Saturday, June 3, 2017

Shukran

About a month ago, my friend Vera (from our, ahem, award-winning WIC challenge team) contacted me about doing a middle eastern cooking class for her cultural exchange program, Oye Palaver Hut. "Sure," I said, "but the person you really want to lead this thing and talk about Iraqi food and Middle Eastern culture is my dad. Can he come, too?" If only Vera knew ahead of time that she'd be meeting her storytelling match....

A couple of weeks ago, dad and I started brainstorming recipes we could make with the group of 6-8 families in an hour or so. Dolma? Too complicated. Baklava? Too stressful. Even though technically the national dish of Iraq is probably bamja (okra stew with meat), shalgham (turnip curry) has always been my favorite traditional Iraqi dish.

Mom and dad came over last night so we could pre-make the shalgham and hummus. Dad also brought along ingredients for a few of my favorite traditional Iraqi veggie dishes -- fassoulia (stewed white beans in tomato sauce) and khedra (stewed green beans) -- and plenty of basmati rice, all of which we would be making during the class itself. My gentleman friend Matt and landlady Jacky were also in attendance, and jumped right in to help with chopping and keeping wine glasses filled -- both key tasks during a Vincent cooking session. Things went pretty smoothly until I sliced by thumb with an impressively sharp knife. No biggie, I put on a band-aid and we kept working. Then after a few glasses of wine, we realized that the fancy halal lamb meant to fill out the shalgham was still sitting in my parents' fridge in Northern Virginia, so there was a little side trip to my local Whole Foods. A little after 9pm, which, incidentally, is not overly late in the Arab dining world, we sat down to a delicious meal, followed by a platter of baked goodies and coffee. Not a bad Friday night.

This morning, dad swung by around 9:45 to whisk me and the ingredients and equipment for our Iraqi feast to Northeast DC, where we'd be teaching. Slowly kiddos and their parents trickled in, beginning around 11:00. By noon, things were in full swing, with dad talking it up to a rapt audience while 4 pots simmered on the gas burners and cameras and microphones captured his every word. The kids, to their credit, jumped right in, eager to help with the chopping and stirring, the adding of spices and tasting of things along the way. At the end, we all enjoyed our feast together, then dad wrote out everyone's name in Arabic calligraphy. I helped to wash up while dad led the group in a little Arabic line dancing. He was in his element, as mom would say.


I think a girl and her dad could get used to this. Well, maybe without the filming -- I get a little shy.

Anyway, it's high time I included my favorite dish of dad's on this blog. Seems fitting just a few weeks before Father's Day. Maybe you can make a pot of this for your dad....

Turnips (shalgham) with Lamb
This recipe makes enough for 10 people. Also delicious made with chicken or pork.

Ingredients
5-6 medium size turnips (tennis ball size)
2 lbs boneless lamb, cubed (leg or shoulder of lamb)
1 small can tomato paste
3-4 tomatoes, chopped (or 1 can stewed tomatoes)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, chopped
3-4 dried red chili peppers (or 1 tsp crushed red pepper)
1 TBSP date syrup (or molasses or maple syrup)
1 TBSP fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions
In a large pot, heat 3 TBS olive oil. Saute garlic and onions 3 or 4 minutes.

Add lamb and cook 5 minutes. Stir occasionally.

Add turnips and cook an additional 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add tomato paste and follow with chopped tomatoes. Add 1 cup water, or more, as needed and stir.

Add syrup and follow with lemon juice and red peppers.

Bring to boil, lower heat to medium and cook for at least 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

After one hour, taste, and if necessary, add any of the ingredients as necessary to get the right balance of sweet, spicy, sour, and bitter. Salt and pepper to round up flavor.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A changing climate


What a treat it was to host my dear friend Mark and his son Emmett this weekend! Too bad it took a visceral fear of our planet going down the toilet to get one of my favorite people on the planet and his oldest son down to visit me in DC, but I'll take what I can get...

As we wandered around the city after dinner on Friday night -- the guys wanted to stretch their legs after 12 hours of bus transit from Burlington -- we chatted about the various neighborhoods we walked through and their complicated racial histories, about the old days of teaching in Brooklyn (which is where I originally met Mark), about where our nation might be headed in these tumultuous times and what we were doing to be a force for good. Though there was a good bit of ranting along the way, by the time we returned home for a beer I was feeling less hopeless.

Though I am daily outraged by the stuff coming out of the Executive Office -- seriously, I shake my fist every morning at the radio as I have breakfast and listen to WAMU -- Mark reminded me that as teachers we have a real chance to foster an atmosphere of hope, kindness, intelligence, and activism. It's up to us adults who care -- because, let's face it, we are all teachers in one way or another -- to help ensure that the next generation will be made up of good people. We've got to stick together, and stick up for what's right for everyone. I am regularly heartened by the banding together of many people against hatred, racism, bigotry, and ignorance, and this was in full effect yesterday during the Climate March.

Right on. I wish Mark visited more often!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Buried treasure

I love Easter. It continues to be my favorite holiday: it's basically Thanksgiving with better weather and less football. This year, there were a few changes to the usual routine:

1. Instead of me (almost 40) and my brother (in his mid-30s) and I knocking each other out of the way to find the usual peanut m&m filled plastic eggs that mom stashed around the back yard, dad and I giggled maniacally as we pointed the world's cutest 2-year-old niece toward jelly belly filled eggs scattered about in the grass. We spent much of the rest of the afternoon chasing the dog away from the jelly beans when Elena inevitably spilled the opened eggs all over the back deck. She was so proud of herself it was hard to be annoyed. Also, the jelly beans were delicious.

2. Instead of the standard chemical tablet dyes, we dipped our hard boiled eggs in all-natural solutions made from beet juice, turmeric, and chili powder. Though in the end the eggs didn't stain, neither did my hands, so there's that. More research required before next Easter.

3. We only had 2 large meat dishes + 4 or 5 veggie dishes for 6 adults and 1 hungry toddler. Win!

4. Instead of the chocolate bunny mom normally gives me, I had another Easter surprise. Dad took me down to the basement to look through some miscellaneous bags and boxes of things he thought might be mine, and lo and behold I was reunited with some long lost cooking equipment:


For YEARS dad had insisted that I never gave him these objects on the day of my bike trip departure, at the C&O canal picnic gathering in April of 2009. And though I distinctly recall someone snapping a photo of me handing him the whisk, since I couldn't produce photographic evidence I had started to question my memory. Yesterday, almost exactly EIGHT YEARS LATER, there it was, beneath a bag of spare bike tire tubes and other "might need" items dad had kept handy at the Northern Virginia Bikeable Feast home base during my trip. And apparently for another 6 1/2 years. Nestled next to it was the missing pepper grinder, swiped from a terrible NYC restaurant back in 2004, and missing in action since that fateful day in April 2009 -- I loved that pepper grinder. And it still works! I think I'm going to put freshly ground pepper on everything for the next week....

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Loving life

My life isn't perfect -- whose is, really? -- but on days like today I feel lucky to lead the life I do.

I was reflecting on this while roaming around the C&O canal earlier today with 45 members of my school's Student Sustainability Corps -- a group made up of elementary and middle school students and an amazing special education teacher who continue to lead the school's recycling, gardening, and general sustainability efforts. They're pretty awesome, but usually I only get to spend about 45 minutes a week with a subgroup of these kids, so getting to spend more time talking and exploring together was quite a treat. The weather was perfect, and on this all-day field trip I couldn't help but smile as young people pointed excitedly at blue herons and turtles, snapped photos of wildflowers, fiddled with binoculars, marveled at rapids, and listened intently as our guide described the various forms pre-leafing poison ivy could take. (I noticed that nobody touched ANY sticks, vines, or branches for the remainder of the morning -- nicely done, ranger.)

I also noted that today's hike started at the very same spot where, almost exactly eight years ago, Ollie and I headed out on our cross-country journey. Where a group of friends and family picnicked with me the afternoon of the Bikeable Feast kickoff, where my mom told me she was proud of me, where my dad hugged me and agreed to take home the whisk and two paperbacks I decided fifteen miles into my ride were too heavy, where friends waved as I biked off into the great unknown around our country.

I got a little misty eyed that day. And today as well. Friends and family have supported and encouraged me then, and they still do. Each day was an adventure, and it still is.... Thank you, Universe, for letting me live this life!

Monday, March 13, 2017

The spent grain baker

I love everything about brewing beer. The way it perfumes my kitchen. The happy memories of my first experiences homebrewing with a former partner in his tiny little Brooklyn apartment. The excuse to gather friends together to make a 5-gallon batch, and the sitting around and laughing and cooking and eating it always entails. (The cleanup can sometimes be a pain, especially when a stovetop boilover happens, but it's a small price to pay. Plus I already spend half of my professional life washing, drying, and organizing dishes, so what's another few hours on the weekend?)


In recent years, I've found one of my favorite parts of brewing is figuring out what to do with the spent grain after it comes out of the wort. Sure, I could compost it -- a perfectly acceptable means of disposing of it -- but instead I save up my gluten chits (yes, I am still trying to cut down on it) for brewing days because I know there is going to be some spent grain baking involved. Even since my favorite spent grain recipe source -- the Brooklyn Mash -- took down their website, I have not been deterred. Just had to get more creative on my own. This time around, we made some spent grain biscotti that was, according to various taste testers, pretty stellar. So much so that one of my foodie brewing friends asked for the recipe! So, here it is....

Lemon Almond Biscotti
Adapted from Country Living Magazine. Though it might seem like an unusual flavor combination, the mix of bright citrus and smooth, grassy olive oil works incredibly well in these classic Italian cookies. Makes 48 biscotti, or so. Best dunked in your morning coffee.

Ingredients
1 cup spent grain flour
1½ cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 cup plain almonds, chopped
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
½ cup olive oil
Zest of 2 lemons
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 bar dark chocolate, melted, for drizzling
sea salt for sprinkling

Directions

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350F.

Stir together eggs, sugar, olive oil, lemon zest, and vanilla. Gradually add flour mixture and mix until dough just begins to come together. Do not overmix. Stir in nuts.

Divide dough into 2 equal pieces and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Using damp hands, shape each piece into a 12" long log, 1/2" high.

Bake logs until firm, about 28 minutes, rotating baking sheets halfway through. Reduce oven temperature to 250F. Cool logs on baking sheet for 12-15 minutes.

Transfer logs to a cutting board. Using a serrated knife, slice cooled logs into 1/2" thick biscotti. Place biscotti back on parchment-lined baking sheets, with a tiny bit of space between each slice, and bake until until slightly crisp, about 14 minutes, rotating baking sheets halfway through.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Drizzle with melted chocolate, then sprinkle with sea salt. Refrigerate to set chocolate.

Will keep in a sealed container in the fridge for... well, the record for not eating them is two days, so at least that long.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Shiny

It's the time of year when I treat my dear, steely Ollie to some TLC. Yes, winter means it's tune-up time. And after the chain breaking debacle of 2014, I know to ask the professionals when things like chains and chain rings need replacing. Some new cables and bartape, some deep cleaning, and a few other adjustments later, my dear partner is riding more smoothly than ever. We've also converted from regular to friction shifting -- it sounds pretty technical and badass, but really it just means I feel for when the gears shift rather than clicking in between them. Okay, maybe it's a little bit badass.

You know you've found the right bike shop when the mechanic refers to your bicycle by her proper name. "Ollie is all fixed up and ready for pickup," I heard on my voicemail, while lounging in the park and doing some lesson planning earlier this afternoon. Finally, a man who respects my partner of nearly nine years. He sounded cute. I wonder if he's single....

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Food and philanthropy

The last weekend of January marked the ninth annual Sips & Suppers fundraiser here in our nation's capital. Talented chefs and mixologists, mostly from around DC, donate their time, homeowners donate their space, and people of means buy tickets to happy hours or fancy small group dinners around town. All funds raised go to two awesome local nonprofits -- DC Central Kitchen and Martha's Table. I usually miss the boat on such things, and read about them in the Post Food Section after the fact, but this year I managed to hear about a call for volunteers about a month beforehand. By sheer coincidence, I ended up as a waitress at a dinner in my neighborhood led by a pair of vegan chefs from Philadelphia. Between serving courses, volunteers got to taste some of the goodies, too, and I was privy to some of the best butter-free dishes I've ever come across. Not that having a vegan repertoire is a particular point of interest these days, but I do appreciate plant-based foods and folks who make them well.


At the end of the evening, as well fed neighbors tottered back to their homes or their waiting Ubers, I leaned back against the counter and smiled to myself. THIS warm fuzzy feeling was only slightly attributable to the grappa our host poured at the end of the night, and mostly due to the realization that we, as community members, CAN do good things when we come together over food.

Flash forward a couple of weeks. A daily stream of horrific White House actions and cabinet appointments found me again lapsing into anger and frustration. Then my new friends Amy and Liz had a BRILLIANT idea: cook a bunch of food, get a case of wine, invite a bunch of friends over, and raise money for a charity that is working to address some of the fears and concerns we have about what's going on in this country. We don't need to be restaurant chefs or wealthy people. We can cook. We have friends who are conscientious, like good food, and can kick in a little. Every little bit helps.

The hostesses decided to prepare a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern feast. (Take that, Muslim ban!) And because it was looking like almost two dozen people might show up last night, and I know a thing or two about food from that part of the world, I offered to help cook.... Hummus. Tabbouleh. And I think I counted four other salads. Peppers stuffed with lamb and spices. Carrot and chickpea tajine. Roast chicken with fennel and tangerines. I could barely pedal my way to the salsa club after not one but TWO dessert courses. But I did, of course. (I saw the concern on your face just then.)


In the end, eleven dinner guests left with full bellies and happy hearts, and, bolstered by an additional eight or nine contributors in absentia, we raised a thousand dollars for the ACLU. That warm glow resurfaced, and this time it was only slightly due to the champagne. We can help each other, and save this country, one meal at a time. We might just need to make this a regular thing!