R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means To Me…

At the school where I teach, which is non-sectarian, our character education mission is guided by four core values: honesty, responsibility, kindness, and respect. While we try to teach and model all four of these all the time, each year the school chooses one core value to highlight with special emphasis. It’s a four-year rotation, and this year the focus is on respect.

Last year, I was awarded what is essentially Teacher of the Year. (It was a glorious shock, let me tell you!) But part of that means that this year, I was invited to speak to the entire community about our core value of focus. Since that’s a big audience — approximately 1700 people — the largest I’ve ever addressed, and my stagefright was intense, I fell back on a skill that comes naturally to me: storytelling.

And since it went well, I’d like to share my remarks with you.

***

Good morning. Thank you for inviting me here to speak about our core value of respect. This morning I’d like to tell you all a story.

When I was seven years old, my mother and my grandmother began teaching me how to cook. My grandmother, whom I called Tita because that’s the Arabic word for Grandma, would come over to our house every Saturday, and she and my mother would spend the day making Lebanese food. When I was seven, they decided it was time I start learning how to do it, too. Now, learning to make Lebanese food is not a quick or simple process. There are no written recipes involved, and it takes most of the day; for example, making a batch of pita bread takes about five hours.

And while we made the food, Tita and my mother told me stories. I learned about how our family’s recipes had evolved over the generations, brought from Tripoli and Zouth-n-Kayek, from Bekfiya and Beirut, then to San Antonio and finally to Houston. I learned about the many people in my family who’d made this food before me and what their lives were like. I learned Tita had not had to measure a single ingredient since the age of twelve because she’d made cooking for her large family a big part of her life’s work.

And while I mixed ground lamb and onions and pine nuts to make kibbe, or stuffed grapeleaves and yellow squash with lamb and rice, I learned I was part of a rich and beautiful tradition. In learning to make this food, I came to understand my place in my family, in my culture, and – I thought – in the world.

One Monday morning, I decided to take some of the delicious Lebanese food I’d made to school with me for lunch. At that time, schools didn’t worry about food allergies, so my second-grade classmates and I all traded food in the lunchroom every day. As soon as everyone sat down at a table, the negotiations would begin:

“I’ll trade you a ham-and-cheese for your cupcake.”

“If I give you my Cheetos, can I have half your peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”

Things like that.

Well, I’d packed my Wonder Woman lunchbox that morning with some of my favorite foods, foods I was proud of, that I had made myself while participating in my family’s heritage. I started with the cookies. I asked, “Would anyone like a ma’amoul? No? I also have graybeh.” They looked at me like I was speaking Martian, not Arabic. So I switched to the English names: “How about a date finger?”

There was similar disinterest for my entrée, spinach pies. These are warm hand-held pies made of soft bread and filled with spinach and onions and lemon, and they were my favorite lunch. I’d brought two because I was sure someone else would want one.

Most of the reactions to my lunch ranged from unkindness – my classmates calling my food weird and gross – to polite distaste. They declined to sample any of it, much less trade me their Oreos for it, even though none of them had ever tried these foods before. And I felt torn: on the one hand, it looked like I was going to get to enjoy it all myself without having to share it; on the other hand, my seven-year-old sense of identity had become wrapped up in this food, in the communal process of creating it, and in what it meant to be Lebanese and to be part of my family. This food represented my culture, my accomplishments, and who I was as a person. So when my friends said my lunch was weird and gross, it felt like they were saying I was weird and gross.

Now, I mentioned that some of them were polite. They didn’t insult my lunch, but they didn’t want to try it, either. Politeness looks like respect, but it is not the same as respect. If you look up respect in the dictionary, you’ll see it means “to consider something in high regard.” To respect someone or something means that you think that person or thing is important and has value. If you look up politeness in the dictionary, you’ll find it means “marked by an appearance of deference or courtesy.” Some of my classmates politely declined to share my food, but it felt like they didn’t want to share in my experience, in who I was.

I did have one brave friend who, after she saw me eating my lunch, decided she would try it. She asked me if she could have a graybeh, which is a thick butter-and-sugar cookie with half a walnut embedded in the top, and I gave her one, and she liked it. Then I broke a ma’amoul – which is a sweet crumbly pastry filled with spiced dates and rolled in sugar – and gave her half. She liked that as well. She even had part of a spinach pie and declared it to be “actually pretty good.” She shared her chocolate bar with me, too. That one friend showed me respect by appreciating what I had to offer.

I want to paraphrase something my wise friend Christa Forster once told me, which is that all the things which make up who we are – our memories, our traditions, what we like or value – these things which make us unique and special are all golden. And when we share what matters to us with each other, we share that gold. And when we accept other people with an open mind and an open heart, when we celebrate what makes each other unique and special, we become richer. Just like my friend in second grade who discovered a whole new cuisine she liked eating, when we respect other people by accepting them, we gain a richer understanding and appreciation of them and what they have to offer, and also of the world.

Thank you so much for your attention today. Have a wonderful school year.

Forbidden Cookbook: Can’t Complain Beef Stew

This rich stew goes well with baguettes or another crusty bread and a nice cabernet sauvignon. To lighten the meal with a refreshing side dish, add your favorite green salad.

ingredients:
2 lbs. stew beef
flour
salt pepper
olive oil
2 envelopes dry onion mushroom soup mix
1 envelope dry Ranch dip mix
water
1 16 oz. bag frozen peas and carrots
2 15 oz. cans whole potatoes (drained)
3 cloves garlic, minced
pearl onions (peeled) — cipollines have a rich taste
2 envelopes dry brown mushroom gravy mix

Combine flour with salt and pepper (to taste) in mixing bowl. Coat chunks of beef in this mixture while heating large skillet with thin coat of olive oil on the bottom.

In skillet, brown the beef in olive oil. Transfer the beef to a pressure cooker. Empty two envelopes of dry onion mushroom soup mix and one envelope of Ranch dip mix over the beef.

Deglaze the skillet with water and then empty water onto the beef. Add more water until beef is covered and stir until everything is well mixed. Bring to boil, stirring now and then to prevent burning on the bottom of the pot.

Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes. Stir now and then to avoid scorching on the bottom of the pot. Then cover pot with pressurizing lid and simmer for another 20 minutes. (The pressure cooker helps make the stew beef, an inexpensive cut of meat, more tender.)

Remove pressure cooker from heat and release pressure with cool running water before opening it.

Add peas and carrots, potatoes, garlic, pearl onions, and brown mushroom gravy mix to pot and stir. If you’ve lost a lot of steam, you’ll want to add another couple of cups of water.

Pressurize pot again and cook on medium high heat until steam begins to escape the valve, and then reduce heat to low and cook for another 10 minutes. Remember to depressurize with cool running water before opening lid. Stir and let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Can't Complain Beef Stew with whole wheat French roll
Can’t Complain Beef Stew with whole wheat French roll

You can increase the recipe for larger groups: for 8 people (for example), add another pound of stew beef and another can of potatoes.

Forbidden Cookbook: Pot Roast

This is a great dinner for a chilly evening. It’s very basic, and though it takes about an hour to prepare, most of that is stove time with the pressure cooker that you can use to do something else. I like to make the pot roast and use the au jus from the pot as a gravy over mashed potatoes and peas. (And to be really easy about it, use mashed potatoes from a mix and frozen peas.) Add a salad if you want and some ciabatta rolls, and yum.

I found a version of this recipe online, though I don’t remember where and can’t find it now (sorry). But as with all recipes, I tweaked it to exclude items I didn’t like or am allergic to and added things I do like. Then I played with measurements. (All the ones here are to taste unless otherwise indicated, but if you prefer having something concrete to go by, try it with 1 tsp. each of the herbs and go from there according to what you like.)

There’s no picture for this one because it’s just too boring to look at, despite how delicious and fall-apart tender it is.

POT ROAST

ingredients:

beef roast (2-3 lbs.)
olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of your pressure cooker)
1 envelope Ranch dip mix
1 envelope brown mushroom gravy mix
garlic salt
black pepper
minced dried onion
salt
dried thyme
dried oregano
dried parsley
24 oz. beef broth
1 white or yellow onion, thinly sliced

If you have the time and want to get fancy, add sliced baby bella mushrooms when you put in the sliced onion.

Heat olive oil in pressure cooker and brown roast on all sides in it. Be careful not to splash or burn yourself; the oil will heat very quickly.

In a small bowl, mix Ranch dip mix, mushroom gravy mix, and other herbs and spices together. Sprinkle them evenly over roast. Add beef broth and diced onion. Stir broth around so that herb mixture covering roast is moistened and diced onion pieces are in the broth. Seal the lid on the pressure cooker and cook on high heat until the pressure indicator sounds.

Turn heat down to medium and cook for 45 minutes.

Remove from heat and let stand for 5 minutes. Run under cold water to help release pressure before unsealing the lid.

 

 

Forbidden Cookbook: Three-Bean Pasta Salad

I love bacon and Ranch dressing, but I’m sort of tired of those being the driving factors in my pasta salad, so here’s something a little different with a little bit of a Mediterranean flair. It’s quite light, especially if you go easy on the homemade dressing (and if you want to swap it out for a different dressing you like better, you can). This recipe makes enough for a party, so if you aren’t throwing one, cut the recipe in half or plan to have leftovers.

pasta salad

ingredients for pasta salad:

  • 1 package tri-color pasta of your choice––I like the corkscrew kind.
  • 1 package edamame, shelled––Follow the cooking instructions on the bag.
  • 1 can baby corn
  • 1 can dark red kidney beans (low sodium preferred), drained
  • 1 can cannellini beans, drained––You can substitute garbanzo beans (chick peas) if you like.
  • 1 can quartered artichoke hearts, drained
  • 1 small jar kalamata olives, drained
  • 1 small package crumbled feta cheese
  • 3 or 4 stalks of heart of palm, sliced into discs

ingredients for homemade dressing:

  • garlic salt
  • lemon pepper
  • extra virgin olive oil––Make sure you go with a brand that tastes good!
  • lemon juice

Boil the water for the pasta for a dollop of olive oil instead of salt. Follow the instructions on the pasta.

Follow the instructions on the edamame to steam them.

Drain and rinse the canned/jarred ingredients.

Mix all the yummies together in a large bowl.

Now for the dressing, which is a Lebanese dressing my grandmother and mom taught me, and which I use for many kinds of salad. Add the garlic salt and lemon pepper to taste. I usually cover the entire bowl with each spice because it will be mixed in with a lot of pasta salad. (You can be more generous with the lemon pepper; if you add too much salt the flavor won’t feel light or refreshing.) Add enough olive oil to coat everything slightly but not enough for the oil to collect at the bottom of the bowl. Add a generous dollop of lemon juice. Mix everything together.

Serve cold. Enjoy!

Forbidden Cookbook: Lemon Chicken Tagine

I love a tagine.

For the uninitiated: a tagine is a Moroccan-style stew; it’s also the vessel said stew is cooked in. A tagine can be a one-pot meal, containing most of your food groups in a single, easy-to-prepare dish. Served over couscous or rice, it makes an easy but comfortably complex dining experience, excellent for all weathers. If you really want to be balanced, add a salad or green vegetable on the side.

It’s easy to find tagine cookbooks, and it’s actually not all that difficult to find tagines, either. My husband bought me this small and beautiful one for Mother’s Day a few years ago from Williams-Sonoma. It’s the perfect size for our family of four and sits directly on our gas stove. (If you have an electric range, tagines sometimes have to be handled a little differently; you can refer to the cookpot’s instructional guidelines for more information. They operate beautifully in an oven, too, which is what I used in our old house that had a glass cooktop.)

 

tagine

 

 

So the other night I needed to make dinner and didn’t have anything planned, but I did have a few simple ingredients on hand in the pantry (including canned vegetables, which means this was super easy to put together, though fresh ones will work beautifully too if you have the time). I made what I’m calling a Lemon Chicken Tagine. It ended up being delicious served over jasmine rice. Here’s the recipe.

 

***

 

ingredients:

 

1 lb. fresh (or thawed, if frozen) chicken thighs
extra virgin olive oil (for sautéeing)
butter (for sautéeing)
minced garlic
1 can button mushrooms, drained
1 lemon, scrubbed and sliced (discard the rind tips)
1 can chick peas (also called garbanzo beans), drained
1 can sliced white potatoes, drained
salt (optional)
pepper (optional)
garlic salt
lemon pepper
water

 

***

 

In a large pan (not your tagine yet), sautée the garlic and mushrooms in enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Add butter to taste; I usually drop in a good-sized spoonful scooped from the spreadable butter or a tablespoon of stick butter. Add the chicken thighs, chick peas, and potato slices. Now is a good time to add a little salt and pepper, if you like, to taste. Cook until the chicken is done (internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit), turning the thighs now and then and stirring the vegetables around.

When this is finished, transfer everything to the tagine. Add garlic salt and lemon pepper to taste. Spread the lemon slices around evenly. Add water to the dish just until everything is mostly covered, then stir everything up to make sure it’s well mixed. Stir gently, though: this dish will be full!

Cook the stew until it comes to a boil. Refer again to your own cookpot’s instructions for heating guidelines; mine works well up to medium heat on the stove. Once the stew is boiling, stir once more — gently — then cover with the conical cover and simmer on low heat. Again, individual tagine manufacturers  will recommend individual timing guidelines. (If your cookpot doesn’t have an instructional guide, you can find all manner of resources online to go with yours by doing a simple search.)

Here’s what my Lemon Chicken Tagine looked like when it was ready to serve:

 

Lemon Chicken Tagine

 

Sort of a monochromatic meal, I admit, but the whole thing took less than 45 minutes to conceive of and prepare, and even my finicky-as-all-get-out children ate it and liked it, so I’m calling it a success! I served it over jasmine rice, and we even had enough leftovers for one hungry person to heat up for lunch or dinner.

Like I said before, there are all manner of tagine cookbooks out there. I even have a really good one. The thing is, a lot of the recipes in it don’t really work for my family most of the time. There’s always at least one ingredient that someone hates or is allergic to or that is impossible to find at the grocery store around the corner. Mostly what I’ve found is that these recipes are adaptable. Pick one that gets it mostly right for you and then pick and choose from the ingredients list as you see fit. Make substitutions with similar foods. Play around with it. Enjoy!

 

Forbidden Cookbook: Roasted Chickens with Root Vegetables

In response to Sarah Warburton’s blog posts this week about her family trying to eat more “food-shaped food” (as opposed to processed foods that come in boxes), I wanted to share my favorite roast chicken recipe. It takes a minimal amount of prep work and practically cooks itself, and it’s healthy as well as being delicious. In fact, once I learned how to dry-brine a chicken, it became my default way of preparing whole poultry, because it makes the bird so flavorful and juicy and tender. No more dry chicken!

When we make this recipe, we use two whole birds because Tiny Beowulf can eat half a chicken on his own when he’s hungry. (I wish I were exaggerating, but he’s seven and already bigger than his nine-year-old sister, who’s of at least average height. I’m not hugely tall, but I’m also not completely short, and he comes up to my chin.) But my point is that you can modify the recipe for one chicken. You can also reduce the amount of salt you use for dry-brining, if you wish, especially if you’re seasoning the poultry the day you cook it. You will find the way to your own tastes.

 

Roast Chicken and Root Vegetables

 

2 whole fresh chickens (minimally processed, or go organic if you can)

chicken broth

kosher or sea salt

lemon pepper

garlic salt

3 whole lemons (quartered, seeds removed if desired)

baby carrots (or sliced large ones)

celery (sliced and chunked)

small potatoes (peeled or not)

onion (quartered)

extra virgin olive oil

 

1.  Combine the salt, lemon pepper, and garlic salt in a small bowl.

2.  Rinse and pat dry the chickens. Patting them dry helps give them a crispier skin in the oven. Dry-brine the chickens with these seasonings up to one or two days in advance of roasting them and put them in the refrigerator, though you can season them the same day you cook them. You’ll need about ¼ tsp. salt for every pound of chicken; add garlic salt and lemon pepper to taste. (I’m generous, especially with the lemon pepper, which isn’t as strong as garlic salt.) Stuff the insides of the chickens with the lemon wedges. (Apologize to the chickens if you feel the need.)

Dry-brining is great because it allows the salt and seasonings to absorb into the meat and then lock in flavor and juices. If you let it rest in the fridge for a day or two, you can observe over time that the chicken will look at one point as if it’s sweating. Do not be alarmed. This is part of the “moisturizing-flavorizing” process. (But don’t take my word for it. You can learn more about this process by doing a Google search for “how to dry brine a chicken” and let yourself be dizzied by the array of experts offering their guidance.)

3.  When you’re ready to cook the chickens, pour a shallow bath of chicken broth into the bottom of the baking dish. Toss in the carrots, potatoes, onion, and celery around and under the chickens. Brush olive oil over the tops of the chickens; coat them well.

4.  I use a convection oven, but you can do this in a regular oven, too. Roast or bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, uncovered. Then roast or bake at 450 degrees for 30 minutes, covered with a loose aluminum foil tent.

5.  Reduce heat to 375 degrees and continue to bake, loosely tented, until thigh meat (not next to the bone) reaches internal temperature of 165 degrees at least. In my convection oven, this usually takes about another hour to an hour-and-a-half when I’m cooking two chickens, but I recommend you start with 30 or 45 minutes and then just keep checking the temperature and adding on another 10-15 minutes each time as needed. After the first 30-45 minutes, remove the foil so the skin will gently brown and get crispy. Roasting or baking just one chicken may reduce your cooking times. The main goal is to make sure the bird’s internal temperature is safe.

 

I'm not a food photographer by any stretch of the imagination. Trust me, it's delicious.
I’m not a food photographer by any stretch of the imagination. Trust me, it’s delicious.

 

6.  Once the birds are out of the oven, let them rest for about five minutes before cutting them up. Serve with the root veggies and a lovely long grain and wild rice or ciabatta bread with butter. If you choose to roast just the chickens without the vegetables, serve with a salad, too.

Om nom nom!

If you make this recipe or have other tips or comments to share about dry-brining poultry or cooking chicken and vegetables, please post in the comments section below!