As I'm sure you know by now, Steven and I have a favorite restaurant we visit (nearly) every weekend. On Sundays, there's only one waitress, and her name is Fatina. She's the owner's sister and she and her family are from Syria. I like to tell her stories about my burgeoning cooking efforts, and she laughs when I bring in recipe books by Rachael Ray.
"You don't want that food!" She grins and motions to the cookbook. "Come to my house, I will teach you to cook my food! From Syria!"
Surprising even myself, I took her up on her offer and we scheduled a time to meet at her house so that she could teach me to make Tabbouleh, Baba Ganoush, cheese pies and baklava. (I always thought baklava was Greek, but who am I to judge these things? Besides, all of those countries are Mediterranean, so they can share desserts amongst themselves, I suppose.)
Fatina says, "No more Rachael Ray! I will teach you properly!"
Now, for those of you that know me, you know that I typically cook in the realm of Kraft Blue Box Mac and Cheese and those circular breaded chicken patties. I had no idea what I was getting into by trying to learn to cook foreign dishes, and frankly, I was kind of nervous about it. What if I said the wrong thing, what if I made a cultural misstep, did I need to take off my shoes or wear a scarf or anything? I googled Syria in the days prior, and then finally came to the conclusion that since Fatina waited tables in polo shirts and jeans, sans headscarf, I was probably fine to just show up and be myself.
And when I arrived, I realized all my nervousness had been for naught -- Fatina had Caribou coffee ready for me. A woman after my own heart.
First we learned Baba Ganoush, which is basically a vegetable dip with roasted eggplant, diced cucumber and bell pepper, with lemon juice, garlic and parsley. I will give you the recipe as best I could scribble it down as I watched:
Baba Ganoush, by Fatina
2 eggplants, roasted on the grill for 15-20 minutes, until skin is charred on all sides
1 small cucumber, diced
1 green or orange bell pepper, diced
8 halves walnut, chopped coarsely
2 tbsp. fresh parsely, chopped
Juice of 1/2 lemon (or to taste)
1 garlic clove
Salt to taste
1 tbsp. of Pomegranate Molasses (Fatina says you can buy this at an international market.)
Olive oil, to serve
Directions: Grill eggplants for 15-20 minutes until skin is charred on all sides. Remove from grill and let cool. Peel off skin and scoop out insides. Blend or food process eggplant until smooth. Mash garlic clove with salt in mortar and pestle (or if you don't have a mortar and pestle, like me, you can create a redneck version by mashing your garlic in a ramekin with the end of your rolling pin. Classy, I know.) Add lemon juice to garlic/salt mixture. Stir mixture into eggplant. Add chopped veggies, parsely, walnuts and molasses (if using). Add more salt and lemon juice as desired, to taste. It should taste very fresh, bright and crunchy. Drizzle with olive oil and serve cold, with pita bread for dipping.
We also learned to make Tabbouleh, which until that very day I had thought was a rice dish of some sort.
It is not. It is, in fact, 98% parsley and 2% bulgur wheat. Who knew? (Oh, right -- probably most of the Middle East...)
1 c. Bulgur Wheat #1 (the smallest size kernel)
2 bunches Italian parsely, coarsely chopped
1 small cucumber, diced
1 small tomato, diced
Juice of 2 lemons
2 tbsp. fresh mint, chopped
Dried mint, salt & pepper to taste
Soak bulgur wheat in water (enough to barely cover wheat kernels) for 20 minutes. Drain and spice bulgur wheat with salt, pepper, and dried mint. Maybe a little paprika, too. Stir in diced cucumber, tomato and scallions. Toss with chopped parsley, lemon juice, and fresh mint. Serve cool. Tabbouleh is similar to a salad dish -- very summery and green. And it is a LOT of parsley. (Bulgur wheat pictured below - How did I not snap a shot of the entire dish?)
When we got to the "main dish" portion of the lesson (I didn't realize I was getting an entire four-course meal in this first visit, but believe me, I loved it!), she referred to the dish as "Green Beans and Rice." (She is soaking jasmine rice in the green bowl below.)
Steven can attest that we are very familiar with this dish (or an Americanized version of it) -- Steven's mom used to make a "Green Beans Over Rice" dish for Steven as a kid, and to this day he will tell you it is one of his favorite meals -- green beans, ground beef, soy sauce, white rice. Every kid's dream meal.
So of course, I was all excited to see another version that I could potentially make for Steven. When Fatina pulled a big bag of frozen green peas out of the freezer, we had a bit of a lost-in-translation moment. Green beans? I asked. She nodded and then looked at the bag she'd just emptied into the pan. "Beans? Peas? Green peas? Whatever." She laughed.
(It would probably be delicious either way.)
Fatina also had an assortment of Middle Eastern spices in the world's cutest spice jars. (I asked if they came from Syria in the jars. She laughed and said she got them at Bed Bath and Beyond for fifty cents each.)
She scooped a brown spice into the pot and I asked her what it was. "Syrian spice. Combination of ten spices. I'll give you some." I forgot to take it with me when I left, so she brought me a sampling of the spice (and some dried mint) at the restaurant the next day. I think its similar to Garam Masala.
This is the part where I tell you that I have just now realized, to my horror, that I accidentally deleted some of my pictures from that day. Ergo, I don't have a picture of the final product for this dish, nor do I have any pictures of the Baklava. I am super annoyed with myself for this, but alas, nothing can be done. I'll give you the recipes anyway, and you can make them yourself and see what they look like. Stinking cameras and computers. They conspire against me.
Green Peas and Rice, with Ground Beef:
2 c. Golden Star Jasmine Rice
2 c. water
1/3 c. + 1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1/4 tsp. Garam Masala
1 lb. ground beef
1 package frozen peas
1/2 tsp. Maggi (vegetable) seasoning
2 tsp. salt
Handful of pine nuts
Cover rice completely with water and soak for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, brown ground beef in oil and season with salt, pepper, and Garam Masala. Add frozen peas and turn heat to low.
In separate saute pan, put 1/3 c. oil in pan and add 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil. (Per Fatina, you MUST bring the water to a full boil before adding the rice, or you will end up with a doughy, gunky mess.) Drain the rice that was soaking (it should look white and opaque). Pour drained rice into boiling water and DON'T STIR IT. Cover it and leave it boiling until the water is all absorbed by the rice. Turn the heat to low once the water is all absorbed (about 10 min). Sprinkle veggie seasoning in a straight line across the pan, so that some rice becomes yellow while the rest stays white. You can add in a little more boiling water (boil it in a separate pan or teapot before adding to rice) to keep the rice from sticking to the pan.
Serve rice with ground beef and peas on top. Toast some pine nuts in olive oil for a few minutes to add as a garnish on top. Delicious, easy, and quite filling.
The next dish was actually two separate recipes -- the dough and the filling. I am a huge fan of bread/pastry dough recipes, so this one was especially interesting to me.
To make filling:
1 package Queso Fresco
1 tbsp. chopped parsley (At this point, just buy a parsley farm...)
Salt and pepper
Crumble cheese in bowl and add chopped parsely. Season with salt and pepper.
To make dough:
3 c. flour
1/3 c. vegetable oil
1/2 c. milk or plain yogurt (I bet greek yogurt would be nice here)
Pinch of salt
1 tbsp. honey
1 tbsp. yeast
1/2 tbsp. sugar
Warm water (1/2 c.?)
1 egg yolk (for brushing tops of pastries for baking)
Add yeast and sugar to water until yeast bubbles. Mix together flour, egg, vegetable oil, milk/yogurt, salt and honey in separate bowl. When yeast is bubbling, add to dough mixture. Mix in stand mixer until dough ceases sticking to edge of bowl. Leave covered in warm place for 1 hour to rise.
To make cheese pies:
Preheat oven to 400. Roll out dough and cut into triangles.
Place small scoop of cheese mixture into each triangle and roll up into croissant shape.
Don't overfill or cheese will leak out.
Line up in greased baking pan.
Brush tops of cheese pies with egg yolk. This will help them to be golden brown coming out of the oven.
And this is the point at which Heather deleted the rest of the pictures. Oh, the self-loathing.
Anyway. The cheese pies were fantastically delicious. For dessert, we made baklava with phyllo dough, filled with sweet cream and drizzled with sugar syrup.
To make cream filling:
2 c. heavy cream
2 tbsp. corn starch
2 tbsp. sugar
1/4 c. milk
Mix together corn starch and milk until blended. Add heavy cream and sugar, and cook on stovetop on med-high heat. Stir quickly and constantly as filling thickens. Once thickened, remove from heat. Let cool and refrigerate for one day. It should be a butter consistency.
To make baklava:
Preheat oven to 350.
Buy some frozen Phyllo (Filo) Dough. (It is nearly impossible to make from scratch.) Put the dough in the fridge to thaw the day before you make these.
Unfold one sheet of phyllo. Melt 1/2 stick of butter, and brush phyllo with butter using a pastry brush. Fold phyllo into thirds, length-wise. Put a dollop of cream filling on the bottom of the phyllo and roll it up into a triangle shape (this is going to feel like you are making a paper football). Brush triangle with butter and place on baking sheet.
Bake triangles for 12 minutes at 350 or until golden brown.
To make sugar syrup for drizzle:
2 c. sugar
1 c. water
A little lemon juice or lemon powder (SPOILER ALERT: Fatina uses Lemonade Kool-Aid as "lemon powder" to give a little more lemon taste without more lemon juice. Oh, America, you culinary mastermind, you.)
Boil sugar and water for five minutes or until sugar thickens. Refrigerate once cooled. Syrup should be immensely sticky but pourable.
Remove baklava triangles from oven and drizzle with sugar syrup, then sprinkle with crushed pistachios. Eat 'em up but watch out, that sugar syrup can yank your fillings right out.