By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist
The last bits and pieces of Christmas have been carefully packed away for another year, and so far my much-needed two-day old diet has yet to be compromised. This year I partook in three separate Christmas celebrations, each filled with lots of family, loads of fun and a little too much food and drink (which was worth every pound)!
I always hold my breath when I pack my “food” suitcases, complete with elaborate repacking instructions for TSA, and I was pleased to arrive in Chicago with my holiday baking intact. After my red-eye arrival, I hauled my bags to the top of daughter Casey’s three-floor walk-up, and I was ready to complete my holiday shopping at my favorite Chicago market, Jerry’s Fruit and Garden. It’s an incredible and inexpensive market and produce mecca, serving a broad ethnic clientele, and is filled with exotic (and many unfamiliar) fruits and vegetables.
I first learned of Jerry’s from Mirfat, Casey’s Egyptian mother-in-law. Although we don’t have a lot of common interests, we continue to bond over finding a good bargain at Jerry’s. I’m familiar with most of the ingredients in the Asian and Hispanic aisles, but I always welcome Mirfat’s knowledge about everything Middle-Eastern.
Besides fixing our Christmas meal, I prepared, along with Mirfat, the foods for our grandson Sammy’s, christening. Her Middle-Eastern offerings included deftly wrapped Dolmas, crispy falafels, and perfect hummus, served with warm pita bread.
We were also celebrating the Feast of St. Barbara, a Middle Eastern Christian holiday, so Mirfat prepared traditional Burbara, a dessert of boiled wheat grains, pomegranate seeds, raisins, coconut, anise and sugar. St. Barbara, it was believed, ran through freshly planted wheat fields, which grew instantly to cover her path, and miraculously saved her from persecution while she was fleeing from Romans (this miracle is celebrated symbolically by planting wheat seeds in cotton wool on St. Barbara’s feast day of Dec. 4. The seeds germinate and grow up to around six inches in time for Christmas, when the shoots are used to decorate the nativity scene usually placed below the Christmas tree). I’m embarrassed to say I knew nothing of this holiday or tradition, but the story left me curious and yearning to learn more.
I have a great fascination and appreciation for the ethnic foods of other cultures, so wherever I travel I try to fit a cooking class or two into my itinerary. The ones I’ve enjoy the most and feel the most genuine are usually in the traditional home kitchens of local women, though due to logistics it’s not always possible to organize and experience that authenticity. Recently, I learned about a brilliant new enterprise, League of Kitchens. Currently they operate in Los Angeles and New York City, and honestly, I’m thinking of a trip, just for this unique experience.
The League of Kitchens instructors are immigrants who are exceptional home cooks and inspiring teachers who welcome groups of six people into their homes for a four-and-a-half-hour immersive cultural experience that focuses on hands-on culinary instruction for four or five dishes. The workshops include lunch, three hours of hands-on cooking time, a full dinner (no doubt, seasoned with stories of their homeland), a recipe packet and shopping guide.
Now I’m obsessed with experiencing this cross-cultural connection that provides good pay for the immigrant-instructors who hail from all over the world as well as a unique learning experience for the participants. I imagine it won’t be long before this enterprise will spread to other metropolitan areas, but for now, you can learn to cook Korean, Afghan, Lebanese, Greek, Trinidadian, Bangladeshi, Indian or Argentine food in either Los Angeles or New York City. If you want additional information, here’s their website: https://www.leagueofkitchens.com/
I’ve already learned a bit about Egyptian culture and have sampled many of the foods my grandson Sammy will eat at the table of his paternal clan. Whenever I visit Chicago, one of my favorite new traditions is joining them for a delicious Sunday meal at their favorite Middle Eastern restaurant. Last visit, I found one of my favorite egg dishes, Shakshouka (Arabic slang for mixture), on the menu. I grew up calling this delicious cure-all for a hangover, “Eggs in Hell,” and though I often whip up a batch on New Year’s Day, this batch came with a new and deep appreciation of their origin.
Shakshouka (Eggs in Hell) Recipe • Feeds 2-3 people
Cut this recipe in half (or thirds) for a single serving, just be sure your pan is deep enough to cook the eggs. Makes a great brunch dish, or dress it up with some feta or goat cheese and add a crisp salad on the side for supper. Serve with pita bread.
2 tbs olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 fresh hot green chili, seeded and finely chopped
1 medium red or green pepper, chopped
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp ground allspice
6 eggs, at room temperature
1 tbs chopped fresh parsley
Salt and freshly ground black Pepper
In a deep frying pan or enamel ware, heat the oil over a medium heat. Sauté the onion, garlic, chili and pepper together for about 5 minutes until softened, but not browned.
Chop the tomatoes, then add them to the frying pan and reduce the heat to a simmer for 5 to 10 minutes or until the tomatoes soften, adding a little water, as needed to make a thick sauce. Add the cumin, paprika and allspice and stir.
Crack the eggs evenly over the tomato and pepper and continue cooking for about 6 to 8 minutes until the whites are set.
Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Season to taste with the salt and pepper and serve hot.
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