Recipe: arroz con leche

This recipe is one of my winter favorites. Warm, milky, cinnamony. Mmmm. You can make it how you like it. Sometimes, I add more milk. Most times, I skimp on the sugar.

  • 1 c. (200g) white rice
  • 4 1/2 c. water
  • pinch of salt
  • 6 c. hot milk
  • 1 1/2 c. (320g) sugar
  • 3 cinnamon sticks or 1 tsp. ground cinnamon (Cinnamon sticks come in varying sizes. Use 3 of the ones that fit inside spice containers. Use 1-2 of the long sticks.)
  • pinch of salt
  • 6 egg yolks, beaten
  • ground cinnamon
eggs and cinnamon sticks with dishes

Bring rice, water, and pinch of salt to a boil and then reduce heat. Cover and boil gently about 20 minutes, or until water is almost absorbed.

Add hot milk, sugar, cinnamon and second pinch of salt to cooked rice.

Cook and stir over medium heat until mixture is thick but still soft and moist. Remove from heat. Remove cinnamon sticks.

Slowly pour in egg yolks while rapidly beating them. (Note: you can use a whisk here, but I prefer using my hand-held blender which also smooths the rice and froths the milk. It’s your preference.)

Sprinkle with cinnamon and serve warm or chilled.

Recipe fail: mousse au chocolat

We tried. Twice. And then I tried by myself a third time. I am still determined. Every time I think of mousse I had in France, I begin stockpiling chocolate and cream.

The first failure was completely my fault. My roommate and I had even purchased precious raspberries to garnish the mousse. But then I tried to whip the egg whites in the same mixer that I had just whipped the cream… without cleaning the bowl.

Yah, so I didn’t know.

We tried again. In the meantime, we watched the cream and chocolate mixture slowly sinking. What should we do? We decided to stick the chocolate mixture in the refrigerator to preserve it. Wrong choice. When we finally folded in the egg whites, we discovered that the chocolate had chilled into ribbons.

We still ate it and it was still amazing especially with luscious raspberries, but we knew we could do better.

So we tried again about two months later. This time, it would be perfect! Instead, we over-whipped the egg whites so that they settled into little pools in the bottoms of the ramekin dishes while we ate dinner. Plus, the chocolate had sat too long and so, although it was warm, it wasn’t warm enough, and beaded as we folded it into the cream. So the mousse was grainy and watery. But somehow still amazing.

small dish of chocolate mousse with chocolate shavings

But I knew we could do better. So one afternoon, I had a guest and decided to try a third time. I felt fairly confident even though I was on my own this time. I would whip the whites into perfect elf hats and whisk the yolks into the chocolate while the chocolate was still warm enough.

Instead, the chocolate stiffened when I whisked in the egg yolks. I tried heating it again, but you probably know how that goes. In the meantime, the egg whites began to sink.

With nothing to lose because it all was a failure anyway and I would just have to serve my guest snack mix and pretend I had never tried, I whisked the globby chocolate mixture into the cream until it was 100% incorporated (forget the 10 folds limit!). Then I folded the sagging whites into the chocolate and cream, poured rather than spooned it into ramekin dishes, grated some chocolate on the top and stuck it in the fridge for time out.

I pulled it out before my guest arrived, just to sample it. Heavy instead of fluffy. A little like mousse meets fudge. Before I realized it, I had eaten the entire dish, but don’t worry, there were 3 more dishes to share with my guest. 😉

If anyone has a mousse au chocolat recipe that is easier than what I’ve tried, I would love to have it! (Note: none of the chocolate pudding and cool whip stuff. I love that too, but it will never transport my taste buds to France.)

Or maybe you have your own mousse story…

Recipe: dahl

This is one of my “go-to” recipes. I eat this every week because I like it that much. Wanna know why? Try it! (And then let me know if you like it.) I typically make a double batch, but I left the calculations for the single batch just in case you don’t like it as much as I do.

stacked cans of coconut milk and tomatoes
  • 1 tsp. olive oil
  • 2 onions, diced or sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tbsp. fresh ginger, grated
  • 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper, or more to taste. (This amount is mild.)
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. coriander
  • 2 tsp. turmeric
  • 1 tsp. garam masala
  • 1 c. (200g) lentils, soaked
  • 400 ml can of pureed tomatoes
  • 400ml coconut milk (I use light, but don’t. Full fat is better.)
  • 2 cups chicken or beef broth
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 lemon, juiced
  • 2-3 handfuls fresh spinach

Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and cook gently until golden brown. (This takes a while, but the trick to amazing flavor is patience. My Pakistani friend told me, “It’s better just to forget about them for awhile.”)

Add the garlic, ginger and red pepper and cook for a few minutes. Add remaining spices and cook for another minute. 

Add the lentils, pureed tomatoes, coconut milk, and broth, and stir to combine the ingredients. Season with salt and pepper and cook on low heat for 20-30 minutes until lentils are soft (the liquid will reduce during this stage). Remove from heat.

Stir in the lemon juice and spinach, or simply serve spinach as a side for everyone to add themselves. Delicious with basmati rice (and delicious without, really).

Recipe: harira

This tomato-based soup is a classic North African dinner, served especially in the winter and during Ramadan. Although unfamiliar as a dish, you might find something familiar in the mild, comfortable flavor. Harira tastes like a food I grew up with, even though I didn’t.

After tasting many versions of this soup in both North Africa and Spain, it’s the aroma that gets me every time. Nostalgia creeps in around the time I add the parsley and cilantro.

The recipe isn’t hard, but note that it takes a lot of stovetop time!

  • 225 g (1/2 lb.) beef, diced into tiny pieces
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2-3 beef soup bones
  • 1 kilo (2 lb.) tomatoes, cooked and pureed
  • 1 handful garbanzos, soaked but not cooked
  • 1 large onion, grated
  • 1 tbsp. salt
  • 1 tbsp. ground ginger
  • 1½ tsp. black pepper
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
  • 2 handfuls dry lentils
  • 3 tbsp. tomato paste combined with 2 c. water
  • 1 stalk celery (with leaves), chopped
  • 1 small bunch parsley, chopped
  • 1 small bunch cilantro, chopped
  • 3 tbsp. broken vermicelli (I like to use whole wheat)
  • 1/2 c. flour combined with 1 c. water (Although it’s not traditional, I use oat flour.)
  • water

Brown the beef in the olive oil.

Add the soup bones, pureed tomatoes, garbanzos, onion, spices, and 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for an hour.

Add the lentils, tomato paste mixture, celery, parsley, cilantro, and 2-3 cups of water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for 90 minutes.

Add vermicelli and simmer until tender.

Thicken the soup to a silky, cream-like consistency by gradually adding the flour and water mixture, stirring constantly. Simmer soup for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add salt, pepper, or any of the other spices to taste. Serve in small soup bowls with large soup spoons… or slurp it right out of the bowl! Serves about 8.

Note: If you want a soup with a louder flavor, go light on the water that is added throughout the recipe. Everyone has their way of preparing this dish, so feel free to be creative.

Confessions of Betty Croaker

Have I ever told you I’m a terrible cook? Well, I am, and now you know.

My roommate, makes ratatouille. I make things like red curry and other spicy foods that people can’t actually taste because their mouths are on fire.

I suppose that my biggest problem is that I don’t often analyze what makes good flavors blend in the food I’m eating. Therefore, I can’t replicate such caution while I’m cooking.

One day, I suggested putting fresh salsa on a pesto pasta dish I had made. Tomatoes and pasta sounded close enough to Italian for me. My sister wrinkled her nose. “You would be mixing cuisines.” I think she was probably right. Basil and cilantro might not be a good mix after all.

I’m a thrifty cook like my grandma used to be. Before you commend me for such skill, please note that “thrifty” is a nice adjective to describe a lot of things, but not a cook. Especially if that is the only positive adjective one can conjure.

I’m the kind of cook that looks at a dying entity in my refrigerator and googles a recipe to use it up. Consequently with this spur-of-the-moment cooking, I rarely have the other ingredients the recipe calls for. Simple. I improvise! … and end up with something barely tolerable but edible as long as I’m not having guests.

The other option I sometimes employ is to keep searching for recipes that only have the ingredients I have on hand (or say “optional” behind them). The result is a bare bones dish that I don’t even want to sample.

When I moved to Spain, my roommate and I agreed to cook for each other once a week. Then I panicked. “What am I thinking?!” But it was a brave sort of panic, because I was pretty sure I could do it. My sister (maybe more concerned than I) shot me some menu ideas.

So once a week, I’ve been ignoring my budget and plunging into the exciting new world of meals with all of the ingredients, even the optional ones. (I eat the dying entities in the back of the fridge the other days of the week.)

After careful planning and zealous shopping, I was rewarded. At my first meal, my roommate took a second helping. Imagine! And at my second meal she said, “This one is worth repeating!”

Picky eater

“Picky eeeeeater!”

I heard that phrase a lot as a child, mostly from older siblings. As I grew up, I learned to like more foods, as most children do. But living here in North Africa, I have come to a deeper understanding of “picky eater.” North Africans are the pickiest eaters I have encountered in my limited international experience.

Why? Well, that’s the question I have been asking myself since I arrived.

In my opinion, most of the answer can be found in the pride the people have for their own cuisine. On my last trip home from Spain, I sat beside two men on the plane–one from North Africa and another from South America. This was the conversation:

South American: Is the food here good?
North African: It is the best in the world!

They hadn’t asked my opinion, so I sat, pondering the unmasked pride of the North African. Granted, the food here is good; I love it. But I also know that there are other flavors out there besides cumin, olive, dried fruit, lemon, and garlic. And how many other cuisines had this particular North African tasted?

In fact, how many ethnic restaurants does my city have? The few scattered here and there have to be sniffed out by a detective. Unless the three fast food restaurants count as American. There is also a pasta place in the mall. Italian, I suppose?

But the other restaurants seem to have exactly the same menu. It’s like the few things they do, they do well…but they remain few. And that’s all the people have ever known. So anything foreign is unwelcome because, of course, it could never measure up anyway!

When I make food for local friends, I select recipes with care. Something North African would not suit because as a foreigner, I wouldn’t prepare it correctly. Therefore, I must try something American but with the prominent North African flavors.

But once, a friend came to visit me unexpectedly. Although hesitant, I offered her some of the stir-fry I had just made. She tasted it and has been talking about that “salad” ever since, hoping to replicate it in her own kitchen.

That gives me hope that with more globalization will come more exposure to various cuisines and hence fewer picky eaters in North Africa!

Good windows make good neighbors

Robert Frost once wrote a poem about good fences making good neighbors. But what if there are no fences, only windows that overlook walls of windows from neighboring apartments? Do good windows make good neighbors too?

Through the windows, I can sample the lives of my neighbors. Without really knowing them or even really knowing exactly what apartment they live in, I know certain things.

For example, a man sneezes about 9:00 every evening. It’s not just a sneeze, but a SNEEZE. Actually, it is a series of sneezes that gives me an estimate of the time not unlike the call to prayer. And since the Ramadan time change, the sneezes have been coming at 8 p.m.

There is an unpleasant child in a lower level apartment, whose screams are punctuated by the parents’ roars of disapproval.

I can smell what neighbors are cooking, at times even identifying individual spices. And there is often the clattering of women washing dishes or the hissing of a pressure cooker.

In a tiny courtyard below, some neighbors play soccer with friends. When there are five or six of them, I don’t know how they manage to fit, let alone play a game. Their shouting in African French echoes all over our mini community.

Parties on the roof until the wee hours of the morning mean that talking and laughter float through our windows with the cool night breeze.

One evening, a little boy appeared in his window wearing only a T-shirt and his underwear. Silently, he climbed up in the window sill and measured the window with a tape measure. Then he climbed back down.

See, good windows must make good neighbors… or at least provide daily entertainment.

Hungry or not, here I come

How exactly does a one hour tutoring lesson turn into eight hours? Simple: I agreed to stay for lunch.

It was my first day of tutoring. I was nervous because I wasn’t sure how the protective father would view my method of teaching his 5-year-old son.

Exactly ½ hour before we had agreed to meet, the father came to pick me up.

He took me to his house where I met his family, extended family, the maid, and of course, his son. After a long conversation–some of it typed in google translate–we had breakfast (their first; my second). Then I spent exactly one hour teaching and reviewing with the little boy.

“Will you stay for lunch?”

Noting the family sitting around the salon table, I agreed. But I soon realized that I wasn’t sitting down to lunch; this was pre-lunch! After two breakfasts, I was expected to fill up on bread, cookies, and tea and then eat lunch a little while thereafter.

When we finally did get lunch around 3:00 p.m., it was several courses: a salad followed by a beef and plum dish with another salad on the side, and then a huge chicken stuffed with vermicelli noodles and resting on a bed of rice. Everything was eaten with bread.

And all of the while, if I wasn’t reaching my hand into the platter, I was being told to do so. “Eat! Eat! Please eat!” The extended family kept a calculation of how much I ate while persistently informing me that it was not enough. We finished with luscious fruits for dessert, of which I was too full to enjoy.

This story has no moral, except not to take a tutoring job if you’re on a diet!