Thursday, March 21, 2013

Recipes from Egypt

I love Middle Eastern food, so I felt pretty at home this week. I have to say though, the main dish I ended up cooking turned out to be kind of a weird one.

I'm sure you already know something about Egypt, because everyone does. Land of the pyramids, pharaohs and Indiana Jones, you probably picture windswept dunes, camels and mummies whenever you think of it. At least I do, because I watch too much Discovery Channel.

Photo Credit: WanderingtheWorld ( via Compfight cc

What you may not know is that with a population of 82 million, Egypt is not only one of the most populous nations in Africa, but also the 15th most populous country in the world. Most Egyptians live near the Nile River, since those windswept dunes of your imagination (or maybe just mine) make up most of the rest of its territory.

One of the reasons why we hear so much about Egypt is because it has been inhabited since 10,000 years BC, which as far as human history is concerned is a very, very long time. The people of Ancient Egypt were masters of architecture—that's why monuments such as the Sphinx and the pyramids at Giza are still standing, thousands of years after they were built. This makes it a mecca for archeologists as well as a source of great cultural interest and, of course, tourism.

So Egypt's culinary history is about as long and diverse as the rest of its history, which means that it was refreshingly easy to do the research for this meal. Traditionally, Egyptians have eaten a lot of vegetarian dishes—not for health reasons, of course, but because meat is very expensive for the majority of the population. I did not choose a vegetarian meal, though, because I found a chicken dish that seemed really interesting. Here it is:

Circassian-Style Chicken (Sherkasia)
(From Egypt Daily News)

For the chicken:
  • 6 lbs chicken leg quarters
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • 2 small onions, sliced
  • 1 tbsp garlic, peeled and chopped with salt
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Pinch of saffron
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp Near East or Aleppo pepper, or more to taste
  • Pinch of ground allspice
  • 2 1/4 cups shelled walnuts
  • 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

For the red-tinted oil:
  • 1 tbsp walnut oil
  • 1/4 tsp Near East or Aleppo pepper
And on the side:

Couscous with Currants and Cumin
(From Tour Egypt)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup couscous
  • 1/2 cup currants
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp fresh ginger, finely grated
  • 1 tsp cumin seed, toasted
  • Zest of 1 orange
  • 1 tbsp fresh cilantro, finely chopped
  • Salt
  • Hot chili flakes
And some bread:

Eeish Baladi (Egyptian Bread)
(Also from Egypt Daily News)
  • 1 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 cup + 2 tbsp water
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
OK, first the bread, which is very straightforward:

Dissolve the yeast in a little bit of the water and let stand until frothy. Meanwhile, mix the flour and salt together in a large bowl. Add the yeast mixture and and the rest of the water.

Knead until you get a smooth dough, then separate into six pieces. On a floured surface, roll the pieces into balls, then flatten with the palm of your hand. Let rise in a warm place until doubled (one to two hours).

Bake on a greased baking sheet at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until brown.

Now for the chicken:

Eek! A spider! Oh, it's just saffron.

Heat the oil in a large pot and brown the chicken on both sides. Add 2 tsp of the garlic with the salt, pepper and saffron.

Pour the water over the chicken and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the chicken is tender.

While the chicken is cooking, toast the flour in a dry pan over low heat until it turns a light brown color. Keep stirring so it doesn't burn. Add the pepper and allspice and stir for another 30 seconds, then remove from heat and set aside.

This is toasted flour.

When the chicken has finished cooking, take it out of the pot (make sure to reserve the broth) and then remove the skin and bones. Now, here the recipe says to "cut into smaller serving pieces," which is next to impossible if you are, well, me. So instead of larger pieces I just had bite-sized chunks, because my meat fell apart as I was trying to remove the skin and bones.

Sprinkle some salt and pepper on the chicken and transfer it to a large bowl. Now strain the broth and skim the oil off the top (you should have about 3 1/2 cups of broth, I had a little more). Mix the rest of the garlic with 1 cup of broth and pour it over the chicken.

Now put the walnuts and seasoned, toasted flour into a food processor and pulse until you get very fine crumbs.

Add another cup of the chicken broth and keep processing until you the mixture becomes a smooth paste. Then add the rest of the broth, mixing to make a sauce with a creamy consistency.

Transfer the sauce to the skillet where you cooked your chicken and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes or so, stirring occasionally to stop it sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Pour the broth off the chicken pieces and then transfer them to a 9x13 casserole dish. Add a cup of the walnut sauce and the lemon juice and toss to combine.

Add a little bit of water to the walnut sauce to thin it out somewhat, then add salt to taste. Pour over the chicken.

Now, here's where the recipe said to put the whole thing in the fridge for two days. Since it was blog night (oh when will I learn to read these recipes in advance) I didn't have two days. But I will tell you that I did this with the leftovers and did not personally feel like it made a whole lot of difference to the flavor. So I don't think you need to do this, though it may not be as authentic to skip this step.

Make the red-tinted oil by heating the walnut oil in a small pan with the Near East pepper. You want the mixture to sizzle just a little bit, then remove it from the heat.

Meanwhile you'll be reheating your chicken, which may or may not have been sitting in your fridge for two days, in a 350 degree oven until warm, but not hot. Drizzle the oil over the finished dish and serve.

So yeah, a little weird. Now for the couscous:

Boil the water and add the couscous and currants. Remove from heat and cover for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, saute the onion, garlic and ginger in the oil over a medium-high flame, until the onions are translucent. Add the cumin seeds and keep stirring for another minute.

Remove the lid from the couscous and fluff with a fork. Add the onion mixture, the orange zest and the cilantro. Stir in a little salt and the hot pepper flakes to taste.

I really liked the chicken, but everyone else was pretty so-so about it. The flavor was pretty mild, though the garlic and lemon gave it extra points. I think Martin was expecting a more wowing culinary experience, so he wasn't terribly excited by it. Plus he doesn't particularly like dark meat, which I don't personally understand because I think dark meat has loads more flavor than white. But anyway …

The bread was boring. No way around it. It could have used some more salt to make it less bland, but I'm not sure huge flavor is really its purpose. If Egyptian bread has the same roots as Indian nan, it's just meant to mop up sauce and therefore doesn't need a whole lot of flavor of its own (actually, nan has a ton more flavor, but there you go). My kids liked it though. Of course, they slathered it in butter which is probably not terribly traditional, though I guess I can't say for sure.

The couscous was pretty good—Martin's favorite part of the meal. Personally I thought it tasted a little bitter, which is probably due to overzealous zesting (my fault). I do like couscous with fruit of any kind, so cooking this again another time may be in my future.

There's Egypt, then. I think I expected more, but that's probably because that whole romantic Egyptian ancient history thing made me expect food that reflected some of that romance. Oh well, every culinary experience can't be worthy of the Discover Channel, I guess.

Next week: El Salvador

For printable versions of this week's recipes:

1 comment:

  1. This looks delicious, especially the chicken.


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