Meat Free Mondays – Koshari

Okay, so I’ve been reading this book, “Dark Star Safari,” by Paul Theroux.

Koshari, national dish of EgyptHe’s one of my favorite travel writers because he goes to these out of the way places and has these wild experiences — such as kayaking from island to island in Polynesia (“The Happy Isles of Oceania”) or taking a train ride across China and Mongolia (“Riding the Iron Rooster”).

Theroux is such a skilled writer that he doesn’t need to rely on photos to bring the places alive. They aren’t traditional travelogues that describe only what tourists go to see, but instead focus on the everyday lives of the people who live in these exotic locales.

Dark Star Safari by Paul TherouxThis book, which he wrote in 2002, chronicles his adventures traveling overland down the African continent, from Cairo to Cape Town. I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s terrific.

One of the things that struck me was Theroux’s description of Egyptian street life in Cairo and other cities. On every corner, he writes, a street food called Koshari (or koshary, kosheri, kushari or كشرى ) can be found.

Koshari is a mixture of lentils and rice that are cooked together, topped with a spicy tomato sauce and fried onions. Although it’s usually vegetarian, sometimes meat is added in the form of sharwarma, or fried liver.

Originally a Moorish dish, koshari evolved as an “end of the month” dish that was consumed by workers in labor camps. People would gather together all the odds and ends they had left over and create a shared dish that could be prepared and enjoyed communally.

It’s now the national dish of Egypt and is available on practically every street corner, marketplace and stall in cities and towns throughout the country, according to Theroux.

That reminded me of Red Beans and Rice, which started out as a New Orleans Monday morning stew made with whatever was leftover from the weekend’s more formal dinners.

Anyway, I knew instantly I had to make it, especially since my cupboard has been overflowing with half-packages of rice and lentils, tins of tomato sauce and other odds and ends.

In fact, I already had everything on this recipe’s long list of ingredients with the exception of cardamom. So I simply substituted curry powder for the Bahārāt, which is Arabic for “spice mix”.

I subsequently discovered that my local supermarket carries a Garam Masala seasoning powder (hooray for multi-culturalism!), which has practically the same ingredients as Bahārāt. I will be using that next time.

Koshari cooking

Koshari is one of those “use every pot and pan you have” dishes

As it turns out Koshari is quite simple to make, but is one of those “use every pot and pan you have” dishes that is something of a chore to clean up after.

Having never made it before, I toned down the spices, especially the red pepper flake, because I wasn’t sure how strongly flavored it would be. It’s taste was delicious, but next time, I plan on bringing the bold, forward flavors this dish on full force.

Koshari

2 TBS olive oil

1 cup Medium Grain Rice

1 cup Brown Lentils

2 cups Macaroni, dry

2 cups Vegetable Stock

1 Garlic Clove, quartered

1 tsp Cumin

1 Bay Leaf

½ tsp Salt

2 TBS Olive Oil

2 large Onions, thinly sliced

Sea Salt to taste

For the Spicy Tomato Sauce

2 TBS Olive Oil

1 small Onion, diced finely

2 Garlic Cloves, finely minced

15 oz can Tomato Sauce

2 tsp Bahārāt spice mix (or Garam Masala or curry powder)

¼ tsp Red Chile Flakes

1 TBS Red Wine Vinegar

Sea Salt & Fresh Cracked Black Pepper to taste

For the Crispy Onion Garnish

2 Onions, finely sliced

Oil for deep-frying

15 oz can Garbanzo Beans

  1. Heat 2 TBS of olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the rice and fry it for 2 minutes, then add the vegetable stock. Bring it to a boil, decrease the heat to low, cover and simmer for 15 minutes or until the rice is cooked.
  2. Rinse the lentils under cold water and add them to another medium saucepan with 2 cups of water. Add the garlic, cumin and bay leaf and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes or until the lentils are tender. Once cooked, add the salt and stir to combine. Strain any excess liquid if necessary.
  3. Cook the macaroni according to package instructions until al dente. (Note: Prepare the rice, macaroni and lentils while the sauce is simmering and leave them covered in the pots to keep warm.)
  4. To make sauce, heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and add the onion. Cook until soft and translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic and saute until golden brown. Add the tomato sauce, Bahārāt, salt and pepper to taste, chile flakes and red wine vinegar. Bring it to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. To make the crispy onions, heat the oil in a skillet. Add the onions and fry until dark brown. Using a slotted spoon, remove them from the oil and place them on paper towels to drain and cool.
  6. Add the rice, lentils and macaroni to a large bowl and toss to combine. Sprinkle a little Bahārāt over each portion and serve topped with some of the spicy tomato sauce. Top with garbanzo beans, the crispy onions and another sprinkle of Bahārāt. Serve warm.

Here’s the recipe for Bahārāt if you want to try making it yourself. You also can find premade Bahārāt at stores that feature Arabic foods.

Makes about 3/4 cup

2 TBS Black Peppercorns

2 TBS Coriander Seeds

2 TBS Cumin seeds

1 TBS Allspice berries

1 tsp Cardamom seeds

1/2 tsp Whole Cloves

4 (3-inch) Cassia or Cinnamon Sticks

2 TBS ground Sweet Paprika

1/2 tsp Nutmeg, freshly grated

Grind the whole spices using a mortar and pestle, spice mill, or coffee grinder. You may need to do it in several batches. Add the paprika and nutmeg and combine.

Store in an airtight container for up to 3 months.

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Seafood Fridays – Shark Kabobs

One of my most treasured memories is snorkeling inside the cone of an underwater volcano off the coast of Maui on my honeymoon.

The crystal clear water was about 50 feet deep and as I swam around I could look down on a dazzling display of sea life, including thousands of colorful fish and swaying sea plants. Then I saw the sharks.

There were three of them and they were about the same length as me. I watched as they swam along the bottom minding their own business. I wasn’t afraid of being attacked. Instead, I was fascinated by how menacing they looked and how incredible it was to be actually swimming among sharks.

Then it struck me: On some days the shark eats you. On other days, you eat the shark.

I was reminded of that experience when I saw shark meat on sale at the one of the local produce marts I visit regularly. It was extremely affordable — $3.99/lb — so I snapped it up.

I have cooked shark before and I remembered that it was a firm-fleshed fish, sort of like tuna but not as flavorful. When I brought it home, I decided to use it in shark kabobs.

Shark meat should not be eaten too frequently because it can have high levels of mercury. The US Food and Drug Administration recommends not eating shark meat more than twice per month, and pregnant women should avoid it altogether.

The meat is quite tasteless and dry, so you probably will want to marinate shark meat before cooking it. You can use a commercial salad dressing or make your own marinade, but you definitely will want to add flavor and moisture to shark.

Shark Kabobs

1 lb shark meat

1 bell pepper, ribs and seeds removed, cut into large peices

4 button mushrooms

Fresh pineapple, cut into large chunks

Red onion, peeled and cut into large chunks

2 tomatoes, cored and halved

1/2 leek, cleaned and cut into large chunks

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

For the marinade

1/2 cup pineapple juice (or orange juice)

2 TBS Extra virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, crushed

1. Combine pineapple juice, EVOO and garlic in a glass or ceramic mixing bowl. Don’t use a metal mixing bowl or acid could react with the metal and affect the way the meat tastes. Cut shark into large chunks and mix around in the mariade. Cover with plastic and refrigerate 30 minutes. Remove from marinade.

2. Submerge wooden shish kabob spears in water about 10 minutes prior to assembling your shish kabobs. This will help prevent them from burning up on the grill.

3. Assemble your shark kabobs in any order that you like. I always make sure each kabob is exactly the same because when I worked in restaurants customers would complain if somebody else’s kabob had more of one particular item than their kabob. As you assemble the kabobs, lay them out in a baking pan and brush them with the marinade.

4. Preheat grill. When hot, scrape down the grill with a metal brush to remove any debris, then lubricate the grill using a clean rag dipped in oil. Spray the kabobs with pan spray then season them with salt and pepper. Place the kabobs on the grill for about a minute just to mark them, then careful flip over to mark the other side. Remove kabobs to a cooler part of the grill not directly over the heat, brush them again with marinade and let them cook through, about 7 minutes.

I served my shark kabobs on a bed of brown rice and garnished them with fresh cilantro.

Have you ever tried shark meat? What did you think? Share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Hummus Times Three

Hummus is one of our favorite foods in our house because it is so easy to make and fun to eat.

Hummus is also highly adaptable in that you can give it any flavor you want. In past blogs, I’ve written about plain hummus, roasted red pepper hummus, Kalamata olive hummus, and roasted garlic hummus.

This time, I decided to try a hummus made with roasted tomatillas, poblano chiles and jalapenos; a hummus made with chipotle salsa; and a hummus made with carmelized onions.

I started with a big batch of plain hummus, triple the amount I normally make. Then, I removed the hummus from the food processor, cleaned it out, added back one third of the hummus, then added one of the three flavorings. Then I repeated the whole process twice more with the remaining two flavorings.

The result was a trio of delicious hummus that can be enjoyed right away, or kept in the refrigerator and sampled for up to three or four days with some delightful whole wheat pita. We ate ours with some shish-ka-bobs and couscous the first night, but there was plenty left over for lunches and snacks.

Hummus usually is served with flatbread, such as pita, or with fresh vegetables like celery or carrot sticks, or green or red pepper slices. It’s 100 percent natural and is high in iron and Vitamin C.

I always use my food processer to make hummus because it’s super easy, but you also can make it in a blender. Or, if you are adventurous, people have been mashing it by hand for thousands of years.

Basic Hummus

1 can chickpeas, drained (save the can)

¼ cup tahini

1-2 cloves garlic

Juice of 1 lemon

3 TBS EVOO

1 tsp honey

Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

Pinch of cayenne or a couple drops of hot sauce

1. Combine all ingredients in food processor or blender and mix until smooth. Use the can from the chickpeas to pour a little tap water into the mixture as it blends until the hummus has the consistency of cream of wheat.

2. Transfer to an airtight container and let rest in your refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before serving so the flavors can meld. The hummus will also thicken a little during this time. Serve the pita whole and let your guests tear it up with their hands (fun!) or cut it  into wedges for a nice presentation.

Triple this recipe if you are super ambitious and want to try all three!

Roasted Tomatilla, Poblano Chiles and Jalapeno Hummus – Peel the papery wrapper off 6 to 8 tomatillas and rinse off the sticky residue. Chop them in half and throw them in a mixing bowl. Cut two poblanos and two jalapenos in half and remove the seeds, ribs and stems and discard, then throw the peppers in the bowl. Drizzle about 2 TBS EVOO into the bowl, toss so everything is coated evenly, then pour out onto a baking pan and roast at 375F for about 45-50 minutes so they get a nice char, stirring once during cooking. Allow to cool completely. This can even be done the day before. Add to the hummus recipe listed above and puree completely.

Chipotle Hummus — Add about 4 oz of chipotle salsa to of the hummus mixture and puree completely. Or you can use canned chipotles, which are smoked jalapenos, but be aware that these are quite hot and spicy.

Carmelized Onion Hummus — Put your cast iron pan on the fire. When hot, add 2 TBS of EVOO. When smoking, add 1 medium white onion, julienned. Toss to cook evenly, then cook until brown, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. At the very end, stir in 1/2 cup water and cover, and the onions will get super brown and sweet.

The roasted tomatilla hummus turned out quite spicy — I must have left too many jalapeno seeds in it — but it was still tasty with the smoky flavor of the charred tomatillos and peppers. The chipotle was not all that spicy, but also had a great smoky flavor. The carmelized onion was very sweet, so you might want to cut back or eliminate the honey if you are not into super sweet hummus.

 

Meat Free Mondays – Mediterranean Bulgur and Lentils

I have to admit, when I first read this recipe I was a little dubious. It just didn’t sound like there were enough flavorful ingredients to make it a satisfying meatless entree. I mean, bulgur wheat and lentils? Really?

Happily, I was wrong. This was probably the best vegetarian dish I’ve made since I began participating in Meat Free Mondays last summer. Quite simply, it was amazing!

The success of this dish can be attributed to two of its ingredients: Kalamata olives and Feta cheese.

Kalamatas are my favorite olives. I buy them from this little Greek grocery store I like. It’s not close, but I’m willing to make the trip just to buy the olives. They marinate them in a little EVOO and some Greek herbs, so the flavor is just explosive.

Kalamatas usually come with pits in them, so be aware of that when you’re eating them. But, man, are they delicious! They have so much more flavor than your everyday black or green olives, which to me mostly taste like salt.

Feta cheese is a crumbly, white, slightly salty cheese made of goat’s milk, but it tastes nothing like goat cheese. You can buy either domestic or imported, but the imported is about double the price.

I know this is a budget cooking blog, but if you can afford it, the imported is 1000% better than the domestic. The feta cheese I buy is imported from Bulgaria, but you can often find it imported from Greece. While domestic Feta’s flavor is mild, the imported is so flavorful, creamy and delicious that it can be eaten by itself, but it is most commonly found sprinkled on salads.

Mediterranean Bulgur and Lentils

1 cup uncooked bulgur wheat or cracked wheat

1/2 cup dried lentils, sorted and rinsed

1 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp sea salt

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1 can whole kernel corn, drained

2 14-oz cans vegetable broth

1 15.5-oz can Italian-style tomatoes with olive oil and herbs

1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted, rough chop

1 cup crumbed imported Feta cheese

1 or 2 whole wheat pitas

1. In crock pot, mix all ingredients except tomatoes, olives and cheese.

2. Cover and cook on low 3 to 4 hours or until lentils are tender, stirring occasionally because most of the liquid will be absorbed.

3. About 30 minutes before service, turn crock pot to warm setting (or just turn it off if yours doesn’t have a warm setting), and stir in tomatoes and olives. To serve, pile in center of bowl and garnish with Feta. Serve with whole wheat pita on the side.

Have you every been pleasantly surprised by a recipe you weren’t sure about? If so, share your experience in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Matzo Ball Soup

With cold and flu season just around the corner, now is a good time to break out the only sure-fire cure for what ails you.

No, not Nyquil. I’m talking, of course, about Matzo Ball Soup.

Matzo Ball Soup

Matzo Ball Soup

I first discovered this miracle cure back in the late 1980s, when a single bowl of this magical stew at Mort’s Deli under the L tracks on Wabash Avenue in the Loop almost immediately cleared up lingering cold symptoms I had been battling for a couple of days.

From that moment on, I was a believer.

Sadly, Mort’s has not survived. The spot is currently occupied by a Popeye’s Chicken. Some people call it progress!

(A quick side story: One Sunday morning back in the late ’80s, I was walking into the building where I worked as a news reporter when I heard gunshots coming from the parking garage that also housed Mort’s. Intrepid cub reporter that I was, I ran to the scene and called my city desk from a pay phone. Then I saw that the actor Robert DeNiro was firing a gun at a bunch of policemen. Holy smokes, I told my editor, this is a huge story! It was only then that I noticed the movie cameras and lights. They happened to be filming “Midnight Run” that morning. So much for my scoop!)

Some people claim the curative powers reside in the matzo ball itself, with its pinch of schmaltz, or chicken fat, and the seltzer water that gives this dumpling its lightness. Others argue that the rich vitamin and nutrient content of the chicken stock is responsible. I think it’s a perfect combination of both.

Chicken Stock

Chicken Stock

Which is not to say you have to be sick to enjoy Matzo Ball Soup. It’s light, delicate flavor is delicious anytime.

Making Matzo Ball Soup doesn’t need to be complicated. In fact, whenever I make chicken stock I will freeze it for whatever cooking needs I have. It’s way cheaper than buying canned chicken broth. Making the matzo balls is simple and they also can be frozen.

Combine the two and it’s like chanting a magic spell. You will be healed. Also, sated with a delicious and inexpensive soup.

So this cold and flu season, don’t get caught off guard. Prep your chicken stock while you still feel well, and keep a lookout for a cannister of matzo meal at your local grocer. A lot of places will stock it only this time of year.

And if you see Robert DeNiro in a shootout with police, don’t call it in to your city desk. Unless you want to be made fun of. A lot. Forever.

Matzo Balls

Matzo Balls

Matzo Ball Soup

For the Chicken Broth

3-4 chicken backs, or 3 lb necks backs and wings

3 celery stalks, rough chop

3 carrots, rough chop

2 parsnips, rough chop

2 white or yellow onions, quartered

1 head garlic, cut in half horizontally

1-2 bay leafs

TBS whole black pepper corns

TBS sea salt

About 1-1/2 gallon water

Place chicken in stock pot and cover with about 4″ water. Bring to boil. Add remaining ingredients, being careful not to splash yourself with boiling water. Return to boil, then reduce to simmer. Cook 3-4 hours, uncovered, occasionally skimming the scum off the top.

Remove chicken and vegetables by pouring through a colander and cheesecloth (or a clean dish towel) into another large pot. Cool completely and skim fat before refrigerating or freezing.

For the Matzo Balls

1/2 cup matzo meal

2 beaten eggs

2 TBS schmaltz (rendered chicken fat, or you can use vegetable oil)

TBS sea salt

1/4 tsp cracked black pepper

2 TBS seltzer water (or chicken stock)

Mix ingredients together in bowl until moist. Cover bowl in plastic wrap and refigerate 30 minutes to make dough more workable.

Fill large pot with water and bring to boil, then reduce to simmer.

Wet your hands under the faucet to make it easier to handle the dough. Form 1″ balls in the palm of your hand and roll into ball shape. Drop them one at a time into the simmering water. Cover the pot tightly and cook for about 35 minutes. The balls will expand to more than double their size as they cook. Remove and cool.

Assembling the Soup

Heat a little chicken stock in a sauce pan. Drop in 2-3 matzoh balls and cook about 5 minutes until heated through. Transfer to a bowl and garnish with a little chopped parsley or dill, if you have some lying around.

Feel better.

What other comfort foods do you crave when you are feeling under the weather? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for reading my blog!

Baba Ghanoush

It happens every time I see an eggplant.

Whether it’s at the the grocery store or the Farmer’s Market, I’m always seduced by their dark, beautiful purple skin, their plump waistline and that sassy little hat they wear. My first impulse is always the same: “Buy it!”

You sexy thing!

You sexy thing!

Then there’s white eggplants. Even baby eggplants. Aww, so cute!

But when you get them home, then what? A lot of people, most I would argue, believe they don’t like eggplant. But that’s only because they don’t know what to do with one.

You can make ratatouille out of them. But no matter how you make it, French people will always say it’s not authentic. Am I right?!

How about eggplant parmesan? It’s made the same way as chicken parmesan or veal parmesan. That’s delicious, right? Bread just about anything with parmesan cheese, fry it, then cover it in tomato sauce and mozzarella and it’s going to taste great. Baseball cap parmesan would probably sell.

But that doesn’t capture the essence of the eggplant. What should eggplant taste like?

The answer may surprise you: Baba Ghanoush.

Baba Ghanoush (ba-buh guh-NOOSH) is a Middle Eastern appetizer made much the same way as hummus, except with roasted eggplant rather than chickpeas. Usually it is served chilled with pita bread or a Middle Eastern flatbread known as lavash.

Baba Ghanoush

Baba Ghanoush

It’s most often associated with Lebanese cuisine, but variations also can be found in Turkey, Greece, Egypt, even Pakistan. In Israel, it is sometimes made with mayonnaise.

“Baba” means “father” in Arabic. “Ghanoush” probably means eggplant, but I’m not 100 percent sure on that.

Baba Ghanoush, an excellent vegetarian dish, has a slightly sweet, smoky flavor. Eggplant itself has a neutral, mild flavor, so most of the flavorings come from the roasting and the other ingredients.

In my experience, most people are initially intimidated by Baba Ghanoush because it has a funny name and is too “weird”. Middle Eastern food? Eggplants? No, thanks!

But once they taste it, they will fall in love with the subtle, smooth flavor of Baba Ghanoush.

It’s also a very economical dish because eggplants — which are also known as aubergines and are native to India — are available and inexpensive almost year round. You get a lot for your money because they are nearly 100 percent edible and have a large amount of “meat”. You usually only need one, regardless of what you are making with it.

So bring something exotic to your next gathering. All we are saying is give Baba Ghanoush a chance!

Baba Ghanoush

1 large eggplant

TBS EVOO

1 clove garlic

2 TBS Tahini

Juice of 1 lemon

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

Sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425F. Rub eggplant with EVOO, place on sheet pan, prick with fork a couple of times and roast until fully softened, about 25 minutes.

When cool, cut in half, scoop pulp into food processer and add tahini, lemon, garlic, parsley, and remaining EVOO. Pulse untl smooth. Season with S&P to taste.

Refrigerate at least 30 minutes so flavors can meld. Mound into bowl, drizzle with a little additional EVO and garnish with parsley sprigs. Serve with pita bread cut into triangles or squares of lavash.

Do you have a recipe that initially intimidates people, but eventually wins them over? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Suddenly Couscous

Under the blazing Sudanese sun, groups of women crouch before a pile of semolina wheat, carefully sprinkling it with water before rolling it out into pellets and passing them through a sieve to make couscous.  For several long days they toil, building a store of food that will be dried then stored, feeding their village for months.

Meanwhile, in America, you open a box, pour it into boiling water and cover and it’s ready five minutes later. What a country!

Couscous – which is part grain, part pasta – has been food staple for more than a
thousand years. It  is most commonly associated with the Middle East, but in fact is also widely used throughout Africa, Europe and Asia.

Couscous with Shish Kabob

Couscous with Shish Kabob

The coucous most commonly available in the United States is pre-steamed then dehydrated, just like instant rice. It can be served hot as the starch portion of a dish, or cold as a salad.

Israeli couscous, which has much larger pearls, is actually more of a pasta like the
Italian orzo.

Around where I live, you typically see a brand called Near East couscous, which comes plain or a variety of flavors. Each box comes with an envelope of powdered flavoring
agents, which I always throw away.

I’ve also bought it in larger packages, usually in Arabic groceries. A word of advice: transfer it immediately to  an airtight plastic container with a lid. The tiny pellets tend to get everywhere.

Couscous has a much different taste and texture than pasta or rice. It is obviously smaller, but to me the flavor is more velvety and nuttier. If I’m serving it hot, I toss it in a little butter then season it with salt and pepper. It is great for a vegetarian entrée, or it pairs well with just about any meat or seafood. I think it has a little more versatility than rice or pasta.

Try substituting couscous where you would use rice or pasta. It can transform an ordinary midweek meal into something more exotic. It’s also relatively inexpensive. I paid $2.64 for a 10 oz box of couscous — which makes enough for at least four people as an accompaniment. But you can find it for less in an Arabic grocery.

I almost always use it as a base for Shish-Ka-Bob because of the cultural thematic unity. In Libya, it is commonly served with braised camel: I’d like to try that!

Add some diced steamed or sautéed vegetables, such as onion, carrot, corn, zucchini, yellow squash, or even broccoli or cauliflower. Pitted and chopped kalamata olives also work nicely.

Here’s a recipe for an easy  couscous salad I like to make. It will stay fresh refrigerated for several days and is great for an on-the-go lunch. Like most grain salads, it tastes even better the second day after the flavors have had time to meld together.

Couscous Salad

1-1/2 cups water or chicken stock

1 cup couscous

2 TBS EVOO

2-3 leaves fresh basil, chopped

6-7 Marinated Kalamata Olives, pitted and rough chop

½ red onion, small dice

½ carrot, small dice

½ red pepper, ribs and seeds removed, diced

1 small tomato, ribs and seeds removed, diced

1 jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, diced

½ cup flatleaf Italian or curly parsley, chopped

Salt and Cracked Black Pepper to taste

Couscous Salad

Couscous Salad

Bring water or chicken stock to a boil, then stir in couscous and cover. Wait five minutes then fluff with fork. Fold in EVOO, onion, carrot, red pepper, tomato, jalapeno and parsley. Season with S&P to taste. Garnish with sliced basil.

What more exotic grains do you use to spice up a meal? Share your ideas in the comments section.