Cheese and Other Updates

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I’ve had a busy summer. Aside from my earlier vacation, I worked at an amazing culinary camp through CampusNYC, where I got to teach groups of teens about the history and science of food. Now I’m off on my last major event of the season: Burning Man 2017. This is my first time going to Burning Man, and while I’m not exactly certain what I’ll encounter out there, I know it will delay my next blog post. Expect a new ancient recipe in early September.

For now, I wanted to provide some updates about a recipe from the Medieval Islamic world that I posted some time ago: kamakh rijal, the remarkably simple recipe that uses salt and natural probiotic cultures to ferment milk into spreadable cheese. Last time, I wrote about the first six weeks. For the cheese to reach its final stage, I had to wait a total of 15 weeks before adding seasonings and transferring it from its original container. I am happy to say I am now the proud owner of several quarts of kamakh rijal.

Now that the cheese is officially ready to serve, I moved it from the counter to the fridge to slow down the fermentation process. Following the instructions of the original recipe in the Medieval Book of Dishes, I mixed in equal amounts of garlic and mint leaves (minced) and nigella seeds (one and a half tablespoons of each for the large amount of cheese I had–about 6 cups. That’s almost exactly the amount of milk and yogurt that went into the cheese in the first place). Nigella, also called black cumin or black caraway, is a spice that was widely-used in the ancient world, even being found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. The seeds are similar in appearance to black sesame seeds, but the flavor is unique and powerful, like onion mixed with anise. In Armenia and Syria, nigella is still used to flavor cheese today (especially string cheese), while modern-day South Asians use the spice in naan and other breads.

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This is what the cheese looked like immediately after being transferred to a larger bowl for mixing. Less solid than it looks.

Kamakh rijal was likely intended to be served on flatbread, ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cuisines to this day. I’ve been experimenting with different ways to use it beyond its original context. It’s good on crackers and raw vegetable sticks or in a sandwich. Because the flavor is so strong, it is best-used sparingly and pairs well with milder ingredients like celery, tomato or lettuce. I could imagine using it in tuna salad, or anywhere you might use an herb cream cheese or goat cheese.

I used some of the kamakh rijal with milk, flour, butter and spinach to make a cheese sauce. I also made chicken rollatini using it as filling. The flavor of the cheese was a little overpowering in the chicken, but I really liked the cheese sauce on pasta or baked potatoes.

If the garlic/nigella/mint combination doesn’t appeal to you, you could try mixing it with dried rose and cinnamon (another suggestion from the Book of Dishes) or other flavorings of your choice. VII out of X.

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Kamakh rijal-stuffed chicken cutlet, topped with dried mint and onions and served with asparagus on the side.

 

A Mad Tea-Party

“Ever drifting down the stream, lingering in the golden gleam; life, what is it but a dream?” ~ Lewis Carroll (from Through the Looking-Glass, 1871)

Between vacation and working for a culinary camp this summer, I’ve spent the past month surrounded by amazing food with few opportunities to cook it for myself. I was craving a creative cooking challenge, so yesterday, I did something that has served me well many times in the past: I threw a themed party.

My history with themed parties goes back a long time (probably all the way back to my teenage obsession with Party Monster). Over the years I’ve hosted a couple of murder mysteries, some themed dinners, and I’ve had a costume party with a specific theme for my birthday every year since 2009. These parties have gradually featured more and more food as my interest and experience in cooking has grown. Some of the culinary highlights have included Ancient Roman and Egyptian dinners and a party featuring only food from the pages of A Series of Unfortunate Events (pasta puttanesca, salmon puffs and chilled cucumber soup, among other things).
This time, I decided to have an afternoon tea party outdoors on my apartment building’s terrace, inspired very loosely by the Mad Tea-Party in Alice and Wonderland. I’m a huge Lewis Carroll fan (the original Tenniel illustration of Alice knocking over the jury-box decorates the back of my phone case) but I had never had an Alice party before, so really I was killing two birds with one stone. I decorated with paper doilies and appropriate EAT ME and DRINK ME labels, and made an assortment of tea party snacks.
Here’s what was on the menu:
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Makgeolli. If you never tasted it or smelled it, you’d swear it was tea.

Tea. Naturally. I got some cheap teapots off Amazon and brewed a few different kinds, chosen mainly for their potential to be mixed with booze: peppermint, Earl Grey and jasmine green.

There was also artichoke tea, which I picked up in Vietnam. It was very good; dark brown in color, it smelled like brown sugar and tasted faintly of a freshly steamed, unseasoned artichoke, as it should. A Vietnamese friend told me it’s believed to cool down your body, which I know is true of other teas like chrysanthemum as well. We mixed it with rum and ginger ale, which may not cool down your body but doesn’t taste half bad.

Makgeolli. This is a rice liquor (sometimes called “rice wine”) that I made according to the recipe of my usual source for all things culinary and Korean–Maangchi. I just made it because I’ve been wanting to. The only connection to my theme is that it does look rather like tea with milk. It was pretty easy to make, tasted great, and is old enough of a beverage to deserve its own Ancient Recipe post (forthcoming).

Tuna salad on endive spears. I’ve made this as an hors d’oeuvres for parties before, except usually I use imitation crab meat (which I was unable to find in time).
Hong Kong egg tarts. These were really fun to make. I chose a fairly simple recipe, rather than going the authentic route and making Chinese puff pastry, which sounded a bit more complicated than the puff pastry I’m used to. I loved how cheerful they came out looking, like tiny suns.
Two kinds of finger sandwiches. The white bread ones are Japanese chicken katsu (panko-breaded fried chicken cutlet with mayonnaise and tonkatsu sauce). The pumpernickel ones are cucumber and herb cream cheese.
Jam-pennies. A British tea snack and supposedly a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II. Butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread cut into little circles (I used a shot glass. The Queen most likely does not).
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Bonus image: it wouldn’t be much of a Mad Tea without a hatter. In the process of putting this costume together, I learned that the “In This Style 10/6” on the label in the Hatter’s hatband is not the hat’s size, it’s the hat’s price (ten shillings sixpence).

Fairy-bread. A favorite of Australian children, fairy-bread is simply buttered bread with sprinkles on top. In keeping with my theme, I like to think it has something to do with the “bread-and-butter-flies” of Looking-Glass World.
All in all it was a pleasant afternoon and an excellent excuse to get friends together, sit out in the sun, and most of all, cook.
New ancient recipe coming soon! (I do still write about ancient food, I promise.)