Saturday, February 15, 2014


Today's region of choice:  The Arab States.

The book:  The Arabian Delights Cookbook by Anne Marie Weiss-Armush, published in 1995.
ISBN 1-56565-219-3
It is a charming book because it explores "Mediterranean Cuisines from Mecca to Marrakesh" from the point of view of a woman who married into the culture and lived in it for eleven years.  During that time she learned the cooking and culinary traditions that her peers had absorbed in their childhood at their mother's knees.

Ms. Weiss-Armush's fresh perspective on an ancient culture brings insight to us all. 

She tells us that hummos, a silky protein-rich dip, is part of the mezzah:  "the fascinating array of small appetizers displayed on a multitude of miniature oval trays ... incredible in number and exciting in variety."

Mezzah means "half" and is supposed to suggest "half a dinner" but she is honest in pointing out that she rarely progresses past this phase.  "It is impossible to stop nibbling these wonderful specialties, and the appetite may be satiated rather than stimulated."  She lists savory pastries filled with cheese or meat, fresh or pickled vegetables, olives, bean salads, stuffed grape leaves, torn pieces of pita bread, and of course, dips like hummos.

One thing I noticed about her recipes for the mezzah is that many have just a few ingredients and a few simple steps for preparation.  This makes sense if you are the cook and need to prepare a variety for the afternoon meal.

I love hummos (in my area, spelled "hummus") but have always purchased it.  It just seemed right to learn how to make it so I can play with the flavors and have it handy for impromptu meals.

Hummos (page 33)

1 3/4 cups cooked chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
1/4 cup low-fat yogurt, water, or liquid in which the chickpeas were cooked
2 cloves garlic, crushed with salt
1/4 cup tahini (ground sesame seeds)
1/3 cup lemon juice

Garnish:  olive oil, paprika, cumin, black Middle Eastern olives, minced parsley

1.  Puree the ingredients in a blender or food processor, reserving a few whole chickpeas for garnish.

2.  Add additional tahini and/or lemon juice if necessary until you have achieved a flavor and consistency that suits your taste.  This texture should be thinner than mashed potatoes but with enough body to hold an edge.

3. Spread in an earthenware dish or an oval serving platter, running the side of a spoon around the edge to create a slight rim.  Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with the reserved chickpeas, paprika, cumin, and olives to add a bit of color.  Serve with Arabic bread.

Easy peasy!
The Verdict:

Success!  This couldn't be any easier.  Put the ingredients in the blender--I put the liquids in first to help get the garbanzo beans started--and blend until the whole mixture is smooth, creamy, and uniform in color.

The recipe as she gave it suited my tastebuds just fine.  I felt no need to add anything more.

I've never cooked with tahini before.  It is like a very liquid peanut butter and added a depth of flavor and a slight bitterness that was pleasant.  The lemon juice adds a sparkle and lightness to the overall flavor.

It was fun to sprinkle on the garnishes to make it look pretty.  I think if I was serving it to a crowd, I would have put the hummos in a shallow and wide dish, so everyone could get to it easily.

A dash across the 'net reveals that records of hummos go back as far as the 700s A.D.  The ingredients themselves are ancient but the idea of blending them into a dip is not lost to history.

This was so simple that I want to explore variations on the theme.  I've had a store-bought hummus that was made with white beans and had minced basil mixed in.  I swear to you it tasted like luscious, creamy pesto and I felt sinful eating it on crackers.  Not that I stopped, mind you.

April, 2014 Update:  One 15 ounce can of garbanzo beans held just the right amount for this recipe.  The kind I bought was just beans, water, and salt, so I used the liquid from the can as the required liquid and adjusted the amount of salt with the garlic.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Crêpes Ménagère -- Country Style Pancakes

This month's country:  France!  It occurred to me that I have never made crêpes despite having enjoyed them once in Carcassonne, France, a lovely medieval city near the Mediterranean:
So I dusted off my French cookbook, Gourmet's Basic French Cookbook by Louis Diat, published in 1968, and read in detail about them. 
See page 428
Mssr. Diat points out that "Carnaval -- the period between January 6, Epiphany, and Ash Wednesday -- is the season in France for eating crêpes and beignets."  Since this year's Ash Wednesday falls in March, I realized this is the perfect time for me to give it a go.

He also mentions that 

     Making crêpes over the open fire was part of the fun at the party honoring the  
     unmarried girls -- a party always held on the second Thursday preceding Ash
     Wednesday.  Each girl had to make a cr
êpe and toss it successfully to brown the other
     side -- not an easy thing to do without practice.  But according to the superstition,
     unless a girl could pass the test, she would never get a husband.  After all, what man
     would be so foolish as to marry a girl who couldn't make perfect cr

Oh dear, how could my upbringing have been so deficient?  Now I truly have to make this happen.

Crêpes Ménagère  -- Country Style Pancakes

Sift together 1 cup flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon salt.  Beat in gradually with a wire whip 3 beaten eggs.  Add 1 1/4 cups milk and a little vanilla, rum, or brandy.  Mix the batter until it is smooth, strain it through a fine sieve, and let it stand for 2 hours.  Brown the crêpes on both sides, arrange them on a hot serving dish, and sprinkle them with powdered sugar, or serve them with maple syrup or honey or spread them with jelly or marmalade and roll them.

The salt is incognito
Mssr. Diat gives us his words of wisdom and experience, too. 

"Whatever the recipe you use, I caution you not to beat the batter too eagerly; overbeating results in toughness."

"... be sure to use a skillet with a bottom heavy enough to hold the heat well and distribute it evenly. ... Use a pan just the size of the cr
êpe you wish to make."

"Butter the hot pan lightly; brush melted butter on the pan with a pastry brush, or if you like, run the end of a stick of butter over the pan."

"The amount of better determines the thickness of the crêpe; ... Generally, 1 1/2 tablespoons of batter will be enough for a 5-inch crêpe."

"When the butter is very hot, pour in the batter all at once and quickly lift the pan from the heat and tilt it with a circular motion so that the batter coats the pan evenly and forms a perfect round crêpe. ... the batter should spread before it begins to set."

"The crêpe browns quickly; the top side will begin to look dry in less than 2 minutes.  Lift the edge of the crêpe with a spatula to make sure that the bottom is browned, and quickly flip it over.  Never turn the crêpe more than once." 

My Notes

I thought I had mixed the batter until smooth -- it looked smooth and felt smooth.  But when I poured it through the sieve, it was astonishing how many little lumps were there.  I was grateful for the straining advice.

My daughter and I worked on cooking the crêpes as a team and that was wonderful.  We used a cast iron fry pan whose bottom was about 6 inches across.

At first we were experimenting to find the right amounts of butter and batter, so the first few crêpes were less than interesting.  Here's what we learned:

This was too much butter because the batter didn't stick to the pan well during the swirling part.  We were rubbing the pan with a stick of butter and next time we will use a pastry brush dipped into melted butter.  We didn't have to butter the pan each time.

It was helpful to have a little plastic scoop that allowed us to pour the batter in all at once after we got skilled at the right amount.

This is us swirling the batter.  We lifted the pan off the heat, poured in the batter, and started swirling immediately, trying to cover the entire bottom:

This is just the right amount of batter, about 3 to 4 tablespoons.  The crêpe is nearly ready to flip.  It looks dry all over when it is ready:

And here is a flipped crêpe:

 Most of what was made.  Except for the ones we taste-tested!

The Verdict

Success!  This was A LOT simpler to make than either one of us thought it would be.  We didn't need any special equipment and the recipe was simple to make and with easy-to-obtain ingredients.  They cooked quickly and were easy to handle.  They didn't even stick to each other in the cloth!

On top of it all, they were very tasty -- a little eggy, a little sweet, and particularly good with either a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar or about a teaspoon of Nutella.  We are discussing making a savory filling of cooked beef and onions with a little cheesy white sauce to moisten it.  

We are proud to say we both managed to flip a crêpe in the pan and catch it!  We learned that to do this, the crêpe had to be well-cooked so it didn't stick when we tried to flip it.  So now we think that is a great technique to test if it is truly cooked enough.

P.S.  I was curious about the history of crêpes (this type is 20th century) and found a little note on this website:

     On February 2 crêpes are offered in France on the  holiday known as Fête de la
     Chandeleur, Fête de la Lumière, or “jour des crêpes”.  Not only do the French eat a lot
     of crêpes on this day, but they also do a bit of fortune telling while making them.  It is
     traditional to hold a coin in your writing hand and a crêpe pan in the other, and flip the
     crêpe into the air.  If you manage to catch the crêpe in the pan, your family will be
     prosperous for the rest of the year.

So I wish you a happy Fête de la Chandeleur and many caught crêpes!