Monday, 23 June 2008

Maghrebi Mania 2: Harira: Moroccan chickpea and lentil soup

It's been a while since I posted (and made this soup!). Apologies for the delay, but life happens (g).

I had been meaning to make this rich and filling soup for a long time. For Muslims it has particular significance as the soup Muslims in many countries choose to eat before tucking into a huge feast come sun-down during Ramadan. For non-Muslims, it is a great one-pot dish that with the addition of some bread makes a complete meal.

I have recipes for harira in several books, but chose to make this one from Claudia Roden's Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon, since it is a Moroccan rendition of the classic. Claudia's recipe feeds 10 (good if you have guests over for the breaking of the fast), but you might want to halve it if your table is less crowded.

One thing that interested me about this recipe was the unusual use of flour as a thickener. It is not added with the meat and vegetables at the beginning before adding water, but made into a white sauce-like batter, and added close to the end of cooking. This gives the soup an interesting satiny mouth-feel that Claudia calls velvety. I reckon that you might want to up the amount of flour if you are using the Japanese kind. I wanted mine a little thicker.

I've since read in Nawal Nasrallah's Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi cuisine that there are other soups made with this technique. She calls them "flour soups", which would not have sounded very enticing if I hadn't had this lovely one first. Perhaps when soup weather comes round again we might delve into this some more.

I made this with chicken, but that is just one variation; you could use any other meat you fancy. If possible, do use bones to enrich the stock. I used a couple of chicken carcasses, which my supermarket sells frozen. If you can't get hold of some bones, you might want to add some stock cubes (as Claudia mentions, but does not actually recommend). I also added some chopped preserved lemons (in addition to lemon juice), which perked this up nicely. Then again, I am a bit of a lemon junkie...

Remember to use less water if you are using tinned or frozen cooked pulses.

Harira: Moroccan chickpea and lentil soup

1 or 2 chicken carcases (optional)
500 g chicken [S: I used chicken thighs, which are more flavourful than breasts]
1 large onion, chopped coarsely
200 g chickpeas, soaked overnight
150 g large brown lentils, rinsed
250 g ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
2 celery stalks, diced
1 tbsp tomato paste
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 tsp saffron threads or powder, or 1/2 tsp turmeric
2.5 tbsp plain flour
75 g vermicelli (optional)
juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon [S: or more for lemon heads]
50 g coriander, chopped
large bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
To serve: 2 lemons, cut into quarters; dates (optional)

If using chicken carcasses, blanch them in boiling water for a few minutes then throw out the water. Put the carcasses into a large pan with the meat, cut into 1 cm pieces, the onions and drained chickpeas. Cover with about 3 litres of water and bring to the boil. Remove the scum and simmer, covered, cor 1 hour. Remove the carcasses.

Add the drained lentils, tomatoes and celery (include some leaves), the tomato paste, pepper, ginger, cinnamon and saffron or turmeric. Simmer for a further 15 minutes, adding more water if necessary, and salt when the lentils begin to soften.

In the meantime, put the four into a small pan and gradually add 500 ml cold water, a little at a time, beating vigorously with a wooden spoon to blend well and avoid lumps. Put over a medium heat and stir constantly until the mixture thickens, then simmer for 10 min. Pour this batter into the soup, stirring vigorously, and cook for a few minutes until the soup acquires a light creamy texture.

If you are using vermicelli (crushed in your hand into small pieces), add this to the soup 10 or so minutes from the end, adding the lemon juice, chopped coriander and parsley at the same time.

Serve with lemon wedges and if you like, also dates.


Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Khoresh-e esfenaj-o alu: Persian stew of chicken, spinach and golden plums

My dear friend G was kind enough to bring me back sour Iranian plums (alu zard) from his recent travels back to Iran. And not just the tart golden plums that I know and love, but another darker variety, too! Naturally I wanted to make this brilliant stew (also a favourite of my dear friend H's) for him first up, but wouldn't you know it, he already had plans for the weekend!

Still, I couldn't quite let go of the idea of having this simple but flavourful treat from Najimieh Batmanglij's fabulous New Food of Life for dinner, and since another Iranian friend, Hw, sounded like he could do with a taste of home, he came to help us make a dent in the huge potful that the recipe makes. (Note to G and H: it's first come first served on the stash I have tucked away in the freezer (g).)

If you are not lucky enough to have an Iranian friend willing to fill his suitcase with dried fruit from back home (and the dried fruit in Iran is some of the best in the world so this is something you might want to rectify(g)), the good news is you can make this stew with prunes as well.

If you are new to Persian food, you might want to use less fruit the first time you make this, to give your palate time to adjust to the the fruit and meat combination that is so characteristic of the cuisine. I used less as well, and but won't next time, as the plums had mostly disintegrated into the sauce by the time the stew was finished cooking. I seem to remember them staying whole the last time I made this, so I will experiment with putting this variety in later in the cooking time next time.

Also, I didn't faff about steaming the spinach before adding it to the stew. I suppose this would release the juice and reduce the volume in order to get it all in the pot, but since I like my spinach to have a little body (g) and as I was using less of it to begin with (3 Japanese bunches or around 600 g and not 2.7 kg as directed), I managed to cram it all in the pot in one go.

For a change, I made the khoresh with "wingsticks" (wing drum sticks), for the extra flavour from the bones. You should up the weight of meat in this case (maybe 200 g extra).

I also didn't have any Seville orange juice, so used orange juice sharpened with lime juice as Najmieh khanom recommends.

This stew can be on the table far quicker than the recipe suggests. If you make it with chicken and use a pressure cooker you could probably get it on the table in around 40 minutes.

Khoresh-e esfenaj-o alu: Persian stew of chicken, spinach and golden plums

3 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 kg chicken legs, cut up, or 500 g stew meat, cut into 2 cm cubes
1/3 cup oil
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 kg fresh spinach
3 cups golden plums (alu zard), or pitted prunes
1 tbsp sugar (optional)
1/4 cup fresh orange juice and 2 tbsp fresh lime juice [S: this is in lieu of Seville orange juice]

1 In a large pot or pressure cooker, brown 2 of the onions and meat or chicken in 3 tbsp oil. Add salt, pepper and turmeric. Pour in water - 1 1/2 cups for chicken, or 2 1/2 cups for meat. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes for chicken or 45 minutes for meat over low heat.

2 Steam the spinach in a steamer for 10 to 15 min.

3 In a skillet, brown the remaining onion, then add the spinach and saute for another 2 minutes.

4 Add the spinach and onion mixture, golden plums, sugar and orange and lime juices to the pot. Cover and simmer 1 1/2 hours longer over low heat.

5 Check that the meat is cooked. Taste the stew and adjust seasoning.

6 Serve hot with chelow, saffron-steamed rice.


Maghreb Mania 1: Claudia's sharpen-you-up carrot dip

No, this post is not about a newly discovered disease affecting tourists in North Africa, but my own craving for all things Moroccan. Although I've never been there, if the food is anything to go by, I know we'll get along very well.

Moroccan is one of the first Middle Eastern cuisines I came across, and I've been in love with the bright colours and vibrant tastes ever since.

The Maghreb, in English, is a broad area of North Africa that generally includes Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, but in the Arabic-script languages, it refers specifically to Morocco. So there you go.

While I am not totally certain, the cumin-lemon juice-ginger spicing of this embarrassingly easy dip hints at a sunny Moroccan (or thereabouts) origin. It is from Claudia's A New Book of Middle Eastern Food, a tasty tome that I come back to again and again, and not just for the abundance of fabulous recipes.

Whenever I find a promising new recipe of Middle Eastern bent, I always run it past Claudia first. Often enough, she will have written about it and all its regional variations in either A New Book or The Book of Jewish Food, or both! This time, a recipe I saw featured at Cuisine recalled this one from A New Book.

Claudia advises making the dip with old carrots, which she says taste better. If you have chilli-averse tongues at your table, I advise not putting in the harissa (a very hot chilli and garlic paste you can buy in tubes) and allowing guests to smear some on their own portions if they like. Either way, this flame coloured dip will certainly sharpen you up!

Boiled carrot dip

500 g (2 large) carrots, peeled
Salt and pepper
1/2 tsp harissa or 1 tsp paprika and a good pinch of cayenne pepper
1-2 tsp cumin
3 tbsp lemon juice, or to taste
4 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/4-1/2 tsp ginger

Boil the carrots in salted water until very tender. Drain and blitz with the other ingredients in a food processor.

Alternative additional flavourings are 2 tbsp honey and 1 tsp cinnamon.


Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Southeast Asian Sojourn 3: Chicken and papaya salad

Chicken and papaya salad. So far not so inspiring... But don't let the workaday name put you off this one. It is a stellar recipe with lots of bright, bold flavours -- how does tamarind, ginger, mint and cumin grab you?! It's also a snap to put together after work as, even with all that taste going on, no marinating is involved. The Young Man and I gobbled this right up, and ended up eating what would have been our lunch for the following day. Next time, I'll make sure to make more!

Although I'd had my eye on this recipe for a while, I made it on the spur of the moment when I discovered premium papayas at my veggie shop. I had some spinach in the crisper, but it was looking a little ragged. But rather than chucking it out, I tried a new technique I learned on Japanese TV (which does have a very few redeeming qualities, after all) for reviving leaf veggies.

Basically, you soak your lettuce, spinach, or even strawberries, apparently, in HOT water (60 C) from the tap for 3 minutes, then rinse in cold water and use as normal. It is totally unintuitive, but having done the experiment myself, I can tell you it works! The miraculous reviving properties of hot water were discovered by the good ladies that make school lunches in Japan, after the government instituted a new rule requiring them to wash veggies in hot rather than cold water to prevent outbreaks of food poisoning. Way to go, ladies!

The original recipe uses betel leaves instead of spinach. I am not familiar with these, but everyone knows spinach.

This is another recipe from Marie Claire Kitchen, which is almost perfect but for the sizable chunk of the book that is given over to baked and other sweet goodies. As you may have guessed from the recipes I choose for this blog, dessert is not a big feature in the Saffron household... Then again, if the mood strikes me, some of the "afters" in this book might just be the ones to tempt me.

Chicken and papaya salad

(Note that Australian tablespoons (20 ml) are used in this recipe. Add an extra tsp for each tbsp if using non-Australian measuring spoons.)

Serves 4

125 ml tamarind water
[S: I cheated and added store bought tamarind paste until it tasted right, about 1 tbsp]
1 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp finely grated fresh ginger
1/2 tsp cumin seeds, roasted and ground
1 large red chilli, seeded and finely diced
2 grilled chicken thighs, roughly sliced
85 g peanuts, roughly chopped [S: Missing from mine due to shopping list malfunction (g)]
1 orange papaya, peeled, seeded and sliced
1 Japanese cucumber or 100 g of other kinds, diced
2 tbsp Asian fried onions [S: Missing from mine due to recipe reading failure (g)]
2 spring onions, shredded into lengths
1 large handful mint [S: Peppermint was sensational]
Spinach leaves, washed

Mix the tamarind water, soy sauce, ginger, brown sugar , roasted cumin and chilli together in a large bowl and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Add the chicken to the dressing and toss it all together. Combine the remaining salad ingredients except the spinach leaves in another bowl and season.

Arrange the spinach leaves on a serving platter or 4 plates and top with the papaya salad and chicken. Top with any remaining dressing.