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Archive for the ‘olive oil’ Tag


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

Food for the mind: Middle Eastern Za’atar Pizza

A couple weeks ago I saw a lot of snow; more snow than I had seen in my entire life. That doesn’t say much since I grew up in Miami, but it was a big heap of snow. Around 50 to 70 inches total, according to the Washington Post. My car was completely covered and I was snowbound for almost 10 days. It was the perfect excuse to stay in my PJs, not shave, tweet about snowmageddon, snuggle in bed with a few good books, knock movies off my Netflix queue, and cook — I kept busy.

za’atar (زعتر) from Aleppo

My pantry is usually well-stocked with boxes of pasta, cans of tomato, rice, chickpeas, Oreos and other essentials; probably enough food to last me an entire month, but I wasn’t in the mood for any of it. As much as I love Oreos dunked in cold milk, or an over-sized bowl of pasta, I was craving something different. I wanted something warm and billowy, chewy and filling. I was thinking bread. I had all the ingredients for dough and the obscenely large bag of za’atar that I had brought with me from Aleppo. With these, I was going to make manaqeesh.

If you’re Middle Eastern, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Manaqeesh (pronounced mana-eesh) is the Middle Eastern equivalent of pizza, usually eaten for breakfast, and probably one of my favorite foods of all time. This is what I grew up eating. I remember my mom used to tell my brothers and me that za’atar is food for the mind and good for your memory, so we happily ate. I’m not sure whether the za’atar lost its effects on me, but it was delicious: a combination of tangy flavors from the herbs and a warm nuttiness from the toasted sesame seeds. It’s something you have to try. While I was in Aleppo, my most memorable breakfasts included za’atar manaqeesh (مناقيش بالزعتر) or mamounieh (مأمونية), but I’ll probably talk more about the latter in a different post.

typical breakfast in Aleppo, Syria

Bakeries in the Middle East offer different types of manaqeesh. Some have cheese, others have meat. My grandmother likes ones that are topped with a slightly spicy red pepper paste. Those are good, but my favorite are the traditional manaqeesh slathered with a mix of olive oil and za’atar.

mise en place

The preparation for this dish is exquisitely simple. The dough is the same as the one I used for the spinach fatayer I blogged about a couple months back. I’ve also gotten away with using pizza dough when I’m in a bind, but the results aren’t the same as the original manaqeesh dough that uses oil and milk. If you’re pressed for time you could do what my mom often did, which is mix za’atar with extra virgin olive oil and roll it up on pita bread as an afternoon snack or sometimes as a quick breakfast whenever my brothers and I took too long to get ready for school.

za’atar + extra virgin olive oil

The word za’atar (زعتر) in Arabic literally refers to a variety of wild herbs in the same family as thyme, marjoram and oregano. What is commonly referred to as za’ater in the Levant is the spice mix made from this dried herb after it is combined with toasted sesame seeds, sumac, salt and other spices.

before baking

I never measure how much oil I add to the za’atar. You just need to make sure that it’s enough to make a smooth paste so that it doesn’t dry up in the oven.

Za’atar Manaqeesh (مناقيش بالزعتر)

The trick to making the manaqeesh, like any pizza, is to add the dough to a scorching hot oven. If you have a pizza stone, that is ideal. Otherwise you can pre-heat an upside down baking sheet in a hot oven and add the manaqeesh to the reverse side. Once the dough cooks through, remove the manaqeesh from the oven and enjoy. Saha w hana (صحة و هنا), bon appetit!

Za’atar Manaqeesh

yields approx 16 small pies

Components

  • 1/2 recipe of fatayer dough
  • 3/4 cup za’atar
  • 1/2-1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Putting them all together

  1. Prepare the dough as described in the fatayer recipe
  2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
  3. Mix together the za’atar and the olive oil
  4. Roll out 1/4 inch thick disks and top with za’atar and oil mixture.
  5. Bake for 7-10 minutes or until the dough is golden brown

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Middle Eastern house salad

Seattle was beautiful and I cannot wait to show you pictures, but first, there’s a salad I’ve been meaning to tell you about – it’s called fattoush (فتوش).

It seems like the market for Middle Eastern salads (outside of the Middle East) is disproportionally dominated by tabbouleh, a salad, that when made right, combines ultra-finely chopped parsley with tiny pearls of fine-ground bulger wheat and other finely chopped vegetables. Fattoush is quite the opposite, at least when it comes to preparation – it can be thrown together in a matter of minutes, in a very rustic and hearty way that’s all about flavor rather than embellishments. Tabbouleh is delicious though, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes, however, I just want a quick and tasty, no-frill salad, and for moments like these I make fattoush.

mise en place

The mise en place can be overwhelming, but in one trip to the farmer’s market you can have all these vegetables laid out on your table, too. The most exotic ingredient here is probably the sumac, which is a lemony, sour spice that can be found in most specialty markets these days and certainly any Mediterranean market you know of. If you like cooking Middle Eastern dishes, this is a spice that you should always have on hand.

toast the pita with a sprinkle of sumac

This is the part where some people might disagree: the bread. Probably the best (and most traditional) way you can prepare the bread for fattoush is by pan-frying the triangles in extra virgin olive oil, but that takes a long time and makes a mess of my stovetop. I prefer to toss the pita triangles in olive oil, sprinkle some sumac on the bread (something my grandmother taught me), and throw the whole tray into the oven/broiler, on high.

shake it up

The dressing for this salad is equally simple, as promised. It’s a combination of olive oil and lemon juice, with a sprinkle of salt and sumac – that’s it. You can add dried mint to the dressing like I did, but that’s completely up to you.

Fattoush (فتوش)

Fattoush

for the salad

Components

  • 1 head romaine lettuce
  • 2-3 medium tomatoes
  • 1 bunch of scallions, chopped
  • 1/3 cup radishes, sliced
  • 1/2 cup cucumbers, chopped
  • 1/2 cup red bell peppers, chopped
  • 1/3 cup mint, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp sumac
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 2-3 pita breads, cut into triangles
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • salt, to taste
  • dressing/vinaigrette

  • 2 parts extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 part lemon juice
  • 1 tsp sumac
  • sprinkle of dried mint, optional
  • salt, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. Roughly chop all your vegetables, except the radishes, I prefer to slice those.
  2. Chop the pita bread into triangles or small squares, coat with olive oil and 1/2 tsp of sumac and broil until golden brown.
  3. Prepare your vinaigrette by mixing the olive oil and the lemon juice in a jar with the sumac and a dash of salt.
  4. Toss everything together and enjoy.

notes: Joumana pointed out that traditional fattoush calls for purslane (بقلة). There wasn’t any readily available to me, but you can add it to your salad for a more authentic and tangy flavor – if not, romaine lettuce is an acceptable substitute.

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صحة و هنا – bon appetit

A world outside of mozzarella & pepperoni

A simple google search for kid-friendly recipes is scary. What shows up, in fact, is a harrowing slew of butter-saturated, sugar-filled recipes written with a complete disregard for health. I discovered this last week because I was looking for just that – simple recipes that I can make with kids.

My friend Beth invited me to cook in front of a class of kindergarten students. Her son is in the class and they were looking for someone to do a cooking demo for the kids’ end of the year party – I was flattered that they thought of me and happily accepted.

I took this as my tiny opportunity to make a difference in the way these kids looked at food. While this was not the time to introduce them to the delicate flavors of perfectly-seared scallops or steak tartare, I wanted to cook with them something they’re familiar with, but probably never had before. I decided to let them make their own pizzas. Instead of just mozzarella and pepperoni though, I brought with me a ton of different vegetables and all sorts of sauces for them to experiment with. Well-aware of the fact that the kids will have a short attention span that rivals mine, I also brought with me my pizza paddle and pizza stone so they could take turns sliding their pizzas into the oven.

flying food is always fun for kids

One of my favorite pizza combinations we made with the kids was a lemon-infused, goat ricotta, white pizza topped with thinly sliced zucchini. The flavors are light, refreshing, and clean — perfect for the hot summer days ahead.

mise en place

Count them – four ingredients; five if you include the extra virgin olive oil. This means no skimping on ingredients! I tried this same pizza with regular ricotta and it doesn’t work. The wow factor just wasn’t there. If you absolutely cannot find goat-milk ricotta, however, not to worry. Mix a semi-firm chevre (like Spanish Capricho de Cabra) with some good quality, fresh ricotta and you’ll get a similar result. Like I said, it won’t be spot-on, but it will get you pretty close.

lemon zest makes me happy

The lemon zest in the ricotta serves two purposes. Not only does it heighten the flavors of the goat cheese, but it also gives the pizza a clean, crisp flavor. I recommend using organic citrus whenever a dish calls for using the zest or rind.

almost paper thin, almost

Zucchini has lots of moisture and moisture is the kryptonite, so to speak, of pizza. To remove some of this excess moisture you’ll want to thinly slice the zucchini (preferably with a mandoline) and fan the slices out on a plate so they’re not on top of each other. Then season the slices with salt and pepper and the salt will start to break down the cell walls of the zucchini, and thus allowing it to give up some of that moisture. Soak it up with a paper towel and your ready to roll.

extra virgin olive oil

The kids were shocked when I hinted at the idea of a pizza without tomato sauce. Their facial expressions were absolutely priceless. And although not many chose to forgo the traditional red sauce, I feel like those that did may have a bright culinary future ahead of them!

Lemon-Infused Goat Ricotta White Pizza With Sliced Zucchini

Lemon, Goat Ricotta & Zucchini Pizza

makes 1 large pizza

Components

  • 24 oz. pizza dough
  • 2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 lb goat milk ricotta
  • zest of 1-2 lemons
  • 1 zucchini, thinly sliced
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. Zest the lemon(s) and stir the zest into the goat ricotta
  2. Thinly slice the zucchini (preferably with a mandoline), fan out on a plate, season with salt and pepper, and cover with a paper towel to soak up some of the moisture.
  3. Stretch pizza dough to approx 1/8″ thickness – this pizza is better thin than thick – and brush a thin coat of olive oil over the top.
  4. Spread the goat cheese mixture over the top and top with the thin slices of zucchini.
  5. Preferably bake on a hot (550 degrees F) pizza stone for 5-7 minutes or until the crust gets golden brown.

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This is why everyone should invest in a pizza stone:

perfectly crispy crust

foodies (not so) anonymous

Are you a food blog junkie? Do you stop your friends from eating your culinary creations before they’ve been thoroughly photographed? Do you wake up and check your feed for new posts from your fave food blogs?  Most importantly, have you made online foodie friends?

If you’ve answered yes to these questions, it must come at no surprise that you’re a foodie.

foodie haiku
foodie haiku

Last week, Diane and Todd from White on Rice Couple sent me the best graduation gift a foodie could ever ask for.  It was a care package filled with a bottle of epicurean extra virgin olive oil, a hand-crafted wooden serving platter, exquisite dark chocolates, Vietnamese goodies and pretty party napkins that made for excellent shock absorbers during delivery. The gift also came right after they inspired me to plant my own herb garden (READ: 1 basil and 1 rosemary plant).  This week, as you can tell, my basil plant is out of control.  I pluck and it just keeps growing!  So to show my thanks, I’ve decided to write a post using my homegrown basil and a couple of their gifts. 

mise en place
mise en place

When I opened the bottle of extra virgin olive oil they sent, I was immediately taken aback by its bold fragrance. It was like sticking my nose up close into a big bowl of Mediterranean olives. This kind of oil is certainly not meant to go anywhere near heat and is perfect for salads and dunking bread.  I opted for the latter choice, and went with a warm baguette from my local baker.

basil confetti
basil confetti

Infused oils is something my mom always makes for when guests are coming over. It’s extremely simple and tastes even better when made a day in advance. This recipe is for a spicy basil-infused olive oil and it is by far my favorite variation from my mom’s collection. 

good quality extra virgin olive oil
extra virgin olive oil

The oil is out-of-this-world! The minty subtleties from the basil play really well against the robust flavors of the unfiltered olive oil.

bread’s best friend
bread's best friend

After the oil has had about a day to rest (overnight if you’re too impatient), there’s probably not much that wouldn’t taste amazing with a little drizzle of this concoction.  Seriously, drizzle this over some grilled chicken, spread some inside your sandwiches, heck, go at it with a spoon? OK, maybe that’s a bit much, but that’s not to take away any of its awesomeness.

basil-infused olive oil
bread's best friend

Thanks again, D & T for the amazing gifts!  I’m looking forward to using the rest of the oil and the other treats you guys included.  The chocolates were gone by the second day, but that was to be expected.  You guys are the best!!

Basil-Infused Olive Oil

(yields approx. 300 ml)

Components

  • 250 ml extra virgin olive oil, high quality
  • lots of basil leaves
  • 1 or 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • pinch of red pepper flakes
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. Chiffonade your basil leaves (i.e. make basil confetti)
  2. In a pretty container, combine basil, red pepper flakes, garlic, salt & pepper and cover with the oil.
  3. Cover with plastic wrap and allow the oil to sit over night.
  4. Serve with bread (or anything, really) and enjoy.

Note:  You can store the oil in the refrigerator, but make sure to bring it back to room temperature before using again.  It is normal for the oil to congeal in the fridge.  

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