The Secrets of My Heart

Dear reader,

As today marks the beginning of the end, I can’t help but do a mental countdown to midnight. It’s not that the year has been so bad that I can’t wait for it to end, it’s because ends and beginnings are always exciting to me; both carrying great expectations. Last year at the same time, there was no book, no blog, no readers. My hopes were of a different caliber: I was testing and retesting recipes, and scrambling to meet my self-imposed deadlines. I was cooking and writing, and writing and cooking on an intensive schedule as well as pulling unpaid weekend and evening overtime; trying up to six recipes a week (sometimes the same one over and over) while teaching full time; and writing, writing, writing, documenting, and revising. I have accomplished my goal. My mother and daughter are proud of me.

For some reason, unknown to an all-knowing woman like me, I am hopeful this time of the year, hoping for ole good things to continue, bad ones to cease, and unachieved ones to happen. I am releasing my wants to the universe, hoping my lucky satellite will catch them as signals and send them right back to me as full-fledged, high-definition reality.

1)It’s quiet in here. I can hear my echo. Each one of my words reverberates back to my ear every time I publish a post. I am hoping for a throng of readers and more convivial conversations (aka back and forth comments.)

2)I’m hoping for wars to end, the world to be more tolerant, and natural catastrophes to take a break this year. It’s true that I want these things. I’m not just trying to sound noble. But I’m an American, a naturalized one who’s become more American than a natural-born (much to my family’s distaste), and I value my here, me and now. I wish for gas prices to go down, the economy to improve, and the Cheesecake Factory to carry its pumpkin cheesecake past the holidays.

3)I’ve missed Julie and Julia at the theatres and the camera sale at the closing of Circuit City. Both the movie and the high-end camera will cost me more now, but I’m hoping the world will provide either another sale or more money in my account. I have two demanding passions to nurture: food and photo. Lord, hear my plea. That’s quite a burden on a single mother’s arms (my single motherhood days will be over soon, but I will continue to play the African American race card whenever I can.)

4)I am sucking on a half rectangle of Ghirardelli’s dark chocolate as I’m writing this. I take this as a good sign for the new year. It’ll be a sweet one, with just enough bitterness to enjoy the sweet more. It’ll be a wonderful one, with me as a Cleopatra in a luxurious bath of dripping honey, cascading milk, melting chocolate and oozing butter, enjoying the elixirs of the gods.

5)And of course, I wish you, very dear reader, abundant happiness, vibrant health, and great fortune! Happy Food Year! Bonne année, bonne santé, et le paradis à la fin de vos jours! (Good Year, Good health, and Heaven at the end of your days!)

Xoxo,

Nisrine

Hummus bi Tahini

In the world of hummus, this one is the original and best. And yes, there is a world of hummus: a world of possibilities. I will share different flavors of hummus in the future. I thought starting with the original recipe was a wise idea, as you can apply all kinds of adaptations to it depending on your preferences and the ingredients you have available. Think about sun-dried tomato or roasted garlic hummus. Does that sound tempting?

In Arabic, hummus simply means chickpeas or garbanzo beans. To specify “hummus” as we mean it here, one would normally say hummus bi tahini (chickpeas with sesame paste). Hummus is definitely an appetizer that one can prepare ahead of time and refrigerate until needed—even though it’s a good idea to store it out of sight if you think you can’t control yourself. When I think of a Mediterranean appetizer, this one comes to mind immediately. I love the taste of the fresh garlic and lemon juice as well as the robustness of the extra virgin olive oil, which I don’t taste when I buy hummus. I also like to use it as a spread in sandwiches or dip for vegetables, and of course, I do eat entire spoonfuls when nobody’s looking. The traditional way to enjoy it, though, would be with pieces of fresh or toasted bread.

Hummus bi Tahini

4 to 6 servings

1 garlic clove, peeled

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons tahini (sesame paste)

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

2 tablespoon water

Salt and pepper, to taste

Paprika for garnish (optional)

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the garlic until finely minced. Add the chickpeas, lemon juice, tahini, olive oil, water, salt and pepper, and purée until a chunky paste or desired smoothness has been achieved. Transfer to a serving bowl, drizzle with some olive oil and sprinkle with paprika. Serve with pita or flatbread.

Fig-Olive Tapenade


If you know me at all, you won’t be surprised that I’m absolutely smitten, head over heals in love with appetizers. I often order from the appetizer menu when I eat out, enjoying two and sometimes three starters for dinner, not leaving any room for a main course. I love the light and flirtatious nature of appetizers so much, that taking my meal to the next level and getting an entrée is often something I forgo.

At home too, I adore making appetizers. They are quick, easy and fun. People are often reticent to make appetizers. It’s a part of the meal that’s wrongly dreaded. When I’m invited, people would have elaborate homemade main courses but serve only chips, crackers and store-bought dips. I think appetizers deserve more attention than that, being—in my opinion—the most important part of the meal.

I love tapenades of all kinds, but I had never had one with a sweet ingredient like figs. So when I saw the recipe in David Lebovitz’s book The Sweet Life in Paris, I knew I had to try it. I’m glad I did, because it was fabulous—as are all of David’s recipes! Everyone loved it, especially me. I know I’ll be making it again. I didn’t make many changes to the original recipe except that I used Kalamata instead of black olives.

Fig-Olive Tapenade

6 to 8 servings

1/2 cup dried Black Mission figs, stemmed and quartered
1 cup water
1 cup pitted Kalamata olives, rinsed and drained
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons whole-grain mustard
1 garlic clove, peeled
2 teaspoons capers, rinsed and drained
2 anchovy fillets
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

In a small saucepan, simmer the figs in the water for about 15 minutes, until very tender. Drain.

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the pitted olives, drained figs, lemon juice, mustard, garlic, capers, anchovies, and rosemary to create a thick paste. Pulse in the olive oil until you’ve achieved a chunky-smooth paste. Season with salt and pepper, if necessary.

Serve with slices of bread or crackers.

Spiced and Herbed Goat Cheese

The time after Christmas right before the end of the year is usually one of the quietest I experience. Unlike summer or spring break when I tend to be very active and do a lot of traveling, this time of the year finds me enjoying the tranquility and uneventfulness of the seasonal vacation. As I’m lying nonchalantly on the sofa, my eye half blinded by a poignant ray of sun, I’m pensively contemplating my unusually placid neighborhood through the window blinds. It is amazingly pacific out there, especially for a time when the kids are out of school and you’d expect to see many of them streaking the sidewalks with their shiny scooters and devilish skateboards. Maybe their Christmas presents this year were of the kind that keeps their body pinned to a sofa, eyes glued to a screen, and thumbs fidgeting in right and left, up and down motions.

It’s quiet inside the house too. After company left yesterday and the spirit of the holiday with all its hustle and bustle is starting to fade away and feel like a thing of the past, everything is getting back to normal. I have made quite a few dishes over the last couple of days that I’ll be sharing right here in this young, aspiring blog throughout this week. I have leftovers to last me for days. I have time this week. Time to spend with family. Time to read a good book. Time to go out for a brisk walk on the (child-free) streets. Time to stop and smell the roses. This is the most wonderful time of the year!

This is a recipe from my cookbook and the first of many appetizers I’ll be sharing this week. It is made with delicate goat cheese combined with bold spices and thyme. When I talked about having leftovers, this was certainly not one of them. It’s an appetizer I can’t make last very long. It is amazingly delicious!

 

Spiced and Herbed Goat Cheese

4 to 6 servings

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

5 ounces fresh goat cheese

Crackers or bread

Place the black pepper, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, ground cloves, cayenne pepper, and thyme on a large plate. Stir with a spoon until well mixed. Spread into a thin layer.

Shape the goat cheese into a log. Roll the log in the spice-herb mix until the cheese is completely covered.

Wrap the goat cheese tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate, 15 to 20 minutes.

Serve with crackers or bread and fresh fruit. The cheese is also delicious drizzled with a little honey.

Star Trek Christmas




Spinach Quiche


Gee, it feels like yesterday since I went through the same ritual of running last-minute errands, and opening presents before heading to my future in-laws’ to celebrate Christmas. John and I like to open our mutual gifts in private rather than in front of everybody on Christmas Eve.

I haven’t used my present yet but I’m already in love with it. John bought me a beige electric blanket, the kind that comes with a control pad with a lot of buttons to adjust the temperature. Everything he buys me comes with buttons. I think he might be trying to incorporate more technology in my life as he loves it so much—everything in his house works with a remote control. I know I will be using my heated blanket a lot—even in the summer, with the brutally cold AC in the house. .

In return, I made him his favorite dish: a spinach quiche with a lot of cheese. I use store-bought pie crust for my quiche. Sometimes I make it crustless. I attempted to make it with a homemade crust, but John insisted it was not necessary.


Spinach Quiche

4 servings

1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 ounces frozen chopped spinach, thawed
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
6 ounces crumbled Feta cheese
8 ounces shredded Swiss cheese
1 (9–inch) frozen deep-dish pie crust
3 eggs
1/3 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
In a medium skillet, sauté the onion in butter over medium heat, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and spinach, season with salt and pepper, and cook for 5 minutes. Mix in the feta and half the Swiss cheese, transfer into the piecrust and level out the surface. In a bowl, whisk the eggs with the milk and season with salt and pepper. Gently pour the milk and egg mixture on the quiche, poking little holes in the spinach with a fork to help the liquid penetrate. Bake for 15 minutes. Top the quiche with the rest of the Swiss cheese and bake for 30 minutes.

Chicken and Almond Brewats



Brewats
in Arabic mean “little envelopes.” I’ve eaten many variations of these little envelopes, from seafood and vegetables to cheese and fruits. The delicate, crispy phyllo dough makes everything taste more delicious, more sophisticated. If you’re looking for an elegant appetizer that will please everyone, look no more—this one is perfect.

These brewats with chicken, saffron and almonds are slightly adapted from the chicken and almond b’stilla in my book, Marrakesh Express. B’stilla is a larger, more festive version of brewats that is served during weddings and other big events. It is elegant, with opulent yet subtle flavors. B’stilla is typically made with thin and delicate b’stilla dough sheets, which are similar to phyllo dough, only more elastic. I’ve been using phyllo since I’ve moved to the US, and I love it—it makes crispy, dainty brewats and b’stillas.

I’ve spent all day in the kitchen today. I get so wrapped up and spend hours on end totally focused on whatever it is I’m making. Nothing else counts. Nothing else matters at that moment. My cooking takes importance unlike any other. I forget and abandon myself in it. Cooking is my yoga, my daily meditation session, and in a way my stress reliever.

As I was wrapping the phyllo around the chicken, every single one of my senses concentrated on getting a perfect fold, a faultless envelope to carry the delicious missive. And I got that perfect fold. And it felt like a conquest. That was my little victory for the day!

Chicken and Almond Brewats

Makes 8 to 10 brewats.

For the chicken

3/4 pound chicken breast
1 medium onion, diced
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 pinches saffron
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 eggs, beaten
6 sprigs parsley, chopped
6 sprigs cilantro, chopped
2 1/2 cups water

For the almond mixture
4 ounces roasted salted almonds
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ tablespoon orange blossom water

For the phyllo
8 to 10 b’stilla or phyllo dough sheets
4 ounces unsalted butter, melted

For the garnish

Confectioner’s sugar
Ground cinnamon

Thaw the phyllo dough according to package directions.

In a medium pot, combine all the ingredients for the chicken except the eggs, parsley, and cilantro. Simmer over medium heat until the onions are translucent, 8 to 12 minutes.

Add the water, cover, and cook until the chicken is tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Scoop out the chicken and save the sauce for cooking the eggs. Shred the chicken using your hands or 2 forks and set aside.

Cook the beaten eggs in the sauce with the cilantro and parsley, stirring constantly to scramble the eggs, 8 to 10 minutes. Scoop out the eggs and mix with the shredded chicken. Let cool.

Grind the toasted almonds in a food processor until a paste-like consistency is obtained. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the sugar, cinnamon, and orange blossom water. Add the almonds to the egg and chicken mixture.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Take one sheet of phyllo dough and brush it with melted butter. Place 2 tablespoons of the chicken mixture on one end of the phyllo dough. Tuck the sides of the dough in and roll into an eggroll shape.

Place the eggrolls on a greased cookie sheet and brush with butter. Bake until golden brown and crispy, 30 to 35 minutes. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar and cinnamon before serving.

Ispahan Yule Log: Bûche Ispahan

Christmas is in three days, this Friday. I suspect you know that already, but I’d like to state the obvious, in case you didn’t notice today’s date or forgot in the frenzy of the season. It’s easy to lose focus when we have so much craziness around.

I hope I’m sounding excited because I really am. I made a jaw-dropping, eye-catching, sense-rejuvenating Yule log adapted from a recipe by the one and only, best of the best Pierre Hermé. I was introduced to Pierre Hermé by my sister in law, Lamia, three years ago. She owns a cookbook of his that she treasures like her dessert bible. I love Lamia—she’s so sweet. I must say I envy her a little for her agility and ability in the kitchen. She makes you so jealous and resentful by always making perfectly perfect desserts. But then she feeds them to you, and you love her all over again. Ah, those tartes aux amandes and fondants au chocolat of hers…Mon Dieu, mon Dieu!

When I looked at Hermé’s bûches de Noël, he had recipes of every kind. I’m used to the chocolate and vanilla bûches available at every pâtisserie during this season in Morocco. My mother never made one. We either bought it or received it as a present. Moroccans—for the most part—don’t celebrate Christmas, but decorate stores and restaurants for the season. People exchange Christmas-looking cards (with evergreens, ornaments, candles…) that say “Bonnes Fêtes” or “Bonne Année” instead of Merry Christmas. Some people even go out to dinner or a party on Christmas Eve, but it’s a mindless celebration—just another occasion to have fun.

Amid Hermé’s panoply of mouth-watering bûche recipes, I liked the rose, raspberry and lychee one. I couldn’t find fresh or canned lychees anywhere near where I live, so I substituted canned Bartlett pears, which worked beautifully. I thought the fruity pink filling and topping would brighten up my table in the middle of the winter and taste delightfully light after a meal. It reminds me of the gâteau roulé au citron I ate and loved as child, which is just as playful. You’ll be surprised by the lightness of the génoise and raspberry ricotta which I liked much better than the original buttercream in the recipe.

 

P.S. The pictures really don’t do justice to how wonderful this Yule log tastes (I will redo them as soon as I can.)

Bûche de Noël with Raspberries, Rose and Pears

6 to 8 servings

For the génoise (cake)
2/3 cup sugar
4 eggs, yolks and whites separated
2/3 cup all-purpose flour

For the filling

8 ounces part skim milk ricotta
5 ounces fresh raspberries, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon rose water
1 (15-ounce) can Bartlett pears in light syrup (or lychees, preferably)

For the syrup

Syrup from the can of pears
1 teaspoon rose water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a 8×10 pan with parchment paper.

Beat the sugar with the egg yolks in a medium mixing bowl until frothy. Gently whisk in the flour. Beat the egg whites to soft peaks and fold them into the egg yolk, sugar and flour mixture. Transfer to the prepared pan and bake for 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the ricotta, raspberries, sugar, and rose water in the bowl of a food processor and reduce to a purée. Set aside.

When the cake is cooked, unmold it onto a damp towel, remove the parchment paper and roll the cake immediately with the towel. Let it cool that way, about 20 minutes. Place the pears on a cutting board and dice them. Pour the syrup into a small saucepan, add the rose water and heat it over low heat for about 5 minutes. Unroll the cake and remove the towel. Brush the cake lightly with the syrup, spread half of the raspberry ricotta inside the cake and top with diced pears. Gently roll the cake, cover it with raspberry ricotta and cut off the ends. Garnish with raspberries and refrigerate for an hour before serving.


 

Meatloaf My Way


The week is almost over. It’s been a hectic but wonderful one. So many things happened: I did and redid homework, graded quizzes, wrapped presents, exchanged presents, met with friends, cooked pasta, baked muffins, and even mentally traveled to Morocco for my half sister Maria’s wedding. Even though we didn’t grow up together, I would have loved to be there for her wedding. Maria is a beautiful and smart 23-year-old banker with many talents. I wish her all the happiness in the world.

Tonight, I had a great dinner. I made turkey meatloaf my way (what do I not do my way?). I’ve always had this great meatloaf recipe, but this time I made changes inspired by my favorite of all cheeses: La Vache Qui Rit, The Laughing Cow. I grew up eating a tartine with La Vache Qui Rit every morning for breakfast for 23 years. Can you believe that?! 365 delicious and creamy wedges of cheese multiplied by 23! Do the math!


When I glimpsed the motherly red cow laughing on the circular box at Publix, I got an adrenaline rush. I thought I saw my own mother. They both were there for me every single day of my 23 blissful years, after all. I love adding cheese to my meatloaf. I have made the same meatloaf before with Feta cheese—and it’s fantastic. Any creamy, strong-flavored, easy to blend cheese would work—whatever cheese you have on hand would work, even if it’s a hard cheese that you have to grate.

But, consider buying La Vache Qui Rit—not only will you love it in this meatloaf, but you’ll have a few wedges left for a great-tasting, easy to transport snack. It comes in many flavors and is available light.

Meatloaf My Way

4 servings

2 slices wheat bread, crusts removed
1/4 cup milk
1 1/4 pounds ground turkey breast
1 egg, beaten
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground sage
½ teaspoon ground mustard
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 small onion, grated
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
4 wedges Original or Garlic Herb La Vache Qui Rit (or 2 to 3 ounces of Feta)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tear the bread into pieces in a large mixing bowl. Add the milk and allow the bread to soak. Add the turkey, egg, salt, pepper, oregano, sage, mustard powder, garlic, onion, parsley and cheese. Mix until all the ingredients are well blended.

Press the mixture into an 8×4 loaf pan. Bake 50 to 55 minutes.

Spaghetti with Saffron Red Pepper Sauce and Gruyère

I had pasta yesterday, and so did I tonight. I didn’t cook tonight, but I did yesterday. Ce soir, I ate at an Italian restaurant. I had Chicken Marsala (with pasta, of course). Pasta is a food that I don’t tire of easily. Maya doesn’t either.

Four years ago, while working on a chapter about food with my students, I asked them to write what they had for dinner the entire previous week, hoping they’d use as much vocabulary as possible. A girl, whose name I can’t remember, but whose light blond highlights on jet black hair I will never forget, wrote les pâtes (pasta) for every single night. When I told her I wanted more effort than writing the same word seven times, she innocently answered: but, madame, that’s what I eat every night. I asked her if she didn’t get tired of having it all week. She said it was totally fine.

I guess pasta is truly a dish one can have often and be happy every time. It’s versatile enough that every night’s pasta dinner can taste completely different.

Spaghetti with Saffron Red Pepper Sauce and Gruyère

4 servings

2 red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded, and chopped
2 shallots, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 pinches saffron
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons plain yogurt
1 (14-ounce) box of multi-grain spaghetti
4 ounces gruyère, freshly shredded
A handful chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish

Place the red bell peppers and shallots in a medium saucepan. Season with salt, pepper, and saffron. Add the olive oil and sauté over medium heat, 4 minutes. Add the chicken broth and simmer until the red bell peppers are very soft and the liquid reduced to half, 12 to 15 minutes. Stir in the yogurt. Blend on high in a food processor until smooth and creamy.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling salted water according to package directions. Drain.

Add the pasta to the red pepper sauce and mix well. Plate, top with shredded gruyère and garnish with chopped cilantro.