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Archive for the ‘appetizers’ Category


Muhammara, revisited

I don’t know why or when it hit me, but the other day, as I was laying in bed after lunch, I realized I had been struck with a case of homesickness. My stomach was in knots and my thoughts floated home, across the Atlantic. We were told by the Fulbright committee during our pre-departure orientation that this is common; I wasn’t worried. This period of longing, however gloomy, gave me time to clear my thoughts and get other work done. I took a trip with friends to the outskirts of Aleppo and also worked on programming — behind the scenes geeky stuff that secretly makes me happy.

sunset in the outskirts of Aleppo
sunset

As for my blog, I think it has also benefited from this period of thinking and rethinking. It has planted in me a new seed of enthusiasm and great ideas.

I consider my blog my baby. As of today, it is 3 years and 5 months old. It may sound strange to those who don’t blog, but I feel my blog has evolved over the years and has made me grow in ways I had never anticipated. My blog opened my eyes to web design and web development; it continuously fuels my immense passion for photography. My blog connects me to wonderful people and encourages me to try new foods and food techniques. It offers me a creative space to write and express my feelings in words, pictures, and videos. And although I have on-and-off spells where I feel unmotivated to produce, this is something I’ve realized is a part of life. I have learned to grow from these bursts of inspiration and grapple with the moments when my mind wanders and my stomach is in knots.

One of the things that makes food blogging so appealing, I think, is the community it is built on. When I write a blog and post it on this tiny corner of the internet, I feel I am sharing stories and experiences with friends gathered around my dining room table. It’s an amazing feeling. It is real and intimate and funny and mushy and I love it. This is a metaphor that has stuck with me from early on, and one that has kept me focused on what my blog means to me. Thank you, always, for your encouragement.

Today, in celebration of rethinking, I want to share with you a recipe that I’ve blogged about before: Muhammara, a rich and tangy Middle Eastern spread of red peppers and chopped walnuts. It’s a spread that should never be missing from your refrigerator. My aunt cleans red peppers and keeps them in a bag in her freezer for on-the-fly muhammara. It’s a spread that you can put together in 5 minutes and tastes better if you prepare it the day before. The flavors meld and food magic happens. In Aleppo muhammara is commonly served as a side platter as part of the mezze spread, but I put in on almost everything. Sandwiches being my favorite so far. Just a light smear on the bread does the trick. Try it, and let me know.

In the olden days, muhammara used to be considered a spread for royalty and the wealthy upperclass because of the ingredients required to make it. Walnuts and red peppers still aren’t cheap, but have become more accessible. Today the amount of walnuts you add to your muhammara has even become a pseudo status symbol.

Since we’re friends, and I know you won’t laugh (OK, you could laugh a little bit), I’ve also dug up this old video of me making muhammara for a Food Network audition. The video was filmed and produced by my very talented friend, Marilyn Rivchin, Senior Lecturer of Filmmaking at Cornell University. I didn’t get the part, but this clip reminds me of how much I love cooking.

The ingredients for this muhammara are mostly the same as the last recipe I posted, but my aunt taught me to add a dash of sugar to the spicy dip. It’s not traditional, but it works. It rounds out the spiciness of the pepper paste and balances the tang of the pomegranate molasses. I added it as an optional ingredient in the recipe.

mise en place
mise en place
chopped walnuts + kaak (كعك)
walnuts and kaak
clean peppers, inside and out
cleaning red peppers
red pepper puree
red pepper puree
pomegranate molasses
pomegranate molasses
extra virgin olive oil
extra virgin olive oil
muhammara (محمرة)
muhammara
typical mezze spread
mezze spread

Muhammara

yields approx 1 cup

Components

  • 3 red bell peppers
  • 1 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
  • 3/4 cup kaak, finely ground (3/4 cup breadcrumbs)
  • 1 Tbsp cumin, ground
  • 1/4 cup pomegranate molasses
  • 1/4 extra virgin olive oil
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 Tbsp spicy red pepper paste, optional
  • 1 tsp sugar, optional

Putting them all together

  1. Process the kaak in a food processor until finely ground and set aside.
  2. Process the red bell peppers in the food processor until finely chopped.
  3. In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients together, cover, and refrigerate until ready to serve.
  4. To serve, spread the muhammara into a shallow dish, drizzle with some extra virgin olive oil and garnish with toasted walnuts. Plate alongside some pita bread and enjoy!

Notes: You can find kaak in most Mediterranean or Middle Eastern markets, but breadcrumbs serve as a suitable substitute. I recommend a tiny bit of red pepper paste for a kick, but feel free to adjust the quantity to your liking.

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In my early days of experimenting with muhammara in Aleppo, I came up with this simple snack that I now eat on a regular basis. It’s simple and incredibly delicious: a slice of Aleppan Mortadella, topped with a dollop of creamy hummus, and a kiss of spicy muhammara seals the deal. Enjoy!

my favorite snack
mortadella, hummus, muhammara snack

Mortadella, an Aleppan variation

Almost every lunch, dinner, or formal event in Aleppo begins with an endless spread of mezze. Tabletops brimmed with plates of appetizers. Hummus and Muhammara. Labne and cured olives. Roasted nuts and homemade pickles. These are some of the popular ones. There is also yalanjii, vegetarian stuffed vegetables, which I still have to blog about. Every family has their favorites, their own style of hosting, but the common theme is abundance. The food should appear endless — this is the unspoken rule of Middle Eastern hospitality. You’d be hard pressed to find a gap between the plates.

A popular mezze in Aleppo is the Mortadella Halabiye, or Aleppan Mortadella. Not to be confused with the popular Italian cured meat, Aleppan Mortadella is much smaller in size and is blanched, not cured. Also, Italian Mortadella is made from pork, whereas the Aleppan version is made with either beef or lamb. On a couple of occasions, however, I’ve seen chicken varieties, as well.

Aleppan Mortadella is usually served as a starter as part of a spread of mezze — leftovers go into sandwiches. This is how my aunt taught me. You take fresh bread — pita or baguette — add a liberal shmear of hummus, cover with slices of Aleppan Mortadella, fanned out, and voilà. It’s that simple. If you add some muhammara to the sandwich, even better; it gives it a spicy contrast, not enough to make you cry though, just smile.

Now, to make Aleppan Mortadella, you want to start out with kaak (كعك), a Middle Eastern kind of bread stick that is incredibly crunchy and usually served alongside tea. Middle Eastern or Mediterranean stores should have it. If you can’t find kaak, however, you can use breadcrumbs; ultimately, its goal is to bind the mortadella.

kaak (كعك)
kaak
Middle Eastern style breadcrumbs
middle eastern bread crumbs
mise en place
mise en place

The next ingredient is the habra, which is basically very lean meat, essentially fat-less. A good habra should have no fat. I’ve blogged about it before. Habra is the basis of all kibbeh, which makes it readily available at any butcher in the Middle East. In the States, however, I usually ask my butcher to ground for me top-round beef, with all its fat removed. My butcher even goes the extra length to ground my meat early in the morning, before they ground any other meat, so that fat inside the machine doesn’t get into my habra. Then, once I get home, I process the meat in my food processor with a few ice cubes until a paste is formed — that’s all habra is.

The rest is mixing the ingredients together.

seasoned mixing
mixing

I noticed my aunt doesn’t mix the ground kaak with the meat all at once, only handfuls at a time. The reason being you might not need it all. The best mortadella, she told me, is made with as little kaak as possible. Only mix in as much as you need. The goal is a mixture that barely comes together and holds its shape.

oh, there’s garlic, too
garlic
add the pistachios into the center
steps

The reason for not mixing the pistachios in the beginning is so that they remain in the center of the mortadella. This is for presentation purposes.

cover and into the fridge
covered
H2O
water
some apple cider vinegar
vinegar
simmer
cooking mortadella
Aleppan Mortadella (مرتديلا حلبية)
Aleppan Mortadella

Aleppan Mortadella

4-5 logs

Components

  • 500g habra
  • 1/2 cup kaak, grated*
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup unsalted pistachios
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 Tbsp allspice, ground
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 8 cups water, for blanching
  • 2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • ice water, for forming the mortadella
  1. Prepare habra, the lean meat that comes from the top-round.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the habra, ground kaak (or breadcrumbs), minced garlic, sliced garlic, and egg, until well incorporated.
  3. Divide the meat mixture into 4 to 5 equal pieces.
  4. To form the mortadella: flatten a piece of the meat mixture, sprinkle with pistachios, fold closed, and form into a smooth log. Use ice water to smooth the meat mixture if you feel that it is a bit sticky.
  5. Refrigerate until ready to blanch (can be done a day in advance).
  6. Prepare the blanching liquid by mixing 4 parts water to 1 part apple cider vinegar.
  7. Bring the blanching liquid to a simmer.
  8. Add the mortadella and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes or until the middle is no longer pink.
  9. Refrigerate until ready to eat.

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hummus + muhammara + mortadella = best friends
muhammara hummus, and mortadella

Sujuk, Armenian sausage, from scratch

There is something about making a dish completely from scratch that is wonderfully satisfying — a feeling of merited accomplishment. A mixture of happiness and relief. I’m sure this is true of most things, really, not just food. It comes with any craft you can pour your soul into. With food, you appreciate individual ingredients; you savor every ounce of effort that goes into preparing a dish. Something magical happens in the cooking process; a part of you, your essence, probably while you’re mixing ingredients and not particularly paying attention, dives into the bowl and adds that special something to the dish: warmth, brightness, love, something you can’t really put your finger on, but everyone knows it’s there. It’s what the French refer to as je ne sais quoi.

It’s been a while since I posted a recipe here. Partly because it’s not easy converting my aunt’s dashes and handfuls into teaspoons and cups, but also because my aunt does most of her cooking early in the morning, before the sun or I are even up.

In Syria, particularly Aleppo, wintertime means it’s time for sujuk, an Armenian sausage made with beef, lots of garlic and a mix of aromatic spices. Sujuk is bold; it’s a stick-to-your-ribs kind of sausage. And when it gets cold out, it’s what my heart and stomach crave. Yes, sujuk is pretty fantastic.

In Aleppo you can find sujuk all over the place. This is one of the culinary gems the Armenian community brought with them when they moved to Syria. One of my favorite places to eat sujuk outside of home is Shtoura. Shtoura, named after the Lebanese town, is a 24-hour fatayer place famous for their heavenly dough creations. I’ve become a regular.

shtoura (شتورة) at 11:11pm
shtoura

Nothing is better late at night than a couple Shtoura palm-sized pizzas topped with classic tomato sauce, liberal amounts of shredded mozzarella, and dotted with nuggets of spicy sujuk.

pizza sujuk
pizza suju

My aunt, luckily for me, makes her own sujuk at home. And to my surprise, it’s pretty simple, and actually borders on effortless. It’s a matter of combining a blend of spices with meat and allowing the mixture to air-dry in a cool place, away from any sunlight. Prep-time is no more than 15 minutes, tops. No sausage casings or fancy equipment necessary; my aunt stitches her own bags from scraps of cloth that are clean and have not been treated with scented detergent.

mise en place
mise en place
lots of garlic
garlic
spices: fenugreek, allspice, cumin, paprika, salt
spices

After asking a few of my Armenian friends in Aleppo, I’ve discovered that it is not common to add ground fenugreek to sujuk. If you can’t find fenugreek, you can certainly leave it out, however, I like the taste it adds to the sausage.

mix well
mix
bags of sujuk
bags

My aunt uses her balcony to air-dry her sujuk. She moves the rack of sujuk bags depending on the time of day to keep them away from any sunlight. Once the bags feel firm and dry to the touch, the sujuk is ready. This usually takes 3-5 days depending on the weather and the thickness of your sujuk bags.

Once they’re done drying, my aunt and I keep all the bags, except one, in the freezer and bring them down to the fridge as we go through them.

sujuk sandwiches
sujuk

Sujuk is an extremely versatile sausage that you can eat any number of ways. It’s great over pizza or mixed into pasta sauce. It’s delicious with eggs for breakfast — a different take on the classic sausage and eggs. In Syria and Lebanon, however, it’s popular to make sujuk sandwiches with pita bread. The grease from the sausage melts over the heat and toasts the bread to a pleasant crisp. No extra butter or fat necessary; just good, homemade sujuk.

cheese
cheese
old school sandwich press
sandwich press
sandwich
sandwich

Sujuk Sausage

yields approx 1kg

Components

  • 1kg ground beef, freshly ground
  • 2 Tbsp cumin, ground
  • 2 Tbsp allspice, ground
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp fenugreek (optional), ground
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp paprika
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp salt
  • 1/4 cup garlic, minced

Putting them all together

  1. Mix all the ingredients together and refrigerate overnight.
  2. Stuff meat mixture into clean, porous stockings and let hang for 3-5 days in a cool, dry place away from any sunlight.
  3. Once pouches are dry and firm to the touch, remove from the hanging rod and store in the refrigerator — leftover pouches keep great in the freezer.

Notes:Make sure whatever you use to encase the meat is clean, but more importantly make sure it does not have any detergent scent. Sujok keeps great in the freezer. I bring down a pouch at a time from the freezer to the refrigerator as I go through it.

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A sauce that goes with everything

I just got back from Aleppo last week and have already made this sauce twice. I had it for the first time alongside grilled chicken, but I’m convinced this sauce goes with everything. It’s that good. I’m not even kidding you.

I would classify this sauce as a mayonnaise of sorts, but not really. It’s not as overwhelming as a mayonnaise. On a side note, I find mayonnaise to be overwhelming; store-bought mayonnaise at least. It’s too rich, flavorless and, to be honest, its texture is too wobbly for my liking. This sauce is different. It’s not as wobbly — velvety would a good word to describe it, but it has its secrets.

mise en place

Most Arabs call this sauce toum (ثوم) or creme toum (كريم ثوم). Toum is also the word for garlic in Arabic. That’s because the sauce is loaded with garlic. Loaded. I have some Lebanese friends that will make this sauce with so much garlic that it will make a grown man cry and smile, all in one bite. My version isn’t so strong, relatively.

very, very slowly

There are different ways to prepare this sauce. Purists will make it with just garlic, lemon juice and oil — no egg white. And it emulsifies. I know it sounds like magic, and maybe there’s a little food magic at play, but it works. Fouad from The Food Blog makes his this way. According to Fouad slow and steady is the trick — 10 minutes to be exact.

Some home cooks will prepare creme toum with an egg white. That’s how I’ve been making mine. The emulsion happens quicker and the protein in the egg white will also help keep the sauce from breaking. It also lets you get by with using less oil. In the Middle East, you’ll find that restaurants and street vendors will start the emulsion with a tiny bit of cornstarch slurry or boiled potatoes to help stabilize the sauce for a longer shelf life. Either way you decide to go, as long as the garlic is prominent, this sauce will knock you off your feet.

toum sauce (كريم توم)

Garlic Sauce

Makes 3/4 cup

Components

  • 5-7 cloves of garlic
  • 1 egg white
  • 3/4 cup, canola oil
  • 1-2 tsp. lemon juice
  • salt, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. In a small food processor (or a large one fitted with a small bowl), pulse the garlic and the egg white until you can’t see the garlic anymore.
  2. With the food processor on, slowly begin to add the oil in order to start the emulsion. Make sure that the stream of oil going in is no more than a thin thread, or you risk the possibility of your sauce breaking.
  3. Once all the oil has been added, add the lemon juice while the food processor is still running.
  4. Season the sauce with a little salt and refrigerate until ready to use.

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Video of Shawerma place in Aleppo, Syria. Notice the creme toum spread on the pita bread:

Roasted Potatoes and my trip to Aleppo

I don’t know where to begin. This is the problem with neglecting a blog for more than a week. It really is. If you have a blog, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Carelessness quickly turns into neglect and finally begins to fringe on complete abandonment. I would never let it get to that.

The last time I signed off, my camera was broken and I was eating gelato — lots of gelato — to diffuse the pain. It worked. Actually, my mom says that if there’s anyone who could get through to insurance companies, it’s me. I wasn’t about to abandon my camera. I called almost daily. In the end, after plenty of hoop-jumping and legal rigmarole, the hotel’s insurance settled and reimbursed me for the damages. It was a relief, sure, but there’s more.

Originally, my plan was to keep this next thing a secret. It was going to be a surprise, but I’m too excited not to blog about it. A couple weeks ago, I finally bought my plane ticket to go to Aleppo. My grandmother is there now, visiting her sister, and I will get to join them in just a few days. I promise to return with plenty of pictures, recipes and maybe even a few videos.

On that note, I will keep this post short. I’ve been strategically trying to use all my produce and perishables for the past couple of weeks. A lot of times the dishes that result from this don’t make it to be photographed, but my roasted potatoes are different. I realize I’ve never written about them before, but my roasted potatoes have gotten me through some difficult times.

mise en place

Preparation is simple. It makes a big difference to scout out good potatoes for this dish: small, firm and tight skin. I prefer reds simply because they have a higher sugar content, so they tend to caramelize better than other potatoes in the oven.

a quick rinse

Since potatoes grow underground, you’ll want to give them a quick rinse before you roast them. Make sure to pat them dry so that the outsides crisp up.

room to breathe

It’s also important not to crowd the potatoes in a pan, otherwise they will still steam, regardless of how well you’ve patted them dry.

my secret weapon

Although I usually use Spanish paprika, or pimentón, it’s a lot easier to find the Hungarian variety at my local grocery store. My inspiration for using paprika in my roasted potatoes came from patatas bravas — a classic tapas made from fried tomatoes covered in a spicy pimentón-base sauce. If you can’t find Spanish paprika near where you live, Amazon is where I usually buy from.

oven roasted red potatoes

Once they come out of the oven, they can be eaten hot or at room temperature. Enjoy!

Oven Roasted Potatoes

yields 4-6 side dishes

Components

  • 2 lbs baby red potatoes
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp dried rosemary (double if fresh)
  • 2 tsp spicy paprika
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
  2. Wash potatoes and them pat dry.
  3. Cut potatoes into equal sized pieces (I usually quarter them, if they’re small enough).
  4. Mix together all the ingredients on a large baking sheet. Make sure the potatoes are not crowded so that they crisp evenly.
  5. Cover with foil and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until potatoes are slightly cooked.
  6. Uncover and continue baking for 30-40 more minutes, or until potatoes are golden brown and cooked all the way through.

notes:Sometimes the potatoes tend to stick to the tray because of their natural sugar content. I recommend lightly tossing them with a spatula a couple times while cooking.

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