Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Middle Eastern Feast

Christmas dinner at our house was unusual this year. I decided to go with a Middle Eastern Feast, since I just took a terrific Middle Eastern cooking class, and given the location of the first Christmas, it seemed fitting. I kept it "simple," because there were only four of us for dinner that night, but it still took me all day to prepare everything. I lose a lot of my kitchen efficiency when there are friends around to distract me, which is just the way I like it, as long as nobody is in a hurry to be fed. I made three "sauces" - Tahina, Baba Gannouj, and Hoummos, a beautiful layered lentil dish called Megadara Koshari, and Arab Salad. And for dessert, my first-ever go at Baklava. It was all...wonderful.

I have permission from Chef Chris Maher, of Cooking Studio Taos, to share the following recipes with you. Please note: all recipes Copyright Chris Maher - Do not reprint or republish without permission. Thanks Chef!

Let's start with the Tahina, which is delightful on its own, and is also the base for the Hoummos and Baba Gannouj.

Tahina Sauce

1 lb jar tahina (Usually called Sesame Tahini. Get the toasted kind.)
fresh garlic, minced - about 1 heaping T
onion, minced - about 1 heaping T
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 lime, juiced
1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
salt to taste
water, olive oil to finish

Add onion, garlic, cumin, and cayenne to tahina and mix thoroughly.

Mix in vinegar - the tahina will get very thick, so then add water slowly and continue to mix until desired consistency is achieved. (This part is really fun. Do all the mixing by hand.)

Add lime, salt, and olive oil to taste.

To make Hoummos, place about 1/3 of the Tahina Sauce in the food processor, and blend it with 16 oz cooked or canned garbanzo beans. (I also added lemon juice and olive oil to thin it down a bit.)

To make Baba Gannouj, grill a whole eggplant until soft (and burned on the outside). Place the grilled eggplant in a paper bag to steam for about 20 minutes. When it's cool enough to handle, peel and mash, and mix with 1/3 of the Tahina Sauce, adding more cumin, cayenne, garlic, and salt to taste. (You can also throw it all in the food processor, and let the machine do the mashing.)

(You can "burn" your eggplant directly on a burner of your gas stove if you have one, or on an outdoor grill. I don't have either, so attempted to "grill" my eggplant under the electric broiler. It exploded! And then it took over an hour to soften... Next time I'll just bake it in the oven for an hour or so. We make do with what we have.)

Arab Salad

2 red onions, chopped into very fine pieces by hand (1 onion is enough for me)
1 large tomato, cut into tiny cubes, without seeds if possible (I don't worry about the seeds)
1 English cucumber, chopped fine (I used a regular cucumber, and it was still good)
1 large bunch parsley, chopped fine
romaine lettuce, chopped fine
1 jalapeño, finely minced
vinegar (distilled white, which I learned adds the right acidity without adding a flavor of its own)
olive oil

Mix all ingredients together and dress with a touch of vinegar, a good amount of lime, and add salt and olive oil to taste. After tasting, adjust acid by adding more lime or oil.

Megadara Koshari

1 lb lentils - black or green
1 lb medium grain white rice (I used my favorite brown basmati)
4 medium onions
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup olive oil
1 - 6 oz can tomato paste
6 whole garlic cloves
1 tsp cayenne pepper
2 oz butter ( I used Earth Balance)
sea salt
3 T chopped parsley for garnish
3 cups water
1 T brown sugar
1 scant cup distilled vinegar

1. Rinse lentils under cold running water. Place clean lentils in a pot and cover generously with cold water and a tablespoon of salt. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to a vigorous simmer until lentils are soft (not al dente).

2. Caramelize onions: place julienned onions and 1/2 cup of oil on high flame - stir often until they begin to brown. Turn heat down to medium. Stir frequently until all onions are browned.

3. Picant Sauce: In a 2 qt sauce pan, add 1/4 cup oil and thoroughly brown the whole garlic cloves. Add tomato paste and fry it with the oil and 1 tsp cayenne pepper. Add 3 cups water, 1 T brown sugar, and 1 scant cup of distilled vinegar. Let mixture simmer until consistency thickens a bit. (I'll use a little less vinegar next time I make this.)

4. Make rice - 2:1 water to rice, salt and a little butter. Bring water to a boil with salt and butter. Add rice and stir. Once boiling again, stir and turn down to a simmer. Cover and cook for about 18-20 minutes. (Cooking time will be longer for brown rice - about 45-50 minutes here.)

Assembly: On a generous platter, place rice on bottom, lentils over rice, then cover lentils with caramelized onions and dot with Picant Sauce. Serve remaining sauce on the side. Enjoy!

Serve everything with pita bread and plenty of wine. You are going to love this meal. But leave room for dessert...

The Baklava was a combination of recipes I found online. I didn't want to make a sugar syrup, and found their instructions overly complicated, so I did it my way... Basically, you thaw a package of phyllo dough, and mix a bunch of chopped nuts (I used walnuts and some almond pulp from our last batch of nut milk) with lots of cinnamon and a little bit of cloves. Melt a stick of Earth Balance butter, and have some agave syrup handy. Unfold the phyllo and cut it in half for easier fitting in the pan. Brush some melted butter on the bottom of the pan, and layer 6-8 sheets of phyllo, with a bit of butter brushed on each. Sprinkle some of the nut and spice mixture on the dough, and drizzle with agave syrup. Add three or four more layers of dough/butter, and then more nut/spice/agave. Keep layering in this way until you have a final 6-8 sheets of phyllo left. Place these on top, with butter between each sheet. Score the top layer in little triangles for easier cutting later. Drizzle on remaining butter and some more agave. Bake at 300º for and hour or more, until it's golden brown on top. Everyone loved this, and while it wasn't as "juicy" as some baklava I've had, it was voted "even better" than most by my family. This version is rich, but not so rich that you can't eat a little in the morning with your coffee.

I hope you'll give some of these recipes a try. Don't be scared. They're all really easy, and so worth the effort, especially if you have someone else to clean up for you! I'm finding that most people are more than happy to wash dishes in trade for a meal at my table. This is nice!

I cooked all day, wore a silly hat, and never got around to putting makeup on. No complaints! I got to eat too!
And notice my eager taste-tester, Lucy, just waiting for... anything she can get.

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