Sunday, October 21, 2007

I heart food: The Arab Table

In my youth, most of the adults around me knew their way around a kitchen. My oma, my mother, my father - all great cooks. My father, in particular, had a discriminating palate. He was one of those people who, once he got a taste of something he liked, could go home and recreate (then often improve upon it) in our little kitchen. It's something I've always admired. Unfortunately, though my skills have grown over the years, I don't think I inherited the Powellhurst superpalate. In its place, however, I am a much more adventurous cook than my father ever was. I love perusing cookbooks and trying new things, especially if they are unusual.

The first cookbook I ever bought (with the exception of a honey heavy Winnie the Pooh cookbook in grade school) was Maideh Mazda's In a Persian Kitchen. I remember my father asking me as I searched across town for Middle Eastern markets at which to procure exotic sounding spices, pomegranate syrup and grape leaves (back during the great grape leaf famine of days of yore, it was more difficult to find them than it is now), if I couldn't just learn to cook something "normal". But that would have taken the adventure out if it! Half the fun is seeing how things will turn out. It's like a culinary grab bag. Sometimes you get oyster gack, sometimes you get a taste of heaven.

Unfortunately, work makes it difficult to be motivated to do a lot of cooking during the week, but once a week on the weekends seems a reasonable goal as I try to get back into my abandoned habit of cooking something special once in a while. My first project has been to explore May Bsisu's gorgeous book, The Arab Table. The pictures alone make the book worthwhile, but she makes it even more captivating by adding little cultural tidbits to the intros of each recipe. So far I've tried her recipe for Monazallet bi aswad (eggplant with ground beef, which I sadly have to admit I did not love) and a slightly modified version of her recipe for Lebanese Meat Pies (which I really did love and plan to eat again and as often as possible!).

These delicious, savory pastries were filled with a blend of ground beef, onions, tomatoes, pomegranate syrup, pine nuts and lovely autumn colored spices. My modifications consisted mostly of food processing the onions with the spices rather than chopping them and of accidentally adding a whole tablespoon of allspice rather than a teaspoon. Basically I'm inept and lazy. But you know what? It was all good anyway! The major difference between my version and hers, however, was that I am too lazy (have I mentioned that I'm lazy?) to make my own dough and opted to instead use phyllo dough sheets from the freezer section of the my grocery store. I was a little nervous at first. My phyllo dough experience centers mostly around stuffing my piehole with baklava, so I basically had no idea what I was doing. Somehow my first experience turned out to be phyllotastic anyway!

I'm not sure what the real recipe tastes like (I suspect the dough is heavier), but the combination of the thin layers of pastry brushed with olive oil was lovely with the filling, so I think it unlikely that I will do anything different when I make these again (other than possibly add raisins and tweak the baking time a little - it took a bit for me to figure out what the perfect amount was to evenly brown the pastry, as you can see from the early tries in the pic). We ate them accompanied by a salad of greens, dried cranberries, candied pecans, gorgonzola with raspberry vinagrette and a glass of riesling. Not very Middle Eastern, but still a delicious combination that complimented the pastries, which I think will inevitably make their way into dinner party rotation at some point in the not too distant future. Meanwhile, I have trying Bsisu's recipes for Semolina Pistachio Layer Cake, Shrimp with Garlic and Cilantro and Sweet Rice to keep me busy for a while!


Jen said...

I hope you're happy. I am STARVING now and I just ate!

Martina said...

I AM happy! One day I will make you pastries and you can share in their goodness. Meanwhile, you could go to the food court for a small "snack", then have a giant dinner at a Cuban restaurant. Just make sure you don't get hungry enough to eat at Arby's.