I rebel, therefore we exist.
~Albert Camus

Another resplendent sweet, sort of, well really, actually — a Middle Eastern snack made with phyllo and nuts and drenched throughout with a honey glaze. The textures and tastes are flat supreme.  It is opined by many that Baklava was first savored around the 8th century B.C.E. in northern Mesopotamia, when Assyrians layered thin pieces of dough with nuts, baked the pastries in wood burning ovens, and added honey for sweetness.

But, first let us briefly digress to World War I (1914-1918) الجزائر, Algeria, vast, diverse, luxuriant, and often stark lands in what is known as the Maghreb region of North Africa, somewhat west of today’s Egypt. For baklava has been and is relished in Algeria as well.

The French viewed Algeria (Algérie) as just another “decadent state,” given to sins such as slavery, piracy and tribal anarchy. So, the Code de l’indigénat was a “lawful” scheme creating an inferior legal status for natives of French colonies from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century – making discrimination legitimate and actually legally dispossessing natives. Denizens were never afforded rights as citizens of overseas departments and were assimilated so to create in the colonies integral parts of France.

The Code de l’indigénat has been at the center of now revised thinking about French policies — colonial “indirect” rule.

The loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871 led to pressure on the French government to make new land available in Algeria for thousands of Alsatian-Lorraine “refugees” or colons who were resettled there.  Pied noirs (“black foots”) they were called and later slaughtered likewise.

The colonial regime imposed greater taxes on Muslims than on Europeans yet the colons controlled the revenues which would be spent. As a result, colon towns had graceful buildings, paved avenues lined with trees, fountains and statues, while Algerian villages and rural areas benefited little. For an example, take a gander at Le Cathédrale du Sacré-Cœur d’Alger which towers over Algiers.

The school curricula were entirely French and afforded zero places for Arabic studies, which were deliberately downgraded even in Muslim schools. Within that generation, educated, gallicized Muslims, les évolués (the evolved ones), were created.

The colons who ran Algeria maintained a condescending dialogue only with the beni-oui-ouis (“yes men”). Later, they deliberately thwarted contact between the évolués and Muslim traditionalists on the one hand and between évolués and official circles in France on the other.  So, no genuine communication existed between the communities — probably only underlying, then direct enmity prevailed.

The first Code de l’indigénat was implemented by the Algerian senate on July 14, 1865 (on Juillet quatorze? in 1865?  Perhaps no one knew, right?). The first article stated:

The Muslim indigenous is French, however, he will continue to be subjected to Muslim law. He may be admitted to serve in the terrestrial and marine Army. He may be called to function and civil employment in Algeria. He may, on his demand, be admitted to enjoy the rights of a French citizen; in this case, he is subjected to the political and civil laws of France.

The Code distinguished two categories of citizens: French citizens (ethnic metropolitans) and French subjects, that is to say black Africans, Algerians, North Africans, et al., who lived there.

French subjects submitted to the Code de l’indigénat were deprived of much of their freedom and their political rights and only retained their personal statuses, religions or origins. As is too often the case, the colonialism practiced in Algeria resembled a kind of slavery of indigenous peoples as they were stripped of their identity.

The Code allowed Muslims to apply for full French citizenship, a measure that few took since it involved renouncing the right to be guided by sharia law in personal matters and was considered a kind of apostasy – a rejection of Islam. The Code de l’indigénat was a bitter anathema to Islamic tenets.

In a sense, World War I has never ended as many Arab peoples are still living its historical, religious, tribal and geographical consequences.  This is a short story, but there is some truth to it.  Blogs.

Baklava (Farsi for “many leaves”) consists of layers of phyllo filled with nuts and spices and drenched in a honey syrup.  Almost seems metaphorical.

BAKLAVA

2 C raw sugar
1 C honey
1 1/2 C water
2 T lemon juice
2 T light corn syrup
2 cinnamon sticks
4 cloves, whole
1 t cardamon, ground

1 lb pistachios and walnuts, in equal parts, finely chopped
1/4 C raw sugar
1 lb phyllo dough
1 C (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 F

Stir the sugar, water, lemon juice, corn syrup, cinnamon sticks, and cloves over low heat until the sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes. Halt stirring, then increase the heat to medium, and cook until the mixture is slightly syrupy, about 5 minutes. Discard the cinnamon sticks and whole cloves.  Allow to cool.

Combine all the nut and raw sugar ingredients.  Grease a 13″ x 9″ glass baking pan with a stick of butter.

Place a sheet of phyllo in the prepared pan and lightly brush with melted butter. Repeat the butter treatment with more sheets. Spread with half of the filling. Top with more sheets, again brushing each with butter.  Spread with the remaining nut mixture and end with a top layer of several sheets, continuing to brush each with butter. Trim any overhanging edges. Ne pas oublier la beurre!

Just before baking, lightly sprinkle the top of the pastry with cold water to inhibit the pastry from curving upwards. Bake for about 20 minutes. Then, reduce the heat to 300 F and bake until golden brown, for about 15 additional minutes.

Score to form diamond shapes, and then cut through the scored lines. Drizzle the cooled syrup slowly over the hot baklava and let cool for several hours, if not overnight.  Try with some strong coffee.

 

Huge lemons, cut in slices, would sink like setting suns into the dusky sea, softly illuminating it with their radiating membranes, and its clear, smooth surface aquiver from the rising bitter essence.
~Rainer Maria Rilke

An aromatic South Indian bend on a lemon rice recipe posted earlier. (Rice with Lemon & Pine Nuts, June 12, 2009).

Lemons are small evergreen trees (Citrus limon) native to Asia, which also bear the name of the trees’ sunny oval fruits. Although the specific regional origin is debated, it is believed to be somewhere in China or India, where lemons have been cultivated for some 2,500 years. They were supposedly introduced into southern Italy during ancient Roman times and were cultivated in the Mideast and North Africa by the 7th century. Prized for their medicinal value, Arabs scattered these tart orbs throughout the Mediterranean basin during their European conquests. The first European lemon cultivation began in Genoa during the mid-fifteenth century. Christopher Columbus introduced lemons to the New World when he brought seeds to Hispaniola along his voyages.

Not an atypical etymological path for the actual word. The Middle English word limon likely derived the Old French limon, which in turn probably came from the Italian limone—which reverts back to the Arabic word laymūn or līmūn, which comes from the Persian word līmūn.

LEMON RICE

1 1/2 C basmati rice
3 C water
1/2 t salt

2 T canola oil
1/3 C unsalted roasted peanuts

1/2 t cumin seeds, roasted and finely ground
1/2 t mustard seed
1 t turmeric
2 red whole dried red chiles, seeded and finely diced
1/2 T curry powder
Pinch of garam masala
1/4 C lemon juice
Sea salt, to taste

Freshly grated coconut, for garnish (optional)

Wash rice gently changing water several times until the water appears clear. Drain the rice and put it into the saucepan. Add water and salt, and bring to a gentle boil, then promptly reduce the heat to low and cover the pan. Cook until the rice is tender and “fish eyes” appear on the surface, about 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and fluff the rice with a fork. Set aside, covered.

Heat the oil in a heavy sauté pan on medium heat. Sauté the peanuts until the change color to light brown, about 2 minutes. Remove the peanuts and place in a bowl.

Add ground cumin and mustard seeds and once the seeds crackle add red chili, curry, garam masala, turmeric, and stir briefly. Mix in the already cooked rice, peanuts and lemon juice, then season with salt to taste. Toss the rice in the pan so that the spices mix evenly in the rice, ensuring that the rice is evenly yellow. Much like paella, if the rice at the bottom hardens, do not scrape the bottom of the pan.

If desired, garnish each serving with grated coconut.

Pourboire: if locally available, add a few sprigs of curry leaves in lieu of the curry powder. The curry tree (Murraya koenigii), in the citrus family, has small, oval leaves with a pleasing aroma that hints of tangerine and anise.

Latin Turnovers—Empanadas

September 28, 2009

The belly rules the mind.
~Spanish proverb

From Africa to Iberia to Latin America.

Flavorous hot pockets to go. Served with a variety of both savory and sweet fillings, the word empanada derives from the Spanish verb empanar, meaning to “wrap or coat in bread.” Empanadas may have descended from muaajanat bi sabaniq maa lahm, the pleasing spinach and meat stuffed pastries introduced to the Iberian peninsula during the lengthy Arab occupation which began in the 8th century. (See Paella, 02.13.09)

Usually, an empanada is made by folding a thin circular-shaped dough patty over a stuffing du jour, creating its typical half moon shape. It is probable that the Latin American empanadas were imported from Galicia, Spain, where they are prepared similar to pies that are cut in slices…making it a portable yet hearty meal for working stiffs. The Galician version is customarily prepared with cod fish or chicken, but empanadas have evolved to include fruits, meats, cheeses, fish, chiles, vegetables, beans, fruits, nuts, eggs—to name a few.

LAMB EMPANADAS

Dough
3 C unbleached all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons salt
5 T cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 large egg
2/3 C water

Filling
1 28 oz can San Marzano tomatoes
1 poblano chile, stemmed, seeded, roasted, and skin peeled
2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
1 bay leaf
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 lbs lamb, coarsely ground
1 t freshly ground black pepper
1 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t paprika
5 cloves, ground
1/2 C raisins
1/4 C black cured olives, pitted
1/2 T apple cider vinegar
1 bay leaf

1/4 C slivered almonds, toasted
3 T cilantro leaves, finely chopped
Sea salt, to taste

Canola oil for frying

Dough
Sift flour with salt into a large bowl and blend in butter with your fingertips or a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse meal with some small butter lumps. Whisk together egg and water, and then add to flour mixture, stirring until just incorporated. Turn out mixture onto a lightly floured surface and gather together, then massage gently for a few minutes—just enough to bring the dough together and make it smooth. Form dough into two equally sized balls and chill them, each wrapped in plastic wrap, at least 1 hour to rest.

Filling
Place the tomatoes and chile in a food processor or blender and purée.

Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and bay leaf, and cook until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook 2 more minutes. Add the lamb to the pan and cook until browned. Drain off the rendered fat and discard the bay leaf.

To the skillet, add the pepper, cinnamon, paprika, cloves, raisins, olives, and vinegar. Simmer until thick, about 35-45 minutes. The filling should be firm in texture and moist but not runny. Then stir in the almonds and cilantro. Season to taste with salt and allow to cool to room temperature.

Assembly
Divide first dough and half of second dough into 12 equal pieces and form each into a disk. Keeping remaining pieces covered, roll out a portion of the dough on a lightly floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin into a 6″ round (about 1/8″ thick).

Lightly brush the edges of the circle with water and spoon about 2-3 tablespoons filling onto one side. Then, fold dough in half, enclosing filling. Expell as much air as possible, and press the edges together to seal. Crimp decoratively with your fingers or tines of a fork. Transfer empanada to a baking sheet. Make remaining empanadas in same manner, arranging on a parchment lined baking sheet.

Pourboire: You may also use an empanada mold to create the pies.

Cooking
Pour canola oil to a depth of 1″ in frying pan and heat to 375 F. Fry the empanadas a few at a time until deep golden, about 2-3 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels and keep warm in an oven on low.