Friday, January 27, 2012

La Vera Cucina Fiorentina

My latest cookbook recommendation is Il Libro Della Vera Cucina Fiorentina, which translates to "The Book of the Real Florentine Kitchen." The book is written in Italian, I should be clear, but the recipes are so straightforward that honestly I think even non-Italian speakers could follow it with a dictionary to translate the food words. The book catalogues all the classic Florentian recipes that one finds in real home kitchens in Florence, from pasta favorites to stewed rabbit to liver crostini (some dishes are more appealing to me than others, honestly ...), presented in an easily managable way.
The book has a collection of Tuscan soups - we made the zuppa di poro (leek soup) and a Renaissance soup similar to French onion soup but using parmesan instead, of course, and with ground almonds and a pinch of cinnamon for sweetness. It may sound odd but it's surprisingly delightful. There are also a range of proteins, naturally, from stewed boar to roasted pheasant; we chose to make Italian baccala (white fish with leeks and stewed tomatoes):
The slow-cooked tomatoes were so decadent and paired perfectly with the strong-textured white fish (we used cod) that you wanted to lick the pan. Who knew fish could be so satisfying?
As for another kind of fish, we made pesce finto, a "fake fish" dish originating from the 19th century, when Tuscan peasants used starches to stretch the amount of proteins available. (Hence the popular World War II-era meatloaf in the U.S., think about it.) This dish combines boiled potatoes, canned tuna, and hard-boiled egg to create a fish loaf, which is then traditionally shaped into the mold of a fish shape, here decorated with capers, mayonnaise, and red pepper flakes. This is a great dish to make with children, who will have fun with the whimsical fish decorating!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sweet Potato Tofu Curry

Curry with sweet potatoes, tofu, broccoli and peas

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Indian Feast

Toasting Indian spices in my new spice dish to release their flavor:

Cumin, tumeric-based curry powder, garam masala
(for dahl, Indian lentils)

My saag paneer, like an Indian creamed spinach dish
(*tip: substitute feta for paneer cheese if needed)

The full homemade Indian dinner spread:

Clockwise from top: dahl, toasted garlic naan, tandoori chicken, chicken tikka masala, saag paneer, steamed rice with golden raisins and cardamom seeds, and curried green beans.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Afghan Ariana

After my recent trip to the Middle East where I was lucky enough to enjoy Egyptian, Lebanese, Yemeni, Iranian, and Arabic "Gulf" food, I knew I had to try food from Afghanistan for a fuller cultural appreciation of the different cuisines of the region. Ariana did not disappoint, serving authentic Afghan cuisine on a cozy, intimate setting.

Lamb, I learned, is a staple of Afghan cooking - the menu included lamb shish kabob, chopan (marinated lamb rack), quabili (lamb shank chunks baked in pallow rice), and sabzi challow (sauteed spinach with lamb), and likewise an assortment of beef dishes. Definitely a meat lover's paradise. Not exactly my thing, so I went for the vegetarian special: a platter of baked pumpkin, pan-fried eggplant, sauteed spinach, and okra sauteed with fresh tomatoes, served around carrot-sweet pallow rice:

It was exceptional. The spinach was cooked perfectly, and the okra still retaining some texture and bite, unlike the mushy okra that one so frequently encounters in Southern cooking in the U.S. I still find it fascinating that okra, a vegetable thought to be of African origin, over centuries migrated to Afghan and even Indian cooking, and was also brought to America by the slave trade; the plant is the same, yet the applications have evolved to be quite different. After having this rendition of okra, I wouldn't eat it any other way. And the real star of the dish was the baked pumpkin, which had caramelized to a sticky sweet treat, practically the dessert to top off the meal. Combined with the savory vegetables, the sweetness was perfect, delectable. When most Americans think about eating out, let's be honest, Afghanistan is not the first word that comes to mind. But this unexpectedly elegant cuisine is not to be missed, trust me.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sequoia on the Nile

Sequoia restaurant is the chic, sophisticated restaurant on Zamalek island on the Nile, serving a mix of Egyptian, Lebanese and European cuisine - even a sushi bar!

An elegant lounge in a white tent lit up with lanterns filled with ferns and low comfy white seats strewn with pillows, it's the perfect place to smoke hookah and sip a cocktail.

The lentil soup came deconstructed, the crispy crouton and citrus garnishes on the side to assemble.

Voila! Delicious, creamy and yet still light and satisfying. Sequoia on the Nile was the perfect place for our last night in Cairo.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cooking from the Souq

When I was traveling around Morocco I lamented how I saw such amazing fresh spices at the market but had no access to a kitchen to cook them with.

(At a market in Marrakech)

Yet on my recent trip to the Middle East, I was lucky enough to be able to cook in my friend's home in Qatar, using the fresh spices from the souq (meaning market in Arabic, سوق, the traditional marketplace in a Muslim city.)

Example of souqs:

(In Cairo, Egypt)

I decided to make a vegetable curry using the fresh ingredients available to me. Perusing the exotic spices, lentils, nuts, dried fruits, and other Middle Eastern ingredients in the souq, I decided on a yellow curry. First for the spices:

I chose tumeric, cumin, coriander, ginger, mustard seeds, cinnamon and a hint of red pepper for the spice mixture. Then some yellow lentils to add protein and texture to the curry, and some dried apricots for sweetness and plump golden raisins to mix into the rice. Next over to the vegetable market, where I found onions, carrots, potato, and the regionally-appropriate cousa and turban squash.
Turban squash (winter gourd local to the Middle East)

For the dish: first I soaked the lentils in warm water. I began the dish by toasting the spices in a dry pan to release their flavor. Then I removed the toasted spice mixture and sauteed the sliced onion in olive oil, adding in the diced potato and then the carrots, seasoning with salt and black pepper as I went.

I baked the turban squash whole in the oven, to soften it before breaking it down to add to the curry. I then boiled the lentils and began the rice. Once the onions had began to soften, I added the spices back into the pan, with a dash of brown sugar to caramelize the vegetables and balance out the spices with sweetness. Then I added a can of coconut milk, the lentils, and a can of chickpeas to provide two different textures and kinds of protein to the vegetarian dish.

I took the roasted turban squash out of the oven and broke it down into chunks to add to the curry, the soft sweet roasted flesh a perfect contrast for the spicy curry. I added broth to the curry as it cooked to get the right consistency, and used the rest for the rice. After adding the sliced cousa squash and dried apricots and letting the curry simmer so that the flavors combined, I adjusted the seasoning, with another pinch each of cinnamon and salt; fluffing the rice and stirring in the golden raisins, to serve alongside the curry. Then for a lovely dinner party:


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Yemeni Dining

Now, Yemeni food, as you may have noticed, is not easy to find in the U.S., and I don't believe I've ever had it(!) before I was lucky enough to try it in Doha, Qatar. The Bandar Aden restaurant was tucked away on a side street of Al Waqif souq, a treasure to be found.

The traditional Yemeni meal is truly a dining experience: you sit on the floor; each dining party is provided with a private room carpeted with Oriental rugs and throw pillows on the floor, and you remove your shoes before entering the little room and sit on the ground, and they lay down a mat on the floor to place the food on, and you eat with your hands, using the bread to scoop up the food (similar to Ethiopian cuisine. Except the bread is soo much better ...)

The meal began with a bowl of warm broth for each diner, followed by a salad of fresh greens drizzled with a yogurt sauce topped with black sesame seeds, and then stewed meats and vegetables and a massive puff of bread, which practically exploded when they set it down with a flourish as the centerpiece to our dinner. The bread has almost a puffed pastry-like consistency, with crispy edges resembling phyllo and a soft, chewier center, topped with a golden-brown layer of cracking deliciousness dotted with sesame seeds.

The stews we chose, chicken ogda, fall-of-the-bone tender pulled chicken with eggplant, carrots, and peppers in an aromatic sauce, and lamb in a thick savory sauce, were packed with flavor. Accents of stewed tomato and fresh cilantro are reminiscent of Mexican food, strangely enough - who knew that in the Middle East one would find a pairing to a Central American culinary favorite? But then again, I've always likened elements of Thai cuisine to Italian in their use of fresh tomatoes, chilis, and basil (hence why my Italian friends seem to love Thai food so much,) so this is yet another example of regional cuisines transcending tastes worldwide.

Perhaps the most fantastic part about a Yemeni meal is that after one has literally licked their bowl clean and put away so much of the mouthwatering bread that they can barely stand, is that you can lean back on the assorted pillows and cushions around the rug and relax, talking leisurely and sipping tea. That is how it is truly done there, and who am I to not follow custom? In short, it was excellent.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Eating in Egypt

Egypt was an amazing place to visit, for the history, the culture, and of course, for the food. I enjoy Middle Eastern food, and found that in Egypt the ingredients were all fresh, the key to any good meal, I believe. We tried hummus after hummus, and I discovered the secret is to use good-quality olive oil - with the right oil, chickpeas and tahini is elevated to a decadent, creamy consistency that puts packaged American-brand hummus to shame. I tried hummus with sesame seeds, hummus with spicy red pepper blended in, hummus with garlic, hummus with pine nuts; I ate hummus with the classic bread served with any Egyptian meal, hummus with falafel, hummus with vegetables mixed in; they even serve hummus topped with meat. Now you would think that I would be sick of hummus, but quite the contrary, I am now more determined than ever to learn to make excellent, Egypt-quality hummus. Let the experiments begin.

Falafel, crusted with sesame seeds and coriander, served, of course, with vegetables and hummus:
(At a traditional Egyptian restaurant in the souq in Cairo.)

Fresh jumbo shrimp, caught from the Mediterannean and grilled for us:

(At the Fish Market in Alexandria, overlooking the water.)

Traditional Ramadan pastries, made with honey:

(At a patisserie in Zamalek, an island on the Nile.)