Saturday, December 3, 2011

Roll With It: Stuffed Cabbage with Chicken

In Arabic, this is also known as Malfoof Mahshi.  I prefer this dish prepared with the Arabian flavors of my husband's homeland as opposed to the Eastern European version with tomato sauce and flavored with ginger that I grew up eating (no offense, Mommy.  Yes, I still call my mother, Mommy)

Until we moved to my husband's hometown I had always made my stuffed cabbage with chopped (not ground) beef.  But, when we moved here I discovered my mother in law making her very delicious stuffed cabbage with chicken.  It's not traditional but, due to the extraordinarily high price of red meat here, its become common.  I actually enjoy it quite a bit like this and have begun making it with chicken myself.

Its preferable to use a looser leafed cabbage for this recipe, but if all you can find is a regular salad cabbage, that's fine too.   For my family, with 7 people eating, I use 3 or 4 cabbages.  I think a family of four would probably use 1 or 2, depending on what you will serve with it.

What You'll Need:
1 cabbage
1 cup of rice, uncooked
2 chicken breast halves or 2 chicken thighs
powdered chicken stock (optional)
1/4 cup olive oil
Baharat Makhloot
a lemon (or lemon juice)
garlic, 3 whole cloves or three teaspoons minced
1 tomato

What You Do:
First your going to soak your rice for the stuffing.  Add a good four finger pinch of salt to the rice and pour boiling water over it to cover.  If you see the water being absorbed, add more boiling water so that the rice is always covered.  Let is stand until the water has cooled, then drain.

While the rice is soaking, you will soften the cabbage leaves so that you can roll them.  The traditional way is to cut out the core as much as you can, then plunge the cabbage head into a pot of boiling water.  As the cabbage softens, the leaves become pliable and easy to remove.  That is the way I did it for nearly 10 years... until I discovered that you could do it just as well in the microwave with no appreciable difference.  I cut out the core the same as with the boiling water method and microwaved the cabbage for 10 minutes, flipping it at the halfway point.  As with boiling the cabbage, you will need to repeat this finding that after the outer leaves come off, the inner leaves are still stiff.  You do not want the leaves too limp, just pliable.

After removing the leaves you are going to shave off the center rib using a sharp kitchen knife.  Don't throw them!  You can use these to line your pan and/or fill in the gaps.

To prepare the stuffing (hashwi) you will add a teaspoon of baharat, about 1/4 tsp of pepper, a tablespoon of powdered stock if using, and the 1/2 cup of olive oil.  For a long time I was too conservative with the salt; now I am far more generous.  Please, do not be afraid to taste your stuffing.  The rice should have softened enough that one or two grains can be eaten and this will give you an idea as to how much adjustment your rice and spice need.  When you taste for salt and spicing, you want it to be very richly flavored as the broth will dilute the flavors of the stuffing. Bone your chicken thighs, reserving the bones, and chop them coarsely.    Add the meat to the rice and mix it all with your hands.

Oil the bottom of your pan and cover it with the chicken bones, tomato slices, cabbage ribs, and broken cabbage leaves.  This doesn't need to be a thick layer, just enough so that the rolls will not stick to the bottom of the pan.

Take a cabbage leaf.  Start with the medium size ones until you get the hang of it.  Place it shaved side down with the part that was attached facing you.  Place about a tablespoon of stuffing in a horizontal line across the bottom of the leaf.  Turn in up the bottom, turn in the sides, then roll up.  Continue, fitting them snugly into the bottom of your pot in one layer.  Sprinkle this layer with a generous four finger pinch of salt (substitute some chicken broth powder for the salt if you want a richer flavor), garlic, and a sprinkle of lemon juice.  Repest with another layer, continuing until you have used all of the leaves.  If you have extra gaps on the top layer, fill them with some of the reserved ribs.

Some recipes suggest weighting the rolls with a plate to ensure they don't unroll.  I used a plate for a good number of years in fear of all my hard work coming undone.  Then, my stuffed cabbage on the stove and ready to simmer, I broke the one plate that fit in my pot.   I tried every plate in my kitchen, none fit well, and I finally resorted to cooking the rolls without a plate.  It made no difference and I didn't have to wash an extra plate.  Turns out, my mother in law never uses one either.  If you feel more comfortable, my all means stick a plate on top, but please don't feel like its really necessary if they are snugly fitted.  If you do want to use a plate, stick in on the top before you add your water.

Slowly pour water (or stock, if desired) down the side of the pot, aiming for a hole in between your rolls if possible.  Add just enough water to cover the rolls.  I find its better to be conservative with the water.  You can always add more and too much will dilute the flavor and make for watery rolls.  Cook over medium heat until the water boils then cover and reduce the heat to low.  You can check the flavor of the broth before covering.  If it needs more salt, this is the easiest time to add it as it will dissolve in the water covering the rolls. These will need to simmer for about an hour and a half.  If it starts to look (or smell) like the water has all been absorbed you can add more boiling water.  I usually have water heated in my tea kettle for this reason.   After an hour and a half, you can taste a roll to check if they are done.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Many hearts. Much love--My lifestyle

I received a comment the other day from a sister wondering about burnout.  She raised a number of very valid points--points in fact that I would have completely agreed with "back in the day".  Her comment was this: about a never ending job! Your sooooo well organized...mashallah, but sis dont you ever get bored or tired of the never ending cleaning? How is your body and skin holding up? I know the 2 years I was at home it was hell for me, the everything rote routine of cooking and cleaning was just too dulling for me to get into, infact it made me really-really-really depressed, I hated waking up in the morning cuz I knew I had to cook, clean, cook and clean some more...yuck. I hated it. How do you handle that sort of life? do you ever get fed up and tired from the routine? How do you stay mentally alert? Do you look forward to each day?
wow...i am in awe thought...i guess your a born housewife...I for one, am definetly not. LOL. I hope your family appreciates their superwoman mom and wife! 

Do I ever get bored or tired of the never ending cleaning?  Well, of course I get tired of scrubbing a floor and then finding a quart of milk spilled all over it 5 minutes later... I think anyone would and it has required me to develop patience.  But, I do think its important to remember that every single job has its frustrations and monotony.  Even the most exciting jobs can become monotonous in their excitement.  I know a man who buys and "flips" distressed properties for a living, and a good living at that.  He makes much more money than he would make at an office job and by all accounts his is an exciting job.  He gets to go to auctions and can meet with Realtors over coffee or lunch if he desires.  He scopes out distressed properties and envisions their potential.  Shopping for design elements at Lowes or Home Depot is part of his job.  Sounds exciting and enviable?  It is, and for a long time he loved it... but this man has considered going back to school and getting his degree in a more mundane field.  Why?  Because the adrenaline of the auction, the excitement itself,  has become monotonous and he wants a 9 to 5 job.

I have never know anyone that was not frustrated or bored with some aspect of their job.  That's the bottom line and that's the truth.  Nurses get frustrated with doctors, doctors get frustrated with their patients.  Lawyers get exasperated with other lawyers.  No one is immune.  The point is, when you see your job as valuable and desirable, when your occupation is truly your calling, your mind causes you to look past the frustrations and rewards you with that "I love my job" feeling.

There are very, very few days that I actually don't look forward to getting up in the morning... and those are mostly due to having stayed up too late the night before!  I obviously can't speak for you personally, but I do believe that many women who don't enjoy being a stay-at-home mom feel that way because they have either tried it and were not given the appropriate support by their spouses or because they have somehow gotten it into their heads that being a "housewife" is boring, tedious, and un-rewarding.  Many Western women of my mother's and my generation and socio-eceonomic class were raised on the Free to Be You and Me mentality.  Nourished with a steady diet of Mary Tyler Moore, Melrose Place, and the Cosby Show we knew that we wanted nothing less than a chic wardrobe and exciting career.  Cosmo and Vogue in the 80's were filled with attractive career women wearing Vertigo suits.  I believe that this is in many ways a cultural perspective, not unlike how Western women of my generation see an extraordinarily toned size 4 as the ultimate physique--we absolutely cannot fathom how other women can actually strive to have a size 10 figure.

I think if you look around, you may even find that the tables are turning.  Before I had my first child, I worked at an  Elementary school in one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city.  There were still a few mothers who worked full time as doctors or entrepreneurs, but not as many as you would think.  With the young upper-middle-class mothers at that school, the ultimate lifestyle was to be a stay at mom.  Were they educated?  Yes, very much so.  What did they do with their educations?  Charity work.  Part time work (one doctor, my "room-mother" actually, was a very well regarded pediatrician and used to work part time).  Impart their education to their children.   I know one mother, a lawyer with an impressive resume and a degree from a tier 1 law school, who works at home for a few years until she gets frustrated, then she works outside the home for a few years until she gets frustrated.  Rinse.  Repeat.  She hasn't achieved the financial goals that many lawyers strive for but she knows in her heart she has an illustrious career on all fronts and she is pleased with her life.

Now, like I said, I can only speak from my experiences and my perspective.  There are a number of women who are truly not suited to be managers of their households, who are so miserable in the career of full-time motherhood that they bring the morale of the whole household down with them.  There are women so uniquely gifted in specific fields that it would really be nothing less than robbery for them to keep their talents to themselves.  And, of course, from an Islamic perspective, it is obligatory among every nation as a whole to ensure that certain necessary positions are filled.

Ok, on to the next question:  How do I stay mentally alert?  Caffeine.

No, just kidding (well, just kidding 95% of the time).  I stay alert and engaged by always trying new things.  New meals, new organizational methods.  I try new workout routines, study new supplements and topical actives for the skin.  I look into new science experiment to do with the kids to supplement what they are learning at school.  Sometimes I'll do some research on a specific subject for my husband.  When my kids are sick, I research on their symptoms before we go to the doctor--when we get home, I do more research on the diagnosis so that I can understand what's going on.   I'm very interested in health and holistic fitness and currently spend a lot of time researching bio-mechanics and functional fitness.

How are my body and skin holding up?  Well, that's kind of personal, but (again, personal opinion) how well a women's body and skin hold up depend on a few factors:  her nutrition, her care habits, her rest habits, and her heart.   Nutrition is undoubtedly a cornerstone of a healthy and youthful body and face, with supplementation being essential in today's world of depleted soils and unbalanced diets.  Care habits include a personalized fitness regime and appropriate topical skin and body care (including cleansers, exfoliants, creams and serums with proven active ingredients, and moisturizer/oils).  Rest habits include both proper sleep and relaxation activities:  contemplation, yoga/ stretching, massage.  Everyone has 24 hours in a day and everyone can include a reasonable amount of time to achieve their health and fitness goals if that is their priority.

What does the heart have to do with it?  Everything.  From a physical perspective, a constricted and stressed heart, and this includes emotional state, will not circulate the blood optimally.  It is imperative to the health of the body and the skin that the blood circulates well:  blood transports oxygen and nutrients to cells and carries waste products and toxins to the appropriate organs for removal from our bodies.  From an emotional perspective... let me share with you the following personal experience.  Some days I wake up with too little sleep.  I'm not completely exhausted, but tired enough to be cranky and frustrated.   My day progresses a little off kilter and I'm not in a great mood.  My mind mulls the situation over:  This is just not right.  I need more sleep than this.  I deserve more sleep than this. Coffee just isn't enough.  A friend stops by and sees my tired, drawn face and comments "You look terrible.  Is everything ok?"   Other days I wake up with too little sleep.  Again, I'm not completely exhausted, but just tired enough to be cranky and frustrated.  But my heart is at peace.  I'm grateful that I slept in a bed instead of under a bridge.  That I was awakened by my baby's painful tooth not bombs or warcrafts.   That I have fresh milk and coffee to perk myself up with.  That I'm able to serve my Lord without even having to leave my warm home.   A friend stops by and sees my cheerful face.  She comments "You look great.  What's your secret?"

Sunday, October 30, 2011

White on White--Cream of Cauliflower Soup

I was all set to post my stuffed cabbage recipe when I made this absolutely delicious and beautiful soup that I just had to share with you.  My kids went crazy over it and I think its just perfect for Fall.  I also think its healthy, but then again I think butter and whole milk are healthy.  I'm old-school like that; plus, we are a very active family and our bodies need the wholesome fats.

My kids aren't big cauliflower fans and I didn't want to go through all of the trouble to make maklooba just to have them pick all of the vegetables out.  Then I thought of this:

Cream of Cauliflower Soup

What you need:
One cauliflower
An onion
1/4 cup white flour
Nutmeg, ground allspice or (if you want to be a little wild and all "fusion cuisine" here) I have found a pinch of baharat makhloot pairs perfectly with the creamy vegetable flavors
Milk (as much as a quart)
1/2 stick (1/4 cup or about 25g) of butter
Reserved cauliflower liquid
Chicken broth

What you do:
If you're like me, you'll want to do this on a day when you're going to be dirtying another pot anyways because this soup is best when using two pots.  I use the cauliflower pot to boil rice, corn, or stock.

Break up the cauliflower into florets and chop the stems.  You may have to peel some of the fibrous outer layers off of the lowest stems, but don't throw them (the stems, that is)!  Throw it all in a big pot and add water until it comes about halfway up the cauliflower.  You want to cover and steam it with as little salted water as possible for a while, mashing it as you go along.  If you boil it in a large amount of water, you're throwing out all of the vitamins and phytochemicals when you drain it!  You can also do this in the microwave.

While your cauliflower is steaming, you can go ahead and make your white sauce.  I always start my sauces and gravies with a roux.  Take your half stick of butter and melt it over very low heat.  When it is melted and starting to get bubbly, add a finely chopped onion and saute until it is soft and transparent but not colored.  You can cover the pan to help the onion get done faster without coloring. Remove the onion and reserve.  Add 1/4 cup of flour and saute with the butter, stirring all the while.  Saute for a couple of minutes--you want the flour to start to get cooked (this will result in a smooth white sauce) but not colored (you want a white roux for a white sauce, not a brown roux for a brown gravy).  Now, slowly add the milk still stirring all the while.  It may seem to seize or lump up, but that's alright.  We already cooked our flour, so those lumps will come right out with some vigorous wrist action.  Add your milk slowly, occasionally pausing to stir vigorously until smooth.  Stir it until it is thickened and bubbling.  When your white sauce is at the consistency of gravy or, well, white sauce, then add salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg or allspice.

Drain your cauliflower if there's a lot of liquid left, but reserve the liquid.  If there is a very little liquid you don't need to drain it.  Add your sauteed onions.  Mash your onions and cauliflower with a potato masher as smooth as you can, it's easier if you drained it well.  If you were a five star restaurant you could puree the vegetables in a food processor or blender for a completely smooth consistency but after child number three was born we let our rating slide and we don't want to wash the food processor any more (we obviously let or mind slide a bit as well, which is why we are calling ourselves "we").  Add chicken broth and any liquid left over from steaming your cauliflower to bring your mixture to your desired soup consistency.  Reheat, but don't let it boil, and serve as soon as possible.

You can vary this recipe by using more milk for the liquid, using some cream or half and half instead of some of the liquid, or even adding some cheese to the white sauce (before you add the cauliflower or any additional liquid).  You can also use this same recipe technique to make baked potato soup with leftover mashed or baked potatoes.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Many hearts. Much love--The Routine

I have had more requests than I can count on how do I get it all done?  Well, the truth is, some days I don't.  But most days I do, masha allah.  This is my ordinary weekday rountine:

I am a big fan of "early to bed, early to rise".  I start my days early by American standards, I wake up between 4:30 and 5:15, depending on when I went to sleep the night before.  I pray my morning (fajr) prayer before sunrise and don't go to bed afterwards.  I supervise breakfast, get my children's work and school meals ready, get a load of laundry on, wash my face and apply any creams, my morning exercises (more on those later), nurse the baby, start on lunch (I still feed my kids a hot lunch after school) all before 8:00.  

When the last of the little feet are out the door, I nurse the baby again (though maybe its a thinly veiled excuse to take a short break--I'll never tell!) and do any paper/computer work for a short 15 minute or so period.   Then I start on the heavy stuff.  First things first, I try to work on a priority basis.  I do my morning exercises if things were hectic and I missed them earlier.  I get lunch going.  We rely heavily on soups and stews around here.  Things that I can get simmering early and turn off and on all day, ready to feed at a moment's notice to anyone who is hungry.  Once lunch is going, I turn to the most important daily cleaning tasks: cleaning the kitchen, tidying up, cleaning the bathrooms, and cleaning the floors.  Which I choose to do first may change, depending on any unusual circumstances that let things get behind, but when things are normal around here I do them in the order I mentioned.  When the first load of laundry is finished, I pop another one in.

When my daily work is finished, its usually about about 10:00.  Time for another break, whether you're hungry or not, baby!  Seriously, I shamelessly take short breaks when I need them--though I do try my best to hold out til the baby's next feeding.  If not, I try to do something productive like internet shopping, banking,  menu planning, brainstorming, but if that is more than I can handle I admit I turn to facebook, my favorite forum or my blog.

After my break, I turn to any deep cleaning tasks.  These rotate and I will follow with a post on deep cleaning on how I manage to keep the house truly clean as well as neat.  At 12:30 I stop, (almost) no matter what I'm doing.  I need time to stay fit (and sane)!

I feed the baby and drink a cup of tea.   Then I take about 60 minutes to exercise.  I eat (or drink) some protein and them start serving the kids' lunch so its ready for them when they get home

My children arrive from school at 1:30 and as they are small, still need reminders and supervision to change their clothes, put away their shoes and unpack their waterbottles and lunchboxes in an orderly manner.   They eat lunch and then we clean up the kitchen.  After lunch, the little ones retire to their room for some R&R and the school boys pray and do their homework.  I take this time to fold clothes, do paperwork, or do seated kitchen work (like popping green beans or stuffing vegetables).

We try to get all of the homework done by 3:00 so the kids can have some good playtime before sunset.  When they are done with their homework, they are responsible for checking their school supplies and packing their own backpacks.  After they make sure they are prepared for school the next day, they can go outside to play.

I use the time when they are outside to do any afternoon housework that needs to be done, add a load of clothes to the washer, take some time for myself (aka "get purdy"), lay out the clothes for after the kid' baths and for school the next day.  If there are any chores that have to be done during daylight hours this is also the time we do them--I bring them in one by one to work and chat with me.  Before sunset (which is about 5:00 nowadays),  I bring everyone inside, feed them their dinner (if we have leftovers from lunch) or a hearty snack (if we have no leftovers) and get them to their baths.

After the baths we pray the sunset prayer and do our evening chores.  When everyone has finished their chores, they can play quietly  in the playroom.  When the house is tidy we pray, read Qur'an and read books and if everyone has finished their responsibilities pleasantly, we might play a game on the computer or watch tv.

I try to get the kids to sleep at about 7:30 or 8:00.  This gives me time to tie up any loose ends, run the dishwasher, spend time with my husband, dance or do some stretching or yoga to unwind, take a shower if I haven't already, and....yup, you guessed it, get a load of laundry on.   I try to get myself in bed between 8:30 and 9:30.

Now, this routine does of course vary a bit from season to season, day to day.  In the summer we go to bed later, but take a nice nap in the afternoon.  After an initial burst of cleaning and cooking on Friday morning (which is our nicest meal of the week), I try to pare cleaning and cooking down to the bare necessities on the weekends so I can enjoy time with my family.  Obviously, life goes on, even on the weekends, so I do little things like save Friday's clean laundry to fold over a leisurely cup of coffee with my husband on Saturday morning.  Additionally, I try to do all of my errands on one day. I don't have a car, so I count pushing the well laden stroller around town as my exercise for that day.  I also don't do any deep cleaning the days I go out and make simple meals to save time.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bamia (Caramalized Okra Stew)

You!  Stop.  Yes, you.  You, right there staring blankly at the screen, ready to leave this  page at the sight of the word okra.  Or, stew.

Trust me, this one is a show stopper.  You could even serve it to your boss.  Or mother-in-law.  It's that good.

Bamia (Arabic for okra) is an extremely popular vegetable in Shami cooking.  In the summer it is used fresh; in the winter, dried.

Okra stew is served two ways in this region:  as a thick stew over rice or caramalized in the oven and eaten with bread.  When served with rice it is not unlike an Arabic gumbo and I can completely understand why true okra lovers are fond of it.  When served hot from the oven with fresh pita bread it is a showstopper.

Another benefit of the caramalized version is that it is make ahead.  You can make the stew (to be aunthentic, call it the maraqa) earlier in the day or even the day before and put it in the oven just before serving.  If you are serving it as part of a guest meal I suggest individual dishes that you can stick under the broiler, if you are enjoying this as a family it can be broiled in a large shallow pan.  Nowadays, I use the broiler pan that came with my oven; when my family was smaller I used to use a shallow 9"x 9" glass cake pan.

What you will need:

-Meat (Beef, Lamb, or Sheep).  I personally use a little less than a pound per 1.5 pounds of okra.  If your taste runs less or more, that's fine; but, if you use less you will need to use a richer stock or substitute stock for some of the water.
-Onions.  I use one large one for my 1.5 pounds of okra
-Garlic- divided in two (I use about 2-3 full teaspoons of chopped garlic.  This is about 2-3 cloves)
-Okra (as small as possible, left whole, with just the top trimmed off)
-4 or 5 very ripe tomatoes, peeled or not, chopped
-salt and black pepper to taste
- maggi, knorr, boullion powder, or fresh or canned stock (beef stock is best, but I've used Knorr chicken powder in a pinch)
-Baharat Makhloot (7 spice blend available in all middle eastern stores) and/or a scant handful of Allspice berries (or ground allspice)--I prefer just a scant teaspoon of Baharat and a small handfull of Allspice berries as they let the complex flavors of the dish shine through.  If you don't like picking whole spices out of your food, use a cheesecloth bundle or 2 heaping teaspoons of ground Baharat.
-fresh or whole dried hot pepper or ground dried hot pepper (or both fresh and dried) (I use a single one of the light green, elongated, mildly hot variety or about 1/2 teaspoon of ground red hot pepper)
- one or two bay leaves
-carob syrup (in Middle Eastern stores as Dibs Kharoub) or tamarind "dibis"/syrup (Also Middle Eastern Stores as "Tamar Hindi").  You can also use frozen tamarind puree (available in the frozen Latin section) and honey (I've even used honey alone in a pinch).   When I'm in the US I use tamarind as it's more readily available at regular supermarkets.
-coriander (cilantro) leaves, chopped finely (about a small bunch or half a large bunch, or to taste)

It is nice to fry/ saute the okra before adding them, but I often skip this when I am pressed for time.  In order to save a pan, I do this before anything else, then remove and reserve them.

Saute the onions in plenty of olive oil (you want to at least comfortably coat the bottom of your pot, if any of your ingredients start to stick, add more!).  When the onions have started to soften, add any fresh peppers.  Saute until peppers are soft then add half of the garlic and saute for a bit, until the aroma rises.  Add the meat, tossing to brown all sides.  When the meat is browned, add any ground spices that your using and the chopped tomatoes.  Add pepper and dried red pepper to taste.  Add some salt, but not all, you want to take into account the saltiness of your stock as well as "save" some to saute with the garlic and coriander at the end.  Some salt is necessary to draw out the flavors of the meat and vegetables at this point, however.

When the tomatoes have cooked down into a sauce and the meat is tender, add the okra and just a little stock (or water and powder) as nessasary (just enough so the okra doesn't burn).  You want to braise the okra more than boil it at this point.  As the okra cooks, keep adding a bit more stock each time you check.  The more it cooks, the more you'll want to add more and more stock so that you make a sauce.  If you run out of stock, don't worry about it--just use water or your powdered stock.  Add whole spices and bay leaves, adjust seasoning to your tastes.  When the seasoning is good add a generous tablespoon of tamarind syrup or frozen puree (i use about a fifth of the frozen packet and 2 teaspoons of honey).  You can add more honey/ syrup if you like.  It should not taste noticeably sweet, but rather the honey or dibs will contribute to a depth of flavor.

When the stew is done, saute the reserved garlic in some salted olive oil until the aroma rises, but it is not quite golden yet.  Add the cilantro and saute for a second, remove from the heat, and pour into the stew.

You can do this all as far ahead of time as you like.  I do it early (even the evening before if I have a busy day ahead of me) and clean the kitchen.

When you are ready to serve, pour it into a pan that a) you can put under the broiler and b) you can eat from.  Broil until the stew is bubbly and starting to caramalize and serve in the same pan with pita bread (or moroccan bread or ciabatta any other bread that you can use to scoop out stew--much like the way you scoop dip with a chip).  I'll serve my kids from a plate, but trust me this one is nicer (and prettier) right out of the dish you broiled it in.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cooking in the Sham Region

Many of the recipes I will be posting have their origins in the Sham region of the Middle East.  To Westerners, the Sham region in variously known as the Near East and the Levant.  Shami cooking is comprised of the dishes traditionally made in Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian, and Lebanese homes and restaurants.

Shami cooking can be intricate and time consuming, but it can also be simple and quick.  There is a great emphasis on the importance of nutrition in the culture and children are still fed a hot meal upon arriving home from school.  "Citified" versions of dishes, like those made in Beirut and Damascus, are more delicate and refined.  A Palestinian version is often hearty and rustic--designed to fill the bellies of the farmers arriving home after a day working their famous farmlands in one of the most fertile areas of the Middle East.   Like Boston's famous baked beans or Maryland's crab cakes there are some specialties belong to a more specific area in this region, but even those have now been adopted by neighbors.

The cooking of this region is typified by a few ingredients that are considered exotic to the average Westerner.  Other ingredients, such as yogurt, are ubiquitous in the West but used in different ways.

I will keep an ongoing glossary page where I describe or define ingredients and non-English terms.

If you are truly interested in learning to make Shami foods, I suggest you find a good Middle Eastern or Greek market where you can find fresh spices and other ingredients.

For my Middle Eastern and especially my Shami readers, bear with me--I think you may be pleasantly surprised.  As I am neither Shami nor Arab, I have been freed from many of the constraints you are bound by.   I can take tips from my closest Syrian friends, temper with American ingenuity, and apply them to the Palestinian dish that is the staple at my mother in law's house.  Sometimes this results in disaster, but on other occasions I have produced a meal that is guaranteed to knock your socks off!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Many hearts. Much love--My resume.

I thought about just plunging into the tips and tricks of the trade, but then I thought I'd better give you my qualifications first...

I am a stay at home mother of six amazing boys, masha allah. I pray that the Lord will shower them with blessings every moment of their lives.

My first son, Prince, is 8 years old.
My second son, Energizer, is 7 years old.
My third son, Earnest, is 5 years old.
My fourth son, Patience, is 3 years old.
My fifth son, Little Man, is 2 years old.
My sixth son, Sunshine, is 6 months old.

I had my first son while my husband and I were still living in my hometown. Shortly after he was born, we moved to a small town where we lived while he attended school and worked full time to support us. I had my next four children in that town. My last son was born in my husband's hometown in the Middle East, where we have been living since he graduated.

I have had long hours alone with my children while my husband spent a day at the University coming home just to eat and head off to a full work shift. I have had even longer weeks alone with my children when my husband returned to the States to further his education.

I have learned to plan without loosing spontaneity. I have learned to be prepared without hoarding. I have learned to be strong without sacrificing flexibility. I have learned how much hurt my childish words and actions caused my own mother. I have learned how to cook and clean and laugh at the biggest messes I have ever seen in my life. I have learned to give of myself without giving up myself. And most of all, I have learned to never stop learning.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Many hearts. Much love.

I've been asked a few times recently about tips for young wives or moms who want to have a big family but aren't sure if they can handle it. I've decided to do a series of short posts on being the old lady who lives in a shoe. Except I don't live in a shoe. And I'm not old. And sometimes I actually do know what to do.

So lets start with the whys.

Why do have and enjoy having a big family (this, of course, is by God's will alone)? Here are a few reasons:

1. I will always, Allah willing, have one of my best friends around.
2. So will my kids.
3. My children will be able to share the responsibility of taking care of me when I need it.
4. I think that the socialization aspect is unbeatable.
5. It can be very, very fun.
6. Many hands make light work
7. I really enjoy people. And from before they were born, my children were and are people.
8. Having little siblings is great for teaching older siblings responsibility.
9. Having big siblings is a great way to teach little children respect for accountability.
10. It feels really great to be part of a team.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Southern Style Coleslaw

photo courtesy of 1

Ever notice that your homemade coleslaw never tastes quite as good as the slaw from your favorite BBQ restaurant?   Not anymore!  The secret is using an old-fashioned cooked salad dressing as well as mayonnaise.  Go ahead and have your favorite grill-master get the (beef) ribs ready--its BBQ tonight!

What you need:
1 head cabbage (red cabbage looks very pretty in this dish, though green in more traditional)
1/2 medium onion (or more, if you like)
1-2 carrots (omit if using red cabbage)
1 egg
1/4-1/3 cup (60-80 ml) sugar (depending on how sweet you like your slaw)
1/4-1/3 cup (60-80) white or apple cider vinegar (amount depends on how tangy you like your slaw) 
3/4 to 1 scant tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper or less
1 Tbs flour
mayonnaise to taste (I usually use an equal ratio of mayonnaise to cooked dressing)
mustard to taste (Optional.  I've lately been using a spoonful of fresh ground mustard seed and am thrilled with the results.  You can use your favorite bottled mustard)
1 Tbs celery seed  (optional)
Paprika  for garnish (optional)

What you do:
Slice your cabbage using a knife or the slicing (not shredding) blade of your food processor.  If  your machine comes with two blades, use the larger. 
Shred the carrots with the larger blade
Slice, chop, or shred your onions (I prefer mine sliced very fine.  I use the smaller slicing blade on my processor.  Its worth cleaning two blades to me)
Mix together in the serving/storage bowl you will be using remembering that the salad will shrink in volume as the vegetables soften.  Use a bowl that is big enough to toss and mix the salad but not so big that you will be wasting space.

In a small saucepan beat your egg with the sugar.  Sprinkle the flour, salt, pepper, and ground mustard if using evenly over the egg mixture and beat in.  Beat in the vinegar.  Cook and stir on low heat until the mixture thickens--it may begin to "plop" as well.  If it hasn't thickened in a few minutes, just turn the heat up to medium low stirring all the while.  When completely cooled add mayonaisse and bottled mustard and celery seed if using (all to taste).  Mix with the cabbage and chill until the vegatables have softened. Garnish with paprika if desired.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cook Like You

I'm going to teach you how to cook like you.

What do I mean "cook like you"?  Why didn't I say "cook like me" or "cook like a pro" or "cook like Nigella Lawson"?  Well, I can't teach you to cook like me any more than I can teach you to dress like me, act like me, or look like me.  Like a perfume wears differently on each person, every dish is different depending on who makes it.  In fact, some of you might know that perfume can even smell differently on the same person depending on mood, hormonal balance, or even weather.  Real cooking is like that.  It's what makes a five star-chef owned restaurant or an amazing family owned and operated Italian joint different from a national chain.  Real cooking has personal flair, like fashion or make-up or decorating.  Real cooks often don't follow recipes, though they might if the dish is unfamiliar or has a complicated spice list.

I will be sharing some recipes with perfect and precise ingredient lists and, let me tell you, you had better appreciate those.  I am truly a spoonful of this--taste, taste--pinch of that--taste taste--"Ahh, yes!" kind of cook and for these exact measurement recipes I had to force myself to catch each pinch and handful with a proper measuring spoon.

But there will also be recipes with no measurements more than "a handful of, a little bit of, a big pinch of, a little pinch of".  Those are the really valuable recipes, the ones "like Mama used to make".  Don't worry, you can do it.

Sometimes you will be able to go out and taste a good and authentic example of what you are trying to make.  When you are eating, immerse yourself in the experience.  Don't necessarily try to pick apart the different spices, as that is something that takes time, but do try to get a feeling for the experience of what you are eating.  Then, when you work on that dish in your own home, you will be able to say, "Now, that's biryani!"  Your biryani will probably never taste the same as any other biryani you ever had--and it shouldn't--but it should be recognizably biryani.

Other times, I will teach you to make things that rarely can be found outside a home.  These are family style meals.  They are either not considered fancy enough to serve at restaurants or don't work well in a restaurant environment (see note 1 ) Unless you have a dear friend who shares the same cultural heritage as the dish I'm teaching you, it's going to be difficult to find a good example of those types of foods.  But don't worry, I'm going to hold your hand.  I'm going to immerse you in Mama Hen's kitchen.  I'm going to let you smell and taste the food til your hearts content.   When we're done, you're going to be able to get out there and make some real food.

So, go on over on to you tube and watch your favorite Sesame Street clip or Barney episode or  whatever you used to watch.  Pretend you're eight years old again.  Pull up a chair so you can reach the stove and get ready to listen to Mama.   I'm going to teach you how to be a real cook.  I'm going to teach you how to cook like you.

1. risotto, for example, is a delicious and beautifully presented Italian rice dish, but it doesn't hold well and as such is difficult to serve in a restaurant. You will typically only find risotto at individually owned Italian restaurants where it is made to order for the individual customer.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

30 Ways to Eat Chicken and Rice

When I was still a new revert to Islam and still a new bride, my husband, our 4 month old baby, and I moved about six hours away from my hometown.  It was a big move for our little family but important so that my husband could complete his degree.

It was there that I met some of the people that I call my best friends, there that four of my six children were born, there that I matured from a young wife to the woman I am today.  It was also there that I spent some of the most memorable Ramadans I have had.

Ramadan is the holy month of fasting in the Islamic lunar calendar.  It is the month when the Quran was revealed.  It is the month when the devils are locked up.  It is a month for contemplation and growth and purification.  A month for doing good deeds.  And, for my brothers and sisters who grew up in Muslim households, it is a month for being with family.

In our new town, a small college town with a respectably large Muslim population, local mosques each hosted a nightly iftar or dinner for breaking the fast.  This is a common practice at many mosques around the world, but normally frequented only by those who cannot afford to feed themselves.   In contrast, the iftars in our new town were jam packed with students and their families--people who could afford to feed themselves, but hungered for a taste of family.

These iftars were hosted by a different person every night.  One night might have seen Lebanese food served, another night Moroccan, another Egyptian, yet another Palestinian or Somali, or Turkish, or Kenyan, or Guyanian, or Pakistani, or Indian.  American and Latin reverts also relished in sharing their culinary heritage.  I can even recall Chinese food being served.  But, unbelievably, it seemed every meal centered around a different way of preparing chicken and rice.

One evening towards the end of my first Ramadan in that little town, we sat after such a meal, relaxed and chatting.   Our bellies full of food and warm with tea, a dear friend and I convulsed with laughter over some of the happy moments we had shared that month.  And wondered if we'd ever be able to look at chicken and rice again.  We decided that "30 Ways to Eat Chicken and Rice" would be an brilliant title for a book.

And so, the concept for this blog was born.