Beja

Winter WheatIf these winter-wheat fields could talk, they would tell you about the night of February 28, 1943.  On this night, the British Armed Forces finally defeated the German army that had tried to occupy Beja 15 days earlier because of its strategic location to the rest of Northern Tunisia and Algeria.

Bunker, 2There are eight British Commonwealth cemeteries dotted around Tunisia and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  Cemeteries were erected at the sites of battles, which gives the surrounding fields and olive groves a particularly hallowed feeling.

Cemetery, Wide-Angle When I look at the ages of some of these soldiers, my heart feels unbearable sympathy.  I am sure there are parents who were never able to come to Tunisia to see where their son was laid to rest.  I think what they would have given to trade places with me and experience the peace of this place.

Cemetery and Lake

Headstone, 2

 

Headstone

 

Red Flower

 

Allan

Cross

Cemetary I have quoted this before, but it is fitting to post it again, today.  It is from the book Cemeteries and Memories, The Second World War in Tunisia that was a gift from the British Ambassador when we first arrived.  In the forward, Lillian Craig Harris writes,

I dedicate this book to the Tunisian farmers who, motivated by the basic need to feed their families, bravely drove their mules before the plough in the spring of 1943 as battles raged around them. (2007)

Can’t you just picture it?

 

Harris, Lillian Craig. “Preface.” Cemeteries and Memories: The Second World War in Tunisia. Oxford: Michael Tomkinson, 2007. 5. Print.

Artichokes and Pumpkins

Roadside Goose, 2Allan and I like to get in the car and just drive into the countryside at some time during the weekend.  Destination drives are nice, but it’s really just being out there, seeing Tunisians going about their production, that is so interesting and settling.  We store up episodes of the new season of the Serial podcast and get deeply lost in that strange and fascinating tale while we are driving.

PumpkinsArtichoke Field 2Today, the roadsides, on the road to Raf Raf, were presenting artichokes and pumpkins.  You can see that our pumpkins, here, are not the bright orange Halloween varieties we have in the U.S.  I think these are a French heirloom variety called Fairy Tale.  The connection is that they look like they could be turned into Cinderella’s coach.  They aren’t beautiful to look at, but they are very flavorful, with not too much moisture, and they are durable.  We have whole pumpkins in the markets here year around.

Pumpkin TruckWe brought home some pumpkins, but we worked with the artichokes this afternoon.  Peeling and trimming a good potful, I then braised them.  Braising is a technique where ingredients are sauteed in olive oil until they release some sugars and begin to caramelize.  This works the same for meats and vegetables.  Then, liquid is added, such as water, wine or stock, to cover the ingredient by about 2/3.  The dish is covered with a tight-fitting lid or foil and cooked low and slow.  Whether it goes into the oven or on the stove top, the heat must be low enough that the braise is barely bubbling.  It cooks like this for a couple of hours.  When the ingredients are tender, the lid is removed and the heat turned up a little to reduce the liquid, further tenderizing and additionally caramelizing the braise.

Braised ArtichokesHere is my pot of artichokes before I began the browning process.  I started them with about 2 cups each of chopped carrots, celery, and leeks.  To this I added 3 bay leaves, and 1 teaspoon each of dried tarragon and wild thyme, plus salt and pepper.  The final dish can be served as a sauce over pasta, eaten as a side dish, or pureed into a rich soup.

North African Stew

We had a friend from Athens staying with us for a few days.  He told us that Greeks have a saying for clear and cold days.  They say that the sun has teeth.  People living on the east coast of America might disagree with me right now, but I am not ready for a warming Earth.  I am treasuring these chilly days, with unpredictable weather, and the opportunity to layer my clothing.  I discovered this about myself when I lived in the tropics:  I feel most like myself when the weather dictates layers of clothes.

This  stew suits my desire, at the moment, to melt down wagon loads of vegetables.  We planted some boxes of greens before we left for the winter break and now, mustards and kales are tumbling over the sides.  I love going to the terrace with some shears and a colander to sheer them back.  Then I chop and dissolve an enormous amount into something bubbling on the stove.

Moroccan Stew, 1In this region, we can buy merguez sausages that are made of beef or lamb.  They are just right for this dish.  If you freeze them slightly, it is easy to squeeze tiny meat balls right out of the casings.  Turkey or chicken sausage would work just as well, but I don’t recommend pork which is contrary to North African cooking.

Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients.  You can just keep dicing and spicing while you do something else.  I recommend listening to the The Book Thief.

Ingredients

4 tablespoons olive oil
2 Spanish onions, chopped
1 large jalapeno pepper, seeded if desired, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger root
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1.2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne
2 tablespoons tomato paste
500 grams (1/2 lb.) beef, lamb, or poultry sausage, bulk or in casings
1 fennel bulb, diced (save fronds for garnish)
1 very large bunch chard, stems sliced 1/2 inch thick,
leaves torn into bite-sized pieces
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 large turnip, peeled and diced
1 pound dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in
water to cover or quick-soaked (see note)
1/3 cup diced dried apricots
2 tablespoons chopped preserved lemon or regular lemon, rind and all
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
Preparation

Step 1
Heat oil in large pot over high heat.  Add onion and jalapeno and saute until limp, 3 minutes.  Add garlic, ginger, salt, turmeric, paprika, cinnamon, cumin, black pepper, and cayenne and saute until they release their fragrance, about 2 minutes.  Add tomato paste and saute for another minute, until darkened but not burned.  (If tomato paste looks too dark too quickly, lower hear.)

Step 2
Add sausage and brown in spice mixture.  Add fennel, chard stems, carrot and turnip and continue to saute until vegetables start to soften, about 10 minutes.  Add chickpeas and water to barely cover.

Step 3
Bring to a simmer.  Partly cover pot, lower heat to medium low, and simmer for about 1  1/2 – 2 hours, until chickpeas are softened.  Add more water if needed.

Step 4
Add chard leaves, apricots and preserved lemon to pot and continue simmering until chard is tender, about 5 minutes longer.  Season with more salt if desired and serve garnished with cilantro and reserved fennel fronds.

Tip

To quick-soak chickpeas, bring them to a boil in water to cover by 1 inch.  Turn off the heat and let soak for 1 hour.  Drain.

 

Clark, Melissa. “Moroccan Chickpeas with Chard.” New York Times [New York] n.d.: n. pag. Web. <http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1017228-moroccan-chickpeas-with-chard&gt;.

 

Burnous Weather

Did you read Under the Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles?  If you know the book, do listen to this hilarious performance that parodies its bizarre story line.  You will pick up the parallel details right away.

But you know how they were always going on about wearing a burnous?  Well, this is what it is.  It is a hooded wool cloak that Berber men wear in North Africa.  A burnous is very practical for sheep herders and others working in the countryside on winter days that alternately shift between bright sun, spitting rain, gusty winds, and lowish temps.  That was today.

Bernouse Red

We collected one of these old garments at a medina in Sousse a couple of years ago.  It  is made of the coarsest sheep wool and has random burn holes and bits of print fabric patches here and there.  It is a coat with a story, and we love it for that.

There were three products going on today:  sheep, fennel (by-the-truckload!), and oranges.  Both sides of the road were stacked with these orange and pink crates, for kilometers.

Orange CratesWe bought one that weighed 21 kilos, close to 50 pounds, and it cost about 25 dinars, which is about 12 dollars.  Allan will juice these for our breakfasts for a couple of weeks, but it won’t take too long to go through them.

Veg Stand  We could have stopped at any number of fruit and vegetable vendors, but this was kind of our last chance, and I was so impressed that the proprietor was willing to trot across the road in said spitting-rain-of-the-moment.  The neat re-purposed water bottles in the background are full of tiny chili peppers.  We bought fennel, carrots, and leeks which all went into this uplifting soup.

Tunisian Winter  Soup

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup chopped leek, white part, only
1/2 cup chopped fennel
2 scant tablespoons finely grated fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
4 cups chopped carrots
4 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon bitter orange or lemon juice
1 can coconut milk (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper, sea salt, and ground chili, and cilantro to taste

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the leeks, fennel, and carrots.  Sauté until leeks are translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add the ginger and garlic; saute one more minute.   Add the broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until the carrots are tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and puree with an immersion blender or food processor until very smooth. Return the soup to the saucepan and stir in the stir in orange juice and bitter orange or lemon juice.  Add coconut milk (if using), then adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, ground chili and cilantro.  Reheat and serve.

Serves 4

 

 

Oh, Peace.

Partridges, 1

It has been a season.  I teach my students to look for pivotal moments in their reading, and I, also,  recognize pivotal times in life when I see them.  So many things have been up in the air.  We thought it might be time to pull ourselves away from our beloved Tunisia this year,  and the exploration of that possibility took us through many soul-searching doors we hadn’t anticipated passing through.  We are still in a state of wonder at the experience.  Doors were slammed shut so resoundingly that our ears are still ringing.  The universe spoke:  We are meant to be here.Winter Berries  And we have so very, very much to be grateful for.  Many of our loved ones are experiencing  sickness, pain, and loss.  We are not.  Hallelujah.  At the moment, we’re OK!

My heart, this advent, is fully with our adopted country.  It has been our profound privilege to work and live inside Tunisia, these past six years, through their democratic transition.  The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize  comes at a time when they are wondering what it has all been for.  Recent violence from their own radicalized sons has been demoralizing,  adding layer upon layer of isolation from the world, increased poverty, and deferment of their vision of a peaceful life with opportunities for their young people.  The Nobel committee honored the seemingly simple, yet most complicated way that the Tunisia National Dialogue Quartet worked to bring Tunisia back from the brink of civil war in 2013.  They kept dialogue going between all constituents.  They convinced parties to set aside their individual agendas.  They held up core values as more important than ideologies.  They took turns at leadership as they were needed.   What a model for the world of how to make cooperation a priority in order to accomplish something more positive, for the greater good.  I am so happy and proud of them.

This performance at the Nobel ceremony stole my breath, and I have watched it at least 20 times.  The passion, delicacy, defiance, and skill of Emel Mathlouthi’s performance represents the complicated spirit of Tunisia.  I  have gained hope from this award, and I pray it might be the external moral support Tunisia needs to carry through.

 “…Peace was really loud, and I was so thrilled to be a part that made it louder!!”

Emel Mathlouthi in a letter sent to the Nobel committee.

“Kelmti Horra” (My Word is Free) English/French translations

Biscuits and Jam

Biscuits, 4As we get near the end of a quarter, it seems that someone in our group will host a Sunday brunch.  It is a nice time to bolster our strength for the finish of the term and to allow a little enthusiasm for some much-deserved vacations  bubble to the surface.  Where is this bunch headed to, in a couple of weeks?  Naples, Istanbul, South Africa…

I brought fresh strawberry jam and biscuits to complement the incredible spread of dishes at my friend’s beach-side home.  Successful biscuits are all about technique and intuition, not so much ingredients, except that they be fresh.  Here, first, is the base recipe followed by some tips that I think are non-negotiable for getting the biscuits you want.  This recipe is perfect for savory or sweet biscuits.

Recipe

  • 5 cups flour
  • 5 tbsp. sugar (omit if you want them savory)
  • 2 tbsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 10 tbsp. unsalted butter, frozen, plus 4 tbsp., melted
  • 1 3/4 cups buttermilk
  • 2 tbsp. honey

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a bowl.  Using the course side of a box grater, grate frozen butter into flour mixture;  mix to combine.  Add buttermilk and, using your hands, gently mix ingredients until a soft dough forms.  Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface;  pat into a 7″ x 9″ rectangle, about 2″ thick.  Using a 4″ round cutter, cut out as many biscuits as you can, reforming scraps to use all of the dough.  Place biscuits on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet.  Bake until golden, 18-20 minutes.  Stir melted butter and honey in a bowl;  brush over hot biscuits.  Return biscuits to oven and cook until golden, 5 minutes more.  Makes 10 to 12 biscuits

Tips

Grate frozen butter into cold, dry ingredients.  I always keep my flour in the freezer, but then it comes in small packets, here.  Working quickly, toss it through the dry ingredients.  This creates a perfect integration of good-sized butter chunks throughout the dough, which will melt in the hot heat and create fluffy air pockets.

After adding the liquid, gently bring the dough together with your goal being to simply hydrate all of the flour and create a mass of dough.  Stop working it once that has been achieved.

Keep your dough shaggy.  You don’t want it smooth; you want to preserve all of the texture you can.

Keep a rolling pin away from the dough. Lift the dough out of the mixing bowl, lay it onto a floured surface, and gently poke it to stretch it to a consistent thickness.

Dough, 3Leave the dough thick.  I used to think that the baking powder would create some sort of magic lift for my biscuits, but it won’t.  The volume I get in the end is what I leave in during the formation of the dough.  Keep the dough, at a minimum, 1″ thick, and 2″ is not insane.

Cut the biscuits with a real biscuit cutter.  This tool will allow you to cut the dough without twisting, which will pull on the sides and decrease the loft of your biscuits.  I don’t have one here, at the moment, and I tried using a sharp, stainless steel ravioli cutter.  I got a pretty good result, but my biscuits still had slightly rounded tops and some diminished layering.

We have decided that our dessert alternative to strawberry shortcake,  for this season, will be biscuits with strawberry preserves and pistachio-studded pecorino cheese.

 

Pecorino, 2

 

Recipe adapted from the following:

Uyehara, Mari. “Better Eat Your Breakfast.” Saveur. N.p., Mar. 2015. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.

 

 

Wild Thyme Leg of Lamb

Tunisian FlagToday is Tunisia’s celebration of gaining their independence from French colonization in 1956.  The almost 60 years since then have been an ongoing  process of self-identification, but that is really no different from any other nation.

With the shocking terrorist attack at the Bardo museum this week, the mood in the city is quiet and pensive.  I wonder how liberated Tunisians are feeling today.

People are staying close to home and family or are outdoors seeking healing from the vernal countryside.  Woody wild thyme branches can be found sprawling on wind swept knolls.  Used in a rub for lamb, it is just the flavor to capture the untamed, emerging spring.

Thyme

Leg of LambWild Thyme Leg of Lamb

  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted, coarsely ground
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin, toasted
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon thyme leaves
  • Zest of 2 lemons
  • 1 tablespoon flaky sea salt
  • 3 lbs lamb, legs or shoulder
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 liter lamb or chicken stock

Combine the cumin, coriander, garlic, thyme, zest, and salt.  Rub all over the lamb, then set aside at room temperature for 2 hours.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Heat the oil in a large roasting dish, over high heat, then brown the lamb all over.  Add the stock and cover with a tight fitting lid or foil.  Transfer to the oven for 2 hours.  Uncover and roast for a further 30 minutes or until tender, then set aside to rest before carving.

Pearson, Jo. “From the Source.” Cuisine NZ Mar. 2015: 98-99. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.