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current cooking quirks

2013 April 15
by taiyyaba

gratuitous unrelated cat picture

i go through phases of obsessions, skill-building, and other various and sundry cooking quirks. i think i’ve overcome my chipotle fixation and i managed to get through this fall without butternut squash.

zest: i know i’ve mentioned this before, but i’d like to reiterate it. never, ever, ever use a lemon just for its juice. you can zest it right in to whatever you needed the juice for. or, freeze the zest with a bit of juice to keep it moist. if you’ve got zest in the freezer, you can make danishes like this in a flash.

warm plates: i don’t remember where i picked this up from, but i think it was alton brown or mark bittman in an old minimalist video. my forgotten teacher said “nothing leeches heat from hot food like cold plates.” this is so true. by the time i set the food down, grab drinks and silverware, and ameir and i both get to the table, the food starts to cool down. especially eggs – hot from the frying pan and straight onto a cold plate. cold eggs are not good (except in egg salad).

the idea was really seeded by my dad, who pours boiling water into an empty mug to warm it, then empties it and adds a teabag and fresh boiling water. also, abbu drinks his tea at near-boiling. the family theorizes that his mouth and throat are coated with some sort of heat resistant material.

now, this only works if you’ve got sturdy plates, of course. i’ve started warming serving dishes in the oven and eating plates in the microwave for 45 sec. it really makes a difference in keeping our food warm all the way through the meal.

keeping food warm in the oven: i’m also learning how to balance between timing and keeping food warm until serving. i hate serving cold food. when i’m making individual batches of things, like pancakes, i set my oven to the lowest it will go (170F) and put cakes in there until all the batter is done. if dinner is ready before we’re ready to eat it, whether it’s just the two of us or we have guests, i cover it and put it in the oven on 200F. [and if i can clean up while things are staying warm, all the better so i can just lounge after eating!]. of course, some things will dry out or overcook, and i’m still learning how to manage that, but this has largely made my life easier and my food tastier.

mushroom stems: real talk. the good part of mushrooms are just the caps, right? the stems have a weird woody, fibrous texture to them when cooked. BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE.

if you chop them up finely [whizz in a food processor if there are a lot] and saute them over medium heat until they’re evenly browned, they turn into flavor oomphing caviar. [they’ve got umami. not unagi.] especially if you add finely chopped onions and diced garlic. now, whenever i’m cooking with mushrooms, i always de-stem them first and cook this down into the sauce. i’ve also added this into ground beef for meatballs with great success. [fyi i got this idea from pioneer woman’s amazing stuffed mushrooms. if you have any filling left over, roll it into some chicken breast. yeah.]

i’d like to experiment pureeing the cooked stems, onions, and garlic into a paste and keeping it in the fridge or freezer, and add spoonfuls into marinades or sauces or soups.

that’s all for now!

a citrusy craving and a dressing in progress

2013 April 8
by taiyyaba


seriously y’all. this month, i’ve wanted nothing more than a big bowl full of oranges. juicy, bright, tart, sweet, orange. mmmm.

i don’t know if this is a sign of some nascent vitamin c deficiency, or if i’m working out a mild jealousy that my parents are in pakistan during citrus season and have been drinking fresh-squeezed kino juice every morning. but here’s the result.

step 1: i bought a couple of every kind of orange (and a grapefruit) available at food lion. blood orange, cara cara, and one whose name i can’t remember.

step 2: wash and dry very well. zest each one into a small bowl with a microplane grater. the grapefruit really gave me some trouble but overall the zesting was well worth it.

step 3: grab a serrated knife. slice off a bit off one end of the citrus so it sits flat on your board. then, run your knife roundly down the sides, cutting off the rind as you go.

step 4: segment the fruit – hold each one in the palm of your hand. you see the lines running up and down? that’s the membrane that can be kind of fibrous and chewy in some varieties. not so great in a fruit salad. again using a serrated knife and working over your serving bowl (not the zest bowl), cut diagonally inwards between each membrane line. you’ll get little triangular segments and a bunch of juice falling into the bowl. when you’re done, you’ll have a mass of membranes left with some fruit stuck to them – just squeeze over the bowl and discard the rest.

step 5: EAT.

can we just marvel over these colors for a second? subhanallah.

wait, taiyyaba, what do i do with the zest? OMG i’m so glad you asked.

so, a couple of weeks ago (still during my citrus craving), i had dinner with friends at Zaytinya. it was super amazing (except for the snail kibbe….yeah you read that right), particularly this citrus salad with bright fruit, slightly bitter greens, pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and a soft salty cheese. well, naturally, after i’d cut up all that citrus, i had to try it with the bits and pieces i had on hand.

i’m kind of humble-proud about this vinaigrette. i need to keep working on the proportions but the flavors are really great.

citrus salad

vinaigrette: citrus zest from several fruits; probably about 1/2 cup of mixed citrus juice, 1/2 cup of strong earl grey left over from making honey cake, half a tablespoon of honey, and a couple of capfuls of apple cider vinegar. whisk with some olive oil and a pinch of salt.

dress some strong, dark greens (i used arugala) with this yumminess. bowl it. top with various and sundry citrus segments and some slivered almonds (if you have more wherewithal than i did, toast them first). nom it. some feta or ricotta salata would be awesome on this as well.

honey cake and pinteresting aspirations

2013 April 1
by taiyyaba

my friend and colleague at work, bethan, has a theory about pinterest – namely, that it is a purely aspirational device for people to obsess about stuff they want to do but never will. i think she’s mostly right. Lord knows i never do any of the stuff i pin on my “neat and clean” board and unfortunately own only one of the awesome things on my “serveware” board. but, bethan, i’ve proved you wrong today!

for a couple of days, i’ve been craving the process of baking and eating a cake. so, of course, i went on a pinterest spree (no one was injured, amy/donny). one really caught my eye – smitten kitchen’s majestic and moist honey cake. so i made it today, bethan! (of course she’s still right….i pinned 10 and will probably won’t make any of the rest of them….)

smitten kitchen’s stuff never fails – she really knows how to develop a recipe. this is a spicy and super soft cake to which i will very quickly become addicted. follow smitten kitchen’s directions. i modified her recipe for size and substituted some ingredients. here’s what i did!

sk’s honey cake

1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg [i didn’t have cloves]
1/4 tsp allspice
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup honey + a bit extra
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 capful vanilla extract
1/2 cup strong earl grey
1/4 + a couple of tbs 100% apple juice [unsweetened]
slivered almonds

as you can see from my ingredient list, i decreased the sugar a bit, substituted apple juice for the whiskey [cuz muslim] and orange juice [cuz i’m not a big fan of anything orange-flavored except oranges] and cloves [cuz i didn’t have any]. i chose earl grey instead of coffee [cuz i thought it would go better with the spices].

i made this in a 9 or 10-inch round springform pan, baked at 350F for 41 minutes. immediately after it came out of the oven, i brushed the top with warmed honey. i served it with a dollop of cream cheese, whipped till fluffy with vanilla extract, vanilla sugar, and lemon zest. (whipped cream would be lighter, of course, but i had some of this left over from making danishes).

to make bethan proud [and my tastebuds happy], i’ll hopefully make my “sweets” board more than just an aspiration. we’ll see.

saturday morning

2013 March 30
by taiyyaba

it’s saturday morning. i fell asleep early last night after a deposition (by which i mean i was sitting on the couch, watching star trek with the hubs, when the cat came to snooze on me, and suddenly it was two hours later and the hubs was saying “you really should go to bed, honey.”)

but now, it’s saturday morning. my biological clock still wakes me up relatively early on saturday mornings, so now i’m sitting in the sunroom watching the aforementioned cat chatter at birds on this lovely “still a bit too cold for NC but we’re getting there” spring morning.

my favorite (non-fruiting) tree is blooming, a white bradford pear that doesn’t have a strong fragrance but looks like an explosion of cotton balls. our backyard “grass” is really just a collection of clover flowers, which may be considered weeds but which i love. and, there are little nibs of color starting on our peach tree, which starts me down the path that leads to an insane amount of lovely fruit. i’ve got work to do, but have decided that i can put it off till tomorrow. when the hubs wakes up, i’ll make pancakes and then meet some friends for lunch at a favorite restaurant in chapel hill. so, all in all, this saturday morning is a very big alhumdulillah moment.

oh, and now the cat has arrived to knead biscuits on my lap.

why so long since my last post? laziness, mostly. but also resistance to doing anything that requires thinking after a long day of lawyering. the next few months promise to be as busy as this one is as i traverse through my first litigation experience. it’s a lot of fun and/but a lot of work and/but i’m learning a lot and enjoying it.

so right now, i’m enjoying my saturday morning. i’ll come up with some real posts soon.

Quick Tip: Cini-Minis

2012 November 9
by taiyyaba

i rage a constant war against my sweet tooth. i can’t help it. it’s genetic. inherited a double whammy from both sides of my family, but especially from my mother. my naana (paternal grandfather), used to start eating sugar right at the dinner table if dessert was not yet on hand.

on days where i’m feeling particularly truthful with myself, i admit that it’s a losing battle, and i make a pan of brownies. on days where i’m deceiving myself into thinking one sweet bite is enough, i make these cini-minis.

(and if i eat four of these, i promise myself to start my diet tomorrow).

pop a roll of cinnamon rolls and cut each roll into halves, thirds, or fourths (depending on how truthful you’re feeling). place each into a lightly greased mini-muffin cup. bake at the package-directed temperature for 7-10 minutes, or until they’re just done. watch ‘em. since they’re so small, they can overbake quickly. dollop with the frosting that comes with the packet. in addition to shame/ful/less snacking, these are really great for quick party snacks.

Hill o’Beans: Cannellini

2012 October 25
by taiyyaba

I have a life. So, cooking a good meal can be a challenge sometimes. But, in the “ace up my sleeve” category, I’ve got a few super-fast recipes using one can of beans and a few other things I usually have in my pantry. They make a light meal for one or substantial side dish for two and are quite healthy!

Grilled romaine topped with these delicious canellini beans

Canellini beans with caramelized onions and basil

1 onion, sliced in slivers
1 can canellini beans (or any white bean)
White sugar
Fresh basil leaves, basil pesto, or basil-in-a-tube (basil is my favorite here, but sage or rosemary are great substitutes).
Red pepper flakes
Just a bit of broth
Salt and black pepper

1. Warm some olive oil in a pan and get ready to quick-caramelize the onions.

Start at medium high heat (you can go higher if you’re attentive) and get a quick sear on them. Staying at medium-high, let them get a little brown on the edges and sprinkle with a light teaspoon of sugar. Turn it down and let them cook for about 7 or 8 more minutes.

Real caramelized onions take a long time, and don’t need any sugar. But when you’re tired, you can get an approximation in 10 minutes this way. Do try to leave them to cook on the lower heat as long as possible because they really provide great flavor to this dish.

2. While the onions are caramelizing, add in a sprinkle of red pepper flakes. Adding them now helps the heat permeate through the whole dish.

3. Drain and rinse the canellini beans. Shake out the water, but it’s okay if they’re still a little moist. Add them to the pan and toss with the onions. Add salt and just a little bit of black pepper – not enough to overwhelm the light beans.

4. Add in a little bit of broth – about two or three tablespoons – and cover the pan to let the beans soften. (if you don’t have broth, it’s okay, but the beans might get a bit dry, so watch them. you can add a bit of chopped tomato instead).

5. The beans are done when you can mush one with a fork and when they’ve absorbed all the broth. At the last minute, stir in the basil (in pesto, fresh, or in-a-tube form).

I’ve served these in so many different ways as a side dish or as a meal, and each is delicious. Pick one!

As a side dish: They’re great just like this as a side dish to grilled meat.

White Bean Crostini: Puree with a little more broth and spread over crostini. Top with a little more caramelized onion, shredded fresh basil, or sundried tomato.

White Beans with Couscous: Serve over couscous, which takes maximum 10 min to make, so it’s perfect for this quick-cooking meal. Toss some mint or parsley into the couscous if you have it.

Stuffed butternut squash: Hollow out the round part of a butternut squash (unpeeled), drizzle with oil, salt and pepper. Roast it at 450F until it’s soft. Fill the hollow with these canellini beans. Serve with a green salad for an amazing vegetarian supper. (this obviously takes longer. i added tomato since i didn’t have broth).

(My favorite way! This is the main picture at the top of the post) Grilled Romaine and White Bean Salad: Heat a grill pan. Cut some romaine lettuce in half, lengthwise (leave the core in) and drizzle it with olive oil. When the grill pan is quite hot, put the romaine on it cut side down and leave it there until you get some delish grill marks on it. Turn and grill the other sides. Plate the romaine and pour the hot basil canellini beans on top. (wait, it gets better!) Drizzle with Balsamic vinegar (aged, if you have it). Oh. My. God. My mouth is watering right now just writing about this.

So many options from just one little can o’beans! Enjoy!


2012 October 1
by taiyyaba

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon. We are from God, and to God we return.

Our beloved cousin, Ali, was killed in Damascus last week. Ali went missing on Thursday night, when he went to spend time with some friends and did not return. Yesterday, our family found out that he had been killed. He was buried today in the family graveyard.

Ali was the youngest of seven children. He was one of the kindest and happiest people I have ever known. Ali’s good manners, respect, and love were pervasive, and he spread them to his family and friends.

Ali was always ready with a smile, a joke, and a place in his big heart for everyone he met. He always made me feel so welcome when I visited Syria, even though I knew very little Arabic. Every memory I have of him makes me smile: Ali singing to his nephew, Ali driving like a maniac, Ali singing along to “What’s My Name?,” Ali telling us as we left for home to “Tell Molly I said salaam.” Allah yarhamhu.

Last time we went to Syria, Ali drove us everywhere around the beautiful country, taking time away from his studies to devote to our enjoyment. He was studying to be a lawyer.

Ali with his mom at the Syrian Mediterranean coast

Ali loved his family, and we love him. He will continue to live in our hearts and memories.

These make me smile. We had just spent a lovely weekend at the sea. We headed out so early that Ali didn’t have time for his signature hair gel. After some badgering, he let me take these. Afterwards, he applied half a tub of gel, rubbing palmfuls of goop into his hair, laughing heartily with us as we teased him about his style. May Allah give him the joy of Jannat al-Firdaus.

We pray for Ali and all of our brothers and sisters in Syria, those who are still living under tyranny and those who have escaped as displaced refugees. For those who have been killed, may Allah magnify their reward, forgive their sins, and accept them as martyrs in the highest level in Paradise.

Hill o’Beans: Chickpeas

2012 September 26
by taiyyaba

I have a life. So, cooking a good meal can be a challenge sometimes. But, in the “ace up my sleeve” category, I’ve got a few super-fast recipes using one can of beans and a few other things I usually have in my pantry. They make a light meal for one or substantial side dish for two and are quite healthy!

Chickpeas! Yes, you can do more than puree them into hummus.

Pan-roasted chickpea salad

1 can of garbonzo beans
1 lemon
handful of parsley
rough-cracked blacked pepper
olive oil
optional: thinly scallion/red onion/chives, diced cucumber, diced tomato

Before the chickpeas are roasted, they have to be dried well. Open the can of beans, drain the liquid, and rinse off the canning water. You can either place the beans on paper towels and pat dry, or spin them in a salad spinner till all the water is whisked away.

Heat a pan over high heat and drizzle in just enough olive oil to coat the pan. When the oil is very hot, drop in the chickpeas and toss to coat with oil. The chickpeas will begin to smell wonderful and will actually start popping and jumping merrily in the pan. Keep tossing so that they get evenly brown all over. This takes about five minutes.

While the chickpeas are browning, zest the lemon. When the chickpeas are browned, toss in some salt and cracked black pepper. While still in the pan, squeeze lemon juice over the chickpeas. They’ll sizzle!

Remove from heat and put the chickpeas into a serving bowl. Add the parsley and drizzle with a bit of fresh olive oil. It’s perfect to eat as a side this way, but you can also add some thinly sliced onions and chunked cucumbers and tomatoes.

Sorry honey . . .

2012 September 17
by taiyyaba


I love you, Ameir.

My friend Sana Anwar taught me to make this! Next step…acquire Sana’s Afghani pilau recipe. (that ish is GOOD).

I made this eggplant with garlic-yogurt sauce for my lovely friend Amy K on her wedding weekend – our suite had a kitchen, and I used it! I served it with a simple tomato-ricotta bruschetta and a light salad.

3 gigantic eggplants
1 big tub whole-milk yogurt
Spice mix: equal parts cumin, coriander, and paprika.
Garlic cloves
Dried and/or fresh mint
Diced tomatoes and/or pomegranate seeds
Olive oil

1. Slice the eggplant into rounds (no more than 1/2 inch thick). Sprinkle both sides with salt and let sit on paper towels or in a colander for an 20-30 min.

2. Pat eggplant dry and sprinkle with the spice mix on both sides.

3. Cook the eggplant.

Option 1: Fry the eggplant in olive oil (or. Just put a film of oil in a nonstick pan, wait till it gets hot (medium-high heat) and put the eggplant in a single layer. Fry on each side till it gets brown, adding more oil if needed.

Option 2: You can also just sprinkle them with the spice mix and cook under the broiler on a baking sheet. This will take significantly less oil.

Option 3: You can also do a combination. Sear on both sides, cook halfway through, on the stove – then put it on a pan in a low oven (300 max) to finish cooking while you do the rest of the eggplant. Poke with a fork to see if it’s soft enough.

Goin’ to the chuppah and I’m
Gonna get married
Goin’ to the chuppah of love

4. Mash a clove of garlic smooth (mortar/pestle, or dice onto a board with a pinch of kosher salt). Mix this into the yogurt & whip till smooth. (Start with half a mashed garlic clove and then see if you want more – it should just be a light flavor, not overpowering). Add just a smidge of the spice mix into the yogurt – just till it shows a bit of color.

5. On a big platter, put a layer of eggplant. Dollop the yogurt all over the top. Repeat. (This recipe makes two platters of two layers each). On the top, sprinkle with mint and diced tomatoes. You can also make it awesomer by sprinkling with pomegranate seeds, and/or drizzling with balsamic vinegar or a flavored olive oil.

6. Serve at room temperature or cold.

Kanafa kanafa kanafa

2012 September 10
by taiyyaba

Maryam and I have a kanafa song. it goes like this:

Kanafa Kanafa
I eat you Kanafa
Kanafa Kanafa
I eat you Kanafa

yeah. we’re cool like that.

my lovely lovely Fatimah makes a fantastic kanafa. seriously. fantastic. crispy on the edges, creamy on the inside, and perfect with a cup of tea. she makes it regularly, and i never, ever get tired of it. i’ve watched her make it so many times, and last time I finally wrote it down. YOU’RE WELCOME, INTERNETS.

Fatimah’s amazing ricotta kanafa
1 15-oz tub whole-milk ricotta
1 regular pack whole-milk mozarella cheese
1 pack shredded fillo dough
2 sticks of butter, melted
Kanafa coloring (an unflavored powdered food coloring you can get from an Arab grocery store. You can leave it out, or substitute any other color you want).

1. mix 1/2 stick of melted butter and kanafa coloring and spread it onto a big nonstick pan (fatimah uses a very large pizza pan). melt the rest of the butter with the fillo dough and spread half the dough on the bottom of the pan.

2. mix the cheeses and spread evenly across the dough.

3. top with the rest of the buttered dough.

4. bake at 400F for 30 minutes and slice quickly when it comes out of the oven. Pour the room-temp syrup over the kanafa while the kanafa is hot. Serve in squares, flipped pink side up.

Syrup proportions
1 3/4 cup of water
3 cups white sugar
juice of half a lime
orange blossom water to taste (about a teaspoon)

cook the water, lime juice, and sugar on a rapid simmer/low boil, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture becomes syrupy, about 15 minutes. add orange blossom water. remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

note on the sugar syrup: you can really change things up here with the flavoring. instead of orange blossom water, you could use vanilla and/or almond extract, or rose water extract. once, Fatima and I accidentally left the sugar syrup on the heat for too long and it caramelized – we just whisked it with some warmed honey, added some orange zest, and made a delicious golden-colored burnt sugar-orange-honey kanafa.