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.