Archives for category: Appetizer

Yes, I’m back after my very long hiatus.  I thought I could keep up with my blog after the big move to Toronto, my husband’s medical school graduation, a vacation to Dubai, and another mini-vacation to my parents’ house in Rhode Island.  I missed my blog, but it’s sort of like when you stop something in your routine  and then after a few weeks you don’t feel guilty about keeping up with it.  This happened with me.  As much as I love blogging, I just got out of my routine.  It’s good to take a breather and come back refreshed and full of new ideas.

For the past few nights, I’ve been thinking what I would write for my next post.  I felt the urge in the middle of the night to open up my laptop and just start typing and  telling you all about all the major events that have happened recently.  The big move, which still isn’t complete as far as setting up our place.  Slowly but surely.  And our wonderful vacation to see my sister in Dubai-we returned sulking because we had gotten so used to the pampered lifestyle and delicious cuisine from all over the world.  Now, I’m back at my childhood home, having fun, spending time with my husband and parents, enjoying the New England summer.  I hope to share more snippets and glimpses with you about all these things in upcoming posts.


I made my way to the Providence Farmers’ Market to get some inspiration.  I came back with gorgeous chives and their even lovelier blossoms, radishes, cucumbers, and potatoes.  Then I picked up the best yogurt ever, which is made by Narragansett Creamery.  I wanted to make something fresh, it’s been hot here and wanted to make something light, cooling, and refreshing.  I found some luscious mint in our herb garden and decided to make a potato salad with a few Pakistani twists.  I added a tarka of curry leaves, cumin seeds, and crushed red chili flakes. It sounds odd to add sizzling oil over a creamy potato salad, but trust me it works.

I had a great time creating this dish.  My mom helped me with the photos, something that a certain somebody (ahem, ahem…my husband) never does.  She also has the most amazing collection of plates, silverware, napkins, and other lovely pieces.  My parents’ house is also in the country.  Fresh wild flowers are abundant here along with shimmering sunshine.  I enjoyed this post, maybe it was because of my hiatus or new surroundings and new goodies to pick through.  Either way, I hope to make something else before we leave to go back to Canada,  where I also have a new condo kitchen waiting for me.

Until then, I’m enjoying myself here and hope too many of you haven’t forgotten about me.  I miss my friends in the food community and look forward to exploring your new posts as well.  :)

Potato Salad with Radishes, Cucumbers, and a Tarka (Tempered Oil/Sizzling Oil with Spices)

Serves 4

Ingredients

3 medium-sized red potatoes, washed and scrubbed

1 bunch icicle radishes, or any radish of your choice

1 medium-sized English cucumber, sliced into discs

1/2 a small red onion, minced finely

1/4 cup chopped chives along with some chive blossoms, if available, plus extra for garnish

2 tablespoons chopped mint, plus extra for garnish

1/2 full-fat yogurt

1/2 cup crème fraîche, if in New England try Vermont Butter and Cheese crème fraîche

juice of 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste

for the tarka:

1/4 cup neutral vegetable oil of your choice

1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds

1 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes, or to taste (this amount will be spicy)

10-15 curry leaves, available at Pakistani or Indian grocery stores

Method

Boil the potatoes in salted water in a medium saucepan until tender.  Allow to cool and then peel and slice into half moons.

Next, in a bowl combine the yogurt, crème fraîche, lemon juice, salt pepper, chives, mint, salt, and pepper.  Once it forms a dressing add in the potatoes, radishes, cucumber, and red onion.  Set aside and allow the flavors to come together in the refrigerator for an hour.

Before serving, prepare the tarka by heating up the oil in a small frying pan on medium heat.  Once it has come to temperature add the cumin seeds and red chili flakes.  They may splatter a bit, so be careful.  Once they start to infuse the oil,  after about 2 minutes, add in the curry leaves and let them fry for a minute.  Once the tarka is done, pour over the potato salad.  Garnish with chopped chives, mint, and chive blossoms.  If you are serving in individual plates, place the potato salad in the individual plate and spoon a little of the tarka over each plate.

home

Things are hectic lately.  We’re about to move, which is always a stressful time. Yes, finally, I am moving to a big city, Toronto. My husband used to live there, so it won’t be too hard adjusting.  Despite all my complaining about where I live now, I am going to miss it.  My apartment feels so homey, anyone who visits says the same thing.  I’m getting sentimental about leaving.  There are so many things I’m going to miss, which I will post about later.

This was the first city my husband and I lived in together, where we moved past the newlywed stage of marriage and have come into our own.  We have our own routine here, it’s not the most exciting life or in any way cosmopolitan, but we managed.  But there’s always a time to move on, I guess.  I don’t want to sound like a downer, I am very happy we’re moving.  I’m just the type of person who gets attached to places.  I lived in the same house until I was 21.

Anyhow, my main point was that things are hectic around here.  When things are hectic, shami kebabs are a lifesaver, emergency food, if you will. They freeze so well and last for months.  I must admit, the process of making them is somewhat grueling, but it’s not so bad.  I try to always have them on hand because it never hurts to serve an extra dish, especially for a last-minute gathering.

I am smiling right now, thinking about in Pakistan there are always unexpected guests, an occasion where shami kebabs come in very handy.  This concept would not really fly in North America, people showing up unannounced and expecting to be served something substantial to eat. Someone usually has to rush to the local bakery to get samosas, various biscuits, and puff pastry patties.  Then, all the food is placed on a special trolley for guests and then it is rolled out with a teapot covered in a tea cozy and all the bakery goodies.  Meanwhile, shami kebabs are frying up in the kitchen because they are ready in the freezer.

Whether or not you eat shami kebabs as an emergency food, they are delicious and one of my all-time favorites.  Since we’re going to be moving and there will be little time to cook, we’ll be eating a lot of shami kebabs.  All the hard work is worth it, trust me.

Chicken Shami Kebabs

Makes about 25-30 kebabs

Ingredients

for cooking the chicken:

water, as needed

2 1/2 pounds boneless chicken thighs, in large chunks*

1 medium sized red onion, roughly sliced, no need to be precise, just in chunks

half a bulb of garlic, peeled

2 inch piece of ginger, roughly chopped

1 cup yellow split pea lentils (chanay ki dal) soaked overnight and washed

2 teaspoons coriander seeds

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1/2 teaspoon whole cloves

3 black cardamoms

5 green cardamoms

10-12 dried red chilies, use less for less spicy

1 cinnamon stick, broken in half

2 bay leaves

salt, to taste

after cooking the chicken you will need:

1 cup chopped cilantro

1/2 cup chopped mint

2-3 green chilies, chopped

1/2 a red onion, chopped

4 scallions, white and light green parts, chopped

2 eggs

oil for frying

Method

First, cook the yellow lentils in plenty of boiling water until soft, after 30-45 minutes.  Set aside.

In a large pan, add the chicken, a little oil (if necessary), and all of the items listed (including spices) under the “for cooking the chicken” ingredients.   Also, add a little water, about 1/2 a cup.  Cook the chicken on medium heat for 15 minutes and then turn the heat to medium low and continue cooking for 45 more minutes, or until the chicken is very tender and all the water has evaporated.  You may need to add more water to the pot if it evaporates too quickly, just make sure you cook until the chicken is tender and the onion, garlic, and ginger are very soft.  Remove the cinnamon stick, black cardamom, and bay leaves, all the other spices will grind in the food processor.

Once the chicken is cooled, allow it to cool for 15-20 minutes.  After it has cooled slightly, transfer it to a large food processor with the cooked lentils and pulse until they are combined. Transfer the chicken and lentil mixture to a large bowl and add in the chopped cilantro, mint, scallions, green chilies, and red onion.  It’s time to get messy and crack in the 2 eggs and mix it all together with your hands.  Once everything is combined, form the chicken into round kebabs, about 3 inches in diameter.  You should end up with about 25-30 kebabs.

Next, in a frying pan heat some oil on medium heat and fry the kebabs until browned on both sides, about 3 minutes per side.  Cook as many as you want and you can freeze the kebabs that are not fried for up to 3-4 months.

Variation: Instead of adding the egg inside the kebab mixture, before frying you can dip each kebab into beaten egg and fry the kebabs with an egg coating.  Another slight variation, is that you can grind all the spices that you cook with the chicken i.e. before adding them to the pot grind them all in a spice grinder and cook the chicken with the ground spices.  However,  I just grind them in the food processor with the chicken after it has cooked, removing the black cardamom, cinnamon stick, and, bay leaves.  I find that the other spices grind easily, as they have become soft after cooking.  It’s a personal preference.

To reheat frozen shami kebabs: leave frozen kebabs out at room temperature for 30 minutes and fry as usual.

You can serve the shami kebabs as a snack or a side dish with green chutney /chili garlic sauce or with dal and basmati rice.  I also like to eat them with parathas.  A popular street food in Pakistan is bun kebab, which is also made with shami kebabs.

*I usually use beef stewing meat, which you can use, just cook the yellow lentils with the beef rather than separately and adjust the cooking time and water according to the meat you use.  Beef will take longer.  I used chicken thighs here because I had some in my freezer.  I imagine you could also use chicken breast as well.  Some people also cook the meat and lentils in a pressure cooker, but I don’t have one so I can’t give instructions on that method.

Shami Kebab recipes on other sites:

Chachi’s Kitchen

Passionate About Baking

Journey Kitchen

Fauzia’s Pakistani Recipes

Epicurious

Growing up, my family was all about food.  My parents would drive us 3 hours to New York City to eat “real” Pakistani food.  On the weekend, we were travelers in search for the next delicious meal.  My sister and I would be ever so excited to explore new places and see the hustle and bustle of different cities.  Our eyes were always wide-open, ready for these experiences.  Whether, we went to Newport for fresh, straight from the ocean seafood, or to a little hole in the wall Mexican restaurant that we still frequent to this day, we were set to feast.  We learned about other cultures this way, too.  What better way for parents to expose their children to different cultures than through their food.  Food welcomes you into a new culture.  The tastes of the cuisine transports you to a new place, somewhere less familiar than what we are used to, but at the same time we are ready to embrace the novelty.

Tucked away in the back seat, my sister and I would peer out of the  windows with utter enthusiasm waiting for a new exploration.  If you remember, we were the two sisters who played in the woods and pretended we were pioneers, Indians, French, you name it-we pretended it (the joys of childhood!).  These excursions took our make-believe world into reality.

I have very fond memories of attending the Greek Orthodox festival in Rhode Island.  As many of you are probably aware, Greeks (like most of us) are completely immersed in their cuisine and take great pride in hospitality and serving their traditional dishes to others.  There was food galore.  Souvlakis would be sizzling on hot coals, my sister and I would stare in awe at the roast lamb spinning on a spit with the juices dripping down and coating the lamb with deliciousness, and flaky phyllo pastries such as baklava and spanakopita.  This festival was overflowing with sensory delight.  We would also watch the Greek dancers in amazement.  My sister and I would “choreograph” Bollywood dance skits at home, so the Greek dances piqued our interest as well.

We would walk around just take it all in and we loved every minute of it.  Our main purpose was eating, of course.  Our favorite thing to indulge in were the spanakopitas.  To this day I love them, no matter how introductory they are to greek cuisine.  The flaky and paper-thin phyllo layers were (and still are) so fun to break off layer by layer and in the middle you would meet the spinach filling full of feta, parley, and olive oil.  This is one way to get your kids to eat spinach.  I make spanakopita from time to time and each time I do I am reminded of the Greek Orthodox festival and every time I think it would be so nice to go again.

Spanakopita with Kalamata Olives and Pine Nuts

Serves 8

Ingredients

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

crushed red chili flakes, to taste

2 shallots, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

12 ounces spinach leaves, stems removed and chopped

4 scallions, sliced

2 tablespoons chopped dill

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 tablespoon chopped mint

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

pinch of freshly ground nutmeg

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

1/4-1/2 cup grated kefalotyri cheese

1 tablespoon sour cream

2 eggs, beaten

1/3 cup kalamata olives, chopped

2 tablespoons roasted pine nuts

salt and black pepper, to taste

16 ounce package of phyllo dough, if frozen defrosted overnight in the refrigerator

Method

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a sauté pan on medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the shallots.  Allow the shallots to cook for 2-3 minutes or until they become to soften and add in the garlic and red chili flakes.  Once the garlic perfumes the oil, add in the chopped spinach.  Let the spinach wilt and cook down.  Add some salt, black pepper, and the pinch of nutmeg.  Once the spinach is all cooked, set it aside and allow it to cool slightly.  In the meantime, grease a 9″ by 13″ baking dish.

Once the spinach has cooled, add in the remaining ingredients (except the phyllo and remaining olive oil), there is no rhyme of reason to the order.  Mix to combine all the ingredients, make sure they are well incorporated.

Next, take the phyllo dough (make sure to cover it with a damp kitchen towel so that it doesn’t dry out) and cut the sheets so that they would fit into the baking dish.  I had to simply cut the sheets in half.  Once the sheets are the right size, divide the phyllo into two equal stacks.  One stack will be for the bottom layer, one will be for the top layer.

Take the phyllo dough two sheets at a time and layer into the baking dish.  Every second sheet should be brushes generously with olive oil.  Once the first stack of phyllo is finished layer all of the spinach mixture over the phyllo.  Then, repeat the process so that the spinach is covered and in the middle of the two stacks of phyllo dough.  Make sure the phyllo layers are well oiled so that they become crispier.

Bake the spanakopita in the oven for 45-50 minutes, or until the phyllo is golden brown.  Once slightly cooled, cut into squares or diamonds.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

When in doubt I turn ingredients into a dip.  I don’t know where I got this habit from, but somehow I developed it.  I think it partially might have stemmed from my childhood love for artichoke dip.  But who knows, whatever the reason is, I am now somewhat notorious for my dips.  When I visit my parents and they have people over I make a dip platter, along with a cheese platter, of course.  When I invite people over I do the same.  You can’t even imagine the attachment I have with my Cuisinart food processor and my mini food processor, which I fondly refer to as C. Junior.  These two gadgets make everything so simple, so effortless.

When I tell you I am attached, I really mean it.  Practically, every time I cook, I use either the “Senior” or “Junior” version of my food processor.  If I want to make a Pakistani dish quickly, then I throw in the garlic and ginger whiz it up and then throw in some tomatoes and within no time without all the chopping and slaving over the cutting board I have a delicious dish.

Believe me, I could go on and on about my food processors, but for the sake of the readers who might abandon me and deem me as off the wall, I will stop now.  The reason I mention the food processor was this eggplant dip I made.  You see, I had a vague idea in my mind as to what I wanted to make: eggplant with pomegranate molasses, and feta.  But, in the initial stages I was not visualizing a dip.  As I went along preparing the eggplant, the idea of a dip struck me.  Call it predictable or whatever you want, but the truth is, it worked and worked quite well I might add.  The smokiness of the spices, the creaminess of the feta, and the freshness of the herbs melded together to form one harmonious dip that was gobbled up by my husband and I in no time.


Eggplant Dip with Pomegranate Molasses and Feta

*I was inspired by this recipe, but I did not stay true to the recipe, I just used it as a jumping off point.

Serves 4-6, as an appetizer

Ingredients

Olive Oil

2 medium-sized Sicilian eggplants, peeled and cut into a small dice (or any variety you prefer), about 3 cups diced

3 shallots. chopped

4 cloves of garlic, minced

1/4 cup pomegranate molasses

1 cup crumbled Middle Eastern Feta

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup chopped parsley

5-7 mint leaves chopped

1/4 cup pomegranate seeds

2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

salt and black pepper, to taste

for the spices:

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon dried pomegranate seeds, found in most Pakistani/Indian grocery stores

Method

First, dry roast the spices in a dry pan on medium heat until you start to smell their aromas, 5-7 minutes.  Cool them for a minute and then transfer to a spice mill or coffee grinder and pulse until they all combine into a uniform mixture.  Set aside.

Heat a medium-sized sauté pan with a nice coating of olive oil on medium heat.  When the oil comes to temperature, add the shallots and allow them to caramelize, about 5-7 minutes.  Add in the garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes.   Toss in the eggplant and pomegranate molasses and allow the eggplant to caramelize as well.  Season with salt and pepper.  After 5 minutes of cooking, add the spice mixture.  Let the eggplant cook down further, until it is completely cooked through, about another 15-20 minutes.

Once the eggplant is cooked, allow it to cool for 15 minutes.  Next, take out a food processor (if you don’t have one you can mash by hand) and add in the cooked eggplant, feta, lemon juice, parsley, mint, a good drizzle of olive oil and pulse until combined.  Taste to see if any additional salt and pepper is required.  Garnish with the fresh pomegranate seeds, toasted pine nuts, parsley, mint, and a drizzle of olive oil.  Serve with toasted pita wedges or any bread of your choice.  I like to serve this slightly warm or at room temperature, but it can be served chilled.

* I decided to make a similar dip with butternut squash and caramelized shallots and posted it on food52, do have a look here.

My parents are obsessed with tennis, especially my Mom.  They went so far as installing a tennis court in our back yard so they could play a match whenever they felt like it.  My sister and I would watch them play and also wander around quite mischievously.  We would play pioneers and Indians and one of us would most likely be the medicine man.  Luckily for us, living in the countryside allowed for an abundance of wild berries that we would smear across our faces and pretend we were curing whatever ailment the “medicine man” said we were struck with.  I think a lot of this “make-believe” had to do with the computer game, “The Oregon Trail.”  I’m sure many of you remember playing this at school-forging the wagon across the river and shooting buffalos and turkey for food.

Anyway, my sister and I would be engaged in this world of pretend and all the while my parents would be playing tennis.  I mention these memories because surrounding our tennis court were huge, sprawling vines of concord grapes.  We would use these as medicines in our games and eat them as a snack when we were hungry.  Multi-tasking children, I guess.  I remember, in the beginning of the summer, parrot green marbles would begin to emerge amongst the vines.  Of course, being inquisitive creatures we would taste them and pucker our lips because of the intense sour flavor of the grapes.  We waited all summer until Autumn arrived and for the grapes to plump up and become almost blackish purple and sweet.  We couldn’t get enough of them.  For two little girls, plucking grapes of the vine was the ultimate bliss.  The thing about the concord grapes we adored was that we could peel off the skin quite easily in our mouths spit it out and eat the gooey center, it reminded us of gummy bears-much healthier though.

Every time, I see Concord grapes in farmers’ markets I swoop them up and just eat them plain, like I did as a child.  This time though, I wanted to prepare something with them.  Cheese and grapes are a long-standing favorite of mine and if you know me you know I am an absolute sucker for appetizers and canapes.  If I ever have the pleasure of inviting you over, most likely I will serve you a platter of cheese, fruit, nuts, and honey as a starter.  I took this “habit” of mine and adapted it to the Coronation grape (an Ontario version of the Concord grape that is seedless).  I also used St. Agur blue cheese from France and made a sweet onion jam and walnuts all perched a top toasted sourdough baguette slices.  My husband wasn’t home when I made this and I had to stop myself from finishing the entire platter and save some for him.  Yes, these toasts were that good.

Coronation Grape Toasts with Onion Jam, Blue Cheese, and Walnuts

Serves 4, as an appetizer

Ingredients

4-6 ounces blue cheese, I used St. Agur, feel free to use Gorgonzola, Stilton, Maytag, or any favorite of yours

1 toasted sourdough baguette cut into 1/2 inch slices (I just throw the baguette into the oven during the last five minutes of the grapes cooking.)

1/2 cup whole walnuts, toasted (you can break them up to put on the toasts, if you wish)

for the grapes:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (good quality)

1 pound of Coronation grapes or Concord (seeded), keep the grapes in clusters-you should have about 3 clusters

1 teaspoon rosemary, chopped finely

a sprinkling of Maldon salt

fresh black pepper

for the onion jam:

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 large red onion, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons raw honey

salt and pepper to taste

Method

First, roast the grapes.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Place the grapes on a baking sheet, sprinkle over the rosemary, Maldon salt, black pepper, and drizzle over the olive oil.  Bake in the oven for 20 minutes or until the grapes just begin to ooze out their juices.

To make the onion jam, heat a sauté pan on medium heat and add the olive oil.  Once the olive oil begins to glisten add in the butter and onions.  Toss in some salt and pepper and lower the heat to medium-low.  Once the onion start to wilt down add in the red wine vinegar and honey, turn down the heat to low.  Allow the onions the caramelize for 30 minutes.  Set aside.

To assemble the toasts, take the sourdough slices and top with a mound of onion jam, a crumbling of blue cheese, a few walnuts and a drizzle on honey.

I love appetizer platters, so I set up everything as a kind of do it yourself station.  But, if you prefer you can pre-assemble the toasts, as you wish.

Pakistani street-foods are the ultimate in sweet, salty, and sour deliciousness.  I am a huge fan of chaat and when I miss the taste of chaat I usually opt for this version with potatoes and chickpeas.  In these hot summer months, it’s the perfect light snack.  The temperature is scorching hot and I feel so very lethargic that I just want to  make something easy.  I no longer have the patience to stand in front of the stove and sweat, even in air conditioning.

I last went to Pakistan for my wedding shopping, I haven’t been back since due to schedules and the like.  But, the thing I miss most, besides family, of course, is the street food.  My mom, my aunt, and I went crazy during my wedding shopping, getting my bridal dresses, jewelry, and the various other outfits.  Despite all the rush and chaos, we could calm down with a bowl of chaat practically everyday.  Sitting on a rickety chair with an even ricketier table at a street vendor, we would just relax with our chaat.  The scorching sun in the market, the pollution from traffic and rickshaws, the fan that was blowing around hot air didn’t even phase us.  It was our time to unwind.  Let me tell you, wedding preparations are stressful.

Now that I’m way beyond my newlywed days and back to reality, I have the responsibility of making the chaat.  As we have established before my husband is good for nothing in the kitchen.  Thankfully, chaat is simple and pantry-friendly.  I always have potatoes and chickpeas on hand.  I don’t think my household would run without them.  The tamarind chutney adds the right amount of tang.  I love tamarind, I love tamarind candies coated in chaat masala.  I am salivating just thinking about them.  (You can get similar candies in Mexican/Latin American grocery stores).  My chutney recipe isn’t 100% authentic because I make mine in 5 minutes.  The real version is slowly simmered on a stove all day and I haven’t learned how to make it yet.  My shortcut chutney is just fine for the time being.  Chaat is a nice departure from usual summer fare and could also be considered a salad of sorts.  You don’t even need to go to Pakistan to try it, but I must admit, even though mine is pretty tasty, it is not even close to Pakistani chaat.

Potato and Chickpea “Chaat” with Tamarind Chutney

Serves 3

Ingredients

2 cups cooked chickpeas

1-2 medium-sized potatoes, boiled until tender and then peeled and cut into a small dice

1/2 a medium-sized red onion, finely chopped

1 long green chili, finely chopped (seeds and ribs removed for less spicy)

1 tomato, finely chopped, optional

1/4 bunch of cilantro chopped (use as much as you like)

a few mint leaves, optional

chaat masala, (as much as you like, I like to add a lot, about 1 tablespoon, you can find it in Indian/Pakistani grocery stores, I use Shan brand)

for the Tamarind Chutney:

2 heaping teaspoons of tamarind paste

juice of 1 lime

1/2 teaspoon cumin powder

1 teaspoon chaat masala

1/4 teaspoon red chili powder (as much as you like)

1 tablespoon raw sugar

Method

First, make the chutney by combining all the ingredients for the chutney in a small saucepan on medium heat and melt the tamarind until it becomes liquidy, about 5 minutes.  If your chutney is thick, thin it out with some water.  Chill for an hour.

Next, combine all the ingredients for the chaat; the chickpeas, potatoes, red onion, green chili, tomatoes (optional), cilantro,  mint (optional), and chaat masala.  Check for salt.  I don’t add salt because the chaat masala already has it in it.  I got ahead of myself and mixed in the tamarind chutney with the chickpeas, usually I just drizzle some on top of the chickpeas.  If you would like you can mix the chutney in with the chickpeas as I did here.  Chill the chaat for an hour in the refrigerator.  Some people like to drizzle on thinned out yogurt on top as well.  Garnish with cilantro leaves and a sprinkling of chaat masala.

Chickpeas

You would think this fennel salad is perfect for a ladies’ luncheon or perhaps for a crowd that is not into heavy or decadent foods.  But no, I made it for a “boy’s night.”  My husband was quite excited to invite his boys over for as he put it, “burgers.”  I’m sure in his mind, burgers meant, burgers, fries, nachos, wings and all that sort of food.  Don’t get me wrong I love it all but, all that fried food together is overkill.

Yes, I made burgers, but tried to elevate to something beyond a product a local place called, Bubba’s produces.  With a name like that, you can just imagine.  My husband is going to be all, “Why are you hatin’ on Bubba’s, their poutine is the best!”  Boys will be boys, period.  I also made an appetizer platter (it’s not me without an appetizer platter), grilled harissa chicken, dried fruit and nut couscous, chili lime corn on the cob, the fennel salad, and for dessert, brownie pudding with whipped vanilla bean mascarpone.  As you can probably tell, the menu was entirely catered for me.  I don’t always pick things that are my taste, but I like to mess with my husband.

Usually when we have people over it’s, “the boys.”  “The boys” are my friends too, but I do miss the girly bonding that every girl needs.  I can hold my own amongst “the boys” and sometimes it’s better to hang out with boys because there’s none of that girly cattiness involved.  Not that any of my girl friends are catty, they all are sweet and nowhere near catty.  I must admit, my husband’s close friends are very nice and I’m glad he has friends like them.  I might have painted the picture that they are the screaming hockey loving, beer chugging neanderthal guys, but they are not.  I like to be a little dramatic.  Girls will be girls. ;)

Regarding the salad, it is fresh and super simple.  Fennel and grapefruit are a very common pairing and I enjoy the flavors together.  Sorry, I didn’t go out of the box too much here.  But what works, works.  I added the avocado simply because I loveeeee avocados.  I don’t think I can be real friends with anyone who doesn’t.  Yes, I’m judgmental like that.  (Totally kidding)  I added toasted pumpkin seeds for crunch.  The vinaigrette was typical me, everything in the mini food processor and whirled into a dressing.  I used dijon, herbs, garlic, and a little shallot in the dressing.  It came out yummy. No one missed the wings and nachos. Most importantly, “the boys” enjoyed the entire night and so did I.

Shaved Fennel, Grapefruit, Avocado Salad with a Dijon Shallot Vinaigrette

Serves 4-6 as a side

adapted from here

Ingredients

1 large bulb of fennel, shaved as thinly as possible (if you have a mandoline, use it,) reserve the fronds for garnish and the dressing

1 avocado, sliced

1 grapefruit, cut into supremes, membranes reserved for dressing

a scattering of baby arugula, about 2 cups

2 tablespoons toasted pumpkin seeds (toast on a dry frying pan on medium-low heat for about 5 minutes)

Maldon sea salt for sprinkling

black pepper, to taste

for the dressing:

1 small clove garlic

1/2 a small shallot

1/2 teaspoon country dijon, coarse ground

juice squeezed from the grapefruit membrane, if it is stingy, add a splash of orange juice

3-4 sprigs of chives

2 tablespoons fennel fronds

1 teaspoon agave nectar

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil of good quality

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Method

Combine all the ingredients for the dressing in a blender or food processor and run until combined.  Taste for salt and pepper and adjust accordingly.

In a bowl, toss the fennel with the dressing.  You may not need to use all of the dressing.  Arrange the fennel on a platter and top it with the avocado slices and grapefruit supremes.  Sprinkle the toasted pumpkin seeds over the salad.  Add extra dressing, if necessary.  Place some fennel fronds in an attractive manner over the salad.  Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, if desired.  Sprinkle on some extra black pepper and some Maldon sea salt at the end.  This salad can be kept in the refrigerator for a few hours before serving.  However, to keep the avocado from browning squeeze some lemon juice over them.

My younger sister and I are practically in constant contact.  She is half a world away from me in Dubai, but we use all forms of communication whether it is Blackberry messenger, MSN messenger, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail chat, and Skype to keep in touch.  Sometimes we have multiple conversations going on at the same time through these various messaging programs.  We are even known to chat with each other online while in the same room.  When we all come to my parents’ house we call our dining room table the “IT Center.”  My sister, my husband, my sister’s fiancé, my cousin, Henna, and myself all have our laptops open  on the table doing our own thing and also chatting with each other.  If anyone else ever walked in, I’m sure they would think we were not completely “normal.”

The reason I mention these vast forms of communication is because my sister has been asking me to make a Middle Eastern platter, so my husband and I can eat the same sorts of things she is enjoying in Dubai.  For the past few weeks, she has been messaging me about labneh (thickened yogurt cheese) and if I bought it yet.  My answer is always no, because I can’t get any in Kingston.  So, she told me to make it.  My attempt to make it failed miserably, because I went to the only kitchen supply store in Kingston to get  cheesecloth to drain the water out of yogurt and they were sold out and would not be getting any more for two weeks.  I told her this and she was quite upset.  As you can see, we are extremely passionate about food.

Shanklish Cheese- a semi soft sheep's milk cheese popular in Syria and Lebanon. The cheese balls are rolled in sumac, chili, oregano, and spices.

The first thing we ask each other everyday is what did you eat so far today.  Notice, the “so far” because we are never really done eating.  You can imagine my sister’s joy when I told her we were going to Toronto for the weekend.  The first thing she said was if I was going get the things for the Middle Eastern platter.  I got reminder after reminder, just in case I could ever forget.  My husband tells me to shut the sound off on the BB because of all the alerts I get from my sister’s chats.  When I finally was able to go to the Middle Eastern market, I was on BBM with my sister.  Mind you, I am not the type of person who is constantly on my BB, it’s not even mine, it’s my husband’s and I borrow it when I want to talk to my sister.  I actually get annoyed when people are out with you and spending more time with their phone than you.  Eating my own words, I became that person in the Middle Eastern Market.  I wasn’t paying attention to anyone around me and just in search of what my sister was telling me to get.

I love Middle Eastern food, so I enjoyed this “quest .”   I have not travelled extensively in the Middle East, only to Egypt and the UAE, though I would love to. I went to Dubai recently and the food there was just amazing.  Ever since my return from Dubai, I have been hooked on it.  My husband also grew up in Saudi Arabia, so he has the taste for Middle Eastern food as well.

As I mazed through the market, I filled my cart with all sorts of different foods.  I stocked up because some things are hard for me to find here.  My sister, half way across the world was content with my purchases and satisfied with the incognito pictures I was taking of the cheeses, olives, nuts, and sweets.

The thing I love about this food is that it is fresh and easy.  I didn’t do much cooking at all, it was all just assembly.  A platter like this is fun to serve as an appetizer when you have people over because it is like a bounty of food in the middle of the table for everyone to share.  Individually plated formal dinners can be nice too, but there’s nothing like breaking bread together and enjoying fresh delicious food.

Middle Eastern Platter

There are no set rules here.  Use whatever you suits your taste-buds  This time I used a bunch of radishes, Lebanese cucumbers, mint, tomatoes, lemons for squeezing, grilled sujuk sausages, labneh topped with za’atar olive oil and pine nuts, Lebanese black olives, shanklish rolled in thyme, sumac, and oregano, crusty grilled bread drizzled with olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Other options could include herb roasted nuts, dried fruits such as apricots and dates, phyllo pastries, hummus and other dips, salads such as fattouch, tabouleh, halloumi cheese, manakeesh, roasted vegetables, mixed greens.

Use a large platter and bunch the different items together in clusters and arrange everything in an attractive manner.  Let it be messy and organic.  I do not like a platter to look too perfect.

A few days ago, I was thinking about things I have learned to make since I got married.  Getting married improved my cooking repertoire substantially.  I always loved cooking, but was too busy as a student to really dive in and explore a lot of new dishes.  My husband’s taste buds sometimes dictate what I cook as well.  I admit, I am more domineering in the food side of things, so usually what I say goes!  That’s the way it should be, right girls?  Also, my husband has not cooked a meal for me even once!  Can you believe that?  Shame on him!  If I do not want to cook we go out or order something.  Never once will he offer to make something.  Not that I mind it on a daily basis, but sometimes a girl does not want to see the kitchen.  Recently, he was away on electives and had to cook for himself.  Can you guess know what he made?  His infamous chicken breasts, baked with salt, pepper, and zucchini in a foil pouch.  Wow, how utterly creative!

Okay, enough with the husband bashing (he really does not deserve it), this was supposed to be another tribute to his taste buds but somehow I got sidetracked.  During the past two Ramadans (Islamic month of fasting) I have made Pakoras everyday, I never really made them before I got married.  My husband, being a creature of habit needs to have pakoras to open his fast.  We are not particularly religious, although we do try to do the basics, I more than him.  But, in Ramadan we try to fast as much as possible.  It is a spiritual cleansing and makes us remember all we have been given.

It is a spiritual cleansing, NOT a physical cleaning.  Us Pakistanis open our fasts with the most artery clogging dishes possible.  Pakoras, samosas, lentil fritters swimming in yogurt, puff pastry patties, fried potato cutlets are usually on the tables in most Pakistani households at the opening of the fast.  Yes, there are the afterthoughts of fruit salad and dates in the corner.  But, after fasting all day most people jump for the fried foods.  I try to steer away from this habit.  Give me the fruit and a date and then afterwards I’ll eat a normal healthy dinner.

Despite my eating habits, I still make Pakoras for my husband and maybe an occasional one for myself, shhhhhh.  I have perfected them and although he likes them dipped almost like vegetable tempura, I make them with everything in the batter.  It’s easier and in my opinion tastier.  My mother told me to add yogurt to the batter because it makes them fluffier, but that is entirely optional. Pakoras are not only reserved for Ramadan, that is why I felt like making them today, on some random April day.  I must admit they are delicious and I do devour them when I go to Pakistan, where I do not gain weight from eating all these fried foods, but that is a story for another day.  In Lahore, the best pakoras are available in Liberty Market.

Pakoras: Chickpea Flour Fritters with Spinach, Red Onion, and Potatoes

Makes about 12

Ingredients

3/4 cup chickpea/gram flour (besan)

water (enough to form a thick batter)

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds

1/4 teaspoon carom seeds (ajwain)

1/2 teaspoon red chili powder

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon chaat masala powder, available in Indian/Pakistani grocery stores

1 heaping tablespoon of plain yogurt, optional

1 cup packed baby spinach, coarsely chopped

1 small potato, cut into thin matchstick pieces

1 small red onion, sliced as thin as possible

handful of cilantro, chopped

1 thin long green chili, minced finely

vegetable oil, for frying

Method

In a mortar and pestle crush together the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and carom seeds.  Leave them coarse.  In a bowl mix together the chickpea flour, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, carom seeds, red chili powder, chat masala, and salt.  Add in the water slowly until the ingredients form a batter, similar to a slightly thick pancake batter.  Add in the yogurt and mix.  Next toss in the spinach, onion, potato, cilantro, and green chili.  Heat a pan with oil, I like to shallow fry the Pakoras, if you wish, you can deep fry them.  Add heaping tablespoon-fulls of batter into the heated oil and cook on medium to medium low heat until they are golden brown on each side, about 3-4 minutes per side.  Make sure the batter and the vegetables inside are fully cooked before serving.  When cooked, drain on a plate lined with paper towel.  Sprinkle with some extra salt and chaat masala.  Eat them fresh, they do not taste as good if they are not hot.  You can serve the Pakoras with tamarind-date chutney, green chutney, or even chili garlic ketchup.

Cheese strikes, yet again.  I love it when I make something and people love it and rave about it.  I especially love it when what I made was simple and easy.  I sometimes get insecure about making things that do not take a lot of time for guests.  Will they judge me because I made something that took me literally five minutes to make.  Me and my hang-ups, difficult to understand for my husband some.  I mentioned this before, I like guests to feel welcome and enjoy the experience of coming over, and part of this includes good food.

In Rhode Island, I helped my parents throw a party for their friends.  Party planning is something that gives me a high.  (On a small scale, large 500 guest parties might cause me to go over the edge, but that’s another story.)  The non-stop action and preparations that are required for a party are thrilling as well as terrifying.  To ease this extreme range of emotions, it is important to have a few tricks up your sleeve.  (Wow, I said a few tricks up your sleeve, am I becoming cliche!?)

Baked Feta definitely qualifies as a crowd pleaser.  The night of the party, it was a big hit and was the first starter to be wiped clean.  Some people do not love cheese in the same way as I do (my husband grrrr, though I must admit he has come a LONG way).  But, even people who do not share in my enthusiasm for cheese enjoy this Baked Feta.  Feta is known to have a salty pungency, but the baking process really mellows it out.  I use a sheep’s or goat’s milk feta of good quality because I have tried this with average supermarket feta and it does not have the same consistency or smoothness.  The sundried tomatoes, and nuts, capers, and thyme ooze together in perfect unison.  I also add a drizzle of honey to cut the saltiness and though most could not discern the honey in the baked feta, they could certainly notice its absence if I did not include it.  The honey and almonds caramelize together, almost forming a candied crunch on top.  Enjoy this with some crusty bread, Greek pita, or crackers.

Baked Feta with Sundried Tomatoes, Almonds, Capers, and Thyme

Serves 6 (as a starter)

Ingredients

10 ounces of food quality Feta, sliced into 1/4″ thickness

1/2 cup sundried tomatoes in oil, julienned

2 tablespoons sliced almonds

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed

10 springs of thyme, left whole

2 tablespoons honey

2-3 tablespoons good quality extra-virgin olive oil

juice of half a lemon

black pepper, to taste

Method

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Use a quiche dish and lay the feta slice son the bottom and assemble the sundried tomatoes, almonds, capers, and thyme on top in an attractive way.  Drizzle with the honey, extra-virgin olive oil, and the lemon juice.  Add a few cranks of freshly ground pepper over the top.  Bake the dish in the oven for about 15 minutes or until bubbly and oozing.  Switch the oven to broil for about a minute, stay near the oven because the thyme can burn easily.  Remove from the oven and serve hot with warmed Greek pita.

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