Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Jewels from a Middle East Family Feast

Today's post is not going to include a restaurant review or a recipe from my kitchen, rather it is something new! Now that I am old enough to take care of myself, home-cooking is something that I can create on my own. However, there is nothing better than being invited into a friend's home to share a meal with their family. This is actually how I traveled around Europe; accepting invitations from friends and sharing in their warm hospitality (so lucky!). My favorite part is sneaking in to the kitchen to see what the family is cooking up. It doesn't matter what language you speak, I will try to weasel a recipe out of you :) It was useful knowing romantic languages and German in Europe because I could work out more than I initially thought I would--if that didn't work, my taste buds were working overtime to figure out ingredients and techniques.

This adventure is making it on the blog because it is a totally new experience! I am ashamed to say that I do not have much experience in Middle Eastern food, but my closest base isn't too far off in Balkan cuisine. I do have an affinity for basmati rice, hummus, fresh Mediterranean flavors, and quality olive oil. This family feast brought it to a whole new level!!!

The meal was served family-style, as we all eat it around a dinner table. The salad was served in a separate bowl because the glorious juices from the cucumber and tomato were all the dressing one needed. The main dish was called Hash-weh (or as close to that as you can romanize Arabian letters), which means stuffing. Traditionally, the rice mixture I am about to describe in detail, is stuffed in the chicken, but Westerners get scared from such practices--hence why so many people prepare stuffing outside the turkey on Thanksgiving. I for one like to prepare my stuffing separately because I like a crispy top, not necessarily because of bacterial fears. However, this stuffing was basmati rice-based, and I liked the idea of that! The chicken was prepared in all its happy juices and cooked to melt-in-you-mouth level and served in a large dish beside the Hash-weh. Other condiments on the table included Palestinian pickles and my personal request to try pickled eggplant. For dessert...a beautiful flan with an espresso sauce served with mint tea...yes, oh YES!

Okay, time to get specific. Let's start with the salad. This is similar to my favorite type of salad, which is not lettuce based. If you want to talk about food epiphanies, the first day I had a salad without lettuce was definitely life-changing. Anyways, what was special about this salad is how small and uniform the vegetables were. As you all well know, I appreciate a cook with good knife skills. As I said before, I didn't detect any dressing aside from olive oil, and the salad was fresh, full of flavor and happiness. Whenever you combine tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, and parsley, you can't go wrong, and this salad was just right. This might be a good time to mention the pickles from Palestine, which were delicious and crunchy, but didn't have to be refrigerated, like my favorite pickles do--that's usually my problem with those yellow type non-refrigerated pickles, they aren't crunchy enough for me. Props to those pickles for picking up the slack, I appreciate it!

Toasted almonds=Success
The main event, the Hash-weh, was phenomenal. I know I use that word a little too often, but really, it was beautiful in its texture, smooth flavor, and how it warmed your soul as any good home-cooked meal would. The rice stuffing was delicately spiced and mixed with ground beef finally it was topped with slivers of toasted almonds, which were my favorite addition to the meal. The texture of the almonds really brought the crunch that balanced the soft chicken and stuffing, plus the flavor of toasted almond anything is probably one of the keys to life.

Ah, just look at that! It is melting
in your mouth on the page!
The chicken brought a whole new level of euphoria to the plate. It was served bone-in and was easily flaked off with a fork, revealing that tender and moist center redolent of slow-cooking and care. The sauce that the chicken was cooked in included cumin, onion, olive oil, and the chicken's juices (the ingredients I immediately noted). Said juice was also distributed over the chicken and rice stuffing. Just wonderful. I was working on my plate and enjoying the dance of flavors and laughing my head off at the table conversation, when a heaping second serving was forced on my plate. This reminded me of Spain; Oh, don't be shy, don't be shy, you're eating more food! Honestly guys, I'm not shy at all, I just can't physically hold so much food--but if you insist... it was so good. The pickled eggplant was brought out after what seemed like my 5th serving, so I could only fit one, but I loved it! It was stuffed, pickled eggplant with peppers and walnuts. It was bitter, but soft and balanced with oil, and the walnuts were a delightful surprise--I would have never thought of that! Anyways, it's a shame I could only eat one, but I can't wait to try it again!

Finally, we sat down for some good ol' family banter and waited for the mint tea to come out. I knew it was coming and I was so happy! The teterías in Spain served mint tea with tons of sugar, but this tea was perfect. The mint was freshly picked by the bunches out of the garden in the backyard. The scent of the aromatic herb filled the room and brought a sense of calm after such a good meal. Then the anticipated tea came along with cake AND flan--yeah, there's always room in the second stomach for dessert, so I went for it. I loved the flan, it was substantial enough for my tastes and the espresso syrup on top was perfect. Did I mention how much I loved the mint tea? Seriously, I drink like 10 cups of tea a day, so going into another house that respects the tea tradition as well is lovely indeed.

Following the meal, we just sat around and chatted. I felt like I was a part of the family, listening to stories, looking at childhood pictures, and mostly just laughing as hard as I have in a very long time. Jovial conversation, delicious food, and fantastic hospitality is a recipe for a beautiful evening. I am truly grateful to have such wonderful people in my life, and to keep meeting more along the way.

Shaliya baiba...or what I got from bon appétit!

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