Friday, August 31, 2012

Frijol con Pollo (Beans and Chicken). NYC

 Here's a list of the amazing things that happened to me since I arrived in the USA (I omitted the parts that indicate my real job). They are given in chronological order, from oldest to newest:
  1. I landed in NYC. 
  2. I learned how to cook.
  3. I met my husband V. (He didn't immediately realize that it was also amazing meeting me). 
  4. V. realized that it also was amazing meeting me (like 4 months after I was amazed by meeting him.)
  5. I got my degree.
  6. I had my baby.
 There is something in NYC that accelerates personal development, at an abnormal rate. For example, if  you arrive in NYC, let's say, on a business trip, don't be surprised, at all, if you leave like..this. That's just normal.

 NYC has this ability to make people totally comfortable being squeezed in tiny apartments, paying tons of money in rent, and just being so happy about it. I and V. lived in two of these places. We only left the first one after it became the headquarters for the new OCCUPY mice. (The plumber left a hole in the kitchen.)  

 Our horribly small apartments had even smaller kitchens. So… I am the master of cooking in the smallest kitchen. I have always fantasized about creating a competition of cooking in a small kitchen, and me winning it.

 Today's recipe is very healthy. It's my mother-inlaw's recipe. Mexican bean recipes are way much better than Lebanese bean recipes. You'll never see a Lebanese beans recipe posted on this site.

Recipe: Frijol con Pollo (Beans and Chicken)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Foul (Fava beans and Chickpeas). Beirut

 I lived in Beirut for seven years. Back then, I was a different person in a different world. Yet, that person is still in some sense part of me.

 I have been to many cities, but there is this one trait which is so special to Beirut: the smell of fresh food early in the morning.

 Beirut is a noisy city. People yell at each other and honk a lot. Sometimes they are both yelling and honking at the same time. Rush hour traffic is insane. My best friend used to compare it to the sliding puzzle where there's only one slot where you can move.
 Beirut breakfast is truly special though. As early as six in the morning, when the city is just starting to wake up, and the sun is just rising behind the mountains, the Manae'eesh bakeries, the Knafeh and Foul places, the coffee shops downtown and the Saj cafes everywhere, are all active and waking everyone up. It's an everyday reminder of the fabulous morning that uniquely embraces this city. Every new morning in Beirut has the smell of renewed hope, for calm, and even peace.

Recipe: Foul (Fava beans and Chickpeas)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Chicken Enchiladas. Lebanese Men

 Fact: Lebanese men do not cook. '"Why?" you may ask.
"It's a woman's task," which actually means, cooking is beneath Lebanese men.
This post is biased against Lebanese men. So if you are a Lebanese man and you are already offended, please click away from this page, then close your browser, then shut down your computer, then go somewhere else, then continue your life as normal. If you are a Lebanese woman who decides that she's offended on the behalf of Lebanese men, then please do the same.
 The only Lebanese men whom I met, who know how to cook, are the ones who spent a portion of their lives outside Lebanon. More precisely, those who were outside in the West, not in the East.
 In Lebanon, women cook, clean, take care of the children, and, have a full time job like all the men. The men also have a full time job. But they have the privilege of having women cook, clean, rear their children, and bring extra money. It really never made sense to me. No matter how much people tried to rationalize it, I still could not comprehend the obvious inequality. So it was hopeless, and, because I am lucky, I married my western man.
 There is this one episode that truly speaks for the situation: One time, my husband and I were visiting my family in Lebanon. My husband was helping do the dishes, and he was wearing the kitchen apron. My cousin A. knocks at the door, and walks into the living room. My father jumps freaking, and says, "Close the kitchen door very fast.. so A. won't see V. wearing an apron and doing the dishes!"
 That's how offensive it is to Lebanese men to participate in the house chores. Of course, they have more important stuff to do, like watching TV, and spending endless hours with other Lebanese men chatting about how good life is without the chores.
 So Lebanese men, here's your brother-in-law's Chicken Enchiladas. They are great!

Recipe: Chicken Enchiladas

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Guacamole. Culture Shock

When I first arrived in the U.S., I had a massive culture shock. It took me about two years to comprehend how everything around me worked. I remember the first few days clearly.
 I am alone, with another 8 million people, in New York city. I decide to go out of the apartment, to buy bed sheets, a comforter, and kitchenware. I walk a lot. I don't know how to hail a cab, and I am too shy to speak English to native speakers. I buy all the stuff, and I want to carry it back to the apartment. The bags are so heavy, and I am struggling to hold my tears. People offer to help me with the stuff, but I've watched too much Hollywood crime movies to agree. I nod thank you and I keep dragging my bags.
 I arrive at my new place, and I am hungry. I don't know how to cook. I realize that food needs to be prepared. It doesn't just appear at the table. My mother cooks, and she's not here. I go out to get food. I don't know what to eat, I don't know any of the dishes, and the different types of foods. I buy cookies and juice. And I survive on cookies and juice for the next month. The more cookies I eat the more hungry I feel. I need to cook. I buy a pot. And I start cooking.
 I started to learn what people in the U.S. eat. Many times I was delighted, others I was surprised. Like it's striking to me how much people here like Hummus. And why do they call it only Hummus, instead of Hummus and Tahini. Hummus (in Arabic) means chickpeas. You can eat Hummus, and that's chickpeas, or, you can eat Hummus and Tahini, and that's the Hummus that they like to eat. There are restaurants in NYC that only serve Hummus (and Tahini). That's the weirdest thing to me. Hummus in Lebanon is just an appetizer. That's like a restaurant, with tables and chairs and waiters and all that, that only serves onion rings.
 Here's an authentic Mexican guacamole recipe. Some places add vinegar to Guacamole. Please always hold the following dear to your heart: it's a sin to put vinegar in Guacamole.
 The following is my husband's recipe.

Recipe: Guacamole
  • 2 avocados, peeled and pitted (keep 1 seed)
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 1 serrano pepper, finely cut (I use Anaheim pepper when I don't want it to be spicy)
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Mix the serrano paper, cilantro, onion, and then the lime juice. Add the two avocados, and smash them into the mix. Add the salt and black pepper. Put the seed on the top (this helps keep the Guacamole green and fresh for a longer period of time).

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Chile Relleno (Cheese Stuffed Pepper)

 If your partner is Mexican, then you already know this fact: Mexicans have a super power that tells them exactly where the Mexican restaurants are in any town or city.
 My husband's psychic powers are even more advanced: He predicts the the quality of those places, staff credentials, and menu.
 We were on Highway 1 (north from LA) enjoying the glorious pacific coastline. We had Chile Relleno (first time I tried it) in Santa Barbara.

 I wasn't particularly thrilled about the idea of cheese stuffed pepper. I am Lebanese and we just don't stuff peppers. We only slice them. All of my principles changed when I discovered the superb Chile Pablano.

Top: Stuffed Pablano peppers coated in egg batter (fried)
Recipe: Chile Relleno (Cheese Stuffed Pepper)
Salsipuedes street, Santa Barbara, California
  • 6 Chile Pablano peppers
  • Oaxaca cheese (or Chihuahua cheese or Queso Fresco)
  • 1 cup flour
  • 3 eggs 
  • 1 teaspoon oregano, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon salt (seasoning for the eggs)
  • vegetable oil (to fry the chiles)
  • 7 Roma tomatoes
  • 1 banana pepper
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 medium onion, sliced in big pieces 
  • 1 can tomato sauce
  • 1 can chicken broth
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • sea salt 
1) Broil the banana pepper, until some of its skin is brown. Set aside.
2) Prepare the sauce: Blend the tomatoes, parsley, 1 garlic clove, and the sliced onion in the food processor, until they become smooth. 
3) In a large pan, heat 1tbsp olive oil, add the tomato mix, tomato sauce, chicken broth, and sea salt to taste. Add the banana peppers. Simmer for 1.5 hours.
4) Now to remove the skin of the Pablano peppers: Smear the chiles on all sides for about 1 minute, then broil on each side for 4 minutes (until the skin is visibly bubbly. Do not over cook). Remove from the oven, and place the chiles in a plastic bag for about 10 minutes. The skin can now be easily removed.
Banana peppers and slightly smeared Pablano peppers right
before they go into the oven for broiling. 
5) Look for the weakest part of the skinned Chile, and make a long slit there using a knife. Carefully remove the bulky white part and the seeds. Be careful not to rip the veins off the Chile, since that would cause holes in it.
6) Stuff the chile with cheese.
7) Using a fork, beat the eggs with the oregano, black pepper, and salt. 
8) Heat the vegetable oil (only 1 inch) in a large frying pan.
9) Dip the stuffed Chile in the flour and then in the egg batter. Coat the whole chile, except the tail.
10) Fry for about 2 minutes on each side, or until the egg batter is golden brown (see picture).
11) Drop in the tomato sauce. Do not mix.

Serve with rice, refried beans, and guacamole. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Chilaquiles (Mexican Tortilla Dish)

 Have you ever been bullied by a bull? Yes!  (Scroll down to meet the bull.)

The first time I had Chilaquiles, I was in gorgeous Guanajuato, Mexico. That was the last stop on our across-Mexico road trip (it wasn't really a road trip. We were delivering a car to V.'s brother, since we were the only two in the family, and probably in all of Mexico at that time, who were on vacation.)
 Now Guanajuato is a town where no one can drive. It's a known fact that Guanajuato is the only place in the world where, due to a minor planning error, all the city tunnels form a Mobius band (meaning, if you enter the tunnels, you actually flip while driving- flip as in become upside down- and get out again on the correct side). People who've been living there for years still get lost while driving in Guanajuato.

 The only way to avoid the tunnels is to walk. Walk up, and up, and up, and up, and up. Only when you think that it's impossible to go more up, that's when you arrive. Then you can see the whole colorful city, and realize that this view is worth all the foot pain that you have (definitely your feet will hurt.)

 On our way up, we encountered the bull in the picture. I thought it was the most natural thing I've seen in years, just a bull by the side of the street. The bull though, was not as happy to see me. He started hitting the ground, as in the cartoons, and making angry sounds, also as in the cartoons. RUNNN. Wait, snap a shot and then RUNNN...
Tip: You can finish left over tortillas by making Chilaquiles. That's what authentic Mexicans do with their unwanted tortillas. Serve Chilaquiles with refried beans.

Recipe: Chilaquiles
  • 10 corn tortillas. 
  • vegetable oil to fry the tortillas
  • 1 lb skinless boneless chicken breast
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 medium onion, sliced in big pieces
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 7 Roma tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 medium onion, sliced in big pieces 
  • 1 can tomato sauce
  • 1 can chicken broth
  • 2 banana peppers
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • sea salt 
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon oregano, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon salt. (seasoning for the eggs)
  • 1 jalapeno or serrano pepper (finely chopped)
  • 1.5 cup Mexican cheese: queso Fresco, crumbled.
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro (for garnish)
1) Fry the tortillas until crispy and golden in color. Drain oil on paper towels and set aside.
2) Broil the banana peppers, until some of its skin is brown. Set aside.
3) Boil the chicken with the black pepper, salt, 1/2 medium onion, garlic, and dried oregano.
4) Prepare the sauce: Blend the tomatoes, parsley, 1 garlic clove, and the sliced onion in the food processor, until they become smooth. 
5) In a large pan, heat 1tbsp olive oil, add the tomato mix, tomato sauce, chicken broth, and sea salt to taste. Add the banana peppers. Simmer for 1.5 hours.
6) Shred the boiled chicken (get rid of the broth). Break the fried tortillas into pieces (make 3 pieces out of each tortilla.)
7) Mix the eggs with 1 teaspoon oregano, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. 
8) In a big pot, heat 1 tbsp olive oil, then stir in the jalapeno or serrano pepper.
9) Add the eggs and stir 3 minutes, or until the scrambled eggs are well cooked.
10) Add the fried tortilla pieces shredded chicken, and the cheese. Mix for about 3 minutes.
11) When the tomato sauce is done, remove the banana peppers, and add on top of the tortilla, chicken, cheese and egg mix. Do not stir.

12) Garnish with cheese and some cilantro. 

Cheese Rolls

When I was growing up, we never went to restaurants. In our house, it was always declared that home food is superior to restaurant food, for the following reasons:

  1. We never know what's really in restaurant foods.
  2. We know exactly what's in homemade foods.
  3. Homemade food tasted way much better than restaurant food (it didn't matter that we never tried restaurant food).
  4. Restaurants didn't have the perfect olive oil that we had at home (it didn't matter whether the meal we were discussing contained olive oil or not).
  5. Any food that was not prepared in our house was not tasty at all.
  6. Restaurants are very expensive.
  7. My father hates sitting in a restaurant chair.
 I was in my late teens the first time I went to a restaurant, and in my early twenties the first time I went to a Lebanese restaurant. 
 In any Lebanese restaurant, the 'mezza' (a huge collection of small starters plates) is more important than the main course. Most of the time, people get full from the mezza before the main course arrives. 
 In my first restaurant experience, I was familiar with most of the starter plates in the mezza. But the cheese rolls were the ones I'd never tried before. Until now, I always wonder how I could've missed Cheese Rolls for twenty years of my life. They're incredibly simple but one can never have enough of them. 
Recipe: Cheese Rolls
  • phyllo dough pastry (20 medium sized sheets), thawed if frozen.
  • 3 cups Akawi cheese, shredded (can be found in any Mediterranean Market- can be substituted by Fetta cheese, but Fetta is more sour and salty- can also be substituted by any fresh white mild cheese).
  • 3/4 cup chopped parsley. 
  • vegetable oil
  • 1 egg, beaten by a fork
1) Mix the cheese with the parsley.
2) Spread one sheet on a flat plate. 
3) Put some of the cheese-parsley mix along the diagonal (the dough should be square. If it's triangular, line the cheese-parsley mix along the bottom of the triangle). The thickness of the cheese-parsely line should be about 1 inch (or according to your taste). 
4) Brush a little bit of the egg mix on the corner of the sheet that is not close to you. Fold the sheet around the cheese line, starting with the sides, then the corner that is close to you. Roll over to the corner with the eggs (so the eggs are the glue that will hold the roll together).
5) Heat vegetable oil in a flat wide pan (about 1.5 inches thickness).
6) Drop the rolls in the oil, fry for about 2 minutes (or until they get golden color).

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hala's Party Food

 It's known that it takes three years for the "falling in love" chemicals to disappear from the brain, and for the settling in chemicals (aka the no butterflies in the stomach, excitement, or joy chemicals) to kick in. When that happens, we get to see the real person whom we married.
 After three years of our marriage- let's pretend that I wasn't surprised by this fact and that we didn't have any fights at all- that happened to us. So I got to know my husband, minus the butterflies. He's O.K... But... He is much more introverted than I thought he was. Almost like the complete opposite of me. 
 Now what that means, is that on daily basis, I am mostly quiet. Obviously, this is in sharp contrast with my nature. The solution: invite your extraverted friends, and have a party (exclusively extraverted)!

 I compiled some party food photos from Hala's Cuisine. Here's the small bites list:

  • grapes and cheese
  • cream cheese and smoked salmon on water crackers
  • smoked salmon salad (lettuce, lemon, salt, black pepper, and smoked salmon)
  • mozzarella, basil, basil pesto, cherry tomato salad
  • grape tomatoes and cheese
  • little deli sandwiches
  • goat cheese and raspberry jam
  •  pizza!
  • deli meats and cheeses (Zingerman's Deli is my favorite)
  • bread and butter
  • white and milk chocolate covered strawberries
  • carrots with lemon juice and a dash of cumin
  • cookies!
  • steamed veggies, with a taste of butter and sea salt
  •  an easy chicken dish (recipe later)
  • rotini pasta! (recipe later, but any of your favorite sauces will work)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Mexican vs Lebanese Food

I always find myself having this conversation with my husband, so I decided it's time to document it.

Me (while preparing a Lebanese dish): You know, Lebanese food is healthy. I love Lebanese food.

Husband: (nothing, continues doing what he's doing.)

Me: I know why it's so healthy, because we barely do anything to it.

Husband: (nothing, continues doing what he's doing.)

Me: It's really unprocessed, and we only use olive oil. Not any olive oil, extra virgin cold pressed olive oil. You know, in my family, we used to have a little land with olive trees. We used to pick our own olives, and make our own olive oil. Oh V.! It was definitely the best olive oil.

Husband: That's great (and continues doing what he's doing.)

Me: The smell of newly pressed olive oil used to fill our whole building, for days. And it (the oil) doesn't get its clear color until at least 3 months. Before that, it's dusty and it tastes spicy.

Husband: (nothing, continues doing what he's doing.)

Me: Yeah, Lebanese food is very simplistic, I think that's why it's so tasty. Mexican food is of course tasty, probably it's second to Lebanese food- of course for you it ranks first- but for me, it even competes with Lebanese food, especially the Yucatican food.

Husband: (nothing, continues doing what he's doing.)

Me: But even though it's super tasty, it's not as healthy as Lebanese food. You know, look at Lebanese people, they are mostly slim.

Husband: yeah (and continues doing what he's doing.)

Me: I think all Mediterranean food is healthy. It must be the olive oil. And fresh vegetables in all of our food.

Husband: (nothing, continues doing what he's doing.)

And then, I find myself wondering: what if, the next scene is 20 years from now, and I am very fat, and my husband is very fit, as he's always been, even though am all about Lebanese food, and he's all about Mexican food. That's dreadful.

Me: I will hit the treadmill for 30 mins. Would you mind checking on the food.

Husband: Yeah.

The Spices

 In many of my recipes, two spices may be difficult to find. Here are their descriptions and substitutes.
 The first one is the Mexican meat spice. Let's call it the Yucatican allspice (I don't even know its name, and my husband says it's called 'the spice'. Thanks V. that's very helpful.) It has olive green color, and it can be found in a mexican- preferably Yucatican- grocery store. We know for sure it has some cumin in it, but definitely other stuff too.
 The other one is the Lebanese allspice, or what they call the seven spice (so I guess it has seven spices- some of them are: cinnamon, nutmeg, cinnamon oil, cloves, juniper, ginger, white pepper- did I just count seven?) It can be found in any Mediterranean market.
 In either case, if you do not have a local Mexican or Mediterranean market, or if you simply don't feel like visiting one more store to  get the ingredients of your meal, then substitute with the American poultry spice (it tastes different, but until you have the right spices, I guess you won't be able to tell the difference.)

Pollo en Escabeche (Chicken in pickle)

When I got married, I knew I was choosing to spend my life with a good man. What I didn't know, was that this man came from a state in Mexico which may qualify for having the best food on earth. Yucatan is a hidden food heaven! (And the food can be tailored to be healthy too).

 Today, I prepared Pollo Escabeche for dinner. It's actually still simmering right now. What's so amazing about this chicken dish is how tender, tasty, and most important how moist the chicken comes out.

Serve with rice (mexican rice has butter, finely cut onions, and a finely cut garlic clove; I usually add a dash of black pepper), refried beans, and avocado.

 Here's the recipe, for this great authentic Mexican (Yucatican) dish:

Recipe: Pollo Escabeche (Escabeche Chicken)
5 whole legs of chicken
2 cups bitter orange (if you don't have bitter orange, squeeze valancia orange+ lemons, with ratio 1 medium lemon to 1 orange, then add a hint of white wine vinegar).
1 large whole garlic head
3 banana peppers
3 medium onions, sliced in large long pieces
1.5 tablespoon mexican meat spice (go to any mexican store, it's not spicy at all and it's color is olive)
5 bay leaves
1.5 tablespoon dry oregano
2 bouillon cubes.
3 tablespoons olive oil
1.5 cup water
sea salt

1) Broil the banana peppers and the garlic head for 5 minutes (until brown). Set aside.
2) Mix 2/3 of the bitter orange with the dry oregano and some salt, and put the sliced onions in the mix. Set aside.
3) Mix the rest of the bitter orange with the Mexican meat spice, bay leaves, some salt, and then the chicken legs. Cover the chicken legs well in the mix, and let them stay for 5 minutes.
4) Heat the olive oil in a pan, and brown the chicken (remove the chicken from the marinate, but keep the marinate.)
5) In a large pot, mix everything together (browned chicken, leftover marinate, onion mix, banana peppers and garlic head). Add water and bouillon cubes. Simmer for 2 hours, or until chicken very soft. Do not let the sauce dry out.
6) Serve with rice, refried beans, and avocado. You can also serve in soup-style (my favorite), with generous amount of sauce.

Tip: To have a real mexican experience, you can add one step and get this Mexican SALSA! This way, you can trick anyone, and they will actually think that you spent sometime in Mexico, since nothing screams more authenticity with a mexican dish than  chile salsa:
When the chicken is done, remove the banana peppers from the mix, and crush. Add salt and lemon.

Fattoush Salad

My signature salad is Fattoush. I know it's my signature salad, because everyone likes it. Well, maybe everyone does not count since all of these 'everyone' are not Lebanese.
 But here are my authentic certifications: recently, a Lebanese person had dinner at our place, and the dish he immediately pointed out as his favorite was my Fattoush! That's awesome, since Fattoush is a very traditional Lebanese salad. It is prepared in every single household and restaurant. No exceptions.
 Another certificate came from my mother, who visited me last summer. She'd never seen me cook before, and I prepared my signature salad for dinner (I know that a salad does not qualify as 'cooking' but still it was a good dinner.) She said it was great! Now my mum is a woman who is very difficult to impress. She rarely says that she likes anything, especially food, given that she's the most famous cooking queen in her family, and in my hometown back in Lebanon. So, not bad at all!

 This salad is refreshing, filling and super healthy.

Recipe: Fattoush Salad
  • 1 small grocery store (I shop at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods) bag of shredded cabbage (it's OK to buy the coleslow mix)
  • same quantity shredded lettuce (I use a mix of iceberg and something else, whatever that something else is is fine)- The size of the lettuce pieces should be the same as the shredded cabbage pieces.
  • herbs (all finely cut):
1 cup parsely, 
1/2 cup fresh mint,
1/4 cup fresh oregano and thyme
  •  1 persian cucumber 
  •  2 medium tomatoes (cut in small cubes)
  • 1 radish
  • 1/4 cup finely cut onion
  • 1.5 large lemons
  • 1/2 cup (or less or more, depends on your taste) extra virgin cold pressed olive oil
  • sea salt
  • a hint of black pepper
Add Pita Chips (after the dressing, then mix all.)