Iraqi cuisine: Almost four thousand years and counting

A cookbook that holds a special place in my collection is Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine by Nawal Nasrallah. I have the first edition from 2003, a hefty, 650-page book that was self-published and printed in black and white (it was later released as a hardcover with color photos). It’s a book that I turn to when I need to get grounded again about food and cooking. Everything these days is so overheated, short-lived and hyper, and the social media attention keeps moving from one food trend and snippet and Instagram photo to the next within split seconds. Reading a page, or even just a paragraph, about Mesopotamian civilization that goes back to 6,000 BC, to the dawn of recorded human history, helps me to cool it and put things back in perspective. Continue reading

An orange cake evoking olfactory memories

It’s intriguing how the scent of certain foods can transport you back in time and space. For me, oranges have that power, both the blossoms and the fruit. They bring back vivid memories of the little time I got to spend with my Tunisian grandmother as a child when I visited her in Ksar Hellal, a town in the Tunisian Sahel. Continue reading

Taking stock, twenty years after immigration

On January 5, 1998, I landed in New York City with an immigration visa that I won in the Green Card Lottery. The previous summer, I had received a letter in the mail notifying me that I was one of 55,000 lucky people whose number was drawn in the Green Card Lottery from more than eight million participants. Winning, however, was only the first, easy step. What followed was a thorough and costly screening process to make sure that I was who I claimed to be, without a criminal record, in good health and able to support myself for a few months in the United States without working. I have often wondered how Green Card winners less fortunate than me made it through that process. Continue reading

Apple Masala

Apple Masala Bread

A long and productive gardening season is winding down. After the first frost, the last peppers and tomatoes are ripening on trays indoors, the freezer is packed to the top, the basement shelves are filled with all kinds of canned goods, and the water-bath canner and all the other canning equipment has been put in storage. And I finally have time to get on my bike again.

Well not so fast…. From one of my bike rides I brought back a whole basket of windfall apples. Continue reading

I promise, I will feed you better!

Rhubarb lemonade

As a Master Gardener I should know. I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I have been skimping on fertilizing my own garden. That fact dawned on me last fall after attending a refresher training.

“Think about everything you harvest from the garden in a growing season. You must return the nutrients to the soil,” the speaker said. “There is nothing wrong with regularly fertilizing your garden but sometimes people who garden organically have this odd reluctance to do that.” Continue reading

Lavender state of mind

Lavender Meringues w lavender

It’s not that I don’t have enough work from and in the garden already. Every week now, another fruit or vegetable needs to be harvested and processed. And yet, after visiting The Lavender Farmette, a local lavender farm, I just had to make some treats with lavender: Lavender Meringues, a favorite of ours and a great way to use up leftover egg whites. And, for the first time, Lavender Ice-Cream based on my standard ice-cream recipe. Continue reading

Cooking in bed

This is not what you might think. It is a simple and ingenious trick to cook the creamiest rice pudding. I learned it from my aunt on my last trip to Germany.

Rice pudding was one of my staple dishes as a student. It was cheap and filling, and I usually ate it the way it is often eaten in Germany: warm, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, and with peaches from the can. Getting it right is not so easy though. Like risotto, cooking rice pudding needs close attention so it does not scorch, and it often ends up too dry so you have to stir in additional milk after cooking, and more milk after the rice pudding cools and stiffens.

Not so in my aunt’s rice pudding. Actually it is not her invention but the way farmers’ wives did it. The rice is added to the boiling milk, cooked only briefly and then the pot is tucked in under a duvet or comforter and left for at least one hour. When you open the pot, all the milk is on top and you initially think it is a complete failure. But then you stir it and all the milk gets absorbed. The rice pudding stays nicely creamy even after chilling – no need to add any milk later.

Last week our daughter was home with a toothache. That and the delicious and juicy peaches from the local orchard (no more canned peaches for me) just called for rice pudding!

I fetched a duvet from its summer storage and made sure that the bedroom door was closed so the dog would not break into the makeshift cooker and for sure singe his nose – the pot was piping hot when I took it out. The rice pudding was so yummy that we gobbled up a large batch of it, and I made some more today. Nowadays I prefer rice pudding chilled, especially in the summer.

I think it’s not worth putting the duvet back in storage.

The recipe can be found in my cookbook Spoonfuls of Germany.

Catching up with an old flirt

Since I was given Lidia Bastianich’s Lidia’s Italian Table as a wedding gift more than a decade ago, I have been flirting with her Blueberry-Apricot Frangipane Tart every so soften. Yet I never made it because either I did not have fresh blueberries and apricots at the same time, or no almond flour at hand, or not enough time, or all of the above.

Today was finally the day, thanks to an extended trip to the blueberry patch yesterday and the last apricots from County Line Orchard, my favorite source for locally grown fruit.

As I was lining up all the ingredients, I started revolting. One whole stick butter for the filling, in addition to the stick already required for the crust… that is too much butter for my taste in a tart where fresh fruit should be the star. So I concocted an alternative batter, substituting the butter with milk and using confectioners’ sugar instead of sugar to make it smoother. I also separated the eggs and beat the whites stiff for a fluffier consistency. Finally, since I did not have ½ cup apricot jam for the glaze (since I make our own jam, I try to avoid buying any), I made my own using two extra apricots.

If you have great expectations in a book or a movie, and then it turns out not to be what you expected, you are more or less stuck. The great thing with recipes is that you can tweak and fit them to your taste so you are still happy and satisfied at the end!

Blueberry-Apricot-Almond Tart

Crust:

¼ cup sugar

Zest of 1 lemon

1½ cups flour

Pinch of salt

½ teaspoon baking powder

1 stick chilled butter, cut into small cubes

1 large egg yolk

1 tablespoon ice water, more as needed

Apricot glaze:

1 to 2 ripe apricots, halved and pitted

¼ cup water

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon honey

Filling:

1 cup (4 ounces) almond flour

½ cup (2 ounces) confectioners’ sugar

2 large eggs

½ cup milk (2%)

1 cup fresh blueberries

1 pound ripe apricots, halved and pitted

1. Put the sugar and the lemon zest in the food processor and process until the lemon zest if finely chopped (doing this infuses the sugar with the lemon flavor). Add all the flour, salt, baking powder, butter and egg yolk and process until the dough starts holding together and detaches form the sides of the food processor bowl. Add 1 tablespoon ice water and pulse until the dough almost holds completely together. Remove it from the bowl, picking up all the crumbs, and gently press it together to a compact ball. Place in a container with a lid and refrigerate for 1 hour.

2. In the meantime make the apricot glaze. Puree the apricots with the water until smooth. Mix in a small saucepan with the sugar and honey and cook over low heat until tick and sticky, stirring often to prevent scorching. Set aside to cool.

3. Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Butter and flour a 10-inch cake pan. Roll out the dough between two large sheets of wax paper to fit the bottom of the pan plus 1 inch rim all around. Lift the top wax paper, flip the dough over and fit it into the pan. Even out the rim (if you are a bit short in some spots, patching is OK, this won’t be visible later).

4. Prick the crust with a fork several times and place in the freezer for 10 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

5. In a bowl mix the almond flour and the confectioners’ sugar. Separate the eggs. Add the yolks to the batter together with the milk. Beat until smooth. In another bowl beat the egg whiles until stiff. Fold them into the almond batter.

6. Remove the cake pan from the freezer. Using a pastry brush evenly coat the bottom and the sides of the crust with apricot glaze. Scatter the blueberries on top.

7. Gently spread the almond batter over the blueberries, taking care not to lift them up, and even the top with a spatula.

8. Arrange the apricot halves on top with their cut sides down, starting with a circle all around, then forming additional smaller circles.

9. Bake in the preheated oven for 40 to 45 minutes, until the top is light golden brown and set. Remove from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes. Coat the apricots with the remaining glaze and cool completely.