Monday, March 20, 2006

Moroccan Masterpiece

I am inordinately proud of myself for making one of the most complicated dishes I have ever cooked in my life--bisteeya. This is a filo pie from Morocco that is traditionally made of squab, egg custard, and sugared almonds. I prepared it for the first meeting of the FIS Cooking Club, which was themed around Middle Eastern cuisine. By all accounts the dinner was a tremendous success, and all of us there are eagerly anticipating the next meeting, which will be the next school year. But more about the pastry. . .

I followed Paula Wolfert's recipe from her book Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. This author spent a significant amount of time in Morocco, researching and learning all that she could about the cuisine. Of the three books and countless websites that I consulted for versions of the recipe, hers was the most explicit and informative--the background history of bisteeya and other Moroccan pastries runs to five pages. As the recipe for bisteeya is about five pages (including helpful sketches), I will refer ambitious readers to Wolfert's book for the exact instructions for cooking and assembling this creation. I suppose, though, that you are interested in what I did, so here is an account of my adventures in the kitchen:

Friday night after working in the Inforum, I poached about 4 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs with finely chopped onion, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, and parsley (no, I did not buy squab, nor did I skulk the city sidewalks to acquire the poultry). I cooked it the Chinese way, which is to say that I brought almost 1 litre of water to a boil, put in all the ingredients, brought the mixture back to a boil, then shut off the heat, covered the pot, and left the entire thing to cook in my aunt's handy thermos cooking pot for 15 minutes, which was all the time needed for the chicken to cook. The chicken I then left to cool overnight. Oh, and I also toasted some sliced almonds, which were to go into the pie later.

On Saturday morning I took the chicken out of the broth and reduced it to half its volume. To this aromatic stock I added the zest and juice of a lemon and stirred in 9 beaten eggs, which I cooked over gentle heat until it thickened and scrambled a little.

The next step was to shred the chicken into pieces, and mix icing sugar and cinnamon with the toasted almonds. The three fillings now prepared, I clarified some unsalted butter. This was not so successful, as I discovered the microwave is not a good way to speed up the process (butter splatters dreadfully as it heats up), nor is it easy to pour off the butterfat while leaving behind the milk solids in the bowl, as this recipe (and others I've read) so breezily instruct cooks to do. So, I mopped up the split butter and mixed in some vegetable oil to make up the balance (which I'm sure is all right to do, since another bisteeya recipe suggested this mixture of fats).

Now all the fillings were ready, and the penultimate stage of the recipe was to spread all the fillings inside layers of filo. It was at this point that my cousin M. decided to get out of bed and come downstairs to the kitchen. I say her timing was impeccable, because I had already started (rather clumsily) lining my baking tin with the paper-thin, extremely delicate leaves of dough and tearing them in the process (how does one manage to get tears in the middle of a leaf of filo?). Thank goodness for her curiosity in my cooking experiments and her willingness to help, for it only took one hour to assemble two bisteeya with her help.

Really, working with filo is not that difficult, even though the dough tears and dries out easily, because you would never use just one leaf of dough, so subsequent leaves can always be strategically layered on top of tears and liberally brushed with butter, the fat that hides all mistakes. M. and I alternated between peeling off leaves of filo from the stack I had covered with a damp towel and layering it into an 8-inch square pan and a 9-inch springrform pan. In retrospect, it was a good idea to work on one pie at a time, but I should have divided all the fillings first instead of estimating when I had used half, as the second pie was not as full as the first (oh well).

After laying down a base of filo leaves, the first filling to go in was the shredded chicken; the next was a layer of creamy scrambled egg, which I will probably cook even less the next time I make this pie. Following the chicken and egg was a layer of crisped filo leaves (I simply baked four leaves until they were delicately brittle and golden), over which we sprinkled a generous layer of sugared almonds. The last step was to fold the overhanding leaves of pastry back over the pie fillings and cover the top with a few leaves of filo to produce a smooth top. Everything was freely brushed with melted butter--and in this aspect of Middle Eastern cooking mythology, it does not take pounds and pounds of butter to properly prepare filo pastry. I had about three quarters of a cup of melted butter and oil, and even after making two rather tall pies, I had a quarter cup leftover.

The last thing was to bake the pie, which I did later at R-E's house. A hot oven for about twenty-five minutes was enough to cook and crisp the filo and heat the filling. Finally, the traditional way to serve bisteeya is to generously sift icing sugar over the top and sprinkle lines of ground cinnamon in a criss-cross pattern over top.

And the taste? Magnificent! I know that a combination of savoury chicken, lemony herbed eggs, and sugared almonds sounds rather strange, but the flavours in combination blend harmoniously and complement each other very well. In fact, I would say that the sugar heightens rather than detracts from the subtler spice and herb flavours of the pie. Is this recipe worth the amount of labour and care that must be devoted to it? Most definitely.

Notes for next time:
  • I'll use either flaked almonds or chopped almonds, or a combination of both for more texture.
  • Granulated, rather than icing sugar mixed into the almonds would probably make the sweet almond layer inside the pie crunchier, and therefore contrast more against the creamy and flaky textures.
  • The egg mixture was too liquid for my liking--the stock needs to be reduced to a third its original volume and barely cooked so that I won't have the same problem of a soggy bottom layer of pastry.
  • The base needs a few more leaves of filo to be really sturdy.

Friday, February 17, 2006

From Doubtful to Delicious

Well, my dubious lunch turned out to be a fairly tasty meal after all. I had packed lunch and dinner for today yesterday night, and although both dishes seemed like a good idea at the time (coucscous with apricots and yogourt, and couscous with eggplant), when I looked at the couscous this morning it seemed unbearably bland and dreary and I realized that the eggplant that my wonderful aunt and uncle had made was actually not fully cooked (the onion and garlic were still that slightly opaque colour of white that indicates rawness and the eggplant was spongy and white, also a sign of rawness--quite, quite indigestible). It was clear that I had nothing to enjoy in either of my two meals today. . .

So, I bought a roasted vegetable sandwich for breakfast-lunch*--a ciabatta bun filled with a few rounds of zucchini, some strips of red pepper, and a few branches of cauliflower, bound together by some mozzarella cheese, and grilled. It had potential, but I would have preferred a little more moisture and flavour in the sandwich (Tapenade? Pesto? Even mustard would have been good). I thought I would save the other two meals for later, when I would be too hungry to be particular about taste and presentation . . .

Turn ahead now a few hours, to the point where I have eaten up the dubious lunch for my dinner. I must say that for a spontaneously-thrown-together dish it was very good. All I didlast night was to measure out some instant couscous into a bowl, put in some diced dried Turkish apricots, add a good pinch of salt, a squiggle of honey, and hot water that equaled a little more than the volume of couscous (i.e. 1/3 cup and say, 2 tablespoons). After a sprinkle of cinnamon, this dish was put into the fridge until this morning when I doubtfully spooned some plain yogourt over it and hurried off. I left it for most of the day in the refrigerator, so most of the liquid in the yogourt had been absorbed by the couscous and apricots by the time I came to eat it, the dish presenting itself as a bowl of slightly compressed couscous and apricots with yogourt that was akin to mascarpone cheese in texture. To my surprise, the first experimental bite proved that the combination was tasty: gently granular couscous blended with moist, slightly tart yet sweet apricots, and thick, tangy yogourt with the faintest hint of cinnamon behind it all. Topped with some crumbled walnuts I had stashed in the refrigerator, the couscous was even better--the crunchy texture and nutty flavour melded so nicely with everything else.

And here I conclude with the ways in which I think the couscous could be improved:
  • Infuse a little water with cinnamon and cardomom (either sprinkle the ground spices over some hot water [if you are rushed] or bring a small pot of water to the boil with the spices in it.
  • Put the diced dried apricots into the hot water first so that they do not compete with the couscous for liquid. It would be even better to put the apricots into the water that you infuse with the whole spices.
  • Try other dried fruit and nut combinations: figs, dried cherries, pistachios, almonds. . .
I suspect that this dish would have been even more delicious if I had eaten it freshly made: hot couscous and apricots, cool yogourt flowing around the pasta and fruit, and chopped nuts sprinkled over top so that they remain crunchy. Of course, even straight from the refrigerator this recipe tastes good, making it a worthy candidate for a packed meal.

* In other words, I missed breakfast and ate an early lunch, but because this was unintentional, I do not call it "brunch" (which is a fraught word in the culinary world anyway).

Monday, February 06, 2006

On eating food

Okay. I’ve been making myself rather miserable for the past two days from thinking deeply about the state of the world’s food in the 21st century. After the tea on Wednesday, I was chatting with S., L., and K. about vegetarianism, veganism and issues concerning food supply. K. said that the “tax break” for food producers actually goes to the corporations and not the farmers, which surprised L. I was thinking a lot about why people become vegetarians; there seems to be so many more reasons now, when it used to be a matter of religion that you did not eat meat. L said that she doesn’t eat meat because she doesn’t like it, and also because she feels strongly about the meat industry. Although S. didn’t say, I think she’s vegan for similar ethical reasons, but I’m not sure. Anyway, I started to despair, as if eating meat were a selfish and barbaric thing to do.

We were talking about how farming is so tough and profit is now the driving force behind food production. I learned a lot about the industry that I never knew before, and my, does it sadden me. S. told me that one big, big corporation that manufactures products for both ends of the food cycle more or less forces farmers to buy terminal seeds rather than normal seeds (which can be collected at the end of the season to be planted the next year), so that they must continue to buy from the corp. Argh! This and other practices that ensure food monopolies by the corporations make me feel so angry and so helpless. Did you know, L. asked, that “they” are going to raze some of the rainforests in Borneo to grow oil palms? I had no idea, but guessed that oil palms are a ready cash crop and make the rainforest a justified sacrifice.

Meat, too is problematic: in the interests of making meat cheap and accessible, hormones and other drugs are fed to animals, which are crammed into cages/pens and expected to do nothing but engorge themselves and become massive. I think particularly of pork, which in North America has become leaner and consequently more flavourless over the decades, and especially chicken. Have you ever eaten chicken in another part of the world? I’ve noticed that compared to chicken I’ve eaten in Asia (for example), North American chicken tastes like. . . nothing. Actually, no—it tastes rank, like the smell of the butcher’s shop or the meat aisle at the supermarket. I really don’t like it and hate how “juicy,” that is, watery, chicken is. I said to L. the next day that I think the reason why it’s easy to become veggie in North America is because meat here is either tasteless or has a flavour reminiscent of stale raw meat (you know how meat that’s been packaged for a few days before it gets cooked smells? That’s the flavour I’m talking about). While I enjoy meat when I eat it, thinking about where it comes from and how it was processed makes me feel ill sometimes.

I suppose its my pessimism that makes me believe I can’t make a significant difference, but what alternatives are there to growing mutant but profitable foods, filling the purses of the executives and eating up the environment so that the whole world can feast on cheap, picture-perfect food? I’m aware there are alternatives, but what? How can consumers really be effective? I’m sceptical of consumer power and find it hard to believe that each person’s purchases will aggregate into a message to the consumers that food that has its nutrients stripped in the name of profitability and quantity is not desirable. Let me tell, I have been depressed about this.

Branding soymilk?

Soymilk—did you ever notice that there appear to be two demographics for soymilk? What I mean by this is that when I go to T & T, the asian supermarket, my family will always buy the “Chinese” brand of soy milk, Sunrise for choice (my uncle says they make the smoothest and best tasting soy milk of all the brands, and I agree). However, if you look around the refrigerated food section, you’ll probably notice that there are other “Westerners” brands of soy milk, including So Good, So Nice, and Silk. Peer into people’s carts, and you’ll likely notice that the Asian shoppers have only the Chinese brands in their carts, such as Sunrise. Caucasian shoppers, on the other hand, tend to have the other brands and will pick up flavoured soymilk (chocolate, anyone?). Is it mere coincidence that there is an “ethnic” division in the brand of soymilk? Something can be said, I believe, about tastes and expectations when it comes to soymilk; while you are buying essentially the same thing no matter what kind of carton it comes in, brands such as So Good and So Nice are clearly targeted towards a non-asian consumer, while something like Sunrise is predominantly drunk by Asians. Look at the packaging, for instance; the Western soymilk comes in colourful cartons with labelling in English. To me, the packing style is reminiscent of milk packaging. On the other hand, Asian soymilk is much simpler, featuring only text in Chinese and English and no images. Could the reason why Westerners don’t buy the Asian brands be a taste issue, my friends suggested. S. and L. pointed out that for many non-Asians the flavour of soymilk can be off-putting; L. says that she often buys chocolate-flavoured soymilk because its easier to drink. I do agree, the Asian brands taste more “beany” than the Western brands, which I find have quite a cooked flavour like evaporated milk. Well, I see the point and perhaps familiar packaging and different flavours make soymilk more palatable and appealing to those who did not grow up drinking soymilk. S. pointed out the organic factor as a reason for many Westerners choosing something like So Nice over other brands. Are Asian people less concerned about food being organic? In my very small range of experience, organic groceries are certainly not as important to Chinese people as to Caucasian people.

What I see evinced in the grocery store is the division between soymilk as an ordinary staple to Asians, and as a healthier alternative to milk to non-Asians, hence the packaging and advertisements for the Western brands (Asian brands are marketed to Asians differently, in that other aspects of the beverage are emphasised). Isn’t it interesting, though, that a food product is marketed in two distinct ways for two different consumer types? Maybe this is because where I live is ethnically diverse, and people tend to be quite familiar with other ethnic cultures and cuisines, so I wonder if others have noticed similar situations where one food has two consumer images.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Welcome to my blog!

After reading so many food-related blogs, I've been inspired to start one of my own, where I can write out my own musings about all things revolving around food. I suppose that starting my own blog would be a natural extension of my intense interest in food and other culinary matters combined with my love of literature and writing (not to mention a tendency to ruminate on things).

How can I explain my title? To begin, I wanted a name that would describe my focus and suggest a little about my food identity. Buttered toast is one of my favourite foods; everyday from the age of six to twelve, my breakfast consisted of two slices of golden brown toast. I still enjoy toast a lot and find that it inspires many meals; while I can't say that it represents my cooking "philosophy," buttered toast has informed my development as a culinary enthusiast. The other
part of my title, mantequilla, is really a matter of whimsy; mantequilla means "butter" in Spanish, and it is one of my favourite words in the language. And there you have it, the briefest distillation of my title, and the end of my inaugural blog entry. Enjoy!