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You know how some people are obsessed with stamp collections or fantasy football teams? Well, we're obsessed with cookbooks. (Surprise!) Here, we'll talk them.
Today: Lara Hamilton, owner of Seattle’s cookbook shop Book Larder, she knows a thing or two about cookbooks (and cooking from them—her shop has a kitchen!). Here, she shares the five things you can only learn from spending quality time cooking with a book—specifically, Cairo Kitchen.
When a couple of customers (who happen to be young chefs) came to my cookbook shop and declared Suzanne Zeidy’s Cairo Kitchen to be their new favorite book, I was intrigued and decided to take a closer look. I brought the UK edition of the book into the shop, then cooked from it at home and with staff in the kitchen at Book Larder. It's full of dishes from Zeidy's Egyptian restaurants in the UK, but is by no means restaurant food. This became really clear when I cooked from it. Here are five takeaways I just had to share:
1. Tahini is for more than just hummus.
Zeidy includes several mezze recipes that are simply cooked vegetables, garlic, and tahini blitzed in the food processor, sometimes with spices and a squeeze of lemon. Since I’ve always been more into baba ganoush than hummus because of the beany taste that can dominate hummus, I tried out the Beet Tahina Spread. Boiling the beets took away the funky, dirty edge that can put some people off the root vegetable, and blending them with tahini created a sweet, earthy, nutty spread that was great just eaten from the bowl.
I like recipes that can serve multiple purposes, so later in the week I used the spread in a fridge-cleaning supper, tossing it with whole wheat pasta, roasted broccoli, tofu, and toasted walnuts. Book Larder’s Culinary Director, Kyle Wisner, also suggests thinning the spread with a bit more oil and lemon to create a vinaigrette for salads and grains. In other recipes, Zeidy shows us that tahini-based dip can also include carrots or red peppers, instead of beets or garbanzo beans. It is a base that can be used with lots of vegetables—I’m planning to try it with zucchini this summer and maybe even parsnips next winter.
2. Eat beans with noodles for a nutritious comfort food.
We had to make koshary, the traditional street food that inspired Zeidy to open Cairo Kitchen. It's a quintessential dish of lentils, rice, macaroni, shareya (vermicelli noodles), chickpeas, and tomato sauce that's then topped with fried onions. The koshary itself is essentially a one-pot wonder: The onions are first browned and drained, and the starches are then cooked in the onion-flavored oil in the same pan.
This is a fantastically versatile family dish, as everyone then customizes their bowl, adding the sauces and any other toppings on hand (herbs, nuts, meat) to suit their taste and appetite. It was a bit time-consuming because, in addition to the tomato sauce, the dish is also served with homemade dakka sauce (spices, garlic, and vinegar) and red chile sauce (red chilis in oil with a bit of lemon), but the result was light and comforting at the same time.
3. Fava beans don’t have to be so much work.
When I see fava beans on a restaurant menu in spring, I always order them. I love their rich texture and appreciate that someone in the kitchen went to the trouble to pod, cook, and then slip them from their waxy skins. Egyptians love them, too, and use them in fuul, one of the most popular dishes in Egypt. Zeidy includes six versions of and uses for fuul in her book, and each calls for either dried or canned favas, which means no podding. I couldn’t find dried or canned beans, but frozen ones stepped in just fine. Since I’ve never eaten fuul in Egypt, I can’t say that using frozen favas was authentic, but boy was it good, especially when stuffed into warm mini pitas. I managed to save enough to put the leftovers on toasted sourdough and top it with an egg for the next morning’s breakfast, again getting extra mileage out of one recipe. I can’t wait to try the frozen favas again, this time in Zeidy’s recipe for taameya, a falafel-like street food that uses favas instead of chickpeas.
More: DIY your pita.
4. Homemade condiments make your boring dish better.
A full twenty-eight pages of Cairo Kitchen are devoted to condiments and pickles, not to mention all of the dressings included with recipes throughout the book. While that’s not so unusual in Middle Eastern cookbooks, what sets these recipes apart is that most of them contain only a few ingredients and are very simple to make. Take Zeidy’s version of dukkah, the ubiquitous spice-and-nut blend that varies greatly throughout the region. The recipe I typically use has ten ingredients, while Zeidy’s has just four. Her blend of toasted cumin, coriander, sesame seeds, and peanuts was great on hard-boiled eggs, sprinkled on a salad, and would make a lovely rub for lamb or even chicken. The leftover dakka sauce from the koshary brought spicy acidity to roasted cauliflower. Having just a couple of these key add-ons can really boost my efforts to cook at home, sometimes providing inspiration for a meal (what do I want to put that chili sauce on tonight?).
5. If I go to Cairo, I’m eating on the street.
Like many cities whose restaurant culture was built around the tourist industry, Egypt’s restaurants typically serve anything but Egyptian food. Locals get their meals from street vendors or cook for themselves, so, in addition to wrangling as many invitations to eat in homes as I can, I’ll also enjoy meals standing up. Cairo’s street food looks incredible: spiced vegetables and pulses served in bowls or stuffed into warm baladi bread, a plate of taameya with salad and garlicky yogurt, or the layered pastry fateer, brown with honey and nuts. Or, if I do feel like settling into a restaurant, I’ll just eat at Zeidy’s Cairo Kitchens and benchmark my home efforts against the real thing.
What books are you loving cooking from right now?
Photos by James Ransom