Thursday, January 28, 2010

kumquat heaven!

how does this image relate to alice's kitchen? i'm visiting LA and this kumquat tree is one my dear mother planted in the front yard of the apartment building—a beautiful spanish style four-plex from the 1920s—she lived in after my beloved father died and many of my family members lived in at various times over the years—sisters, grandmother, aunt and uncle, nephews, nieces—the tribe. my father also planted a black fig tree and two apricot trees in the back. they're bare right now, but the kumquat mama planted is prolific with fruit...and they're scrumptious!

and beautiful!

Friday, January 22, 2010

makhlouta-a perfect winter soup!

hearty is an understatement! shourbat makhlouta—the name of this hardy, protein-rich soup comes from the arabic word for "mixed up" or "mixture" since it is made by "shopping" in your kitchen pantry for a little bit of every grain, legume, and bean that you have. because i am an avid cook, as was my beloved mother, alice, like hers my pantry is full as a commercial pantry with many varieties of beans, grains, and legumes to enrich the soup. my sweet lebanese friend josephine tells me her mother used lamb to fortify the soup, while my dear mom's was strictly vegetarian, so of course mine is too.

in this easy-to-make lebanese soup recipe, it takes about a cup and a half of dried beans, grains, and legumes to about 7 cups of water, a couple of chopped onions, a generous amount of olive oil, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper all put into the pot, brought to a boil, and then simmered until everything is tender—about 1 1/2 to 3 hours. ladle into bowls with a drizzle of lemon juice to finish off with some pita chips on the side. from the recipe on page 54 in alice's kitchen: traditional lebanese cooking.

you can see in the detail photo how thick the soup has become because of the addition of red lentils, which cook and thicken quickly. the other ingredients in this particular batch starting with the large bean in the foreground are a tablespoon each of: scarlet runner beans from the garden, pintos, adzukis, small favas, white, cranberry (borlotti) beans also saved from the garden's summer crop that hid until they were too tough for fresh green beans, black beans, red and green lentils, garbanzos, split peas, kidney and red beans, black-eyed peas, yellow peas, whole wheat berries, barley, brown rice, and on the right you can see a corn kernel, also from summer garden that was too starchy for fresh eating, so i left the kernels on the cob to dry in the pantry, and just plucked them off the cob and into the pot for the soup. somehow even with the disparate sizes of ingredients, it all cooks to a wonderful nourishing tenderness.

my dear friend samar from lebanon tells me that this soup is traditionally made at the end of winter to clean out the pantry from the last year's stores, and this is just what my makhlouta turned out to be. in going through my pantry, i found some large fava beans from several years back tucked away in a corner. there were holes in the beans and some round black dry questionable looking bits suspiciously the same size and shape as the holes. these did not go into the soup!

but my curiousity as a gardener prevailed and i added water to the jar of beans and soaked them overnight. this is my usual method to determine seed viability before i plant beans, corn, and other vegetable seeds. this method also gives the seeds a head-start on slugs and birds, and others hungering after my tempting plump spring seeds.

after soaking, i rinse twice a day for a couple of days and observe to see if they sprout. (yes, this is how bean and seed sprouts are made!) and if you have been following my blog, by now you understand this is not for the squeamish or faint of heart!

here's what happened:

they sprouted in spite of the bug holes, which you can see! these large favas are also called horse beans, and they are larger than a quarter, and after soaking get even bigger. they are nitrogen-fixing plants and enrich the garden soil, and are a very hardy staple for winter gardens in most mediterranean countries. my parents' Lebanese mountain village of Douma is no exception.

so i planted them, as my new lebanese friend joseph (yusef) who has a new falafel and produce stand in southeast portland (farmer's backyard at s.e. 11th and madison) suggested it's not too late to plant fava beans. in the pacific northwest, they're best planted in the fall for spring harvest. often if i plant them in the spring, the summer flowering plants, whose blossoms have a most lovely fragrance attract black aphids; while the fall-planted seeds produce before the season of the aphids. mid-january must be a mid-winter planting. it will be interesting to see how these fare. so here's my new fava bean bed planted last weekend before covering with soil, with the first sign of spring—a snowdrop—blooming nearby! on a dark grey and misty day, this life-giving activity energizes and gives me hope for the sunny days to come!

after planting it's time to take off the muddy gloves and come inside to enjoy a steaming hot bowl of shourbat makhlouta! sahtein!

 this post was entered in the Grow Your Own roundup for january 2010, hosted by house of annie!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

lebanese christmas cookies—installment number 3—fig cookies

my beloved mother, alice, baked date or fig or other jam filled cookies for the holidays which were very labor intensive—each cookie is hand-formed—a walnut-sized ball of dough hollowed out with a teaspoon of date filling tucked and sealed inside, and then individually decorated with little pinchers that mother had specially made. they're called asabi bi ajwe (date fingers) in Alice's Kitchen: Traditional Lebanese Cooking, recipe page 199 of the 4th edition, and are such a treat.

if mama didn't have dates, or even sometimes just as a preference she'd use fig jam, or a mixture of any homemade jams she had in her pantry including apricot and strawberry. while in lebanon, i tasted some divine date or fig cookies rolled in sesame seeds at a fine beirut bakery. and because i am a woman of today, there just isn't time for me to create individual cookies like mama. so i adapted her recipe for date fingers to the don't-have-enough-time folks, which includes most of us, and create a long log of dough filled with fig jam since several fig trees in my garden provide an abundance of figs and jam (photo of huge platter of my desert king figs graces the top of this blog). and these sesame fig (or date) cookies are much like those i savored in lebanon.

mahlab is one of the few unusual ingredients in the cookbook and in this recipe. cornell cherry kernals are ground to a powder in a hawin—a brass heirloom mortar and pestal from the old country—with a little sugar to flavor the dough. these cherry kernals are available in middle eastern grocery stores and from specialty herb and spice purveyors.

here's another photo because they're both so beautiful i couldn't decide which to use!

a jigger of brandy, the other interesting ingredient in this sublime dough, joins with flour, butter, eggs, and sugar. my "quick" method is to roll out a rectangle of dough about 1/8" thick on baking parchment, which helps me to handle it. place a long cylinder of jam filling along the edge, roll it to where the dough covers the filling and then cut and pinch the edge to seal it, forming a long log. i use the parchment to lift the dough up and over, with sesame seeds underneath preventing it from sticking and adding nutty flavor! my fig jam sometimes has walnuts and sesame seeds already in it, as did this batch.

you can see that i don't have a perfect rectangle, and that's fine—the buttery dough just pinches closed. the sesame seeds on the parchment under the dough are a recent addition not in the book recipe variation—but when i've offered plain or sesame-coated cookie taste samples at recent book events, most people choose the sesame seed variation. the next step is to roll and elongate (many years of making ceramic buttons trained me to roll out dough!) by rolling back and forth, covering evenly with sesame seeds. refrigerate briefly and slice before baking.

they're petit and oh, so good! even mama approved! these fig-sesame cookies rounded out the trio of lebanese christmas cookies that i sent out and gave to friends in the spirit of alice's kitchen, and cooking with love.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

installment 2—lebanese holiday cookies: almond crescent moons (nus qamar)

a simple to prepare traditional lebanese christmas cookie (yes, it's january and many of us are cleaning up our diets to begin the new year right, so just remember this post for next christmas! and for our lebanese Easter cookies—mamools—i promise to post them before Easter!) the almond crescent moon cookies, nus qamar in arabic, are so light and melt in your mouth with a little crunch, it's hard to stop eating them.

it's basically a butter, sugar, flour mixture with ground almonds and flavored with vanilla and almond extract—of course they're yummy! the dough easily rolls into a coil whose ends i pinch and curve into a crescent moon shape. baking time is pretty quick until they're slightly golden. here's the unbaked cookies on a baking tray. the finished ones were eaten or shipped out for christmas before i had a chance to photograph them! but i have some extra dough that i froze, so when i bake them up, i'll be sure to add the photo. i have to admit, my beloved mother alice's looked far more beautiful than mine! she would make them tiny, while mine turned out to be giant moons! God bless her hands and rest her soul! she would bake dozens and dozens and give them all away, in the true spirit of lebanese generosity.

find the full recipe on p. 197 of alice's kitchen: traditional lebanese cooking.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

lebanese christmas cookies—installment number one—baklawe (baklava)...yes, this is late, but beautiful and oh, so yummy!

yes, i said i was going to bake christmas cookies, and i did—baklawe (baklava) as far as the eye can see! here's one of the trays i made and shipped in tins across the u.s.a. to some lucky folks!

this is how it all begins:

with the old-fashioned nut-chopper—this one was my dear mother alice's—walnuts from my walnut tree, (thanks to baba! and i can't resist sharing this recent photo of him under the walnut tree with his latest catch—and i caught him in the act with fresh feathers on his mouth! poor beautiful robin!)

and of course, my copy of alice's kitchen: traditional lebanese cooking for the recipe on page 203! if you don't have the cookbook, the recipe is pretty simple: a mixture of ground walnuts with a little sugar and orange flower water is the filling that goes between layers of buttered filo dough; baked and then topped with a cold simple syrup flavored again with orange flower water. heavenly, yes divine!
here's the filling spread across one half of the package of buttered filo dough:

now the rest of the filo gets buttered and layered over the nut mixture and cut into squares or diamonds, like this and then baked:

the butter is not just melted, but clarified (recipe on page 39), which is simply melting and cooking the butter, lifting off and discarding the white foamy bubbles that you can see at the left side of the pot in this picture, and not using the sediment at the bottom. clarified butter (samne in Arabic) is the same as the Indian ghee, the main quality being that it does not burn as quickly as plain butter:

when the baked baklawe comes out of the oven, the made-ahead simple sugar syrup (attar) (or agave syrup) flavored with orange blossom water is drizzled over the top. here's the scrumptious finished product:

the diamonds

or the squares

i also baked almond crescent cookies (nus qamar), and fig cookies flavored with anise and mahlab! soon i'll bring up the photos for those! till then, happy cooking and happy new year!

Friday, January 8, 2010

happy new year! amah brings good luck!

happy new year! amah is the lebanese traditional food for ringing in the new year. this hot porridge of whole wheat berries simmered with anise seeds for a couple of hours until tender tastes best when sweetened with sugar or my preferred much healthier agave syrup, sprinkled with walnuts from my tree—harvested this year thanks to my precious squirrel-chasing yorkie-mix, baba ghannouj!—and raisins—these, extra-plump. this cereal is also created to celebrate the birth of a new baby. very auspicious, indeed!

i love this photo—eye of baba—taken before his recent hair cut, speaking of auspicious!

we spent the new year's weekend with dear friend jacquie and her two big sweet golden retrievers in seattle and cooked up a storm—this comfort food for breakfast, mjaddrah for dinner, and baked tilmeh b'zaatar for breakfast the next day, as requested by my friend. she knows how much i love to cook, and it was great fun and yummy! and the big doggies played beautifully with my little seven-pound baba, who preferred to chase and bark at the twice-his-size giant grey cat, toby!

the brazil/lebanese food connection
besides the homemade lebanese food, we ate some excellent vegetarian asian food at teapot vegetarian house  and some fabulous brazilian coffee nearby at a bakery/cafe called kitanda. it was no surprise to find lebanese sfeeha in their display case, as the early lebanese immigrants to brazil including my grandmother dalal's brothers and sisters took their famous savory pastries with them. these have now become a brazilian staple, along with baked kibbe balls, also in the bakery display case, made with ground beef instead of lamb—another lebanese quintessential food!

our last dining out was at an amazing suburban/urban food court with a fabulous big band performing for eaters, listeners, and dancers. it was a depression-happy group with a huge array of ethnic foods from which to choose that is family-friendly, reasonably priced and very up-beat and high energy. the place was happily full and lively with great shops like half price books a few steps away and many languages being spoken. check out crossroads mall—a great model for urban/suburban renewal! my friend jacquie pointed out they even have a public library there to reach many who would not normally go! and there's a weekly farmer's market.