Sunday, March 14, 2010

Dinner: Ma'sa ha (moussaka)

As I noted in my first entry, my arabic is next to non-existent. Therefore my attempted spelling of today's dish is really what I think I hear, as opposed to what it is actually called. Regardless, this can be referred to as Egyptian or Lebanese moussaka.

The recipe I have is technically Lebanese. For one year, I worked as an English teacher in France. By law, I could only work 12 hours a week and was paid just enough to scrape by. So you can imagine the oodles of free time I had. Luckily, I had a great group of people to do cheap things with, like cook. Alot. My Lebanese-American friend Sophia used to have amazing dinner parties. Or rather, she would get a recipe from her mom over the phone, and have me come over and try to figure it out. This was one of her dishes. I still remember how yummy it was. I harassed her for a week trying to get this recipe again, only to be told "I think it's this...actually I'm not too sure, do you want me to call my mom? (hesitation in voice)" Grrrr

So I decided to investigate a little into the dish. While it's commonly known under its Greek name, Moussaka, the eggplant portion of the dish originates from the Middle East. In Lebanon and Greece, the dish often has chickpeas, ground lamb or beef in it. The Egyptian one is similar except it has its signature topping: Bachemel.

On a side note, many dishes in Egypt will be something bland, and then be topped with this which ups it up a few notches. I don't know why. It's so simple too: butter/flour/milk. But it works every time! Béchamel sauce can trace its origins to the 'marquis de Béchamel : Louis de Béchameil, the marquis of Nointel (1630-1703). The story is the marquis created Béchamel as an improvement upon a similar one in Italy: Salsa Colla. The point is that it's a sauce that had been prevalent in both French and Italian cooking for some time. No doubt when the French came to Egypt in 1789, or the Italians started to emigrate to Egypt during the 1800s, the recipe came into circulation. Either way, it's a topping that is easy to make, and is a great crowning for most dishes.

Eggplant, originates from India. However, it was introduced to the Mediterranean through the Arabs during the Middle Ages when their empire spread out as far as Indonesia. They probably traded a lot with the Persians and Indians who had already incorporated the eggplant into their diets. The Persian word for eggplant is badingan, which in arabic is al-badhinjan. After the Moors invaded Spain, the Spaniards heard the Arabic name for eggplant and began to call it albergina. The French misheard that and called it aubergine. The English maintained this tradition until late 1800s when egg plant was in reference to a big goose egg. Somehow the name stuck and eggplant is what we call it in the new world. All that to say, the eggplant has been in the Middle East for quite some time; so it's no wonder that it shows up in many of the dishes.

The chickpea (or garbanzo bean) can trace its roots to Southern Turkey and Syria as far back as the neolithic period. So they've been in circulation for some time. Long enough to have been brought to Northern Africa, namely Egypt and the Levantine. In Egypt, the chickpea is not nearly as popular as the fava bean. Chickpeas are more popular in the Levantine, but they are still used in a few dishes. Today's dish will use them.

As a side note, this dish is a little heavy on the oil. Eggplants are bitter and need to be cooked before anything can be done to them. In this case, grilling or frying are the options to cooking eggplant. While I like the taste from grilling; I don't like the nuances associated it with it, so frying it is.
Total Cooking Time: 2 hours
Yield: 4 persons

2 medium sized eggplants

lots of cooking oil
2 cups of cooked chickpeas (canned or dried)

1 tablespoon of olive oil
3 cloves of crushed garlic
1 large can of plum tomatoes
1 teaspoon crushed/powdered cardamom
1 teaspoon crushed/powdered allspice
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 small can of tomato paste

2 tablespoons butter
1 cup of milk
1/4 cup of flour


Eggplant and Chickpeas:
1. Cut eggplant into slices
2. Add salt on both sides to drain excess water
3. Leave with salt for about 30 minutes
4. In a big frying pan, or deep frying pot, heat some oil
5. Fry each slice of eggplant until it is soft; not too soft though that it falls apart
6. Layer cooked eggplant on paper-towels to drain excess oil

7. Set aside
8. If using canned chickpeas, rinse under water, set aside
9. If using dried chickpeas, make sure they have been soaking long enough that they are no longer hard, otherwise they will be useless

Tomato Sauce:
10. If your allspice and cardamom are not powdered, crush them with a mortar and pestle or chopper machine

11. In a sauce pot, add the olive oil
12. Add crushed garlic
13. Add tomato paste and blend well with the garlic
14. Add the plum tomatoes, one at a time, squeezing each one with your hand to crush each tomato into chunks
15. Add the spices
16. Season with salt and pepper
17. Leave to simmer for about 20 minutes or until sauce is flavourful

Béchamel Sauce:
18. On high heat, add butter to a pot
19. When butter has melted, add milk to pot
20. Keep stirring milk and butter until it is hot; but not boiling
21. With a whisk or fork, add a bit of the flour stirring vigorously
22. Keep stirring until all the flour is added
23. The sauce will thicken up once everything has dissolved
24. Season with salt/pepper

25. In a casserole dish, add a bit of sauce to the bottom
26. Add a few slices of eggplant
27. Follow with some chick peas
28. Add sauce
29. Repeat sequence until everything or something is used up

30. Add the béchamel sauce

31. Put in oven for about 40 minutes, until everything is soft and the béchamel is a bit golden looking

And there you have it. A slightly tweaked version of Egyptian/Lebanese moussaka. It's filling and tasty and very messy to eat. But the spicing from the tomatoes, cardamom, cinnamon and allspice turn a bland eggplant into something lovely. The buttery béchamel doesn't hurt either.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Lunch/Dinner: Brown Lentil Soup

As I noted in my lentil entry, there are two kinds of popular lentils in Egypt: brown and red. The red ones are more popular in a soup, but I grew up eating my mom's brown lentil soup, which is what today's recipe will be about.

This recipe is one that my mom learned from her mother. Sadly, I never got to meet her. Though I hear she was an amazing cook and this was one of her creations or embellishments. Although she grew up in Egypt, her part of the family can trace its roots to Lebanon; so it may have some influences from the levantine area, though I'm not too certain.

It's a soup that sits in you for days. It's so filling, and comforting and easy to make. My favourite spicing in this is the cinnamon stick. Like many people, I also have my own quirks, and of them is cooking smells. Though I love to cook, I hate smelling fried onions or heavy cooking. It's a weird thing. Anyhoo, while I was in undergrad, this was always my favourite soup to make because it would easily cut the smell of the onions in my apartment that were brought about by my italian-american roommate who made tomato sauce. Instead, the sweet and non-offensive smell of cinnamon would come wafting through the apartment. It was my secret victory.

As noted in my lentil entry, brown lentils are also known as Egyptian Lentils, since they likely originate from the area. These lentils do take longer to cook, and are not as good in making a mush-like soup, like the red ones. But they have a very particular flavour to them, which is why the cinnamon and garlic pair nicely with it. The best part of this soup is the boiled egg that you eat it with. Many people are often turned off by it, but don't be one of them; the egg adds a nice layer to the soup; though it's not necessary.

You can also add other vegetables to the soup if you want. In this recipe I've added a potato and some spinach.

Total Cooking Time (including preparation): 2 hours
Yield: 4 persons

1 onion
1 tablespoon of olive oil/butter
4 cloves of garlic
6 cups of water
1.5 cups of brown lentils
1 cinnamon stick


2 cups of uncooked spinach
1 or 2 potatoes

1. Dice onion and fry it with olive oil on high heat
2. When onions are soft, add lentils, garlic and water
3. Season with salt and pepper
4. Add cinnamon stick--if adding vegetables, add them now, unless it is spinach, which will be added later on
5. Cover and cook on low heat
6. After 1 hour, check on soup, if it needs more water add some
7. Consistency should not be too thick nor too soupy, adjust water for desired preference.
8. Taste a lentil, if it is cooked, turn off heat and add spinach.
9. Keep lid on until spinach has been fully cooked
10. If you like the flavour of cumin, you can also add a little at the end
11. Boil an egg to make it either soft or hard; depending on your preference
12. Serve peeled egg in a bowl of soup

I would also have a nice hunk of fresh bread with this. You'll see how one bowl is often filling enough. And with the perfect mix of textures and flavours, you'll find this one being a favourite; even amongst your italian pasta-cooking friends.