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!