Though my mother was an excellent cook, I never had a whole roast chicken until I was an adult. I started with the rotisserie variety, usually bought at my local grocery as a payday treat for Friday dinner and a soup base for Saturday lunch. Then my husband started roasting chickens for me, and I became hooked. I understand why Jeffrey Garten wants one for dinner every Friday. If you do it right it’s velvety and succulent with skin that’s a cross between bacon and a potato chip, the perfect balm after a long work week.

For the past several years my husband and I have been perfecting several variations on a roast chicken and I love all of them. Here are two favorites.

For both versions, set the oven to 400 degrees and put one whole average size chicken, rinsed and dried, into some kind of a roasting pan and roast it for 75 to 90 minutes. You will know it’s done if, when you poke a fork into the meatiest part of the thigh, the juices run out clear. If the juices are pinkish, give it at least 15 more minutes.

If you roast it upside down until the last 15 minutes, the breasts will stay tender bathed in their own juices and the skin on the thighs will crisp up nicely. Roasted on a bed of veggies, you have an instant side. If carbs are your thing, set it on a thick slab of crusty bread or some chopped up potatoes. If the crispy skin is your favorite part, roast it on a rack over a pan.

When the bird comes out of the oven, let it rest under foil for at least 20 minutes. It’ll be maddening to have to wait with the scent of roasted yardbird perfuming the air, but it’ll be worth it.

easy-peasy lemon squeezy

stuff the chicken cavity with:
1 whole lemon, quartered
10 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary
1 head of garlic, cut in half across the cloves
5-10 parsley stems
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper

Drizzle the skin with olive oil, give the bird a massage and sprinkle it with salt and pepper before you pop it in the oven.

biryani style
slather the skin with a mixture of:

2 T. olive oil
3 T. biryani spice
liberally salt and pepper the interior OR
stuff the bird with some leftover biryani (see recipe for Iraqi-style hamburger helper)

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You say tikka; I say kabob

One of the best summer party meals I have ever enjoyed involved a grill, a cooler of iced drinks and a skewer station. The host included soaked bamboo skewers, various veggies and several versions of marinated meat so guests could create and grill their own tikka/kabobs and partake of the many side salads guests had added to the table. He was able to enjoy the party because all the prep was done the night before and guests had a chance to chat around the grill and eat exactly what they wanted. I’ve decided to have my own kabob party and to soak the proteins overnight using a few Mideast/west marinade recipes. Now all I need is a pal with a backyard or a beach and a grill. Here goes nothing.

Marinate one inch cubes of lamb leg in a large Ziploc bag filled with:
2/3 cup of lemon juice (2-3 lemons worth)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup of chopped fresh oregano
2 tablespoons of minced garlic
1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper per pound of meat

Marinate one inch cubes of chicken leg/thigh/breast meat in a large Ziploc bag filled with:
1 cup middle eastern or greek plain yogurt (the sour, not the sweet kind)
1/2 cup of tandoori spice paste (from your local Indian or middle eastern grocer)
1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper per pound of meat

Marinate one inch cubes of a meaty fish (salmon, halibut, swordfish, tuna) in a large Ziploc bag filled with:
2/3 cup of the spicy liquid from a jar of Ship brand torchi amba

We’re going to make a version of Kofta Kabob with the beef. Have your butcher coarsely grind 1 lb. of 80% lean beef chuck along with one medium chopped onion (about half a cup) and the leaves from half a bunch of parsley. Work in a teaspoon each of salt and pepper per pound. Roll into oblong meatballs about 2 inches long by 1 inch around. Toss in olive oil before grilling.

Include bowls of various veggies cut into one inch chunks. I would provide the following:
cherry tomatoes
round mini green onions
red pepper

Serve with your favorite naan or pita that is quickly warmed on the grill. Keep bowls of tzazik (see the recipe for sauces on an earlier blog post) torchi amba with tomatoes, fresh guacamole and a homemade aioli for slathering on your kabob sammies. Pop the top on your favorite iced beverage, crank up the tunes, and I think you have the makings of a fine party. Of course there should be s’mores for dessert. I am a Midwestern girl after all.

Variation: I keep around a block of Halloumi (salty grillable cheese) for the vegetarians and grill tempe for the vegans in my circle. All the recipes can be doubled or tripled in case your party ends up bigger than mine.

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5 Tricks and Techniques That Elevate Flavor

I’ve been thinking lately about what makes my husband such an excellent cook.  Having watched him for several years, I’ve learned there are a few techniques he uses to get the best flavor out of any meal.  Let me share them here:

1) Lemon juice and salt are the two sides of a balancing scale.  If something is a bit too lemony, salt can help bring it back to taste.  If it’s a little too salty, lemon can bring the flavor back into balance.  If it’s a lot too salty, start over.

2) Skim the scum.  Whether it’s the bubbles that sit on top of your shorbat or the ones that rise up from your tomato sauce, the foamy stuff is actually the impurities working their way out of the food.  If you skim this stuff off the top of whatever liquid you’re cooking, those less than tasty bits don’t have a chance to work their way into what you eat.  Every time I add a new liquid ingredient to a soup or stew, I get some of this foamy stuff and I get rid of it. 

3) Brining makes it better.  We like our chicken skin crispy and our meat moist, and it’s hard to achieve that cooking the way we do without brining the meat first.  Lately we’ve taken to dry-brining (covering a chicken with salt and letting it sit a day in the fridge, then rinsing and drying it before we cook it), but wet brining works too.  What works for chicken also works for cucumbers and eggplant, which would otherwise give off enough water to over-thin some sauces. 

4) Buy fresh and local. The freshest, tastiest meat, veggies and dairy products come from local producers.  Why would I buy a lamb from New Zealand when I can get one from my colleague who raises them lovingly and organically?  Why would I import yogurt from abroad when I can get something just as tasty, without preservatives, from the Mennonite vendor at the farmers’ market?  Turns out it’s no more expensive and just as tasty to shop this way.

5) Almost every protein or veggie benefits from a rub down.  Rarely does a steak go on the grill, a chicken in the oven or a fish in a pan unless it has been lovingly massaged with a mix of olive oil and one of the many herb and/or spice mixes we rely on to elevate flavor.  The same goes for a lot of the starches and veggies we cook. Last week I tossed sliced sunchokes with a rub of olive oil, rosemary, garlic, salt, pepper and fresh thyme and roasted them until the skins were crispy and the flesh tender.  The week before I tossed them with olive oil and Penzey’s Moroccan Spice Mix.  In both cases, they were heaven on a platter. 

What techniques do you use to get great flavor?

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Cookie time!

At this time of year I am something of an involuntary baker. That’s not to say I don’t like baking, but rather to say I can’t help baking. I remember one year I was down with a cold, got up from a nap to get a glass of water and, next thing I knew, I was encircled by a cloud of flour and there were three dozen lace cookies on the counter and I had no memory of how they got there.

My family’s favorite holiday treat is a Wafi Box. There’s a store in Dubai called the Wafi Gourmet that makes the most delicious assortment of baklava you could imagine in small, bite size pieces that pack a big flavor punch. Now, I love me a Wafi box as much as the next person, but my favorite Middle Eastern cookie is Mamoul, which is basically a semolina crust surrounding a heavenly date filling. They’re usually made in intricately carved molds, but mine were sacrificed to the moving gremlins, hence the need for a new strategy.

This year I’ve been jimmying around with a few recipes to come up with a Mamoul recipe I like that I can make in my mini muffin tin. It seems to work pretty well and, the longer they sit, the better they get. They’re a tad labor intensive, but worth it.

Crust recipe:

2 cups semolina flour
1 1/2 sticks of melted butter
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon of vanilla or, if you prefer it, rose flower water
1 teaspoon salt

Mix these ingredients together and let them sit at least overnight in the refrigerator so the semolina soaks up the butter and it all becomes the consistency of pie dough.

Filling recipe:

1 cup of date pieces from your local bulk food store
2 T. butter
1 cup of water

Put all the ingredients into a saucepan and cook on a low simmer until the dates have softened and the water seems to have all but entirely evaporated. You can leave the pieces whole, but if you like you can whazz them up in a food processor or with an immersion blender to turn them into a paste of uniform consistency. Let cool before using.

When you’re ready to make the cookies, take the dough out of the fridge and let it get to room temperature so it becomes pliable. With a mini ice cream scoop, portion out a scoopfull of dough into each muffin cup, then press the dough around the cup and up over the sides so the cup is full and there’s about a half inch of overlap all around. Spoon a teaspoon of date filling into each muffin cup full of dough, then pull the overlapping crust over the top of the date filling and pinch and prod it together to seal in the filling and make a flat top over the cookies.

Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes until just starting to brown. Let cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a cooling rack. Store in an airtight container.

These get better with age. The dough feels slightly sandy and is a lovely counterpoint to the rich, gooey date filling.

Variation: Mamoul are sometimes made with nuts instead of dates but I like these so much better I’ve never made the nut variety. Although walnuts, almonds or pistachios would be more common in the Middle East, these are pretty good with pecans too.

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An update of the non-culinary kind

As you can see, it has been a while since something new was posted. For several months now my Arabian knight and I have been in a sort of limbo. An odd confluence of circumstances left us both jobless and homeless for a time. Not to worry, we were lucky enough to be what I call country club homeless, living with a variety of remarkable family and friends across the country and even halfway around the world. The big downside was that much of that time left us living and cooking apart, hence the lack of culinary collaboration. We now have a job and a job offer between us and are about to be reunited, at least for a while, so expect new recipes to be coming soon and thank you for your patience and persistence with our culinary ramblings.

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Loobia: the healthy green bean casserole

Before meeting my husband green bean casserole was that back of the soup can label stuff that used canned green beans, canned mushroom soup, canned fried onions and a little milk.  Now, I’m as much a sucker for mushy, blood-pressure raising, bloat-inducing side dishes as anyone, but my husband has introduced me to a much healthier and just as tasty alternative.

Where he grew up,  green beans were the foot-long variety you find in Asian groceries and they were cooked in a pressure cooker until they surrendered any firmness they had left.  While this is also, not bad, I like my husband’s version better these days and you can use any green bean or haricot vert you find in the market.

1 lb. steak ( any cut of beef or lamb that responds better to grilling) chopped into one inch dice

3 cans of chopped tomatoes with juice

1 can of tomato sauce

juice from two lemons

One head of garlic, peeled and finely minced

salt and pepper to taste

Start by cubing the steak pieces and washing and trimming the ends off the green beans.  Cut the green beans into halves or thirds depending on how long they are.  You’re shooting for 3 inch pieces.  Salt and pepper the steak pieces then saute them until they are brown on all sides and remove to a plate.   Cover with foil to keep the steak warm.

In a large pot or dutch oven over medium heat add the garlic and green beans.  Saute for a few minutes, then add chopped tomatoes and tomato sauce.  Cover and cook for about ten minutes, stirring once after about five minutes.  Add lemon juice and correct salt and pepper to your taste.  Cover and cook for another five minutes, then open and stir again.  Continue cooking until the sauce is done.  You’ll know the sauce is done when you no longer taste any of the can taste from the tomatoes or the bitterness of the lemons.  Another way to say this is that the flavors have “married”, which means you don’t taste any of the individual ingredients, but rather a good mix of all of them.  At this point, add back the steak pieces and any juices that collected on the plate.  Stir until the meat is coated with sauce and warmed through.  Serve with basmati rice.

Variations: This dish works just as well with ground beef, sausage, turkey or lamb.  If you like or are trying to reduce your carb intake, you can keep the green beans whole, use Italian sausage links that you’ve sliced and sauteed until they are cooked all the way through, make the sauce the same way, then when serving sprinkle with your favorite salty cheese (parmesan, feta, asiago).  If you go this route, use one less lemon.

You could also use a cut of steak like flank or London broil, grill it, let it rest to redistribute it’s juices while you make the sauce, slice it and layer it over the beans and sauce.

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Salmon and Salsa Amba

Both my husband and I have fond memories of cooking and eating fish.  In his case a river fish called Gutan was typically split and mounted on stilts over a fire until its flesh was roasted and a smoky crust formed on the flesh, which I’m told was often the best part.  The closest we’ve gotten to this is visiting Beit al Baghdadi in the Deira neighborhood of Dubai.

When I was a child my family had part ownership in a farm on a spring-fed river called the Black where my father would fly fish for rainbow trout.  I have vivid memories of Dad sitting with his pocket knife outside the kitchen door cleaning the day’s catch in a bucket, then handing it inside to my mother who dredged it in flour, egg wash and cornmeal and tossed it directly into a cast iron skillet.

Recently we went to the Deira fish market in Dubai, which is a thing to behold.  The fresh catch of the day, whether hamoor, blue crab, squid, prawns, clams, sea bream, etc.,  sits nestled in ice on dozens of stainless steel stands.   Once you’ve chosen your fishmonger and made your purchase it is taken to a station where one pays separately to have the fish cleaned by the scores of men working at several long enameled tables lined up in a row behind the counter.  Though it’s impossible to tell who’s good at it and who’s not, the two or three men at the front of each counter call after each customer to come have his or her fish cleaned at their particular table.  After your catch has been cleaned, you can either take it home and cook it yourself, or take it to a third stand to be cooked by local chefs in one of several preparations available.  While you wait, if you’re lucky, you may get to sit on one of the five stools that make for an ongoing, slow motion game of musical chairs.  Alternately you can head to the shop down the hall for coffee, tea or a bottle of water.

Having spent several years in the Pacific Northwest, we mostly know our way around a salmon. My favorite preparation of this particular healthy fish is to simply grill it and serve with Salsa Amba, which is basically tomatoes mixed with mango pickles. I’ve never tried making mango pickles having found a jarred type I like immensely called Ship brand. To make the salsa, mix equal parts chopped mango pickles and chopped fresh tomatoes in a bowl and set aside so the flavors can marry while you make the rest of the meal.

To prepare the salmon we simply marinade it in salt, pepper, fresh lemon juice and a little olive oil for about 15 minutes, then either roast it in a 350 degree oven or grill it until almost cooked through. We serve it with a simple salad, the Amba Salsa and some basmati rice for a light, flavorful meal.


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