Friends, politics and food are a perfect triumvirate, proved again this Saturday night at a dinner for five. I pulled out all of the stops: a Middle Eastern meze table, an Asian-influenced lobster and scallop bisque, pork loin braised in milk, Brussels sprouts in yogurt and date molasses, and carrots cooked in carrot stock and butter. I even made a dessert, a flourless chocolate-chili cake with a sweet orange glaze and a dollop of maple sour cream.
Our first round of appetizers included the typical Middle Eastern olives and flatbread (pita bread) served with two dishes less commonly seen here in the states. Za’atar (pronounced ZA-ter) is a sublime herb mix I first discovered in Jordan. Dip a bite-sized piece of bread into an extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and blot at a shallow spread of za’atar. The herbs stick to the oiled bread. Pop it into your mouth. Grassy, herbal and floral flavors flood your mouth. It is a wonder it is not common in the US.
Recipes for za’atar vary by region and even within families but I think the essential ingredient is ground sumac. Recipes are often considered secret: it has been said that some women will not share their recipe for za’atar with their daughter-in-law, for fear that the son will not come home to Mother’s house for meals. You don’t need to ask a mother-in-law for her recipe because you can buy prepared za’atar at Penzey’s, Christina’s or the Middle Eastern shops on Mt. Auburn Street in Watertown. Or make your own with the recipe at the end of this post.
The other special appetizer was muhammarah, also known as mujadarah. Typically it is a rough paste of pomegranate molasses and walnuts served on flatbread. I use almonds instead of walnuts so it is a little less earthy than the authentic. Almonds, pomegranate molasses and spices blend into a crazy good spread. It is a brilliant and easy dish that my dinner partners devoured. Last night I took it over the top and substituted some extraordinary argan oil for the more typical EVOO. Argan oil has a nutty round flavor that is beyond description.
< geek alert> Argan oil is one of the rarest edible oils on earth, coming from an endangered species of tree that has been exterminated everywhere in Africa except in southern Morocco. Fortunately, its rarity is now causing area residents to protect it, with assistance from UNESCO – you know, the UN organization that the US will no longer fund because it admitted Palestine as a member last week. A local women’s cooperative sells the oil from the nuts, halting the cutting of the trees for firewood. You would protect the trees too if you could sell the oil on Amazon for $100 per liter. Rest assured I paid a lot less in Morocco for mine. <end geek alert>
Good food calls for good drink. We sipped on wine and a cocktail I invented for the evening: vodka, clementine-infused vodka, fresh orange juice, Cointreau and more pomegranate molasses. I like nuanced drinks that reveal themselves over time.
We settled into the dining room for the next course, a riff on lobster bisque with Asian influences. Rich lobster stock, local Cape scallops, amontillado sherry, cream and the saffron I harvested earlier in the day were more or less traditional. Wide sticky Thai rice noodles, nam pla (fish sauce) and tobiko (flying fish roe) were not. I wanted a smooth mouth feel in the bisque, thicker than the broth and cream would create. The starch from the rice noodles, plus a tablespoon of finely ground arborio rice, delivered that smooth feel.
The Mediterranean inspired the main courses. Pork loin braised in milk is a classic dish from Bologna, moist and tender pork with a rich nut-brown sauce from milk that was slowly reduced while braising the pork. I sprinkled thick slices of it with pomegranate seeds for a sharp contrast in texture, tang and color.
Brussels sprouts, briefly marinated in oil, were oven roasted under high heat and served atop a puddle of Greek yogurt and date molasses. The date molasses were drizzled on the whipped yogurt, not blended, so every bite would have a different ratio of earthy to sultry sweet to tangy. Carrots cooked on the stove at a low temp in carrot stock and butter for almost two hours were the purest essence of carrot flavor.
It was a beautiful and delicious plate, the pork with bright red pomegranate seeds, the green brussels sprouts on a bed of white and black sauce, the burnt orange of the carrots. I have finally learned “to plate” a meal, not just for flavor but appearance also. Miss Suzee appreciates the visuals.
I knew that I wanted a dessert that matched the dinner, lots of big flavors and contrasts. Since I rarely bake but am trying to cook outside of my comfort zone, I sweated this issue more than any other in the two weeks before dinner. After toying with a few dessert ideas I found a recipe for a flourless chocolate cake and played with it, including adding a few teaspoons of chili powder and toning down the sugar. What flavors go well with bitter chocolate and chilis? How about sweet, tangy, orange and maple? I whipped up an easy orange glaze, and sour cream with maple syrup. The dessert stood up on its own, thankfully, because I had a treasure to go with it.
Eight years ago I bought a special wine in Paris, a 2003 Sauternes that was expected to be one of the great dessert wines of the decade if I could only wait until 2011 to drink it. I did wait. We drank. I wish my wines were always so good. Life should be so sweet.
1 tablespoon of ground sumac
2 tablespoons thyme
1 tablespoon roasted sesame seeds
2 tablespoons marjoram
2 tablespoons oregano
1 teaspoon coarse salt
Grind or crush the sesame seeds and toss all of the ingredients together. Simple, no? Of course most people don’t have ground sumac in their homes and will have to go to one of the aforementioned shops to buy it, so pick up a prepared mix and then experiment with your own version later.
1 cup of skinless almonds
2 tablespoons of pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon of dried red chili pepper (not a chili mix!)
¼ cup of dried bread crumbs
¼ cup of good EVOO
½ teaspoon of cumin
Pinch of allspice
Pinch of salt
I used skinless almonds instead of the traditional walnuts. Grind everything together. It will probably be easier to do the grinding in small batches in a spiced grinder than a blender or food processor, unless you are making a large batch. Don’t turn it into a smooth puree: let it maintain some rough texture. Taste it as you grind and adjust the spices. Don’t be afraid to add more pomegranate molasses if you are not tasting pomegranate love. Ditto for the ground chili.