Archive for the ‘Recipes’ Category

Strawberry Jam Empanadas

February 11, 2013

As a child, I looked forward to making empanadas with my mother because I was always welcome to take on small tasks in the creation process of these deliciously, sweet-filled pastries. My favorite part was helping my mother cover the empanadas in sugar and cinnamon once they were out of the oven because this meant that they were almost ready to eat. At this point, all that was left was to wait for them to further cool down. While I anxiously waited, I would consider cracking one open to facilitate the cooling process, but then I would quickly remind myself of the rewarding feeling that came with biting into a whole empanada. First, I could cover my lips with the sugar and cinnamon before biting into the delicately crumbling, textured bread, and finally coming across the sweet gooey strawberry jam with which my mom most often filled our empanadas. Empanadas taught me the value of patience!

While studying abroad in Argentina, I was surprised by the empanadas that were no longer a dessert, but creatively filled with meat, cheese or vegetables. It was my first time coming across such empanadas and I struggled with the idea of eating empanadas at the beginning of a meal. Not until I found Cumana Restaurant’s savory, but mouth-watering empanadas in Buenos Aires was I able to let go of my nervousness of eating something so similar yet opposite to what I was used to.

After my encounter with empanadas in Argentina, I was open to the idea that empanadas exist in different forms across the world. The songpyeon that I attempted to make several months ago also struck me as empanada-like, and I found comfort in approaching something so unfamiliar to me in the routine way that I would make empanadas with my mother. These half-moon rice cakes that were sticky and chewy on the outside with an inner delicate sweet bean paste ended up not having much in common with my empanadas, but I nonetheless found warmth and ease in relating this Korean dessert to empanadas.

Below is my mother’s recipe for Strawberry Jam filled Empanadas which makes slightly over 1 dozen empanadas. Please remember that you are welcome to fill the empanada with whatever you like.

Strawberry Jam Empanadas


2 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup  all vegetable shortening
5-7 tablespoons cold water
strawberry jam
¼ cup cinnamon
1 cup sugar

rolling pin
1 large bowl
1 small bowl
measuring cups
measuring spoons
plastic bag
baking pan

1) Mix 2 cups of flour with ½ teaspoon of salt in a large bowl.
2) Add 1 cup of all vegetable shortening to the bowl and mix.
3) While mixing the ingredients to make the dough, add 1 tablespoon at a time (out of the 5-7 tablespoons) of cold water to the bowl.
4) Knead the dough into a ball and place in a plastic bag.
5) Set this bag aside for 30 minutes.
6) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
7) After 30 minutes have passed, take the dough out of the bag.
8) Form a small ball that is about half the length and width of your palm.
9) Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough into a flat circle. It is okay if the circle is not perfectly round.
10) Add 1 tablespoon of strawberry jam to the middle upper half of the circle.
11) Fold the circle into a half moon shape by pulling the dough over.
12) Cut some of the dough off while leaving a border edge from the dough that is not filled with jam.
13) Press the border edge down lightly and with a fork press down to decorate the border.
14) Place your empanada on a greased pan.
15) Repeat steps 8 – 14 until you have used up all the dough.
16) Place pan in oven to bake for 35 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
17) Combine sugar and cinnamon in bowl, mix, and set aside.
18) Remove empanadas from the oven when they are a light golden brown and allow to cool for 5 minutes.
19) Roll empanadas in sugar and cinnamon mixture one at a time. Set aside to allow to cool for another 10 minutes.


Rice Memories and Meanings

January 14, 2013

I grew up eating rice only occasionally, and when my mother did make it, it was simple: one cup of rice with one cup of water, with half of a jalapeno thrown in. It was so unmemorable that I don’t even remember what we usually ate it with. I was exposed to your standard beans and rice, the rice that comes on the side of Mexican food, but it wasn’t until I moved to Washington, D.C., that I started to discover the magic of Persian and Afghani polows, Cuban Moros y Cristianos, and the delight of Teaism’s coconut rice pudding.

In the Middle East, rice often holds near mystical rank on the dinner table, where it can come as a simple staple, mounded around a whole roasted lamb, or jeweled with nuts, dried fruit, herbs and meat. Nearly every dish has a traditional rice side it is served with. A delicious Egyptian lunch of fried fish would not be complete without a side of rice prepared with onions and tomato paste.

In Iraq, rice can be an emotional subject. When you talk to Iraqi expatriates and refugees and about their home, the topic of Iraq’s aromatic, unique and sadly disappearing rice might come up. Ethnic strife, repeated wars, water politics and environmental degradation have combined to decimate Iraq’s agricultural production, forcing Iraqis to import rice from countries such as India, China and the United States. However, Iraqis never stop longing for the aromatic allure of Amber rice, grown in small quantities in the country’s south. Those from Mosul might speak of the large, dark grains of Naggaza rice, produced in the north.

My favorite Iraqi rice dish is Timman Bagila, or fava bean rice. Whenever I see fresh fava beans and dill at the farmers market I want to make this, though I rarely see them both at the same time. While living in Lebanon, I wrote a blog post featuring my own Timman Bagila recipe using lamb shanks. This dish is a bit of a process, but none of the steps are complicated or difficult. While not as traditional, using chicken thighs produces a bit lighter but just as tasty meal!

Timman Bagila with Chicken


1 12-ounce bag frozen fava beans (lima beans work too!)
pinch turmeric
2 pounds boneless chicken thighs
olive oil
2 cups basmati rice, rinsed and soaked in cold water (at least an hour)
1 medium white onion, diced
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup finely chopped fresh dill
1 lemon
2 cups hot chicken broth
toasted pine nuts or almonds (optional)

Serves 4-6.

1. Turn on your broiler, and position a rack about 8 inches below.

2. Bring a medium pot to a boil and cook fava beans with a pinch of turmeric, until the beans are soft enough to chew but not mushy. Drain the beans and set aside. Rinse out the pot — you can use it again to assemble and finish the dish.

3. Place the chicken thighs on a baking sheet and rub with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. When your broiler and oven are warm, place thighs in the oven for 12-15 minutes until cooked, turning them over about half way though. Remove from the oven and set aside.

4. While your chicken is cooking, heat a medium pot over medium heat and add drained rice, a tablespoon of salt and a pinch of turmeric. Pour in water to cover by half an inch, stir the pot, and bring to a boil. Cover the pot, and turn the heat to low. Cook for approximately 15 minutes, or until the rice has softened and most of the water is absorbed.

4. When you pull the chicken out of the oven, heat a large pan over medium heat with a tablespoon of olive oil. Add onions and a pinch of salt and sauté until translucent. Add  2 teaspoons of cinnamon and minced garlic, and stir to combine. Roughly chop the chicken, and add to the pan along with the lightly cooked fava beans and the chopped dill. Squeeze the lemon juice over the mixture, stir to combine, and cook for for 2-3 minutes, and turn off the heat. This is a good time to heat up your 2 cups of chicken broth- you can throw it in the microwave or heat it up on the stove.

5. Place the medium pot you rinsed and set aside earlier over medium-high heat, and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Let heat for about a minute, and evenly spread a scoop of  your parboiled rice in the pot- you want enough rice to cover the bottom. Let the rice cook for about 30 seconds- you are hoping this turns into a crust when the dish is done!

6. Add a scoop of your chicken/dill/fava bean mixture, followed by another scoop of rice, and then another scoop of your chicken mix. You want to form these layers into a bit of a pyramid- don’t smooth it out or pack the layers together. Continue this layering until you are out. With the back of your spoon make 4-5 tunnels down into the bottom of the rice layers, and pour in your hot chicken broth. When the liquid starts to bubble, cover the pot and turn the heat to low. After 20 minutes, check to see that the rice has absorbed the liquid and is cooked- if not, put the lid back on for 5 minutes and check again.

7. When you are ready to serve the dish, scoop it out onto a platter. Scrape out the pieces of crust on bottom and arrange on top of the rice. If you can’t get the crust out, fill your sink with a bit of cold water and hold the bottom of the pot in the water to help loosen the crust. I like to garnish the dish with some toasted pine nuts or almond slivers.

Kitchen Culture

November 29, 2012

I have been lucky enough to travel extensively throughout the Middle East and Europe, and many of my favorite memories involve getting to know other women while helping out in their kitchens. In Arab culture, if you are a guest and you offer to help, you are promptly rebuffed and told to relax. With a little perseverance, however, I learned that women in every country I have visited are extremely proud of the food that they make for their friends and families. Once I showed genuine interest in how they were preparing their food, I found my hosts were more than happy to teach me their recipes, techniques, and cultural cooking practices inscribed in them by their mothers, aunts and grandmothers.

When testing a recipe for galbi-tang, a Korean beef short rib soup, I asked Diane why the ribs were parboiled and not seared or broiled during their preparation. She stated that parboiling the ribs was a traditional step in Korean cooking in order to remove fat and blood from the ribs. This particular recipe actually calls for removing the ribs from the pot, rinsing the ribs and the pot, and then starting fresh with new water for the soup stock. Out of curiosity, I asked my best friend Claudia, a first generation Mexican-American, if her mother taught her to parboil meat. She stated that boiling was a significant part of meat preparation for many Mexican dishes, but that they skimmed the fat throughout the cooking process instead of removing and rinsing the meat.

In Lebanon, a nice family once invited me to their mountain home in the South for a weekend getaway from Beirut. The men hunted birds, and the women of the family prepared large and delicious traditional meals. While making one particular stew of dried beans and lamb shanks, the shanks were lightly parboiled before they were sautéed in spices and garlic. While parboiling is not a typical technique I have run across in Middle Eastern kitchens, in this particular case, the cook thought the sinewy and slightly fatty quality of the meat would be improved by parboiling. More typically, meat in Lebanese kitchens is washed repeatedly before cooking, and chicken is always rinsed multiple times with vinegar and lemon.

Braising is a more common technique in a typical Middle Eastern kitchen. Meat is browned in a mixture of spices (often dried and fresh), garlic, and onions, then water is added and the meat is cooked at a low simmer. One of my very favorite dishes is typical of Iraq, and a similar stew (often with the addition of honey) can be found in Moroccan cuisine. The below version is my own, modified from a recipe taught to me by a lovely Iraqi woman named Magda. You could substitute chicken or beef for the lamb, and experimenting with different dried fruits is always fun! I prefer to use bone-in meat, as it helps keep the meat moist over the long process of braising.

Sweet Lamb Stew

Serves 4-6


1 tablespoon canola or other neutral oil
1 medium white or yellow onion, diced
2 pounds bone in lamb shanks, cut in half lengthwise (if longer than 4 inches)
2 cloves garlic, minced
black pepper
2 tablespoons baharat (Middle Eastern Spice blend)
2 cups dried apricots
1 cup dried prunes
1 cup dried figs
~8-10 cups water
salt to taste
1/2 cup blanched almonds
1/2 cup sultanas (golden raisins)

In a pot large enough to hold the meat in a single layer, fry the onion in oil over medium heat until translucent. Add the lamb shanks and sauté until browned, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic, baharat and a few grinds of black pepper and cook a few minutes longer.

Pour eight to ten cups of water over the meat and onion mixture, making sure there is enough water to cover. Turn up the heat and bring pot to a boil. A fatty foam will rise to the top of the pot and start to come together. Skim this fat off and discard. When you are done skimming, cover the pot leaving the lid slightly ajar, and turn the heat down to a low simmer. You want the pot to be lightly bubbling, not violently roaring. Check the level of water as the pot simmers, adding a bit more water if the meat starts to become exposed. After an hour, check the meat – I like to cook this stew at least 2 hours, and 3 to 4 hours if I have time. You want the meat to be extremely tender.

When you feel the meat is close to ready, place the almonds in a pan and brown them over medium heat, shaking the pan to prevent burning. Add the sultanas, and cook together for a few minutes, then add both to the pot with the lamb and dried fruit. At this point I add about a teaspoon of salt, and taste the broth, and add more if necessary.

Serve this stew with basmati rice for a sweet-savory winter treat!

Roasted Chestnuts

November 9, 2012

It is my privilege to introduce Kim, an avid recipe tester and cookbook enthusiast. Having lived extensively in Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon, Kim loves to make Middle Eastern cuisine when she is not testing recipes for our cookbook. – Diane

Until recently, chestnuts were a figment of my wintertime imagination- a mysterious nut that was apparently roasted over an open fire, while someone named Jack Frost nipped at your nose. Strangely, it was not until I moved to Egypt that I first tasted chestnuts. When Cairo or the southern Nile villages cool off for their short winter, chestnuts get roasted in along the streets in hand-pushed carts, often accompanied by sweet potatoes or other tasty street snacks. Little old men in little wool caps yell out “Castana! Castana!” enticing passers by to sample their charred chestnuts, which are sold by the kilo straight off the fire.

When I moved to Lebanon many years later, I found chestnuts prepared in the same fashion. On many trips to Turkey I tossed the same piping hot chestnuts between my hands under the snow flurries of Istanbul, cherishing the warm, unique flesh held within an annoying casing of shell and husk. Today, when I was asked to test a raw chestnut salad dressed in peppery vinegar, I was intrigued by the concept of a chestnut being served as anything but a piping hot street treat.

Part of the fun of eating roasted chestnuts is trying to break through the charred shell only to be faced with removing the clingy husk. Sometimes, a chestnut miraculously and easily falls out of both, revealing shiny, brain shaped nutmeat. That fun challenge of peeling the charred chestnut is certainly missing while preparing bammuchim. Peeling a raw chestnut is not fun, but I persisted because the recipe promised me it would be worth it.

When I assembled the final salad: a mix of Korean chives, sliced chestnuts and cucumbers over a bed of thinly sliced Asian pears, I saw a new side of the chestnut. Maybe this salad tastes traditional and homey to a Korean, but to me, it was a new modern spin on the chestnut, revealing potential beyond the open fire and cold winter nights. The salad is bright, and the sharpness of the vinegary dressing pairs well with the slightly sweet crunch of the chestnuts and cucumbers. The green onions provide an herby freshness, and the flavorful Asian pears provide a nice contrast to the dish. I would love to serve this unique dish to friends and family and show them a different side of the chestnut.

To prepare chestnuts as they do in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey, choose fresh chestnuts that don’t have air between the shell and the meat. Slice an X into the shell, allowing room for the chestnuts to vent once they heat up. Place the chestnuts in a skillet over a medium high flame, and pour in ¼ cup water. Cover the skillet and bring the water to a boil, gently shaking the pan until the water evaporates. The shells of the chestnuts will start to blacken and crackle, but continue to shake the skillet until the shells are mostly charred. As soon as the chestnuts are cool enough to handle, peel off the shell and husk, and enjoy!

Mom’s Yams

October 22, 2012

My passion for cooking arises from the curiosity of learning about foods from other cultures and expanding my knowledge in order to improvise how I can complement other foods with those of my Mexican background. Last week, I tested Goguma-matang or candied sweet potatoes that reminded me of a Mexican dish; camotes is a classic that my mom makes often. This is because the diversity of this dish with its mushy potatoes, sweet golden flavor with a touch of cinnamon allows it to be a light dessert after a meal, a sweet snack before bedtime with a cup of milk, or just a simple anytime treat to satisfy that sweet tooth.

I called my mother to ask her for her recipe and I more than ever understood Diane and Grace’s goal in trying to put together a cook book; not an easy task, but definitely worth all the effort. You see, like many housewives, my mother easily spends more than half her day in the kitchen, cooking every day for our large family. Her experience no longer requires her to use measuring cups or keep track of how long something has been cooking for. It’s as simple as “When it’s done, it is done.” Therefore, while asking her for the recipe, I ran into the frustration of what happens every time I need a recipe: I have to stop her after each second to ask how much, how long, or simply how! Luckily, my mother happened to be making her camotes when I called her for the recipe, making it a lot easier to get more accurate guidance. I would like to share her recipe with you:

Los Camotes de Mamá de Maria

Los Camotes de Mamá (Mom’s Yams)
Serves 8

2 large piloncillos (you can substitute ¾ of a pack of brown sugar)
1 stick of cinnamon
2 cups of water
6 medium-sized yams

  1. Wash yams well.
  2. Cut the yams into thick pieces, about 2 inches wide, and leave the skin on. (My mom likes to cut the yams horizontally in large ovals.)
  3. Combine all ingredients (piloncillos, cinnamon, water and yams) into a medium-sized pot.
  4. Allow mixture to come to a boil.
  5. Lower the temperature to medium-low heat and cover with a lid.
  6. Cook for about 1.5 hours or until the potatoes are tender.
  7. Remove the lid and allow sugar to thicken by raising the temperature to medium high for about 10 minutes, but do not allow the sauce to become too sticky.

My mom’s fried chicken

December 21, 2007

1) Fried food is delicious. 2) Fried food is at its most delicious when it has just come out of the fryer.

These are two difficult truths, when one is eating fried food at home instead of a restaurant. It means the smell of hot oil and whatever has been fried can’t dissipate before the dinner guests arrive. It means that the cook will not be a gracious host when the dinner guests do arrive, because she will still be frying and frantic. The best way to deal with this problem is to only fry for those you love and who love you. These people will not care that you are still in an apron splattered with batter, they will not care that they will also smell like fried potatoes or chicken or codfish potato balls. Best of all, they will be willing to just stand around the stove and eat the hot little goodies with their fingers.

I know this is the best way because the best fried chicken I’ve had at home was last week with my mom, when we fried chicken wings on our portable stove and ate them right in the kitchen.

My father was out to dinner with his friends, and I wanted to learn how to make the dish I have loved my entire life. Our camp stove has never seen a campsite, but it is very useful at home when you want to avoid grease splatter all over your real stove. My mom laid out a bunch of newspapers on the kitchen table and placed her wok and the camp stove on top. She quickly made a crisp, raw salad for me, but we didn’t bother to set the table or make anything else. Instead, we focused on the chicken. She showed me every step and we sat together in the kitchen, alternating frying, eating, and laughing.

I don’t know if this is a particularly Korean way to fry chicken, as it’s different from the “Korean fried chicken” I had with my cousin. My mom couldn’t remember how or why she had started frying it this way, only that we all loved it. I think the key is that the chicken is seasoned with garlic, green onion, salt and pepper, before the potato starch batter is applied. Or it might be that my mom has always used wing meat and eating such small pieces makes it as addictive as popcorn. Maybe it’s just something I love because it’s from my childhood, as it’s quite simple and sometimes a bit greasy if we wait too long to eat. But when I bite into it fresh from the fryer, and my mouth is burning from the heat and the juices squirting from the meat, I can’t stop because it tastes so good.

I’m sorry the amounts and directions are so approximate; that’s the way my mom cooks.

2 lbs. chicken wings
1 T. chopped garlic
1 T. chopped green onion
1.5 t. salt
pepper to taste
1/2 T. sesame seed oil
1.5 cups of potato or sweet potato starch
corn oil

1. Prepare the chicken by removing excess fat and making small cuts in the chicken meat to help it cook faster.

2. Add garlic, green onion, salt, pepper, and sesame seed oil to the chicken. Let it sit for 30 minutes to an hour.

3. Prepare batter by adding water to potato starch. The batter should be slightly thick, like pancake batter. Add more starch or water as necessary.

4. Add the chicken to the batter and mix well. The batter will not completely cover the chicken and obscure its meat, though it will when cooked.

5. Heat oil for frying. The oil should be sufficient for the chicken to float in it. (My mom doesn’t bother with a thermometer, but it is important to wait until the oil is hot enough and not to use an oil like olive oil that will start to smoke before it gets hot enough. When I try this back in NY, I will definitely reread the oil section in Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking” and make sure my oil is at the right temperature.)

6. Once the oil is ready, add the chicken to the pan. Don’t crowd the pan and fry the chicken in batches, taking all the chicken out before putting more in as that will cause greater fluctuations in the temperature of the oil. After 10-15 minutes, the chicken should be done. It won’t be completely golden brown, more brown in spots, as the potato starch makes a mainly white batter.

7. Eat while hot!