28 March 2017

Tortas Ahogadas

It's taken me much too long to post a recipe for tortas ahogadas here, but I'm finally doing it.  These are Guadalajara's signature sandwich.  You can get them outside of Jalisco, but they're hard to find so it's worth making them at home because they're not too hard, although they'll only ever be an approximation of what you can get in Guadalajara.

There are six parts to this.  Pork carnitas, crusty bread, marinated onions, two sauces, and limes. The limes are the easiest part and you'll want plenty on hand to squeeze over your sandwich while you're eating.

There are tons of carnitas recipes out there and you can use one that looks good to you, but traditional carnitas don't have lots of stuff added in like so many recipes do.  Stick with Diana Kennedy's simple version here https://food52.com/recipes/13098-diana-kennedy-s-carnitas.  Or put a hunk of pork in the crockpot with a good hit of salt and a bit of water and cook till it's falling apart.  It's not going to be as rich as cooking it on the stove and rendering the fat into the meat, but it works.  Shred or chop the meat and spread it on a baking dish and broil till it's a bit crispy, adding some of the cooking liquid as necessary to make sure it doesn't dry out at all.  

The bread.  This is the part where you're going to have to make sacrifices.  Tapatios get a little dramatic about the birotes salados they use for tortas.  Some US restaurants even fly in birotes from Guadalajara since they apparently can't be reproduced anywhere else.  If someone in your town is making birotes, use those. If you can find decent crispy bolillos, they should work. Whatever you do, don't use the bolillos you can usually buy in the US because they're often more like teleras and completely wrong for tortas. It is absolutely essential that you use a bread that can stand up to being drowned in sauce.  Personally, I get baguettes and cut them into smaller hunks depending on how hungry the eater is.  They're not quite right but they work and are neither difficult nor very expensive since you can get three or four sandwiches out of one loaf.

The day before you want to eat these, thinly slice a large white onion and mix it with 3/4 tsp of marjoram or oregano or Italian seasoning, a couple tablespoons of vinegar, 1/4 cup of lime juice, and 1/4 tsp salt.  These amounts are all flexible.  Stick it in the fridge for at least 24 hours and they'll just keep getting better the longer they sit.

Most torta chains in Guadalajara serve two salsas.  You can drown your sandwich in the spicy one, but usually people use a tomato-based sauce for drowning and an arbol-based sauce to spice it up.  I recommend making both sauces so the eaters can choose how spicy their sandwich is. Both are really easy.  For the spicy sauce, simmer about 15 arbol chiles (or whatever small, dried, red chile you have in your grocery store) and a small clove of garlic in a bit of water to soften them.  Blend the softened chiles with a bit of the cooking liquid and strain.  Add salt to taste, and you can add some vinegar if you like or herbs.

For the drowning sauce, simmer a kilo of cored tomatoes in a bit of water for 25 minutes, then blend with a tablespoon each of marjoram (or another herb) and salt, plus some sugar or tomato paste if the sauce is too thin or bland.  You can also add vinegar and some people add more herbs or some onion. Everyone has their own recipe for the sauces so you can experiment a bit.

To assemble, cut open the bread and pull out of bit of the crumb so there's more room for the meat.  Stuff it with plenty of meat (they add a lot of meat in Guadalajara).  You can serve the sandwiches at this point with the sauces, onions, and limes on the table for people to add as they please. Or you can drown them yourself.  These can be fun for a picnic if you bring the stuffed (but not drowned) sandwiches along with the sauces, limes and onions.  But make sure to have a way to wash your hands because these are messy.  

This makes a good ten sandwiches, if you used a big chunk of meat, with plenty of drowning sauce.  Adjust amounts as needed, or freeze things for later like I do.

26 March 2017

ربع

One of my favorite things about Arabic is its root system.  Nearly all Arabic words are based on three-radical roots with extra letters added in certain places to create different meanings.  For example, the root k-t-b (kataba) means "to write."  If you double the second radical (kattaba) you get "to cause to write" and if you put an alif before the root you get "to dictate" and so on.  Then there are related nouns like kitaab which means book (kutub is the plural), maktab which means office, kaatib which means writer, and lots more.  You can insert letters into the middle of the root or add them at the beginning and there are often predictable changes in meaning depending on which letters you add (doubling the second radical often makes the verb causative, for example).   It's all rather fun.

On to today's root, which is ربع or r-b-ayn (there's no equivilant letter in English for this one) and is pronounced something like "raba'a." The basic root means "to sit" or "to stay, live" and other forms of the verb mean "to quadruple" or "to sit cross-legged."  That form II meaning of quadrupling results in nouns meaning "four," "quarter" (both as 1/4 and a delineated physical area), and "square," plus lots of related nouns.  When you talk about the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia, the name uses this root, for example, and you also use it in math all the time, obviously.

In Arabic a few weeks ago, we were talking about women who have been political leaders and this root came up again.  The form V verb "taraba'a" means to sit cross-legged, but if it's used in a phrase with the word throne, it would be translated as "to ascend the throne." The other woman in my class is also an American and both of us were having a hard time figuring out what our teacher was trying to tell us that connected sitting cross-legged and thrones, because in English, one never would sit cross-legged on a throne, especially in the context of becoming a queen or king.  I love seeing a little piece of cultural differences like this.

25 March 2017

Odds and Ends

It's nearly the end of the cool season here in Riyadh.  It's already too warm in the afternoons, but I cannot complain about highs in the 80s, not when it will soon be much warmer and when the 80s felt so good in November.   April should still be tolerable in the mornings but then we'll get five long, hot months until we start to get tolerable mornings in October.  That's a long time to wait.  But I feel like I've enjoyed the last five months as much as I could.

There was a sandstorm earlier this week.  I did not know it was possible to have a sandstorm combined with rain.  It was quite literally raining dirty water and it made the city even dirtier than a normal dust storm.  It was so bad it was almost impressive.  But it wasn't as bad here as further north or west.  We were lucky.

The rumor mill is strong right now, saying that Saudi will announce on April 3rd that women (well, some women, maybe, with lots of rules) will be allowed to drive.  One rumor is that women 40 and over will be allowed to drive first, or maybe just during certain hours of the day.  I don't really want to drive in Riyadh so I'd mostly just go to the closest grocery store, but I would drive out of the city to explore if that were allowed.  The idea makes me so excited.  Except I'd probably have to wait till November to really enjoy it.  Also, there are rumors about movie theaters happening, although there will still be lots of rules for that too.   It would just be nice to have more options.

The other day we tried to go bowling together, but since my 16-year-old was wearing shorts, we couldn't go in the family section.  So the rest of the family when to the men's section and I waited in the car.  I wait in the car a lot here for one rule or another but I always bring a book and I can't really complain about sitting quietly in the car while the rest of the family does their thing. I didn't want to bowl in an abaya anyway so I was happy to volunteer to sit that one out.

We were in Bahrain a couple of weeks ago, the first time I'd left the country even though most of the rest of the family has been all over the place since last summer (Iraq, UK, Egypt, and Bahrain).  And it was so normal.  You forget sometimes how not normal Saudi Arabia is, because you sort of have to not think about it all the time.  But in Bahrain, people's faces were on the billboards.  You can choose if you wore an abaya or not.  If you're not Muslim, you don't need to keep track of prayer times.  You can go to church.  We were quickly reminded what it's like in Saudi when we stopped for gas after crossing the border and realizing prayers had just started.  But we had enough gas to drive on till prayers ended.

Also, Bahrain has a Lego store, and the food court in that mall has a place with a tandoor oven.  I never would have thought I could get bread cooked in a tandoor in a mall food court.  We were going to watch a movie but it was not a good weekend for it.  Everything we wanted to see wasn't there anymore or not quite released yet.  The tandoor and the Lego store made up for all that.  There was a bowling alley too.

There are lots of things I like about Saudi Arabia though, like watching families stopping to pray along the highway.  And finding more interesting places to eat.  Last week we found a place that takes traditional fatayer toppings and puts them on pizza.  Not exactly giant fatayer, but also not exactly pizza because who puts labnah and honey on pizza?  We do here, with mozzarella too, and it's delicious.  And someone has been doing lots of new geocaches in our neighborhood.

21 March 2017

Hiromi's Sushi Rice

A Japanese friend of mine recently taught me how she makes sushi rice.  I can't say that my family is much of a fan, but I'm happy with whatever I've made with this.  Her recipe calls for 5-6 tablespoons of vinegar and 4-5 heaping tablespoons of sugar which is too sweet for me so I use what is listed below.

2 1/2 cups sushi rice, or Egyptian rice
2 2/3 cups kombu dashi (add powdered kombu to water or soak your own kombu which is very easy)

6 tablespoons rice vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
2 1/4 tsp salt

Wash the rice well, drain, and cook in the dashi.  Bring the rice to a boil, then stir, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook 15 minutes, then turn off the heat and let it sit 5-10 minutes.  While the rice is cooking, combine the rest of the ingredients and stir to dissolve the sugar.  Pour the mixture over the hot, cooked rice and mix carefully so you don't smush the rice.  Spread the rice out to cool it or fan it while you're stirring to help it cool off.  Then cool completely before using.

Anything made with this rice is sushi, whether it has any type of fish in it or not. We used lots of different things in our maki sushi.  You can't get sashimi-grade fish here so she didn't use any, but we had lots of other delicious things with wasabi and soy sauce.  My friend did not approve of someone adding strawberries to their sushi though. :)

You can get nori and kombu at an Asian grocery. A sushi rolling mat is nice but you can use a dish cloth if needed. And slice your sushi with a very sharp knife so you don't mangle it.  And even if your family isn't impressed, this is an easy thing to bring to a potluck because it's easy to eat and everyone else will be impressed because people think sushi is complicated even though it doesn't have to be.

08 March 2017

Fatayer

Like all good non-sedentary cultures, Saudi Arabia borrows extensively from its more sedentary neighbors to provide lots of great food choices (thank you, Yemen).  Levantine pies are easy to find here, from fast food chains to much more authentic places.

Or you can make them at home.  I use Paula Wolfert's dough from The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, except that I use whole wheat flour.  There's enough olive oil in the recipe that the dough is still tender and delicious. There are so many recipes out there for the dough.

Preheat a baking stone to at least 450 degrees for at least 30 minutes.  After it's hot, pinch off a bit of dough (around 60-70 grams) and roll it into a very thin oval.  In my opinion, the most important part of making fatayer making sure the dough is thin.  Let it rest for a minute, then put the filling in a wide strip in the middle of the oval (the long way).  Fold the edges of the dough over the filling but don't cover the filling, then pinch the ends to make a boat shape.  It might take some practice but even if it looks weird, it'll taste good.  Bake on the hot stone till its golden on the bottom - it'll depend on how hot your oven is.

There are so many fillings you can use.  One easy one is to sauté a bit of onion and garlic in olive oil, then add some chopped greens and quickly cook them down.  Drain and press out as much liquid as possible before using as a filling, and add a squeeze of lemon and some salt to taste too.  You can sprinkle on some feta if you want.

Cheese with tomato.  Cheese (experiment with Middle Eastern cheeses, and soak them first if they're too salty, or just use the kind of feta you get in US grocery stores). Cheese with zaatar.  Labnah with a drizzle of honey after it's cooked.  Labnah with zaatar.  Cheese with mint.  Cheese with mint and tomato.  Chicken and mint.  Potato and mint.  Potato and cheese.  You get the idea.

07 March 2017

Lumpia

These are super easy.  Sauté some onion and garlic in a little oil, then add some chopped vegetables like cabbage, carrots, green beans, jicama, bean sprouts, or whatever makes you happy.  Add some soy sauce and oyster sauce, but don't cook the vegetables for too long.  They should still be crunchy.  You can add some cooked protein, or add it later, or not bother with it at all.

Put a few tablespoons of the vegetables in the corner of a spring roll/mutabbaq wrapper.  Add some protein if you like (chicken, tofu, meat), then fold the nearest corner over, then the two edges, and roll up.  Stick it on a baking sheet and repeat with all the rest. Brush with a little oil then bake at 375 till they're golden brown.

You could fill these a little ahead of time and then put them in the oven later.  Any number of sweet and spicy sauces would be good with these.  I use whichever one is in my fridge, because there's always a homemade chile sauce in there.

06 March 2017

Jareesh

This is cracked wheat dish from the peninsula.  Jareesh is either the wheat or a dish made from the wheat.  It's called harees in the UAE, apparently. There are lots of versions but last night I tried it this way.  Since it gets fairly thick at the end, using a crockpot is a good option.  This is not very exact, but I don't think I'll get back to this recipe till next winter.  This is exactly what you want on a cold, rainy night.  Creamy, savory, and hot.

Dump all of this in a crockpot and cook on high for about six hours, probably.  Add more liquid, whichever one you prefer, if it's getting too thick.  You can also add 4 oz of butter near the end, but I felt like it was plenty good without it.

1 1/2 cups jareesh/cracked wheat (not bulgur, despite what you might read elsewhere)
1 cup shredded chicken
2 cups chicken broth
2 cups milk
1 cup cream
1.5 cups yogurt
Salt to taste

Just before serving, thinly slice an onion or two in olive oil and/or butter till it's very brown but not crisp and serve on top.





04 March 2017

Janadriyah

Saudi Arabia might be slowly opening up right now (we'll see), but for over 30 years they've had a festival in the spring that is the main cultural event of the year in this part of the country. I've been looking forward to the Janadriyah Festival for a long time.

The logistics of going to this are a bit hard.  It's only open for families for about a week and over a million people go so it can be terribly crowded.  The weekends are the worst, but I was able to avoid that and go on a Monday and Tuesday evening, first with my husband and then on my own.  Parking/drop off is either slow or you can walk a long way (I recommend the latter), but once you're in there, it's an amazing place.

Everything I'd read about the festival, and I mean everything, talked about how many mutaween are always there, but either because we were there on boring nights or because the mutawa isn't as powerful right now, I saw no religious police and walked around with my head uncovered and even held my husband's hand.  So exciting.  Everyone was so warm and welcoming, without exception.

There's a lot to see here, from camels to falcons to dancing, but I wanted to see all of the provinces and I almost made it to all of them.  A few years ago they built a large, permanent compound (sort of like state fairgrounds in the US) with sections for each of the provinces.  They each had spaces for demonstrating handicrafts, selling stuff, food stands, traditional houses, and all sorts of other things.  It was so interesting to be able to go inside all the different homes, plus there was lots of food to try or to buy and so many things to see.  I didn't take the camera with me the second night, unfortunately.

They also have spaces for the other Gulf countries, plus a guest country. This year was Egypt so we were happy to poke around in there.  

It's fun to see the photos others post and hear what their favorite parts were.  There really is far more to see and do than is possible in one night.

I can't wait for next year.