Friday, February 11, 2011

The Food Desert Project - Koshary - from one desert to another

Unfortunately, I don't have a pretty picture to go with this week's post - I've been putting off posting this recipe until I made a photogenic version, but since Egypt is on all our minds, I thought it shouldn't wait - so here's a little pantry solidarity from the food desert.  Our family's thoughts are with the people of Egypt, as they are with anyone who is struggling to keep their families properly nourished. 

I originally wrote this post well over a year ago, back when, in our minds, Egypt was known more for being a fascinating place of antiquities and culture:

So, I was watching a No Reservations rerun the other night and caught about 20 minutes of the show on Cairo before I had to move on to other tasks (OK, I fell asleep, but not because of the show.)  I pricked up my ears on hearing about Egypt's famous street food, كشرى, which, from the ingredients listed, sounded like it contained nothing but pantry staples - score one for the food desert!

I found several websites devoted to Koshary or koshari, including this well-worth-reading post on Gourmet's website: Koshary Needs Love, Too.  An Egyptian Tourism website had a description and a recipe that sounded authentic, and a number of recipes popped up on Recipezzar and places like that - but the recipe I liked the best came from a listserv entitled - needing only a few tweaks to make it food-desert friendly.

Basically, in an American kitchen, Koshary is an ideal way to get rid of your starchy leftovers - and has the added bonus of being vegan as well as tasty, and so will accomodate your more sensitive guests.  It consists of 5 layers in a predetermined order: pasta, rice pilaf, lentils, tomato sauce, fried onions, and chickpeas.  There are two accompanying sauces that add flavor to what otherwise might be a bland starchy dish - this is definitely a "whole is greater than the sum of its parts" experience.  Best of all, there's very little cooking technique to Koshary - it's really about getting a lot of pots dirty at once, and then assembling which makes it ideal for a large group.

So, I decided to layer my Koshary in one large bowl and serve it family-style; from what I read it's more traditional to assemble it in individual portions to order, but it worked fine for Sparky and I.  The first task was cooking all the ingredients: pasta, lentils (green is traditional, but I used red with success - I'm guessing food-desert dwellers will be able to find split peas if they don't have lentils) and, as Paula Deen delicately puts it "rice and roni" discarding the "flavor packet."  I cooked the "rice and roni" per the package directions in the microwave to save stovetop space.

1/2 cup dry macaroni, cooked per package directions and drained
1 box "rice and roni" mix, flavor packet discarded, cooked per package directions
1 cup of red lentils or split peas, simmered per package directions, drained.
1 1/2 cup tomato puree or crushed tomatoes
1 cup water
2 tbsp dried minced onion
1/2 tsp granulated onion
1/2 tsp granulated garlic
1/2 cup canned fried onions, crushed
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed (other firm canned beans could be substituted)

2 tbsp paprika (preferably hot)
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tsp jarred garlic
2 tbsp white vinegar
1/8 cup canned lemon juice or white wine
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander

First, make the garlic sauce - combine jarred garlic, vinegar, lemon juice, cumin and coriander in a small bowl and refrigerate at least two hours or overnight.

Prepare your remaining ingredients as you ordinarily would if serving them individually, starting with the rice (per package instructions) and lentils (cover with water and simmer until tender - split peas will take a bit longer, expect anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour, depending on  their age) which take the longest to cook.

Then simmer the minced onion, granulated onion and garlic in the water; after five minutes, add the tomato sauce and turn the heat to low.

Next, cook the pasta according to the package directions.

As the pasta is cooking, prepare the paprika sauce: heat 2 tbsp vegetable oil in a skillet, add the paprika and fry briefly.  Add 2 tbsp of the prepared tomato sauce and remove from heat.  I also found it beneficial to toast the french fried onions in a skillet, but they burn easily - mine got a bit singed, which imparted an awful flavor to the entire dish.  Don't do that. ;-)

Now, for the simple part, assembly:

A layer of macaroni (ditilani would be more traditional, but this worked) goes on the bottom


followed by a layer of rice, and then a layer of lentils


Then the tomato sauce and the fried onions (yes, mine went beyond toasted to burnt)


Then the chickpeas (from what I gathered from pictures, chickpeas are more of a garnish in koshary - but I liked a rather chickpea and lentil-heavy mix)


The whole thing is then garnished with the paprika sauce and the garlic mixture.

Even though my culinary skills were a bit off tonight, I completely understand why koshary is beloved by Egyptians: it's starchy, but the lentils and chickpeas (I keep flashing back to that episode of the Simpsons) make it hearty and satisfying.  The two sauces contrast the blandness of the other ingredients - and it tastes darn fine right out of the fridge at ten-thirty at night!

Funny story - Sparky cannot stand burnt onions, absolutely abhors them - so when I presented him with the Koshary, I tried to soften my mistake with history and some social studies.  I told him it was what people ate in Egypt, and tried to paint a picture of a far-off, exotic land.  He choked about half of it down, but the look he just couldn't keep off his face made me muster up "the food talk."

Moms, you know the one - I told him that Americans often take food for granted.  We don't realize that there are people who make do with whatever is available - and often go hungry anyway. I mentioned organizations like Heifer Project (Sparky helps choose our "gift" every Christmas) and UN WFP (he plays freerice.) I talked about people are so hungry that they'd be grateful for the food we throw away. I argued that Americans can be unpopular abroad, I think partly because we turn up our noses at food that's different - and how important it is for him to learn to politely eat food he doesn't enjoy - in short, I threw the entire Superior Mommy Lexicon at the child.

Sparky, whose eyes were growing wider with understanding as I spoke, paused mid-bite. Then, he very gravely put down his fork and said "OK, Mom...but I am never going to Egypt."

Sigh. Cooking errors speak louder than words.

(Of course, Sparky is fascinated by Egypt and has talked at length about traveling to Cairo; he isn't as spoiled as this story makes him sound - plus, I'm guessing Egyptians are far better at toasting onions than I am. )


Team Spatulatta said...

Sparky is hoot. Thanks for making koshary. There's something vaguely familar sbout it, like there might be a "cousin" dish in the Armenian cuisine.

Michele Hays said...

Thanks! ;-)

That would be exciting - let me know if you find the dish!

It seems like there are many dishes that are reinterpreted throughout the Middle East/Northern Africa/Southern Europe - I'm particularly fascinated by filled pastries like pita/burek/kadu.

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