It’s the month of May in Indiana, and we’re a week from the Indianapolis 500. It’s like a huge festival in the city with checkered flags and race themes everywhere you look. Because my cooking schedule somewhat got off last year, this is the first year where I’m not cooking on Race Day. I suppose that will be a nice change. Not that it matters that much—the race is blacked out here in most of Indiana. Instead, I’m cooking today. And it will be far more exciting and less crowded.
It seems like every recipe I had required a wait time this go around. I started with the lafah bread, a type of flat bread. Instead of proofing my yeast first, I mixed my yeast in with the flour, sugar, and salt, and then I slowly added in my warm water and oil, mixing it until the dough came together. After kneading it together, I oiled the bowl and made sure the dough was covered in oil. I covered it with some plastic wrap and let it sit for about an hour. Then I divided the dough into six pieces, formed them into balls, and let them sit under a damp towel for about 10 minutes longer. I took each ball and rolled it out to a 10-12” disk. After heating up some oil in my super large skillet I got for Mother’s Day, I laid each disk in the skillet and cooked it on either side until it was brown. I loved the flavor of this, and although a few spots in the bread were a little tough for some reason, the overall texture was absolutely wonderful with the chicken shawarma.
|It's dishes like this that makes me wish Smellovision was real.|
Speaking of, chicken shawarma is one of my favorite things ever. And this Iraqi version was a little different from what I have had before, but it was equally tasty. It’s like trying to choose between your children. I heated up my oil in the skillet and added some garlic. After a minute, I threw in my onions and then my chicken breasts that I cut into strips. I cut a half of a lemon into smaller chunks and threw it in (rind and all) along with some white wine vinegar. Then it came time for the spices: a little bit of salt, cinnamon, black pepper, cumin, coriander, garlic powder, paprika, turmeric, cloves, crushed red pepper, and cayenne pepper. You can adjust the spices as you like it. (I added in a little more paprika, cumin, and coriander.) Then I stirred this until everything was coated and let it sit for 7-8 minutes, stirred again, let it sit for another 7-8 minutes, stirred, and let it sit for about 4-5 minutes. This tasted as good as it smelled. I served this on top of the lafah bread, with some roasted garlic hummus and a Greek-style cucumber-dill dip that I used in lieu of tahini (a sesame seed paste). I cannot tell you how much I loved this. It truly made my heart happy. The combination of the sweet spices and savory spices always give food a very complex flavor.
|I don't care that it was chunky, it was good. And I made it.|
To go with this, I made my other favorite Middle Eastern food: falafel. I’ve had falafel many times, often as a sandwich like the shawarma. But I’ve never made it myself. This recipe made me realize how much we take canned goods for granted because not using canned chickpeas was a ton more work. I bought my chickpeas in a bag and soaked them overnight. (Ever wonder why some recipes call them chickpeas and some call them garbanzo beans? “Chickpeas” was borrowed from the French, and “garbanzo beans” was borrowed from the Spanish. But both mean the same thing.) I minced some onion, garlic, parsley flakes, and cilantro in a blender, and then I tried to pulverize the chickpeas with my mortar and pestle before attempting to put it in my blender to chop them up finer. However, I completely forgot to buy myself a food processor when we got our tax refund check back, so I was stuck with having to use a personal blender that’s really only ideal for making smoothies and nothing more. Needless to say, it really hated my idea of throwing chickpeas in there. But anyway, I mixed my half-chopped chickpeas and onion-cilantro mix together, and then threw in some flour and baking powder. The key was to mix it well and refrigerate it for two hours. After this time, I heated some oil in my skillet, formed the chickpea mix into balls and fried it. The flavor was outstanding, but the texture was still too chunky. It didn’t matter to me, though. I topped it with some cucumber-dill dip and kept it steppin’. The kids were a little indifferent, leaning toward the “I’ll pass” side. That’s understandable. I didn’t like falafel much until a few years ago, but that’s because someone once made falafel and tried to pass it off as meatballs and put it in my spaghetti. I’m still a little scarred.
|What's not to love about this? It's perfect.|
And finally, the pièce de résistance… Iraqi Klecha Cookies. Often considered the national cookie of Iraq, this cookie is the real deal. It was certainly a hit with everyone here. I started this off with mixing 1 packet of yeast into 1 ¼ c of warm water, covering it and allowing it to proof for about 5-10 minutes. In a large bowl, I mixed 4 c of flour, 1 tsp black sesame seeds (in lieu of nigella seeds), 1 tsp of ground cardamom, 1 tsp of ground fennel seed, 1 tsp salt, ½ c of vegetable oil, and 1 stick of butter (melted). I used my hands to mix everything together. Then I threw in my yeast-water mix into the bowl and stirred until my dough formed. I had to add a little bit of flour in order to get it smooth. Then I put some oil in the bottom of my bowl and rolled the dough in it enough to cover it, letting it rise for an hour. In the meantime, I made my filling: 1 c chopped walnuts, 3 Tbsp sugar, ½ tsp cardamom. After mixing these together, I threw this into my coffee grinder to grind it finer. When the hour was up, I punched down the dough and divided it into four sections. I took each section and rolled it out, using a ramekin as a stencil and cut out circles. I placed the walnut-cardamom mix onto half of the circle, folded over, and used a fork to crimp the edges together. Once I did this with all of the dough, I made an egg wash (1 egg lightly beaten with a splash of milk, stirred) and brushed it on top of each cookie. Then I put them in the oven at 350º for about 30-35 minutes. Besides having the egg wash drip on my pan and almost gluing the cookies to the pan and making a huge mess for my husband to clean up, these cookies were out of this world. I can completely understand why these are considered the national cookie. What’s not to love about this? The filling on the inside is not overpowering, but complements the buttery, slightly spiced, almost flaky pastry. It’s practically perfect. There are other fillings, such as date-filled ones, but I just went with this one today.
|I want another cookie, but I'm still so full.|
This was one of those meals that I call “healthy comfort foods.” At least it gives the impression of being so. Despite the fact that these dishes are more or less pan-Arab, each country and region has its own flavors and variations. I’ve had shawarma served with tomatoes and cucumbers, or sometimes served with shredded lettuce, but this particular recipe didn’t call for it. And the falafel recipe suggested a side of pepperocinis or pickles. I’m sure people in Iraq serve it with or without those things. Where do you draw the line between personal preference, recipe variations, and what the original recipe is? I don’t know. It’s hard to tell, but regardless of how you make it, as long as it feeds the ones you love, it shouldn’t matter.
Up next: Ireland