Wednesday, June 24, 2009

You Need Baklava

Back when the Econopolypse was still just a suspicion in the mind of the grim, I remember hearing this anecdote on a Serious News Radio program.

"The United States is like a rich man on a desert island. Other countries- China, India, the developing world- are the people on the desert island, bringing the rich man food, drink, other goods. The problem is that the people working for the rich man can't stop working, and the rich man can't stop eating."

I remember when I first heard this analogy, I pounded the roof of my car with my fist and screamed, "ARE YOU EVEN LISTENING TO YOURSELF!?". Looking at it dispassionately, there is no way a functional human can make that analysis in sound mind and still manage basic potty functions. If China already makes goods it does not need to pay for them. The status quo is functional for China. If the U.S. does not have goods it is stuck. The status quo is not functional for the fat man. You can not actually eat your own debt. I chalked up the lack of analyst consciousness to blackberries and iPhone porn. The economist was probably glued to his internet appliance during the interview, Latvian teenagers dancing in his head.

Do you know what is almost as good as Latvian teenagers? Baklava. In my advancing age I would argue that baklava might actually be better than Latvian teenagers. Baklava does not make 3 A.M. calls to Братва handlers after it walks out on you, nor does it steal all your stuff or invite its violent alcoholic relatives to camp out in your living room for months at a time. Its only job is to be cooked and eaten and to make you happy.

The key to baklava is phyllo dough. I've never made it from scratch and have no desire to. It comes rather cheaply from the freezer section in the local supermarket, from the same area as the frozen fruits and pie doughs. The thing you do need to do is follow the thawing instructions precisely. The stuff is hard to work with in the best of circumstances. If it is thawed too little it will break and shatter as you handle it. If it is thawed too much it will mush apart when handled. Follow the thawing instructions precisely, and if you have to take a break from working with it, cover it as instructed or it will dry out and become brittle in minutes. That said, once you get the groove of the stuff, it's a rewarding tool to have in the freezer; salmon, sausage, and other meats love to get wrapped up in the stuff (who wouldn't?), and with not a lot of extra work spanikopita and even pizza rolls are cheap and easy (although I prefer to make my own shortbread dough for homemade pizza rolls). Anyway, end of phyllo sermon.

In a pot, put 2/3 cup water, 2 cups sugar, the juice from 1 lemon and 1 orange, a teaspoon of cinnamon. Dump in the fruit halves you just juiced, as well. Bring to boil, stirring, until everything dissolves. Stir in 1 cup honey until incorporated. Strain out solids and allow to cool.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In the bowl of your food processor, put 3.25 cups almonds, 2.25 cups walnuts, 1 cup sugar, 1 tbsp cinnamon, 2 tsp nutmeg, .25 tsp ground clove, and .25 tsp salt. Whir until the nuts are finely chopped, but stop whirring or they'll turn into flour. If you do accidentally get the spiced nut flour, you can still make your baklava, it'll just be incredibly dense. It's a forgiving recipe in some ways. It's just the phyllo that's a tricky bitch. It's the culinary equivalent of the stripper that set your motorcycle on fire with the cops goddamn watching from like a block away.

Melt a stick or two of butter in a little saucepan under low heat. Get out your fine bristled brush, and brush down a 13x9 inch Pyrex or similar baking dish with the butter.

There is a lot of butter in this recipe. You might need more butter, you might not. I always make sure I have a pound on hand before I start baklava; you can melt some more if you need to. Interestingly enough, I've also made baklava with good old fashioned vegetable shortening. It doesn't brown up as much in the oven, but it is a mite bit crispier. I prefer butter.

With the package of phyllo perfectly thawed, as per instructions, gently lift up a single sheet of phyllo and lay it down in the buttered baking dish. Try to achieve coverage. Once it's down, brush it with butter until transparent (or as close as you can get). Lay down another layer of phyllo, brush. Don't get frustrated if a layer or two isn't as pretty as you like. There's a lot of layers, so as long as the average is good, you're doing fine. The corners and edges of the phyllo probably won't fit exactly into the pan, but that's okay. Just sort of wedge them down with the butter brush, soaking them with butter in the process. It results in a somewhat higher phyllo-to-nut ratio around the edges of the dish, but some people seem to like that.

Repeat this process until you've put down ten sheets of phyllo. Put down a third of the nut mixture, then ten more sheets of phyllo, then another third of the nut mixture, then another ten sheets, then the final third of the nuts and the last ten sheets of phyllo. Have a big drink while you chill the baklava a bit to facilitate the cutting.

We cut baklava before it is cooked because it would be a holy mess and a suicidally depressing tragedy to ruin so much careful work if you tried to cut it after it was cooked. Now that it is cooled somewhat, take the sharpest knife you own (a straight razor would be awesome here), and cut into 16 rectangles. The official recipe says to cut these into triangles, but I've only just been able to do the rectangles. If a piece is too big for someone then they can share, dammit. Make sure to cut all the way through to the bottom.

Slide the baklava into the oven and bake until deep golden brown, 50 minutes to 1 hour. Pull it from the oven and allow it to cool, then pour the syrup you made in all the cuts. It might seem like too much, but the nuts will pull that syrup in and sweeten the pastry.

Try not to cover this thing with anything impermeable- it will make the layers not as crisp as they'd be otherwise. Same can be said about chilling. Takes the crunch right out. Same can be said for freezing. It will freeze and be quite good afterwards, you just won't cry after eating it like you did the first time.

A nice slice of baklava is pretty fine with some good vanilla ice cream.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Stories from Galina

“Wouldn’t it be dreadful if some day in our own world, at home, men started going wild inside like the animals here, and still looked like men, so you’d never know which were which?”
Lucy in Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis, 1951
Displaced persons camps after war not always safe. Safer than prison camp where Papa was, putting him in farm work camp where he not know which end of carrot goes in ground, but not safe. You have to watch (Grandma makes shush-ing motion with one finger against her lips). One day, English officer come in, calls all the kadets and so. Reads names, and those who hear names smile and say, hooray, the English come to take us. They step forward and are taken off- but they are given to Communist man who-poo- off to Siberia. My brother, one of these.
We saw many different Germans in Yugoslavia. Many different ones. One in the camp was SS man (Grandma gives a stern, slit-eyed SS officer look), and he was always looking for kollaborator. Others different, one, a German officer, Schafenhammer (sp?) I saved. I tell you. He always watching for us, making sure we had spek and vegetables, same as his men. We and others, all the men over fifty- other men go to front- we work in cartographers. Once we make him little card, has him with his great coat, and all of us huddled underneath. Over the drawing we write papushka, because he always was watching for us. Anyway, one day, we were all there in Belgrade, and we can already hear the Russian boo-boom. Papushka grabs us and then, long way, to Austria, and then we are in displaced persons camp. Papushka they take for trial. Later he writes and asks for any good thing I can say about him, or else they hang him or worse-poo-off to Siberia. I write letter and you know, years later, I get letter, him saying thank you. Papushka got enough good said about him he was safe through trial. I have picture of him, in his big coat with us. His daughter committed suicide, they say.
So many things were changing. The prince, some says is going to overthrow. Some say prince is going to be killed.
Suddenly they say Germans are coming. A great man on horseback comes through the town, waving his sword, his horse in the fountain. We are going against the Germans! We never see him or the soldiers with him again.
The next night we hear big engines and Stuka. Next morning, here, there, some buildings gone. Here, there, big tanks, Germans in them in big coats. Sprecht du Deutsch? Ja, Ja, I say. Here my languages are very handy.
But with Germans is very clear. Partisans shoot the German soldier, they take list of ten names. Who shoots the German soldier? they ask. If no one says, they shoot the ten names.
Talking with Gramma Galina is always interesting. She is a very special lady. She listens and speaks with equal interest, an uncommon quality in people a third her age. It is interesting hearing her first hand accounts of wartime in Yugoslavia and comparing against my far less detailed overview. -Ed.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fallin, Fallin, Falafelin in Love

You can buy the box mix but when you're feeding a bunch of people it is laughably expensive to buy a crapload of falafel mix. This recipe feeds eight people for ten bucks, and is a bit better tasting.

Take a 1 lb bag of garbanzo beans and put in a pot of water overnight. Next morning, drain the garbanzos and put them in a food processor. Whir until it's a mealy paste. Put the mealy paste back into the pot (why dirty another dish?). Trim the stems off a bunch of parsley and a bunch of cilantro (when I say "a bunch" I mean about 9 tbsp minced each, which is about the same as the bunches they sell at the supermarket). Put the greenery in the bowl of the food processor with 1.5 onions, 4 tsp salt, 2 tsp red pepper flakes, 12 cloves garlic, 3 tsp cumin, and 3 tsp baking powder. Whir until pureed. Mix the herbage paste with the garbanzo meal. Thicken with flour until it is able to be formed into small 1" balls (about 1.25 cups flour). Proceed to make lots of little 1" balls. This is going to take some counter space. I recommend putting some saran wrap on some cookie sheets and using those as a falafel-forming-and-staging area.

Take a quart of canola oil and heat in a pot until a drop of water crackles in it. Carefully plop in six or so falafel balls at a time and deep-fry until dark brown. Take them out with a slotted spoon and place in serving receptacle.

A word about frying falafel. These little guys are not so durable when they're first dropped in. They'll sink immediately to the bottom and, if left there, will char on the bottom where they are in contact with the metal. At the same time, if you agitate them right when you put them in they'll fall apart and you'll just have amorphous masses of falafel matter. The trick is to plop them in, let them develop a hardy crust (about 15-30 seconds), then gently pop them off the bottom with a metal slotted spoon. By that time the proteins and starch on the bottom will have begun to loosen its grip on the metal of the pot, and the crust around the balls will be tough enough to take a little prodding. Once so popped, they will then sort of float around in the oil and you can proceed to cook them to dark brown.

Serve with middle eastern style accompaniments, like pseudorissa, sort-of-anchoiade, tsatsiki, and hummus. Some chopped up tomatoes, feta cheese, red onions, and bell peppers are nice too. If you get pita bread for God's sake get it from a middle eastern bakery. The Tofuyan brand pita from the supermarket is horrible and probably deserves a death fatwa from the Foodie Ayatollah, if such a thing were to exist.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Smokin Chipotle Hummus

Until I met middle eastern cuisine, the skills I learned in the restaurant business were enough to get me by in the private kitchen. Searing, grilling, baking, sauces, frying . . no hot line skill would make a bowl of hummus. Thus hummus was the first recipe I researched, and have continued improving and adjusting depending on what I have on hand and the tastes of my guests. I personally believe the tahini-rich recipes yields a tastier, creamier product, while my wife prefers lighter, somewhat grainier hummus with less or no tahini. I'm gun-shy of the low-tahini recipes, I admit. My worst batches of hummus are the ones where I screw with the tahini ratio. I drop the tahini, the lemon flavor leaps to the forefront, then I start feebly compensating with salt, cumin, and sugar, and then I end up with Saladin's Revenge. Which is still good, just not great.

When my wife requested chipotle-flavored hummus I didn't want to take any chances and went with the normal tahini ratio recipe, which is what I show here. I was pretty happy with the results, but for those of you that dislike tahini, feel free to tinker with the recipe as needed, at your peril. The sequence of ingredients is, however, important. If you ignore everything else about this recipe just remember to not thrash the olive oil in the food processor. Add your extra virgin at the end.

Put a can of garbanzo beans, 2 cloves garlic, 1/2 tsp cumin, 1/2 tsp salt, and a whole chipotle in the bowl of your handy dandy food processor. You can do this with the eensy weensy food processor but it's a lot faster and generally better if you haul out the big one for this. Er, I mean, if you live in a house with two food processors.

As previously mentioned in this blog, canned chipotles en adobo are available in the ethnic section and at least one can should live in your pantry at all times. If you want more fire crank it up to two chipotles. I think that would drive this dish around the corner of Cuisine and Sadomasochism, but hey, whatever floats your boat. If you don't have canned chipotles, you poor, poor person, you, toss in a few shakes of cayenne.

Whir the flavorants with the garbanzos until there's no large bits. Add 1/4 cup water and 3 tbsp lemon juice, whir until smooth. Add 6 tbsp tahini, whir until incorporated. Add 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, pulse a couple of times just to get it incorporated. Remember that extra-virgin olive oil has some fragile fruit compounds suspended in the oil that will oxidize heavily if they are hit too hard with the food processor, making nasty bitter oil. So just pulse a couple of times to get the oil in there. If you're really shy of bitter oil (and I know I am), just swirl in the olive oil with a fork after the hummus arrives in its serving container.

Thow a few sprigs worth of chopped cilantro on top, if you have some handy.

Serve with crunchies.