Saturday, December 16, 2006
Downhome Cooking from Egypt
We have been planting plots of vegetables for the benefit of the guys working here, the people (mostly me) living here, and for sale if we get extra. One of the major perks of living in Egypt is the fact that the fresh fruits and vegetables here are truly FRESH and they are wonderfully delicious...so what better than having them immediately available? We've planted tomatoes, cabbages, molokheya, onions, garlic, sweet potato, regular potato, green beans, black beans, shallots, peas, corn, zucchini, peppers, eggplant, and probably a few other things.
While checking the vegetable plots the other day I spotted some leaves among the grasses in the area for animal feed and I began collecting them. I know the plant as khobeyza (lord knows if that's a correct spelling or not) and it is basically a weed. The word used to name the plant is the same word used for geraniums, but that doesn't necessarily mean that this is part of the geranium family. After all in Arabic, any mouse or rat is called by the same word, "far" and they are not so closely related as to be the same animal. One of my "have to do someday" items is to find out just what khobeyza is. What I did with it was much simpler to explain and I find it very tasty.
The leaves are plucked from the stems and set aside to wash carefully. Like spinach, this plant grows best in sandy soil and collects little bits of sand on the leaves. After carefully washing about 250 grams (about a half pound) of fresh leaves, I dropped them and a bunch (diameter about that of a quarter or slightly larger) of fresh coriander (likewise washed and picked over) into some hot soup, about the same amount of soup as vegetables. That isn't terribly clear since leaves take up a lot of space and soup doesn't, but basically you use about a cup of soup for half a pound of leaves. If it isn't enough, add more soup. No harm done. In my last cooking batch, the soup was some particularly rich beef broth that I'd prepared by boiling a couple of massive beef bones stolen from the dogs' stash in the freezer in a large heavy pot (Thank you, Nadim and Vanessa, once again for the Le Creuset that you left me) for 24 hours with onion, garlic and cardamom, but you can just use soup cubes for the broth if you are in a hurry.
Once the leaves are all sort of melted and cooked looking, and this only takes a few minutes, the soup/leaves mix is dropped into a blender and blended thoroughly to a creamy texture. This is then poured back into the pot and seasoned with a concoction of ground dry coriander seed, dried ground cumin seed, and crushed garlic which have been fried in butter until the garlic begins to brown. The amounts are about 1/2 to a teaspoon of the herbs and I use about 3 cloves of garlic, but then I am a garlic nut. Add a couple of tablespoons of washed dry short grain rice and cook the soup for about 30 to 45 minutes over a low heat until the rice is cooked. Season to taste with salt and pepper. You can add a soup cube if the soup part tastes a bit anemic. As you might note, I am not exactly a fanatic about measurements in cooking, but I believe that you have to work with your personal tastes too.
The resulting glop should be a dark green with soft bits of rice in it and quite thick. I particularly like it with grilled chicken and some plain white rice, but it could be eaten as a stew or soup, particularly if you add chunks of meat to it, also. I'm told that khobeyza is very rich in iron, which considering that it tastes a great deal like spinach, wouldn't surprise me. It is a rich dish and one really can't eat all that much of it, for all it is a vegetable, and it can be a bit overwhelming for some people's digestive systems.
The plants are most often found growing in the winter here, so Hussein (the gardener) has been bringing me those that he finds so that I can harvest the leaves and then we will replant the plants to ensure next winter's crop. It's easy to prepare the soup and freeze it until later, but this isn't really a dish that you want to eat in the heat of summer. It's very satisfying in the chill of an Egyptian winter evening. When one of my friends called me the other night as I was preparing this delicacy, I told him what I was doing and he went off into gales of laughter. Apparently, khobeyza is something like collard greens and pork bellies in Egyptian cuisine, sort of cooking for the very poor. I can't find it anywhere in any of my cookbooks or Egyptian recipe collections on the internet, so here it is for the first time ever. Only problem is that I don't know if you can find the same plant other places like California or the southern US or Europe where it might be expected to grow. If the US customs weren't so funny about things, I could probably mail some out.
If any plant experts are out there and read this, I'd be delighted for an identification.