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Quick and Easy Midsummer Meals
Here we are in the middle of summer, already!
With a month long hiatus sequestered in the studio working on a large painting that seemed to go on and on, I realized that with the summer heat and little time to spare, cooking light nourishing fare with the added perk of reheating for a repeat performance was the way to go.
No need to be slaving away in the kitchen while summer passes you by!
Dukkah, “to pound” in Arabic, is a traditional Egyptian spice mix that is trending across the globe thanks to the Australians who took to this exotic blend, brought to Australia by Arabic immigrants, and beamed it to the rest of the western world. You can even find Dukkah at Trader Joe’s in America for $26 for 3.3 oz., but why not have some fun and make your own at a fraction of the cost?
Dukkah is a blend of pounded dry roasted nuts, seeds, spices, pepper, and salt. From there you can expand the mix with additions of dried herbs, chilies, chick pea flour (also lentil flour), and pinches of aromatic spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, or clove. This really is a cook’s moment to get creative and come up with your very own house blend. Wonderful sprinkled over soups, salads, vegetables, grains, and as a spice rub for meats and seafood.
I would suggest trying the basic recipe the first time around and then expand the recipe to suit your own taste preferences. You will surely become addicted to Dukkah and want to keep some on hand to dress up those quick summer meals.
While the recipe that follows may seem complicated, it actually is not, and once you’ve put it up you are all set to try it out in a myriad of ways. A quick summer meal with Dukkah roasted chicken breasts will follow in my next post.
Za-atar, a regional spice mix that has been used throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa for centuries has suddenly become the it condiment of the moment. Popularized by cookbook authors and restaurateurs including Paula wolfort, Nigella Lawson, and Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi in their Jerusalem Cookbook.
Za’atar is as elusive as it is exotic! The essential ingredients are sumac, sesame seeds, and salt. Simple enough, but from there added regional ingredients vary widely, so attempting to make za’atar at home can be a western cooks conundrum. I have tried various variations without actually encountering an authentic za’atar from the region. Thankfully, a dear friend, who was off to London, armed with a sourcing list, went za’atar shopping for me and returned with a treasure trove of authentic za’atar and sumac from Comtoir Libanais. The Comtoir Libanais za’atar is robust, colorful, delightfully tasty, and addictive. I highly recommend a visit to their website.They also recently released a cookbook for those of you eager for further explorations into the foods of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The key ingredients in the recipe that follows are sumac, with a tart citrus taste, and wild thyme (similar to hyssop), with a sharp almost astringent flavor, found mostly in the Eastern Mediterranean. Neither is readily available other than from online spice purveyors, but some reasonable substitutes of my own are listed below.
- 1/4 cup fresh wild thyme leaves (lemon thyme, hyssop, or oregano are reasonable substitutes)
- 2 tablespoons powdered sumac powder (sour mango powder a reasonable substitute, available at South Asian purveyors)
- 1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt+ more to taste
- 1-2 tablespoons sesame seeds
- ½ teaspoon ground red chili powder (or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne), optional
Preheat the oven to 250F/130C
Strip the fresh wild thyme leaves off the stem, discarding the stems. Place the leaves on a baking sheet in a single layer and dry roast just until they crumble easily between the fingers and are still green in color; about 10 to 12 minutes, being careful not to over dry roast the leaves, which will turn the leaves brown and bitter.
Toast the sesame seeds in a dry skillet over medium low heat, tossing the seeds so they toast evenly. Set aside to add to the mix later.
Place the toasted wild thyme, sumac powder, and salt in a mortar and grind together into a fine powder. Add the toasted sesame seeds and coarsely grind into the mix, leaving some seeds whole. Taste and add more salt if needed and the chile powder if using.
Serve with toasted, or grilled, breads generously brushed with olive oil, or use as a condiment with just about anything else you can imagine. The flavor is addictive and you will find that za’atar will find a permanent place as a must have seasoning on hand at all times in your kitchen!
Flavors of Morocco
Origins are a bit sketchy, but harissa is found across the Middle East and North Africa, including Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia, as well as in France. Rich, earthy, and spicy, harissa is served with couscous and tagines, and found at nearly every food stall and restaurant across Morocco.
Recipes also vary widely, but most harissas include assorted dried chilies, garlic, olive oil and spices including cumin, coriander, sometimes caraway. Harissa is widely available commercially in bottles, tubes, and cans…but not to be confused with harissa l’ eau de toilette by Comme de Garcon for you fashion forward cooks! I kid you not.
- 6 dried red chilies
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
- 1 teaspoon reserved chili seeds
- 3 tablespoons olive oil + more for storing
- 1 small onion, diced
- 4 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon sea salt or to taste
- a pinch of sugar
- couscous broth for thinning
Split the dried chilies lengthwise and remove the seeds and reserve the seeds for toasting. Tear the chilies into pieces and place in a sauce pan with water to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook 15 minutes or until the chilies are very soft. Drain and set aside.
Toast the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, caraway seeds, and chili seeds in a dry sauté pan over low heat. Remove from the pan and set aside to cool. Once the seeds are cool, place in a suribachi (a very handy Japanese pottery mortar with ridged interior for grinding spices) or spice grinder and grind to a medium blend. Set aside.
Add 1 ½ tablespoons of olive oil to a saute pan, over medium heat, and when hot add the onions and and saute until soft. Add the garlic and saute an additional 2 minutes until just beginning to color. Add the drained red chilies, the ground cumin, coriander, caraway, and chili seeds and saute for a minute or two while stirring. Add the tomato paste to one side of the pan to caramelize and then stir it into the chilies and herbs while adding the lemon juice, salt, and pinch of sugar. Transfer the ingredients to a small food processor and blitz into a thick puree, adding an additional 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil as you blitz. The harissa should be the consistency of heavy cream. Taste and add additional salt if needed.
When you are ready to serve, you may add couscous broth to thin the harissa slightly so that it is easily spooned or poured onto the couscous.
Transfer to a small serving bowl or pitcher and serve with couscous, grilled meats, fish, or even slathered on a sandwich.
To store, place in a jar and, when completely cool, pour a little olive oil over the harissa to seal it. Put the lid on the jar and refrigerate. The harissa will keep for about a week refrigerated. It also freezes well for longer storage.
Summer Food: Recipes for a summer supper
Pickled watermelon rind brings back memories of the summer country life as a child, a group effort in the kitchen that everyone enjoyed, relishing the thought of eating these refreshing crisp chilled pickles along with lunches and suppers that always included some other seasonal bounty plucked right out of the garden.
There are two basic methods for pickling watermelon rind, the quick method that produces a soft texture or the longer method that produces a crisp texture. The longer method requires sterilizing canning jars and a boiling water bath for canning. Not as complicated as it sounds and the advantage of canning is the pickles will store well, improving with age, for at least six months without refrigeration. Recipes for both methods follow.
If you are going to bother to go through the effort of cutting up a watermelon that will provide 4 or 5 pounds of rind you may as well do it with the best possible outcome in mind. By using the canning method, you will be able to enjoy these delicious crisp pickles for months to come. The recipe, thanks to Marion Cunningham’s cook wise advice in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, includes some ingredients that you will have to search out, including clove and cinnamon oils, that you may find at your local essential oils shop, and slaked lime (calcium carbonate), that you might find at your local pharmacy. I was not so lucky finding slaked lime but, undeterred, I recalled that slaked lime is still used by Asian old timers as a part of the mix for betel chew. Off I went to the local traditional market’s betel chew vendor and sure enough…found! I briefly discussed slaked lime, posted in Polenta (Basics) that you might care to reference for additional information or go online for an in-depth overview.
Pickled Watermelon Rind; for putting up/canning makes six 12 oz jars or three 24 oz jars
1 medium watermelon
- 4-6 cups water (adjusted to cover the rind completely)
- 2 tablespoons slaked lime (or substitute 1 cup salt)
- 10 cups of sugar
- 3 ½ cups cider vinegar
- 3 cups of water (or more if needed to cover the rind completely)
- 1/2 scant teaspoon pure oil of cinnamon
- 1/2 scant teaspoon pure oil of clove
Cut away all the red melon and remove the green skin with a vegetable peeler and cut the rind into bite size cubes. (approximately 4 pounds prepared rind)
Choose a nonreactive container that will hold all the rind with the soaking/pickling liquids. Add 4-6 cups water to the container and stir in the slaked lime (or salt) until completely dissolved. Add the rind, cover, and refrigerate for 12 hours.
Remove from the refrigerator, remove the rind and place in a large colander. Rinse and allow to drain. Discard the soaking solution. Place the rind back into the empty soaking/pickling container.
In a large pot combine the sugar, vinegar, water, and oils of cinnamon and clove. Bring to a full boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved and the liquid is clear. Pour the hot liquid over the rind to completely cover. Add additional water if needed. Place a plate over the rind to submerge all the rind in the pickling liquid. Allow to cool, cover, and refrigerate for 24 hours.
Repeat this process for 4 days, re-boiling the pickling liquid each day and pouring it back over the rind, cool, cover, and refrigerate.
On the 4th day, place a large stock pot with lid on the stove (or canning pot) fitted with a wire rack on the bottom so that the canning jars will not touch the bottom of the pot. Place the empty canning jars in the pot (without the sealing rings and screw bands) and fill jars and pot with enough water to cover the canning jars by 1 inch. Be sure the jars do not touch the sides of the pot. Bring to a full boil and put the lid on the pot and boil for 15 minutes to sterilize the jars. Remove the jars, emptying the water in them back into the pot and set the jars aside on kitchen towels. Keep the water at a simmer while you prepare the rind to fill the canning jars.
Place sealing rings and screw bands in a separate bowl and pour some hot water (not boiling hot) over them to sterilize them as well.
As before, pour the pickling solution into a pot and bring to a full boil. Pour over the rind and then proceed to fill the sterilized canning jars with the pickled rind and pickling liquid leaving at least 1/8 inch of space at the top of the jar. Wipe the rim of the jars with a clean cloth and place the sealing ring, with the sealing compound placed directly on the corresponding rim of the jar, and screw on the screw band tightly. Place the filled jars in the pot using large tongs and bring the water back up to a full boil, cover with lid, and boil for 12 minutes. Remove the jars and set on kitchen towels. Cool the jars completely before moving them.
You can remove the screw bands after 24 hours and inspect the sealing rings to be sure that the jars are SEALED! If, by chance, they are not, you will have to start all over again, but very unlikely if you have followed the procedure as described.
Put the jars up, as they say, in a place away from direct light and fluctuating heat.
Is it worth all the effort? Most certainly, and once you have canned a few times it becomes routine!
Quick Watermelon Rind Pickles: makes three 12 oz jars
- 2 pounds peeled watermelon rind, cut into bite size pieces
- water to cover
- 4 cups sugar
- 2 cups cider vinegar
- 6 whole cloves
- 2 cinnamon sticks
Place the rind in a large pot with enough water to cover completely. Add the sugar, cider vinegar, cloves, and cinnamon and bring to a full boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Turn the heat down to a low simmer and cook until the rind is soft and slightly translucent. The aroma that fills the kitchen is intoxicating! Cooking time will vary. Tasting is the best way to determine when the pickles are finished to your liking. Place in clean jars and allow to cool completely before screwing on the lids. Refrigerate and serve chilled. The pickles will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks.