Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Recipe Challenge: The Thief

As our first ever recipe challenge, Susan challenged me some time last week to create a recipe inspired by The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner! Now, this book has been one of my top 5 since I read it way back when in 7th grade or something—it completely blew my mind, in a way that few books have done before or since. I don’t want to ruin anything if you haven’t read it, BUT YOU SHOULD READ IT. It’s not the kind of book where you say it’s good…for YA fiction. Nope, no qualification necessary. It’s a just plain good book, whether you are a YA or not. In the decade and a half since The Thief’s publication, the series has grown to a total of 4 books so far, with more to come. The WordNerds (the Skype book club Sus and I belong to) planned to read all 4 and discuss them for our December meeting, but I had some other things going on and wasn’t able to finish all 4 in the allotted time. I am still working my way through them, with reviews to come in the future, I imagine. I finished up my re-read of the second novel, The Queen of Attolia, a few days ago (no link to that one—I’m serious about avoiding spoilers on these gems!). So with my brain in the correct frame of mind, I set about concocting a recipe worthy of the world of Gen, the Magus, Sophos, Ambiades, et al.

A little background for anyone who hasn’t read these books: They take place in a fictional world that takes its cues from the Mediterranean climate and ancient culture of our own world. Very Greco-Romanish in its religions, mythology, agriculture, clothing, names, and so on. Lots of olive trees. The most part of the books’ action takes place in the three neighboring countries of Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia. Sounis and Attolia are the lowland countries on either side of Eddis, which is a smaller nation up in the mountain range separating the other two. For some reason I always got the impression that Sounis was more arid and desert-y than Attolia, although it is on the sea, and that Attolia has much more arable land. Eddis, being up in the mountains, doesn’t have much in the way of agriculture and relies on trade for much of its food. I only mention these random bits of information because they were what I pondered while trying to invent a dish that might be consumed by the characters in these books. Of course, I can take some inspiration from Greek and other Mediterranean cuisines, I thought to myself, but I don’t want it to just be a Greek-style recipe that I plop down in the world of the books. I wanted it to still be something unique that would fit into that world naturally, taking into account the kinds of foods that would be available there, but not have it be something, like, the gyro recipe from that little Greek shop down my street. And this is what I came up with.

Side Dish: Cucumber Yogurt Salad

So this is my take on tzaziki, the Greek staple. I imagine it’s quite likely something like it exists in the world of The Thief (I seem to remember something involving yogurt when they’re at an inn in the first book, but I could be wrong), and as it’s simple, tasty, and cooling, I can imagine it being consumed by peasants and rulers alike during hot Sounisian and Attolian summers.

2 C. chopped cucumbers
1 Tbsp. fresh dill
1 6 oz. container of plain Greek yogurt
3 cloves roasted garlic (or more, if you’re a garlic fan like I am!)
1/2 tsp. lemon juice
1/8 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
Powdered sumac (optional) (the middle eastern herb, not the one growing in your backyard!)

1. You can use whatever cucumbers you like, but I used four cute little seedless ones that came in a pack, as all the others in my grocery store were rubbery. Avoid rubbery cucumbers! They were small enough that I could slice them up and then cut the rounds in half, but if you’re using a bigger cuke you may want to chop them up a bit more for more manageable bites. Put the chopped cucumbers in a medium-sized mixing bowl.

2. Chop up your fresh dill until you’ve got about enough that will pack into a tablespoon. I am a huge proponent of fresh herbs, but I know they’re not always easy to come by, so if you have to, go for the dried stuff. Fresh is better than dried, but dried is better than none at all! The dill is what makes this so tasty. Well, one of the things. More on that after a quick detour…

2a. Cool tip! I picked this one up from my mom. Say you’ve got a dill plant in your backyard, but you can’t possible use all the dill fronds it’s popping out before the plant goes to seed. What to do? Well, you can collect all the dill your little heart desires and then pack them into the little cubbyholes in your ice tray. After you’ve got them nice and filled, add water, and freeze them. Once frozen, pop them out and keep them in the freezer in a plastic bag. Then, whenever a recipe calls for dill, you can pop one of the cubes in a small bowl in the microwave, melt it down, then press all the water out of the dill using a strainer. Fresh dill any time of year!

Cute cucumbers and frozen dill cube.

3. Okay, cool, you’ve got your dill either chopped or defrosted. Now, we’re ready to work on the next tasty surprise—roasted garlic! I found this awesome tutorial here on how to make it. So if you fancy making it yourself, that is the method I used, or if you’re short on time I imagine they sell it in some grocery stores. It’s really delicious—the zing and burn of the fresh garlic softens and deepens as it’s roasted and becomes something very awesome. Once you’ve got your roasted garlic, whether from the store or homemade, mash it up with a fork until it’s good and squishy.

Getting ready to roast some garlic!

4. In a separate bowl, dump in your Greek yogurt. A little personal-sized container of it is the perfect size. I used Chobani because it was the only brand with a small-size plain Greek yogurt at my grocery store, but you can use whatever’s available. Take a small whisk and stir the yogurt until it’s smooth and combined. Stir in the lemon juice and salt and pepper, followed by the chopped dill and the smooshed roasted garlic. After it’s all combined, take a rubber spatula and scrape it into the bowl with the cucumbers, and mix it all together.

5. Cover the cucumber salad and place it in the refrigerator for at least an hour to let the flavors meld and combine. Sprinkle with the sumac before serving, if desired. I served my salad alongside the main dish, but it would also make a nice snack on its own with some pita bread or pretzels.

Main Dish: Pearl Couscous with Balsamic Stuff

When I first started pondering this challenge, I knew couscous was going to be the base of this dish. Couscous has its origins in the Mediterranean, albeit on the African side of the water. While not straight-up Greek, I thought it fit with the world of the book quite well. I chose the bigger pearl variety of couscous, which Wikipedia informs me is actually a baked wheat product from Israel, similar to orzo. No matter—in the story I invented in my mind it was something the invaders brought to Sounis and Attolia back in the day, which eventually migrated through trade up to Eddis, where it found a place in the heartier diet of the mountain people. And at its heart, I think of this as an Eddisian dish—hearty, simple, and a bit rustic—not something I could easily picture gracing the cosmopolitan plates of nobles in Attolia or Sounis, but still interesting enough to be served in the court of the Queen of Eddis. At least that is what I was hoping for. I had originally planned to make a fabulous sauce of tahini and roasted red peppers and more of that divine roasted garlic, but silly me, I forgot to taste test the tahini before tossing it in the food processor along with the other things. I was rather dismayed when my whole glorious sauce tasted completely rancid, due to tahini that had been living in my fridge a leeeetle too long. Learn from my mistake! Test your tahini! I had also planned to include lamb in the dish as well (since sheep are one resource Eddis has in abundance), but chickpeas turned out to be a more affordable protein choice. All’s well that ends well, though, as I am quite happy with what I concocted instead.

1 package of pearl couscous
1 red onion
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/8 C. + 1/8 C. balsamic vinegar
1 can chickpeas (alias garbanzo beans)
4 C. kale
2 pinches sugar

1. Heat the two tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan. Slice the red onion, and then put it in the pan. Stir to coat with the oil, and then let it cook on medium heat. We want these babies to caramelize. I have a love-hate relationship with caramelized onions—I love eating them, but I don’t usually have the patience to make them! So just be very patient with these little guys. If they start to dry out or burn, reduce the heat. Make sure to stir them often so they don’t get lonely.

2. While that’s going on in the background, you can begin to prepare your couscous. My store had only the instant variety by the brand Near East in stock, so that’s what I used. I believe I purchased the roasted garlic and olive oil flavor, but you can go with whatever sounds tasty to you. Prepare it according to the package instructions.

Couscous box and the ingredients for my ill-fated tahini sauce.

3. Check on your onions. Are they starting to get soft and more transparent? Give them a pinch of sugar, and stir them some more. Once they’ve begun to soften, you can reduce the heat slightly.

4. Take your kale and start stripping the leafy green part off the thick middle rib of the leaf. You can in fact eat this rib, but it takes longer to cook than the leaf. Since we’re just planning on giving the leaves a quick steam, we’ll leave the middle rib out. Grab the leaf by the bottom edge where it connects to the rib, and just pull up—it should detach from the rib easily. Rip the leaves into smaller pieces, and put them in a colander. Continue doing this until you have about 4 cups worth—it may look like a lot, but it will shrink down once it goes in the hot pan. Rinse the kale in the colander and let water drain out.

5. How are your onions doing? Are they starting to look very soft and caramelized (I think for me this happened at about the 30 minute mark). If they aren’t, never fear! Just be patient, and I promise it will be worth it. If they are soft and caramelizing, then you are ready to add 1/8 cup of balsamic vinegar. Pour it in and stir it around, and raise the heat slightly.

6. Open up your can of chickpeas and drain it. Add the drained chickpeas to the pan with the onions, and stir to coat them in the balsamic vinegar. Let them heat for about 2 minutes, and then begin to add your kale. Throw in enough kale to cover the mixture in the pan. If you have kale left over, don’t worry—we’ll just add it in part two of the kale steam. Once you’ve added the first batch of kale, cover the pan with a lid and let it sit for a minute or so. Once you take the lid off, the steam should have cooked the kale and it will have turned a bright green color. Now you can stir and mix it in with the onions and chickpeas.

7. Add your next batch of kale, steam, and stir. Do this as many times as you need to to use up all your prepared kale. When you steam the last batch, pour the second 1/8 cup of balsamic vinegar over it and add the last pinch of sugar before replacing the lid. After it has steamed, stir it all up with the chickpeas and onions, and the whole mixture should be piping hot and deliciously balsamic-colored.

8. Put a scoop of the prepared pearl couscous on your plate, and ladle some of the veggie balsamic mixture on top. Add the cucumber salad as a side, and you are ready to dig in. Feel free to add a glass of red wine (or my favorite, Martinelli’s sparkling cider) and imagine you are dining at Eddis’ summer hunting lodge. Hurray!

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