Some delightful Middle Eastern cookbooks and food blogs

We’ve gone out to eat at Lebanese restaurants in Jacksonville so often recently and enjoyed it so much that I ordered several cookbooks in an attempt to replicate the experience. I love the history of all of the civilizations surrounding the Mediterranean, and their food is a living history of sorts. It has also been a great excuse to order a litany of new spices.

As far as cookbooks go, however, these are especially wonderful. They have very thorough discussions of the history and culture of the region – and in many cases, they take the time to explain the origin of particular dishes, spices, and techniques. Much like the Caribbean, the Mediterranean is an on-going collision of people from wildly different backgrounds, so dishes can have very interesting origins and fusions.

This is my favorite of all of the cookbooks I found. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi have written a sort of love letter to the city of Jerusalem. The book is filled with pictures of people from all different backgrounds going about their daily life there. It includes recipes from across the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities. I plan to work my way through most of the recipes in this book.

Another great cookbook is Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food: The Classic Cookbook, Expanded and Updated, with New Recipes and Contemporary Variations on Old Themes. This book also contains a lot of history, but has fewer pictures.

I have also enjoyed this book, Taste of Beirut, from which I learned how to make many of the mezzes we love to eat when we are up in Jacksonville.

This is not a true Middle Eastern cookbook, but Bobby Flay’s cookbook Fit also has a lot of great recipes inspired by the region. He uses a lot of Middle Eastern flavors to make western food taste a lot more interesting.

One of my next projects is going to be to start making preserved lemons. It seems a little funny to do this when one lives in a place where citrus is so abundant, but it really does seem to create an irreplaceable flavor. I’m also not sure how we’ve lived so long without knowing about pomegranate molasses.

Lastly, if you love Middle Eastern cooking, I would highly recommend a couple blogs for you. The first is my pal, A Jeanne in the Kitchen, who posts a wide variety of absolutely amazing recipes (including a lot of Middle Eastern food). The second is Orange Blossoms and Rose Water.

Americans have made avocados the new cash crop for Mexico’s drug cartels

I have been loosely following the kidnapping of the well-known Mexican conservationist Homero Gómez González, who has made it his pet cause to protect the habitat of monarch butterflies who migrate to Mexico annually.

Left-leaning American news media like NPR have made it sound as if he was likely murdered by one of Mexico’s cartels for his conservation efforts. If you read the local papers in Mexico, however, it seems like he was simply another citizen kidnapped for ransom money. It’s makes a less interesting narrative and reinforces the point that Mexico is not as safe of a country as it used to be, which many take to be merely a Trumpian talking point rather than a physical reality. But it is worth withholding judgment until the facts are out.

Anyhow, thanks to my interest in this story, I have learned a lot about the avocado industry. People in the US take it for granted that an endless stream of avocados will be imported to Mexico to feed the new fad of putting avocado on virtually everything. I’ve even seen pajamas and blankets being marketed to the Millennial and Generation Z crowd that have avocados on them.

America’s demand for avocados has turned avocados into a multi-billion dollar industry in Mexico. This means that the cartels that would usually be trafficking in heroin and marijuana are now deforesting land in monarch preserves for … illegal avocado orchards.

Organized crime in Mexico and Central America has been diversifying away from drugs for a while now:

The cartel members showed up in this verdant stretch of western Mexico armed with automatic weapons and chainsaws.

Soon they were cutting timber day and night, the crash of falling trees echoing throughout the virgin forest. When locals protested, explaining that the area was protected from logging, they were held at gunpoint and ordered to keep quiet.

Stealing wood was just a prelude to a more ambitious plan.

The newcomers, members of a criminal group called the Viagras, were almost certainly clearing the forest to set up a grow operation. They wouldn’t be planting marijuana or other crops long favored by Mexican cartels, but something potentially even more profitable: avocados.

Mexico’s multibillion-dollar avocado industry, headquartered in Michoacan state, has become a prime target for cartels, which have been seizing farms and clearing protected woodlands to plant their own groves of what locals call “green gold.

More than a dozen criminal groups are battling for control of the avocado trade in and around the city of Uruapan, preying on wealthy orchard owners, the laborers who pick the fruit and the drivers who truck it north to the United States.

“The threat is constant and from all sides,” said Jose Maria Ayala Montero, who works for a trade association that formed its own vigilante army to protect growers.

After seizing control of the forest in March, the Viagras announced a tax on residents who owned avocado trees, charging $250 a hectare in “protection fees.”

But they had competition. Rivals from the Jalisco New Generation cartel wanted to control the same stretch of land — and residents were about to get caught in the middle of a vicious fight.

In May, a convoy of pickup trucks loaded with Jalisco fighters raced into the woods and an hourlong gun battle broke out.

Juan Madrigal Miranda, a 72-year-old professor who runs a small nature center in the area, cowered on the floor of his small cabin as bullets flew overhead.

His fear eventually gave way to anger at the growing power of the criminals, 10 of whom died in the forest that day.

“Around the country, the cartels want land, forest and water,” Madrigal said. “Now they are fighting for the keys to life.”

Homicides are at an all-time high in Mexico, which has long been home to the world’s most powerful and violent narcotics traffickers. Yet much of the killing today has little to do with drugs.

Organized crime has diversified.

In Guanajuato state, the homicide rate has nearly tripled over the last three years as criminals battle for access to gasoline pipelines, which they tap to steal and sell fuel.

In parts of Guerrero state, cartels control access to gold mines and even the price of goods in supermarkets. In one city, Altamirano, the local Coca-Cola bottler closed its distribution center last year after more than a dozen groups tried to extort money from it. The Pepsi bottler left a few months later.

In Mexico City, bar owners in upscale neighborhoods must pay taxes to a local gang, while on the nation’s highways, cargo robberies have risen more than 75% since 2016.

Compared with drug trafficking, a complex venture that requires managing contacts across the hemisphere, these new criminal enterprises are more like local businesses. The bar to entry is far lower.

This new approach to organized crime was pioneered by the notorious Zetas cartel and spread in response to the government’s 2006 declaration of war on drug traffickers.

Mexican forces, with strong U.S. support, focused on capturing or killing cartel leaders. But that strategy backfired as the big cartels fractured into smaller and nimbler organizations that sought criminal opportunity wherever they could find it.

“For many of those smaller groups, it’s far easier to just prey on local populations,” said Falko Ernst, a Mexico-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, which promotes nonviolent solutions to conflicts. “It’s a myth that it’s only about drugs.”

In Michoacan, where there have been dozens of cartel splits over the last dozen years, organized crime’s invasion of the avocado industry is a microcosm of what is happening elsewhere in the country — and a potent illustration of how the government has unintentionally fueled more violence.

Many people here now long for the early 1990s, when just one family trafficked drugs through the region and the state was largely at peace.

America’s favorite food has become a source of serious misery to families in Mexico:

Originally part of La Familia and later the Knights Templar cartel, which emerged in 2011 after the government crackdown, the Viagras later joined a government-run rural police force designed to topple the cartels.

When that force was disbanded, the Viagras lost their paychecks. But they still had their weapons and military-style training, so they returned to crime.

At the same time, another important change was transforming the state: Americans were falling in love with avocados.

Between 2001 and 2018, average annual U.S. consumption increased from 2 pounds per person to nearly 7.5 pounds.

Michoacan, whose plentiful rain, sunshine and rich volcanic soil make it an ideal place to grow the fruit, was uniquely positioned to capitalize on its rising popularity. It is the only state in the country allowed to sell to the United States, which banned avocados from Mexico until 1997 over concerns about pests.

As exports of Michoacan avocados boomed — on their way to $2.4 billion last year — luxury housing developments and car dealerships sprang up in Uruapan and elsewhere as huge swaths of forest were cleared to grow more.

And the increasing number of criminal groups all wanted a piece of the action.

On a recent chilly morning at a large farm a few hours outside Uruapan, dozens of avocado pickers sipped coffee around a crackling fire, preparing for a grueling day.

Scaling trees and clipping avocados pays much better than many jobs in Mexico — $60 a day compared with the $5 minimum wage — but it increasingly comes with serious risks.

Mayco Ceja, a slight 28-year-old who spent his childhood in California, said the dozen-man team of pickers that he leads was recently summoned to a farm that turned out to be run by gang members.

“They came at us with pistols,” he said. “They forced us to pick for seven hours and didn’t pay us.”

On other occasions, gangs have barred his team from working in order to create a scarcity in supply, which raises the profits for cartel-controlled groves.

Before the Valencia family trafficked drugs, it grew avocados, and it is an open secret here that for decades criminals have used avocado farms to launder money. But never have the lower rungs of the industry been so vulnerable, with multiple gangs extorting cash from small-time growers and state officials recording an average of four truckloads of avocados hijacked each day.

One driver, who was heaving 45-pound crates of avocados into a tractor-trailer, said that in the last six months he has been held up twice by armed men who forced him to drive to a safe house and unload there.

He was too afraid to give his name. “They’ll come to your house and shoot up your whole family,” he said. “Kids included.”

Last year, 1,338 people were killed in Michoacan, more than any year on record. This year has been even deadlier, with 1,309 homicides through October, putting the death toll on track to top 1,500.

Security has become so tenuous that in June a group of avocado producers bought ads in several national newspapers warning of an “irreparable impact” to the industry unless officials address the problem.

In August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture temporarily suspended its avocado inspection program in a town near Uruapan after threats to some of its employees. Local media reported that one inspector had been carjacked and another group of employees subjected to intimidation after they canceled a farm’s certification.

That whole piece is rather eye-opening. I have only included small excerpts here, but it is worth reading.

Black-eyed peas for New Year’s Day

It is tradition in the South to eat black-eyed peas (or Hoppin’ John) on New Year’s Day for good luck. This ranks right up there with painting porch ceilings haint blue to ward off evil spirits in terms of superstitions down here.

I cook them every year and force them on everyone else. I have long since learned that the only good bowl of black-eyed peas is stewed with bacon or salt pork. If you eat them by themselves – well, as Elise puts it – they kind of taste like dirt. I like to eat them with chow chow relish to kick things up a bit, which you can make at home or buy at Southern grocery store chains.

Anyhow, I thought I would share the recipe I am going to try this year from the website Immaculate Bites, which has African/Caribbean recipes. Like Southern rice varieties and sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas came to the South from Africa. I love African cooking, so discovering this website has been a real treat.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound (453grams) black eyed peas
  • 4 -5 thick bacon slices , chopped
  • 1 cup smoked sausage or turkey , diced
  • 1 large onion , diced
  • 1 stalk celery , diced
  • 2-3 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 1 Jalapenos , minced (optional) replace with cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme , minced
  • bay leaf
  • 1-2 teaspoons creole seasoning
  • 7-8 cups chicken broth
  • 2 cups or more Collard greens , sub with kale
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Rinse dry black-eyed pea beans and pick through and discard any foreign object. (I did not have to do this because I used the package beans,). Add beans to a large pot covering with 3-4 inches of cold water. Cover and let sit for about 2-3 hours.
  2. In a large, heavy sauté pan, saute chopped bacon until brown and crispy about 4-5 minutes, then add sausage saute for about 2-3 more minutes. Remove bacon and sausage mixture, set aside.
  3. Throw in the onions, celery, garlic, jalapenos, thyme and bay leaf  and saute for about 3-5 minutes, until onions are wilted and aromatic. 
  4. Then pour in the chicken broth or water.
  5. Drain the soaked beans, rinse, and place the beans in the pot. Season with creole seasoning and salt to taste. Mix and bring to a boil.
  6. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for about 20 minutes.
  7. Throw in the collard greens, and bacon and sausage into the pot, continue cooking for another 10 minutes or more, stirring occasionally, or until beans are tender and slightly thickened to your desire.
  8. Add more stock or water if the mixture becomes dry and thick, the texture of the beans should be thick, somewhat creamy but not watery.
  9. Remove the bay leaves.
  10. Taste and adjust for seasonings with pepper, creole seasoning and salt if needed. Serve over cooked rice and garnish with green onion.

Christmas festival, Baylor football, and homemade pasta

Last night, we went to Flagler Beach’s Christmas Festival. It’s great fun living in an old-school beach town that is small enough to still have the feeling of a real community. There were a series of children’s choirs singing carols, the high school bands, food trucks from local restaurants, and tons of games and face painting for the kids.

We each got slices of New York-style pizza from a local vendor and ice cream, which we ate on the beach. I made a remark to someone who stopped to talk to us about how fortunate we were to be eating ice cream on the beach in December.

Santa has a very beachy way of visiting Flagler for the holidays (which we skipped this year, but here you go for a chuckle).

I’ve spent today in the kitchen making oatmeal cookies, snickerdoodles, and fudge. And watching our alma mater, Baylor University, lose to Oklahoma in overtime (sad face) and Georgia – LSU. Baking and some good Southern football, yes please.

I am moving on to homemade pasta. I have a years-long obsession with making pasta. Rodney gave me pasta cutting attachments for my Kitchen-Aid mixer for Christmas a few years ago. The first pasta I ever made was a batch of ravioli with my brother. I became very good at it, and it turned out to be something Elise loved to do with me. Kids are naturals at playing with dough, you know.

Elise helping make pasta in our first experiments.

Homemade pasta is quite different from the dried pasta that you can purchase in stores. After making it for a while, I came to see restaurants in a different way. I could tell how much effort they were putting into their food by the taste of their pasta. Homemade pasta has texture and a creaminess to it. It’s substantial, something you have to chew, but silky at the same time.

Anyway, the only downside to having mechanical pasta cutters (in my opinion) is cleaning them. You can’t submerge them in water and clean them like you would any other kitchen equipment. They include a little brush with the cutters, but it really does not help to clean out the inside of the machine. So flour builds up in there. I am going to have to take mine apart to fix them.

I went to the website for FG Pizza and Italian, which I highly, highly recommend for pasta equipment. FG’s is a family-owned company, and they are of the little old Italian grandmother culinary persuasion. They sell rolling pins for cutting pasta, which works for things like fettuccine and pappardelle. (You need an extruder for things like spaghetti and penne.) They also do a lot of tutorials on making Italian dishes. I will report back on whether the roller works well. With the machines, you can make pasta that melts in your mouth. This is going to be a test of my real skills, lol.

Elise’s riding instructor let her gather fresh eggs from the chickens on the horse farm. She put them in her helmet. It reminded me of when she was a toddler and we gave her mussels for the first time. She thought they were such treasures that she put the empty shells in my handbag when I wasn’t looking so she could take them home. Before bedtime, she remembered her shells and came running down to search through my bag. I had shellfish sitting in my bag the whole day! Now she’s older and I have eggs rolling around in the backseat of my SUV.

Change the way you cook bacon

Over the holiday, Rodney read an article that tested the various ways that you can cook bacon. The winner (which I think was from Martha Stewart?) was putting slices of bacon side-by-side on parchment paper on top of a baking sheet (with edges) then baking it at 400 degrees until it looks the way you want it to. Use enough parchment paper that the edges are folded up around the edges of the baking sheet so the grease never touches the baking sheet (like you might do with fish). You don’t even need to flip it. We let the bacon cook for about twenty minutes. Then transfer the bacon to a plate with paper towels like you normally would. After the grease cools, just throw the parchment paper in the garbage. There’s no mess to clean up, and the bacon tastes like fluffy, airy goodness.

We will seriously never cook bacon in a skillet again. Perfection!!!!!

Miso-marinated salmon

Our culinary project for the day is miso-marinated salmon. This is a centuries-old Japanese technique for preparing fish. Before the days of refrigeration, salmon was prepared this way for long journeys inland. It was brought to the United States recently by Nobu Matsuhisa, founder of the Nobu restaurant chain.

Basically, you take 1/2 cup of miso paste (I found mine at one of the Asian supermarkets in our town), 1/4 cup of sugar, 3 tablespoons of sake, 3 tablespoons of mirin, whisk it all together in a bowl, place the salmon filets in a bowl face down, and let them marinate for 6 to 24 hours.

We are heading out for the day to play, but will be coming home to a delicious dinner.

Update

This is definitely the way to cook salmon! We did not get home until late last night, so we ended up letting the salmon marinate in the miso mixture for over 24 hours. We took it out of the bowl, scraped the miso mixture off, and broiled it for a few minutes. The results were sublime. The fish gets a flavorful crust on the outside and remains silky on the inside. I topped it off with some tartar sauce, but ended up pushing it off the fish.

We served it with garlicky rice pilaf and asparagus with salt, pepper, and truffle dust.