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Monday, 31 March 2014

Saumon en Papillote - Salmon baked in Paper

Have I ever mentioned that green and blue are my favourite colours?
Green for earth at its best and blue for the sea and the sky.
The earth because it is life, roots and grounding.
The sea because its beautiful and mighty.
The sky because its spiritual and open.
All great things are powerful, beautiful, soulful and open yet still grounded...

Salmon is perhaps the ultimate resident of my top list favourite food. Yes sure it is full of nutrients, the Omega factor, the antioxidants, the super food categorisation and all that health talk... but mostly because it is rich! Rich in flavour, rich in nutrients, rich in giving and just rich all round. There is no way you will eat salmon and mistake it for any other fish. It is unique, delicious and prominent - a perfect ingredient for a perfect meal.

Because salmon is rich in flavour, it could sometimes be a bit too much for some. But I tell you, when done right and with the right combinations, salmon is a pleasure to eat even for the fussiest of eaters, so stay open minded (even if you have already decided you are not a big fan) and give this recipe a try.
I frequently make this and both my friends and family (including young children) always love it and you will too.

Cut long rectangles out of baking paper, fill them with
your desired ingredients then seal the paper by tightly
rolling in the sides and edges.
'En Papillote' is the French term for food cooked wrapped in baking paper. It is a popular French cuisine technique that is very similar to the Asian wrapping in banana leaves, the Middle Eastern wrapping in vine leaves or the modern wrapping of food in newspapers - where the food is separated from the ink by being wrapped in bundles of herbs first -  and it is essentially the same function as cooking in a Tagine pot. (read more about Tagine cooking on this link)

The whole idea of wrapping food with any type of paper is that the ingredients will snuggle tightly together and as they cook they will steam and continue to be moistened by the steam therefore turn out succulently moist and tender. Because the ingredients are tightly wrapped they do not lose any nutrients or flavours. In fact, they even lend their flavours to each other inside the paper, making the finished food really very flavoursome.

What more can any cooking method do for food? Therefore, do opt for 'en papillote' often and see how decadent your food comes out. Although this method is most popular with fish, it can be carried out with different meats, as well as vegetarian concoctions.

Always use fresh ingredients. Makes all the difference to the flavour and texture of the food.
Good quality ingredients always produce outstanding food.
Saumon En Papillote
Serves 4 - Easy
Choose organic, don't trust cocktails
of chemicals with your health!
You Need
4 fresh salmon fillets
a large bundle of baby asparagus
12 baby shallots, peeled and kept whole
zest and juice of 2 lemons
zest and juice of 2 limes
1 small bunch fresh coriander, chopped
1 small bunch fresh dills, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt** & Black pepper to taste

For the Baked Potatoes
1 kg Red baby potatoes
2 tbsp Olive oil
Salt** & Black pepper to taste

**I used pink Himalayan salt, love its flavour and the fact that it is not refined salt, which makes it healthier as well.

Start by roasting the asparagus. Place them over a baking sheet, drizzle lightly with olive oil and season with salt and black pepper. Roast in preheated oven for 10 minutes. Turning once throughout.

In the meantime, peel the onions and set aside.

Prepare the marinade for the salmon. Mix together the olive oil, zest and juice of lime and lemon, as well as the chopped herbs and seasoning. Place the salmon fillets in the marinade and flip to coat. Set aside.

Salmon en Papillote
Cut long rectangles of baking paper and fold in half. Open the paper and place some roasted asparagus on one side then top with the marinated salmon and some of the marinade sauce and herbs. Add a few onions and fold the paper to cover. Seal by tightly rolling in the sides, then roll in the edges.

Place the papillotes on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated oven (375F / 190C) for 12-15 minutes.
Remove from the oven and serve hot alongside lime wedges and roasted potatoes or an assorted leaves salad.

For the roasted potatoes, 
simply dress the washed potatoes with oil and season with salt & black pepper and roast in a hot oven until tender (30- 40 minutes) or crispy (1 hour, tossing regularly).

Hope you like this recipe. Do give it a try, I know you will  it. 
Come back soon for more....
All the excitement is just about to begin!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Ratatouille Tartlets

Serves 4 |  Easy

Typical to Provençal cookery and originally from Niece comes the popular and succulent Ratatouille. Ratatouille is essentially a vegetable stew, which was first designated as an appetiser, however, is nowadays used as part of different classic preparations such as ommlettes, and scrambled eggs. It is also served as a side to roasts, braised fish, chicken and small cuts of meat.

The original Ratatouille Niçoise is prepared using vegetables such as onions, zucchinis, eggplants, assorted capsicums and tomato, along with Provençal herbs which are all simmered to a smooth creamy consistency in olive oil. For the purist - and in following the steps of the preparation from the finest Provençal Chefs - the vegetables should be separately cooked, then combined to be cooked together to finish. It was customary for the vegetables to be cubed (medium size cubes), but with the modern cuisine and emphasis on presentation, chefs started changing around with the presentation of this dish, creating many designs to include flower shaped ratatouilles where the vegetables are lined as petals of a large flower, as well as batonned vegetables that are then tied with leaks to form bundles...etc.

Besides the heavenly flavours of ratatouille, what is great about this dish is that it is open to any design that you wish to present it with. The use of different vegetables allow for different colours too, so no matter what you end up doing, this dish is most certainly to always impress.

I have made Ratatouille for dinner the other day, and had some extra vegetables that did not fit in the dish, so decided to use them in tartlets, which my kids love. Ratatouille tartlets are an excellent variation to Baked Ratatouille. The addition of puff pastry, makes it an excellent snack and side to steak. In this post, I have included both, the tartlets and baked ratatouille dish for you to try. When serving a rustic dinner, go for the baked dish as it adds to that feel. Otherwise, and for an excellent lunch, serve ratatouille tartlets along with steak, braised fish or simply a side of leafy salad with classic french dressing.

Make the tartlets for afternoon tea, as a snack, as a side to dishes or for breakfasts and brunches.
Also using Ratatouille with eggs and omelettes makes it a wonderful brunch option :)

PS do go for seasonal vegetables, there is nothing like visiting farmers markets and being inspired by the local produce on offer that season. Also opt for organic whenever possible, why intrust a cocktail of chemicals with your health? The same applies to meats, in fact, meats are the one part where organic is really necessary.

For Baked Ratatouille
You Need
2 large eggplants, washed and sliced into thin rounds
1 small butternut squash, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
4 tomatoes, sliced into thin rounds
6 small zucchinis or 2 large ones, sliced into thin rounds
1 large brown onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic crushed
6 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
1 cup tomato juice or water
2 tsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp tomato paste
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 tbsp fresh rosemary leaves
1 tbsp fresh sage leaves
black pepper & salt
2 tbsp Olive oil + 2 tbsp extra

Start by preparing the tomato sauce. In a large saucepan, gently cook the diced onions, and crushed garlic in 2 tbsp olive oil. Cook till tender, but do not brown.

Add 1 tbsp of each: rosemary, thyme and sage. Sprinkle with black pepper and toss to coat. Add the chopped tomatoes and stir to coat with the herbed onion mixture. sprinkle with salt and stir. Add sugar, tomato paste and tomato juice or water, stir to mix. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 10-15 minutes or until liquid is reduced.

Turn the heat off and remove.
Place Tomato sauce in the baking dish to cover the bottom. Reserve about 1/2 cup of the sauce for later.

In whichever manner you like, start layering the vegetables on top of the tomato sauce. I place them half standing in the baking dish, and alternate colours. Continue going around until the whole dish had been filled with the vegetables.

Sprinkle the rest of the herbs and then sprinkle 1/4 cup of reserved tomato sauce on top of the vegetables. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tbsp olive oil.

Because the vegetables are not pre-cooked, cover with foil and bake in a preheated oven for 25 minutes. Then remove the foil and bake for further 20 minutes. If you have pre-cooked vegetables, then do not cover and just roast in the preheated oven for 25-40 minutes depending the size of your dish. The vegetables should still hold shape, yet be creamy when finished and easy to cut through.


For Ratatouille tartlets
You can use a cookie cutter - round or square - in any size you like. Try minis for cocktail parties. Adjust the size of the vegetables according to pastry size.

You Need

Puff pastry cut into squares of desired size.
1 medium eggplants, washed and sliced into thin rounds
1/4 butternut squash, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
2 tomatoes, sliced into thin rounds
3 small zucchinis or 2 large ones, sliced into thin rounds
1 small brown onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic crushed
4 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
1/2 cup tomato juice or water
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp tomato paste
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 tsp fresh rosemary leaves
1 tsp fresh sage leaves
black pepper & salt
2 tbsp Olive oil + 2 tbsp extra

Prepare tomato sauce as instructed above. Preheat the oven to 375F. Line a cookie sheet with baking paper and slightly brush with oil. Place the puff pastry squares on lined sheet about 2 inches apart.

Top each square with 2 tbsp of tomato paste (adjust quantity according to your chosen pastry size).

Top each with layers of vegetables, sprinkling ever so slightly with olive oil between the layers and sprinkling with herbs.

Start with the largest vegetables moving on to the smallest on top. Spoon a little tomato sauce on top, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with herbs. Repeat to finish all tartlets.

Bake in the preheated oven for 22 -25 minutes or until pastry is fully puffed and golden. Remove from heat, cool for 3 minutes on the sheet, transfer to wire rack until ready to serve.

Serve along side braised fish, steak, chicken or a side of leafy salad with french dressing... But hey this is good enough on its own and a perfect vegetarian treat ;)

ü Please consider the environmental impact before printing this post

Saturday, 8 March 2014

How to make Shishbarak (The Arabic version of Tortellini), A Step-by-Step Tutorial

Nothing beats fresh home-made Shishbarak

"I hope that I may always desire more than I can accomplish"   - Michelangelo

I woke up very early this morning... loving how quiet the house is. I figured to get this post going before everyone wakes up and the rest of the weekend continues :)
A recipe post since it's been a while, and coming back with more adventure soon.

Shishbarak is a Levantine cuisine preparation, that is believed to have originated in Syria. However many people believe that it's real origin is Turkish. As with most Middle Eastern food the origins are very tricky to confirm, but whichever origin Shishbarak stems from, it is delightfully delicious and making it, to me, is very therapeutic.

Making Shishbarak is very similar to making pasta. It is essentially a dough casing, that is filled with a classic meat filling. It is very similar to the Italian Tortellini, in concept and final shape. Once the dough is rolled filled and shaped, it is then slightly baked in prepare it for freezing. Or cooked straight away if having it fresh. Making the Shishbarak is the first step, then using this Shishbarak in the making of a vriety of stews is the final product (check out the Shishbarak & Kubbeh Stew 'Kubbeh o Shishbarak Bilaban' on this link).

Making Shishbarak is very similar to making Pasta

The dough used for making Shishbarak is a basic and very simple dough. Consisting only of water, flour and salt. No leavening agent, no improvers... no additions. The idea is to achieve a slightly sticky dough, that will encase the filling. The dough does not need to rise, and in fact it has to be somewhat thin as to not overwhelm the flavour of the meat filling. Shishbarak is easy to make however could be slightly time consuming. But hey... if you are relaxed in your kitchen, and listening to your favourite tunes, clearing your mind and producing delicious fresh food, then I'd say this time was well spent.

Yalla let's get rolling...

I prefer to roll dough on a 100% cotton cloth
Check the tip for rolling

The size of the Shishbarak is optional. Some like it big, others prefer it small. I always go for smaller sizes, I find them to be more elegant and easier to present... for that, I use the standard 3 inch round cookie cutter.

You Need
3 cups all purpose flour
1 1/4- 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
Salt to taste

1 recipe Arabic Meat Filling (meat filling recipe on this link).

Start by making the dough. here is a quick tip:

Tip 1 The moistness of dough is highly dependent on environmental conditions. If the weather is humid, you will find that you need less water. If the weather is dry, you might need more water. All you need to do is add the water gradually and mix until you achieve a slightly sticky dough. If the dough is too sticky add more flour, if the dough is dry, add a little bit more water and so on.

Gradually add the water until you achieve a dough slightly sticky in consistency. Do not over work the dough or
it will toughen up

Place meat filling in a sieve over
a bowl to get rid of excess liquids
Place the flour in a large wide bowl, or on a clean work surface. Gradually add the water and mix using your finger tips. Once the flour and water start binding start gathering and pressing them down in a knead-like motion as in picture 2 above. Continue to add water and knead until a slightly sticky dough is achieved as in picture 3 above. Where the dough will stick slightly to your fingers, but not enough to cover them.

Cut the dough into 2 portions, roll into a ball and place into a bowl. Cover the dough and let it rest for 30 minutes as in the last picture above (numbered 3 by mistake lol).

Meanwhile make the Arabic Meat Filling. Once the filling is finished, place in a sieve over a small bowl in order to get rid of any excess liquids. The liquids are not desirable here because they will affect the consistency of the Shishbarak dough. Placing the meat on the sieve is also good to cool it down, which makes it easier o handle.

Now you are ready to start rolling the dough. Rolling Shishbarak dough is best done using a pasta roller. It facilitates rolling dough into very thin sheets, which is what we are looking to achieve. You can use a traditional Italian Pasta Roller, or you can buy the Pasta rolling attachment for your stand mixer (Kitchen aid and Kenwood both have pasta rolling attachments). Set your pasta roller firmly on the table or hook the attachment to your kitchen machine. Set the roller on size 4 and sprinkle the tops - where the rollers are - slightly with flour.

Tip 2   I usually like to roll pasta, sticky doughs, cookie doughs most doughs really on a clean 100% cotton cloth instead of a work surface. I find this to give me the best results as it does not require the addition of a lot of flour to avoid stickiness, which eventually makes the dough dry. The cotton is stick-free :)

Rolling the dough for making Shishbarak
Cut each one of the 2 dough balls into 4 balls. Place the balls under a 100% cotton cloth - as in picture 1 above - to keep them from drying. Work with 1 ball at a time. Slightly roll the ball with a rolling pin as in picture 2. Take the disk of dough to the pasta roller and roll it as in picture 3. The dough will come out of the other end in the desired thickness as in picture 4 and 5. Super easy.

Cut out 3 inch rounds from the thin sough sheet using a cookie cutter
Once the dough sheet is rolled, place on slightly floured surface, and cut rounds using a cookie cutter as in picture 2 above. Place all the cut out dough circles under the cotton cloth to prevent drying out. Now you are ready to fill the dough.

Shaping the Shishbarak is what most find difficult. It is like shaping a ravioli
follow the instructions fully and you will have no problem at all
Place the dough cutout on a slightly floured surface. Top one half of the round with meat filling as in picture 1 above. Stay away from the edges or the dough will open up after cooking and that is the worst thing to happen! Fold the empty half of dough over the filling as in picture 2 and pinch the centre to seal the 2 dough sides together. Pinch all around the edge to seal the dough making sure no openings remain. The case would look like a crescent as in picture 3. Hold the crescent from either end and fold the right side over the left side and pinch the dough to hold the shape as in picture 4. Place the dough on the work surface and slightly press the top to flatten ever so little, as in picture 5. Place the finished Shishbarak piece on a floured tray, and keep uncovered to slightly dry. Continue the same process untill all dough and filling are consumed. :))

Once done and having placed all Shishbaraks on the tray, sprinkle the tops with a little more flour. Let stand for 15 minutes.

If going to freeze the Shishbarak, bake in 400F oven for 10-15 minutes to firm up and prepare for the freezer. If you freeze the dough without baking slightly, they will become soggy when thawed and might break up during cooking. Once baked, cool completely. Place in freezer safe containers, separated by wax or parchment paper. Otherwise you can just use them fresh for cooking.


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Revisiting UM ALI, the dark history of the traditional Egyptian dessert!

This illustration was created by the brilliant Lebanese Illustrator Hanane Kai for an article in BrownBook Magazine

The other day I was reading about Shajar Al Durr, a prominent woman figure in the old history of Egypt, who along with the Sultan Izz al-Din Aybak (whom she brought to power) "firmly established the Mamluk dynasty that would ultimately repulse the Mongols, expel the European Crusaders from the Holy Land, and remain the most powerful political force in the Middle East until the rule of the Ottomans". Reading this history and the woman's name of course bring to mind the traditional Egyptian dessert Um Ali, which is a bread pudding originally made with bread, milk and honey that was created in honour of her death! Yes Um Ali, the dessert, comes with a somewhat dark history! And while I had posted the recipe on this blog a few years ago (this is the link), I never told you its history. So I thought to revisit this dessert and tell you its story, because I suppose there is nothing more interesting than learning about food in history. (yes I know, I am one of those food nerds!)

Very similar to the Turkish Hareem Al Sultan Drama that most are watching on TV these days, the history from which this dessert originates is filled with betrayals, murders, and rise-to-power dramas! However, this story took place during the Egyptian Mamluk era before the Ottomans rule over Egypt. It seems back in history, the stories were all very similar. The hierarchies within a Sultan's entourage and the power struggle within them especially in the Harems were all of similar narratives; and this is the narrative of UM Ali...

The Originally Turkic, pretty and intelligent Shajar al-Durr was purchased as a bondmaid by Assalih Ayyoub, before he became Sultan. Then when he became Sultan in 1240, she accompanied him to Egypt and had their first son Khalil (aka al-Malik al-Mansour), and she became also known as Um Khalil Shajar al-Durr. Shortly after this birth, the sultan married her and made her a Sultana. In 1249, after ruling Egypt for almost 10 years, the sultan died, however Egypt was under attack by the crusaders, and therefore Shajar al-Durr decided to conceal his death. Along with the commander of all the Egyptian army, they secretly buried the sultan, without declaring his death. She declared that the sultan was very ill and unable to receive any visitors, and had the servants continue to cook his meals and bring them to his private tent. Prior to his death, the sultan had not left a testimony of who should succeed him, however, he left behind a large number of signed blank papers, which Shajar al-Durr and the chief of the army used as sultanic communications, decrees and orders and eventually as a Sultanic order to swear the oath of loyalty by the Mamluks and soldiers.

News of the Sultan's death reached the crusaders who decided to march into Cairo, then moved on to Al Mansurah, where Shajar al-Durr resided. With the help of Baibars' plan to which she agreed, the Egyptian army and townspeople, they managed to trap the crusaders, kill Louis IX brother Robert I of Artois and annihilate the crusader force. Later, and due to the arrival of the dead sultan's son Turanshah to Egypt, Shajar al-Durr announced the Sultan's death. Together, Shajar al-Durr and Turanshah completely defeated the crusader forces capturing Louis IX. With this Shajar al-Durr gained power among the Mamluks who supported her to remain powerful by assassinating Tarunshah, the last of the Abbasid sultans. Afterwards the Mamluks and Emirs decided to announce Shajar al-Durr as the new monarch with Izz al-Din Aybak as the commander in chief, to which she agreed. She took the royal name "al-Malikah Ismat ad-Din Umm-Khalil Shajar al-Durr" as well as the title "Malikat al-Muslimin" (Queen of the Muslims) and "Walidat al-Malik al-Mansur Khalil Emir al-Mo'aminin" (Mother of al-Malik al-Mansur Khalil Emir of the faithfuls). She had coins minted with her titles and she signed the decrees with the name "Walidat Khalil". She used these titles including her son's and late husband's names to gain respect and legitimacy for her reign as an heir of the Sultanate.

This illustration was created by Lebanese Illustrator Hanane Kai for an article in BrownBook Magazine

However, during the Ayyubid era, the custom was that the legitimacy of the sultan was only gained through the recognition of the Abbasid Caliph, and he refused to recognise her as a the new sultana. She therefore married Izz al-Din Aybak, making him the ruling Sultan. However, Shajar al-Durr wanted to stay in power, and wanted the sole rule of Egypt, therefore concealed Sultanate affairs from Aybak and prevented him from seeing his other wife insisting he should divorce her. Dispute and suspicions became part of the two's relationship, and Aybak, was searching for supremacy and security too. He wanted to form an alliance with a strong Amir, who could help him against the threats of the Mamluks and against his own wife's strong will. He therefore decided to marry the daughter of Badr ad-Din Lo'alo'a the Ayyubid Emir of al-Mousil. Word reached Shajar al-Durr who in turn killed Aybak and claimed it was a sudden death during the night. After investigations and testimonials of her maids, it was proven that Shajar al-Durr killed the Sultan, and was therefore banished and imprisoned.

This illustration was created by Lebanese Illustrator Hanane Kai for an article in BrownBook Magazine

the 15-year-old al-Mansur Ali, the son of Aybak, was made the new Sultan and his mother, Um Ali, ordered her bondmaids to kill Shajar al-Durr in revenge for stealing her husband and killing him as well as plotting against her son becoming the new Sultan. Shajar al-Durr was beaten to death in the Hammam by Um Ali's bondmaids and in celebration, Um Ali ordered the cook to create a new and delicious dessert and distribute it to everyone announcing that the dessert is celebrating the death of Shajar al-Durr. Not stopping at that, Um Ali ordered that a Shajar al-Durr gold coin be placed in every dessert bowl for the people to have. All the people were happy with the delicious dessert, the gold coin and the reign of their new sultan and his mother Um Ali. They were chanting her name in thanks and called the dessert after her. 

Um Ali, the dessert became known as the dessert of celebrations in Egypt, the dessert served at big events and in congrats to newly weds, newborns, and in celebration of Ramadan too. It moved on to become a well loved and celebrated dessert all over the Middle East, however not many know exactly what this dessert celebrates! The death of Shajar al-Durr!

As ever, food is way more than just the act of cooking and eating. Food is culture, history and the stories of a given people and time. This is exactly where food is most interesting.