Vacation palms remind columnist of Arabic cuisine
by Alan Reed
May 30, 2007 | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Greetings from Florida. Many of my friends back in Trigg County know I left town for a bit to see friends and family back home. It’s a little warmer here than Cadiz, but not much. I think the thing I missed most are the palm trees. Just seeing a picture of a palm makes me think of Florida. I was once told that they are not indigenous to Florida, but I could not think of a better symbol, short of an alligator.

Palms also make me think of the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. I’ve never been there, but often visited a Middle Eastern cafe here in Tampa to enjoy a hookah pipe to smoke (no, nothing “funny” in it) and some great food that hasn’t quite caught on in the US. Before visiting the Al Aqsa cafe, I was warned that the proprietors did not like westerners. I decided to take a chance to try some new food, and found that the hosts were gracious to guests, and made everyone feel at home and welcome.

One of the staples of both my diet and an Arab’s is a sort of spread known as hummous. When I first arrived in Trigg County, I went into hummous withdrawal. Thankfully, it is very easy to make, and tastes even better than the store bought brands I got used to.

To start our hummous, drain a 16-ounce can of chick peas or garbanzos. In my first attempt, I?didn’t think to drain the can, and left it very runny. The second time around was perfect. Add the chick peas to a food processor or blender. Use a quarter-cup of good quality extra-virgin olive oil to emulsify the beans. To season, add a tablespoon of ground cumin, the juice from half of a lemon or lime, a half-teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes and a couple of peeled cloves of garlic. Rather than adding raw garlic, I decided to modify the flavor by basting my two cloves in olive oil and baking them on a sheet in the oven until they grew soft. Roasted garlic adds a delicious nutty flavor to hummous. Puree the mixture until it reaches the consistency of a fine paste. Add salt and pepper as needed to reach the perfect blend of seasonings.

Hummous can be served as a dip for pita bread or pita chips, maybe with a second dip of a little extra-virgin olive oil. Hawkins and I were joined by his girlfriend Sanci Canon that evening, and found that the dip made a great condiment for our main course, shish taouk.

Remember when I quoted that old axiom, “If man’s first invention was fire, his second was barbecue sauce?” This dish drives home that point in a hurry. In recent columns, readers have seen several cultures adding unique flavors to grilled meats. Shish taouk is seen in similar incarnations in many Arabic nations. The word shish as in “kebab” means “stick,” you know, like a skewer. Taouk translates to “roasted chicken.” It’s nothing fancy, roasted chicken on a stick.

Start with about a half-pound of chicken for each diner. To have leftovers, I prepared about two pounds of chicken for the three of us. It made about five skewers worth of food. The chicken should be boneless, cut into about three-quarter inch cubes. Rather than use a sauce, this meat goes into a plastic bag or bowl to be marinated. Do not use a metal pan, since the marinade is heavy on citrus juice. Mix the juice of one lemon or one-and-a-half limes (a personal favorite) with?two tablespoons?of extra-virgin olive oil, a half-teaspoon each of cayenne pepper and cumin, and about a quarter-teaspoon of salt and black pepper. Two or three cloves of minced garlic go well in the marinade. Pour it over the chicken and seal the bag. Refrigerate for four to 24 hours. I gave it a “short soak” of about four hours and found that it worked out well.

After soaking the chicken, place it on skewers with large chunks of red onion. If you use wooden skewers, soak them for a good half hour before adding meat and onions to prevent burning. Place the chicken-and-onion skewers on a good charcoal fire and rotate a quarter-turn every five minutes. Keep the lid on the grill to control the level of the fire, and trap heat within the grill for even cooking. Remember, grills and fires are all different so keep an eye on your meat as it cooks. Test a few pieces when golden-brown on the outside to make sure you don’t find any pink inside.

The bread and hummous made for a nice appetizer and accompanying dish. I also served the chicken with some steamed rice. I really wanted a third dish, but could not find bulgur wheat to make tabouleh, a popular Mediterranean salad, so I found a recipe, and ingredients for falafel, which, I suppose the only western equivalent would be hush puppies. When I fail in cooking something new, it’s usually spectacular. This “awful falafel” was no exception at all. Despite diligently following the recipe, when I added the dough to the oil, it quickly fell apart into an oily sludge. My fryer was plenty hot but something was just not right. I have one of the best minds in the world researching what went wrong, and expect successful corrections soon. More of falafel if and when?I get it right.

That night, the Saturday before my vacation, Hawkins and Sanci enjoyed the series finale of one of her favorite shows, “Gilmore Girls.” I never saw the show, and wondered if it was about Toronto Maple Leafs legend Douggie Gilmour. After their program, I turned them on to a great Canadian comedy introduced by my good friend Eric Snyder, “the Trailer Park Boys.” This show is a “mockumentary” that chronicles the adventures of three fairly moronic Canadians named Ricky, Julian and Bubbles, along with their hapless sidekicks Cory and Trevor. Every episode leaves me with a sore face from laughing so hard. I think Hawkins feels about the same. With great comedy, tasty Arabic food and even the “awful falafel,” a good time was had by all. Good eating.
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