Shortly after I moved to Minneapolis at the beginning of the summer, I lost the ability to cook. Everything I made was off in some way. I overbaked my clafoutis, I burned a batch of banana bread, I undercooked caramelized onions for Mujadrah so that they remained crunchy and harsh tasting. My new stove cooked flank steak to an unappetizing grey, the accompanying tomatillo sauce was bitter, and I ate the whole disaster with stale, tasteless corn tortillas from the corner Mexican grocer. Nothing tasted right; nothing felt right.
Pack up all your worldly possessions, move them across the country, and start life anew in a new city where you know no one and can’t find the grocery store without getting lost. No wonder I felt so dispossessed, no wonder the one pleasure I could always count on wasn’t available to me.
But life continued, and things slowly improved. I ate dinner every night at a local South Indian restaurant where the food tastes as if it had come from an auntie’s kitchen. My pots, pans, and spices arrived from Boston, and in the act of putting things in their place, I made friends with my kitchen. My loneliness abated as I met people, and made a few friends. My neighbors, Kassie and CJ came by with a housewarming present, a dinner invitation, and advice on what to do in the not-entirely-unlikely event of finding a needle in my yard. They had a wealth of information on the many Minneapolis farmer’s markets, a good vegetable market, and a great meat market. With the routines of shopping, picking produce, meeting farmers and butchers, I began to put down roots, however shallow. The butchers at Clancy’s now know my name. I’m a familiar face at Farm in the Market and the Produce Exchange as well. And with knowing the people who have grown and raised my food comes a connection to this place that makes me food come alive. I’m not home yet, but I’m getting there.
Here are three ingredients that I used as the basis for mezze, the Middle Eastern equivalent of antipasti. They are certainly not indigenous Minnesotan foods, but I was very pleased to find all of them in my neighborhood.
1) Mâche. Who would have thought that you could find this French salad green at the Produce Exchange? I couldn’t find it when I lived in Geneva last summer. It’s the the freshest, most spring-like taste you can imagine. I ate mâche by the shovelfuls in France, thinking I could never find it once I came home. Now I can eat it all summer long.
2) Egyptian Double Cream. Despite my interest in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods, I had never heard of this rich, tangy cross between feta and cream cheese. I first tried it at the Holyland Deli, then found a more feta-like version at Bill’s. Both are delicious.
3) Giant Beans. I don’t know why this humble bean tastes so good; something about its meaty texture and full taste. I only know that it was always worth paying $2.50 for a quarter cup of “Giant Bean Antipasto” at Whole Food Market. Whole Foods never carried the dried beans though, but I found them at Bill’s Imported Foods on Lake Street. I’ve remade this salad with harissa paste and lemon.
I’ve been eating these little snacks while on the run this week; I’ve been too busy and exhausted to cook, and they are great to have on hand for a quick tea time snack. I have these with whole wheat pita, a holdover from my health nut days, but I’ve grown to prefer the wholesome, nutty taste of the whole wheat over flatness of white.
Obviously, you don’t need to live in Minneapolis to make these dishes. You can substitute regular white beans (even from a can in a pinch—just be sure to rinse them), feta cheese and any salad green.
Giant beans with harissa and lemon
Egyptian Double Cream Feta with Herbs
Whole Wheat Pita Bread
Giant beans with harissa and lemon
Be sure that the beans are completely soft before you salt them. Judi Rodgers recommends chilling one or two briefly in the freezer before checking for doneness. I try to mash one on the roof of my mouth with only my tongue.
1 c. dried giant beans
2 tsp. harissa (recipe follows)
1 scallion, green part only, chopped
2 tbsp. chopped parsley
1. Cover beans with water and soak overnight. The next day, bring beans and water to rolling boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook beans for 1.5-2 hours. When beans are completely soft (you should be able to mash one on the roof of your mouth with only your tongue, when in doubt, cook longer), salt water generously and continue cooking for another 20 minutes.
2. Remove beans from heat, drain, let cool and mix with other ingredients. Drench with olive oil—this is not the time for a timid drizzle.
3. Let stand overnight in the refrigerator. It will allow the flavors of the dressing to better penetrate the thick bean. Let come to room temperature before serving.
2 oz. dried red chiles
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp. ground coriander
Soak dried chiles in boiling water to cover for 1 hour. When rehydrated, process in blender with other ingredients, adding olive oil to facilitate grinding. Store in refrigerator, covered in olive oil.
Egyptian Double Cream Cheese with Herbs
½ lb. Egyptian Double Cream Cheese or Feta
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. olive oil
2-3 tbsp. fresh herbs (parsley, thyme, sage, oregano, cilantro)
freshly ground black pepper
Process all in food processor. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Sources: Claudia Roden, The New Book of Middle Eastern Food
Paula Wolfert, Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco
Judi Rodger, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook