Thursday, July 30, 2009

Manly Hummus

Weekly poker is at our house tonight for the first time. I've never witnessed Poker Night before. Normally I try to put the girls to bed at least 1/2 hour earlier than usual and then relish the quiet.

I only know some of the guys (and girls!) that play. But I've heard stories. Boy, have I heard stories. There was that rabies scare. And the head wound. And getting kicked out. And getting lost in the bowels of Dushanbe. And then there was the hooker spy. And these are only the things I was told about.

Since my husband tends to play poker a bit better with a full stomach, my strategy is to make some good bread-y finger foods and keep it in a secret spot for only him to eat. This time, when the girls ask tomorrow morning, "Daddy, did you win the money???", he might actually be able to say yes and hold his head high.

So, the food.

I had cooked, frozen chick peas on hand, and about a trillion frozen flat pita-like breads from Al Sham, the local lebanese restaurant. Since hummus is sort of frou-frou, I thought I'd man it up with peppers. Every kind of pepper I had on hand. Not really all, but three.

It started with these ingredients.

First I chopped up some jalapenos. About four pickled jals. I threw them in the processor and whizzed them alone.

Next I added about 2 cups of chick peas, about 2 teaspoons of dried crushed peppers and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne.

I didn't have any lemons (gasp!) so I added a generous pour of the pickled jalapeno juice. I turned the processor on and slowly added about 1/4 cup of water. Maybe not even that much. Stop every so often to scrape the sides of the bowl down.

Then I grabbed these. A really dirty bottle of olive oil. Blech. But the olive oil is from the US and it's very yum. And some cumin.

With the motor running, slowly stream in the olive oil. And don't forget the cumin. Probably about two teaspoons.


Put into the serving dish, top with a bit of olive oil, a sprinkling of cayenne and garnish with the jal tops.


Note to the two readers of this blog. My husband pointed out to me that I forgot tahini. And I have tahini. I used tahini two days ago in an earlier batch of jalapeno hummus. Good thing we ARE the two readers of this blog otherwise I would be embarrassed.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Garden from Scratch That Was Almost Scratched...Again.

I started this blog last night about the challenges of gardening in Tajikistan. I went on (and on...) about the difficulties of gardening here -- my own lack of knowledge, soil quality, birds eating my herbs down to bare naked stalks, aphids on the pomegranates, etc. Even I was bored.

Lucky for the two readers of this blog, it got scrapped. Why?

Let's talk rain.

This was taken mid-May. It's our street. The ground was so saturated that the tiniest bit of spittle made the ground swell. But after two straight hours of torrential downpours, we started lining up in pairs waiting for Noah.

Now let's talk hail. Same storm. During the two hours of straight rain, it hailed for at least 30 minutes.

Our gutters couldn't handle the hail.

My garden couldn't handle the hail.

But the Sparkly Girls could handle the hail.

So, when this started about two hours ago, I had mixed emotions. It started out innocently enough. Just a bit of rain. I was surprised that the skies actually opened up.

I welcomed the relief from the stretch of 108 degree days we've had lately and the fact that we haven't seen rain in at least 6 weeks. But I feared for my garden. My tomatoes are 5 feet tall, the pepper plants are full of baby bells, anchos, bananas, jalapenos and the basil is nearly ready for it's second harvest.

But then this happened. See that white stuff? Hail.

And this. The sound of hail.

And again, the gutters couldn't take it.

And our street couldn't take it.

But my garden could. This time.

And then, just as quickly as it came, it passed. And we had this.

And a 20 degree temperature drop. All's good in the world.

Second Hand Soviet Kitchenware

As I hesitantly left my Sunday morning coffee behind, the four of us decided to go on an adventure. While Tajikistan is home to many natural wonders, it wasn't the mountain lakes we had in mind. Although considering the 108 degree temps predicted for the day, it might've been the better choice. Instead we decided to go to the second hand "market" near the train station.

Vendors lined either side of a narrow road, some lucky enough to find shade. Atop blankets and sheets of plastics, vendors toted their wares. Two things struck me. The addage that one man's garbage is another man's treasure is alive and well. And that Tajiks don't throw anything away. Whether this is a Soviet state of mind or a hold over from the rough economic times during the civil war (which frankly, persist today), the free market was thriving.

Everything could be found from old sink taps, to clothing, to rusty pipe fittings, to lonely lids to teapots, to old lighting fixtures. I'm sure that if I wasn't dripping sweat from my head like I had a hose attached to it, I could have found many treasures. But as it were, in all my schwettiness, I focused on old soviet kitchen items.

Here's a cookie mold. The forms on the right are pretty deep and I figure that the left side is to help the middle part of the cookies cook evenly. I need to find a cookie recipe that might work....maybe a madeleine recipe? The perplexing part is that the handle is some sort of plastic composite, like bake-lite, and I'm guessing it's not oven proof.

Now these molds, I'm guessing, are for chocolates.

Because when you put the two sides together you get these holes. Aren't they screaming for melted chocolate to be poured in?
These weigh a ton. There's a mortar and pestle and a tray. Stainless steel? I don't know that I'll ever use the mortar and pestle for spices, because the first thing that popped into my head when I saw it was that it came from a laboratory and not a kitchen. How 'bout a little uranium in those freshly roasted indian spices?
Until the 9am temperatures drop below 90 degrees, I don't think we'll be hitting the second hand market again. But it was fun to hunt and peck for the 30 minutes we could stand the heat!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

[Spicy] Thai One Pot

This dish and I go back. Way back. But then we lost each other, only to be reunited years later. When Paul and I were living in DC this recipe first found it's way to me. We both recall the recipe being on the back of a rice package. But I recall it being on a Rose's bag, and Paul recalls it being on something different. Perhaps it's irrelevant. What I do know is that this simple and cheap recipe came into our lives and then left us. We made it for a few years relying on the recipe on the back of the bag. With our first move overseas after being married, we lost our Spicy Thai One Pot.

After living in Turkmenistan for a few years, we flew to Singapore to visit my folks who were living there. If you've ever lived in Turkmenistan, you'd understand the simple pleasures of perusing the aisles of a grocery store. After about 10 minutes in their apartment, we decided to visit the little grocery store in their complex. Lo and behold, what did we find? The same rice with THE same Spicy Thai One Pot recipe on the back! The simple recipe that had been eluding us for so long.

It's not complex, as the name suggests. But, oh, is it easy AND tasty! It's the sort of dish that's greater than the sum of it's parts. And great for those mid-week meals that leave you staring in the pantry and the fridge, wondering what to make for dinner.

This is an adapted version that can be doctored up by adding a variety of veggies but as The Sparkly Girls aren't fond of cooked veg, I keep it pretty bland....until the end when the adults can add as much fire as they want! I recall the original calling for one chopped green pepper.

After a quick search on the internet, I found the original recipe. Find it here!

Start with the basics. Ground beef (not pictured), rice, stock, hot sauce and soy sauce.

Brown about 1 lb of ground beef in a saute pan. (Add any veg - diced carrots, bell pepper, etc. now, too). Once cooked, drain the fat.

Then add 1 1/2 cups of rice (brown, basmati, whatever floats your boat), and stir that around for a bit. Add 3 cups of stock (veg or chicken) and 1 tablespoon of soy sauce. Turn the heat down and let it simmer for 30 or 40 minutes, until the rice is tender.
When done, dish up portions for the little ones and yourselves, but be sure to add tons of chili garlic sauce (sriracha or sambal oelek) cilantro and chopped green onions to yours. Mix it up well, hum an ode to all that is good in life, and enjoy!

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Moment of Freak Organization

Today was hot. Really hot. Pushing high 90s at least, in the shade. When I got back from my morning walk in the botanical garden, I was sweaty. And hot.

After a tall glass of cold water, I was gearing up for a shower only to be thwarted by the lights going out. Strange, I thought, since we haven't had electricity cut off for months now. The girls were delighted. Yeah! No lightricity! They rejoiced. I didn't.

You see, I couldn't take a shower since all the hot water had been used to clean the stacks of dishes left from a BBQ we hosted the night before. And the water was barely a trickle since the water heater was empty.

In all my stinkiness, I perused the house, contemplating my next task. Anything on the computer was out. No facebook. No typing game. No recipe surfing. After walking aimlessly for a bit, I decided to tackle a big stack of papers next to the printer that hadn't been touched since we moved in last December. After sorting through copies of past years' taxes, cat veterinary records and old airline tickets with boarding passes, I came across some cool specialty magnetic paper I forgot I bought.

I decided to tackle my herbs and spices. Which also hadn't been touched since I unpacked last December. They were screaming for some kind of organization and I wanted some order, too. It's hard to know what you have if it's all lumped in one big bin.
So I unpacked the spice tins I had ordered in various sizes from Mc Master-Carr (surely I must have thought that in my new life in Tajikistan I'd be really organized) and got myself busy with making printed labels from the magnetic paper.
Once I cut out the tags with an exacto knife, I dumped the various herbs and spices into the tins and marked each one accordingly with the cute little magnetic labels.
And just as I was finished, the lights came back on. I jumped up and quickly turned both air conditioners on, took a cool shower and then promptly checked facebook for new posts. Suddenly, all was right in the world again.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ricotta from scratch

If we were still living in Sturgeon Bay, I'd go to the local Pick n' Save and buy a 16 oz container of Belgioso ricotta, a box of those noodles that don't require pre-boiling, a jar of sauce and a block of mozzarella and whip up a quick pan of lasagne.

Not in Tajikistan.

It's more like a two-day affair of hunting and gathering to have all the ingredients that's needed....or riffing to the point where a totally new dish is created. Mozzarella is sporadic, to say the least. When I see it in the store I do a sort of jig. I haven't jigged lately, which means I'll have to substitute with some other cheese I can find. That's the easy part.

And as for the ricotta, well, let's just say that if Beligoso ricotta were in the stores, there'd be public announcement that would have all the expats dropping what they were doing and dashing to the one of the handful of grocery stores. While there are locally produced substitutes like tvorog (a local unpasteurized sort of cottage cheese), I'm a bit weary of the freshness, particularly in summer when day time temps approach 100 degrees and refrigerated transport trucks are a rarity. I'm just sayin'.

Instead, I peruse the internet and scour my cookbooks for a suitable replacement. I settle on Mark Bittman's homemade ricotta recipe from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I'm uneasy about the recipe because it references making Fresh Cheese from top quality milk.

And this is what I have for top quality milk in Dushanbe.

The recipe calls for buttermilk. And this is what I have for buttermilk which I brought back from the US (thank you Saco!).

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If you use UHT milk and dehydrated buttermilk, do you get fresh ricotta?

Let's see!

After a goodly five minutes figuring out the metric conversions, I'm ready to go. Okay, it took me upwards of ten minutes.

I poured 1.89 litres (give or take a few mls) of UHT full fat milk into a large pot.

Then I reconstituted the buttermilk. At this point you could make your own buttermilk by adding vinegar to regular milk and letting it sit for a bit. This was good intel for me, as it would come in handy later....

Next, line your strainer with cheesecloth, or muslin in this case.

Bring the milk to a boil and then add the 2 cups of buttermilk. Stir constantly until it separates and looks like egg whites, says Bittman. I stirred and stirred. And when the mixture came back to a boil and didn't separate, I pondered the fact that UHT milk and reconstituted buttermilk aren't fresh. So I grabbed the white vinegar and added 1 tablespoon. It curdled instantly. I added a big pinch of salt.

I then poured the mixture through the muslin-lined strainer and let it sit for 30 minutes or so and, if you can believe it, I actually had ricotta! Or at least a suitable facsimile of ricotta. Good enough for this girl.
As I put the ricotta in the fridge I can only hope that I have the inspiration to actually make lasagne or maybe spinach and ricotta filled calzone over the weekend.