I’ve been watching cooking shows for almost as long as I remember.
When I was a kid livin’ it up in suburban Michigan, my grandmother and I would watch Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse together obsessively. We would watch them pull off these amazing dishes and tell each other, “We can do that!”
We never found out, though, because we never tried. Growing up, my diet was very simple. My mother is a great cook when she wants to be, but unfortunately that isn’t very often. She mostly prepares simple rice-and-vegetables-type dishes along with meat or chicken. My grandmother is also a great cook and actually enjoys it, but my brother and I were incredibly picky eaters as kids so she always made us the same thing – spaghetti with extra tomato sauce and roast chicken. To this day, when we visit my grandmother, this is what she makes us. Which is great, because it’s delicious and my personal comfort food.
But as a result, I was much older when I began to get creative in the kitchen.
Part of the reason I love cooking so much is that I feel like I’ve given other people something to enjoy. So I try to incorporate the traditional Egyptian Arab meals I grew up eating and know my parents love with the American dishes I always wanted to make at home.
One trick I’ve so far found is to match foods up based on how you eat them. For example, we usually eat molokhia, which is jute plant leaves finely minced and turned into a thick soup with garlic and coriander. (Fun fact: Molokhia is also known as Jew’s mallow and is mentioned in the Old Testament). Usually, it’s served over rice or with pieces of pita bread to dunk, but you can switch out the pita with biscuits! I think the molokhia actually balances out the heaviness of the biscuits, which, let’s face it, are basically just balls of butter and flour. Alternatively, you can pour it over mashed potatoes. It sounds weird, but it’s really good. Of course, mashed potatoes go with everything as far as I’m concerned, but the point still stands.
Another East-meets-West (yeah, I used that phrase and I’m owning it) fusion cuisine trick I like to do is mash up two different recipes that are similar. For example, stuffed vegetables Arab-style versus stuffed vegetables Greek-style: two recipes that are basically the same thing, and with a few minor changes you can have the best of both worlds. For example, the Greek recipe calls for partially cooking the stuffing mix beforehand, topping the vegetables with cheese and finishing them in tomato sauce in the oven. The Arabic version has you cooking the vegetables already stuffed stovetop in chicken broth. If you mash the two recipes together, you can skip the cheese, skip the pre-cooking and just put the stuffed vegetables in a chicken stock-based tomato sauce and put it in the oven. Bonus: you skip a few steps in the cooking process, and you don’t need a crazy ton of chicken broth. Also, you have tomato sauce!
That brings me to my next point: when in doubt, add tomato sauce. Tomato sauce makes everything better.
Cumin also enhances any dish, regardless of its cultural origin. Cumin goes with everything and makes your food taste like a warm summer afternoon in Cairo, sitting on the balcony watching the sunset over the apartment buildings. This is only a minor exaggeration – seriously, try it on salmon with olive oil and lemon. You can thank me later.
Sumac is also a great spice to add to things like mixed vegetable packs to change things up and give them some dimension. Tumeric can help give your sauces a curry-esque flavor, which you can then enhance with paprika or crushed red pepper. In fact, go ahead and sprinkle everything you got in the kitchen with some crushed red pepper. Even if you don’t like spicy food, a little bit gives your veggies and proteins a little added flavor that will make them more interesting, and may even remind of sunsets in whatever city you spent your summer in.
How do you combine your favorite dishes? Let us know in the comments!