Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Teacher's New Year’s Resolution, Part 2

            I’m still motivated by these last days before beginning the school year to set some improvement goals.  Cleaning out, reducing, and simplifying are fundamental.  Setting some agreements about how things will be acquired in the months to come is another good conversation I am having with myself and with my family.  But my goodness, why the introspection?  I suffered this morning from a profound failing that goes against my moral structure.  Do you remember the tour of the Frip over a week ago showcasing extra large photos of produce at what I said were cheaper prices than one can get at other markets in town?  Well, maybe I was feeling a little desperate about the difficult access to stores at the moment and wanted to have lots of food on hand or maybe I just got greedy, but we bought way too many vegetables right as I was going into a busy week where I didn’t have much time to cook.  The result was that this morning, I had to contribute multiple bags and heads of vegetables to our compost bin and to the tortoises.  I really hate behaving like that.
            Following my recent pattern of making personal life applications from other cultures’ religions, I was thinking about the High Holiday of Rosh Hashanah that is ending today.  I’m no expert in Judaism, but being the beginning of the Jewish new year,  I thought there was a component that addressed trying to live a better life in the next year.  Isn’t that the symbolism behind eating an apple dipped in honey, to live a sweeter life?  In fact, when I did a little reading I found the following quote: “We leave our old shortcomings behind us, thus starting the new year with a clean slate.”  (Do I really need to cite this?)  But see, everyone needs to have some atonement for failings and the opportunity to “do better”.  So once again, I am making a commitment to not buy too many vegetables that I potentially won’t have time to process and cook.  
This might be a bad segue, but I would like to contribute something redeeming from this posting besides a vegetal confession so I turn to bagels.  While the bagel was invented in Eastern Europe, when Jews migrated to the United States in the 1800s, some of them brought a strong craving for the bagels they had left behind and were instrumental in establishing them in American cuisine.  I have spent the past two days nurturing a small batch of bagels at my house and they turned out pretty great.  The recipe is not hard, but because of the crucial slow fermentation stage, you have to begin making them the day before you want to eat them.  If you don’t allow for the overnight rise in the refrigerator, you will basically have bread bagels rather than the chewy kind you are hankering for.  This is from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart.

1 teaspoon instant yeast
4 cups unbleached high-gluten or bread flour
2 ½ cups water, at room temperature
To make the sponge, stir the yeast into the flour in a 4-quart mixing bowl.  Add the water, whisking or stirring only until it forms a smooth, sticky batter (like pancake batter).  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for approximately 2 hours, or until the mixture becomes very foamy and bubbly.  It should swell to nearly double in size and collapse when the bowl is tapped on the countertop.

½ teaspoon instant yeast
3 ¾ cups unbleached high-gluten or bread flour
2 ¾ teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons malt powder or
1 tablespoon dark or light malt syrup, honey, or  brown sugar
To make the dough, in the same mixing bowl (or in the bowl of an electric mixer),
add the additional yeast to the sponge and stir.  Then add 3 cups of the flour and
all of the salt and malt.  Stir (or mix on low speed with the dough hook) until the
ingredients form a ball, slowly working in the remaining ¾ cup flour to stiffen the

Transfer the dough to the counter and knead for at least 10 minutes (or for 6
 minutes by machine).  The dough should be firm, stiffer than French bread
dough, but still pliable and smooth.  There should be no raw flour- all the
ingredients should be hydrated.  The dough should pass the windowpane test and
register 77 to 81 degrees F.  If the dough seems too dry and rips, add a few drops
of water and continue kneading.  If the dough seems tacky or sticky, add more
flour to achieve the stiffness required.  The kneaded dough should feel satiny and
 pliable but not be tacky.

Immediately divide the dough into 4 ½ -ounce pieces for standard bagels. or
smaller if desired.  Form the pieces into rolls.

Cover the rolls with a damp towel and allow them to rest for approximately 20

Line 2 sheet pans with baking parchment and mist lightly with spray oil.  Poke a
finger through the center of the ball of dough and stretch the dough into a bagel

Place each of the shaped pieces 2 inches apart on the pans.  Mist or brush the
 bagels very lightly with oil and cover each pan with plastic wrap.  Let the pans sit
 at room temperature for about 20 minutes.

Put the bagels, on pans, in the refrigerator until the next day.

The following day
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F with the two racks set in the
 middle of the oven.  Bring a large, wide pot of water to boil and add 1 tablespoon
 baking soda.

Remove the bagels from the refrigerator and gently drop about three bagel at a
time into the water.  After 1 minute, flip them over and boil for another minute.  If
you like very chewy bagels, you can extend the boiling to 2 minutes per side. 
While the bagels are boiling, sprinkle the same parchment-lined sheet pans with
cornmeal or semolina flour.  If you want to top the bagels with seeds or salt, do so
as soon as they come out of the water.

When all the bagels have been boiled, place the pans on the 2 middle shelves in
 the oven.  Bake for approximately 5 minutes, then rotate the pans, switching
shelves and giving the pans a 180-degree rotation.  After the rotation, lower the
oven setting to 450 degrees F and continue baking for about 5 minutes or until the
bagels turn light golden brown.  You may bake them darker if you prefer. 

Remove the pans from the oven and let the bagels cool on a rack for 15 minutes
or longer before serving.

The Bread Baker’s Apprentice is the modern, classic work on how to make the kind of breads we are all constantly craving.  If you’re interested in developing a little bread baking discipline, it is well worth the purchase. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Teacher's New Year's Resolution

            So many cultural groups in the world live according to their own calendar that it should come as no surprise that for teachers, the year really runs from September to September.  I am in my last week of being able to make some personal choices about how my day goes.  Beginning next week, I will be sucked back into the all-consuming work of school, which is also a great thing, but leaves little free-choice time.  I really want to use this week to improve my organization and decluttering everywhere in my life.  This is always a personal goal for me, but I feel like last year, with our move, too much stuff has crept back into our world and I either need to organize that stuff or get rid of it.   
When I got back to Tunis from summer vacation and our maid told me she threw away some of my spices because they had termites, I figured the kitchen was a priority.  As I also explained in my last entry, our beautiful kitchen cupboards are so dang tall that ½ of that storage space went completely unused. 

  Enter the French blue kitchen ladder.  Why didn’t I just do that sooner?  You can’t just make a kitchen ladder happen, not in Tunis.  We knew we needed something, but nothing presented itself.  This is why the ladder received its own photo on my blog.  

            The cupboard I was using for spices was too narrow and tall so everything got stacked on top of everything else on two of the four shelves.  Also, we can buy spices here in wonderfully bulk amounts.  I had to talk a vendor at the market out of packaging up 1 kilo of cumin for me last week assuring him that ½ kilo would be sufficient for now.  I love this bulk buying, but I needed to get my glass jars in action and decant them from the store packages.  

            Here’s how it came out.   

          It’s my philosophy that deep cleaning and precise organization create the best of luxury so I will say that the kitchen feels luxurious tonight.

Frip Towels

            As a follow up to our Frip trip last Sunday, I want to post some pictures of my favorite dish towels I’ve scored from the mound of dish towels, pillow cases, and napkins on the house linens table.  Some of them have been hand-embroidered and some are just fabulously thick cotton.  
This is so thick you can barely rumple it to dry things.
This looks like it was a promotion from a German knife company.
The crown jewel of the collection, fine linen and embroidery, plus a monogram on the back.

Graphic and thick
Heavy quality cotton with perfectly cross-stitched leaves.
 All towels were photographed on my new kitchen step ladder that will allow me to access exactly half of the upper storage in my kitchen that is currently unused.  A reorganization of the kitchen is imminent.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Here’s to Openings!

            I write a lot about the delirium I experience, really wherever I am but also here in Tunis, regarding bountiful, seasonal produce.  So I think I am partly responsible for setting unrealistic expectations for visitors (my sons) and people just moving here about how access to food happens.  During the best of times, one must continually plan ahead.  Shopping for food involves making “the rounds”:  meat here, dried beans somewhere else, and vegetables here and there. There’s never enough bread and it seems we’re always picking it up when we’re coming or going.  Our bread shop is closed on Tuesdays, our charcuterrie is closed on Wednesdays, the farmers’ market is sold out by noon.  Most of this we discovered through trial and error, resulting in some disappointing errand runs and a few bare-bones dinners.
            But now we’ve lived here a year and we’ve got a pretty good shopping groove plus some pantry and freezer staples.  We’ve usually got something we can put together for a meal, but we know it has been rough for our new staff who don’t have much time to shop to begin with and then can spend hours in 100 degree heat trying to find a grocery store they’ve been told existed just to go home again absolutely empty handed.  This complication is exacerbated by the fact that we have been enjoying the month of Ramadan and it’s also August, the traditional vacation month for residents of the Mediterranean rim.  Stores that might usually be available are closed for the whole month, hours of operation are unpredictable, and the big stores are packed cart to cart with locals stocking up for all of those Iftar feasts.
            This brings me to today’s happy little celebration.  The Monoprix grocery store in our neighborhood that was burned and looted in last January’s revolution, and has been since closed, opened just this morning.  I am only letting myself begin to revel in the thought of the delicious convenience of walking two blocks along a shady street to get some last minute ingredient for cooking.  If we find ourselves too tired to cook after work we can swing in for some fresh ravioli and marinated fruit de mer to make a quick pasta.    How about a rotisserie chicken or a freshly caught dourade to pan fry in a few minutes?  This opening is symbolic of Ramadan itself, which is about the extreme thankfulness one experiences for the basic things in life after a period of deprivation.  
January 2011
August 2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What the Frip?

            I don’t know what that name is, an acronym? an abbreviation? French?  All I know is that the Sunday Frip is an institution here in Tunis and from what I understand, all over Africa.  It is a massive outdoor flea market selling football fields of used European clothing, some odds and ends household items (plastic scrub brushes, non brand-name batteries), and then local farm produce.  It’s hot, chaotic, and you’ve got to pack around anything you buy, but the possibility for scoring awesome finds draws thousands of people out every week.

            My men deserve a lot of credit for mustering up the Frip spirit this week.  It was almost painfully hot, but they still found some interesting buys.  Gabe got some excellent flip-flops.  Anton found these sport shoes that he tried on with a plastic bag for a sock. 

He also found an English copy of CliffsNotes for Huckleberry Finn.  I’m thinking he may have been the one and only potential buyer for that item on that day, but he had to let it pass.  

            I have no qualms about getting involved, elbow-to-elbow, with the ladies pawing through the tables of clothing, sorted by type (i.e. ladies long-sleeved t-shirts).  My favorite table, however, is the linens where I have scooped some of my favorite thick cotton and linen dishtowels, many painstakingly embroidered by someone practicing needle skills.
            The rest of our Frip shopping was spent buying food.  It is as close to a farmers' market as Tunis offers and the prices are a fraction of what they are in other shops in town.  Plus, it’s a good chance to practice a little French and smile at some of the charming vendors.  But watch your wallet, just in case.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Salsa Driven Brunch

            We’ve been gone to the beach so opening the fridge at home on Sunday morning, looking for the makings of brunch, revealed little except some fresh fruit, but there was a little jewel box looking container of salsa fresca made by my friend, Lauren.  The stipulation was that I had to give it a few days before eating to let it develop its best flavor.  

Today, it was ready, but we needed a salsa vehicle.  I had just been catching up on some Tasting Table postings and one was for a classic Spanish tortilla, which if you know Spanish food isn’t a flat bread, but a layered dish of potatoes and onions, held together with eggs, and almost simmered in olive oil.  The commentary on this recipe emphasized that the olive oil was just about the most important ingredient and I’m hesitant to even recommend this recipe to people who don’t have access to the beautiful and inexpensive olive oil we have here on the Mediterranean.  I completely understand how it can be the star of a dish.  

The directions are slightly specific, but not at all difficult and when followed, produced a perfect tortilla that we enjoyed, with the delicious, gifted salsa, in the garden with our college boys who are with us.  

I look forward to eating much more of Lauren’s cooking since she just lives down the street a few houses now, but this salsa was special because it was one of her first attempts to connect with the local food base in a way that helped her and her family begin to feel some familiarity in the midst of a new home, new culture, new friends, new jobs.  How to even get that started?  Ah yes, buy some produce and begin chopping.

Tortilla EspaƱola
Recipe adapted from Seamus Mullen, Tertulia, New York City
Yield: one 12-inch tortilla
Cook Time: 1 hour
8 eggs
2 cups high-quality olive oil
1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed slightly
3 large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced into ¼-inch rounds
1. Lightly beat the eggs and season with a generous sprinkle of salt. Set aside.
2. In a 10-inch nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat until it is warm. Add the onion and garlic and gently cook until the vegetables are translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the potatoes; cook for 20 minutes until the potatoes have completely fallen apart but the potatoes and onions haven't taken on any color.
3. Remove the pan from the heat and strain the mixture through a colander, reserving the olive oil for the next time you make a tortilla. (If you continue to use this same oil, each tortilla you make will taste better than the last.) Once you've strained the potato-and-onion mixture, season it with salt and add the eggs, mixing until thoroughly combined.
4. Heat the same skillet over medium-low heat. Add one tablespoon of olive oil from the reserved potato-and-onion mixture to the pan. Pour the potato-and-egg mixture into the pan and let it cook for 2 minutes without touching the pan, until the bottom begins to set up. Gently shake the pan to release the eggs from the bottom; using a rubber spatula, gently pull the mixture away from the edge to make sure it isn't sticking at all. Cook until the bottom is set but the top is still very wet, about 5 minutes.
5. Place a large, flat plate on top of the skillet, hold it tightly and, using one quick motion (probably best to perform this over the sink the first few times), flip the pan over and let the tortilla fall onto the plate.
6. Wipe the pan with a paper towel, return to the heat, add another tablespoon of the reserved olive oil and carefully slip the tortilla back into the pan. Using a rubber spatula, carefully tuck the edges of the tortilla back into the pan and cook for another 3 minutes. Once the bottom is set, repeat the flipping process one or two more times until the edge of the tortilla is perfectly rounded. If at any time the tortilla begins to swell, poke it gently with a fork. The tortilla should be nice and golden on the outside while remaining creamy and gooey on the inside. Remove from the pan and serve hot or at room temperature.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

May You Have Enough

            My heart and days are really full right now.  We’re greeting and befriending our new staff, trying to help everyone get settled and start to feel at home in Tunisia.  Many of them are already dear friends with whom we’ve worked before and those who are new to us will clearly be part of our extended family as well.  It’s a funny time to come and try to get settled in Tunis, though, because it’s the month of Ramadan and during daylight hours, it’s as though food and even water don’t exist.  Generally busy tourist areas in town feel as deserted as Tombstone in the noonday desert heat.  I’ve appointed myself as a feeder:  one who tries to keep some meals coming and also provide some communal time to sit together each day, build our friendships, and network for the next day.  Each day has a slight tension between a food deprivation feeling and then the huge abundance of cooking for 25 people. 
            I’m watching my buddies at The Perennial Plate today.  I’m a few episodes behind and catching up with California Gleaning  (episode 64).  This project really took me back to an August about 25 years ago now when Allan and I needed just a little community food support to get through a couple of months.  Allan had been hired to begin his first teaching job in September and we would be able to expect a paycheck at the end of that month, but this was early August and the restaurant where both of us had been working up until then suddenly closed and we were immediately unemployed.  Allan’s parents had some wooded property in the county and offered to let us cut firewood to sell and make our little house payment of about $300.00.  All we had to do additionally was feed ourselves.
 We learned a lot that summer about creative sources for finding free food.  First of all, there was a gleaning program where people could go to fields after they had been harvested and collect what was left.  I remember picking green beans, cucumbers, and peaches and going home to can them in jars, the windows of our tiny house dripping with condensation as I kept gallons of water boiling for hours giving the jars a water bath to make them seal. 
Next, there were free blocks of cheddar cheese through a local food bank.  One of those was enough to last us a long time.
Finally, Allan and I, both growing up on farms and having a level of understanding of where meat comes from, called on the absolutely free ads in the newspaper where people were giving away chickens, rabbits, turkeys, and other edible animals that they didn’t want to raise any longer, but couldn’t eat themselves.  We drove out to the houses to pick up the give aways, implying, but not outright saying that we were going to keep them as pets.  I’m sorry, I know some of you needed to believe that this was the ongoing story of your Easter bunny.  We waited to do the butchering until it got dark so as not to traumatize the little children in our neighborhood who hung around our house most days. 
It was a great time, in retrospect.  We had such a direct one-to-one relationship with resources:  cut wood=house payment, harvested chicken or cucumbers=dinner.  I don’t remember being panicked about our means and it was interesting to fill our days scouting out what we needed and then preparing it to eat.  I only wish we had had access to the beautiful overflow of produce seen in the Napa Valley gleaning program, but I was touched by the affluent women who began this program because they believed that all people need to eat fresh, healthy food and that their bodies and spirits will both be enriched by it.  It all made me think of a Tibetan blessing I read once in Kathmandu:  May you have enough.  That is really a happy amount to have.

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Sea Change

            It has been a summer of largess:  the ungraspable beauty of the San Juan Islands, bounteous and perfect food offerings, unlimited shopping possibilities, and friends, family, and more friends.  We left America dragging our maximum baggage capacities behind us and somehow got all the way to Tunisia without losing one item. 
            Now, after such an expansive experience, how do I begin writing about our second year in North Africa?   As Anne Lamott recommends, start writing about the smallest topic you can bring it down to.  Voila!  Carrots!... and onions, and the simple fundamentals one begins with, including the practice of chopping. 

            These humble carrots are so organically grown.  I swear I was looking for these all summer.  The perfectly uniform carrots I found in the Northwest intimidated me and looked too fancy to chop up and cook.  These are my kind of carrots, willing and ready to cooperate with other ingredients, lending just a little sweetness and color to any dish.  We are making up a vat of ragu here, using a recipe by Giorgio Locatelli from his book Made in Italy, Food and Stories. 
            It feels really good to get back into our Tunisian rhythms.

Ragu alla Bolognese
Makes enough for 8

2kg-minced beef
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 carrots, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
2 onions, finely chopped
Sprigs of rosemary and sage, tied together in a bouquet garni
2 garlic cloves, whole
1 bottle of red wine
1-tablespoon tomato paste
1 liter diced tomatoes
Salt and pepper

Take the meat out of the fridge and lay it on a tray, letting it come to room temperature so that it will sear rather than boil when it goes into the pan.

Heat the oil in a wide-bottomed saucepan, add the vegetables, herbs, and whole garlic cloves.  Sweat over a high heat for 5-8 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent browning.

Season the meat with salt and pepper and add to the pan of vegetables, making sure that the meat is covering the base of the pan.  Leave for 5-6 minutes so that the meat seals underneath and heats through completely before you start stirring, otherwise it will ooze protein and liquid and will boil rather than sear.  Take care, though, that the vegetables don’t burn.  Add a little more oil if necessary to prevent this.

Stir the meat and vegetables every few minutes for about 10-12 minutes until the meat starts to stick to the bottom of the pan.  At this point, the meat is ready to take the wine.

Add the wine and let it reduce right down to virtually nothing, then add the tomato paste and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring all the time.

Add the diced tomatoes and 1-liter water.  Bring to boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for about 1 ½ hours, adding a little extra water if necessary from time to time until you have a thick sauce.

Ragu is preferably served over pappardelle, tagliatelle, or other short pasta.  It is awesome layered into baked dishes, like lasagna, which is where our ragu is headed.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Hottest Table in Town

            It’s not even a town; it’s an island, but suddenly we’ve got one of the hottest destination restaurants in the country just a mile up the road. The New York Times gave this incredible quote, "...one of 10 restaurants worth a plane ride" (Jan. 7, 2011) about our own Willows Inn.  The Willows has been a wonderful, conscience driven inn and restaurant for decades, nabbing an article in Gourmet magazine just a few years ago.  This new launch to Top 10ness, however, is due to their brilliant new chef, Blaine Wetzel.  A native of Olympia, WA, Blaine trained and worked in several restaurants in the West before working at the famous Noma in Copenhagen.  Hype and credentials aside, this is a young man with a crystal clear vision of the style of food he wants to create and then the skills to execute a succession of dishes that make you stop and truly ponder/savor what you are tasting.  His dishes are heavily based on local produce and seafood to which some magical molecular gastronomy is applied.  From cedar box smoked salmon bites to goeduck clams in a tiny avalanche of horseradish snow, the meal is a series of amazements.  Don't even think you will be able to tell your friends later what you had for dinner.  You will remember the meal through a series of sensory impressions that, like art,  make a satisfying whole.