Archive for the ‘Middle Eastern’ Category

Eggplants are everywhere in my Greenmarket now. Not just every where, but every size, every shape, and every shade in the white, green, and purple ranges.

Greenmarket eggplants 2

They’re among my favorite summer vegetables, and I make them most often in composed Mediterranean-style dishes – ratatouille, caponata, ciambotta, parmigiana – sometimes stuffed, and occasionally just simply baked or fried. Most recently I wanted to try a different kind of preparation, so off to the cookbooks I went on a search.

T-L MideastIn the Middle Eastern Cooking volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series, I was intrigued by several Iranian recipes for coucou, explained as a thick vegetable pancake. One, Coucou Bademjan, was for eggplant. That would do! I initially thought the dish would be like a frittata.

You start by frying thinly sliced onions in olive oil until dark brown. (This is a common way of treating onions from the Middle East through India, and the effect is quite different from less-cooked western ways with onions.) Take the onions out of the pan, put in half a pound of eggplant cubes, and stir to coat them with the oil. Add turmeric (whose color you’ll spend the next three days trying to remove from pans and implements), salt, pepper, and water; bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until the eggplant is tender. Return the onions and cook briskly, stirring, until the liquid is almost all evaporated.

coucou 1


Then you transfer everything to a large bowl and let it cool. Finally, eggs are beaten in: four of them. They made a very soft batter, unlike any frittata mixture. The cooking technique is different too. It’s done in that same pan, with more olive oil, of course – eggplant is a sponge for oil! – but covered. Mine cooked quickly around the edges, while the center stayed very wet. The eggplant itself seemed to be liquefying rather than firming as the batter cooked.

The recipe’s next instruction was strange. You’re to cut the cake into four wedges right there in the pan, keep on cooking for a minute or two “until the center is firm,” invert a plate over the pan, flip everything over, and slide the coucou back into the pan to cook the other side.

At that point Beloved Spouse, who is the frittata cooker in our household, intervened. Ridiculous to cut wedges and then try to turn them over as a single cake! Also, when the uncooked side touches the plate, it’s likely to cling, making it hard to get the item to slide cleanly back into the pan. He finished the cooking according to his own technique. When he judged the coucou to be ready to turn, after quite a bit more cooking time than indicated, he slid it out (uncut) onto a large, upside-down pan lid, which he held from below by the knob; inverted the pan over it, and then quickly flipped the whole thing; cooking the second side again longer than the recipe said. It came out an attractive golden brown, but still much softer than a frittata ever is.

coucou 2


When the coucou was on its serving plate, I finally cut it into quarters and served them, as the recipe suggested, with a few slices of ripe tomato. As you’ll see, it does look a bit like a frittata, but it was nothing like one in texture. Didn’t look much like a pancake either, for that matter: It was still soft and very moist. Quite tasty, though, and pleasantly eggplanty.

coucou 3


We ate the first two quarters at a lunch – it’s pretty rich and filling – and I put the rest in the refrigerator for another meal. Two days later, for a dinner, I warmed the leftover two quarters in the toaster oven and served them as a first course with a simple (also leftover) tomato sauce on the side. They’d dried and firmed up a bit, and tasted even better than previously.

coucou 4


This was a very different way of treating eggplant than any I’m familiar with, and I’m not entirely sure the dish turned out the way it should have. But it was interesting to try, enjoyable to taste, and a learning experience that has me considering other uses for the coucou approach.

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Toward the end of each year, as the weather declines from chilly to frigid, I start thinking of long-cooking, rib-sticking legume dishes, based on beans and lentils. I have good French, Italian, and American recipes for these pulses, but this week I was feeling global, so I looked in my cookbooks for something more exotic.

I also happened to have in my pantry superior varieties of both brown lentils and white beans. The lentils – small, tender, golden brown – are from Castelluccio, in Italy’s Umbria/Marche region, by way of a shop in Torino. The beans are alubias, an heirloom variety from Guanajuato, Mexico, by way of Rancho Gordo. In one sense, it was silly to try to do anything exotic with either of these, since they’re both marvelously flavorful just in simple preparations from their home regions. But I had culinary Wanderlust, so I looked farther abroad.

Mujaddara: the lentils

For the lentils, I went as far as the Arab Levant, using Clifford Wright’s book A Mediterranean Feast. This is an imposing tome of gastronomical history, as indicated by its subtitle, “The story of the birth of the celebrated cuisines of the Mediterranean from the merchants of Venice to the Barbary corsairs, with more than 500 recipes.” Mujaddara is a rice and lentil pilaf recipe, a traditional dish in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine.

The recipe starts by having you fry a batch of onions to top the eventual dish. I have to say the instructions for the onions gave me pause. The author seems to think you can slice onions less than 1/16” thick, toss them in hot olive oil, fry them until dark brown, and still have them hold together as slices. Has he ever actually tried this? It can’t be done. The onions immediately fall apart, as my photo of the frying stages shows.

But the general technique is close enough to the way Indian recipes brown-fry onions, so I just did it that way and didn’t worry about their shape.

Then you boil lentils in water until they’re almost tender, and set them aside. Soak rice in water for half an hour, and drain it. This rice preparation is again very like the way Indian recipes treat basmati rice, but this author didn’t specify a type, so I used long-grain Carolina.

Finally, you sauté a little freshly chopped onion in butter, add boiling water, salt, the lentils, and the rice, and cook until the rice is tender and the water all absorbed. Transfer to a serving dish and top with the fried onions.

It was good. Mild tasting at first, but it grew on us as we ate. With the rice and lentils combining to make a complete protein, we could practically feel the nourishment we were getting! The lentils were definitely the star of the dish, because the rice had gotten a little pulpy from the soaking. So if I do it again I’ll either reduce the proportion of rice or use basmati to see if it contributes more to the flavor and texture.

La Loubia: the beans

I found my bean recipe in the Dried Beans and Grains volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. Translated as Spiced White Beans, it’s a dish from Morocco, or more generally, North Africa. The recipe looked perfectly easy to make, and so it was. After an overnight soak (or a two-minute boil followed by a two-hour soak in case, like me, you forget about the beans the night before), the beans are cooked in plain water until nearly tender. Meanwhile, you make a heady paste of garlic, cumin, cloves, paprika, cayenne, salt, and olive oil, and then simply stir it into the beans for their last 20 minutes of cooking. That’s all there is to it.

The dish looks pale and plain, but it was enticingly fragrant, and the unusual (for me, at least) blend of spices made it a delicious accompaniment to broiled lamb chops. The fleshy beans, flavorful in themselves, picked up different nuances from the seasoning and tasted slightly hot, slightly herbal, and slightly fruity – sometimes all at once, sometimes sequentially. Very intriguing.

At the outset, one thing about the recipe had struck me as improbable. For six servings it called for four cups of dried beans. At the rate they expand when cooked, that would yield almost a cup and a half of cooked beans per person. A mighty hefty portion, unless the beans are meant to be the entire meal!

I decided to make the dish with only one cup of dried beans, which would be more than enough in a full dinner for two. But the amounts of spices called for in the recipe were quite modest, mostly just pinches. Using only one-quarter of them didn’t seem as if it would do much for my good-sized pot of cooked beans. So I approximately halved the spices, and that worked out quite well. Maybe Moroccan chefs’ fingers take bigger pinches than mine do!

A final note 

Tom took the leftovers of both dishes and made an excellent soup of them, adding a little sautéed carrot, onion, and pancetta, and then his homemade broth. Ingenious fellow, my husband.

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It’s been an unusually busy week for me, and I haven’t had much leisure to try something elaborate for my next new recipe. An easy preparation of a vegetable for dinner was about all I felt up to. Accordingly, I went looking in the Vegetables volume of my Time-Life Good Cook series.

This set is a great culinary resource. Each of the 27 tall, slender volumes covers a particular category of food, with intelligent, illustrated discussions of choosing and handling the ingredients themselves, chapters on the major ways to cook them, and an anthology of recipes from around the world. For example, the vegetable volume gives recipe credits to 139 other cookbooks, dating from 1662 to 1977.

My choice for this week, Indonesian Fried Corn, was originally from the 1975 Larousse Treasury of Country Cooking – not a book I’d ever heard of. The recipe’s Dutch name is Frikadel Djagung, which sounded exotic to me, but its components are very familiar to a Western cook and the process is simplicity itself. You mix together kernels cut from cooked ears of corn; chopped onion, celery, and cilantro; an egg, salt, and a little flour. Stir-fry over high heat in peanut oil for five minutes. That’s it.

Not a world-beating recipe, obviously, but fine for an everyday dinner. It was softly crunchy and fresh-tasting. I’d wondered if the egg was going to make a sort of fritter of the vegetables, but in fact they mostly absorbed it. It was just a loose binding. Subsequent online research told me that frikadel are indeed fritters, and apparently other versions of the recipe do become fritters. But I couldn’t have done something wrong – there’s no way that stir-frying will produce fritters.

I cooked the corn freshly for this dish (five minutes in boiling water while I chopped the other veg), but I think if I’d had day-or-two-old leftover cooked ears they’d have been OK to use instead. Now that we’re in the height of corn season, that’s not an uncommon thing in my refrigerator: I can’t always resist buying too many ears at a time.

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Oh, golly: After 19 weeks of good-to-excellent recipes, I’ve come up with my first loser. Now, it may have been partly my fault, but really I think this week’s recipe just doesn’t work. Here’s a picture of my dish:

What would you think this is – maybe a coconut-covered custard with a drizzle of caramel sauce? Well, it’s supposed to be a dish of Crusty Basmati Rice. Doesn’t look much like that, does it?

What it should have been

This is a recipe from Marie Simmons’s Rice: the Amazing Grain. I was intrigued by it because the author has a totally casual attitude toward basmati rice. My Indian cookbooks say it’s the best rice in the world, but you must first rinse it in eight or nine waters, then soak it for half an hour, then cook it, then let it rest undisturbed for a time. Given all this, I rarely cook basmati rice. But Simmons has a different approach.

She says she never soaks or rinses any kind of rice. She calls basmati “the queen of fragrance,” distinguished by its aroma. She says this Persian recipe is extraordinary, and that the technique of cooking the rice slowly until a crust forms on the bottom is used in many rice-based cuisines. Well, I said to myself, sounds good!

How it worked for me

I needed to halve the recipe, which would’ve served eight. No problem, I thought. So I boiled the rice until almost tender with 2 (should’ve been 1½, strictly speaking) peppercorns, 2 (also 1½) cloves, and a chunk of cinnamon stick (size not specified). Drained it in a sieve, leaving in the spices. Sautéed some thinly sliced onions in a heavy pan in clarified butter “until golden” (mine never get golden; only brown at the ends, then black if I turn my back for a moment), along with some saffron threads. Then I spread the onions in the pan, topped them with the rice, drizzled on more butter, covered the pan, and put it in the oven.

This was to be baked for an hour, or “until the bottom is crisp and golden.” I ask you: How are you going to tell what color the bottom is when your pan is solid metal? This was beyond me. But I baked it for the full time, rested it briefly, and unmolded it – with the result you saw above.

There was no crust. There was no fragrance. Two measly peppercorns, two cloves, and a chunk of cinnamon hardly registered in the mound of rice. The saffron disappeared completely – didn’t even color anything – which in retrospect wasn’t surprising, because you can’t just throw saffron threads into a dish; you have to crush them, usually in liquid, so they permeate.

In the end, it was decent plain rice, certainly edible, but that wasn’t how it was billed or what I was hoping for.

Was it my fault?

One thing I did wrong. I used too small a pan. The whole dish called for a ten-inch pan. Without thinking too hard, I chose a six-inch pan. Six is more than half of ten, isn’t it? Well, it isn’t, not in terms of area. Remember high school algebra: A = pi r2. A six-inch pan has only one-third of the area of a ten-incher. So my rice was too deep in the pan, probably retaining too much moisture to have gotten a crust in the time I gave it.

But I don’t think it would have, anyway. Maybe I should have forced those onions to become golden at the beginning, and the saffron to do its saffrony thing. But there was hardly enough of the onion-saffron-butter to cover the bottom of my pan; it wouldn’t nearly have spread over a larger one. And with the oven only at 325˚ (per instructions), how long would it have taken to develop a crust?

So I’ll take part of the blame for the disappointment of the recipe. But I feel that any future basmati rice dishes I make will go back to the classic Indian methodology.

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