Friday, November 21, 2014

Bread and Cheese

Bread and cheese and butter. Mascarpone and ricotta and akkawi. Laban and labneh. Granola and qatayef and turkish delight. Dips and sauces, jams and juices, sweets and treats and snacks. Pantry loaded with homemade goods, freezer stocked up with overflow, and fridge beaming with colors and flavors.

It all started in Ifrane earlier this year.

I had always been a home cook enjoying eating in rather than dining out. I liked to experiment with different cuisines and throw ingredients together to see what I could come up with. I rarely followed a recipe and didn't need much space to move around in. I made some Lebanese, some Asian, some American, some Italian, but didn't venture too far out of my comfort zone. There were some dishes that I was reluctant to try, hesitant to put the time and effort into, weary of the energy it was going to take me to put them together not trusting that they would turn out as I would expect.

In Ifrane, while a whole new world of flavors and ingredients opened up to me, I did not open up to it; at least not at first. I stuck as much as I could to "mainstream" cooking throwing together meals I was familiar with working with ingredients I knew. My repertoire of recipes shrunk significantly as I could not find the "exotic" ingredients that were at my disposable in the US. Of course in hindsight much of what was available to me in "quantities" and for "pennies" in Ifrane is considered "exotic" in the US. Who needed coconut milk when you had preserved lemons? Who needed taco seasoning when you had ras el hanout? But I didn't know. I tread very carefully down the Moroccan culinary lane and produced only a handful of traditional dishes, and even less desserts.

Turkish delight
Then I went to Lebanon. And returned. And when I came back my eyes opened.

I saw women who couldn't read or write, let alone follow recipes, put forth exquisite meals. They baked bread, cookies and cakes. They made pizza, chicken nuggets, and fish sticks. They fermented yogurt, pickled olives and juiced oranges. Everything they possibly could, they made at home. They did not have any fancy kitchen equipment, signature cutlery, or a wide open kitchen space. There weren't any graduated cups or spoons, no exact oven temperatures and no food thermometers.

I was left wondering. If these women could turn out a cake without exact measurements, why can't I? And that was the spark I needed.

With that thought I broke through my barriers and expanded my cooking comfort zone. Soon enough I was making fresh farmer's cheese, cakes, bread and pasta. I realized you really did not need an exact cup of flour to make bread, and that even a failed cake is good enough to eat. Every day I put forth a three-course dinner and was left wanting to cook some more.

Then we came back, and I reunited with my measuring equipment, my electric devices, my designer pots and pans. I decided to carry on with my culinary adventures and expand my offerings. And with imported ingredients easier to find around here I was able to move forward with my plans. I now make quite a few varieties of fresh cheeses, yeast breads and semi-sweet desserts. I feed Yousef homemade granola and Jannah-Rae loves homemade butter on toast. And while it certainly is easier to buy yogurt ready made from the store, it is more fun and more rewarding to serve the one made at home.

And with my new experiments come less cravings. Knowing that I can make qatayef in under an hour and that hot pita bread is not beyond my capabilities, I feel less homesick for Beirut. That I can now have akkawi and labneh for breakfast and toum with dinner, I no longer feel like I need to "import" them when I visit Lebanon. I have become semi-self-sufficient. And I trust that my family is eating well. My only regret is not having more family to share my creations with!

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