Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Community Culture Kitchen: Pilgrimage Cultural Cuisine

It's not often that you get to travel, more or less, about 7500 km in under 75 minutes; with a wonderfully diverse mix of faculty, staff and students, this evening's Community Culture Kitchen participants went on a migratory journey to the culinary cultures inspired by the countries of three religious pilgrimage sites: St. Peter's Basilica, Mecca and the Holy Land. Now the journey could have been shortened by about 2000 km but my travel itinerary skills were clearly out the window as I planned tonight's dinner menu (the cartographers and geography specialists among you should know what I'm talking about). In any case, a pair of dishes nevertheless accompanied each stop of our gastronomic tour de cuisine which further prompted discussions of the movement and migration of not only people but of the very food we had today to enjoy.

From a simple dish to a more complex meal such as this evening's, mise en place is of the utmost importance!
As was the case with our last CCK event, this event partnered with others who could speak to the themes being presented. With key sponsorship from--quite fittingly--Marlaine and the Spectrum Series: Migrations campus-wide theme, Abdi and Moriah joined in the cultural sharing, representing Islam and Judaism, respectively, while I focused on Christianity. Again, I must also thank the Open House Kitchen Coordinator Lindsay for her help in getting all the ingredients we needed, as well as Susan G. for the inspiration I received after an early morning chat about food and pilgrimages throughout the Middle Ages.

But before we could actually get on the road, we had to prep for the voyage and with Moriah's great sous chef help, we were able to get a lot of the prep work done in advance. The first thing I got to work on was the dough for the fatir (flat bread). As you'll note in the aforementioned link, the recipe calls for frozen white bread dough; quite naturally, that wasn't going to work for me. What we ended up using was a recipe for unleavened bread which in itself is also relatively cheap, inexpensive, and easily transportable when cooked (great for these long pilgrimages). Not all that dissimilar to my homemade tortilla recipe, this one required only three ingredients, ingredients of which are easily accessible throughout the Mediterranean and indeed in warmer climates: flour (you'll note whole wheat; we used all-purpose), extra virgin olive oil and water. Combine the ingredients with a fork/spoon until the gluten has formed and your mass of dough begins to appear. Then with one hand, knead the dough in the bowl and use your free hand to add spoonfuls of flour to help bind the dough together. You know you're done when your kneading hand barely has any dough sticking to it. In preparation, I made two batches (2 c all-purpose flour to start, 4 tbsp olive oil and 1c water) and got that under a wet paper towel to stay moist.

With the dough resting, Moriah got some frying oil into a small pot to heat up on med-hi while I worked on washing 4 c basmatic rice for our take on Saudi Carrot Basmati Rice which would eventually be paired with the flat bread. Time and time again, rice is the one thing I've never learned to cook properly and have had mixed results; serves me right for growing up with a rice cooker at home. In any case, I rinsed the rice in a colander until the water ran clear (about five goes at this), and let that sit in more cold water for 15 minutes to remove any leftover starch. With this done, I also got 8 c (two 32-oz boxes) of vegetable stock (as opposed to chicken stock) heating in a deep pot.

Meanwhile, Moriah got to work on our take on the first of our desserts, sufganyot. The recipe calls for ingredients to make your own dough (a version of which I've made before with much success) but for the sake of time (and of course the translation for anyone seeking more accessible recipes), I went with buttermilk biscuit dough shortcut. The process, in theory, is quite simple: separate the biscuit dough, cut each round in half, re-roll and make a small well into which you put your raspberry preserves (or Nutella or what have you) and then seal them all up. Easy right? Uh, yeah... Really, the trouble here was that the dough was so limited that any chance of filling them up meant the preserves would ooze out. Do yourself a favour and get a larger (maybe more of a 10-count) size and make the sufganyots with a regular amount of dough used for a single biscuit (shows how familiar I am with these recipes, eh?). In any case, Moriah got these to work and as she finished them, I lowered the frying heat and deep fried the sufganyots. As with any other fried dough, make sure to keep an eye out for the reaction of your first one; the ideal cooking time I found was about 3 minutes in total, and of course the more dough you're using, the longer you'll need to cook them. But be careful-- you want the inside to be cooked through, but you don't want the exterior to be burned! Get your finished sufganyots onto some crinkled paper towel to cool off.

As those were getting ready, I got the Saudi Kabsa Spice Mix ready for the rice dish. Minus the cardamom pods because none weren't already in stock (which also seemed to be left out of the poster's version from the aforementioned link), one teaspoon each of turmeric (relative of ginger, also in this mix, and native to South India and Indonesia), coriander seeds (native to Morocco and Romania, and spread throughout Europe by the Romans), coarse ground black pepper (also native to India and both historically and commercially important to the spice trade), ground ginger (unsurprisingly another regionally Asian ingredient) and fennel seeds (originally found in southern Europe) made their way into my electric grinder and ground into an evenly textured powder. The water strained out, the rice made its way into the pot with the vegetable stock. To this, one and a third tsp of the spice mix was sprinkled on top of the vegetable stock, the warm spice tones soon to permeate the dish as they melded with the rice just as (and let's just accept this analogy) the spice trade, exploited and encouraged throughout the Middle Ages and the Crusades, affected daily life and especially redefined European cuisines. At this point, Moriah shredded three washed and peeled carrots while I got about 2/3 c pine nuts toasting in a small fry pan (originally I had planned to use almonds because I didn't think we had any pine nuts available). When the carrots and pine nuts were ready, these got into the pot with the rice, spices and stock, along with additional ground black pepper and salt (though I could have added more than I did); covered and brought to a boil, the heat was then reduced to a simmer for about 15 minutes, still covered. At the end of the 15 minutes, I used a fork to fluff the rice, and then re-covered the lid and let it sit for at least 20 more minutes.

Meanwhile, the sufganyots were all finished and cooling, the second course was on its way and so we had to get a move on our first course. As Moriah washed, trimmed and cut green beans in half, and then sliced five washed and peeled carrots for the Carrots and Green Beans appetizer, I halved a pint of grape tomatoes for the one dish I've actually made in the past: my roasted caprese salad. Into a small baking dish these went, topped with salt and ground black pepper, and drizzled with some extra virgin olive oil. Moriah got the carrots frying as I minced five cloves of garlic and added them to the pan along with a bit of extra virgin olive oil; to all of this were added the green beans. As I was peeling and mincing a small nub of fresh ginger, our 1.5 hours of prep time were up and the event participants arrived (or at least, they entered en masse). As folks got settled in, the ginger was added to the carrots and green beans, along with some Italian dry seasoning mix (since we didn't have any fresh rosemary). And with that, we began our journey.

As mentioned above, I focused on the Christian pilgrimage to Italy and in a much less coherent way than I'm going to attempt to present it here. Focusing primarily on the Middle Ages, the growth of pilgrimages (once originally seen as a means of penance and practically reliant on the charity and good will of others) began to see an evolution that gave rise to inns, restaurants, and trade markets, as they were set up along the way at varying points en route to your pilgrimage site, e.g., Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Lourdes in France or St. Peter's Basilica (which had not been completed until 1626, the tail end of the Renaissance) in Vatican City, Italy. Soon enough pilgrimage routes to a considerable extent gave rise to commercial centers and areas of repose where food especially became vital to ones sustenance and cultural comfort along the journey. Originally, I had wanted to base this CCK event only on transportable ingredients that one might carry on an early Christian pilgrimage or perhaps even the kind of food one might find being served at an inn. However, not wanting to have to rely on such staples as gruel, I'd have to say tonight's approach worked out for the better. This being said and after a process of elimination, one of the participants Sunder was chosen to dice up 8 oz fresh mozzarella. As he worked on the mozzarella, I introduced the carrots and green beans dish which actually used vegetables readily available (more or less) during the Middle Ages. As I noted in this past Friday's post, this "Lucullian delight" also pays homage to the Mediterranean cuisine and ingredients, all the while highlighting the carrots as the star with backup support of the green beans, and with little distraction from superfluous ingredients.

By this point, the roasted tomatoes were ready to come out of the oven (about 15-20 minutes for 350 °F); the mozzarella was added to this, along with a handful of shredded fresh basil and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Transferred to two serving bowls, the roasted caprese salad was served on biscotte. In contrast to the other dish, none of these ingredients--which are today typically well associated with Italy--were not widely available or even consumed until much later, post-Renaissance. As I've been learning in the French gastronomy course I'm auditing this semester, fresh vegetables oftentimes seemed to have had a "proceed with caution" label; as the story goes with the tomato, its resistance strengthened as it migrated northward. For the longest time, the rich ate off of pewter (i.e., lead-laden) flatware and apparently the acidity of the tomatoes caused the lead to get into the food, whereas the poor ate on wooden plates and didn't build up an aversion. With the 1800s and the invention of the pizza (most notably, the one that represented the Italian flag for Queen Margarite when she visited Naples, the neighbourhood of mozzarella cheese), tomatoes grew in popularity. As for basil, click here for its global popularity and customs.

While everyone enjoyed the first course, I got to work on quickly demoing and making a third batch of dough as Moriah talked about her experience growing up with the second dessert, rugelach. Again, aiming for the quicker, more accessible take, we used store-bough crescent roll dough in lieu of making our own. For the first participant task, each person was asked to make their own rugelach which today is apparently found "on every street corner of Israel [on Fridays]" though its roots are located in central Europe. [I originally wanted everyone to also make their own sufganyot, but between the filling and frying with hot oil, we opted not to go that route.] Onto each crescent triangle, spread a thin layer of strawberry spread and sprinkle on top of this a mix of granulated sugar and cocoa powder (prep the mix with a ratio of 1 c sugar to 1/3 c cocoa; this adds a subtle sweetness from the sugar and warmth from the cocoa). Roll the triangle, from wider end to point, as you would for a croissant. As each person took a turn at this and got them onto a baking sheet, Abdi spoke about his history with food and the meaning of undergoing the Hajj (one of the five pillars of Islam and the name given to the Muslim's pilgrimage to Mecca). Following his mini-presentation, each participant was asked to grab a small ball of what I referred to as our fatir dough and flatten it out as thinly as possible. This would then cook on a fry pan on medium heat, for about 45-60 seconds per side, depending on heat strength and the thickness of the dough. Looking over the recipe instructions once more, I think they make much more sense in retrospect (especially to yield bigger pieces), though it would have taken quite a bit of patience and space to pull off the procedure successfully in the midst of all the other dishes. With finished fatir, participants were invited to also get some of the rice to eat with it (or rather, to eat it with.. think about it).

With the final rugelachs being made and then into the oven (which should still be on from the roasted tomatoes), Moriah talked about the sufganyots and the Jewish traditions around cooking with oil. Naturally, sufganyot are especially popular during the Hanukkah (Chanukah) season and its celebration of lights. In some respects, eating sufganyots this evening was rather timely, given their visibly-related neighbours, paczki, which can already be found in grocery stores for Shrove Tuesday.

And just a few minutes later, the rugelach (which received their "Jewish stamp of approval" in particular for their softer texture) were ready to make their way out of the oven and into our stomachs after receiving a final sugar cocoa dusting. All told, making one dish and explaining it in detail is both meaningful and challenging; with the support of those present, six dishes seemed surprisingly manageable. What I've also really appreciated about this CCK event and our last one is both the enthusiasm of all the participants, as well as the facility provided to us by the Open House and the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life. Our participant limit is admittedly small (15) but there's something to be said of having everyone in the kitchen learning, cooking/prepping and eating together, as opposed to a demo format for a larger audience. With many additional thanks to those who attended this evening's event and to everyone who stayed to help clean--especially Heidi, Maureen and Stephanie--I sign off saying both mentally and physically, ndihluthi. For the entire album, click here.

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