What to do when it’s 99F in Boston? Cook in your apartment that has no central AC, of course. Cover all the windows with sheets to keep out the sun, old country style. Get your scientist friend (who is also your resident bartender) to make Aperol Spritzes, because nobody mixes a cocktail better than a Biochemist. Also, broil eggplants over the open flames of every single stove top burner, which will raise the temperature in the kitchen at least ten degrees during the what is already a scorching day. Employ an oscillating fan and sip aforementioned Aperol Spritz to cool down. With this process, you are guaranteed beautifully charred beitanjan for babaghanoush.
Our latest Sunday dinner menu was built around light, fresh ingredients and uncomplicated preparation. Samak mashi (stuffed whole red snapper), babaghanoush, fattoush salad, and tomato jam with pine nuts as an accompaniment (recipe in a forthcoming post). The meal was finished with halawat el jibn, a glorious ishta cream filled dessert that is rolled in semolina + cheese dough, then topped with ground pistachios and orange blossom syrup. Whole fish take very little time to make and are more flavorful than fillets since the bones and organs release their salty goodness during roasting. I’m always extolling the virtues of cooking from scratch but I recognize this is not always possible and that time is the modern enemy. However, not only is using fresh ingredients healthier but there is also a profound appreciation that comes from the sensory experience of say, handling a beautiful, glossy, mildly stinky raw fish or watching an eggplant shape shift on the stove top, its insides transformed into pulp. My theory is that people would waste less if they had more contact with their food in its early stages. Anyway, if you have patience and don’t mind occasionally pulling bones from your mouth, try cooking fish this way at least once.
*Cooking tips: buy the fish whole, cleaned, scaled, and gutted. When possible, look for clear, glossy eyes, which means the fish are very fresh. Tie each fish with two pieces of kitchen twine to keep the stuffing intact. If you have an outdoor grill, the fish (about 1 lb each) will cook in 20 minutes, turning once. If you bake, as we did, place them in a baking tray in the oven at 400F, cook for 30 minutes and turn them once, about halfway through*
**Broiling eggplants over an open flame is really the best way to get a smoky flavor. They should be coated in a thin layer of olive oil, pierced a few times with a fork, then placed on a low flame and turned with tongs until they are blistered, blackened, and collapsed. Alternatively, you can roast them in the oven**
***A lot of Arab cooking is built on pantry staples. I always have pomegranate molasses handy (which is used to make marinades and dressings for a wide variety of dishes), a mason jar full of orange blossom or rose syrup in the fridge (handy for sweetening teas, coffee, cocktails, sparkling water, lemonade, etc), and an assortment of nuts (pistachios, almonds). You also need like a gallon of olive oil***
Red Snapper Stuffed with Walnuts and Pomegranate Seeds:
4 whole red snapper fish, cleaned and gutted (general rule is one fish per person)
3/4 cup walnuts, chopped roughly
- Place whole fish in roasting pans or Pyrex baking dishes. Make a quick marinade: 1-2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon cumin, salt & a sprinkle of Aleppo pepper. Whisk together and pour over fish. You can cover the fish and refrigerate them for several hours, or just let them marinate while you put together the stuffing.
- Pre heat the oven to 400F. Chop walnuts and place in a bowl. Add in 3/4 cup pomegranate seeds. Bind this mixture with a little olive oil, pomegranate molasses, salt, and pepper. Don’t worry about exact measurements.
- Stuff the fish belly, where it has been gutted. Depending on how large your fish, I find a handful of stuffing per fish works. Then bind each fish with a couple of pieces of kitchen twine to keep the stuffing and fish intact as it cooks. If using red snapper, watch out for those dorsal fins! They are extremely sharp.
- Squeeze a bit more lemon juice on all the fish and put them in the oven on the middle rack. Cook at 400F for about 30 minutes, turning them once halfway through cooking. If grilling the fish, they are likely to take slightly less time–about 20 minutes.
- When fish are opaque and the flesh flakes off with a fork, they are done. I don’t use kitchen thermometers but the internet says fish should be at a minimum internal temperature of 145F. Go by that rule if you’re worried about knowing when to take them out of the oven.
- Garnish with chopped flat leaf parsley, lemon wedges, and a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds.
Babaghanoush (baba ghanouj): you can roast the eggplant in the oven, but recipe below is for stove top
5-6 small eggplants, or 2-3 large eggplants (small taste better, but are harder to find)
1/3 cup good quality tahina
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1. Lightly coat each eggplant with olive oil. Turn on stove top gas burners to low heat. Place eggplant directly onto the burner, with only a metal grid or the stove top grid between eggplant and flame. Broil eggplants over the flames, turning them with tongs them so they cook evenly, until they’re charred. This is really the only way to get the authentic smokiness of good babaghanoush.
2. Peel each eggplant gently with a paring knife. The skin should slip off quite easily. Place the flesh of the eggplant in a strainer or salad spinner. Allow the eggplant flesh to drain of liquid for at least 20 minutes before using.
3. Either mash eggplant with a fork to produce a chunky texture, or pulse eggplant with tahina, lemon juice, garlic, and salt in a food processor for a more emulsified version.
4. Garnish with pomegranate seeds, drizzled olive oil, and flat leaf parsley, if desired. Scoop up with Arabic bread or sliced vegetables.
Halawat el jibn are sweet cheese rolls filled with floral scented clotted cream (ishta). They take quite a bit of patience and effort to make, particularly because the dough can become unruly as the cheese cools, you make each component separately (dough, cream filling, sugar syrup), and because you must fill and roll each long log one at a time then cut into bite size. Below is the recipe, adapted slightly from Tasbih at Cleobuttra.com–she always has the cutest headings for her recipes.
Halawat el Jibn
Ingredients for the ishta, or clotted cream (make this first):
- 1 1/2 cups whipping cream, or 1 cup whipping cream and 1/2 cup whole milk
- 4 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon rose water or orange blossom syrup
- In a medium sauce pan, whisk together 4 tablespoons cornstarch with heavy cream, milk, and sugar, until well combined and cornstarch has dissolved completely. Never try to dissolve cornstarch over heat, and make sure there are no lumps in the mixture.
- Then turn on the heat to medium-high and constantly whisk the mixture until it reaches a full boil. Wait 30 more seconds until the mixture thickens. Turn off the heat and add rose water or orange blossom water.
- Pour into a bowl to cool, covered, in the refrigerator until it is set. This should take about an hour. You can preserve the ishta in the fridge for up to 3 days.
- When ready to fill the dough, you may either spoon ishta into a line, or pipe it onto the dough with a pastry bag.
Ingredients for the dough:
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup fine semolina (in Arabic, na’eem)
- 2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
- 1 tablespoon rose water
- 1 tablespoon orange blossom water (I tend to use Cortas brand)
1. In a saucepan over medium-high heat, heat together the water and sugar, stirring occasionally until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil then add in the fine semolina, stirring constantly with a spatula until slightly thickened and well combined (about 30 seconds).
2. Turn down the heat to medium, then add in cheese and rose water. Stir until the cheese melts and the mixture forms a smooth, soft, cohesive dough. This may take vigorous stirring, as the mozzarella stretches. Then turn off the heat and allow the dough to cool until you are able to touch and handle it.
3. Divide the dough in half. Use one half of the dough to work and cover the other half so it does not dry out. Turn the dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap (I secure it underneath a cutting board so it does not move) and cover with another sheet of plastic wrap. Roll out the dough with a tapered rolling pin to about 9×13 inch rectangle. Remove the top sheet of plastic wrap then using a sharp knife or pizza cutter, trim off the sides of the dough until there is a clean rectangle.
4. Fill a piping bag with ishta (cream) or use a spoon to distribute cream in a line onto the dough. The cream will be piped onto the long side of the rectangle. Leave a 1 inch border at each end, and line of cream should be about 1/2 inch thick.
5. Using the plastic wrap under the dough, lift the dough and roll it over the cream filling, until the cream filling is completely covered, the dough seals it in and looks like a thin log. Using a sharp knife or pizza cutter, make a cut along side the log to slice it off from the rest of the dough. Repeat this process to make make 2 more logs.
6. Repeat these steps with the other half of the dough.
7. Arrange the rolls on a platter or small plates, sprinkle with ground pistachios and drizzle each piece with sugar syrup (attar)