Posted by Rob Eshman
Here’s one little clue I had that the uprising in Egypt had legs. What started as a street protest now looks like it may become a revolution. Back on Tuesday morning, when the first Tweets started coming out of Cairo, one in particular caught my eye:
Fast food shops around Tahir Square are giving out free food for protesters!
What that meant to me was that the middle class was behind the protest—it’s the middle class that owns those shops. It mean the protest wasn’t led by Islamists, or Islamist at all—it was led by young, secular Egyptians who reminded shopkeepers of their own kids. And it meant one more thing: The protesters and the people were in this for the long haul.
Tom Friedman has an old (and slightly discredited) rule that two countries with McDonalds never go to war against each other, since the democratic, stable conditions that make multinational fast food franchises mean the masses and leaders have a stake in stability and peace. Call what happened in Tahir Square is the Cairo Corollary: when fast food franchises start feeding the rioters instead of boarding up their windows, the political winds have clearly shifted.
So is it too early to celebrate the people in Egypt struggling for freedom? Not for Foodaism. Tonight, keep the Egyptian people close to your heart by making one of my favorite Egyptian dishes, Ful Muddamas.
Ful is fava or broad beans, and this is a common stew made with just a few ingredients. If you’ve eaten in the hummus shops of Israel, chances are they plopped a bowl of this on your table: earthy fava beans baked or simmered until soft, blend with olive oil, garlic, cumin and lemon juice, and served with parsley and raw onion as condiments.
Make sure the ingredients are at their best: great olive oil is key, as is fresh garlic and lemon juice. You can make this by using dried favas, soaking them overnight, then cooking until tender in a saucepan or oven casserole, then proceed with other ingredients. But time is short until Shabbat, and it is still delciious using canned beans. I wish I could show you a picture, but I’m blogging at 30,000 feet on a Virgin America flight.
Where, by the way, I ordered an eggplant, beet and goat cheese lavash—and it was shockingly good.
3 cans Ful beans (available at Middle East and Kosher markets)
1 tbs Freshly ground cumin
6 Cloves garlic, crushed
4 Hard-boiled eggs; shelled
1 Handful EACH chopped fresh parsley, cilantro, mint
2 Quartered lemons
1 sweet onion, chopped
Great quality olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper and Salt
Put beans in saucepan, cover with water by 2-3 inches. Add the spices and garlic and eggs. Bring to boil and then simmer. Caned beans will take 20 minutes. Dried, soaked beans will take 2 or 3 hours. Put all other ingredients on the table. When ful is soft and hot, but not completely mushy place in shallow bowl. Serve with cilantro, mint, lemon, and onion.. Slather with more olive oil, lemon juice, salt and cumin, along with warm pita. People can scoop up beans then add the condiments they want.
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January 20, 2011 | 2:06 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Sometimes, for the sake of my marriage, I try to look at myself through my wife’s eyes.
Early this month, for instance, my wife came home one day to see me crouched by our fireplace in the living room. My hands were black. Next to me, hot flames were licking at a hunk of beef. There was a dark smear — soot? charcoal? mascara? — beneath my right eye. The house smelled good — fire, smoke, meat — but it was not a normal smell. It was like a campfire, but inside the house.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
The beef was hanging on a string from the mantle, twirling slowly in front of the glowing embers. I was brushing it with a mixture of olive oil, garlic, wine and thyme.
It was the second week of cold weather and heavy rains, and I was cooking almost every meal in our fireplace.
My forbearing wife has accepted my relentless steps toward more rural urban living. There was our backyard garden formed by using ripped-up concrete from our driveway as a retaining wall (which she calls “The Kotel”); the fine front lawn I tore out and replaced with 62 artichoke plants. There are the five chickens and, yes, the two goats. All this had changed our home and our lives, in good ways, but, still, as I crouched like a caveman by my meat and fire, I could understand the worry implicit in my wife’s question: “Is this the new normal?”
That morning, I had lit a fire, waited for the flames to die down, then cooked perfect fried eggs in a cast iron pan amid the dry heat and wood smoke. For dinner the night before, I seared red snapper in the pan and tucked potatoes wrapped in foil into the embers. One night, I grilled mushrooms, and a couple of times when company came over, I stood a hunk of raclette cheese by the flames and let guests scoop the fragrant, oozing melt onto cubes of bread.
The night my wife walked in, I was going full “Survivor,” suspending a garlic-studded 5-pound roast close enough to the flames to broil, like a Tel Aviv shwarma. Many years earlier, I had read my cookbook god Richard Olney, in “Simple French Food,” describe this as cooking à la ficelle — on a string. Now I was finally trying it myself.
My enthusiasm had burned through our supply of wood. I ran back to All Cities Firewood on West Adams and asked for more almond wood. The man took me to the back, where he had a smoker stoked with semi-dry chunks of oak blasting away. The scent, just 200 yards from the I-10, was heavenly. “That’s what you want,” he told me. He was a fellow fire-cooker.
No one ever found inspiration staring into a well-regulated gas flame, an electric coil or, heaven knows, an induction heating surface.
But, crouched by my fireplace, feeding it logs, feeding my family its food, was so elemental, so fulfilling.
In his book “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human,” anthropologist Richard Wrangham dismisses the idea that humans were drawn to fire for warmth — gorillas sleep outdoors at high altitudes, he points out. No, the point of fire was cooking — making food digestible and more instantly nutritious.
Staring into my flames, I realized that cooking and religion are two things that separate us from animals, and what they have in common is fire. The fire of dinner became the flame of sacrifice; to fire’s transformative power we entrust our bodies through food and our souls through sacrifice. Drawing close to the fire, I felt both body and soul replenished.
In Judaism, sacrifice gave way to prayer after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Fireplace cooking lasted much longer, into the 19th century. The grand antebellum Southern plantations had whole outbuildings devoted to hearth cooking. The gas stove wasn’t factory-produced until the 1880s. In the scope of human history, that’s last week. Something in us — in me — wants to be back at the hearth.
Still, it’s weird, I grant my wife that, to come home to a husband who looks like a National Geographic photo. But for as long as the rain fell, I cooked at our hearth. The high heat and dry air made the fish sear crisply, the eggs set in an instant. The vegetables tasted more substantial. The meat took hours to cook, but the oak fragranced every bite.
“Man make fire,” Tom Hanks grunts in “Cast Away,” getting it exactly backward: Fire makes man.
1. Light a wood fire in your fireplace and wait until the flames burn down and the embers are glowing hot.
2. Prop a heavy frying pan — cast iron is best — on a flat portion of the embers.
3. Allow pan to heat, then add olive oil.
4. When the oil is very hot, add a slice of good bread.
5. Let it brown, then flip it.
6. Crack eggs into the pan beside the bread.
7. They will set and cook very rapidly.
8. When they’re set, take the pan carefully from the fire.
9. Use a spatula to remove the eggs and the bread.
10. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
1. Gut and clean a whole fish. I used a 1 pound New Zealand snapper.
2. Stuff with fennel branches, lemon slices, thyme, salt pepper and olive oil.
3. Heat cast iron pan or grill on hot embers. Add some olive oil.
4. Grill on each side until cooked. The variables here are huge, so test for doneness when it starts to look, um, done.
January 7, 2011 | 9:53 am
Posted by Rob Eshman
The first time I ever spoke to Joan Nathan, it was by telephone, and I wrote out for myself what I wanted to say to her: “Hello, Ms. Nathan, this is Rob Eshman with The Jewish Journal in Los Angeles, and I want to speak with you about your new cookbook. I think you should know that ‘Jewish Holiday Kitchen’ is my Bible.”
I don’t normally do that — I don’t usually write my phone introductions down like a telemarketer’s script. But after Joan’s publicist agreed to the interview, I got nervous. For years I’d pored over her cookbooks. When people said I made good matzah balls, latkes, cholent or challah, they were crediting Joan. My grandmother and mom made some of these dishes, and theirs were delicious, but I didn’t know the recipes. Joan did. She researched them, she tested them, she drew out the stories behind them, and she wrote the best ones down. I used them over and over. I didn’t feed my family and friends. Joan Nathan did.
Again, you have to understand: In our home, my wife, the rabbi, has shelves of holy books, volumes of Jewish texts, a Talmud set handed down to her from her father. I have seven shelves of cookbooks. If you ask me where I keep my Richard Olney, or my Marcella Hazan, or my Nathan, I will find it for you. Then one day, about 10 years ago, I found myself talking with her.
Joan Nathan, bigger than life before I called her, turned out to be warm, and friendly, and interested, and then, eventually, part of my life.
She was due out to Los Angeles on a book tour. I picked her up at the Bel Age Hotel and took her to Uzbekistan, a now-defunct restaurant on Sunset and La Brea that was owned by Jews.
Story continues after the video.
“Manti!” Joan exclaimed when her eyes ran over the menu.
Manti are dumplings. Joan quickly explained how manti and kreplach share peasant roots; they’re the wontons of the steppes. The waiter asked if we wanted vodka. It was lunchtime, on a Wednesday.
“This food really needs vodka,” Joan said. That was a great lunch.
We’ve eaten many more meals together. Joan lives in Washington, D.C., where her husband, Allan Gerson, specializes in international law (he is the one who sued Libya over the Lockerbie bombing — and won). But her work for The New York Times food section, as well as her own books, have often brought her West, and when she’s come I’ve always spent more time than I ever let on figuring out the best places to take her: a tour through Elat Market in Pico-Robertson, City Spa’s cafe for its Russian/Persian food and Koreatown.
Once we drove an hour north to the Herzog kosher winery in Oxnard, where we ate at Tierra Sur, one of the world’s best kosher restaurants. Chef Todd Aarons (who now blogs at jewishjournal.com) saw Joan and came to our table.
“My wife always makes our challah,” he told Joan. “I just realized it’s your recipe.”
His eyes grew soft. For a second I thought he was tearing up. “Every Shabbas she makes your challah.”
Joan, who can be very unsentimental about her work, nodded understandingly.
“That’s a great recipe,” she said.
In October, Knopf published Joan’s 10th cookbook, “Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.” Don’t let the somewhat kitschy title fool you: This is a serious, deeply researched, but accessible work. Like all of Joan’s books, it is as much anthropology, history and journalism as it is cookbook. The more accurate, though maybe less Food Network-friendly, title would have been “French Jewish Cuisine.”
I threw a book party for Joan over Chanukah. For a woman who had given me so much, it was so the least I could do. A hard-and-fast dinner party rule is never cook anything new. But I resolved to make only recipes from the new book, things I’d never made before: Choucroute garnie with homemade sauerkraut; a fennel salad with celery, cucumber, lemon and pomegranate; Tunisian winter squash with coriander and harissa; North African brik with tuna and cilantro, and an Alsatian Chanukah fruit bread called Hutzel Wecken.
Joan came early, and we cooked together. She told me how she’d traveled through France to find Jewish recipes but along the way discovered how much French cuisine owes to centuries of Jewish migration and innovation — how it was the Jews who brought chocolate and many other New World foods to France, as well as foie gras.
The house filled up with family and friends. Joan’s invite list kept bringing surprises through the door. When Joan introduced me to Anne Willan, whose cookbooks I also revere, I think I blurted out, “You’re here?” The food writer Jonathan Gold and his wife, editor Laurie Ochoa, came in — Jonathan Gold eating my food. If the pomegranate vodka I’d made hadn’t by then taken effect, I would have been a mass of nerves — I would have had to write down what I’d always wanted to say to Jonathan.
But the fireplace was crackling, the food came out fine, we went through a lot of pomegranate vodka — and a lot of wine. They say one secret to happiness is the ability to show gratitude. It must be true, because that night I was very, very happy.