Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wonderful Exotic Middle Eastern Food....MMMmmmm

We love strong flavors and contrasts in our food so I guess it's no surprise we love Middle Eastern Food. I should explain that "Middle Eastern" covers a large area of the globe that spans southwestern Asia, southeastern Europe, and northeastern Africa. In other words, countries like Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Irak, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and such.... ancient cities with a wealth of history and culinary traditions dating back to the very beginning of civilization almost.

This area was widely known for it's exotic civilization and spices where many European countries would trade for goods, spices and many of today's foods have roots to the Middle East. Egypt is known as the birthplace of beer for instance, and their culinary tradition offers us wonderful dishes like aromatic rice stuffed pigeon and grape leaves, Shawerma, Kebab and Falafel; plus an unending variety of vegetarian and staple foods like their national dish "Kushari", a combination of rice, lentils and macaroni infused with strong spices and a vinegar like sauce I love that is a typical lunch choice for most of the country to this day and is what their "fast food" places sell.

Turkey has it's yogurt, coffee and eggplants, while Iran and Irak are known to have inherited their cuisine since the time of Mesopotamia. Their specialties include the wide use of saffron, rice, dates, the ever present kebabs, yogurt, macaroni, dolmas and more that are shared within all these and other neighboring countries. They all share not only a rich history but a flavorful culinary tradition as well.

This time we will take a trip to the Middle East and learn about some of their food. I hope you too will be inspired enough to try some of these dishes and become a fan like us.

Tabbouleh.- A great salad to enjoy which also has healthful properties to aid digestion! Easy, fresh and economical too....
1 cup bulgur (cracked wheat)
3 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
2 cucumbers, peeled and chopped
3 green onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/3 cup fresh mint leaves
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup lemon juice
2/3 cup olive oil

Place cracked wheat in bowl and cover with 2 cups boiling water. Soak for 30 min; drain and squeeze out excess water. In a mixing bowl, combine the wheat, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, garlic, parsley, mint, salt, lemon juice, and olive oil. Toss and refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving. Toss again prior to serving.

Western style serves this with pita but if you want to be correct, this is served with lettuce leaves which you use as a "wrap" and eat it this way.
Kabab Koobideh (Lamb Kabobs).- Spiced Lamb meat cooked over a wood fire... Yum!

2 lbs Ground lamb or beef
2 Large onions, grated
2-3 Garlic cloves, crushed or from press
1 Large egg, beaten
4 Medium tomatoes
Salt & Black pepper
1 tsp Turmeric
1/2-1 tbl ground cinnamon (optional)

Mix meat, onions, garlic, egg, salt, pepper and turmeric well and leave in the refrigerator overnight (or for several hours). You can do this in a food processor.

Press the meat around long, thick metal skewers and shape evenly. Thread whole tomatoes on another skewer. Barbeque each side for about five min, turning frequently. (If skewers are not available or barbequing is not possible, kabab-e koobideh can be shaped into long, thin portions on aluminum foil and grilled at high temperature in the oven. The oven should be pre-heated and kabab-e koobideh should be placed as high as possible near the source of the heat, like a broiler. Again, turn a few times.)

Serve with hot Basmati rice or on middle-eastern bread. If serving with rice, some parsley may be sprinkled on top. If kabab-e koobideh was made in an oven, the juice from the kabab can be poured on rice or bread.
Shirin Polo (Rice with fruits).- This is a celebratory rice made especially for weddings, but it's so good I celebrate any old time with it......

2 cups Basmati or long-grain rice
1.5 lbs Chicken, cut in small parts
Cooking oil
2 tbl Butter
1 handful Almonds, peeled and sliced
1 handful Pistachios, cleaned and sliced
2-4 tbl Orange peel, cut in slivers
2-4 tbl sour cherries (or you can use cranberries too), cut up
2 Large onions, sliced thin
2 cups Sugar
1/2 teaspoon Saffron, more if using Mexican Saffron
Salt & Black pepper

Soak rice in warm water for 2 hours. Meanwhile, wash chicken. Peel and thinly slice onions. Fry in oil until slightly golden. Add chicken pieces and fry until color changes. Add a glass of hot water, salt and pepper and cook over medium heat for about 20 min. Add more hot water during cooking if necessary. About 1/2 glass of water should be left at the end. Remove chicken bones and set aside the meat and save the stock.

Save 4 tbl of sugar for later use. Add remaining sugar with a glass of hot water in a pot and bring to a boil. Add chicken stock, 2-3 spoons of oil and saffron, and mix well.

Thinly slice almonds and pistachios. Soak almonds in cold water for an hour. Thinly slice orange peels and cherries. Boil for a few minutes, drain and repeat. Soak in cold water for an hour, drain, and repeat. Finally boil for a few minutes with three spoons of sugar, and drain.

Prepare rice using the recipe for polow like this: When rice is rinsed, pour a bit of oil and hot water in a pot, and add 1/2 of rice. Spread chicken pieces over the rice, and cover with 1/2 of remaining rice. Spread half of almonds, cherries and orange peel over rice and cover with remaining rice. Pour sugar and chicken-juice mix prepared earlier over rice. Cover and cook over low heat for about 30 min. Add remainder of almonds, cherries, orange peel, and pistachios, and mix well.
Baba Ghanoush (Eggplant Appetizer).- This is a favorite all over the Middle East....

1 eggplant
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup tahini (get the roasted sesame seed type)
2 tbl sesame seeds
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 tbl olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly grease a baking sheet.

Place eggplant on baking sheet, and make holes in the skin with a fork. Roast it for 30 to 40 minutes, turning occasionally, or until soft. Remove from oven, and place into a large bowl of cold water. Remove from water, and peel skin off.

Or here's the old Greek way of cooking eggplant for this dish: place the whole eggplant, skin and all on the stove burner and charred each side over medium-high heat until it is soft and black all over. Then, wrap it tightly in foil and placed in on the burner at low heat for about 30 min, turning once. By this time it should be very soft. Let it sit until it cools enough to handle and unwrap the foil over a bowl to collect all of the juices that leak (the juices add so much flavor) and carefully remove the blackened outer skin and discard that. Then you are left with a perfectly smoky eggplant pulp to add to the other ingredients. I keep the seeds in it and don't have any complaints of bitterness.

Once the eggplant is ready, place eggplant, lemon juice, tahini, sesame seeds, and garlic in an electric blender, and puree. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer eggplant mixture to a medium size mixing bowl, and slowly mix in olive oil. Refrigerate for 3 hours before serving.
Serve with Pita or chips.

After our little trip I'm looking around to start my own Middle Eastern Feast. The charcoal is starting and will give me enough time to get the Shirin Polo done while the rest of the meal is ready.... I'm using large floor pillows laid on a carpet, will only use candlelight to eat by from my Mexican star iron lamps and will have some fragrant spearmint tea ready to sip during the meal and a wonderful Turkish coffee and some baklava (that I bought from my Iranian neighbor that has a small business).... we're all set, how about you?

I should also mention my upstairs neighbor commented that the aromas coming out of my terrace are driving him crazy! Mmmmmm, a lovely evening awaits......

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