Monday, 5 March 2012

Community Culture Kitchen: Middle Eastern Cultural Cuisine

Evening greetings from Granville! It's been another hectic week and I just couldn't bring myself to cook in the kitchen. Well, that all changed on Saturday when I led the third Community Culture Kitchen event at the Open House, partnering with the relatively newly formed MECO, the Middle Eastern Cultural Organization. A truly multi-cultural region, the Middle East sits at the intersection of Europe, Africa and Asia; influenced by at least seven maritime communities, it should not be a surprise that this region saw by both land and sea the migration of ingredients, recipes and (with those) cultures, eventually yielding a diversity of takes on dishes that have been deemed as belonging to the heritage of the Middle East. Going into the program, I had planned an ambitious six-course tasting menu, but due to time restraints (or rather lack thereof; somehow I legitimately forgot how long it actually takes to properly build Middle Eastern flavours) I settled for five and, as you'll see should you choose to read on, ended with four and a half.

I began the prep work by rinsing and soaking 1 c each basmati rice and dried lentils in cold water. I also set the oven to preheat at 350 °F, melted a stick of unsalted butter and got a small pot of vegetable oil heating on med-lo heat; as soon as a bag of bulgur wheat (we only had available the cracked wheat variety) made its way to the kitchen, I got about 3/4 c into a bowl of cold water (this in itself is one of the components that takes the most time, so soak the bulgur as early as you can; also, the finer the grain the better). In addition, when the garbanzo beans (aka, chickpeas) arrived, I drained two cans and got those boiling in a large for five minutes; these were then left alone to simmer for at least 50 minutes, as per the suggestion from this recipe. Also, if it's not already defrosted, take out some frozen phyllo dough (the box we had had two wrapped sets; we just used one) and let it begin to defrost After arranging the other ingredients and getting the basic prep ready, into a large pot on medium heat went a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, two small onions (roughly sliced) and three large cloves of garlic (roughly chopped). Settling somewhere between this Moroccan-inspired recipe and this one which offers an alternative list of ingredients, I added about 2 tsp ground cumin and 1 tsp ground coriander. This would be the base of my take on a veggie tagine which, in some respects, reminds me (except for the aforementioned spices) of Filipino caldereta or French ratatouille.

Again using the above-linked tagine recipes as a guide, I added to the stirred and (now) sizzling pot, one diced yellow bell pepper, 1/2 diced large eggplant, 1 diced zucchini and one large handful of baby carrots cut in half. Stirring together the ingredients, I also added three diced red skin potatoes and one 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes. I then reduced the heat to low and, keeping with the tagine tradition, covered the pot to allow the low, circulating heat to cook the vegetables until tender.

To be served with the veggie tagine was mujadra which also goes by the names mujadara and mujaddara. At its core, mujadra is a combination of onions (here, 4 small ones), lentils and rice (the pre-measured amounts that had been soaking). To this base, I added about a teaspoon of ground cumin and a dash of cinnamon that had been inspired by this recipe. Stirred together, I added to this lot about three cups of water, stirring and adding more water until the lentils and rice had absorbed enough moisture.

Meanwhile, the participants (this time around, all of them were students) had begun to arrive and were looking for ways to help. I early on asked a few to separate pistachios from their shells, others were chopping up parsley and others eventually deskinned the garbanzo beans when they were soft enough to smash. The students also took turns putting together the baklava, the inspiration recipe of which could be found here. Two sheets at a time, we buttered (using the unsalted butter that had melted at the start of the prep) and piled on four sets to create the base in a baking dish that just happened to be the perfect size of the defrosted phyllo dough. On top of that eighth sheet, 1/3 c crushed pistachios (we used the mezzaluna knife I bought many moons ago...ha.ha...to get the job done) that had been mixed with about a teaspoon or so of ground cinnamon were sprinkled on top; another buttered layer was added followed by another 1/3 c crushed pistachio and mixed-in cinnamon. The rest of the butter was used to layer the remaining sheets of phyllo. Before getting this straight into the oven, I carefully scored the baklava before getting it into the oven for about 40-50 minutes or until golden brown.

With the baklava baking away, it was time to put together the falafel and fry them. Into a mixing bowl went 2 small onions chopped, 2 finely minced large garlic cloves, 3 tbsp-ish of freshly chopped curly parsley, 1 tsp ground coriander and 1 tsp cumin, followed by the two 16 oz cans of chickpeas that had been boiling away from the start. To help bind all of this together, I mixed in a good drizzle of olive oil and 2 tbsp of all-purpose flour. All of the ingredients were then smashed and combined very well. Having increased the heat of the frying oil, it was time to finally test the cooking temperature and time. Forming them into rounds, get a few falafel balls into the hot oil. Lesson learned: do not cook the falafel for more than 3 minutes. Any longer, and they'll fall apart, having taken in too much oil. To a certain degree, I would also attribute the cooking issues to the fact that the pot was clearly overcrowded; too many and too quickly and the frying temperature also has to reheat to catch up with the ideal heat level. If you're finding the falafel aren't cooking within 3 minutes, slightly adjust the heat of the oil and try again. Also, be sure to compact the falafel very well as you form them and add more extra virgin olive oil if the mix is too dry.

Concurrently, the tabouli (asa--also spelled as--tabouleh) was being prepped by the students. Alongside two small onions that I had brunoised and two large cloves of minced garlic, were added estimated amounts of ingredients that spoke to the students' (particularly the Middle Eastern students) memory of what the dish should look like; indeed, by this point, I relied on their palates to act as the gauge of how well (read: how close) all of these dishes fared to their collective memory. In any case, roughly added--and further inspired by this recipe, this one, and (I think) this one--were: 1 bunch of fresh flat leaf parsley and the remaining curly leaf parsley, and about 1/3 a packet of fresh mint leaves (all of which were finely chopped using the mezzaluna knife); two firm roma tomatoes, petite diced; 1 cucumber, petite diced; the juice of one lemon; extra virgin olive oil; 1 tsp each ground coriander and cumin; and salt/pepper to taste. Mixed together thoroughly, the bulgur wheat was also added, and as you can see from the variations of the aforementioned linked recipes, the range of how much to be added is up to you. Given more time, get the tabouli in the fridge as quickly as possible to develop the most flavour possible.

Finally, the baklava will be ready to come out of the oven as the tabouli is bein prepped. As that point nears, you'll need about 15-20 minutes to boil together about 1 c water, 1 c sugar and 1/2 c honey (again, as suggested by this recipe; I had omitted at the time the vanilla extract). Another option, according to one of the students, is to boil together water, sugar and lemon juice. Whichever syrup you choose to make, stick with it and then pour it onto the baklava. If at all possible, wait for the baklava to cool (at least 5-10 minutes, or as long as 8 hours) before pouring on the syrup. We're aiming for sticky but still crispy, but again because of time, we had to speed up the process and hmmm was it delicious. I should note here that the omitted sixth dish (and potential second dessert) was sahlab, a Middle Eastern pudding made with milk, cornstarch, vanilla and sugar.

And so, we were able to serve the mujadra and veggie tagine as a united course, with two of MECO's exec board leaders--Saliba and Jessica--explaining the variations of these dishes within their respective Palestinian and Egyptian contexts. We then moved onto the tabouli, followed closely by the falafel we were able to save (which thankfully was just enough for a small tasting).

And after waiting as long as we could, it was time to dig into the good stuff which was scooped out and served individually in paper muffin cups. And if the lead photo of this post is any indication on just how much we loved this particular dish, I should say there was little to no trace of it left by the time we started cleaning up. Many thanks again to MECO for helping with this CCK event and to Lindsay and DU's Center for Religious and Spiritual Life for the logistical support of this event and the CCK program as a whole! For more photos, click here.

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