Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Amicable Alimentations: Syrian Lamb Fetteh

Lamb Fetteh: a Damascene Appetizer

Amicable Alimentations: A series of posts with no predictable order or timing dedicated to a delicious food and the friend who most reminds me of it or inspired me to love it.  Here's the link to post number one from a couple of months ago, and this, of course, is post number two in the series.
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We're moving.  AGAIN!  And while some, less adventurous souls might squeal in pain, I'm so happy I could pop.  We're going back to the US!  And of all the random places I've never been and we could have conceivably ended up in, I never thought that in two weeks we'd be living in Portland, Maine.  But there you have it - that's how random and serendipitous life can be. :)  And actually, all this came just as I was getting used to life in the Middle East, just when I'd made good friends, and was starting to finally relax with little of the "settling in" process to deal with anymore.  Oh what'reyagonnado?

* My Discovery of Syrian Food *

About a month ago, a friend of mine invited us to her house.  I usually get very excited about going to peoples' houses for dinner because to me it's a unique look into their lives, and the way they eat is also indicative of lots of things - how they interact, how focused on health or culture they are.  A million things.

Anyway, I was particularly excited about this dinner because my friend Marilla and her husband Abd are Syrian, and Damascene on top of that.  Their son Aidan (Adnaan actually) is a little younger than Roman and a real cutie.  They are all super nice people and have given me a unique and authentic look into Middle Eastern culture since moving here, one that is almost impossible to glean from local Emiratis who seem to very much keep to themselves.  But I digress.

Damascus is one of the cities I most wanted to visit while in the Middle East (and sadly now I won't be able to this time around), as it is not only rumored to be fantastically old and rich in its historical and charming characteristics, but the food is supposed to be superb.  It's a mix of Mediterranean and Arab cooking that involves lots of fresh dips and grilled meats and yummy salads.  In short, I absolutely couldn't wait to see what Marilla would dish up for our night at her place.

She didn't disappoint.  She made an appetizer called "Fetteh" (loose anglicized transliteration there), we had kibbeh, Fattoush, Warak Enab (warm, stuffed grape leaves, in this case cooked with tomatoes and potatoes), Riz w Shayreeyah (rice with short vermicelli noodles) and stuffed eggplant in tomato sauce.  For dessert she bought kunafa, one of my favorite Arab sweets made with string phyllo dough and cheese.  She also gave us a box of Damascene cookies to take home.  Yum.

The Delicious Syrian Spread
Everything was superbly delicious and filling, and yet I kept going back for more of one dish - the Fetteh.  When I asked Marilla to explain what "fetteh" is, she couldn't, really.  She could tell me the ingredients and the way to make it (which I duly wrote down), but I guess to her it was simply such a familiar thing that it seemed odd to try to explain it to a foreigner.

Marilla's Syrian Fetteh
I did a little research on the internet (check out Dessert Candy, a blog which I love) and found that Fetteh is a very common, very informal Middle Eastern appetizer which has as many variations as there are cooks in the Middle East. At its simplest, Fetteh is a warm stew of yogurt and chickpeas with pita bread.  The version my friend Marilla made for us is actually a more complex Damascene one involving eggplant, tomatoes and lamb.  I can't begin to tell you how delicious this dish is.  Luckily, I will now divulge the much hoarded recipe so you too can try a little bit of the Middle East at home.

And I will say it now, by God, one day I will visit Damascus!  Thanks Marilla for a wonderful dinner and the inspiration for this installment of Amicable Alimentations (which I have shamelessly otherwise neglected).  Bil-hanā' wa ash-shifā!  

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My Version of Marilla's Syrian Fetteh

Serves 6

My version of Marilla's Fetteh
I already have some improvements to make on my version of this, having just made it once.  For one thing, I didn't use nearly as much yogurt as I should.  And I didn't have Tahini so I used Sesame oil (which actually worked pretty well but wasn't the same), so I need to go back to the original next time. 

This comes out as more of a heavy appetizer / light dinner.  But we ate it as a main course and felt more than fulfilled by it.  The key is to have lots and lots of the yogurt mixture which infuses a typically Middle Eastern flavor into this dish, with the mixture of tahini, garlic, yogurt and lemon juice.  Yummy.

1lb (500g) minced lamb
1 container (200-250g) Greek yoghurt
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, skinned & sliced into moon shapes
(or substitute 1 small can of whole tomatoes in their sauce)
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 pack pita or Arabic bread (about 3-4 small pitas), chopped into small squares
1 medium eggplant, sliced into thin-ish rounds
1 tbsp Tahini (sesame seed paste)
1-2 Lemons, juiced (to taste)
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup whole pinenuts
plenty of good olive oil

1. In a pan with plenty of olive oil, fry the pita bread squares until brown and crisp.  Set aside on a plate with paper towels to drain excess oil.

2. In the same pan, adding olive oil as needed, fry the eggplant rounds in batches until VERY golden on both sides.  Set aside on a plate.

3. In the same pan again, brown the lamb and season with salt and pepper; with a spoon remove some of the excess fat then set aside the lamb and keep warm in a bowl.

4. Lastly, sautee the onions and tomatoes and tomato paste in the same pan, seasoning with salt and pepper as needed.  Allow the onions and tomatoes to cook together for 10 minutes or so, adding a little water if needed to make a sauce.

5. Finally, in a small pan with a tiny bit of olive oil, lightly brown the pine nuts and set aside.

6. In a bowl, mix the yogurt, garlic, lemon juice, tahini and some salt.  Taste and adjust quantities as needed.

7.  In a casserole dish, mix the fried bread and tomato sauce as the bottom layer.  Then on top of that lay the eggplant, then the yogurt, then the lamb, then the pine nuts on top.  Serve using a large spoon and make sure the dish is warm!

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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Green Smoothies: Breakfast Cheat-Sheet

My Favorite Green Smoothie
I wouldn't call myself a health-nut.  I find people who obsessively eat things ONLY for their caloric or lack-thereof content and or vitamin value kind of annoying killjoys.  To me, focusing on those things saps the beauty, excitement and serendipity out of creating new things to eat every day - there are just too many calculations involved.  I generally go with whatever "sounds good" to me that day, and happily, that is usually a good combination of the 5 (6?) food groups.  I love vegetables, especially green ones, and always have.  I also really love seafood, whole grains, fruit, and dairy.  So with all that on my side, I'd say I provide myself and my family with a well-balanced, freshly-prepared and preservative free diet.

These days, being pregnant and all, I've admittedly had a harder time eating a well-balanced diet, because a lot of things haven't seemed appetizing at all.  I tend to crave sweet things when I'm pregnant anyway, but the weirdest thing that has happened to me this time around as that I can't stand the thought of grocery shopping.  For some reason I feel a gag coming on the second I think of the meat section at the supermarket, and I'm not one to test my personal theory  that I probably won't throw up because I'm more-gag-than-vomit when it comes to pregnancy, in public.  For this reason I've mostly been shopping at the closest, cleanest supermarket to me: Abela. 

Abela is expensive because it's a specialty supermarket - one of the only places in Abu Dhabi where you can buy pork products, as well as many other international (mainly American and British) imports.  This is a big deal (especially for us bacon-eaters).  It's also a big deal that it's a 2-minute drive from my house.  But because of this "big deal" the prices are inflated at least 25-30% as compared to Carrefour or Lulu.  Nevermind.  The produce is usually a lot nicer, and they are one of the only places that seems to sell baby spinach.  Mmmmm, love me some baby spinach.

So speaking of baby spinach, I've been buying the $5.00 / box baby spinach lately.  Yes, shamelessly.  And in order not to waste a single leaf, I started making green smoothies.

My favorite color is green, but I first got my idea for green smoothies from this blog post at Naturally Nina, a blog I've recently taken to following.  My interest was piqued by her comment that she too had some hesitance in adding green things to her morning fruit smoothies, thinking it would introduce an irreversible grassy element to them.  But when she claimed that actually you couldn't even taste the spinach, and that you got a great green color and all the natural vitamins and minerals along with it, I couldn't resist trying. 

I am pretty boring when it comes to smoothies - I always make banana, vanilla and milk smoothies.  But since the introduction of "green" into my smoothies, the variety has exploded.  I would highly recommend experimenting with your favorite flavors (Nina uses Mango and Spinach), but here's my favorite so far - an easy, delicious, gag-free, and coincidentally quite healthy way to start the day.  No calculations necessary.

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My Favorite Green Smoothie

Serves 1-2

I have listed amounts as complete approximations.  I usually eyeball it with smoothies and recommend you do the same. 

As an unrelated bonus: kids actually like this too.  Roman had a half cup of it, much to my surprise and delight. :)


 1 banana, in large chunks
1/3 cup plain yogurt
1/2 - 1 cup whole milk (adjust to your liking)
1/2 Hass avocado
10-15 baby spinach leaves
1 small handful of whole almonds
1-2 tbsp natural sugar (I use brown cain sugar)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Whizz it all up in a blender until the nuts are in smithereens and you have a nice, even green color. 

Drink cold for breakfast or as an accompaniment. 

You can also make this thicker by reducing the milk and eat it as a yogurt-y type thing with granola or muesli.  Yummers.
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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Happy Birthday Matt!: Whole Wheat Skillet Cookie Cake

It's All You Want to Be on Your Birthday

Happy 29th Birthday Matt!

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It's that time of year again.  Time to spoil the good old husb because he's one year more mature, one year more well-aged, one year the wiser, one year the better, and one year closer to being able to claim he's "distinguished" because of his premature gray hair. :) 

We celebrated his birthday last weekend with a trip to the beach where Matt learned to Wake Board, then we had hot dogs and cake for lunch, and then I took him to dinner at a steak house called the Rodeo Grill, where he tried Wagyu beef for the first time (a filet of grade 9 marbling which probably had a more pampered life than either of us, for the record).  We ended the night at the bar in the Cedar Lounge at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr: a scenic Lebanese restaurant with an outdoor sheesha bar on the water.  My only complaint is that the belly dancer stayed inside. :)

Anyway, onto the cake!
Remember those shops in the mall where all they sold were giant cookie cakes?  They'd have little plates with cookie samples on them and I always made it a point to stop by and pretend I was going to buy a cookie just so I could steal a sample.  Lame, but worth it.   I am such a shameless chocolate chip cookie addict!  And the wonderful thing is that Matt is too.  So when I saw the recipe for a whole wheat skillet cookie on 101 Cookbooks a couple of weeks ago, I immediately knew that's exactly what I would make him for his birthday.  Not only is it exactly something that Matt would love to devour, it is also less time consuming than a regular sponge cake, and easier to eat.

I used some store-bought icing to write him a simple message.  My only advice is to wait until the cookie cools completely before doing any kind of decorating or your letters will turn into fat, blobby messes like mine did.  I kind of like to think of it as the "I'm-29-I-don't-need-precious-cake-letters" motif (right.).  Not sure if I pulled it off. :)

Baking a giant cookie in a cast-iron skillet is the kind of thing that foodie dreams are made of.  Cast-Iron skillets are like the old-tried-and-true kitchen gadget that everyone should have.  You can use them to make anything from biscuits, to gravy, to Spanish tortillas, to, well, skillet cookies.  You can sautee, bake, fry in them.  They are versatile and sturdy.  And best of all, you don't have to use soap to wash them (ok I admit, this part of cast-iron grosses me out but I bear with it).  I used them a lot in my Girl Scout days when we camped.  My leaders taught me to use some dirt and a wadded up piece of aluminum foil to clean them out before rinsing in water.  Pretty amazing how this keeps them "seasoned" and better for using than washing with soap!

The recipe Heidi at 101 Cookbooks used is fantastic.  It calls for 100% Whole Wheat flour, which I was a little bit wary of using for a cookie, but the result is actually amazing.  It gives the cookie a slightly nutty taste that I think we would not have liked to go without.  I also added a generous amount of roughly chopped walnuts to the recipe (next time I might go with pecans), which also gave it a nice touch.  I chopped up and froze about 3/4 of the cookie (I used a 12" cast iron skillet, which is GIGANTIC!), and we ate the rest, gluttonously, as only a 29, 30 and 2 year-old can do.

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Whole Wheat Skillet Cookie Cake
a pictorial journey


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