Category Archives: Literature

Pastillas are the Prize in this Horse Race

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“The women even started participating in horseback riding competitions, after Tamou arrived from the North. Women had ridden horses on the farm before Tamou, but only discreetly, when the men were away, and they’d never really gone very far. Tamou turned riding into a solemn ritual, with fixed rules, and drills, and ostentatious awards ceremonies and prizes. The winner of the race would receive a prize made by the last one to cross the finish line: an enormous pastilla, the most delicious of all of Allah’s varied foods. At once a pastry and a meal, pastilla is sweet and salty, made of pigeon meat and nuts, sugar, and cinnamon. Oh! Pastilla crunches when you munch on it, and you have to eat it with delicate gestures, no rushing please, or else you will get sugar and cinnamon all over your face. Pastilla takes days to prepare because it is made of layers of sheer, almost transparent crust, stuffed with roasted and slightly crushed almonds, along with a lot of other surprises. Yasmina often said that if women were smart, they would sell the treat and make some money, instead of serving it as part of their banal housework duty.”  from Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi

A little more freedom for women on grandma’s family farm.

Pastillas

For the filling:

About 2 tbsp butter and 2 tbsp of olive oil

2 squab

1 medium onion, finely chopped

a pinch of saffron 

About a half cup of slivered almonds, roughly chopped

About a half cup of powdered sugar

Heaping 2 tbsp of cinnamon

4 cups of chicken stock

4 beaten eggs

About 2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

For the pastry:

About 12 sheets of Phyllo

Melted butter mixed with cinnamon and brown sugar

Melt the butter in the olive oil over medium heat.  Brown the squab on all sides, about 2 minutes per side.  Remove the squab, and add the onion to the pan to saute until tender.  Add the almonds, sugar, saffron, and cinnamon.  Saute about a minute longer.  Return the squab to the pan and add the chicken stock.  Braise the squab with the lid on for about 15-20 minutes and then with the lid off for about 15-20 minutes.  Remove the squab and set aside to cool.  Reduce the sauce by about 1/3.  Mix in the eggs until it becomes a thick, creamy sauce.  When the squab has cooled, remove the skin and bones and shred the meat.  Mix the squab and the parsley  into the sauce and allow the mixture to cool. 

Prepare your phyllo. I have had no end of trouble getting phyllo to do what I want it to, and getting it to the point where I can make beautiful triangular pastries is a feat I have not even attempted.  I have the best luck by starting with one sheet, folded in half and buttered, topped by another sheet folded in half and buttered, topped by yet another sheet.  Then I added about 1/4 of the filling and wrapped it into a neat rectangle.  My first attempt was a flop, but the other three worked well.  Brush the outside of the rectangle with more of the butter and sugar mixture.  Bake at 375 until golden brown.  

This pastry is just as amazing as it was described by Fatima and I imagine I made it half as well as her grandmother would have.

A quick note about why phyllo is so tricky:  It dries out fast and crumbles in your fingers.  I have gotten better results by keeping a damp paper towel over the sheets while I’m prepping, but not too damp, because it will make the sheets stick together.  I worked on a sheet of wax paper which seemed to help keep the phyllo from sticking.  I welcome any and all advice about how to better tame this culinary monster.

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A Berber Omelette Tagine Which Flies in the Face of Tradition

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Mother especially disliked the idea of a fixed lunch hour. She always was the last to wake up, and liked to have a late, lavish breakfast which she prepared herself with a lot of flamboyant defiance, beneath the disapproving stare of Grandmother Lalla Mani. She would make herself scrambled eggs and baghrir, or fine crepes, topped with pure honey and fresh butter, and, of course, plenty of tea. She usually ate at exactly eleven, just as Lalla Mani was about to begin her purification ritual for the noon prayer. And after that, two hours later at the communal table, Mother was often absolutely unable to eat lunch. Sometimes, she would skip it altogether, especially when she wanted to annoy Father, because to skip a meal was considered terribly rude and too openly individualistic.” from Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi

It’s hard to imagine a life where  a grown woman cannot cook when she wants to or eat what she likes in her own home.  Of course, she is not in her own home; she is in the harem.  Fatima’s mother’s only consolation was that her daughters would have the life that she could not:

“Then she would tell me that whatever else I did with my life, I had to take her revenge. ‘I want my daughters’ lives to be exciting,’ she would say, ‘very exciting and filled with one hundred percent happiness, nothing more, nothing less.’ I would raise my head, look at her earnestly, and ask what one hundred percent happiness meant, because I wanted her to know that I intended to do my best to achieve it. Happiness, she would explain, was when a person felt good, light, creative, content, loving and loved, and free.”

Berber Omelette Tagine

1 medium red onion,  finely chopped

1 medium green pepper and 2 medium tomatoes, both seeded, deveined, and finely chopped

3 tbsp olive oil

2 cloves garlic, pressed

8 large eggs

2-3 heaping tbsp of cilantro, finely chopped

2-3 generous pinches cumin

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in your tagine over medium heat.  Add the onions and peppers and saute until tender.  Add the garlic and saute another minute.  Add the tomatoes and 2 tbsp of water and cook until the tomatoes have softened, about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally.  In the meantime, whisk 6 of the eggs to even consistency.  Break the remaining two eggs and gently swirl into the mixture without breaking the yolks.  Poor the eggs over the vegetables being careful to distribute the two yolks away from the center.  Sprinkle with the cilantro and cumin.  Cover and reduce heat to its lowest setting.  Cook about 15 minutes until the eggs are set but still moist.  

Resist at all costs the temptation to take the lid off the omelette.  I couldn’t do it, so be stronger than I am.  My omelette burned a tiny bit on the bottom and I’m choosing to blame this on the fact that I peeked a few times too many.  Still, the burned part stayed stuck to the tagine and the omelette itself released deliciously.  I was surprised by how much I loved this omelette despite it’s lack of cheese (I can’t remember ever having an omelette without cheese).  The combination of cilantro and cumin really made the meal for me.  You can also add olives around the edge of the tagine before you put the lid on, but I don’t like olives.  I would also probably whisk the cilantro and the cumin into the 6 whisked eggs, just so that I don’t cover up the beauty of those two unbroken yolks with their swirl of egg white.

All in all, this was a healthy, delicious meal that made me appreciate the freedom to cook what and when I please.

I am dying to make that baghrir as soon as I get over my reluctance to cook with yeast (it has ended badly before)…

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