Monday, August 1, 2011

Exploring the Middle East In My Copious Free Time

I haven't been cooking seriously that much lately. I have been terribly busy getting settled into our new house and wrapping things up with our old house, not to mention the never-ending craziness that is work.

I've been able to throw together a few low effort, pedestrian meals here and there... nothing fancy enough to warrant blog posting. Mostly I've been buying pre-prepared meals from Snap, eating out, ordering takeout, and cooking frozen dinners.

Things have settled down a little bit... as much as they ever do, I guess. Regardless, I'm making a focused effort to try to make more time for things that make me happy. Cooking, of course is one of those things.

So, I decided to spend my Sunday afternoon on a mini-vacation to the Middle East.

I really enjoy Middle Eastern flavors, and they pair nicely with the oppressive heat wave we've been having.

I recently acquired The New Book of Middle Eastern Food cookbook by Claudia Roden, also responsible for the wonderful Arabesque cookbook that I am a big fan of. I was craving a slow cooked stew with some good, seasonal summer ingredients. 

Bamia Matbookha (Lamb and Okra Stew, Iraqi style)
Lamb. Okra. Heirloom Tomatoes. Onion. Corriander. Dried lime. Served with cilantro and goat-milk yogurt basmati rice.


Khiar bel Na'na (Cucumber Salad with Mint)
Salted cucumber. Mint. Orange blossom lemon vinaigrette.

I usually don't stick so closely to a cookbook, but I am trying to learn more about the flavors and techniques of Middle Eastern cuisine.

I opted to go for the Iraqi take on the stew presented in Roden's book which substitutes dried limes for lemon juice. I have never worked with dried limes before... I have to say that I am a HUGE fan. They are sun-dried, fermented limes... basically rock hard and you have to smash them with a hammer before adding to the dish. They add a very interesting and complex acidity. I cooked the stew in my tagine, at slow two hour simmer, adding the okra with 20 minutes left to keep it reasonably firm. I can't reiterate enough how awesome a tagine is when slow cooking stews... The temperature and moisture convection is magic.

The cucumber salad was fantastic as well. The recipe introduced me to a technique in which cucumbers are cut very thin on a mandoline then lightly salted and allowed to sit/drain for 1 hour in a colander before being assembled into a salad and dressed with mint and a simple but wonderful orange-blossom water and lemon vinaigrette.

The rice dish, I made up on the fly, basically blending some goat's milk yogurt with cilantro and lemon juice and tossing with some jasmine basmati rice along with salt and pepper.

I was quite pleased with how everything turned out. Simple, yet elegant. Wonderful flavors. Great summer ingredients.

For dessert, Jessica made some wonderful Medjool dates stuffed with honey almond butter and salted with fleur de sel. These were fantastic!


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