It’s hard to believe my year abroad is over, but I’m so excited to be back in my own kitchen with all my toys, an oven I understand, and familiar ingredients readily available.
For my first baking adventure now that I’m home, I went decidedly simple but not very Christmas-y. It will be gone by then anyway! 🙂
Chocolate Chip Cake
A while back, I introduced a local cake made from nut flour, the basbousa. I’ve become so addicted that baking one has pretty much become my Friday morning ritual…after a double espresso, that is. It’s so easy to throw together, though, you could even start before that first cup is brewed.
This basbousa is a little more rustic than the traditional version. Instead of adorning the pieces with neatly placed whole almonds, I opted for the less fussy scattering of coarsely chopped pieces, guaranteeing the crunch and amazing flavor of toasted almonds in each bite.
Pour another espresso, plate up a couple of pieces of warm basbousa and some fruit, and open up that newspaper. It’s the weekend; start your own tradition!!!
Pistachio Cardamom Rose Basbousa
One of the things I love about traveling is that it forces me to try new foods and new combinations of familiar foods. I am forever grateful for Italy for introducing me to a surprising combo that stole my heart, fragole con aceto balsamico — fresh strawberries drizzled in balsamic vinegar. Most of the time, it’s served as a dessert, but paired with the peppery bite of arugula and the amazingly tangy taste of plum tomatoes, it makes a wonderfully simple lunch on a summer day or a stunning accompaniment to grilled steak or chicken.
Strawberry and Tomato Salad
Each weekend, I try to get out and explore another facet of this small country. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a boozy brunch now and then, too, but if that’s all I did with my weekends, no amount of working out could keep the weight off. More importantly, I’d have squandered an opportunity to experience the culture and history of a place I’d lived in for a full year.
One of those adventures also led me to a tasty discovery, basbousa. Normally made with semolina, the woman running the museum cafe assured me that their version was gluten, dairy, and egg free. It was so moist, tender, and sweet without being cloyingly so. Sadly for me, the fact that yogurt is dairy got lost in translation.
Unfortunate reaction aside, the dessert did lead to another delicious experiment with nut flours — this time pistachios — inspired by a flavor combination borrowed from an Eid favorite, gulab jamun — cardamom and rose. The result, Pistachio Cardamom Rose Basbousa, isn’t authentic Arabic, but to me, it captures the spirit of this island and the cultural melting pot that it has become over thousands of years.
Here’s the challenge: the recipe has you cut the basbousa before drizzling it with the rose syrup to make cutting/serving easier. It also means that, in mere minutes, once the basbousa has cooled, practically nothing is left to slow your consumption except will power and good friends. Okay, at least you might feel a bit more cultured than you would after a boozy brunch…
Have you ever eaten out and tried a dish with an ingredient or two that you’ve never had before, just to see what all the fuss was about? After a week of uninspired, hotel restaurant meals on a recent business trip, I finally escaped the hum-drum monotony of dishes prepared to satisfy the tastes of travelers from anywhere and everywhere and ventured out to find something, anything different.
I’m guessing there is an Arabic version of Foursquare, Yelp, or pick your favorite trusty food guide, but since I haven’t found one yet, and I don’t read or speak Arabic, I was out of luck and had to take my chances. I settled on a Mediterranean-North African restaurant, all but guaranteed to find something I hadn’t tried, at least in the preceding week. Anyway, back to the important part… the food. I ordered a dish with with a pomegranate glaze. I’ve drunk my share of pomegranate juice, but I just couldn’t imagine how concentrating that flavor wouldn’t overpower the dish. Oh, man, was I wrong. It was ah-mazing, like a perfectly balanced symphony, each bite tempting me onto the next.
Of course I had to recreate it! I picked up a tube of harissa, a few pomegranates, and a bottle of pomegranate molasses the very next trip to the market. A half dozen chicken breasts later, I thought I was going nuts. Why was it so hard to figure out? Turns out I was so focused on the sauce that I forgot about the most important part, seasoning the chicken. Once I took the spices out of the glaze and used them to punch up my otherwise bland chicken breasts before glazing, things started looking up. A few minutes together in the pan was just the tantalizingly, tangy kiss that I was looking for.
Harissa-rubbed Chicken with Pomegranate Glaze and Herbed Quinoa
It’s just starting to get hot here – like 100F hot – and thankfully the humidity hasn’t kicked into full steam mode. Still, it’s hard to think about eating anything heavy, especially in the middle of the day. And, who wants to slave over an oven or range when you’ve escaped the heat outside?
A few cans, a few minutes at the cutting board, and presto chango —
Insalata di Tonno e Fagioli (Tuna and Cannellini Bean Salad)
Now, pour yourself a nice, chilled white wine and pretend you’re in Tuscany!
If I’m making breakfast for family and friends, I’ll make something sweet, because I like to bake, especially for company. When it’s just me, though, I usually make something on the savory side. Back when I could eat eggs and dairy, I would make a pretty mean frittata or omelet. Nowadays, its a tofu scramble with whatever is left in my vegetable drawer at the end of the week.
This morning, with a bunch of cilantro and an avocado, I didn’t exactly have the makings for a scramble, but I did have the inspiration for a flavorful hash. Yes, a tofu scramble would be a lot healthier, but after a 25km hike with a 10 kilo pack, I decided to treat myself to this Chorizo Hash. Don’t skip or skimp on the avocado! It really balances the acidity and spice of the chorizo nicely.
I don’t remember eating dessert in Spain. It’s not that there aren’t any desserts, but usually, I was so full and it was so late at night, that if I had room left, I tended to ask for fruit, like oranges with cinnamon and honey. This tart fuses those flavors. Bright, citrussy, and not too sweet, it is the perfect finish to a sunny day.
Valencia Orange Tart
I’ve been craving paella lately, and it’s so much better when its shared alongside a good Spanish red and a lively conversation. Sounds like the recipe for a dinner party!!!
If I’ve learned anything entertaining friends, it’s that not everyone shows up on time – maybe they get lost or maybe they’re just not obsessively punctual like yours truly. So, I fix an appetizer or two that we can munch on as the group comes together. The main course tends to be something that comes out of the oven after the last guest arrives or can stand the rest. Or, occasionally in the case when I haven’t had time to prep the ingredients in advance, isn’t even close to ready and becomes its own entertainment as guests stand around my open kitchen watching me finish cooking.
Normally when I make paella, my tapas selection tends towards olives, marcona almonds, sausages. This time, I decided to try a couple of warm tapas, Albóndigas en Salsa de Tomate (Meatballs in Tomato Sauce) and
Setas al Ajo (Garlic Mushrooms).
Note to self: buy more GF bread next time!!! The sauce on these meatballs was so good, one friend kept going back and scooping out one meatball and two or three spoonfuls of the sauce, which he would them mop up every last drop of with the GF bread I had toasted. Another piled mushrooms on pieces of toast like bruschetta, so that the garlicky sherry sauce would soak in.
It didn’t take long for me to start talking about food with my local friends. Everyone has their favorite kababji, but the food vaies only slightly depending on whether the spice blend used is Iranian or Iraqi influenced or Turkish or Lebanese. More often than not, the decision on where to go seems to comes down to the juice and sheesha options.
After several days in a row of dinners consisting almost entirely of meat (and an occasional chicken kabob for good measure), I needed a change, or possibly more appropriately, an intervention. The menu said hammour with citrus, coriander, and chile, and it mentioned a side of steamed vegetables, which in itself was starting to seem worth the price of the plate. I freaked out a little when I saw the bright yellow sauce, but one taste, and I was won over.
Grilled Hammour (grouper) with Mango, Chile, and Cilantro Sauce
I’ve made this recipe a few times now, and the sauce was just as awesome on a grilled salmon fillet. Watch out, though, the chiles sneak up on you.