, with a bag of slowly wilting carrots in the refrigerator and and inkling to eat some meat, I pulled this Persian pilaf out of my main cookbook, Ms. Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.  (Maybe I never mentioned it before, but when we moved to the Middle East I only brought two cookbooks with me.  Two.  I realized that perhaps this was not normal when I read A Crafty Lass‘s account of paring down her cookbook collection before moving internationally.)  Anyway, this pared with some roasted vegetables was good as a main dish, and could easily be made according to vegan or vegetarian standards.

Havij Polow (serves 6)

  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1/3-1/2 cup butter or vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 pounds carrots, coarsely grated or cut into little sticks
  • 1-2 tablespoons sugar, or more (optional) (but good, in my opinion)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional) (again, you should add this)
  • Salt
  • 1 tablespoon rose water

Wash the rice in warm water and rinse ina  colander under the cold water tap.

Fry the onion in 2-3 tablespoons of the butter or oil until soft and golden.  Add the grated carrots and saute gently for 10 minutes.  Add sugar and cinnamon and cook 3-4 minutes longer.

Boil the rice in salted water in a alrge (9-10 inch), heavy-bottomed, preferably non-stick saucepan for about 10 minutes, until not quite tender and still a little underdone.  Drain and mix with the remaining butter or oil, keeping aside 2 tablespoons.  Heat the 2 tablespoons butter or oil in the bottom of the pan, then spread alternate layers of rice and sauteed carrots, starting and ending with a layer of rice.  Sprinkle rose water over the top and cook over very low heat for about 30 minutes.  The rose water, a relic of early-medieval times, gives a subtle perfume to the dish.  (Note from me: I always panic at around minute 25 of cooking the rice, thinking that it must be burning, and turn it off then.  Big mistake…the end result is supposed to be a layer of crusty golden rice, but if you remove it from the heat too soon it’s more like greasy golden rice, and not so pleasant to eat.)

Note: for meatballs, season 1 1/2 pounds ground lamb (I used beef) with salt, pepper, and 1 teaspoon cinnamon.  Mix well and knead until smooth and pasty.  Shape into marble-sized balls and fry in a little oil for about 8-10 minutes, turning them over, until browned all over but still pink and juicy inside.

To serve: Turn the pot of rice upside down onto a platter on top of the meatballs, so that the meatballs are buried.  If you have achieved a good crusty golden layer of rice, that would traditionally be removed and served separately, as a delicacy.  Then the remaining rice and carrots would be stirred together.  (Clearly, I did not follow any of these steps myself.  Just telling you how it’s supposed to be done.)

MOROCCAN VEGETABLE TAGINE

I am happy to report that after what seemed like a very long, hot summer, I am sleeping under a blanket once again, enjoying the feel of my cold nose peeking out above the covers.  After all, it gets down to 72/73F in my bedroom at night—chilly!  But apparently the real cold is yet to come; yesterday the neighbors were admonishing me that we need to hurry and buy a heater, because the temperature will start dropping fast and before I know it, there will be rain and even snow.  Life in non-insulated buildings with drafty windows can become very difficult in winter for those of us who are most sensitive to the cold.

One way of dealing with this?  Spend a lot of time in the kitchen, preferably concocting things full of spices and butter and meltingly soft vegetables.  Today I wandered around the market gathering things that may not be at the height of their growth season right now, but are definitely appropriate according to my internal sense of what to be eating in autumn.  This evening, as Maghrib (sundown) happened just before 6:00 p.m., I was at the stove putting together one of my favorite fall dishes, a Moroccan-style vegetable tagine.  (I have no idea where I got this recipe…I found it somewhere on the internet three or four years ago.  My apologies to its creator.)  It is fragrant and sweet and savory and full of nutrition and makes me feel like I have a warm blanket of happiness wrapped around my internal organs.

MOROCCAN VEGETABLE TAGINE

(makes 4 large servings or 6 small)

  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 ½ tsp. turmeric
  • 2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 2 medium carrots, sliced
  • 2 c. water
  • 1 lb. pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cubed
  • 1 lb. sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 14 oz. cooked chickpeas
  • 2 tsp. harissa (I used 1 ½ tsp. Sriracha instead)
  • ¾ c. raisins, dried cherries or dried chopped dates
  • 1 Tbsp. honey
  • Salt and pepper

In a large pot, heat oil and add the onions.  Cook gently for 5 minutes, then add the garlic, turmeric, ginger and cinnamon.  Cook over low heat, stirring, for 2 minutes or until aromatic.

Add the carrots and water, stir well, and cover.  Cook for 10 minutes.  Add the pumpkin/squash, sweet potatoes, chickpeas, harissa, raisins, and honey; cover and simmer until vegetables are tender.  Add salt and pepper to taste and serve with couscous.

COOKING WITH PRIDE

 

The picture does not do it justice.

 

A few days ago we had dinner with some friends, one of whom likes cooking and considers herself to be a good cook.  Unfortunately that night she made lentil soup, a dish for which I have fairly high standards.  I love lentils.  I realize that many people do not share my feelings, but I think that’s because there are a few consistent ways cooks fail in making lentil soup:

  • The broth is watery and flavorless.
  • The lentils and accompany vegetables are overcooked, mushy and tasteless.
  • Spices have not been added in a suitable amount.

I have seen these problems over and over and over again, and my poor friend made the same mistakes.  The next day, I made my own batch.  And it was pretty much perfect, definitely worth selling your birthright for a bowl or two.

But afterward I felt kind of bad, because as much as I enjoyed my tasty batch of soup, the process was tainted with the knowledge that I was in part motivated by the desire to upstage my friend and prove my superiority in the kitchen.  I have often thought of cooking as something that tempers my naturally competitive, perfectionist tendencies, as things often do not work out the way I would like and there is nothing I can do but deal with the failure.  However, in this case it turned out quite opposite, as this soup fed not just my body but also my pride.  And pride is something better left to starve.

LENTIL SOUP

  • 1 c. brown lentils
  • 2 c. water
  • 2 med. onions, cut in quarters and sliced
  • 2-3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbsp. cumin
  • 1 tsp. coriander (dried)
  • ½ tsp. fennel
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 hot peppers, diced very, very small
  • 1 med. carrots, diced (about ½ c.)
  • 1 med. zucchini, diced (about ½ c.)
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 1 med. potato, diced (about ½ c.)

Start with the lentils and water in a large pot.  Bring to a boil, cover, turn heat to low and simmer until they become crunchy-tender.  You should not need to add any water during this stage, but check on it periodically to make sure.

In a large skillet, heat the oil and caramelize the onions.  Just before they finish, add the garlic, cumin, coriander and fennel and stir until the scent rises.  Remove from heat.

When the lentils are crunchy-tender, add the onions etc. mixture (including the oil) and the rest of the ingredients to the lentils.  Stir well and add just enough water to barely cover everything.  Bring to a boil again, cover and reduce heat to simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the vegetables and lentils are tender and the broth is nice and thick.