Monday, December 1, 2008

Vegetarian (shock!) lunch party

This past weekend a bunch of my very good friends were in town, one of whom is a vegetarian. In the past I've cooked meat with something on the side, but that always seems like a sad compromise. Vegetables are good too! So I settled on a completely vegetarian meal, which, even though two dishes were totally new to me, turned out quite well.

Chickpea and Fava Bean Falafel
with Arabic spices, parsley, and red onion, served with saffron scented cous cous and a tahini dip

(the picture was very dark - this is the best that could be done!)

The falafel was a tricky one! I'd never made it before, and my first tester practically fell apart in the oil. I re-evaluated my mixture and added lots of flour and coated each ball in flour. They were still very delicate, but they, for the most part, came out whole. I didn't have enough oil to truly deep fry them, so I couldn't make true balls, more like pancakes. Which is not inauthentic actually - they are sometimes served that way as well.

Saffron and cous cous go very nicely together! But whole wheat cous cous, which I used, while healthier, does not take on the color quite as nicely.

The dip:

(image courtesy of Lexi)

Roasted Farm-fresh Butternut Squash, Red Onions, and Grape Tomatoes
lightly seasoned with cinnamon and Spanish paptrika and topped with feta cheese

This was yummy, but dried up a bit waiting for the rest of the dishes to finally finish. I needed a touch more seasoning, and a drizzle of olive oil fresh at the end would have been delicious. But I do love the way butternut squash looks on a plate, eighthed and roasted regardless! The red onion was fantastic - so sweet and slowly caramelized, I actually liked it even better than the squash.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


I had no studying to I made baklava yesterday!

I had never made it before, and I used an Afghan recipe. Baklava is a common treat across central asia, the middle east, and of course, Greece. However, while it's exact origins are disputed, it is quite certain it developed somewhere in the Ottoman Empire, and has since become engrained into the cuisine of a dozen countries.

Afghans' variation on Baklava is, in my opinion, the most elegant I've tried. Rosewater, saffron, and cardamom? I just about melted reading the recipe.

Pistachio-Almond Baqlawa
topped with rosewater, saffron, and cardamom syrup, dusted with fresh ground pistachio and garnished with cinnamon

The whole shebang. It fed a happy Persian class, as well as myself and my roommates - with a couple pieces left over to delight my father with on Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 24, 2008

"I want to be able to eat spaghetti bolognese...

...and not feel bad about it for days and days and days"

-Lily Allen, "Everything's Just Wonderful"

I like to cook (relatively) healthily. Blame it on my mother. So in the past, whenever I'd look at the Bolognese sauce recipe in La Vera Cucina Italiana I would shy away...1/4 pound of bacon, 1 cup of heavy cream...

Granted, that's for five pounds of veal and beef. Even more importantly though, whenever I have made meat sauce, similar to Bolognese, in the past, I have used FAR too much aromatics (carrot, onion, celery). Afghans love their onions and garlic, and when I first (six odd years ago) started to cook, meat pasta sauce was one of the first dishes I would make. But as an Afghan, I probably used one whole large onion for one pound of meat. I've since come down to 1/2 or so, but even that was five or ten times the amount the author of the above cookbook suggests.

Yesterday, after chopping my usual one carrot, one stick of celery, and half an onion, I looked at the recipe for Bolognese in that cookbook. It called for 1/4 cup of onion, 1/4 cup of celery, and 1/2 cup of carrot. But I was cooking five times less meat!

1/20 cup of onion! It seemed absurd! Out of curiosity, I finally gave in and went with it.

To my astonishment, the result was the greatest meat sauce I'd ever created. In fact, I even went so far as to use a bit of chopped bacon (no pancetta around) to start the dish. I forgot the milk/cream finish, but it was probably rich enough already ;)

The subtle aromatics lended an incredibly meaty sauce. But I used good beef, from the farmer's market, which had a delectable, gamey taste, far superior to store-bought. Not bad for $5/lb!

The ingredient list was so simple:

1lb ground beef
1/4 cup bacon
~1 tbsp onion
~1 tbsp celery
~2 tbsps carrot
2 tbsps olive oil (should be probably 1 tbsp max)
1 garlic clove
pinch of nutmeg
1 cup white wine (recipe called for 1/4 cup, but this is cheap wine with less flavor!)
1/3 can tomato paste

Fry bacon in olive oil, add aromatics except garlic, cook until onion is translucent, add meat and brown, then add garlic, saute briefly until fragrant, then add wine and tomato paste and simmer for at least one hour. Serve with tagliatelle or fettucine.

I served it with egg fettucine tossed with sauteed eggplant, cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives, spinach, garlic, lots of extra virgin olive oil, and a splash of wine (reduced with eggplants). Oh and plenty of grated Asiago and Romano.

Unfortunately I have no worthy pictures of the Bolognese, but here is the pasta:

Eggplant, Cherry Tomato, Garbanzo Bean, Kalamata Olive, and Spinach Fettucine
with garlic-white wine sauce and Asiago and Romano cheese

Friday, November 21, 2008

What's better than a good wine?

$3 wine students can actually afford to cook with! Trader Joe's Charles Shaw, better known as "two (three in seattle) buck chuck"

Thanks to my sister, I now have a few bottles around - something I'd been missing since I moved out. I don't really drink, so I cook with them instead... that is until I turn around from the stove and notice half the bottle has disappeared into my housemates' mouths. But alas, it's $3, so who cares, open another one and be merry!

It's a nice compromise in quality - they really aren't bad, and give a good wine flavor to dishes. In fact, they are better than most $7-12 wines I've tried cooking with. I do have a nicer bottle lying around that I'm going to experiment (literally) with - comparing a dish cooked with the pricier wine to the same dish cooked with the three buck chuck - a blind test with the help of a few friends.

Once again enjoying the fall produce from the farmer's market, I roasted squashes (a few assorted winter ones) with fingerling potatoes, carrots, red onion, chicken stock, garlic, coriander, fennel seed, lime juice, and a splash of balsalmic vinegar.

Fresh-cracked Black Pepper Rubbed Chicken Tenderloins
quickly braised in red wine and chopped garlic and fire roasted red peppers. Served with lemon roasted fingerling potatoes, winter squash, carrots, and red onions. Garnished with fresh parsley.

The roasted vegetables were probably my favorite part of this dish - a really hearty accompaniment for a cold blustery night's dinner. The lemon and balsamic really came through, giving a lightly sour sweetness to the vegetables, and the chicken stock gave it depth. The squashes, while I was hesitant again since they smelled like pumpkins when I was cleaning them, became delicate and sweet when roasted. The spices didn't seem to do too much, but that worked out just fine.

The chicken tenderloins, while good, came out a bit too peppery! The wine reduction was delicious however.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Moroccan binge.

I've had a beautiful butternut squash from the farmer's market sitting on my counter since last saturday, slowly gathering graffiti with sharpie...from me. =) I also didn't feel like studying, so...

Qorma of Chicken Breast, Butternut Squash and Apricot
served with cous cous and garbanzo beans with a balsalmic red onion reduction, grape tomato salate, and seer moss (garlic yogurt)

(garnished with fresh ground sea salt and grape tomatoes)

It was the perfect opportunity to experiment with something that has been bugging me - I hadn''t tried to use anything but the most standard beans and vegetables in my stews/curries/qormas (pick your word). I had experimented with seasonings, but not ingredients nearly as much.

Thus, building from the butternut squash, I picked up some dried apricot as well, inspired from a Tagine/Tajine recipe in one of my cookbooks. I broke from the recipe by using the squash, a few of the seasonings, and most fundamentally the qorma cooking process, browning the meat before braising it. I now would like to try the same basic concept in the more traditional form, without browning, to see what the difference is.

The apricots I was initially very skeptical of - at $7/lb, I was expecting huge flavor right out of the bag. Not so - they were actually kind of plain tasting right out of the bag, not to mention brown and unappetizing. (I had never tried dried apricot before.) However, to my surprise, they were fantastic cooked! The flavor they imbued the qorma with was incredible, sweet and tart balancing perfectly with the warm spiciness of the seasonings (cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, ginger, garlic, spanish paprika). The butternut squash was also a new thing for me - I can't say I'd ever eaten one aside from soup nor even seen one cut open. I cubed them and they turned out so smooth and buttery (go figure - "butter" nut squash)!

Overall, I was incredibly pleased with the result! I also captured a nice little burst of steam from the plate while photographing:

(The only bad part about keeping a food blog is when your food gets cold photographing! But I'm quick now.)

And, just to point out a nice little cooking failure:

Frozen "stir fry" vegetable FAIL:

Somehow the entire bag congealed into a ball. And I had the bright idea of "stir frying" the iceberg. Needless to say, it was not really edible. Freezer burn is rough.

experimenting with light, future contemplations

First off, the blog is not dead! I just tend to be inundated with work. But I have been cooking, just not too much worthy of taking a picture of. I did like the below shots however, and experimented with different lighting for them.

seared zucchini braised in tomato, garlic, and spices, then topped with fresh torn basil and garlic-yogurt sauce

The basil was most definitely not a traditional Afghan addition. The herb is not totally unheard of in Afghanistan, though it is typically consumed as a herbal medicine. It actually makes a very tasty addition to this dish, one I really enjoyed.

Also - a recent PFI run yielded my first foray into the world of olive oils (previously just grocery/costco stuff)...I settled on a reasonably priced, but still delicious one: Partanna. Definitely recommend it if you like a fruity olive oil flavor! $13.75/L at PFI. I did a blind taste test on myself, and the difference between Partanna, grocery store Extra Virgin, and "regular" non extra virgin was profound. The Partanna just doesn't taste refined, as cliche and obvious as that may seem. That's the best way to describe the difference between the extra virgins. The "regular" had very little flavor at all. Good for cooking, but not for dipping.

In other news, I'm currently hatching a rough plan for a travel proposal for the Bonderman scholarship that (somehow!) weaves together both my culinary passion and my desire to learn about and do humanitarian work in the future. My chances are slim, but $20,000 to travel for 8 months is an irresistible opportunity!

Also, a possible long-term reconciliation of my disjointed passions in life - spend my life doing development work, traveling all over the developing world, learning cooking from as many natives as possible along the way (on the side) then retiring early and opening a restaurant with all that I'd learned! (And donate all - if I make any - profits to NGOs)

It's just a thought.

Monday, October 13, 2008

I love little indian shops!

So I just recently discovered a little indian corner grocer a block from my house! He sells paneer, spices, and all the other little goodies.

I tried frying up some paneer for the first time, as well as make some dal, and of course, a little salate to round things off.

Masoor Dal
with caramelized onions, sweet bell pepper, garlic, spices, and curry leaves (also a garnish)

(I think this was Masoor dal - split lentils...but i'm not 100% sure)

To be honest, I didn't let the flavors marry well in this dish, as I added almost every flavoring at the end, after cooking ceased, which meant that it was kind of disjointed. Next time I'm going to let them all cook together, especially the curry leaves. Which I need to find a way to take out (like bouquet garni, the french herb bundle), because they don't taste amazing to eat! I'm not sure what Indians do...will need some research. =) Needless to say, having an indian grocer with fresh curry leaves is excellent!

The salate:

Pan Seared Paneer and Peas
with onion, bell pepper, turmeric, cumin, cayenne, and coriander seed

This was tasty - but I did not expect to be able to sear cheese! This was a loosely followed recipe. Paneer does not melt, as I have now come to understand. In any case, it was a little firmer than I expected, not quite the melt-in-your-mouth I imagined it would be. Tasty though, and like tofu, absorbs flavor well, as it is very plain on its own. I would definitely like to dry it in a wet cooking method next time, like curry, to get it a little softer.

By the way, dal is an amazing college kid food - so easy, nutritious, and can be made it big batches for many meals. The flavoring is up to you - but all you do is boil split lentils

Monday, September 29, 2008

housewarming party goodies!

I'm back from the depths of nowhere, aka Bolivia. Verdict: the food is nothing to write home about, though it is interestingly different.

First off, let me confess my love of our new kitchen - which essentially boils down to mine if you consider usage. It's big and wide, and though it has a few faults, is ridiculously amazing for a college kitchen.

So to kick the year off, we threw a housewarming party, and I cooked up some delicious goodies for everyone to munch on.

Bolanee Kechalu
deep fried dumplings filled with a spicy mixture of potato, leek, green onion, and caramelized onion, served with a thick garlic-cucumber yogurt sauce.

Kafta Kabob Bites
ground beef balls deep fried, flavored with onion, parsley, cilantro, garlic, and a variety of spices, served with the same yogurt sauce and an heirloom tomato salate.

(note: these were mostly eaten before I got to them! )

And then these are no dish in particular, just a bunch of garlic Nate thought might make a good picture - hopefully I was able to do them justice.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Blurring cultural lines...with food!

Lately I've realized that if I ever was to open a restaurant in some kind of mid-life (or mid-college...) crisis, it would probably be - to follow the currently hotly successful trend - Northwest ingredients with middle eastern (particularly Afghan) flavors.

I dislike the idea of total "fusion cuisine" - some cultural flavors really just don't go together, but there are some things that, often remarkably, do! That's been a recent theme for my cooking - which has been slow lately.

This will be my last post before I head off to Bolivia with Engineers Without Borders. I'll be sure to take pictures of any interesting culinary delights!

Wild Salmon Steak
grilled with a yogurt marinade with Afghan spices, served with a garlic yogurt sauce, grilled zucchini, and sliced Bakery Nouveau baguette with olive oil, balsamico, Dubliner aged cheddar and basil.

This dish was interesting in that I was really trying to spice the king of Northwest ingredients - salmon - with a marinade from a landlocked country! It was very good, though unusual. I was actually inspired by my mother, who had, a couple weeks back, tossed in extra chicken marinade I had on a salmon and roasted it.

I attempted to do what I could to modify the traditional ingredients of a yogurt marinade to better fit the flavor profile of salmon.

Marinade (more of a paste really):

1/4 cup yogurt
3 tbps olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon, approximately 3-4 tbsps
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp ground coriander seed
pinch of cardamom
pinch of turmeric
pinch of cayenne pepper
plenty of black pepper

I'm probably forgetting something, but it was really pretty normal. I shied away from too much earthiness - leaving out some turmeric and the cumin and fennel I sometimes put into kabobs. I liked the result, but it could definitely be tweaked greatly. I was working with about 2 lbs of salmon, with the bone.

Fresh Dal and spiced fried Dal pancakes
fresh Dal topped with toasted pine nuts - both served with garlic yogurt sauce and Afghan salate with basil

This dish really came about from my father who cooked the Dal (very thick lentil soup). I then came in and made a salate to accompany the dal. However, we didn't have cilantro, which I thought would complement the dal better than mint, which we had, so I opted to go out on a limb and use basil with the traditional combination of tomato, red onion, lemon, oil, and salt. Not too crazy in and of itself, but with Dal? Now that's a bit strange - basil is not cooked with in the Middle East, nor Afghanistan. It is not unkown however, and is actually eated for medicinal purposes and grows wild.

The combination was excellent! I was very pleasantly surprised to say the least.

Also a huge hit - pine nuts! I toasted them and sprinkled them on top. I loved the texture contrast, as well as the nutty, earthy, mildly sweet flavor they lend the dish. Pine nuts are another plant that actually grow in Afghanistan, but are rarely cooked, usually just enjoyed as a snack. My mother was thus delighted and ate all the leftover toasted pine nuts - a little taste of childhood.

I then went even crazier and decided to further spice the dal with some earthy cumin and spanish paprika and then make patties and fry it!

Well...easier said than done. They were very hard to keep together, and indeed, most of them were somewhat broken. Needs a binder...needs egg! Unfortunately my mother decided to tell me that afterwards.

It was however, fantastic! Tasted like a falafel, but made from lentils, which are the easiest bean in the world to cook. And again, was fantastic with the yogurt sauce and basil salate.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Salmon crepes!

Spanish Smoked Paprika Salmon Crepes
with white wine-caramelized red onion, garlic, walnuts, spinach, sharp cheddar, fresh bell pepper, and topped with fresh torn basil, more cheese, tomato, and a drizzle of olive oil.

(the salmon is hidden inside - it was pre-broiled and crumbled inside)

An original recipe (if you can call it a recipe really).

I think the pictures pretty much say it all. =)

PS: You can totally make crepes, or anything for that matter, in stainless steel. I did not realize this until today when I couldn't find my non-stick and had to attempt with my normal pans. I now officially have no reason to use those delicate and debatedly toxic pans. It takes a bit more skill, but not much - high preheat, a little oil, and bam!

PPS: I went dinnerware shopping today. So excited to move in to my own place!

Afghan guests = Afghan Cusine!

For the past few days, my Uncle has been in town, which means a little more Afghan food than usual!

Here's a couple snapshots:

Faux Qaubili Pilau (Ka-bi-lee)
Long grain Basmati parboiled and steamed with light spices and turmeric for color. Served with sauteed carrots and steamed raisins.

(faux because true Qaubili is cooked in the meat and onion broth, with the meat on the bottom of the pan - this was just water)

Leg of Lamb Kafta Kabobs
Freshly ground and grilled over mesquite hardwood coals, seasoned with loomi, sumac, and various sweet and savory spices, served in a grilled pita with hummus, tomato, and vinegar-marinated red onion.

This was an experience - trimming the ludicrous amount of fat off the leg - winding up with hands that still smelled vaguely like lamb the next morning.

Fantastic though - I ground the lamb in a food processor and mixed it with (somewhat descending by quantity):

Egg white
Flour (for binding, just a tad)
Minced onion, garlic

Loomi (dried lemon)
Black Pepper
Spanish Paprika

Admittedly, this was really more Arab than Afghan, but it's not too far off - we use every spice on there, except for cloves (maybe even that too).

I was a little sad we had no cilantro or parsley - they are delicious in these.

Tip: Since you can, it's worth it to make a tester - just a little tiny patty you throw in a little frying pan to check the seasoning, unless you're following a recipe, or even then! Better than being dissapointed later because you completely forgot the salt - I'm speaking from experience, trust me. =)

Chocolate Sponge Roll!

Truth be told, I don't remember the name the recipe gave. So here's mine:

Chocolate Spongie-ness!
Dark Chocolate sponge cake roll with fresh made chocolate whipped cream filling, topped with dark chocolate shavings and served with fresh strawberries in a light syrup.

My friend Noam (also an excellent cook) and I whipped this together from a recipe, with our other friend Nate's ingredients. =) Always makes it better.

Very delicious! Next time I might drizzle with a chocolate syrup.

We (I) messed up a little and forgot to grease the baking sheet. Never to despair! With a little of my optimism and Noam's finesse, we were able to pry it off in one (give or take a chunk - shh!) piece.

I like sponge cake like this because it's so light! It's really just whipped egg whites with a little bit of flour and melted chocolate, then poured onto a baking sheet and popped in the oven. Actually very easy to make in retrospect - good for me since I'm not the most experienced baker.

Just to leave you with a nice dose of weirdness, I present you with the Noam.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

All art should be edible.

I've been so busy lately, I haven't had a chance to update! But I have been cooking, never to fear.

As you may know, half of my love for food is in capturing its beauty in pictures, so here are a random assortment that don't really go with any one meal:

The flower of Thyme

Onion meets bowl

Bowl meets onion

Sun-dried Tomato and Balsalmic Bruschetta on Essential Baking Co. Parisian baguettes

Spinach salad with fresh mint, walnuts, cucumber, heirloom tomato, and sharp white cheddar with a sun-dried tomato balsalmic dressing

The heirloom tomato. It wasn't actually worth anywhere near its price this time.

Perfectly charred Top Sirloin, complete with 45 degree char marks. However it was a tad overcooked inside to be honest.

Toasted walnut and garlic fettucine - served with the steak above.

I won't even pretend I made this thing of beauty. It's from Bakery Nouveau.
Just about the best baguette you will ever have. Seriously. It's one more reason to come to West Seattle now.
( That's up to what, a whopping 3 now? ;) )

(aka: alki, my kitchen, bakery nouveau - oh wait! Buddha Ruksa! 4! yay! )

NEXT UP: the fantastic sponge roll dessert that I don't know the name of that we made last weekend!