Monday, July 26, 2021

Grouper Tandoori

I am a very big fan of tandoori cooking. The method focuses upon a round oven, made of bricks, clay or metal, fueled by a charcoal or wood fire.  The tandoori oven utilizes that fire to cook using radiant heat and hot-air convection cooking. But, my love of tandoori cooking goes beyond the cooking method.  It goes to the masala and the marinade, as well as how they work together when the protein goes into the oven and comes out with the red hues and the crispy edges.

The foodie in me wants to get a tandoor oven, but I can't bring myself to purchase one.  (I realize that one could probably get a big green egg to "recreate" the experience, but those are just as or even more expensive.) The lack of a tandoor oven leaves me with two options: (1) eat out at Indian restaurants more often, which I don't mind; and (2) do the best with what I have, which is also okay.  But, cranking up a gas grill or using the broiler in the oven does not do justice for a tandoori recipe.

Nevertheless, I found myself considering a tandoori recipe when I was searching the Internet. At the time, I was on vacation. I had went to a local seafood market and purchased a couple pounds of grouper.  I needed a recipe and I wanted to do something different. I found a recipe for Tandoori Fish. This recipe was not only different, but presented a challenge given the state of the appliances and the grills at the rental house. Nevertheless, it was a challenge that I was willing to take. And, it was well worth it.

Grouper and fillets (source: Citarella)
There are a couple of reasons that explain why grouper is a great candidate for a tandoori recipe. The fillets are mild in taste, which provide a great tableau for the masala or spice mixture.  The fish allows for the spices -- which include garlic, ginger, chiles, coriander, and black pepper -- to shine through in the final dish. Grouper fillets also have a high oil and moisture content, which enables them to withstand the heat of the cooking process without drying out. (This is very important, because it allows for some room for error if one accidently overcooks the fish.) The result is a reddish fillet that produces large, buttery, spiced flakes that are very delicious.  

It was the perfect combination of recipe, cooking process and ingredients that resulted in a very tasty dish. For someone who traditionally orders tandoori chicken or lamb, this recipe has opened up my mind to using fish for this dish. If only I could find grouper close to home. 

GROUPER TANDOORI

Recipe adapted from Raj's Kitchen

Serves 3-4

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound of firm fish
  • 3/4 cup of thick plain yogurt
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic paste
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger paste
  • 1/4 teaspoon green chile paste
  • 1/4 teaspoon red chile powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon coriander powder
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced into rings, for garnish
  • 1 small green bell pepper, thinly sliced, for garnish
  • 1 lime cut into wedges, for garnish
  • Springs of cilantro, for garnish
Directions:
1.  Prepare the marinade. In a medium bowl, add yogurt, garlic paste, ginger paste, green chile paste, red chile powder, ground black pepper, salt, coriander powder, lime juice and olive oil.  Mix until all ingredients are combined well.  Add fish pieces to the yogurt marinade and gently rub the marinade into the fish.  Leave in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour or overnight. 

2. Bake the fish. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking dish with foil and lightly spray with oil.  Turn the fish over frequently to prevent it from sticking.  Cook fish for about 10-12 minutes or until fully cooked. 

3.  Finish the dish.  Garnish with onion rings, green pepper, lime and coriander sprigs. 

ENJOY!

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Around the World in 80 Dishes (Special): Palestine

As part of my Around the World in 80 Dishes culinary adventure, I decided that I would prepare four special challenges. Each challenge would focus on a cuisine of a culture that does not have its own, fully recognized country. These challenges will also appear as part of my Beyond Borders project.

"If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears." 

Mahmoud Darwish.

I think it is fair to say that olive trees have a special place in Palestine and in the heart of Palestinians. Olive trees have been cultivated there for millennia. More recently, it has been estimated that olive groves constituted approximately 48% of the cultivated land in the Palestinian territories (mostly in the West Bank).  Those trees, and more specifically the olives and oil produced from those trees, accounts for fourteen percent (14%) of Palestine's agricultural income; and, that income supports more than 80,000 Palestinian families. To put that in perspective, consider the fact that  potatoes constitute fifteen percent (15%) of the agricultural income of the United States. Just as French fries or mashed potatoes may be important to Americans, olives and olive oil are important to Palestinians. 

But these trees are more than economic data. An olive tree is a symbol of the intangible qualities within the Palestinian people. Olive trees have shallow root systems, remaining just below the surface, enabling them to collect water before the surrounding soil dries out. These root systems enable the olive tree to thrive under harsh and difficult conditions. Perhaps it is that resilience explains the special place of these trees within Palestinian society. After all, resilience is a trait that is needed if one is a Palestinian living in the West Bank. 

Take, for example, a Palestinian farmer who cultivates olive trees. If his or her grove is near an Israeli settlement, the farmer needs to get a permit in order to cultivate the trees, even though those trees are situated on the farmer's property. Israeli authorities deny forty-two percent (42%) of those applications.  A denied application means that the farmer cannot access his or her olive trees. No access means no income or ability to support oneself or a family. Even if the farmer is able to get a permit, he or she must still access his or her property through a checkpoint. Those checkpoints are open seasonally and only during certain timeframes. Even if the farmer gets the permit and gets through the checkpoint, he or she will be able to work his or her property, but under the supervision of the Israeli military.  The entire picture - having to get a permit to farm one's own land, having to go through a checkpoint to get to one's property, and having to be supervised while working on one's land - is a series of indignations that rob many Palestinians of their dignity and respect as human beings. 

It is this deprivation of dignity and respect for Palestinians as people that defines their daily life. It is not just the farmer who has to endure an oppressive system - characterized by dark hues that shift from the Kafkaesque to the Apartheid-esque - each and every day of their lives. The New York Times recently chronicled the lives of several Palestinians in an article entitled Life Under Occupation: The Misery at the Heart of the Conflict. I think the article is a must-read, not only because it is a well written article, but also because it provides a window to the multitude of indignities suffered by and insecurities felt by a wide range of Palestinians on a daily basis.

The Life Under Occupation article represents an exception when it comes to reporting on the conflict in Palestine and Israel. Most news articles focus on rockets being fired into Israeli territory or Israeli airstrikes on targets in the West Bank or Gaza. To make matters worse, we accept the headline, maybe read the byline, and possibly the article itself. We almost never take the additional step to learn more than what is in that article. It is a tragedy, because we can never fully understand a situation. People can at least make an effort to go beyond what is provided to them - whether in a newspaper delivered to their door or found on their newsfeed on their phone. They can affirmatively try to learn more about the experiences of those who are caught up in a dispute, that is, learn more about the people rather than the politics. In this case, it is an effort to learn about the plight of everyday Palestinian people. Individuals who are just trying to get by, make a living, and support their families. 

So, for this special Around the World in 80 Dishes post, I am dedicating it to the everyday Palestinian, whether it is the farmer tending to his or her olive groves, or the workers in shops, factories and other workplaces.  I want to learn more about them and, given this is a food blog, what they eat. Fortunately, my beautiful Angel's parents bought me a cookbook by Reem Kassis entitled The Palestinian Table. I decided to make a meal using recipes from that cookbook. 

SPICE MIX

When one talks about Middle Eastern cuisine, there is inevitably a spice mix. Some spice mixes are uniquely attributed to a specific country or people, such Ras el-Hanout is to Morocco. Other spice mixes, such as Baharat or Za'atar cross borders and ethic groups. For example, there is Turkish Baharat and Tunisian Baharat, and, the mixes are completely different. 

Palestinians use a Nine Spice Mix. Some of the ingredients - cardamom, cumin, clove and nutmeg - can be found in other spice mixes such as Baharat. However, I think the use of mace, which is the protective coating over the nutmeg seed, sets this mixture apart.  (Mace also happens to be the one spice that I did not have on hand, sending me to local Middle Eastern markets and Indian markets in search of it.)  

The key to this mixture -- and, in reality, any mixture -- is to use whole seeds rather than ground seeds.  There is something about toasting whole seeds and grinding them just before using the spice mixture that really does make a dish better.  Ground spices are great for cooking on the fly, but, when you are taking the time to make a nice meal, whole spices are an important part of the process of making a nice meal.


NINE SPICE MIX
Recipe from Reem Kassis, The Palestinian Table, pg. 24

Ingredients:
  • 6 tablespoons allspice berries
  • 6 cassia bark or cinnamon sticks
  • 3 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 3 tablespoons black peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon cardamom seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 10 cloves
  • 2 blades of mace
  • 1/2 nutmeg, crushed
Directions:
1. Toast the spices. Place all of the ingredients in a large skillet (frying pan) over medium low heat. Stir with a wooden spoon periodically to ensure that the spices do not burn, until you begin to smell the aroma of the spices, about 10 minutes.

2. Allow the spices to cool. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool completely, about 1 hour.  This step is crucial because if the spices are not cooled properly, they will form a paste when ground rather a powder.

3. Grind the spices. Place all of the spices into a heavy duty spice grinder and grind until you achieve a fine powder consistency. Store the spice mix in an airtight container.  It will keep for several months, although the aroma will fade over time. 

SALAD

For this challenge, I really wanted to prepare something in addition to the main course.  I spent a lot of time paging through the recipes in The Palestinian Table trying to find a side or an appetizer that would complement the main course. In the end, I chose a Farmer Salad.

The author of The Palestinian Table, Reem Kassis, notes that, to Palestinians, it is known as Farmer's Salad.  To everyone else, it is known as Palestinian salad.  The core of this salad consists of finely diced tomatoes, onions, and dried mint, combined together with a dressing of olive oil, lemon and salt.  Other ingredients can be added to the salad, such as cucumbers, bell peppers, chiles, lemons and parsley.  Kassis notes a trick that she learned from her mother-in-law, which is to add a finely diced lemon to the salad. The lemon is supposed to give the salad a "kick."  I can say that is an accurate statement, because I could tell a difference between a bite of the salad with the lemon and a bite of the salad without the lemon. 


FARMER'S SALAD (PALESTINIAN SALAD)
Recipe from Reem Kassis, The Palestinian Table, pg. 104

Ingredients:
  • 4 large beefsteak or 8 small tomatoes
  • 2 small cucumbers
  • 2 green chilies
  • 1 whole unwaxed lemon
  • 1 onion or 4-6 scallions
  • 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves or 1 tablespoon crushed dried mint leaves
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
Directions:
1. Prepare the tomatoes and cucumbers. Chop the tomatoes into very small cubes and put into a large bowl. Dice the cucumbers into similar sized small cubes and add to the tomatoes.  If you are using a traditional large cucumber, make sure to peel and seed it first. 

2. Prepare the rest of the ingredients. Seed the chiles (if you prefer even less heat, remove all the white membranes as well). Slice the lemon into thin rounds, discarding the top and bottom rounds and any seeds as well, then chop each round into small cubes. Add to the salad. Dice the onion very finely and add to the salad to the salad.  Finally throw in the chopped fresh mint leaves or dried mint.

3. Finish the dish. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice and sprinkle with salt. Toss very lightly with a large spoon and serve immediately.

MAIN COURSE

Farmer's Salad is typically a side to a kafta dish.  I am a very big fan of kafta, whether prepared as skewers, meatballs or meatloaf.  However, I really wanted to try something different for this challenge.  I wanted to find something that is quintessentially Palestinian, but requires me to do something other than grill or skewer meat. That is when I came across a recipe for Chicken, Onion and Sumac Casserole.

It was Reem Kassis' description of this dish that caught my eye and never let go.  As she writes, "[t]the combination of onions and sumac cooked in olive oil is one of the most traditional and uniquely Palestinian flavors you will ever come across."  She goes on to describe how this recipe is more common in the northern part of Palestine, where the onions and sumac are cooked with chicken and, on occasion, potatoes. The red hues of the final dish, which come from the use of the paprika and sumac, lend the dish its name of mhammar, also known as mussakhan. If I only had thought about purchasing taboon bread for this dish. 

Not only was this recipe very delicious, as described by Kassis, but it was very easy to make. If only someone other than me ate meat in the family, this dish could easily be inserted into the rotation of weekly meetings.


CHICKEN, ONION AND SUMAC CASSEROLE
Recipe from Reem Kassis, The Palestinian Table, pg. 114

Ingredients:
  • 2.5 pounds of chicken pieces
  • 6-7 onions diced
  • 3-5 potatoes, cut into rounds
  • 3 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 2 tablespoons sumac
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon Nine Spice Mix
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 3-4 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
Directions:
1. Prepare the casserole. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Put the chicken, onions, and potatoes, if using into a greased or non-stick, deep roasting dish. 

2. Continue with the casserole. In a small bowl, mix together all of the spices, salt and olive oil until evenly combined.  Pour the mixture into the roasting dish and use your hands to work the spice rub evenly into the onions, chicken and potatoes.  Make sure the chicken pieces are not crowding each other and that they are skin side up.

3. Cook the dish. Add 1/2 cup of water to the tray, cover with aluminum foil and bake in the oven for 1-1 1/4 hours until the chicken is fully cooked.  Check once or twice during cooking to make sure liquid has not entirely evaporated and top up with more water if necessary.  You don't want the dish to be completely dry but you also do not want a soup, more of a gravy sauce coating the onions.

4. Finish the dish. Once the chicken is cooked, remove the foil and increase the oven temperature (or preheat the broiler/grill).  Continue to cook for another 5-10 minutes to allow the chicken skin to crisp up.  Remove from the oven and allow to sit for 5 minutes before siting.  Sprinkler with toasted pine nuts. 

*    *    *

The challenge to cook a Palestinian main course went extremely well. The combination of chicken, onions, and sumac -- with the Palestinian Nine Spice Mix -- was one of the best dishes that I have made in recent weeks. It has also been an extremely long time since I roasted (as opposed to grilled or smoked) chicken.  Another successful challenge in the books.

However, there is still an issue. It is one that I cannot resolve myself.  However, I can do my part by trying to be open-minded and willing to learn. I can try the best to put myself "in the shoes" of others, figuratively, of course, by trying to learn more from the perspective of the people.  The whole point of my Around the World in 80 Dishes personal culinary challenge, as well as my side project Beyond Borders, is to learn more about people through their food. That is what I sought to do with this post. I wanted to go beyond the headlines, as well as the generalizations and characterizations, to take a moment to learn about the Palestinians as a people, and, what they share with everyone else around the world, namely, a love of food. And, based on this challenge, some really, really good food.  

Now, it is time to return to the regular challenges.  I have started to include upcoming challenges on my Around the World in 80 Dishes page.  Upcoming challenges include preparing main courses  from Dominica, Sri Lanka and Gabon.  Until next time ...

ENJOY!

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