I'm mulling over my cookbooks. I think I will have to leave them all behind when I head West, but I'm creating every excuse not to. I'm comforting myself with reassurances that every recipe I could ever want is online. And quite frankly, I'm not sure that I'll have the energy to cook much while I'm there.
These, though, are not reassurances. The internet can never, in my eyes, stand in for a book. Cookbooks are far more than a compendium of recipes with lovely photos and a few blurbs of text. A good cookbook, like any good book, transcends any smattering of information you can gather from here and there. A good cookbook transports you. I want my cookbooks not just to entertain me, but to inform me. To me food is far more than a sum of its parts. Food tells a story of the movements of civilizations. It reflects the opening of trade routes, the fighting of wars, migrations, subjugations and even the destruction of cultures, all of which are reflected in the food we eat.
Okay, fair enough, cookbooks are also about the ingenuity and pure craft of food. And hopefully yummy food, at that. I love those books too, don't get me wrong. Those books, however, are not the books I've been thumbing through for the past few days, whispering sweet nothings into their pages, wondering how I'll possibly live without them for a few days beyond four months. The books I'm going to miss are the storybooks about food, the books that are far too bulky to justify a cross-country trip.
Today the book I'm misty-eyed over is A Mediterranean Feast by Clifford Wright. It's big, over 800 pages big. And it's filled with information, no matter which way you approach it. It's not just a recipe book, although there about 500 and then some recipes in all. It's also a history book. It tells the story of all of the foods that we consider to be Mediterranean. It talks about how foods we call Mediterranean are not originally from the region at all. It is only after many hundreds of year of trade and conquest (and plague!!) that these foods were brought to the Mediterranean.
And the recipes?? These are no ordinary namby pamby whip it up at the last minute sorts of meals... Some are of course, but when each turn of the page lures you into another delicious paragraph filled with stories of the evolution of cultures, well, it can take some time to choose a recipe. That's all I'm saying.
Some of the recipes are as basic and unchallenging as can be. Some of the recipes are elaborate reproductions of meals served in wealthy homes. And some are modern interpretations of classic meals. It's irrelevant. Every recipe I've tried has been dead-on unbelievably wonderful.
Two nights ago, in an effort to pay homage to my favorite few cookbooks before I must sadly tear myself away from them for a few months, I made Clifford Wright's version of Kushary. Kushary is a typical Egyptian street food whose origins are disputed, but most likely lie in India, arriving in the Middle East sometime between the 10th century and 1952. Clearly the history of food is up for hot debate. Be my guest.
I've not tried any other Kushary recipes, but I looked at about three or four before trying Wright's (and his recipes are so spot on, I don't even know why I looked elsewhere!). His just looked... punchier. His rice, pasta and lentils are more heavily flavored and the tomato sauce he uses has a kick to it which is familiar and exotic all at the same time. It's comfort food you've maybe never had, but if you're like me you'll only need to have it once before you're hooked.
My dear sweet weathered and worn cookbooks, I'll miss you so very very much, but I'll be home soon enough and waiting hungrily with baited breath until I can tear into you again (and again and again...).
Adapted from A Mediterranean Feast by Clifford Wright
2 onions, peeled and sliced into half moons
1/2 cup brown lentils (should yield 1 cup cooked lentils)
6 1/2 cups water
2 Tbsp ghee
5 Tbsp plus 1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups long-grain rice
4 tsp salt
2 cups ditalini pasta
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 medium onion, diced
6 garlic cloves, crushed
6 oz tomato paste
2 tsp white wine vinegar
1 1/2 tsp harissa
Arrange the onion slices (the 2 onions, sliced into half moons) on some paper towels, sprinkle generously with salt, and leave for 30 mins covered with paper towels to absorb moisture.
In a large skillet, heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium heat, then cook the diced onion (NOT the sliced half moon pieces) until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another 2 mins, stirring constantly so the garlic doesn’t burn.
Mix the tomato paste and 3 cups water and add to the onion. Reduce the heat to low while you simmer the tomato sauce for 20 minutes. Stir in the vinegar, 2 tsp salt, 1 tsp ground black pepper, and harissa and cook until denser, about another 5 minutes. Taste and add water if necessary.
Wash the lentils under running water. Put them in a medium-size heavy saucepan, add 1 1/2 cups water and 1 teaspoon of the salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, partially covered, until the lentils are al dente, anywhere from 20 minutes to 1 hour. You may have to check intermittently and add extra water. Drain and reserve the lentils.
In another large, heavy saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, heat 2 tsp of the ghee over medium-high heat, then cook the rice for 2 minutes, stirring continuously to coat all the grains, then add 2 cups water and 2 tsp salt. Stir and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cover while the rice cooks until the water is absorbed, 12 to 15 minutes. Do not lift the lid or stir while the rice cooks.
While the lentils and rice are cooking, prepare the onions. In a large skillet, heat 5 tbsp olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion slices and coat with the oil. Continue turning the onions as they turn from white to yellow to brown. Once they turn brown, 10 to 20 minutes, continue to cook until some turn dark brown, another 2 minutes. Remove the skillet from the burner and quickly transfer the onions to a paper towel-lined platter to cool and drain.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of abundantly salted water to a vigorous boil and add the pasta. Cook until soft and drain well.
To serve, layer, in any order, the rice, pasta and lentils. Cover in sauce to taste. Season with ground pepper and garnish with the caramelized onions.