Poetic Pomegranates

Nothing like a Rumi poem about pomegranates to sum up what is hip in

Pomegranate in Progress

literature and food circles today.  Both these Middle Eastern imports—Rumi and pomegranates– have gone from near obscurity to near cliché levels in Western cultural hotspots over the past few years.  Yet another reason for the pomegranate to laugh in Rumi’s poem.

I remember my first pomegranate.  I was seven, late in life for a Middle Easterner to be introduced to all its wonder.  But we were living in Minnesota then, and the even the mango had yet barely made an appearance.  One Saturday, my father beheld, much to his surprise and delight, a small pomegranate resting amidst the fake grass in the produce section at Byerly’s.  Byerly’s was the far away luxury supermarket we occasionally took a road trip to in the hopes finding just such a food memento.  Byerly’s had already given us whole dates and a few inches of sugar cane and a coconut.  I liked the store mostly because it was where Mary shopped in the opening credits to Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Back in our kitchen, our father warned us to stand back as he broke open the pomegranate, carefully chasing any of the precious luminescent red drops that escaped.  My brother and I chomped on the sweet seeds, smiling while trying not to let the juice burst out our mouths as my mother hovered around us with a box of Kleenex at the ready, fearing that we would permanently splatter our shirts crimson.  Indeed, the pomegranate leaves its mark on our clothes and fingers and souls.  This is why it appears in Middle Eastern poems, books, and films, like Najwa Najjar’s award winning Pomegranates and Myrrh.

Every trendy restaurant in London and Los Angeles seems to have found a place for pomegranate on the menu, particularly using the lush, goopy, sour pomegranate molasses.  American cuisine is innovative and evolving—always the anticipation of a new taste sensation replacing the old, just like a new TV season.  We look back at wheat germ and pineapple upside down cake the way we look back Mayberry RFD.  Middle Eastern cuisine is based on centuries of tradition, the comfort of savoring the expected, plus or minus this ingredient or that ingredient.  That includes plus or minus the pomegranate:  as the primary dressing ingredient in Lebanese fattoush, as a broth in which kibbe is simmered in Aleppo, Syria, as a topping for baba ghanoush in Jordan.  However, much like Rumi is to Iranian (or Persian) poetry, the pomegranate is to Iranian (or Persian) cuisine.  Iranians seem to be able to successfully stew just about anything in it.  I love this recipe from my friend Anita Amirrezvani, inspired by her new critically-acclaimed novel Equal of the Sun.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/99616690/Lamb-with-Pomegranate-and-Saffron-when-a-great-book-inspires-great-cooking
Question to ponder:  Did the Arabic word for pomegranates (ruman) derive from Rumi’s name, as that is where the pomegranate came from?

THE LAUGHTER OF POMEGRANATES:

If you buy a pomegranate,
buy one whose ripeness
has caused it to be cleft open
with a seed-revealing smile.

Its laughter is a blessing,
for through its wide-open mouth
it shows its heart,
like a pearl in the jewel box of spirit.
The red anemone laughs, too,
but through its mouth you glimpse a blackness.

A laughing pomegranate
brings the whole garden to life.
Keeping the company of the holy
makes you one of them
Whether you are stone or marble,
you will become a jewel
when you reach a human being of heart.

Plant the love of the holy ones within your spirit;
don’t give your heart to anything
but the love of those whose hearts are glad.
Don’t go to the neighborhood of despair:
there is hope.
Don’t go in the direction of darkness:
suns exist.

The heart guides you to the neighborhood of the
saints;
the body takes you to the prison of water and earth.
Give your heart the food of holy friends;
seek maturity from those who have matured.

~ Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi

Just Peachy in Jordan

In Jordan, my mother’s garden has a peach tree that doesn’t stop giving at this time of the year.  She hands out bags of peaches to neighbors and relatives and anyone who passes by on the street.  She makes peach jam with whatever peaches she can save, and still she mourns the peaches that fall on the ground, uneaten.

“Can’t you find something American and tasty to do with these?” she asked when I arrived.  I knew she meant bake something, and the American part referred to the use of fruit in desserts. In the Middle Eastern fresh fruits are eaten fresh, dried, or as jam or as an ice cream flavor.  They are not baked into desserts usually, unless they’ve been dried first.

My first thought was peach cobbler, summery and simple.  But if you’ve never heard of peach cobbler, it pretty much looks like its name implies, something cobbled together.  Not particularly appealing to Middle Eastern guests I discovered.  Which is how they also they reacted to my next endeavor, the peach crumble.  “Didn’t quite come out like you hoped it would,” my aunt said to me sympathetically.  “Maybe you didn’t put enough butter in the crust and that’s why it’s all broken apart like that.”

It had come out pretty enough for any TV chef to pose with, perfectly crumbly and buttery on top, juicy and sweet filling with a hint of cinnamon.  But aesthetically, the Jordanians couldn’t get past the appearance to get to the taste.

My next venture should have been pie, but I could see that the aecetics reaction would be the same.  Then I remembered the one Western dessert that all people appreciated:  the birthday cake. I’d make a peach cake, and cut the peaches small enough that they wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the fruit-in-dessert concept.

It was too hot to spend hours creating a layer cake, so instead I took a basic coffee cake and an apple bread recipe and combined them, and called it peach coffee cake.  Anything with the word coffee goes over big in the Middle East.

For Americans, for whom peach crumble, cobbler, and pie say summer, the coffee cake may have less appeal.  To the American half of my taste buds, it welcomed in fall.  Very tasty but a little early in the year to let go of summer.  But freeze for winter, when the hint of peaches should be a welcome surprise and thus save them from landing on the ground, their glory untapped.

PEACH COFFEE CAKE

3 eggs, lightly beaten

1 t. vanilla

1 ¾ C sugar

1 C vegetable oil

1 ½ C white flour

½  C. whole wheat flout

1 t. salt

1 t. baking soda

2 t. cinnamon

¼  t. nutmeg

3 C. peeled and diced fresh peaches (this seems like a lot of peaches, but it’s not)

Topping:

For the streusel:

½ c  packed brown sugar

¼ cup granulated sugar

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

½ c. chopped walnuts

6 tbsp. (3/4 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

ALTERNATIVE TOPPING/ADDITION: Drizzling with icing sugar when slightly cooled

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.   Grease a 13x9x2 inch pan.

Add sugar and vanilla and oil to the eggs and mix thoroughly.  Mix together dry ingredients, then fold into egg mixture until combined.  Add in the peaches.

For topping, mix together nuts and sugars.  Cut in butter until topping forms into little pieces.

Pour cake batter into pan.  Sprinkle on topping.  Bake about 35 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.  I used a glass baking dish because the usual baking pan would have looked like I didn’t have enough to serve it in decent kitchenware.   Add alternative/additional icing drizzle when cake is almost coool.

Egypt, Revolution, and Kushari (Koshari)

As the people of Egypt rise up against three decades of corruption, they do so very aware of thousands of years of culture that includes the pharaohs, Cleopatra, some of the greatest scholarship and literature of the Arab world, the wonders of the Nile, the Suez Canal, the Aswan Damn—and, perhaps not as internationally renowned as I think it should be, kushari.

Kushari, sometimes spelled koshori in English,  is a mix of lentils, rice, and macaroni topped with spicy tomato sauce and caramelized onions.  It is exactly what an ideal revolution should be: easily assembled, quick, orderly, healthy for the whole nation, inexpensive, worth the effort, adaptable to the times.  Most importantly, like a good revolution, kushari is all inclusive and socially conscious: while kushari is a traditional street food, it is also a comfort food served at the most elite of homes and it is something everyone loves–it pleases rich and poor, carnivores and vegetarians, children and adults, the health conscious and binge eater. Nor can you easily corrupt kushari—it can be amended to be organic, greasy, low fat, multigrain, or whatever the changing mores of the society dictate without losing its integrity.

I was introduced to kushari by an Egyptian co-worker in Qatar many years ago. The next time I went to Cairo, all I wanted was kushari.  “We’d like to invite you to eat kabob along the Nile,” people would say.  And I’d say, “Where can we get some good kushari?”

Arab hospitality isn’t about serving up simple food, so I rarely got my wish.  “You’ll have to come over, and we’ll make it for you” is the common response.  But I inevitably turn down these requests because of kushari’s above-mentioned revolutionary qualities:  in Egypt, you don’t invite people over for something quick and easily assembled. Any kushari these friends and family made me at home would have also come with a leg of lamb and a roast chicken at a minimum.

Kushari isn’t served at fancy restaurants, and the street carts do require a certain amount of bravery and courage on the part of one’s gastrointestinal track.  Instead, try making it home, just like an Egyptian.  This recipe is from my friend who first introduced me to kushari.

KUSHARI

1 C. long grain rice  (use brown rice, if you prefer, but either way, the rice must not be mushy or sticky.  It should be individual grains)

1 C. macaroni (use whole wheat, if you prefer)

1 C. brown lentils

2 large onions, sliced thinly

1 15.5 oz can of chopped tomatoes

4 cloves of garlic, minced

4 T. olive oil

Red pepper flakes to taste

Cook the rice, lentils, and macaroni separately, salting to taste.

Fry the onions in half the olive oil until caramelized and almost crispy

Sautee the garlic in the remaining olive oil.  Add pepper flakes to taste. Add chopped tomatoes. (Feel free to further season this sauce as you like.  I like to add a little allspice)

Assemble the kushari:  Gently mix together the rice, lentils, and macaroni so they stay intact.  Arrange on a platter.  Pour the tomato sauce on top.  Sprinkle with the fried onions.  Serve immediately with additional sauce on the side.

Kimchi Falafel and Other Great American Meals

Falafel is not falafel–heck it’s not even good food– when it contains eggs, is yellow inside and out, weighs more than a tennis ball, is bigger than a tennis ball, or worst of all, refried.  But such have been my sad falafel encounters in New York, where everyone seems to be peddling falafel, including the pizza joint down the

 

Really Good Just Falafel

Excellent Just Falafel

 

street.  There are some pretty passable falafel spots, most particularly Maoz, where the falafel is actually hot and where, in respect to America’a all-you-can eat approach to life, you can add all the fixings you want, which is a good thing except for the inexplicable fried broccoli.  The only item that should be deep fried on your pita is the falafel.

When I was a kid in Minnesota, no one knew what falafel was unless his or her parents were born in the Middle East, but now it’s so ubiquitous that it’s in Microsoft Word’s spell check, like tacos, sushi, and pasta, which used to simply be called noodles before the US fully embarrassed its multicultural obsession with food.

Not that the idea of the falafel hadn’t already been brought over by someone, as when, as a kid, my brother bit into his first veggie burger and declared it “a falafel pancake with ketchup on it.”  Not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, just because you’ve called something falafel, doesn’t mean it is falafel, just like my Japanese students in Los Angeles explained to me that the rolls at Ralphs supermarket are not sushi as they know it, my Mexican students have never eaten jarred cheese product nachos at the movies, and my Taiwanese students in addition to not knowing the fortune cookie, don’t recognize the cuisine at the one-dollar Chinese restaurant.

Different and bad don’t necessarily go together when we look at the Americanization of ethnic cuisine.  Food gets changed here because of economies of time and money, lack of ingredients, and the different taste of the ingredients, including  the local water.  In the spirit of its birth and growth, the US gives you plenty of ways to eat around your cultural and religious restrictions, with creations such as turkey bacon, soy cheeseburgers, and meatless meatballs.  And it accommodates our health issues–although to look around at us not all of us  are paying attention to that part–with fat-free and sugar-free versions of everything, and it can enrich anything, even Turkish delight, with vitamins and minerals and lately even make your gelato—also in the spell check today—organic.
Some American embellishments, like thinking every desert can be dipped in chocolate, even baklava (wow, also in the spell check now) or constantly embellishing savories with roasted garlic are unnecessary, even annoying.  But the country has created a diverse cuisine all its own.
When people disdainfully say the U.S. doesn’t have any real cuisine other than the hamburger, I would ask them what are breakfast egg rolls, pineapple pizza, and wasabi hummos?  American marketers, as if also holding their own food in contempt, have labeled them as Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, or Chinese perhaps to give them an exotic edge.  But they are American in reality, ketchupfied and cross-culturized—that’s why it’s called the melting pot, a big culinary helping of food from all over the world.

Even I’ve Americanized falafel, as I think it’s pretty tasty with a dollop of  kimchi—oops, looks like kimchi hasn’t made it into the spell check yet.  Microsoft Word doesn’t know what it is missing on its falafel sandwich.

*Note:  Meanwhile, in Abu Dhabi, American food is getting cross pollinated, like the pizza burger at Burger King, sliced up like a pizza pie.

Recipe From The Night Counter: Kibbeh

For all special occasions, Fatima prides herself on the kibbeh she makes. That makes her like many women in the Middle East who have mastered the art of this rather complex food.

Family and Kibbeh

In my family, like so many extended families, no party is ever complete without a platter of my Aunt Suad’s kibbeh, which is a Middle Eastern mixture of finely ground bulgar, onion, and lamb or beef that is, most commonly, formed into a patty or ball, stuffed with cinnamon and sumac-spiked meat, then fried, baked, or grilled.  When people ask Fatima what the secret to good kibbeh is, she holds up  her hands: It is believed that the thinner the shell, the better the kibbeh, and legend goes  long fingers are particularly prized to carefully form a thin enough outer layer to envelop but not overshadow the flavorful, moist center. In fact, the word kibbeh actually derives from the Arabic verb kebkeb “to shape.”

Often called the national dish of Lebanon and Syria, kibbeh is one of the most versatile concepts in Middle Eastern cookery, and recipes for it have existed for centuries, when the addition of bulgar to meat may have been a way to make the precious commodity last longer. (It is also made with fish in Iraq).  In villages across the Levant, the preparation of kibbeh was once a communal event, and the sound of the pounding together of meat and bulgar in huge mortars could be heard throughout small towns. Today kibbeh is, for the most part, prepared by home cooks or in restaurants and it comes in many forms. To save time some people simply spread the mixture in a tray and bake it. As a main dish, kibbeh is frequently simmered in mint-laced yogurt, and as an appetizer or, as Miriam does for Rock’s birthday, it is often served tartare-style, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with mint, and scooped up with raw onion wedges. But it is the crispy, warm, deep-fried kibbeh (aqras kibbeh maqliyya) that is most often served to guests, not only as part of the mezze at Arabic restaurants, but also an essential part of the buffet at weddings, family gatherings, and other festive occasions throughout the Middle East.

I’ve given you a recipe below, but I warn you that preparation is time consuming!

KIBBEH
1 kilo high quality, very lean beef or lamb (if lamb, lean leg of lamb is
best)
1 kilo fine ground bulgar wheat
1 medium onion.
2 T salt
1 t. allspice
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. black pepper
1 C. cold water

STUFFING:
2 medium-size onions chopped
1/2 kilo ground sirloin
1/2t. allspice
1/2 t. cinnamon
salt to taste
2 T. sumac
1/4 c. olive oil
1/2 c. pine nuts or chopped walnuts

Shell:   Rinse the bulgar wheat with water and squeeze out water.  Grind the meat in an electric mixer twice. Finely chop the onion.  Mix the spices with the onion.  Knead the meat, bulgar wheat, and onion together with your hands then put
through the electric grinder once.  Gradually add the cold water to the mixture kneading until it is smooth and pliable like bread dough (you may not need all the water). Cover the kibbeh with cloth towel so that it does not dry out.

Stuffing: Sautee the onion in the oil until soft and translucent.  Add the ground meat and cook through, 10 to 15 minutes.  Add cinnamon, allspice, and salt to meat a couple minutes before it is done browning.  Take off heat and mix in nuts and sumac. When stuffing is cool enough to work with, you may begin making the kibbeh.

Form the kibbe “dough” into balls the size of an egg.  Keep them covered
with a towel, so they do not dry out.  Form each “egg” into an oval shell by inserting your index finger into the “egg” and turning it around until it forms a thin oval with an open end. Use your other hand to hold the kibbeh as you turn.  Dip your fingers in cold water to help prevent the kibbeh from breaking. Take a teaspoonful of the stuffing and put into the shell.  Seal the shell.   Do this with remaining  “eggs,” keeping everything covered so it does not dry out.

Deep fry the balls in hot oil for a few minutes, until they turn a dark,
golden brown (a color halfway between dark brown sugar and light brown
sugar)

Put on paper towel to drain.  Serve at room temperature with yogurt on the
side, if desired.

This recipe should make about 20.

Fatima’s Freezing Tip: It is bet to freeze the kibbeh before frying it, and fry it a
few hours before serving.

LAUNDRY DAY FOOD FROM THE NIGHT COUNTER: MAJADERA

In The Night Counter, Amir promises his grandmother Fatima that for dinner he is not eating quiche, or gay pie, as he explains it to her, but rather

Laundry Day Food

majadera, a food with a whole lot less glamour to it than quiche and a whole lot more gas.  But dress it down or dress it up, majadera is a perennial favorite.  Not because it’s cheap, easy, and fast, not even because it’s rich in vitamins and fiber and made from ingredients that are always in the pantry.  Those were the reasons it was prized in the past.  Today majadera is just simply good food.

Majadera is so simple to make that you shouldn’t serve to company, or at least that’s what my mother used to say.  She got that from her mother, who called it “laundry day food,” because it was the only thing she had time to make on the days she had to take care of the laundry of a family of nine without the awareness that somewhere in this world laundry machines existed.

Majadera has come up in the world, as vegetarian food is no longer for the poor man’s table.  It seems to be more standard in mezze today and expats order it by choice.  But the basic recipe hasn’t changed, still pretty much the same if you can call it a recipe at all.  You can use bulgur wheat or the more common rice.  You can serve it with the lentils and rice still holding their shape or you cook it into a mush.  But the one thing you can’t leave out is the caramelized onions that must cover the top.

Cheap, easy, and fast doesn’t usually mean great when we talk about most things in life but there are always exceptions and majadera is one.

BASIC MAJEDERA

Two cups lentils
One cup rice
Three large onions, thinly sliced
Olive oil
Salt, pepper to taste
Cumin, optional

Boil the lentils with more than enough water to cover.  When the lentils are very soft, about 45 minutes to an hour, add the rice, and cook for another half hour, until rice is tender.  Remember to make sure there is enough water in the pan, as the rice absorbs so much.  Add salt and pepper to taste (it will need a lot of salt).  If you like, add a little cumin, which isn’t traditional, but I know a few people who use it.

Meanwhile, fry the onions until caramelized.  Spread the majdera on a platter and cover with the fried onions.  Serve with yogurt, pickles, and chopped tomato salad* on the side.  Good hot, cold, or at room temperature.

To Mexican-Americanize it a bit, salsa is an easy, perhaps I might even say superior, substitute for tomato salad.

Busted on Possession of Zaatar

I just watched a news story from Australia in which a Lebanese Australian called the confiscation of his mother-in-law’s zaatar by Sydney airport customs officials “a tragedy” and “a disaster” and when he still couldn’t convince the officials to release the vacuum packed zaatar, he told them he wanted to speak to a member of parliament.  There, but for the grace of more merciful US customs officials, go I—and almost every other Arab American I know.  Who amongst us hasn’t had a mother or aunt get out a bag of the stuff for our suitcases every time we journey off to foreign lands?

Possession of Zaatar

Zaatar, for those of you unfortunate enough to have never had it, is a mixture of wild thyme and sesame seeds that, mixed with olive oil, is an essential part of breakfast and even supper in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Jordan, and beyond. It is tied with chocolate in my refrigerator as the number one comfort food.

It might not sound like much of concoction, but it has hundreds of variations, with different thymes and different levels of roasting or not roasting changing the flavors, not to mention the unique mix of herbs added to zaatar that vary from village to village.  And there’s nothing that brings back the Levant as unlocking that aroma in the bag your relative tucked into your suitcase.

Zaatar is the most democratic of Middle Eastern foods, loved by all classes and ages, as I always witness in Jordan at IZHIMAN, a shop that offers several varieties of zaatar, all displayed in big wooden bins from which customers diligently sample before picking the varieties they’ll take home to make their own mixture at home.

Fusion cuisine has hit the Middle East hard, like everywhere, and now you’ll find zaatar being a seasoning for almonds (kind of like Arabic Chex Mix), roasted chicken, croissants, and countless other ideas, some more unfortunate than others, although you can never go all  that wrong with zaatar.  And like the hookah, it’s got a retro chic cache to it these days, even being the name of a Middle Eastern restaurant chain that aims to give cutting edge appeal to old standbys.  But perhaps the best way to eat zaatar is as manaeesh at the local bakery, where it is mixed with olive oil and baked on flat bread in a wood burning oven.  So integral was manaeesh to our childhood that one when my brother and I were in college in Minneapolis watching the news about Beirut, there was a shot of our baker on Jeanne D’Arc Street busy sliding the manaeesh into the oven.  “Abu Ibrahim,” we shouted out simultaneously, knowing that Beirut was still somewhat okay despite the news if Abu Ibrahim was still making manaeesh.

There are a million zaatar stories, but I will end with this one—there was a war injured boy from the Middle East in Los Angeles for treatment that was staying with me for a few days.  This was such a great kid and had just gotten out the hospital, and so we laid before him—not just me, but everyone else that took part in his care– all the wonders and decadence of food in Los Angeles for him everyday, but one day at breakfast he looked at it all, trying with all his politeness to muster enthusiasm, and then gave up and turned to me and said, “Don’t you have any zaatar?  Please.”  And of course, I did.