Michael Pollan’s Rules of Food.

I don’t know why this has a publication date of October eleventh, since it’s accessible now, but whatever.

This past March, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, wrote a post on Tara Parker Pope’s New York Times‘s blog Well; in it, he asked readers a few questions:

“I’d like your help gathering some rules for eating well. My premise is that culture has a lot to teach us about how to choose, prepare and eat food, and that this wisdom is worth collecting and preserving before it disappears…  Will you send me a food rule you try to live by? Something perhaps passed down by your parents or grandparents? Or something you’ve come up with to tell your children — or yourself?”

Pollan's food rulesAs someone whose mother regularly sent her to a suburban New York elementary school’s cafeteria with bamiya, mejadara and bulgur pilaf in her Strawberry Shortcake lunchbox, I particularly like rule number seven, “Don’t yuck someone’s yum.”  Did I mention that I grew up in the eighties, before Pad Thai was a regular feature on our dinner plates?  In a lunchroom full of PB and Js, baloney sandwiches and rectangular pizzas, my thermos and I were an easy target — not that I’m bitter or anything.  To this day, though, my hairs rise when my eating habits are mocked. So back off, people.  (Kidding!)

Number two was a rule in my house too, but that’s not nearly as sensitive a topic.  Or is it?

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On Books + Slicing Onions.

This is how I spent the day: lolling in bed, stocking up at the grocery store before The Big Storm, then lolling on the sofa.  Oh, it was tiring.  I’m being half-serious here — I was lolling with the latest book club selection:  Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir, which is such an involving read that I couldn’t bear to be away from it for too long.  It also got me incredibly emotional; I was about a gasp and a half away from bawling my eyes out, something I very rarely do.  Honestly, the crying was so bad that at one point I turned to Keith and said, “If we had a puppy, I would be hugging it right now.  Will you be my puppy?”  And so he patted me on the back while I left an imprint of my tear-soaked face on his shirt, quite similarly to what Chuck Palahniuk‘s narrator does to Bob’s T in Fight Club.  Minus the testicular cancer, chaos and commentary on consumerism.

caramelized-onions1After I calmed myself down a bit, I headed to the kitchen to start caramelizing the onions for dinner tonight and for another meal later in the week.  Here’s a handy little trick I discovered:  if you want to avoid tearing up while slicing an onion, it helps to be crying already.  Don’t get me wrong — there’s no way that crying is going to prevent the burning sensation you’re going to feel behind your eyes the moment after you put your knife to an onion.  You’ll just be feeling so terrible already that you won’t mind the extra tears.

Okay, maybe that’s not necessarily the truth, but it kinda worked for me.

Anyway, tomorrow I’ll be making mejadara but tonight we’ll share with our friend Melissa a very unseasonal pizza, since it features fresh basil.  Though summer is months away, this is an incredibly light, easy-to-make meal that will make you feel as though its at least fifty degrees warmer outside.

pizzaA few notes about this dish…

In order for a pizza to be a pizza, it requires a bready, doughy crust.  Thing is, as I have said repeatedly, I am terrified of yeast.  Therefore, I buy my doughs or use a pre-made shell.  If you don’t have the same hang up, good for you — I’m sure your pizza will be indescribably fantastic.  If you too are frightened by yeast, rest assured that you won’t have to face your fear in order to enjoy a sweet and tangy dinner.

You can, of course, make your own sauce — and should! — but only when tomatoes are in season in order to get the fullest flavor.  When buying bottled, I like Enrico’s All Natural.

Lastly, the recipe calls for oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes.  The oil really does make all the difference, otherwise you’ll end up with tomato-flavored bark encircling your pizza.  That said, it is extremely important to drain the oil, otherwise you’ll have in your hands an utterly greasy mess.

(Unrelated:  I finally have a camera again and am in love.)

Caramelized Onion and Goat Cheese Pizza, from Cooking Light.
Makes six to eight portions.

2 teaspoons olive oil
1 thinly sliced onion, separated into rings
1 pre-made pizza crust
½ cup pizza sauce
¼ cup oil-packed julienned sun-dried tomatoes, drained
2/3 cup crumbled goat cheese
¼ cup chopped fresh basil

  1. Preheat oven to 450°.  Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion; cover and cook for 3 minutes. Uncover and cook for 11 minutes or until golden brown, stirring frequently.
  2. Place the pizza crust on a baking sheet. Combine the sauce and tomatoes. Spread sauce mixture over pizza crust. Top with onion and cheese. Bake at 450° for 10 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Sprinkle with basil. Cut into wedges and serve.

Late Lunch at Le Petit Alep.

After we had entertained ourselves at Marché Jean-Talon, we stopped by Le Petit Alep for a late lunch and a drink.  The café is located parallel to the market and is attached to a proper restaurant; since we were just looking for a quick bite or two to satisfy us until dinner, il était parfait.

Since the day had been both warm and sunny, and because Boston was not, we decided to sit outside on the plank-board patio rather than at one of the tables abutting the stone walls inside the dimly-lit café.  There, we studied the listing of Syrian, Armenian and Middle Eastern offerings.  Of the four of us, only Keith has any French; in spite of that, I found myself easily making my way around the menu.  After all, while the menu wasn’t printed in English, the alphabet was the same, and most of the dishes were spelled phonetically (something I always find amusing).

Joann, Keith and Melissa all decided to have an Arak (an anise-flavored drink similar to pastis), but since I’ve never been fond of the flavor, I went in a non-alcoholic direction altogether with a fantastically-colored drink.  Made of blended orange and mango juices whirled with mint, it was utterly refreshing ($4.75 CAD).  At times I find mint to be paralyzingly strong; like the mushroom, a leaf or two of mint can overwhelm other flavors and all but smother them into nothingness.  My beverage was an example of mint used well, since each component brought out the best in both itself and the other ingredients.

The four of us were specifically in search of something light, since we had made late-night  dinner reservations, so that was the driving force behind us sharing the végétarienne platter ($17.00 CAD).  Two people could easily make a meal out of the mahummara (sweet pepper and walnut spread), hummos, tabouleh, muttabal (baba ghanoush), dolma (stuffed grape leaves), boereg and mejadara — four would be hard-pressed.  We also passed around tiny plates of moussaka, lebneh drizzled with olive oil, more hummos ($3.50 CAD each) and even more bread.  I’m not ashamed to say that sent back to the kitchen immaculate white dishes practically licked clean.  You would have too.

As someone raised on this fare and living away from home, this was probably the most comforting meal I’ve had in ages.  Isn’t it odd, how food nourishes us not only physically as nutrition and as sustenance, but also emotionally?  With each bite, I couldn’t help but think of my Syrian-born Armenian father and his young adulthood in Beirut, and of my Filipina mother, who learned to cook a foreign culture’s food for her family.  I remembered how my paternal grandfather used to take me to buy apricots from a street vendor in LA when I was a small child, and how I saw his grave for the first time this spring.  I thought of my maternal grandfather, a great lover of food rivaling only my brother for hummos consumption, who died this past May on a trip to the States.

The food at Le Petit Alep may seem unique or exotic to those weaned on other cuisines, but to me it was as familiar as the carousel-print navy flannel sheets I slept on through (I’ll admit it) high school and the glossy black and white piano keys I banged tunelessly for seven years.  Like them, they are things I know I’ll find in my parents’ house, and they will always bring me home.  Even when I’m in Canada.

Le Petit Alep
191 Rue Jean-Talon Est
Montréal, QC H2R
Canada
514.270.9361

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Arabic Comfort Food.

I was raised on what I suppose could be called a fusion diet. When I was growing up, most of the cooking was done by my Filipina mother, but a majority of the meals she prepared were Armenian, Lebanese or Middle Eastern in origin, to please my often-nostalgic father. Otherwise, we ate Asian dishes, and items like Italian-ish pastas, Spanish-y paellas and vaguely French chickens. Cuisine notwithstanding, I’ve come to realize that my mother is a completely intimidating force in the kitchen. She can bang out dinner for twelve as easily as she can for two, without ever compromising on taste or quality. Additionally, she has the ability to tease the most flavorful results from a new recipe, a skill I’m terribly envious of.

One of my favorite dishes from my youth actually has Arabic roots; I know I’m butchering it by attempting to spell it with the English alphabet but here goes: mejadara. I had to consult my dad to get the most accurate spelling; even he was uncertain as to what vowels and consonents to string together.

Mejadara is as easy to make as it is difficult to spell; literally all the cook must do is combined sweet caramelized onions, earthy lentils and nutty bulgur. Served warm, cold or at room temperature, it’s my equivalent of comfort food.

Mejadara
makes six generous portions

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Ingredients
1 cup lentils
1 cup bulgur
2 medium-sized onions, sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
salt, to taste

img_2191.jpg1. Melt butter over high heat. Add oil and continue to heat until the mixture is very hot but not smoking. Add the onions and immediately reduce flame to medium. Stir frequently, adjusting heat and adding oil as necessary so that onions do not burn. Continue until the onions are golden brown, approximately twenty minutes.

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2. In the meantime, combine lentils and three cups of water over medium fire. Add a pinch or two salt and cook until the water is almost completely absorbed by lentils, about twenty minutes. Add more water if the lentils are still a bit hard.

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3. Add bulgur and three additional cups of water, as well as another pinch or two of salt. Mix well with lentils and cook until the water is almost completely absorbed by lentils, about twenty minutes. Add more water if the lentils are still a bit hard.

4. Combine lentil/bulgur mixture with onions and serve.