Thursday, January 22, 2015

Blackstrap Molasses Milk Steamer {Naturally-Sweetened, Kid-Approved}

On the first nippy fall day every year, my children begin clamoring for hot cocoa. And once the snow falls in earnest, they come in, icy cold from their romps, with snow-whipped rosy cheeks, peel off their wet, frozen clothes, and plonk down at the kitchen table to wait for a hot beverage.

And I can't help but think, as I heat up the milk, how much my Palestinian grandmother would approve.  

You see, Arabs are serious about their hot milk.  Yes, they love traditional coffee, and they serve up glasses and glasses of hot mint tea to their guests.  But in the privacy of their homes, at the kitchen table or in the drafty glassed-in verandas of the West Bank, you will find the mamas and the aunties drinking steaming mugs of milk, scalded in saucepans on the stove top and then poured into heavy mugs.  My grandmother always had one of these mugs nearby.  In the morning, my mother added a spoonful of Nescafe instant coffee (why instant coffee is all of the rage in the Middle East is beyond me, but it is).  In the afternoon and evening, she switched to plain milk, or a little Ovaltine before bed.  But milk, always hot milk.

In fact, nothing made my Palestinian grandmother, my Teta, cringe more than when she saw my sister and I drinking glasses of cold milk for breakfast in the winter (well, venturing outside with damp hair or without an undershirt provoked a great deal of dismay). My mother had tried to convert us and served us hot milk for breakfast, but we simply refused.  Perhaps, if she had offered us this beverage we would have warmed up to the drink (wink, wink).

Now that snow is falling and my little ones are asking for hot cocoa, my thoughts have turned back home, to the nourishing power of a mug of warm milk.  I am still not overly fond of plain hot milk, but I love a warm mug of creamy milk, as long as it has a little bit of flavoring.  I make homemade chocolate syrup (not my recipe, but find the link here) for this purpose, which we enjoy.  Still, I wanted something easier, faster, and even more nourishing for my family, so  I experimented in the kitchen to see if I could create another flavored hot milk drink.  I dug through my cupboard and found a jar of blackstrap molasses, and this new favorite drink was born.  It has all the warm creamy sweetness of a mug of hot chocolate, but with the warm spicy flavors of your favorite molasses cookie.





Molasses


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Molasses is the sweet, dark, flavorful syrup produced as a byproduct of boiling down cane sugar, and has been used as a traditional sweetener in this country dating back to the 1800's.  This is your great-grandmother's sweetener, the stuff of the frontier, of little Laura in the Little House on the Prairie.  And unlike the cane sugar, molasses is nutrient-rich. Which each boiling down, the molasses produced becomes darker, lower in sugar and higher in nutrients, and stronger in flavor.  You can find molasses in a variety of strengths, from light to original to robust.  My favorite molasses is the very darkest of molasses, blackstrap molasses, for its high rates of vitamin B6 and minerals such as iron, calcium and magnesium.  It has a very robust flavor that I have come to really enjoy (think of dark molasses cookies or dark gingerbread cake), but if this flavor is new to you, start small or start with robust molasses and work your way to blackstrap molasses.

Molasses is also very popular in the Arab world, but they are talking about another food all together.  When Arabs talk about molasses, or "dibbis," they are referring to a syrup made from the cooked-down pulp of fruits.  These natural sweeteners are used in cooking and in sweets, and every region has its favorites -- pomegranate molasses, date molasses, grape molasses, carob molasses.  I love these all, as well, and enjoy date or grape molasses stirred into a mug of hot milk.  If you have these, by all means use them.  If not, then reach for the jar of molasses that is probably already stashed in your pantry.

Blackstrap Molasses Milk Steamer

1 cup whole milk
2 tsp. blackstrap molasses (or other molasses)
Splash of vanilla extract
Sprinkle of cinnamon

Heat milk in a saucepan or microwave until warmed through.  Stir in molasses and vanilla.  Top with a sprinkle of cinnamon, if desired, and serve.

Hint:  Since molasses is acidic, if you add molasses to boiling milk, the milk will curdle.

This kid approves!

Related Posts:


*Traditional Arabic Coffee

*How to Make Pomegranate Molasses

Thursday, December 4, 2014

How to Stock a Kitchen for Healthful Eating in a Busy Season

There are times in life when you just can't spend much time in the kitchen.

Right now I have a sweet little baby who, added into an already full day of caring for a family and a home, makes kitchen prep time pretty limited.  But there are other reasons we find ourselves in survival mode.  Maybe you are packing up a home and moving (we've done this many times), or in an intense school season (like when my husband studied for the bar exam), or work season (like my first year of teaching).  Maybe someone is ill or pregnant.   Or maybe it's just holiday season!   No matter what the reason, it is suddenly challenging to keep up with your kitchen routines, even if they are simple.

In these seasons of survival, my husband and I  have learned how to be extra kind to ourselves, to be gentle with our expectations, and to try to do the best that we can with what we can.  Move softly, I tell myself, when I feel my heart squeeze in panic over the day's schedule.  And even as I swaddle a baby, or wipe a face, or tell a story, I try to remember that I am worthy of the same gentle care.   I accept help.  I even (swallow) ask for help.  And then I let things go.

For me, though, I have realized that I can let go of the toy situation on the floors or leave piles of laundry for later, but I cannot completely let go of feeding myself healthful foods.  After my second pregnancy, my body was so depleted that I was finally driven to search for a way of eating that could more deeply replenish my body; that is was brought me to traditional foods.  Since then, I have enjoyed a diet rich in nourishing fats, broths, and fermented foods, and my body has grown stronger and more resilient.  After this third pregnancy, then, I committed to try to care for myself as well as I could during the pregnancy and afterwards.  I packed my freezer with wholesome meals, broth and grassfed butters, stocked my fridge and pantry with as many ingredients as I could, and then asked friends to bring me home cooked meals for the first few weeks, so that I could avoid eating out.  But while dinner was brought to me, lunch and dinner were more challenging.

So, what did I do?  I spent a little more at the grocery store and a little less time in the kitchen.  I made sure that I had plenty of easy-to-grab foods in the fridge (because when the little boy is hungry, he wants to eat now, even if the baby needs to be nursed). And then I set aside either an hour (Sunday afternoons work for me right now) to prep a few things for the week, or I set aside a few minutes here and there to restock as my supplies run low (I only have three minutes at a time, so none of these require much hands-on time).

Everything listed below I was able to purchase at my regular grocery store, but I am also fortunate enough to live near a grocery store with a well-stocked natural section.  The list below is long, and I do not buy or make all of these every week, because that would be too much time and too much food for my family, but instead, rotate between them. These are the "extras" that I spring for, or the foods that I do take time to prepare, to help pull me through the rough patches.

Quick lunch - mixed greens salad with blue cheese and homemade vinaigrette, boiled egg, sourdough toast with liver pâté


Saturday, October 25, 2014

I Am Back, For Three Minutes




And here he is.

If the pictures are blurry, that is just because life has been a bit blurry for the last few weeks.  And the months before that, when pregnancy just went on and on.

But blurry can be beautiful.





We have been leaning hard on our people, who have really been bringing it.  Bringing food. Soups, breads, brownies, covered dishes, lasagnas.  We have been fed by others, which is good, because most days its hard enough just to get food into my mouth, let alone from the store to the stove.

As you can imagine, my ferments have been abandoned  (move over guys, there's a new baby in the house).  More than one jar of milk kefir has over-fermented on my counter, my kombucha jar turned into an extended-stay hotel, my pickling cucumbers are just sitting in the fridge, but I keep trying to make yogurt.  It has not gone well:  I scald the milk, and put it on the counter to cool down.  And then I forget all about it.  One day I heated it up three times without actually culturing it.  Late that night, as I headed to bed with a finally sleeping baby, I saw the cold milk sitting on the counter.  YOGURT!  I said to my husband.

It's over, honey, he said.  Let it go.

I laughed hard, bumping the baby against my jiggling stomach, and let it go.  They say that it's good to laugh hard once a day, just to ward off the blues.

For the moment, I know that if I can't do it in three minutes, I can't do it.  Or, if I can't do it in a series of three minute intervals, I can't do it.  In three minutes, I can move a load of laundry from the wash to the dryer, I can send an email, I can make a sandwich. And in between those three minutes, I will do the rest of life.




My three minutes is up, I hear the baby.  But I will be back, soon, friends, for another three minutes with you.



Saturday, July 5, 2014

When the Fire is Starting to Blaze: Pray for Peace in Israel and Palestine

I am in my mother and father's house now, my friends.   

We are in Western Michigan,  enjoying the sweet, cool breezes. Our days are filled with summery bliss, with sailing and swimming, with late morning cups of coffee and mounds of my mother's incredible food (sorry,  honey, my husband says sheepishly, but your mother's grape leaves are a little better than yours). 

But our nights are spent in Palestine.   

After the children are finally asleep, we fold away the day's activity, the dishes, the laundry, the stray cups.  Then we go home.   

We scroll through the headlines, the news feeds. We jump from news sources to first-hand accounts from our friends,  posting updates from our old neighborhoods.  It's a strange thing, you know, when your old hometown becomes a war zone.  Your friends from home, from your old neighborhood, start posting on their social media pages things that you wish you had never seen. 

But we cannot look away.  We sift through the reports, piecing information together, trying to reconcile ourselves to what is happening at home.  The news is raw, and yet we pick and pick, to keep peeling back layers and layers of skin.  To reach what?  The flesh?  The bone?
 
We do not talk much of food this time.  It is hard to have much of an appetite.  We set our plates aside for now: the feast must give way for the fast.  

Some members of the Christian community in Palestine are calling for a day of fasting tomorrow.  If you are able, and if you are a person of faith, please light a candle, or say a prayer, or spend some time fasting and praying for peace, and for comfort for the many families who are suffering right now.   

Here is an inspiring perspective, recorded in a recent post by the Telos Group, a nonprofit organization that seeks to positively encourage relations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: 

"The answer is not to seek revenge, because we will never meet our beloved ones, but will instead create additional victims. Peace is the answer. Our blood is the same and our enemy is the same: occupation, oppression, hatred, and fear." Bassam Aramin, Bereaved Father,  Palestinian Spokesperson


Praying with you for peace,

Jessica


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Turkish Onion Salad + Shortcut Grilled Lamb Kefta Burgers

Turkish onion salad - or Arabic salsa, as my mother likes to describe it to foreigners - is an easy way to bring a sense of adventure to your mezze spread. Mildly piquant with the bite of onion, this smokey-sweet salsa has tomato, honey and cumin, but you can spice it up with other add-ins, like parsley and a kick of hot pepper. There is really no wrong way to eat this simple onion salad.  Drop a spoonful onto a platter of hummus.  Top your chicken kebabs or lamb burgers with a spoonful.  Scoop some up in a loaf of Arabic bread.  Spread a little on a slice of grilled bread.  Or, if you're really crazy (like me), mix it right into your ground lamb patties destined for the grill.  I promise, you won't regret it.



























So . . . I'm basically eating onion, I asked my mother, when I watched her make this dish for the first time. We were in her glossily tiled kitchen in Bethlehem, and I watched her mince the onion finely, and then salt it, and drain away the liquid in a sieve.  Yes, she laughed, this is just onion.  But here is the secret.  You have to salt the onion and drain away the onion juice, so that it becomes mild instead of scaring away the neighbors.  Still, she said.  You don't eat much.

Onions occupy a comedic role in the mind of the Arab.  Though we love to eat them and fry them up for many of our dishes, they don't have much, well, honor.  Meats, nuts, spices--these are the jewels of the kitchen. The lowly onion, or bussul, which my mother and father always pronounced in an exaggerated, throaty manner, is the butt of jokes and insult.  Take, for example, this colorful little Arabic insult, which my mother translated for me a few months ago:  Why don't you take your idea and go plant some onion with it?

Maybe it has more acridity in the Arabic?

So, yes, we insult with onions, and also save with onions.  There is a lovely story from the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising, of a Palestinian woman who tossed onions down from her window whenever the Israeli army tear-gassed her street, so that demonstrators could use onions to counteract the effect of the tear gas. As the story goes, several people escaped the tear gas only to be hit by onions.

If you can't cry anymore, you might as well laugh, they say.

And so, we laugh, especially when we eat bussul salad.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Middle Eastern Cabbage Salad

Looking for a new cabbage slaw recipe to take to this summer's picnics?



Check out this classic Middle Eastern salad, which is as pretty as a rainbow, mayo-free, and as easy as it is delicious.  Dressed lightly with lemon and olive oil, and with a sprinkle of mint, parsley and green onion, this salad is a refreshing break from the classic coleslaw.  

Find the recipe over at MidEats!

And if you need other picnicking ideas, be sure to check out my last post, a Middle Eastern picnic recipe round-up.  


Sahtain!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Picnic Like an Arab: A Recipe Round-Up




For Mother's Day, my family went on a lovely hike at the Great Falls national park.  It was the kind of perfectly gorgeous day that you get in Northern Virginia a handful of times a year - brightly sunny and breezy, and the park grounds were packed with picnickers from all around the world.  Cigarette smoke wafted down few European tourists resting on some rocks, and beautiful (and fancy-dressed) Latin-American women walked by in their heels, dads with babies slung into backpacks trudged by.  In a rocky crevice, I rested on a rock while my children and husband scrambled across a stream, and a little girl with shiny black hair asked me if I knew where she could find a salamander.

In the green, open areas, some families were positively feasting - huge families congregated, with children scampering everywhere and grandparents, aunties and uncles lounged on plastic chairs, blankets, and impromptu hammocks, listening to music and stoked their charcoal grills (one family had actually wheeled out a sizable gas grill.  I was impressed.). I of course, tried to sneak peaks at what people had smoking on their grills and spread on picnic blankets.

The scene brought back so many memories from my childhood, where picnicking and barbecuing was serious business. We could just gather and eat food cooked out under the sky, or near water, with loads of friends and families spread out on picnic blankets and chairs, the mamas washing parsley and cucumbers for the tabbouleh under an open water tap.  I remember the green grassy hills and the palm trees by springs of Sachne, grilling fish with my aunts and uncles on the shores of Tiberias, and then, the teenage years of barbeques at in the local Jerusalem parks.  Other times, we grilled kebabs in the evenings on our flat, stone rooftop, under the canopy of stars, stoking the charcoal in tiny little grills while listening to the call to prayer, and then, afterwards, lying on mats and pillows to watch for shooting stars.

This was the Palestine that I loved.

In honor of the the start of picnic season, I have rounded up a few Middle Eastern picnic-friendly recipes, both mine and others.  I wish you joy this picnic season.  After all, is there anything better than the combination of good food, prepared and shared with good friends and family, and shared in the midst of beauty?


Wednesday, May 14, 2014

All about Milk Kefir + A Step-by-Step Tutorial on How to Make Milk Kefir at Home


Milk what?

Milk kefir (keh-feer) is a fermented milk drink, similar to a drinkable yogurt.  Thick, creamy, tangy, with a slight effervescence, some describe it as the "champagne" of dairy because of the lovely light fizz in this creamy drink.  When homemade, its flavor changes with the seasons, becoming thicker and milder in the summer, and yeastier in the winter. A living food, kefir is cultured with wild yeasts and bacteria, and depending on the milk, fermenting practices, and strains of microorganisms, its taste ranges from mild or pungent, tangy or sour.


What is Old is New Again


Kefir originates from the ancient the Caucasus region, where it was lauded as a gift from the gods, a traditional elixir for health and longevity.  Traditional kefir was made from fresh raw animal milk, and hung from skin bags near the doorways, so that the family's movements in and out would agitate the grains and the milk.  Today, you can find kefir just about anywhere in the world, but it remains popular in eastern and northern Europe. I remember sampling it when we traveled through Europe, and loved it immediately. I also remember seeing it on the shelves of the Jewish supermarkets in Jerusalem, which is why I had the impression for a long time that it was an Israeli drink. Arabs also drink it (my mother tells me that families in her childhood neighborhood in Nazareth brewed it) and it is often strained into a thick cheese, very similar to yogurt cheese, or labaneh. It is also rising in popularity in the United States, and you can find it in pasteurized forms in most natural food stores or in larger markets.

Milk is transformed into kefir when it is mixed with "kefir grains," usually left at room temperature, and left to ferment until it has thickened. "Kefir grains" are live active cultures, forming a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY).  These small, gelatinous particles develop into complex cauliflower-like structures. My toddler, who likes to help me make the kefir, describes the grains as "wet popcorn," which is a very apt description.

While this all sounds exotic, obscure, and (perhaps a little terrifying?) making kefir is very simple. All you need is a couple of grains, add them to milk, and leave them on your counter to ferment until thickened. If you are lucky, you can inherit some from a kind friend, or join a free culture-sharing Facebook page, where people mail them off or give them away freely. Otherwise, purchase them online.




Drink to Your Health


I am in love with this drink.  Have you ever tried something for the first time and you were instantly hooked? This tangy, fizzy, creamy, thick drink, just won me over at first swig. But it wasn't just the taste that drew me in.  It made me feel good.  Happy.  Relaxed.  And I thought that this was strange until I read that the word "kefir" is thought to derive from the Turkish word "keif" which means "good feeling." It turns out that kefir is rich in tryptophan, that amino acid that raises your feel-happy seratonin levels in your brain. After just a cup, I do notice that I feel slightly calmer and more relaxed.


Monday, May 5, 2014

Fertility and Traditional (Middle Eastern) Diets - Part Two

In my last post, I shared my fertility story, and described the impact that changing my diet had on my fertility.

I asked: is it possible that eating a more traditional diet, particularly a diet that has produced generation upon generation of Palestinians, supports fertility?  After looking at some of the recent research on fertility diets, here is what I found.  Here are some common components to fertility diets, with a short explanation of their benefits, and how they fit into a Middle Eastern cuisine.

{Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist or a medical professional, so please consult a medical professional if you have any concerns about your fertility.  Not all fertility issues can be resolved through diet.  Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health who have studied this topic have concluded that diet can have a positive impact on those who struggle with some infertility (ovulatory dysfunction and possible endometrial problems), but other causes of infertility do not respond to dietary changes. To read more about their findings, find the link at the bottom of the page.}

1.  Eat and Drink Full-Fat Dairy

Do you know that skim milk and other low-fat dairy products actually promote infertility? Modern studies agree: full-fat dairy increases fertility, but low-fat dairy actually decreases fertility!  Women who ate two or more servings of low-fat dairy foods had an 85% increased chance of adulatory infertility problems.  (Listen to an interview with these Harvard researchers here, see another study here.). So even though the American public has been warned repeatedly about the dangers of natural saturated fat, and urged to drink low-fat or skim milk, women who wish to become pregnant are now encouraged to consume one serving of full-fat dairy every single day.

Why is this? Researchers are not sure, but they posit that fat-soluble hormones in the milk play a role in ovulation. We do know that since we need an ample supply of vitamins A, D, E and K to achieve pregnancy, and since these vitamins are fat-soluble, it is extremely important that you have a good source of fat for your body to be able to absorb them.

If you are on a low-fat diet, I think that this is the first change that you should make.  Ditch all of the low-fat dairy products and opt for high quality, full fat diary foods every day. Organic, hormone-free, whole, grassfed milk products will give you the most benefits, and if you can find a source for raw or low-temperature pasteurized dairy, that is even better.  Opt for butter, not artificial spreads, whole milk and whole milk yogurt and cheeses, real cream, and homemade, naturally-sweetened ice cream.  When I was growing up in the Middle East, we drank whole milk, ate full fat plain yogurt at most meals, and ate whole milk yogurt cheese (labaneh), and whole milk farmers cheese (jibneh baida) regularly, and even enjoyed cups of cultured cream (shemenet). 



Friday, April 25, 2014

Sesame-Honey Fudge with Pistachio, or Halaweh

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Halaweh, (also called halawa, halwa, halva)  is a dense, sweet, nutty-tasting confection, made with many variations throughout the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and  eastern Europe. It is a fudge made with tahini, or sesame paste, mixed with sugar that has been boiled to the hard-rock stage, and then formed into a block. You can find a number of flavors of halaweh in Middle Eastern grocers, including plain, chocolate or pistachio.

I am so excited to share with you a five-minute, five-ingredient, raw and wholesome version of this treat!  This recipe is sugar-free, and  allergy sensitive, without gluten, dairy, eggs, (and can be prepared without nuts). 

To read more and find the recipe, click over to my post on the blog MidEATS

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Fertility and Traditional (Middle Eastern) Diets - Part One

Did you know that Palestinians have one of the highest fertility rates in the world? 

In the last twenty years, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have averaged from 6.5 births per woman to the most recent statistics of 4.92 births per woman (World Bank) .

That's a lot of babies. 

And while there are a number of driving forces behind this number, including political, cultural and socio-economic forces, I can't help but conclude that Palestinians, as a whole, are gifted in the area of fertility.  The fact that we are able to achieve these record high fertility rates, when so many other people in other countries struggle with fertility is something that has always caused me to wonder if there is something in the water, so to speak.


In fact, when my husband and I were trying to conceive for the first time, and were unsuccessful for a year, I clung to this comforting thought:  Palestinians have one of the highest fertility rates in the world!  Surely, my body knows how to do this!  And yet, even though we were young and healthy, we struggled to conceive. 

In the end, it wasn't until I changed my diet, (and though I didn't know it at the time) moved towards a more traditional diet by adding in more full-fat products, and gained a little weight that I was able to very rapidly become pregnant. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Palestinian Chickpea Fritters, or Falafel

What is crunchy and crispy on the outside, and smooth and buttery soft on the inside?














Falafels!!!

(By the way, we pronounce this word with a short second "a," as in apple, alligator, and maybe a better phonetic spelling would be falaafil, with the emphasis on the second syllable.)

There is something genius about these little fritters, for they are tasty, cheap and vegetarian, full of protein and nutrients.  They are satisfying and filling, like meatballs, but made from legumes and vegetables, which is useful in a place where meat is an expensive luxury.  In some parts of the Middle East, falafels are made with fava beans, or a combination of fava and chickpeas, but in Palestine, falafels are made exclusively with chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans.

Falafels are the quintessential street food, served in stands and shops throughout the Middle East.  Some people make these at home, but everyone has a favorite falafel stand, where you can pick up a sandwich or a tray of falafels for a few shekels. Falafel sandwiches bring me right back to my high school days, when I would run down town with my friends to buy fresh falafel sandwiches from a stand on King David Street.  There was a dizzying array of toppings and sauces for me to choose from--all sorts of brightly colored pickled vegetables and salads to stuff into my soft pita sandwich, all topped with a tahini-lemon sauce and then stuffed with a handful of French fries.  It's the kind of sandwich that stays with you- the vinegary pickles, the creamy, garlicky tahini sauce, and the crunch of a fresh falafel, cradled in soft bread.