Humbled and Crumbled

Flatbread

Flatbread

From love to money, any number of agitators can disrupt life, and occasionally, life bubbles over in the kitchen. Some households claim a member who consistently burns the toast or shirks doing dishes. It wasn’t dirty dishes that rattled our harmony, but herbs and spices.

Sugar and spice have long conjured images of everything nice, while herbs turn out favorable buzz for taste, color and health benefits.

Why the fuss? I was prepping dinner for a small party and came up short on cilantro. My husband offered to pick up a bunch and he was soon out the door and on his way to the market.

Cilantro or coriander, Coriandrum sativum, is widely used in the Middle Eastern kitchen. We lived in the Middle East at that time, in a neighborhood with its own small food co-op stocked with essentials. Before long, Greg returned from the co-op with an enormous bright green bunch — of parsley.

Little in the produce section was labeled, and if the herbs had been identified they would have been marked in Arabic. No problem for those with a grasp of food group vocabulary but his was yet to develop. Even though the pungent herb cilantro belongs to the parsley family (Apiaceae), it reserves its own taste and aroma, and my initial reaction lacked any sort of sympathetic herbal understanding.

“Did you notice the difference in the shape of the leaves?” I asked. “How about the scent? Did you sniff it?”

If the story ended there, we would have settled on one of many uses for the parsley. But the same herb mix-up happened again, at least two or three more times. Purchasing cilantro went on to haunt us.

Use crumbled flatbread, eggplant and yogurt for this adaptation of fatta.

Use crumbled flatbread, eggplant and yogurt for this adaptation of fatta.

We weeded our way through the herb confusion, only to enter a new chapter tense on spices. At a women’s-only gathering where food pageantry was secondary to warm hospitality and engaging discussion with family and friends, a dish made with eggplant and crumbled bread called fatta (fatteh, fatha, or any number of ways to spell it to match the varied ways to prepare it) outshined its competition. Though it was served with platter after platter of colorful selections incorporating grains, vegetables and lamb, I wanted to limit myself to a spoonful of everything else to dedicate room for an indulgent tasting of the fatta (local custom shunned eating lightly). The hostess accepted compliments and insisted on second and third servings with no resistance from the dozen guests at the table.

Closely associated (by marriage) with the royals, she described her family’s preparation instructions. She didn’t exactly have hands-on experience making the dish, but knew expressly all ingredients (and quantities) required.

The ingredients soon made their way to my shopping list but one proved difficult to find. Greg and I shopped everywhere looking for suma’, as one of my friends wrote down for me in Arabic script. We passed up a perfect selection of sumac — which a spice vendor in Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili market insisted was what we needed. Greg wanted to close the spice deal — but I resisted. Finally, back in the Gulf, my neighbor shared a package of assorted spices. One of them matched that ground reddish-purple spice I hesitated to purchase and turned out to be a petite pouch of sumac which she and other locals pronounced suma’.

Finish fatta with a sprinkle of sumac.

Finish fatta with a sprinkle of sumac.

Regrets and forgiveness ensued, and we finally made fatta finished with sumac (Rhus coriaria, ground from the dried berries of a Mediterranean shrub). Fatta, loosely translated, refers to a dish of crumbled bread, and for this regional adaptation from the Gulf, it calls for a traditional flatbread.

Bake your own flatbread, purchase it at a Middle Eastern restaurant or bakery, or substitute with commercial pita bread, no pocket required. Tina’s Basket in Cornwall offers white and wheat traditional flatbread. Consider day-old bread as an ingredient as it’s destined for crumbling.

Fatta

Serves 8

2 medium or 1 large eggplant, rinsed

½ cup olive oil or light vegetable oil

2-3 pieces flatbread (or large flat pita bread)

1 large onion, chopped

2 pounds minced meat (beef or lamb)

salt

freshly ground black pepper

16 ounces plain yogurt

freshly squeezed juice from ½ lemon

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1/4 cup pine nuts (or preferred seeds as nut substitute)

1 teaspoon sumac

1. Remove stem and thinly slice eggplant no more than 1/8-inch thick. Sautée in oil. Remove from pan and set aside in warm oven. Fry flatbread on both sides until crunchy. Cool 2 minutes on paper towels, crumble bread into small pieces and set aside. (To avoid oil, toast bread 5 minutes in oven at 400 degrees or toss it on a grill for a few minutes.)

2. Mix plain yogurt with freshly squeezed lemon juice, pinch of salt, twist of ground black pepper and sesame oil. Set at least 10 minutes.

3. Cook chopped onion, ½ teaspoon salt, twist of ground pepper and meat until meat is browned through. If meat is high in fat, drain excess.

4. Sautée pine nuts or sunflower seeds in 1 tablespoon olive oil for 2 minutes.

5. In casserole dish or flat-bottomed pan, layer eggplant, meat and another eggplant layer. Top second eggplant layer with crunchy flatbread pieces. Spoon yogurt mixture onto top layer. Dust with sumac and sprinkle with pine nuts or seeds. Serve immediately with green salad and fresh flatbread.

Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

Text and photos by Mary Ann Ebner

 

 

 

Make these crab cakes and thank SpongeBob

Icing on the Crab Cake

by Mary Ann Ebner

Crab cakes with beet sauce

Crab cakes with beet sauce

Cook on with Egg Drop Soup

Egg Drop Soup

Egg Drop Soup

Dinner plans? Pick up a dozen eggs and cook on with this egg drop soup.

Saffron lifts humble paella

Darlings of the dining scene come and go, but the Spanish dish paella consistently holds its place.

Paella

Paella

Follow this simple recipe in my Cook On food column and transform rice into a flavorful meal.

Main cookie attraction

Sharing a cookie is about the most simplistic way to pass on a serving of sweetness. Satisfy your own little craving, say thanks, or let a certain someone know you’re sweet on them with the help of a cookie. Surprise the receiver (that could be yourself) with a new cookie of sorts. Here are three selections to purchase from the freezer section, order online, or bake yourself:

Macarons des Fêtes from Trader Joe’s

I recently tried these almond-meringue-filled cookies in the home of one who grew up with the best macarons in France, and as much as I love TJ’s savory products, this is my new favorite. Find these assorted macarons in the freezer section.

Otterbein’s Sugar Cookies

Otterbein's Sugar Cookies

Otterbein’s Sugar Cookies

If you’re from Baltimore, you know all about these crunchy crisp sugar cookies. We sampled a bag of Otterbein’s best from one of Baltimore’s sweetest daughters. Maybe it’s the ammonium carbonate listed in the ingredients that makes them so thin and crispy, but there’s an innocence to these sugar cookies that will keep you filling up your cup of tea so that you can enjoy the whole bag all at once. Order Otterbein’s and share the tradition.

Orange plus chocolate = blissful cookies

As these delicate cookies bring orange and chocolate together, all others may step aside.

Valencia Delights

Valencia Delights

I sampled these with a cup of the finest hot chocolate on a snowy night, and had to ask for a road map to return to this cookie bliss. The cookie’s baker was happy to share the recipe. Note that she uses dipping chocolate in place of chocolate glaze. Bake. Share. Repeat.

Savoring Gifts

Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

Give me an edible gift and I’ll give you a nourishing meal in return. If we’re sustaining the age of natural gifts of food, I’m going to do my part to continue the trend.

Who doesn’t love the surprise of a beautiful bottle of wine or even a pint of maple syrup? I’m grateful for all the fine food that comes my way, from free range eggs that my neighbor offers to me from her share to vibrant green sprigs of basil that Kate Vikstrom, our graphic designer and layout editor at The Paper, showers coworkers with when her basil plants are producing at peak volume.

Beyond the simple joy of being on the receiving end of someone’s thoughtfulness and generosity, the givers of edible gifts help us discover new tastes. Food gifts (all the better if givers know the tendencies of recipients to like or dislike particular flavors or to tolerate certain foods) can spark a new appreciation, inspire a unique recipe and renew the motivation to create meals with fresh ingredients (and the unshrinking culinary connoisseur will find a way to make use of even the most obscure edible elements).

Hudson Valley Honey

Hudson Valley honey

The latest wave of sweet and savory gifts that has made a way to our home includes a wide range from Greek wine to Linzer cookies to Hudson Valley honey and we’ve enjoyed everything. But the most succulent gift of all was undeniably the parcel of persimmons. A native Asian seedless fruit, dripping with sweet flavor and bold orange flesh, the Fuyu persimmons that we received turn up seasonally around the Hudson Valley. I can’t offer the reason why I’ve skipped the purchase of persimmons for the past several years, but I resolve to change the pattern. It’s just one of those produce items that I pass by, pausing briefly to notice how appetizing they look, but then I keep right on moving to avocadoes or some other staple that I probably overuse.

The Fuyu variety of persimmons given to us, round shaped with taught skin, were selected with a keen eye for quality, and a sticker on one of them revealed their Spanish origin. This particular variety, #4428, was labeled as sharon fruit, a seedless treat that can be eaten raw, cooked or juiced.

Juicy Persimmons

Juicy persimmons

Our bright orange fruit rested on the kitchen counter for several days, and one of my sons said they looked a lot like tomatoes. And they do. But he couldn’t quite believe how their taste differed from tomatoes. Once they ripened to perfection, we pulled away the waxy peel with a paring knife and sliced one to sample the flavor. Each piece burst with a sweet and juicy sensation. They taste so ambrosial that you want to savor every bite. We polished off the slices, which needed nothing to enhance their natural goodness.

For the remaining persimmons, I chose to showcase them as the star of a salad. Not a side salad, but a superb family meal of a salad. A mature jicama sat in my refrigerator, and I decided to assemble it as a key ingredient as well to amp up the salad’s taste and texture. The crunch of the jicama added the perfect complement to the velvety smoothness of the persimmon slices. Served on a bed of greens, baby spinach and kale, and finished with a citrus-enhanced vinaigrette dressing, the persimmon and jicama salad not only created a splash of color on our dinner plates, but satiated us with a healthy and hearty menu.

Persimmon Salad

Persimmon Salad

It might be time to give your table the gift of an upgraded salad, embellished with ingredients that you may be overlooking at the farmers’ market or the produce aisle at Foodtown. Assemble a salad of a different sort and keep its components in mind: a nice bed of whatever’s leafy green and in season (or for the lucky ones — what your neighbor is growing next door), a key vegetable or two from peppers to carrots, your preferred protein (meat, fish or a selection of beans), something crunchy from seeds to nuts, and a subtle splash of vinaigrette dressing. I used hulled organic sunflower seeds in this salad as one among us has a nut allergy. For those who are able to indulge, consider a hazelnut, almond or pine nut addition. And a cheese (goat cheese would be spectacular) may perfectly finish this effort. We didn’t add cheese this time, but there will be a next.

Give a gift to savor and build a better supper salad.

Baby Greens and Persimmon Supper Salad

Servings: 6

Vinaigrette

½ teaspoon honey

1 teaspoon orange zest

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange (or clementine) juice

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon light balsamic vinegar

pinch of sea salt

Combine all ingredients except oil. Add olive oil and whisk thoroughly.

Salad ingredients

6 to 8 handfuls of baby greens (rinsed and dried)

1 medium jicama, quartered, peeled and sliced

2 tablespoons hulled sunflower seeds

¼ cup pomegranate seeds

3 ripe persimmons, peeled and sliced

Place jicama, sunflower seeds and pomegranate seeds in mixing bowl and toss with half of the vinaigrette. Arrange greens on platter and layer jicama mixture on top. Add persimmon pieces. Drizzle with remaining vinaigrette. Serve immediately.

Text and photos by Mary Ann Ebner

 

 

 

Dough-Licious

Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

Pillows of puffy, steaming hot bread spilled over a platter at a recent dinner that my family enjoyed during the holiday season. A doughy menu addition and its creator arrived at the celebration just as we were about to begin the meal. The texture and shape of the bread looked familiar and I recognized the taste immediately. Fried dough — the food stand favorite sold at so many of the pow wows I’d attended years earlier as a teenager. As an interpretive Native American dancer with a travelling dance team, I came to know the bread simply as fry bread, and occasionally found it billed as a Navajo taco when smothered with beans or meat.

I learned to make the bread with the dance team and the food operation served as a summer fundraiser for our travels. We’d sell out each time we set up a stand at one of our family-centered events. The world hadn’t learned of marketing through social media, but there was little need. We didn’t even need a sign on our food booth. The smell of the dough frying at a full boil spread widely and pulled prospective customers right to us. We kept our operation simple (thankfully, the health department never checked us out) and offered serve-yourself powdered sugar and honey along with the bread.

Fry bread dusted with powdered sugar

Fry bread dusted with powdered sugar

Once we sold out and closed the stand for the day, the dance team members, mostly teens, young adults and a parent or two, would head over to our dressing area (a patch of grass or gravel next to our used and aging Greyhound bus) and change into our costumes. Once fully dressed and embellished with beadwork, bustles and well-worn moccasins, we waited behind our canvas backdrop to storm onto the stage at the sound of the drum. In unison, we all mimicked our director, Frank. Dressed in a full Native American ensemble, meticulously crafted bead by bead, he would open our shows with a regular monologue that went like this:

“Good evening. My name is Frank Joachimsthaler. That is a full-blood name. Full-blood German.”

The crowd rolled with laughter and Frank loved it. He delivered this opening line show after show, year after year, explaining that most of the team members were not Native Americans, though some were. He shared his deep respect for Native American people and their varied cultures with the audience, and once the beaters hit the drum, we joined him in song and dance for the next hour, moving and singing, always in a circle — the cycle of song, the seasons and of life.

But the source of our latest crispy-on-the-outside and fluffy-on-the-inside creation at the dinner celebration wasn’t of Navajo or Native American origin. Our gathering included a host of people with roots around North America and more than a dozen from an Albanian family. One of the family members from Albania arrived with the puffed and bubbled round bread pulled directly from the fryer. It’s certain that I added a few extra calories when I decided to allow the bread to bump everything green and lean from my plate, but it was a familiar food that I couldn’t resist. I stopped at one piece but probably consumed my fat count for the weekend.

My kids also discovered their own fried dough at summer camp, but it wasn’t shaped into flat rounds. Staff members roll the dough into small balls, like doughnut holes, deep fry them, and coat the fried dough in a blanket of powdered sugar.

One of the Albanian women at our dinner said her mother had prepared fried dough forever. With the origins of cultivated grain traced back to the vicinity of their native homeland, forever sounded convincing. The variation that I recall has been a staple with Native Americans in recent generations. According to the South Dakota Legislature, the state designated the beloved deep-fried dough as its official bread in 2005.

Open-faced fry bread taco

Open-faced fry bread taco

A serving of fry bread, similar to the fried dough found at state fairs and festivals as well as certain Albanian family gatherings, may be a little less than healthy, but for those who can tolerate gluten and lard, it’s a memorable feast. Made in your do-it-yourself home fryer, it’s a hand-flattened creation perfect for occasional breaking and sharing within your own circle.

 

Fry Bread

3 cups flour

2 tablespoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup shortening

¼ cup warm milk

1 cup water

1. Mix dry ingredients in large bowl. Add shortening. When shortening is mixed through to crumb-like stage, add warm milk. Gradually add water. Stir water into flour mixture until crumbs cling together.

2. Place dough on lightly floured surface and hand-flatten gently into a mound. Cover and rest dough for 30 minutes. Divide dough into 8 to 10 evenly-sized portions. Gently work each portion into a 5- to 6-inch circle, handling dough minimally. Some fry bread portions are double this size. Size your batch to your liking.

3. In fryer or large pan, heat 2 inches of vegetable oil to 375 or 400 degrees. The hotter the oil, the shorter the cooking time. Place dough one piece at a time into oil and cook on each side up to 2 minutes for desired golden crispiness, turning only once. Remove each piece of fried dough with tongs and place on baking sheet layered with paper towels. Keep cooked bread in warm oven until final batch is completed.

4. Go sweet or savory. Drizzle finished fry bread with honey, dust with fine powdered sugar, or dress with your favorite toppings — beans, meat, lettuce, tomatoes, even avocado spread — to make an open-faced taco. Serve immediately. Makes 8 to 10 generous pieces.

Text and photos by Mary Ann Ebner