Saturday, April 25, 2009

My Past Life.

Why not while away the (hopefully) last pregnant hours
by searching for absurd pictures of bards?
Image credit.

Thank you Krista and your most recent blog post for one of the only amusing distractions I've found lately.

The Past Life Analysis is not only an entirely frivolous and bizarre thing to do - it is strangely accurate, as I think I was definitely a bard in a previous life, though I don't know how happy I am that I was born in Wales.

Matt, on the other hand, was some kind of ritual sacrificer in Latin America. Pontifex Maximus indeed. Dead sexy.

Ditto for semi-humorous pictures of fake but very intense
Aztec priests
who look weirdly like distant relatives of mine.

Image credit.

* * *

My Past Life Analysis:

I don't know how you feel about it, but you were male in your last earthly incarnation.You were born somewhere in the territory of modern Wales around the year 725. Your profession was that of a dramatist, director, musician or bard.
Your brief psychological profile in your past life: You always liked to travel and to investigate. You could have been a detective or spy.

The lesson that your last past life brought to your present incarnation: Your lesson is to conquer jealousy and anger in yourself and then in those who will select you as their guide. You should understand that these weaknesses are caused by fear and self-regret.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

One Happy Camper.

That's Ludovictus, who has, incidentally, not yet decided to make his appearance.

I guess technically the fact that I was apparently actually due closer to the 16th might have something to do with it. But, also interesting, is that one is actually not considered "overdue" until two weeks after the "due date" (what a misnomer). :)

In this time of sanity-testing-type-waiting, I have opted to avoid the blogosphere (mostly to spare everyone unnecessary late-pregnancy rants).

Stay tuned.
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Friday, April 10, 2009

A Goodly Friday to All: Agua de Limon & Agua de Jamaica

Hibiscus Flower tea; perfect for Agua de Jamaica

While Good Friday may not necessarily be a reason to celebrate in and of itself (although I suppose if you take it as part of a sequence of Christian historical events, it could be and technically is), there are several things that are goodly and worth celebrating today.

* * *

Why This is a Goodly Friday Indeed
or at least that's what I'm desperately telling myself

4. Holy Week = Days Off = Captive Audience for Brenda.
Matt is off Friday and Monday, which automatically makes the world a happier place in my book. At least now I have someone to harass with random thoughts and ideas at all times of the day, as well as a partner in crime. With a batch of (delicious) pancakes already under my belt for the day, next item up is some swimming (read: floating like a lazy whale) at the local gym's pool. Since I've put all else on hold in case of L's arrival, maybe Easter Sunday will be a chance for a ridiculous feast at our favorite Dim Sum locale, whether Matt likes it or not. Mwahaha. :)

3. Shrimp Scampi Tonight!
If I were ever in a starvation situation, or happened to volunteer for one of those freakish research projects where people allow scientists to slowly and "in a controlled environment" starve them to the point of insanity while living with other human guinea pigs in a house full of cookbooks (yes, this was actually done), there are few foods I would miss more than good, fresh shrimp.

As a matter of course, shrimp scampi is one of my absolute favorite dishes. Matt and I recently rediscovered this dish when he randomly decided to make it for himself on one of his bachelor nights while I was away in Texas last November and also, randomly (and yet, quite on purpose) sent me this picture, which was enough to send me on a shrimp-withdrawal rampage:

While Shrimp Scampi generally conjures up images of crazy-erotic-esque 80's Red Lobster ads in my head (and no doubt in yours too), this dish is something much greater than that. It's a perfect example of a simple, fresh italian dish that takes little to no time to make and requires only the most basic and freshest of ingredients. Very goodly indeed.

the ubiquitous shrimp scampi / lemon wedge shot;
even better than I remembered.

2. The Perfect Excuse to Make Spring-y Drinks.
With not a ray of sunshine or a patch of blue in the low British sky, a Friday like today is the perfect excuse to grab the bad-weather-bull by the proverbial horns and show it who's boss. I choose to do this by making deliciously bright and bonny Springtime drinks. For me, nothing quite hits the spot like two of my favorite Mexican fresh drinks: Fresh Limeade and Hibiscus Water. Why not drink in the sunshine any way you can?

1. Ludovictus is Due Today.
That's right. He's officially late if he doesn't show up today. And somehow, as the world seems to suddenly have moved into a slow-motion time warp just in time for the end of my pregnancy, I doubt he'll be joining us today. I guess I can just hope that maybe he'll be an Easter weekend baby. A lot more pleasant than being born on Good Friday.

Either way, I suppose I should feel lucky that at least once in my life I will have known what it's like to be pregnant for 40 (effing) weeks, because, hey, I'm always up for new experiences / bragging rights. :)

* * *

Brenda's Favorite Springtime Drinks: Agua de Limon & Agua de Jamaica
(Limeade & Hibiscus Water)


Agua de Limon and Agua de Jamaica are both typically Mexican drinks - "aguas frescas" - which are found everywhere, made freshly and sold cheaply. One of my favorite things to do while in Mexico is go to a local open-air market and get either a giant glass or a little plastic bag with a straw tied into it filled with one of these delicious elixirs. (And if those can't be found, rest assured you'll definitely come along a paleteria where you can get any number of freshly made popsicles in your favorite fresh fruit flavor.)

The abundance of juice, green limes and the dried Hibiscus flower make them a natural choice over the sometimes less than pristine water. Every Spring and Summer I make them at home from scratch, both to conjure up memories of visiting family in my home country and to satisfy what is a primordial urge for any self-respecting Mexican.

Probably my favorite fruit:
I eat limes like they're going out of style.

Agua de Jamaica: Hibiscus Flower Water

Allow to cool completely before drinking!


Hibiscus Water: Makes 2 liters
6 tbsps dried hibiscus flowers
1/2 cup sugar, or to taste
2 liters water, boiling


1. Bring water to a boil.

2. Meanwhile, add hibiscus and sugar to a heat-proof container or pot. Do not add boiling water directly to a room-temperature pitcher or it will crack unless heat proof!!!

3. Add half the boiling water slowly, mixing until the sugar is completely dissolved. Then add the rest of the water and allow to sit until cool.

4. Once the mixture is cooled, strain into a pitcher, making sure to remove all hibiscus and pressing down on the flowers to extract all liquid. Image credit.

5. Serve cold, with ice, on a warm spring or summer day!

Agua de Limon: Mexican Limeade

I like mine more sour than sweet.


Limeade: Makes 2 liters
6-8 juicy limes, cut in half
lime juicer
1/2 cup sugar, or to taste
water, cold or room temperature
optional additions: mint (hierbabuena)


1. Mix 1 liter of cool or room temperature water with the sugar in the pitcher or container you are using for the drink. Allow all sugar to dissolve before moving on. Taste and adjust sugar content.

2. Cut the limes in half (with the two butt-ends facing out) and using a lime squeezer (or your hand, if that's all you have), squeeze the juice of all the limes needed into the pitcher. Taste occasionally to make sure it is not too sweet or sour. Mix well.

3. Add lightly bruised mint leaves when ready to serve.

4. Serve cold, with ice, on a warm summer or spring day!



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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Cup of Pretty; A Slice of Yummy.

Yes, yes, I'm still here. :)

I was in desperate need of some inspiration yesterday. The hours are like days and the days like years now, and it's all I can do to keep myself mildly distracted. Thankfully, I did have a project I'd been putting off for several weeks to work on: making my own cheese.

And thankfully, once again, it happened to be a beautiful evening here in London, the perfect excuse to take myself on a long and aimless walk around the neighborhood and admire the now verdant trees and beautifully, heavily,
gravid flower bushes.

It is thus that today's post came about, focusing on two ostensibly unrelated things, united only by their equal beauty and spiritual healing power to little old me.

* * *

A Cup of Pretty.

There is a street nearby that I'd actually never walked down before. The sun was setting and the breeze was turning cool, but my mile walk had warmed me sufficiently and so I decided to go down that unknown road and see what there was to see.

Happily, my short walk revealed to me a beautiful, quiet, and typically British neighborhood street with wooden doors, brass knockers, houses with names, and lots of impossibly small but quaintly - darlingly even - arranged front gardens with wrought iron gates and ferngully vines, budding trees, bursting bushes, and the most delightfully natural mixture of fragrances hanging in the air along with the golden-dusty sunshine of before sunset.


One particular flower bush was so over-whelmed by the number of blooms it had, that there were at least twenty or thirty beautiful, bright pink blossoms (in the perfect state of bloom!) littered on the ground below it. I took that as a clear divine intervention / sign that I should rescue them in the name of beautifying my house.

* * *

A Slice of Yummy.

deliciously fresh queso blanco / queso fresco

A while back I read this post on What's Cooking? and vowed to try making my own cheese. It's something I'd always wanted to do and when I read Ben's suggestion to use this recipe, I had no "it's too hard" excuses left in me.

I couldn't find cheesecloth.

Having already passed the deadline for his Homemade challenge, I figured I'd do it anyway and just keep it to myself. I left it unsalted and intend to use it for either a simple tomato and cheese salad or my first attempt at one of my favorite Indian dishes: Saag Paneer.

Here is the (sole) fruit of my labor, aka, a
slice of yummy.

Saag Paneer, here I come.

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Monday, April 6, 2009

British "Local Color" At Its Best: Lahore Kebab House

Absurdity Disclaimer:
This is a mammoth post with an absurd amount of pictures. Don't hate me. I have to put my pregnant energy into SOMETHING.

Ludovictus Watch: T-minus 5 days (or 2 wks +5 days) and counting.

* * *

Good old Umberston Street.

The first (blessed) time Matt every mentioned Lahore Kebab House to me was a little over a year ago. He had gone there for a business lunch with his coworkers and couldn't stop raving about a little "BYOB hole in the wall Pakistani restaurant" with the most "electric food" he'd ever tasted, located in The City of London.

Our table after our ravenous endeavors.

Both being fans of a "good curry," as the British call it, we swore to make a personal pilgrimage to Lahore. After all, the place came recommended by Matt's boss, who, part Pakistani, knows his stuff. He has since then taken Matt and the guys to several more "hole in the wall" Indian / Pakistani joints around London, but Matt maintains this is the absolute best.

Bubbling cauldrons of deliciousness in the Lahore kitchen.

We finally made it over for the first time last October when my mom was visiting, before heading to The Tower of London for a historic witnessing of The Ceremony of the Keys. Mesmerized, we swore to go back again. And this weekend, we finally did.

* * *

Lahore Kebab House: Enough Said.
go there; go back; have the lamb chops.

Freshly made poppadum in the Lahore kitchen.

A Little British "Local Color"

This Saturday, 39 weeks and 1 day pregnant, we figured it was about time we headed over to see if the old wives tale about spicy food inducing labor really rang true. Good husband that he is, Matt rented a Streetcar for a couple of hours, and took me on a luxurious car ride down my favorite road in London (particularly beautiful at this time of year): Embankment. I can't tell you the aesthetic and primal thrill it is to fly down this road on my little red vespa in the Springtime!

It follows the River Thames all the way from West London to The City and passes everything from
the Battersea Power Station to Westminster (read: Parliament & the somewhat freaky past leader statues in front of it) to the many and infamous London bridges.

Tubby Isaacs - Jellied Eels & Seafood; they cater, FYI.

Along the way we also passed a typically British thing worth mentioning: Tubby Isaac's - a jellied eel and seafood stand (established in 1919) famous for its uniquely East-end snacks. Not my cup of tea, but definitely a piece of "local color."

We also got a glimpse of the RBS building and its broken windows. Don't you just LOVE the mob mentality? Right, moving on...

Parking was a challenge at first but we ended up finding a cosy spot deep within a local, predominantly-Muslim neighborhood, where we found further examples of typical modern British culture:

Yes, that is a lovely black Lamborghini parked outside council housing.

Yes, that is a beautiful, locally painted mural dedicated to Allah.
Incidentally, we are right off "Christian Street."

Our Meal: The Real Deal

Coming recommended from a business man, one might expect a glammy-glitzy-high-end Cinnamon-Club-esque place (don't get me wrong - I'm a big fan of the CC), but Lahore couldn't be further from it. Cheap and cheerful, the restaurant is basic but very clean and efficient. Nothing is overstated, though the tables offer ample elbow room, the portions are generous and the waitstaff plentiful. The place was created as a blank but highly utilitarian canvas on which to showcase their artistic speciality: simple, authentic and delicious Pakistani food.

First stop as seasoned veterans of the Lahore experience: the local bodega to buy Matt some Cobra beer. Being a Muslim establishment, Lahore does not sell pork or alcohol, but they do allow you to BYOB. We indulged, as is our wont.

Prerequisite Cobra in hand, we were taken to our table where I was allowed to indulge in my great love of menu-browsing and ceremonious ordering, but not before taking a gander at their amazing open-kitchen behind the giant window-wall. One of the chefs even stopped to let me take a picture of the gigantic pile of poppadums he was carrying (very nice of him :) ).

Even before you order, your table is automatically brought a giant bottle of water (to quell the anticipated fire, I would guess), some mint-yogurt chutney, and a big plate of sliced lettuce, tomato, and cucumber to nibble on till the games begin. I also got a mango lassi - my favorite.

Next, the much-loved, much-lauded Grilled Lamb Chops. I don't know how else to describe these besides saying they are spicy pieces of tender Lamb heaven. You cannot go to Lahore and not try them. They are grilled with an orange-colored, spicy Pakistani spice rub and sprinkled with cilantro.

Get the lamb chops or you will have never really lived.

Main Courses:
To help with some of the spice, we got one order each of handmade Chili Naan and Garlic Naan, straight off the cool charcoal oven.

Chili Naan! Real pieces of Jalapeno scattered about...score.

Still-warm Garlic Naan; copious amounts of Garlic abound.

We also got our favorite vegetarian course: Saag Paneer.

Yummy homemade cheese with delicious spinach and spices.

For the carnivores inside, I ordered Karahi Chicken and, a Pakistani / Indian prerequisite: rice for two.

Karahi Chicken, Lahore style.

Upon first inspection, the dishes look like your usual curry fare, but it is the uniquely Pakistani and freshly ground spice combinations that give these dishes the Lahore "touch" that I have not found
replicated elsewhere.

This was all more than enough for two big eaters. Everything was brought quickly, hot, and delicious
in typical metal curry dishes and was obviously made freshly. Highly recommended all around.

Pudding (as the Brits would say):

My box of goodies.

Matt and I made a familiar pact that, even after indulging in our incredible Pakistani feast, we would save just a little shred of room in our bellies to attack the alluring Bangladeshi sweet-shop we had passed on our way to Umberston Street.

Temptation in the form of Gulab Jam? Check.

This is where we got Gulab Jam and many other little tasty sweeties. The shop keeper pegged us for American tourists (and told us as much); he seemed annoyed when we told him we actually lived in London. I think he was hoping to get us to buy a kilo of sugary goodness instead of the 6 pieces we settled on. Oh well! As Matt so aptly noted: walking around looking like gringos will do that for you!

What a way to end an already culinarily and culturally delicious afternoon!

* * *

Lahore Kebab House
2-10 Umberston Street
London E1 1PY

Tel: 020 7481 9737
NB: Make reservations if you are going in the evening. It gets crowded and you want space to suck the bones dry! :)

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Friday, April 3, 2009

The Tortilla Crisis &, um, Happy 39 Weeks!

I am a serious corn tortilla hoarder.

Another Friday has come, and with it the end to another week of pregnancy (Thank God).

How callaced and bitter do I sound and it's not even my due date?!

Nobody really tells you about the dark side of pregnancy - those last mortifyingly endless weeks of heavy and constant anticipation. Or maybe if they do tell you, you're still so far stuck in the pink cloud of early-pregnancy euphoria that you refuse to listen and assume they're just bitter and pathetic. I'm pretty sure that's what I did anyway, but now I know they weren't lying. I am humbled by my own deluded willingness to believe that I would never reach this stage (especially knowing my own impatience).

Yes, it's "Happy" 39 weeks - but I have to be completely honest, I'm a little less than on cloud (3)9. Not that I'm angry or bitter, I'm just frustrated and impatient. And I think I am allowed to say that without seeming really horrible, because (in all honesty) the impatience and readiness to have this baby does not in any way lessen the excitement and happiness I feel about it.

On that note - I figured it was about time for a little pictorial bump update. Here's the midge and m
e last week, in the kitchen, as usual. O Sole Mio and all that jazz.

38 weeks and still smiling.

* * *

On a somewhat unrelated but almost equally important note, there is one other big reason (besides my entirely-selfish impatience) why Ludovictus needs to get his butt out into the open air: I have reached a serious corn tortilla crisis.

It is a little known fact (because nobody seems to care) that the UK is pretty much completely and utterly devoid of good corn tortillas (my personal crack cocaine). What they sell (in copious amounts) are these wretched things they refer to as "wraps." They come in all sorts of ridiculous "Mexican" flavors like "salsa," "cumin" or "chili & jalapeno." *insert mini gag noise here*

I'm sorry, but if I wanted badly made flour tortillas, I'd whip up a batch myself. My grandmother and her family are from the north of Mexico and I'm willing to bet my first attempt at their staple starch would STILL be better than the crap Tesco sells.

Yes, I freakin' do judge people who use "fajita kits." Because if they'd tasted the real thing, they would too!

I could go on about this for pages and pages (and probably will at a later date), so I'll stop here, but if you want to see what "Mexican Food" means to most British people, simply take a gander at this website and see the constant hell I have to endure when trying to make some comfort food.

If it's not sh*tty products, then it's blatantly ignorant portrayals of "Mexicans" on packaging and the media.
Sadly,I buy these chips every week from Tesco. Love the um, mustard bottle (wtf?) in his "belt."

There is actually one tortilla machine in the UK (called "El monstruo"), located at a decent restaurant in Notting Hill. But they're version of corn tortillas is as good as biting into stale cardboard. Your tacos crack, your huevos rancheros are impossible to cut through. You have to sell an organ to be able to afford them. No good for anyone involved.

For these and many other reasons, I basically force my mother to break international customs laws and bring me copious amounts of my favorite corn tortillas straight from Texas whenever she comes to visit. This usually means that half of one entire large suitcase is lined with pre-portioned ziplock bags containing pre-frozen corn tortillas from H.E.B. It is always a big production when she gets here to unpack as quickly as possible and transfer the loot to my freezer, where I carefully ration and hoard them until her next (or our next) scheduled visit to the US.

Sadly, pregnancy has made me less than careful with my rationing. Usually I'm a pretty strict totalitarian with regards to household corn tortilla usage. Matt is typically relegated to the Tesco Slighly Salted Tortilla Chips (see above) or bread, being a hopeless gringo at heart (unless he really demands tortillas). He just doesn't show me the kind of orgasmic culinary joy I expect when I toast my little preciouses by hand on the gas stove to eat with a Mexican meal (probably made with my also-rationed salsa verde and Sazon Goya).

Point being: today I used two of the last four tortillas in the last package of rationed corn tortillas that were in the freezer. And mom doesn't arrive for baby's arrival until the 13th of April. Can you really blame me for the less than chipper post?!

Happy Friday!

Eat a corn tortilla for me, especially you lucky bastards in the Southwest and California. :)
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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bibliophilia and Its Merits

Dickens' David Copperfield:
aesthetically pleasing for more reasons than one.

* * *
"Books are like a mirror.
If an ass looks in,
you can't expect an angel to look out."

Arthur Schopenhauer
* * *

I can almost always remember where and why I bought a book I love.

In the case of H.G. Wells' The History of Mr. Polly, for example, I was at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital in London for an antenatal appointment last November. I can't remember what charity organization it was, but they had set up a used book sale in the middle of the hospital's atrium, and
while I waited I perused the titles, hoping to find something exciting to give Matt as a Christmas gift. I left that day with several good books - many of them old, worn copies of European Classics. I knew Matt would enjoy them for their aesthetic value just as much as their content, a bibliophile to the end.

The books I purchased included:

1. The History of Mr. Polly by H.G. Wells; hardcover, green canvas binding with the original light blue dust cover in perfect condition. Published: 1940

2. Old Goriot by Honore de Balzac (English translation); hardcover, navy blue canvas binding with
the original ocean blue dust cover and a plastic sleeve over that. Published: 1963.

3. Death in Venice & Other Stories by Thomas Mann (English translation); soft cover, Penguin Modern Classics edition with attractive browning of pages. Published: 1971

4. David Copperfield (our 2nd copy; I couldn't resist the color) by Charles Dickens; hardcover, lime green canvas binding with no dust cover but a hand-written dedication from a headmaster to a school boy in 1948 on the inside cover. Published: No date indicated.

* * *
"The pleasure of reading is doubled when
one lives with another who shares the same books."

Katherine Mansfield
* * *

Matt and I love to read. Granted, Matt takes it to a whole new level. He spends almost every single available non-working, waking moment with his nose stuck in a book: on the tube, on vacation, on the weekend, after dinner, before dinner, when I'm asleep, while I'm distracted doing laundry. As a child, he was the kid whose parents threatened to "take his books away" because he wouldn't go to sleep. I am an occasion-binge reader. I read very randomly and for very random reasons. I find the oddest of books in piles at the Salvation Army and make them my own. My choices are based on whim rather than planned, academic order (like Matt's), and sometimes I go for weeks without picking up a book. Yes, I like to read - no, actually, I love to read - but Matt and his books have a relationship even I can only admire from afar.

For this particular reason, I debated purchasing these four books for Matt that November day at Chelsea & Westminster. Not because I doubted he'd read or like them, but because we came to this country with about 10 books we couldn't live without or hadn't yet read (the other several hundred being holed up in boxes in a Connecticut barn with the rest of our adult possessions) and now, two years later, have nearly 100. Matt and his insatiable habit coupled with my love for old
books and random book sales are going to make moving back to the US a pretty interesting and expensive prospect.

Non-book people don't get it. I had a friend come over the other day and say: "Wow you have so many books. I just go to the library so we don't have to keep them around the house." Somehow, I
think she missed the point behind why we have books we have. They are not a burden, but rather a physical manifestation of the experiences and self-taught lessons we've shared over the past two years. It always shocks me when people don't share or understand that passion. Then again, sometimes I think Matt would rather give up a vital organ than get rid of his book collection, which is a little extreme.

But, I have to admit, when it comes to certain books, I'm right there with him. :)

* * *

Bibliophilia and its Merits
thoughts on collecting and admiring books

one of our bookshelves in London

4. The Aesthetics of Book Collecting
We love to keep books around the house for many reasons - some practical, some emotional, and some purely aesthetic. I see nothing wrong in feeling that having a book collection gives a room or even a home a certain je ne sais quoi (ok fine, an air of "refined intellectualism" - but I say that in the least pretentious way possible!).

When Matt and I first began sharing an apartment in NYC, one of the things I loved the most was his book shelf and the way he'd organized it. It's not done alphabetically or by color, as some would prefer, but rather by subject and genre, depending on what we have more of. For example, back in NYC we had an entire section devoted to my Greek Philosophy and Architecture books and Matt's Latin Classics from our college days. Here in London, Matt has a section just for his collection of books on Political Theory and dictators and I have my section for romantically-ratty used but classic British novels.

I love to look at the way they are organized - different heights, widths and sizes mish-mashed together. Some upright, some stacked horizontally to break up the monotony. Plus you can usually tell what we've been reading based on the dust covers hovering at the tops of book piles or the occasional empty space.

On the whole, I would dare say our bookshelves are some of the most aesthetically pleasing sections of our apartment. And that's a lot to say for someone obsessed with aesthetics.

3. They All Tell a Story. Pun Intended.
In addition to being nice to look at, smelling good, and offering a wide variety of interesting textures based on binding, books we keep at home all tell a story. Not the one they have inside, but the one about where they were bought, for whom, by whom and for what purpose. Some books remind me of my time in Italy, of my days at University, of a random train ride or a cloudy day at home when I was sick. Some books are gifts I treasure dearly and some I actually even consider pieces of crap I'd rather never touch again (but I keep them anyway because what's life without a little crap to appreciate the good times by?).

Some books take me back to wonderful, enlightening lectures, to intellectual or emotional epiphanies, to rites of passages and days spent reading outloud for no other reason than wanting to be together. Some books have voices, faces, even hands that I can remember vividly. And some are simply books with lives and stories waiting to unfold in a future filled with continued curiosity and new experiences. Promises waiting to be made and days waiting to be lived. I find it delicious to be able to see and feel all this simply by walking into the living room.

2. Wooing with Books: Unorthodox but Effective.
Wooing with books is something Matt and I openly indulge in. Or maybe it's something I indulge in with Matt. Whenever I need to buy him a gift I can't help but feel compelled to buy a book that imparts a thought, a philosophy or a funny passage I know he would like or I'd like to share with him. There has been many a time that I have vicariously lived through my favorite characters and their stories as Matt read a book I gave him. I can think of nothing more romantic (well, maybe not nothing) than sitting down and having a really good, interesting, in depth discussion about a book with my husband. It's one of the reasons I found him attractive when we met, and I find that even now, past our school days, it's one of the more intense glues that holds our relationship together.

We read very different books, but through our distinct tastes and interests, we educate each other. I don't think I'd ever want to spend my time (much less my life) with someone who wasn't interested in constantly learning new things and thinking new thoughts.

It's an unorthodox but highly effective way to woo, IMHO.

1. A Good Book really is like an Old Friend.
One of the final reasons we love books is that they unconditionally and unconfinedly (is that a word?!) offer an entrance or an exit. Whether it's reading the content of the book itself or simply flipping through inner-covers to read heartfelt dedications, books are a way to transport without transporting.

Whenever I buy a book for someone, I make it a point to write when, where and why I've bought it in my dedication. If the book is for myself, I write my name the date and where I read and bought it. It always shocks and delights me to look through these tidbits of information and recall where I was and with whom when I read the gory details of American Psycho or fell in love with Rilke's prose-poetry.

And the best part is, opening a good old book is like coming home. All dog-ears, underlined passages and random bookmarks (business cards, restaurant receipts, flower petals and even bits of packaging) bring an old friendship back to life. That's something I never get tired of. And it makes me happy to dream of the pretty library we'll have one day (when our possessions aren't littered around the globe) where I can sit and meander through a crowd of familiar authors, characters, and locales - my life's journey all in one room.

The nerdy but awesome Classical /
Medieval book labels I got for Matt

* * *
"Until I feared I would lose it,
I never loved to read.
One does not love breathing."

Harper Lee

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Starting April with a Zing: Manaeesh bi Zataar

Nothing like a little zataar to add zing to an April day...
image credit

April is a special month in my family. Everyone and their (well, my) mother seems to have been born in April. It's a time when in Texas the weather is still pleasant (read: you can go outside without experiencing immediate and deadly heat exhaustion), the famous Texan wildflowers are blooming, and people are held in a delightful suspense, a pause in bated breath, before the beginning of full-on summer. For these reasons and many aesthetically-pleasing more, I felt April should be started with a zing. How better than with a recipe for an easy and light pizza dough that can be used for one of my favorite Lebanese foods - Manaeesh bi Zataar - ?

When I was ten years old, I recall my mother's Lebanese friends bringing over some miniature pita
breads with a dark, strange spice mixture containing sesame seeds on it. They could never quite explain what the spice mixture was made of, but it was enough of a family favorite that the dear Lebanese mother was willing to risk problems with customs in order to smuggle the ready-made treats for her daughter in on the plane from Beirut. They were always generous enough to bring some over for us - and thank God for that, because if I recall correctly, those little pitas were hoarded and devoured with an excitement and greed equal only to that of Augustus Gloop in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.

This simple but exquisite little snack, along with my traditional Lebanese dress and recipes for things like stuffed grape leaves, real tabbouleh, and fatoush were the first, miniature but nevertheless exciting and delicious insights I was given into the Lebanese culture.

Almost twenty years later, I still dream about that delicious, spicy-sour bread with the long mysterious spice mixture. I've seen it a couple of times at some of my favorite Lebanese restaurants here in London and tried to ask for a name or explanation: sadly, most of the waiters can't tell (or don't know) what the spice mixture is either. It wasn't until my last visit home to Texas that my mother was lucky enough to find a bag of it at an ethnic market. She gave me half (which I promptly stored in my bodega) to use, and I finally did last week when Matt went on his pizza dough kick.

So let's just cut to the chase...

* * *

Matt's Adventures in Pizza Dough and Manaeesh bi Zataar:
What the heck it is and why you should totally
try it.

my manaeesh bi zataar,
ready to be devoured by beastly little old me

Making of The Pizza Dough

A couple of weekends ago Matt went on a cooking kick. It was probably spurred on by much grumbling and many puerile refusals to cook on my part due to swollen hands, impending motherhood, and sheer sloth.

Matt doesn't get to cook much, but when he does, he loves to go all out, which is why I find it particularly pleasurable to indulge him and make sure we have whatever ingredients he requires for his usually highly-involved culinary dalliances. In this particular case, he wanted to make his own pizza (personally, I think my Pepe's Pizza post was haunting him). Luckily, the recipe we found and subsequently used was utterly simple and included only ingredients we pretty much always have on hand anyway.

While he was making the dough, we got into a conversation about the Lebanese pizza-thing he'd had at Noura (one of our favorite high-endish Lebanese spots in London) the week before. Even though he didn't, *I* knew exactly what he was talking about when he described the doughy, spicy-soury deliciousness of my childhood and quickly ran to pull my as-of-yet-unused jar of Zataar out of the bodega.

What the heck is Zataar (and what the heck are Manaeesh)?
After phone calls to mom and desperate googling, I finally got my answer: Zataar is a Middle Eastern spice mixture generally composed of sesame seeds, the highly underused (IMHO) Marjoram, Oregano (Marjoram's cousin), and Thyme. Sometimes it also includes sumac, fennel, cumin, dried coriander, or other savory spices to create variation and cater to individual taste.

It is not only common in Lebanese cuisine; the Palestinians, Israelis, and many other Middle Eastern and Arabic cultures know and love Zataar and use it generously to season everything from meats to vegetables, make dips or use as a spread. I was even once handed a "Zataar shaker" at a Persian restaurant to liberally sprinkle over my food in place of salt and pepper. It is in fact so yummy that I could not help but eat it by the large pinch from my personal stash. Matt was a little shocked and appalled, but hey, that's how I roll.

Manaeesh (or Manakeesh) is a plural, Anglicized version of the Arab word for a dough or pastry typical of the Middle East and which can be topped with a plethora of ingredients (usually Zataar, ground beef, or cheese) and is eaten with one's hands, much like Italian pizza. It is, however, typically served at breakfast or lunch and as an appetizer rather than as a main meal. It can be small (less than 3 inches in diameter like the ones we had when I was a kid) or medium sized (like the ones Matt and I indulged in).

Why the heck should you try them?
When you combine Zataar with Manaeesh you get Manaeesh bi Zataar, a food held to be incredibly healthy and a natural stimulant of the brain. You know how your parents used to make you have that power-breakfast on the morning of the SAT? Well this is apparently the Middle-Eastern version. I'm happy to indulge that cultural practice any day.

* * *

Matt's Simple Pizza Dough
to be used for making Manaeesh bi Zataar

Makes Two Medium Pizzas or Four Individual Manakeesh

flattenin' the dough


Pizza Dough
1 tsp active dry yeast
2/3 cup warm water (or just a splash more)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
olive oil for bowl
1/4 cup semolina

Zataar Topping
4-6 tbsps good olive oil
4-6 tbsps Zataar (or to taste)
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 lemon
salt to taste


1. Mix the yeast and warm water in a bowl and allow to stand for 1 or 2 minutes, until the yeast is creamy or dissolved. If it doesn't bubble at all, your yeast is dead: go buy some more!

2. Separately, combine the dry ingredients (flour and salt) and then add the yeast mixture slowly, combining to form a dough.

3. Turn the dough out onto a very lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, adding more flour or a splash more water to ensure the dough is not too dry or too wet (this should take about 10 minutes).

4. Lightly coat a large bowl with olive oil and put the dough in. Cover with cling film and put in a dry, warm place to rise for 2 hours.

5. Flatten or punch the dough and take out of the bowl. Cut the dough into two or four even pieces and shape into balls. Flatten the dough again slightly and then lightly dust with flour. Cover loosely with cling film on a floured surface and leave to rise for another hour or until the dough has doubled in size.

6. Once the dough is ready, preheat your oven to its highest setting 500F or 250C. If you have a pizza stone, now's the time to pull that sucker out and stick it in the oven. If you don't, put a heavy roasting tray in the oven and allow it to warm up. Use a separate tray to bake your pizzas or manaeesh on. This will help heat the bottom of the dough as quickly as possible, making the crust crisp but moist because of the short baking time.

7. Using your hands or a rolling pin (a "pizza roller" as Matt calls it) flatten the dough to the size and thickness you want. For my manaeesh (or Matt's pizza!), make it thin-crust (about 1/4 inch thick or less). Place on a baking sheet with some semolina scattered on it so the crust doesn't stick.

8. Traditional recipes call for mixing the zataar with olive oil first, but I simply slathered a generous helping of olive oil (2-3 tbsps per medium manaeesh) all over the dough and then sprinkled with heapsof zataar and some minced garlic. I then salted it and baked for 5-7 minutes, or until the surrounding edge is slightly golden but the dough is still somewhat moist when cut.

9. Sprinkle with some fresh lemon juice and eat warm. You can make extra zataar dip for your bread if you really love the stuff by mixing the spices with more oil and a little lemon juice. Delish.

* * *

Matt's Pizza Creations!

Watery but chunky tomato sauce, good olive oil, minced garlic, freshly grated parmiggiano reggiano (and / or shredded mozzarella), and dried oregano are the key to a good base...

Matt loves streaky bacon and kalamata olives,
but wishes he could find good Italian sausage instead.

Half streaky bacon and mushrooms,
half tuna fish, corn and onion - one of my favorites!
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