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Archive for the ‘yogurt’ Tag


Shakrieh, the stew that led me to Abu Fares

I can’t believe I let January slip through my fingers. It went by incredibly fast and ended without notice. You should’ve seen my face when I found out it was already February; my heart sank. Only because I’ve been meaning to tell you about this fantastic recipe since I returned from Syria back in December; it’s a Middle Eastern stew of sorts called Shakrieh.

While I was in Syria, I got to meet Abu Fares. Those who know Abu Fares, or have read his blog, will know why this encounter deserves its own post; this man is a talented writer, inspiring humanist, and simply put, a great person. He really is. Not to mention it is his Shakrieh recipe, which I’ve made four times in the past couple of months, that is outstanding.

Abu Fares lives in Tartous, a medium-sized city, quaintly situated along the Mediterranean coast of Syria; roughly a three hour train ride from Aleppo. We agreed to meet for lunch one afternoon while I was abroad. My grandmother and her brother decided to tag along, partly because they love to travel, but primarily because they’re over protective of me, and I love them for that. Plus, I knew my sito would pack delicious treats for the trip in one of her over-sized purses; in her opinion, you can never have too many aaroos (pita wraps with labne and other condiments). I agree.

We decided to take a small detour and spend the morning site seeing in Latakia, a scenic beach town less than an hour from Tartous. As I stepped off the train, I immediately took a deep breath, allowing the light briny breeze to fill my lungs. I did this a few more times. It was invigorating. The morning crowds started to fill the streets; mostly women with their children going out to get produce. I noticed a few locals crowded outside this modest shop that sold freshly squeezed orange juice. I got us three glasses as my grandmother pulled a few aaroos from her purse.

now I want an OJ press with a wheel

The weather in Latakia was too cold for swimming, and maybe that’s why the city wasn’t packed with people; the soft sunlight, however, was perfect for taking shots of the shore that morning. We spent the rest of our time leisurely strolling the city: we walked along the boardwalk, visited some historic sites, had coffee at a cozy café, and by noon we were back on our way to Tartous.

Latakia (اللاذقية)

During the slightly rowdy and bumpy hour-long bus ride from Latakia to Tartous, I rested my head on my sito‘s shoulder and closed my eyes. It’s a gift that I can nap almost anywhere. I eventually woke up to the driver announcing the different stops. We had finally made it to Tartous.

The Three Bloggers: Fares, Abu Fares and Me

Abu Fares and I greeted each other like old friends and I introduced him to my grandmother and her brother. We spent the next hour or so exploring Tartous. Abu Fares knows this city better than anyone, and many of the locals knew him, too. After the tour we went for some coffee at Abu Fares’ home where we got to meet his family.

Abu Fares has a son named Fares, hence his nickname Abu Fares — literally Fares’ Father in Arabic. Fares, like his dad, has his own blog called Superkid Chronicles where he writes about astrology and the different planets; his favorite show, SpongeBob Square Pants; and probably my favorite, the ultimate hot dog pizza.

Later that day Abu Fares took us to lunch at this charming restaurant up in the mountains, on the outskirts of Tartous. The meal consisted of lots of different mezze, and probably the tastiest freshly-caught fried red mullet (سمك سلطان إبراهيم) I’ve ever had. I posted more photos from my excursion to Latakia and Tartous on my flickr page.

Lunch with Abu Fares in Tartous

What I really need to do is tell you about is this amazing Shakrieh recipe.

mise en place

Shakrieh is a traditional dish from Damascus. In fact, very few people knew about it in Aleppo, where my family is from; some knew about it by a different name, which I can’t think of at the moment, while others hadn’t heard of it at all. This dish is pretty fantastic though. If you love slowly cooked meals that make you smile and feel warm inside, you need to try this dish. It’s essentially braised lamb (or beef) that is cooked in a creamy yogurt sauce. Traditionally it’s served with rice or bulger wheat (cracked wheat).

spices: allspice, cloves and cinnamon

Abu Fares’ recipe doesn’t call for these spices, only cinnamon. After a bit of experimenting, I found that the lamb here in the States has a stronger, more pungent, aroma than in Syria. If you’re sensitive to that gamy flavor that lamb is known for, I would suggest adding some of these spices, or even par boiling the lamb before braising it. The other alternative is to use a cut of beef that is suitable for braising, such as beef shanks, instead of the lamb.

Shakrieh (شاكرية باللبن)

Shakrieh is symbolic because of it’s pearly, white color; representative of purity, new beginnings and happiness. Abu Fares explains that it has been a tradition in his family to eat this dish on the first day of Ramadan. Going along with the symbolism, I prepared shakrieh for my friends and family for lunch on New Years. Saha wa hana (صحة و هنا) — Bon Appétit.

Shakrieh

approx 4-6 servings

Components

  • 1 kg lamb shanks (Mozat)
  • 3 large onions, sliced
  • 6 to 8 cups plain yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 egg
  • 2-3 cloves, whole
  • 4-5 allspice, whole
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • water
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, roughly 1/2 to 3/4 of the way full.
  2. Sweat the sliced onions in a large saute pan with the olive oil (be sure not to brown them) . Then, season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper and add to the onions along with the spices (cinnamon, cloves and allspice) and cook for about 5 minutes.
  3. Once the water comes to a boil, add the onions, lamb and spices to the water and lower the heat to medium-low.
  4. Braise for a 3-4 hours, until lamb is fork tender. Strain and the broth.
  5. In a blender, or with a whisk, mix together the yogurt, cornstarch and raw egg and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Make sure to stir constantly and in one direction* in order to keep the yogurt from separating.
  6. Once the yogurt begins to simmer, reduce the heat to low and add the braised lamb chunks, tender onions, plus one cup* of the lamb broth to the yogurt.
  7. Cook uncovered for 10-15 minutes and serve alongside rice or bulger wheat.

Notes: Recipe adapted from Abu Fares’ blog. Stirring the yogurt in one direction helps keep it from curdling–I don’t know the science behind it, but if you do, please leave a comment; I would love to know. Also, you may need to add more or less lamb broth depending on how thick your yogurt sauce got from the cornstarch.

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Yogurt, plain and simple

Throughout the two-plus years that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve never dedicated a post exclusively to yogurt. I’ve used it as an ingredient here and there, sure, but it’s never played a leading role. That’s not acceptable. Not for a Mediterranean food blog, at least. I plan on changing that today.

On my recent trip to Aleppo I was reminded how important yogurt is in Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s everywhere. Cow, goat or sheep. Strained, plain or cooked. In the Levant there’s even a popular refreshing drink called Ayraan (عيران) that’s made from yogurt, but more on that later. Today I need to set things right. Today is all about yogurt.

Before we begin, I’d like to dispel the myth that suggests you should buy a fancy yogurt maker to incubate your milk. Please don’t. If you already have, I won’t hold it against you, but you really don’t need one. If the machine made the job any easier, I can understand, but the truth is, making yogurt is pretty simple.

While I was in Aleppo, Leila (my maternal grandfather’s brother’s wife’s sister), shared with me her way of making yogurt. Take a look:

Before I met Leila, I used to make my yogurt in the pot I heated the milk in. Not anymore. I really like her idea of dispensing the yogurt into smaller jars.

mise en place

Midway through the process (usually as the yogurt is cooling), I like to turn on my oven to the lowest setting and turn it off after 5 minutes. This helps keep my oven barely warm enough to properly incubate the yogurt — which is essentially what the yogurt machine does, except it doesn’t cost extra money and doesn’t limit how much yogurt you can make.

heating the milk

Once you heat the milk to 180 degrees F (a near boil), you need to cool it. I like to use a thermometer, particularly for this step, so that the yogurt starter has an ideal environment to initialize the incubation process. That temperature should be between 107 and 112 degrees F (41 and 44 degrees C).

nestled inside the oven

Since the pizza stone in my oven can retain lots of heat (as can the metal rails), I like to line the base with a kitchen towel before placing the jars of yogurt inside the oven. Then, as Leila mentioned in the video, you want to cover the jars with another towel so they remain warm throughout the incubation.

plain goat milk yogurt

Keep the jars overnight in the oven and move them to the fridge first thing in the morning. It’s that simple — saha wa hana (صحة و هنا)/bon appetit!

Homemade Yogurt

Makes 1/2 gallon

Components

  • 1/2 gallon milk*
  • 10g yogurt starter*

Putting them all together

  1. Heat milk to 180 degrees F (82 degrees C) over medium heat.
  2. Cool the milk between 107-112 degrees F (41-44 C) and slowly mix in the yogurt starter.
  3. Dispense the milk into 4-5, 16 oz. jars.
  4. Place the jars inside a barely warm oven lined with a kitchen towel and cover them with another towel to keep them warm throughout the incubation process.
  5. After 6-8 hours (or overnight) move the jars into the fridge and store until ready to use.

notes: If you don’t have yogurt starter you can use any plain yogurt that has live active cultures. Usually I like to go with the Organic Stonyfield Plain Yogurt. You’ll also get better results by using full-fat milk — 2% milk won’t get nearly as creamy.

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a meal perfect for catching up

Desi, one of my closest friends from high school, was my first official guest in my new home. After her, my mom came up for the 4th of July weekend. And now, everything is back to the way it was, but I do have lots of photos to share from all the cooking that ensued. First, Desi:

After a 3-year gap without seeing each other, we seamlessly picked up right where we left off. It was beautiful; we were laughing and joking as though we had seen each other the night before.

One of the things I forgot to mention about Desi is that she is also quite the lover of food. Her only request for dinner that evening was that we make some kind of fresh pasta. No big deal; in fact, it was brilliant. Ever since I read my friend Afaf’s Sheesh Barak post, I’ve been meaning to blog about it myself. If you’ve had this Middle Eastern pasta-like dish before, you know perfectly well how delicious it is. Sheesh Barak (شيش برك) is essentially meat-filled dough slowly cooked in a refreshing yogurt sauce infused with garlic and mint. It takes time, it takes patience, but when you’re making it with people you love, none of that matters.

Caboose (the dough that could)

basic semolina pasta recipe: 1 egg for every 100 grams of semolina flour, a pinch of salt, to taste, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil is optional. Mix the ingredients together and knead until a smooth ball of dough is formed (if too firm, add a little bit of luke warm water; if too soft, dust with a little more flour). Cover the dough in plastic wrap and allow to rest for 30 minutes. The dough is then ready to roll and be used as desired.

I guess you could, theoretically, use Won Ton wrappers if you were craving sheesh barak and were running short on time; but, for the sake of delicious food and a good time, I suggest opening a bottle of wine, inviting some friends over and going through the wonderful sheesh barak experience.

mise en place

The ingredients for this dish are pretty standard. Nothing you wouldn’t be able to find in your local market. I’m convinced, however, the gossip that goes on while Middle Eastern women crowd around a table to make these types of involved Middle Eastern dishes adds something special to the dish.

Middle Eastern Gold

Allspice has got to be one of the most commonly used spices in Middle Eastern cooking. They sprinkle it over hard-boiled eggs, use it to season their poultry – they even add it as a garnish for some of their dishes. Because of how often I use it myself, I keep a large jar of whole allspice in my pantry and grind it small batches to preserve its freshness.

meat & onion love

The meat filling couldn’t be simpler. You’ll want to chop the onions finely and cook them in a little olive oil until translucent. After five minutes or so, add the meat, salt and allspice and cook until most of the moisture in the pan evaporates. My dad is notorious for sneaking into the kitchen at this point and helping himself to some of this meat mixture, which he’ll scoop into a warm pita pocket and sprinkle with some of the toasted pine nuts my mom reserves for garnishing.

filling the dough

You can shape your sheesh barak a different number of ways. I personally like the tortellini shape because it creates a perfect little nook for extra yogurt sauce to sit in. Desi went so far as to cross the arms, which make them look even cuter, but I’ll leave that detail up to you.

plan for leftovers

For the sauce you’ll want to mix together a tiny bit of cornstarch, an egg, the yogurt and place the mix over medium heat. Add the sheesh barak and slowly bring the sauce to a simmer. The egg and the cornstarch are there as stabilizers so that the yogurt won’t separate, but to be on the safe side, make sure not to apply high heat as it could ruin the suace. In a separate skillet you’ll want to quickly sauté the garlic and dried mint in some extra virgin olive oil and add it to the sheesh barak.

Sheesh Barak (شيش برك)

For garnish I like to use some more of the dried mint, a bit of spicy ground red pepper and toasted pine nuts. Saha wa hana (صحة و هنا) bon appetit!

Sheesh Barak

yiels 4-6 servings

Components

  • 1 lb ground beef or lamb
  • 1-2 medium onions, finely diced
  • 2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tbsp allspice, ground
  • 300 g fresh pasta dough
  • 24 oz plain yogurt
  • 1/2 tsp cornstarch
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tbsp dried mint
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • salt, to taste
  • pine nutes, toasted for garnish

Putting them all together

  1. Make pasta dough and set aside (recipe in post).
  2. Cook the onions in extra virgin olive oil over medium heat until translucent, approximately 5-7 minutes. Add meat, allspice and salt and cook over medium high heat until most of the liquid in the pan has evaporated.
  3. Once the meat mixture has cooled, roll out the dough. Make tortellini, ravioli or your favorite pasta shape.
  4. For the sauce, mix the yogurt, cornstarch, and egg in a large sauce pan. Add the sheesh barak and place over medium heat. Stir occasionally to make sure the sauce does not separate.
  5. In a separate pan, sauté the garlic and dried mint until fragrant. Mix into sheesh barak.
  6. Garnish with some more dried mint, a little spicy ground red pepper, and toasted pine nuts.

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No such thing as ‘just coffee’

Last month, if you recall, was essentially dedicated to moving to my new place. I was also finishing up school, going to work and trying to keep up with my blog, with an emphasis on the word trying. My friend Marianna, however, made things slightly easier for me because she, her husband and adorable baby girl recently moved a new house and didn’t need their old moving boxes anymore.
On a Tuesday afternoon, after work and without notice, I gave Marianna a call to see if I could swing her place by for the boxes. She responded with a quick “of course – اهلا و سهلا” and then asked how far away I was. I should mention that Marianna is a true Lebanese and could not possibly live with herself if I didn’t walk out of her home weighing 5 lbs heavier – so, I lied about the fact that I was right around the corner, and told her not to go through any trouble, that just coffee would be fine. My request, of course, made no difference.

mise en place

By the time I got there, Marianna had already prepped the tomatoes, mint and cucumber for fattoush (فتوش), was defrosting pita bread for some manaqish (مناقيس), had ground beef and minced onions cooking on the burner, all while in high heels and keeping an eye on her daughter playing with her toys on the counter. As soon as I walked through the door she kissed me three times on alternating cheeks, asked me if I wanted anything to drink and instructed me to make myself at home – so I followed her to the kitchen and watched her as she prepared the fateh (فتة).

toasted pita, garlic, hummus water & lemon juice

Fateh is a traditional, layered Middle Eastern dish that can be done a variety of ways: with chicken, cow’s tongue, or how we were having it, with ground beef. The layering starts off with a thin coating of traditional hummus on the bottom of a casserole dish. The second layer is a mix of toasted pita bread, minced garlic, a splash of lemon juice and a drizzle of some of the hot water leftover from boiling the chickpeas. The point of this step is to give the toasted pita some flavor and make the traditionally stale bread slightly soft, but not soggy.

hands are the best tools for this

Once the bread is fully coated I give it another toss with the cooked chickpeas. You could do it all in one step, but I don’t like how the shells come off the chickpeas when you toss them too much. This way the chickpeas get coated, but also preserve their shape at the same time.

fateh (فتة)

The third layer is the ground beef cooked with the onions, allspice and a pinch of cinnamon. Finally, you’ll want to top everything with a healthy spread of plain, whole milk yogurt and garnish the dish with toasted pine nuts and usually minced parsley – but I didn’t have the latter.

Fateh

approx 4-6 servings

Components

  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 cup hummus, classic
  • 1 cup chickpeas, cooked
  • 2 yellow onions, diced
  • 1 tsp allspice, ground
  • a dash of cinnamon, ground
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1-2 tbsp, lemon juice
  • 2 cups pita breads, cut into small triangles
  • a splash of hot water (preferably from boiling chickpeas)
  • 3 cups plain yogurt, whole milk
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 3 tbsp flat leaf parsley, minced for garnish
  • salt, to taste
  • extra virgin olive oil, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. Start by cooking the ground beef over medium heat with some olive oil, minced onions, allspice and salt Cook for at least 15-20 minutes.
  2. If you’re using canned chickpeas, rinse them and boil them for 5-10 minutes to heat them up and also remove the canned taste they sometimes have.
  3. Reserve some of the chickpea water and drain the rest (regular hot water, or hot stock also works if you accidentally drain out all the chickpea water).
  4. Toast pita bread with some olive oil and salt in a 400 degree oven for 5-7 minutes or until golden brown.
  5. As soon as they’re toasted, toss the bread with the garlic, lemon juice and splash of the hummus water until well-coated and soft (but not soggy). Gently mix in the hot chickpeas at the end to preserve their shape.
  6. Layer the hummus, bread mixture, ground beef, yogurt and garnish with toasted pine nuts and minced parsley.

notes: Make sure no layer has excess water so that the casserole doesn’t get overly soggy. You’ll want to cook the meat and onions for at least 15-20 minutes for that reason – so that the liquid from the onion evaporates.

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fateh (فتة)

refreshing pasta

A few days ago, when I wrote about my grandfather, I was touched by the support I received in the form of emails and comments. I called my grandmother actually, and read her a few of the messages bloggers and non-bloggers had left describing their personal relationship between food and family. At the expense of sounding sappy, it made me realize how much I enjoy blogging. I really do. As for my grandmother, she said I ought to cook a nice dinner for everyone. Since we’re all scattered around the world, however, I thought I’d share with you the next best thing, a post on one of my favorite refreshing pasta dishes you can enjoy all summer. 

mise en place

This dish takes approximately 11-13 minutes to put together – depending on the time it takes to cook your favorite kind of pasta. For this dish, and most others in fact, I go with farfalle. I like how they look on the plate; butterflies or bow ties, they have a simple elegance to them. Perhaps I can also argue that the perfectly-pinched middle creates deep nooks ideal for the yogurt sauce to settle in, but this dish isn’t that fussy, in fact, any pasta shape will do – and if you want more sauce, go ahead and eat with a spoon, no one’s looking.

garlic paste

For this dish you’ll want to mince, or pretty much smash, the garlic into a smooth paste. If you add salt to the garlic while you’re mincing, the friction will help break down the cell walls of the garlic and also help create a smooth, paste-like consistency. 

yogurt sauce with dried mint & garlic

The sauce is the what makes the dish special. Throughout the Middle East, Greece and the rest of the Mediterranean, yogurt is predominantly used for savory dishes. The yogurt has a cooling effect that helps counteract the spicy heat of the raw garlic and also acts as a smooth, creamy sauce for pasta.

Pasta with Mint Yogurt Sauce

approx 4-6 servings

Components

  • 1 lb pasta
  • 24 oz plain, whole milk yogurt (3/4 large container)
  • 1 1/2 – 2 tbsp dried mint
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • salt, to taste
  • extra-virgin olive oil, optional

Putting them all together

  1. Make sauce by mixing together yogurt, garlic and mint. Set aside at room temperature.
  2. Bring water to a boil, season with plenty of salt (1-2 tbsp), and cook pasta according to instructions on the box.
  3. Once pasta is done cooking, drain very well and mix with yogurt sauce that has been sitting at room temperature.
  4. Season with salt and drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil.

notes: If you want a thicker sauce, try using a combination of Greek (strained) yogurt and regular yogurt. I prefer mine to be more on the light refreshing side, so I only use regular yogurt. 

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pasta with refreshing yogurt sauce