30 November 2012

Life in Cairo: Imbaba/Agouza

Let's see...it's been quite a long time since I started my adventure in Egypt, and it's been a long time since you've heard from me about what I was doing there! After Leaving Iraq, I wanted to work on improving my Arabic language skills, while I still had the time to focus solely on that. I signed up for classes at the Arabeya Language Center in Cairo. They teach in small, semi-private, and private classes. Because of my timing, and most people are already gone for fall classes at their unis, my classes were private. 

The first day was hard. Really hard. Like, so hard, that I couldn't even DO the placement test. Oh Rosetta Stone, you've failed me! Seriously, I knew many words in Arabic, I could kind of read, and I also knew how to say many things in the Iraqi dialect. None of these things were apparently helpful for this test. Did I know how to negate? No. Could I conjugate? No. But hey, I knew lots of nouns (not that that was much help)!

I arrived in Cairo, just after the Eid holiday weekend. The decorations were still up, and people were happy again following a month of fasting during daytime hours. The streets were incredibly busy, and the school's director met me at the airport. We dropped my bags off at our apartment (which was a HUGE disappointment), and we took off to find some food, a sim card for my phone, and so that I'd know the neighborhood a bit better. 

He took me to the mostly tourist area of the Mohandisseen neighborhood, so at first I thought that it couldn't possibly be so bad. there was a shwarma place nearby (too bad it tasted awful!), and anything that I might need (or so I thought!). But even before the light of the next morning, what I saw what quite a bit different. As we walked back to the flat, I felt someone on a motorbike getting really close to me, in that moment, I gripped my purse, and shifted it to the other side, just as I felt someone trying to knock it out of my hands! Lucky for me, I maintained constant control of my belongings, and I won that round, and was so lucky, since the wallet I had contained ALL of my cash, IDs, and credit cards, yikes. Welcome to Cairo!

This was NOT our kitchen, btw
The kitchen was woefully inadequate. Even by student standards. It was a mismash of things cobbled together over the years - leftover eggs (how old were they?), pasta, rice, dairy products, and a giant pile of plastic shopping bags. Mind you, this was student housing, with no desks - only a big table surrounded by broken couches where 2-3 people might be able to uncomfortably sit. First day's task: get a chair...and a table to study.

Every day basically began the same. One of those cars down there would start around 6 or 6:30 in the morning. Well...sort of. They would TRY to start it for about 10 minutes before it would actually turn over. This was every single day. Even Friday (the equivalent to our Sunday, when people are supposed to be off)

The view of our street
The kiosk just 10 meters from our flat

To say the least, it took some time to get settled. We got the school housekeeper to come and clean the carpets (never cleaned); someone to fix the washing machine(broken); bring a couple of chairs and tables for adequate study(we didn't have any!); and we started to find our way around the neighborhood. What we found was something far different from what was advertised to us.  This was not the western shopping district that we expected to see. Rather, it was a VERY conservative neighborhood. I wasn't expecting to be the only woman on the street not covered. I found it to be surprisingly unnerving. It was hot and the streets were filthy in our neighborhood, and I'd just discovered that I really couldn't communicate in Arabic at this point. At least, my fus'ha standard Arabic mixed with some Iraqi dialect was NOT working with the Egyptian dialect. Awesome. Okay, pointing and hand gestures it is! Hurray!

Apparently, caveat emptor was at play when it came to the housing service I was buying from the school. Then again, buyer beware is ALWAYS at play when traveling, actually. I needed to remind myself that I MUST stay sensible about this, and enjoy the opportunity while I had it! I don't want to give only a negative impression to the neighborhood, because what my roommates and I found were some really beautiful opportunities, and some fantastic neighborhood gems! We learned that our neighborhood, Imbaba/Agouza, used to be the final destination for the Sudanese camels to be sold at the market in Cairo. We even managed to find the place where the market used to be (it has since been moved) in the depths of the souk of our neighborhood. We took one Friday to get totally lost together, and buy local produce. It was a brilliant weekly practice. We got to know our neighborhood as well as our neighbors. 

Our Local Fruit and snack kiosk

We also found the corner kiosk and fruit stand. One of the streets behind our apartment was loaded down with stands bursting with fresh grapes, figs, oranges, apples, bananas, limes, pomegranates, mangoes of all sorts, snacks, drinks, and more that I can't even remember! I think this is where my red grape addiction began. These were likely the sweetest, juiciest grapes on the face of the planet. I was going through more than a kilo a week by myself, plus bananas, oranges, and fresh lemons! Also imagine that there are fresh juice stands, too! Fresh mango juice is definitely my favorite. Though, sobiyeh also comes in at a nailbiting second place.

One of the kiosk owner's children or grandchildren. He was biting all of the mangoes.
The more we got to know our neighborhood, the more I started to feel like, if I'd been allowed to experience life in Baghdad, this is what some of the neighborhoods might have felt like - a confluence of old and new, but completely and totally alive and bustling with cars, donkeys, carts, chickens, rabbits, dogs, cats, tuk-tuks, trucks, mopeds, bikes, and pedestrians. Here's a quick video of our walk home one of the last nights.

One our neighbors, an older Libyan gentleman went out of his way to make friends with us. After the 9/11 protests in Cairo, I definitely appreciated this. As a group, we'd stumbled on (crashed?) a couple of weekend wedding celebrations around our area (not on purpose!), but our neighbor across the street made sure that we came to his party one Friday night. I don't think it was a wedding (we never saw a bride or groom), but the music was loud, and people were dancing and having fun. It was nice to cut loose with our neighbors!

The girls dancing in the courtyard

Neighbors watching the fun

22 November 2012

Thanksgiving in DC

Thanksgiving is usually not my thing. I don't really like turkey, green bean casserole should be banned, and cranberries rate pretty low on my fruits I like list. In fact they're not even on the list. The only part of Thanksgiving I've ever really liked is Lauren's sweet potato souffle. In fact, that was my plan for today. Make sweet potato souffle and eat it while watching whatever was on TV. The arrival of my friend Eva, who needed a place to stay until the Spanish Government gets around to giving her a student visa, meant that it wasn't just me anymore. I've never been happier to have my plans change.

The beginnings of herb butter
Since it was just the two of us (and neither of us like turkey all that much) we decided to make Cornish game hens instead. And while that solved one problem it also brought up another-who was going to touch the hens. We're both ok handling raw meat but the minute you throw in skin...ew. It's just gross.

Um, ew.
I was so happy to discover that the inside bits had been put in a bag. We were really worried that we'd have to fish them out ourselves. To be fair we decided each one of us would do our own hen so we could spread around the fun of touching the ickiness.

Trying to loosen the skin
Several hours before starting we mixed the herb butter to let the flavors meld together. We chopped fresh sage, rosemary, thyme, and garlic and mixed them together with butter. That was the easy part. Then we had to rinse and dry off the hens to flavor them. We both managed to loosen the skin over the breasts enough to slip some butter between skin and meat and then we massaged the hens, completely covering them with herb butter, inside and out, before sprinkling them with salt and pepper.

Eva shoving butter under the skins
It took us forever to figure out if we were supposed to cook them breast up or down. The packing on the hens just said cook for an hour and I almost resorted to calling my mom before Eva's Googling suggested we cook them breast down but turn them occasionally.

It was gross but we managed
After those went into the oven Eva began putting together her chestnut stuffing. We both did some prep work yesterday which for Eva included covering most of the flat surfaces in my kitchen with cubed bread pieces.
Drying out bread 
I also helped her shell chestnuts. I have never before shelled chestnuts and can pretty confidently say that I'm not ever doing that again. There's a blister on my left thumb from doing it! Eva also did all the necessary chopping and sauteing yesterday so today all she had to do was combine everything.

The stock pot was the only pot big enough
The stuffing went in the oven in two batches because her crazy recipe was enough to feed a good two dozen people. While the stuffing was in I started Lauren's sweet potato souffle.

Once again using ingredients off the list
It's amazing that a recipe this simple is so darn good. The original recipe (below) makes a 9x13 pan full but with just two of us, and me leaving tomorrow for a week, it didn't make sense to make so much. I did make a full recipe of the topping though!

I love having a camera person!
We did really pretty well on timing and getting everything into the oven in the correct order. Even after 12 or so years away from my parents I'm still a little flabbergasted as to how people cook with just one oven. Growing up we always had two. And two refrigerators and two deep freezers. One of the deep freezers is dedicated to meat. It's a beautiful thing even if most of the meat is venison.

There was a lot of chopping
In lieu of pumpkin pie I made ice cream for dessert. It was supposed to be a sweet potato ice cream, but I underestimated how many cups of pureed sweet potatoes I needed and didn't quite have enough. So I ended up with a sweet potato/pumpkin ice cream. Which turned out to be a pretty decent idea.

Want to taste?
Like Eva, I did my own prep yesterday for the ice cream. Making ice cream is always at least a two day process for me as I find that the colder the custard is before putting it in the ice cream maker, the better it freezes.
I've never had that happen before
The custard was already really thick when it went into the machine so I let it run extra long, basically until the ice cream maker refused to rotate anymore. I scooped everything into a tupperware and put it all in the freezer until we were ready for dessert.
Digging out the rest of the ice cream
I also pan dry roasted some asparagus, adding a little rough sea salt and black truffle oil at the end. But that only takes about 12 minutes so I did it as we pulled things out of the oven. Until it was time eat we took a nice break to watch TNT's Castle marathon. It doesn't matter that I own all the seasons and have seen every episode multiple times. I love you, Nathan Fillion. We'd be perfect for each other...you're Canadian, I'm...from a state near Canada. Sigh.

Yes I've already decorated. Wanna make something of it?
And because I love the opportunity to use all the crazy stuff I have, I set the table with chargers and cloth napkins and napkin rings.
My table looked pretty
Since we eschewed the traditional turkey we also felt no need to buy a beaujolais regardless of how traditional it may be. Instead we drank one of our favorites, a Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel (available at Trader Joes for $8.99!).

And then we proceeded to do ourselves proud. We both decimated our hens and put a respectable dent in both the stuffing and the sweet potatoes. The asparagus, in addition to being scrummy, also let us pretend that we were being mildly healthy. Never mind that every other dish is full of butter.

It was such a nice, low-key dinner. Thanksgiving usually seems fraught with pressure to make a huge dinner, or impress your family/friends. Eva and I certainly got ahead of the game by prepping so much the day before and she's a good laid back foil to my hyper tendency to panic.

Sweet potato/pumpkin ice cream
After our stomachs returned to a normal size it was time for dessert! I have to say, the flavor for the ice cream was really nice. I was worried that the pumpkin would over power the sweet potato, but not so. The only thing I didn't like...texture. I may have to make this again and see if I can get it smoother. Eva likened it to the texture of a frozen pumpkin pie.

Also to accompany dessert, wine. But not just any wine. Pumpkin wine. That's right!

Clay Ave Cellars pumpkin wine
I found this wine with my mom on a trip to Muskegon, Michigan. Clay Avenue Cellars winery specializes in fruit wines and all the fruit is sourced from local farmers in a 30 mile radius of the winery. We did a tasting at their shop (and I bought a bunch of wines) and they told us they had a heck of a battle with the FDA over the label. Apparently the US Government isn't willing to recognize that pumpkin (like tomatoes and avacados) are a fruit.

The wine didn't go over so well. I think I recall buying less because of any awesomeness and more because I was amused by it. But everything else went well so this one little miss wasn't too upsetting.


Eva's Chestnut Stuffing:
(I havlved her recipe here so you should end up with a normal amount)
  • 2 onions
  • 3-4 stalks celery
  • sage
  • thyme
  • rosemary
  • parsley
  • 1 loaf thick cut bread (like a country white)
  • 2 1/2 cups chicken stock
  • 3/4 pound chestnuts
  • salt and pepper
Ahead of time, cut bread into cubes and leave out to dry. Eva did hers nearly a full 24 hours in advance. alternatively you could put them in an oven that's on the lowest setting possible to help them dry out. Also ahead of time, carefully cut an X into each chestnut and boil for 20-ish minutes. After draining them let them cool until you can handle them, but not too much because they're far easier to peel when hot. Good luck here.

Finely chop onion and celery and saute until soft. Then finely chop all the herbs and combine the vegetables, herbs, dried bread cubes, and chopped chestnuts. Combine well then  add chicken stock salt and pepper.

Pour into greased pan, at least a 9X13, and cover with tinfoil. Bake at 350 for 25 minutes, remove the tinfoil and bake another 20 minutes uncovered.

Lauren's Sweet Potato Souffle:
  • 4 cups cubed sweet potatoes
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 4 T softened butter
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 t vanilla
It's up to you if you want to go through peeling and cubing and roasting the sweet potatoes. More power to you if you go that route. I totally cheated and used canned potatoes. So basically, just mix all that together until it's smooth. I used a little less than twice the amount of vanilla and also added 1/4 t ground vanilla bean.

Pour into a greased 9x13 pan.

For the topping:
(I've already doubled this for you. You're welcome)
  • 2/3 cup flour
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1-1 1/3 cup chopped pecans
  • 6 T softened butter
Mix well until everything is a little squishy and crumble over the top of the sweet potatoes and bake at 350 for roughly 35-40 minutes.

Sweet Potato Ice Cream:
  • 1 cup pureed sweet potato (or 1/2 cup potato and 1/2 cup pumpkin...or all pumpkin I suppose)
  • 2 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 T vanilla
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 3/4 brown sugar
  • cinnamon
  • nutmeg
  • clove
Heat cream, milk, and sugar until hot. In a separate bowel, whisk the eggs yolks. Once the milk is hot, add about a cup to the eggs and whisk well then return everything to the pan. Heat over medium-low heat, stirring or whisking constantly, until it thickens. This is the part I hate because I'm mad impatient, but it really is important otherwise you run the risk of having the eggs curdle and that's gross.

Once it's thick, or you're fed up with the stirring (Eva and I took turns and I still didn't make it too long), add the puree and spices. Let cool in fridge a few hours to overnight then freeze in ice cream maker.

And so the post ends on an up note...I remembered that the wine makers at Clay Ave Cellars said that if you microwave the pumpkin wine for 30 seconds it tastes like pumpkin pie. So I tried it, why not, right? No. That didn't help. Clay Ave Cellars has a lot of very very good wines though so if you ever find yourself in western Michigan, check them out!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

21 November 2012

Fall Baking

Fall is that time of year when I both really want to diet so whatever hibernation weight I put on won't be as noticeable, and when I really want to bake. There are just so many great fall dessert possibilities! I meant to blog about one such recipe last fall and then forgot to take pictures and figured there was little point. But I made it again a few weeks ago and remembered the pictures this time!

I love all fruit but there's nothing better than apples in the fall

One of my many uncles owns a working apple, pear, and peach orchard so we always had free fruit when I was growing up. When I moved I was horrified to discover how much produce costs! It was the bushel fulls of both apples and pears one of my cousins brought to my parents' that inspired my recipe from last year. I've always loved crumble recipes. When I was a kid my mom always made more of the crumble than necessary because I'd eat it out of the bowel. While I was visiting Michigan last winter I wanted to make an apple crumble but when I saw the Bosc pears my cousins brought over I thought, hey why not apple pear?

Jazzed up crumble mixture

Apples, pears, pecans, oh my!
It was a good idea. Apple pear pecan crumble was what I ate for breakfast just about the entire week I was there.And not so bad for breakfast either. I mean, there's fruit and oatmeal so it practically is a breakfast food.

Ready to bake!

With fresh whipped cream, mmmm...
Of course you cannot have fall without pumpkin! Not just for Thanksgiving! In fact I'm not doing much of anything with pumpkin for Thanksgiving so I decided to make some pumpkin cookies. And since I'm far, far too lazy to actually bake a pumpkin, scrape it out, and puree it, I used canned pumpkin; Libby brand.

Libby, the only name in canned pumpkin

More jazzed up spices!
Every time I make these I have to call my mom for the recipe. I'm glad she at least wrote it down when she did. It's actually a recipe from Libby, but good luck finding it on the label now! Now it's all pumpkin pie, pie crust, and pumpkin cream cheese logs.

Alternate the dry and wet ingredients

Mmm, nummy
These are very cake-like cookies so when making the batter you have to alternate mixing the dry and wet ingredients like you would a cake. They also take a little longer to bake than your standard cookie. And don't try stacking them on top of each other unless you like multiple layered cookies!

Ready for the oven!
There's just something about fall baking that's so much homier than summer baking. I guess it's the way my apartment gets extra warm, especially if I forget to turn off the oven for seven hours like I did a few weeks ago...and of course fall ingredients and spices like cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg just smell so inviting and warm.

Mmmm cookies!

Even more cookies!
Eating warm baked goods doesn't hurt either!

Apple Pear Crumble
  • 2 tart-ish apples
  • 3 pears (I like Bosc) 
  • pecans
  • 1 1/2 C brown sugar
  • 1 C flour
  • 1 C oatmeal
  • 2/3 C melted butter
  • cinnamon
  • nutmeg
  • clove
Peel and chop the apples and pears then mix them with the pecans and set aside.

In a separate bowel, mix the dry ingredients then pour the melted butter over everything and mix until the entire mixture is wet. Press roughly 2/3 of the mixture into a greased 9x13 pan, add the fruit mix, and top with remaining crumble.

Bake at 350 for 30-ish minutes and/or until the crumbly bits on top turn a nice golden brown. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream. Cinnamon ice cream makes a nice addition!

Pumpkin Cookies
  • 2 C flour
  • 1 C oatmeal
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 1 C butter, room temp
  • 1 C brown sugar
  • 1 C sugar
  • 1 egg slightly beaten
  • 1 t vanilla
  • 1 C pureed pumpkin
First mix the five dry ingredients in a bowel. The recipe, as you see, only calls for cinnamon but I think that's kind of bogus. I added not only nutmeg and clove but also ground vanilla bean. It's up to you what you want to do here. You could even use pumpkin pie spice if you've mind to.

Cream together the butter and sugars, then add the egg and vanilla. Then, alternating the dry ingredients with the pumpkin (beginning and ending with the dry).

Bake at 350 for, my mom said 20-25 minutes but in my gas oven they really only needed 18. 

And enjoy!

13 November 2012

Big Sable Point Lighthouse

This particular post is several months overdue I'm afraid. In August I went to Michigan for my high school reunion and while I was there my little brother took me with him to Big Sable Point lighthouse in Ludington, Michigan-which is about a 90 minute drive north from our parents' place. Most of what I've learned about photography and Photoshop I've learned from my brother. Just about every time I'm in Michigan I get a lesson of some sort. This visit included a field trip to capture lighthouses, one of Brian's favorite subjects.

Lake Michigan
Big Sable Point is one of the tallest lighthouses in Michigan. It's also one of Brian's favorites making it apparently worth the mile hike along the beach to get to it. Michigan has more shoreline than any other US state thanks to the Great Lakes. And while most people I know here in DC don't believe it; Michigan attracts a lot of tourism, largely because of the beaches.

So far away...

At least I only made the trek with one camera, a couple lenses, and a bottle of water. Brian, who is far more serious about all of this than am I, had two camera bodies, a fair few lenses, a tripod, and his water. Normally I wouldn't call a mere mile a 'trek', but any distance through sand is just three times as difficult.

This was done with a Lens Baby attachment

Deliberately underexposed
By the time we finally got within sight of the lighthouse I was already exhausted. How my brother tramps around with all this weight strapped to him I have no idea. I should do it more often though because my composition still needs work. So does my knowledge of lighting...all the dials and buttons on my camera...

Done with a wide angle Lens Baby
Despite everything I don't know I still managed to get a few decent pictures, I think. Could they use work? Certainly, but they're still pretty!

Brian also showed me how to use Photoshop to straighten pictures that end up crooked for one reason or another (shores slope). I think he did it to the above pictures but I promptly forgot how to do it.

We stayed into the evening to try to catch the sunset. Unfortunately there were too many clouds for us to see the actual sun set, but we did manage to get some of the colors reflecting in the clouds.

Michigan had a rather cold summer this year. in fact when I was there in August it was only in the 60s and low 70s. The general low temperature meant that the lake never really warmed up, especially as far north as Ludington. So no swimming for us while we were there. Which turned out in our favor really. Later there was a news story that the Coast Guard found two people drowned in the lake. Which answered our curiosity about the Coast Guard boat we saw cruising around on the horizon.


Lighthouses...not as much my thing as they are Brian's. However I enjoyed the opportunity to shoot with my brother and observe his process a little. We're very different photographers he and I, both in interest and process, and I thought it was fun to work with someone else and get some tips and advice while in action.