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Archive for the ‘walnuts’ 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

Inspired By Inspiration

I don’t know what else I’m supposed to call it, but inspired by inspiration seemed appropriate. This month for A Taste of the Mediterranean we’re exploring tarts. Seeing as I’m asking bloggers to submit their own variations of this French classic, I thought I’d make some myself.

mise en place

My inspiration for this post came from Fanny, who had gotten her inspiration from Pierre Herme (aka Meeta’s sugar daddy). Sounds like a soap gone bad, I know, but it’s all about the food here (focus, Tony). Tarts usually have two components to them: a crust and a filling (and sometimes a topping).

This crust for is made from ground walnuts and the usual suspects: flour, eggs, butter and sugar (ie. the stuff that makes desserts desserts). For the filling I decided to combine roasted pears, half of a banana, and some ginger because the combination of ginger and pears makes me happy.

Then I thought of Italy. I know, quite random (and rude) if you’re making a French dessert, but I couldn’t help it. Let me explain. While I was in Italy last winter I tasted this chocolate pear torte that made my taste buds swoon. I wasn’t sure if I could recreate that moment in my own kitchen, but it was worth the try. In the end, my taste buds were quite happy. 

mash to your heart’s content

Once the pears have roasted with the vanilla bean, some sugar and ginger, it’s time you bring the banana into play. In retrospect, I would use either less banana or more pears just because of how powerful the flavor of the banana could be. Also, if you’re an eat-while-you-cook person like I am, I suggest you make more of this filling than you think you’ll need – it’s like gourmet baby food good. 

upside down mini-cupcake tin

I wanted to make mini tarts, but not too mini. If I would’ve used the inside of the mini-cupcake tin, the tarts would have been more dough than anything else. Solution: I flipped the tin over and made use of the bottom. 

scooping the roasted pear filling

The fact that the inside of the cupcake tin was too small turned out to be a good thing. Each tart ended up with a nice star design from the naturally crimped edges. 

chocolate heaven

The ganache is the last, but albeit most decadent component of the entire production. I recommend anywhere from a 60% to 75% good quality chocolate for this component. Since the pears and banana are naturally sweet you’ll want to look for a chocolate with natural bitterness to it in order to offset the sweetness of the filling.

a pool of chocolate

Once the hot cream melts the chocolate for the ganache, add a tablespoon of room temperature butter to the recently-ganached chocolate. This gives the tarts that shiny gloss that makes them so pretty.

ginger-infused roasted pear chocolate tarts

Top with a couple thin slices of crystallized ginger and you’re set. I hope this has inspired you to try out your own tart concoctions at home! igourmet is ready to give a $50 gift certificate to the winning tart entry – check out more info on A Taste of the Mediterranean.

Ginger-infused Roasted Pear Chocolate Tarts

approx 18 mini tarts

Components

  • tart dough, replace pistachios with walnuts
  • 3 bosc pears
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp water
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp ginger, ground
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 1/2 banana
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 6 oz dark chocolate, 60-75%
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • crystallized ginger for garnish

Putting them all together

  1. Make tart dough and bake the tart shells (you can use the bottom of a mini cupcake tin or anything else you might have on hand).
  2. Cut pears into medium-sized chunks and scatter them in a roasting pan.
  3. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
  4. Over medium heat cook the sugar and water until you get a dark amber color. Swivel the pot, but resist the urge to mix with a spoon, this will help keep the sugar from crystallizing.
  5. Once color turns amber, add the ginger and 1tsp of the lemon juice to the hot sugar mix (be careful, it will splatter a bit) and pour over the chopped pears.
  6. Baste the pears while they roast in the oven and remove them once they are soft and you can poke them with a knife with little to no resistance (the time will depend on how large your pieces are, approx 25-30 min).
  7. Once they’re out of the oven mash the banana and add the remaining tsp of lemon juice. Cover the mixture and allow to cool in the fridge.
  8. To make the ganache, bring the cream to a simmer and pour over chopped chocolate. Slowly stir with a wooden spoon until all the chocolate has melted. Add one tbsp of butter at room temperature to add gloss to your ganache.
  9. To assemble the tarts scoop some of the pear filling on the bottom of each tart. Then cover with the chocolate ganache and top with slivers of crystallized ginger for garnish.

note: Tart shells and roasted pear filling can be made a couple days in advance.

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the best part about working with chocolate

Baklava with Mom

Thank you for all the Christmas wishes – I wish everyone happy eating and the very best for 2009!  My Christmas food coma lasted slightly longer than I anticipated with all the leftovers we have had at my house. In all seriousness, my mom went into full-on Arabic mode and cooked enough food to feed a medium-sized Army; needless to say it was more than enough for the 20 guests we had at our house.

I contributed a humble tray of baklava, which I’m posting about today. But, before I forget, I want to give props to Marianna who correctly named the famous Lebanese singer on my computer screen in my stuffed grape leaves post: Najwa Karam. I have some Middle Eastern goodies that I’ll be sending your way once I fly back home.

The two Greek Pete’s must forgive me when I say this, but Middle Eastern baklava is the best I’ve had. It might be because I grew up hooked on the countless trays my grandmother would whip up in her kitchen for parties, birthdays or when she knew her grandson was visiting – I’m not sure. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not one to turn down a good serving of the Greek kind either!

old school scale: 1/2 kg walnuts

My mom has had this scale for longer than I can remember. It’s seen better days, yes, but it never lets her down. Oh, and mise en place you ask? I was already pushing it with my camera and asking to take photos of every step. 

mom brushed each layer with clarified butter

This is probably one of the most crucial steps for a good baklava, Greek or Middle Eastern. You want to use clarified butter to avoid the butter from burning in the oven and you also want to make sure to brush each layer liberally to achieve maximum crispiness.

my job was to sprinkle the chopped walnuts

The walnuts must be fresh for making baklava. Taste the nuts before you use them and chuck them if they’re rancid or stale. You also want to make sure you use fresh ground cinnamon for the filling. These little components is what makes for a good baklava. 

slice before you bake

Since the layers will be too crispy when the the baklava comes out of the oven, you want to slice it before you bake it. This will also help the baklava absorb the syrup once it’s finished baking.

cool syrup on hot baklava

This syrup, called عطر (a’ater) or شيرة (sheera), must be at room temperature and poured over the baklava as soon as it comes out of the oven. Alternatively, you can let your baklava come to room temperature and douse it with hot syrup, but I find the first way to be more convenient.

Baklava (بقلاوة)

After you pour the syrup over the baklava and allow the whole thing come to room temperature, sprinkle each piece with bright green ground pistachios and enjoy! الف هنا و عافية (bon appetit in Arabic)

QUESTION: I have a morning show appearance coming up and cannot choose between this baklava and this Middle Eastern almond drink I blogged about before. Which would you choose for a 3-minute demo? I’d love to hear what you think!

Middle Eastern Baklava

approx 24-32 servings

Components

  • 1 lb phyllo dough
  • 3 cups walnuts, finely chopped
  • 3/4 cup butter, clarified
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • syrup
  • pistachios for garnish

Putting them all together

  1. Preheat oven to 275 degrees F.
  2. Pulse the nuts, cinnamon & sugar in a food processor until you reach a slightly coarse consistency. 
  3. With a pastry brush begin by brushing the bottom of a 9X13 pan.
  4. Layer 8 sheets of phyllo dough, making sure to brush butter between each one.
  5. Spread half of the nut mixture.
  6. Layer 4 more sheets of phyllo dough.
  7. Spread the remaining half of the nut mixture.
  8. Top with the remaining 12 sheets of phyllo, making sure to brush the top layer with butter as well.
  9. Slice the baklava into small diamonds (approx 24-32).
  10. Bake for at least 2 hours until slightly golden brown on top.
  11. Pour cooled syrup over the baklava as soon as it comes out of the oven and allow to come to room temperature again before serving. 

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syrup

approx 3/4 cups

Components

  • 1 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 tsp orange blossom water
  • 1 strip of orange peel (optional)

Putting them all together

  1. Bring ingredients to a simmer over medium heat.
  2. Continue cooking over low heat until mixture becomes syrupy (approximately 10 minutes).
  3. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

note: Syrup can be made days in advance and stored in an airtight container.

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The Cookies the Doctor Prescribed

When I was a kid I was baffled by the cruel idea that anything full of flavor was supposed to be unhealthy. Never mind where babies came from, I was more concerned with philosophical questions like, why ice cream tastes better than my steamed broccoli? And until I developed an appreciation for veggies and the usual suspects, my nutrition primarily came in the form of Flintstones chewable multivitamins and vegetables strategically hidden in my food, something my mom was an expert at.

While I was in Italy this past winter I came across these curiously ugly cookies that stood out among the gorgeous layered cakes and tempting pastries. Not only were these cookies pretty ugly, but they weren’t cheap either; and had it not been for the three consecutive customers that ordered them in front of me, I would have probably never discovered the wonders of brutti ma buoni, which literally translated means, ugly but good.

mise en place

Imagine a decadent cookie that is crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside and has no added fat or flour! It sounds unnatural, almost sacrilege, but these traditional Tuscan cookies are pure genius. All their fat comes from the natural oils in the nuts and are they’re cleverly held together by nothing more than beaten egg whites.

it’s like magic

Traditionally, these cookies only had hazelnuts and maybe a few almonds, but I like the combination of the different nuts. You can use any combination you prefer as long as hazelnuts remain in the picture. The neat trick that I tried* to demonstrate via my 3-step diagram is to roast the hazel nuts in a 350 degree F oven for 15-20 minutes; then spread them over a clean kitchen towel, cover them, and rub them against each other. You’ll notice some of the nuts are stubborn and hold on to their skins for their dear lives. The best (and most enjoyable) solution to this is to bake more than you need and eat the ones that don’t cooperate.

crushed, but slightly coarse

Before the days of shiny and pretty kitchen appliances, Italians would crush the nuts using a mortar and pestle and whisk their egg whites by hand. Sounds outrageous, right? But back then when you said you were cooking, you were really cooking. Today you can use what you want to get that same semi-fine texture on the nuts and stiff peaks on the egg whites.

mounds of nutty-chocolate goodness

In order for the mainly egg white batter to come together, you have to cook it over medium low heat before baking it. Once the batter thickens you can scoop it onto a sheet pan and bake the cookies in the oven until they’re crispy on the outside and crunchy and chewy on the inside.

a look inside

I don’t think it’s humanly possible to resist a freshly baked batch of cookies cooling on a rack. They’re so soft and delicate at this point that eating them becomes effortless, which could be dangerous.

brutti ma buoni

I wasn’t joking around when I said these cookies were ugly! You can imagine how these stood out against their dainty neighbors on display at the patisserie. The traditional recipe doesn’t even call for cocoa powder, but I feel like the chocolate/hazelnut combo is one that can’t be passed up.

Although these cookies are probably healthier than your average butter/flour-saturated cookies, they’re not an invitation for gluttony. These cookies still have plenty of sugar and should be eaten in moderation, like all foods. And that’s precisely what I’ve come to realize since my veggie-avoiding years as a child. Flavor along with all its associated “unhealthiness” should not be avoided, but rather enjoyed in moderate amounts.

Brutti Ma Buoni

approx 18 cookies

Components

  • 3 egg whites
  • 1/2 cup hazelnuts, peeled
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts
  • 1/3 cup almonds, peeled
  • 1/3 cup walnuts
  • zest of an orange
  • zest of a lemon
  • 2 tsp frangelico (or any nut liqueur/extract)
  • 1 tbsp cocoa powder, dutch process
  • 1 cup sugar
  • pinch of salt

Putting them all together

  1. Toast the nuts until golden brown and allow to cool.
  2. Whisk the egg whites to a stiff peak.
  3. Mix the nuts with the sugar and pulse in a food processor until you reach a semi-fine consistency.
  4. Fold in all the ingredients into the whisked egg whites (carefully so as to not lose too much volume).
  5. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
  6. In a medium sauce pan over medium-low heat, cook the mixture until slightly thick 20-25 minutes. This will yield a thicker batter that won’t flatten out in the oven.
  7. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and bake the cookies at 300 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until dry on the outside and still slightly moist and chewy on the inside.

note: These cookies are perfect gifts for the upcoming holiday season. Pretty packaging for these cookies is a must, though.

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