Monday, March 30, 2009

Cooking without Recipes

My to-do list lingers with items still to be checked off, but this weekend I pretty much allowed myself not to worry about it. Instead, I spent the bulk of my time cooking things.

I'm not sure whether I've talked about how I cook when I cook, but typically, I like no distractions - no music, no tv, no telephone. I cook in silence, just thinking about the ingredients and what I need to do. All other thoughts fly from my head, and I feel really peaceful.

It is for this reason that I totally understand why my Auntie Minerva in Lebanon and my Tayta in the states wake up and do the day's cooking before 8 AM. Cooking for them is not social - it's not something that they do with people coming in and out. No, they do their thing early early in the morning, and then their primary work for the day is done. So in other words, were I not a Ph.D. and did I not just get tenure as a university professor, I do think I might be content to be a Lebanese housewife who was born in like 1935. I would also have much better French if I were that instead of my current self, but that's neither here nor there.

Anyway, so on Saturday I made a london broil (whatever, it was cheap, it can easily be made into other things as leftovers), steamed asparagus with lemon, and a lentil dish that I made up (sautee a medium onion and some garlic, add in some sliced crimini mushrooms, then add lentils and low sodium beef broth - kind of like making a rich mushroom risotto only better for you and you don't need to watch it and stir constantly). My real challenge, though, was Sunday.

My absolute favorite Lebanese dish is my tayta's malfouf (or malfoof - arabic spelling in English varies). Basically, it's stuffed cabbage. Except what I learned in attempting to search for Tayta's recipe on the internet (it's no good asking Tayta, as she barely speaks English, I barely speak arabic, and she doesn't actually use "recipes" in cooking, so I've found it's better if I try to make something first, and then I know exactly what questions to ask when I see her) is that apparently she makes it differently from every Lebanese person in the whole world (and different from Syrians and other middle-eastern peeps, too, for good measure). Now I've found this to be the case with a number of my favorite dishes of hers (hummus, this chicken/beef/almonds/rice recipe that I've somehow managed to reconstruct), and so either a) she is really a phenomenally inventive cook or b) "standard" recipes for ethnic cuisines are totally not necessarily right.

But so anyway, I've always been a fan of cooked cabbage. Ham and cabbage? Cabbage and noodles? Corned beef and cabbage? TOTALLY my scene. HOWEVER, I've never really been a fan of American/Eastern European stuffed cabbage for what I've determined are the following reasons:

1) the cabbage is often really tough.
2) the texture of the meat/rice filling is often gooey and gross. (same problem I have with stuffed peppers, in addition to not really loving the pepper)
3) I hate the tomato component that is slopped over it. (same problem I have with both stuffed peppers and some meatloaf recipes)

So, what's so great about malfouf as my tayta makes it?
1) the cabbage is totally silky in texture - so much so that you can cut through a roll with a fork or even a spoon - no toughness. And yet, it is not soggy. It's like a cabbage miracle.
2) no tomato component - instead there is olive oil and lemon and garlic.
3) the filling includes no meat - and the rice is perfectly cooked and the grains are individual and not a sticky gooey mess. In addition to the rice, the filling includes chick peas that are pleasantly different in texture both from the rice and from the cabbage, and it may/may not include pine nuts (I'm not sure, but I threw some in).

But so anyway, I did lots of searching all over the internet to try to figure out at least the techniques for the cabbage and the rice, which I figured would be the hardest parts. I did this while the chick peas (which I'd soaked overnight) were cooking. I then improvised with seasonings, and I have to say, it didn't come out half-bad although I still need to do some tweaking. So, here's the recipe as I've figured it out to this point, though it's still a work in progress. It's labor-intensive, but totally worth it.

  • 1 medium cabbage.
  • 2 cups rice (I used short-grain brown rice because it's what I had, but I think Tayta typically uses long-grain white rice - the kind of rice will affect cooking time, I'd imagine).
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts.
  • 8 oz. dried garbanzo beans, soaked, cooked, and drained. (I really think it's probably important to use dried rather than canned for reasons of texture.)
  • approximately 1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil. (I don't really know - I just eyeballed it.)
  • the juice of 3 lemons (guessing here, because I only used one lemon and it was decidedly not lemony enough.)
  • salt, pepper, and other spices (not sure) to taste. (this time around, I tried some cardamom, some cumin, and some nutmeg. I think the nutmeg was wrong and maybe I should use some oregano? Or if not that, maybe I should just use zatar? need to play with the spices)
  • water or chicken stock to cover the cabbage rolls.
  • Approximately 3-5 cloves of garlic.
  1. Put the rice in hot water to soak for one hour.
  2. While the rice is soaking, core the cabbage. The easiest way to do this is to stick a large cooking fork in the core as a handle, and then you cut around it.
  3. Lightly toast the pine nuts to develop their flavor (takes about five minutes). You can do this while the cabbage is just starting to cook in step 4.
  4. Put the cabbage in a large pot, core-side down, and cover with water. Cook the cabbage, and remove the leaves with tongs as they detach from the head. They will not be totally cooked, but they will be pleasantly flexible for rolling. This is a pain in the ass. It is worth doing.
  5. Drain the rice and mix the filling. Mix together the rice, the chick peas, the toasted pine nuts, salt pepper and spices (whatever those are), the juice of a lemon (I only used the juice of half a lemon, and it wasn't enough), and some olive oil (I'd estimate 1/8 to 1/4 cup).
  6. Pre-heat the oven to 350 or 375 (I started at 375 then reduced to 35o because I was afraid the cabbage would burn).
  7. Spray the baking dish with cooking spray.
  8. Next, you'll do the little cabbage rolls. It's important to note that these are not big honking rolls like American Style ones. Each roll is typicaly only 1 to 3 bites in size (depending on the size of your bites). For the larger leaves, you can cut them in half, and cutting the tough spine of the leaf out altogether is a good idea. Put only 1-2 teaspoons of the filling into the roll, and roll them up like little burritos. Fit them tightly into a large baking dish.
  9. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon.
  10. Cut cloves of garlic into large pieces and scatter over the top. This infuses the rolls with a light garlic flavor that is delicate and not overpowering. You'll discard the garlic when cooking is complete.
  11. Fill dish with either stock or water to cover (just) the cabbage rolls. I had homemade stock on hand in the freezer, so I used that.
  12. Cover with foil (you can take the foil off if you'd like the cabbage to brown a little on top and to make the liquid evaporate a bit faster during cooking, if you feel like that's a good idea).
  13. Place in the oven. My cooking time was somewhere around 1 hour and 45 minutes, but I was using a glass dish, and I had to check frequently (busting into one roll to test the rice for doneness) because I had no recipe, so that probably extended the time a bit.
As you see, it's a recipe that is a pain. But as it is my favorite, and it is so perfect texturally and the flavors so subtle, I'm glad I tried it out. I need to figure out the spices, but the fact that I got the cabbage and the rice right means that I'm totally up for that challenge. As it is, even though the spices aren't quite right yet, it's still better than any American stuffed cabbage I've ever tasted. So delicious! So nutritious! And it freezes fine, so you can make a ton even if you're only one person.

So yes. That was my weekend. Now I need to get back to work.


Shane in SLC said...

other thoughts fly from my head, and I feel really peaceful

Wow, I can't imagine a description more dramatically different from my own experience of trying to "cook" anything more complicated than a frozen pizza. The thoughts in my head mostly have to do with not setting myself or the kitchen on fire. Luckily my wife's a great cook, and I'm happy to do the dishes afterward...

MB said...

A food post! I love it! You really must visit my blog, although lately I actually haven't been writing that much about food - I've been trying to make my blog deal with some digital media issues since that's one of my research areas.

Academics who cook....cooks who do academia....


Susan said...

Yum. From your recipe, it sounds as if your Tayta's malfouf is like stuffed grape leaves using cabbage leaves. . . both the size and the filling.

It sounds delicious, if fiddly. If you do it again, you might also put some lemon zest in with the rice...

Unknown said...

lucky you to cook without recipes ! I normally check out recipe or to cook lebanese and they're great sites.