Thursday, May 26, 2011

Respect the food (or, how I burnt the bulgur)

I honestly don't know why I was so cranky that morning. Maybe I hadn't had enough coffee. Maybe I hadn't had enough sleep. Maybe I was just cranky. Whatever the case, I walked into the kitchen  annoyed and snippy. The day didn't get much better from there. Out of sheer stupidity I cut myself opening a box by disregarding the cardinal rule of cutting away from oneself. Then I lost count counting out the schnitzels and had to start all over again and when it came time to cook the bulgur with lentils, I burnt the bulgur. I burnt it so badly that a good quarter of the pot wasn't serve-able and the other three quarters had a lovely smokey flavor. Then, as the second pot of bulgur was cooking, I realized that I had left out a package of lentils. "What the hell", I thought, "what harm could it do?" So I threw in the lentils. I'm sure you could all guess where this is going. Service that day featured smokey bulgur with undercooked lentils. Yum.
I burnt the bulgur because I'm not strong enough to reach all the way to the bottom of the pot when it's full to the brim with grains and water, but I also burnt the bulgur because I was cranky and annoyed and unwilling to ask for help. To channel Carla Hall of Top Chef- it's all about the love and respect you put into your food. And I don't mean that it the metaphysical sense- I simply mean that if you respect the food and the people you are feeding you will be attentive and contentious.  You will pay attention. Your food will reflect that. You will not disregard that burning smell, or under-cook the lentils. I try to keep that in mind. There will always be days when I'm cranky. There will always be days when I feel like nothing goes right. But when I'm in the kitchen I put that aside. My work in the kitchen is about food. It's about feeding people. It's about doing the things I love to do. My bad day can wait.

The following recipe is a mystery. I've been making it for years, but I have no idea where it's from. It's written on a yellowing piece of paper that gives no clue as to it's source. It is also the first thing I thought of when lentils and bulgur appeared on the menu in the kitchen. This is a great salad. It's herby  and light and a full meal all on it's own.  It anyone recognizes it and can tell me who to attribute it to, it would be much appreciated. As usual, feel free to play with the amounts in this recipe. Personally, I never really measure herbs. I just sort of grab as much as I can and chop.

Lentil and Bulgur Salad

1/2 cup brown or green lentils
1/2 large red onion, thinly sliced
salt and pepper
4 tbl olive oil
1 tsp minced garlic
2 tomatoes, chopped
1/2 tsp  cayenne pepper
1 tsp ground cumin
1 cup medium-grained bulgur
3 cups vegetable stock, or water
1/2 cup chopped mint
1/2 cup chopped parsley
2-3 cups romaine lettuce, chopped
lemon juice, to taste
yogurt, to serve

1. Soak lentils in cold water for one hour. Drain. Soak the red onion in water until ready to serve.

2. Put 1 tablespoon of oil into a large saucepan and heat over medium heat. Add the garlic, cook 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, cumin and cayenne. Cook 2-3 minutes until the tomatoes soften.

3. Add the bulgur, cook 3 minutes. Then add the liquid and lentils. Bring to a boil, cover and lower the heat. Simmer for 20-30 until the lentils are tender and the liquid is absorbed. Cool.

4. Toss herbs and lettuce with remaining olive oil and lemon juice. Mix in the bulgur-lentil mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with onions and yogurt.

Note: You may notice that the photograph above is missing one crucial ingredient- bulgur. This is because, as I was informed in the supermarket-"there is no bulgur." Why? Who knows. Perhaps I was under the mistaken assumption that supermarkets stock staples such bulgur. I guess I was wrong.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Kubbe I

Because kitchen shifts rotate, I'm never quite sure who I"m going to be working with at any given week. This is great since it gives me a chance to a) meet more of the women and b) figure out who I work with best and try and arrange it so they we work together often. One of my favorite cooking partners is A. A. reminds me very much of my aunt. I'm not sure why but it could be because she shares the same wide smile, perfectly manicured hands and air of competence. Or, it could be their shared habit of calling everyone "darling". For this reason alone, I took to her immediately. A. also taught me how to make kubbe, which made me like her even more.

Kubbe, for those who aren't familiar with the dish, are meat-filled semolina dumplings that are traditionally served in a sour, lemony soup. (There is also a type of kubbe that is made with bulgur and fried, but we'll get that a different week).  Kubbe is highly popular in Israel, but I had never tried my hand it. I just assumed that you had to be an Iraqi grandmother to make kubbe, otherwise you'd just get it all wrong. So when A. offered to teach me, I jumped at the chance.

Making kubbe is slightly complex, but once you get the hang of it it's not that bad. You first make a filling of sauteed ground beef, garlic and some celery. Set it aside and let it cool.  Then make a dough of semolina and water.Wet your hands. Grab a fist-full of dough and roll into an evenly shaped ball between your palms. Holding, the ball in the palm of one hand, press down with two fingers of your other hand, from the center-outwards to create an even, flat circle of dough. Place about a tablespoon of filling in the middle of the circle of dough and cup your hand, pulling the dough up and over the filling. Roll the dumpling between your palms to reshape into an even ball. Wet your hands again and repeat.

Kubbe is gossip food. It's slightly tedious and annoying to do on your own, but when you're sitting with a bunch of friends, talking and laughing and keeping your hands busy, it's a pleasure. The recipe below is not precisely the same one I made with A., but it's near enough. Also, note that the soup the kubbe is cooked in is quite tart. Don't fret. When eaten together the kubbe, the richness of the dough and the meat offsets the tartness quite nicely.

Kubbe Hamousta

Adapted from, The Book of New Israeli Food, by Janna Gur

The Kubbe Dough:
1 cup coarse bulgur wheat
1 cup fine bulgur wheat
1 cup semolina
1-2 tbl. flour

The Kubbe Filling:
1 3/4 lb beef, ground finely
4-5 stalks celery, finely chopped
3-4 cloves crushed garlic
Salt and pepper

The Soup:
3 tbl oil
5 large onions, diced
2 liters chicken broth
2/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
The rest of the celery stalk, chopped
1 bunch of Swiss chard, cut into strios
Salt and pepper

1. Prepare the dough: Mix the two types of bulgur and add enough water so that it is covered by at least 1 1/2 inches of water. Let sit for 45 minutes. It should remain covered in water at all times.

2. Squeeze the bulgur and discard the water. Add the salt and semolina and mix thoroughly. Add the flour and knead by hand to form a soft dough.

3. Prepare the filling: Heat oil in a large skillet and fry the meat slowly on a low heat until completely dry. Add the chopped celery, garlic salt and pepper and fry for a 4-5 minutes. Let cool.

4. Prepare the dumplings as described above.

5. Prepare the soup: Heat the oil in a large pot and saute the onions until golden. Add stock and bring to a boil. Add the celery and Swiss chard. Season with salt and pepper. Add lemon juice gradually, reduce the heat and cook for about a half an hour. Add the dumplings and cook for 20 minutes. Let the soup stand for at least an hour, reheat and serve.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Adventures in Israeli Couscous

First of all, I want to apologize for the delay. International travel and jet-lag do not make for good writing and cooking conditions. I really do hope that from this point forward blog posts will be a weekly occurrence.
Now that that's taken care of, let's talk about Israeli couscous. Israeli couscous is not couscous. It's baked pasta. And while it has somehow evolved into an upscale "in" food, in Israel it maintains its role as a humble side-dish served to children in kindergarten or lathered in ketchup by poor students. Which is not to say that it isn't awesome- because it is. It's got a couscous like texture, but is more substantial and has a deeper flavor than regular pasta.  It is endlessly useful and is easily prepared. It can be eaten warm or cold and lends itself to a great variety of seasonings and flavors. In other words, awesome.
So I was plenty pleased when I found myself, on my second week in the kitchen, faced with an enormous pot of Israeli couscous. Even more pleasing was the fact that I was given free range to prepare it as I liked. Just one week into my kitchen experience, and there I was being told to  use my own judgment. It was both satisfying and slightly frightening. I really didn't want to screw up my first real cooking assignment. I got the idea of cinnamon from the following recipe for Israeli couscous with roasted butternut squash and preserved lemon, which I had been making, on and off, throughout the fall and winter, and I like quite a bit. I didn't expect to cause quite the ruckus I did though, when I asked where the cinnamon was kept. Nobody in the kitchen had ever conceived of adding cinnamon to Israeli couscous. It was as if I revolutionized the whole concept. Well, I wouldn't quite call it a revolution, though it was quite good. Now I seem to be to be on perpetual Israeli couscous duty. Any time I'm in the kitchen and Israeli couscous is on the menu, it's pretty much a sure thing I'll be cooking it. At least now I know where the cinnamon is.
This recipe is endlessly flexible. The original recipe calls for preserved lemons. I use preserved limes because that's what I have in the house. Likewise, I have substituted cilantro for the parsley, almonds for the pine-nuts and at some point, having failed to find butternut squash in the supermarket, I once used carrots instead. It is also a really good picnic dish- it travels well and feeds quite a few people as a side dish.

Israeli Couscous with Roasted Butternut Squash and Preserved Lemon

Adapted from Gourmet, Sep. 1999

  • 1 preserved lemon, or lime
  • 1 1/2 pound butternut squash, peeled and seeded, and cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 3/4 cups Israeli couscous or acini di pepe (tiny peppercorn-shaped pasta), about 1 pound
  • 1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
  • 1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, or cilantro
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 475

Toss squash with 1 tablespoon oil and salt to taste in a large shallow baking pan and spread in 1 layer. Roast in upper third of oven 15 minutes, or until squash is just tender, and transfer to a large bowl.
Cook onion in 1 tablespoon oil in a 10-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until just beginning to turn golden. Add to squash.
Cook couscous with cinnamon stick in a large pot of boiling salted water 10 minutes, or until just tender, and drain in a colander (do not rinse). Add couscous to vegetables and toss with 2 tablespoon oil to coat.
Add lemon peel and juice, parsley, nuts, raisins, ground cinnamon, and salt to taste. Toss to mix well. 
Serve at room temperature.