Archive for February, 2012

It’s That Time Again ~ International Day!

February 29th, 2012 7 comments

Oh Boy. Tomorrow’s the day. A day that fills me with both excitement and dread. Fellow Dubai mothers know what I’m talking about. It’s International Day at school, a cultural celebration, relished by children and slaved over by mothers.

In this case, the event takes place at my youngest child’s school. It’s a day when everyone struts their patriotic stuff, whether they’re from Tunisia, Serbia, Japan, Brazil, Iran or Denmark. About thirty stalls will represent thirty different countries with food, costumes, music, cultural artifacts and educational displays.

Who am I kidding? It’s all about the food.

This year for the USA table, I’m bringing 25 trays of brownies, three apple pies, baskets of red apples, bags of popcorn, as well as lemonade. (Sort of a “county fair” theme—which no one really gets.)

In past years we’ve also served homemade chocolate chip cookies, rice krispy treats, Southwest chili, and hot dogs. No matter what we do, our handful of American moms can never compete with the other countries that offer full buffets of hot homemade dishes or fancy spreads catered by restaurants.

This year I’m manning the table alone (!) so I’m pacing myself. Because two weeks from now I will do it all over again at the high school—a wild free-for-all of teenage eating. At the high school, the food is scooped up so quickly, we can’t put it out fast enough.

But tomorrow’s event is sweet. I cherish the sight of the little kindergarteners dressed in traditional clothing, and I enjoy admiring the other stalls. I will also be handing out handmade Statue of Liberty bookmarks.

However, over the years (especially the Bush years) we at the USA table have endured occasional anti-American comments. Some people don’t comprehend that us volunteer moms don’t set the US foreign policy. So, rather than get into a political debate, I just smile like a lunatic and ask, “Would you like a piece of apple pie?”

So why do I do International Day?

Well. I used to approach it like I was some kind of Food Ambassador, spreading the good will of the US through sugary baked goods. Then last year, at my tenth such event, I got so overwhelmed and burned out that I boycotted the high school international day all together.

I wondered: why do it?

To be honest, I missed it. And my children missed having me there. Parents and students told me that they looked for my apple pie, but couldn’t find it. According to my youngest son, my brownies are “famous” (Betty Crocker, directions on the box).

So, I’ll be there tomorrow, offering the usual sweets. When there’s a lull in traffic, I’ll run over to the Lebanese table for fatayer and to the Korean table for Kim bob and to the Australian table for Lamington coconut cake. I hope the Mexicans will be serving tamales…

Finally, here are some photos from International Day last year—photos that represent a few Arabic counties.

The Lebanon stall:

Some mothers representing Egypt:

The Jordan Table:


An Emirati Coffee Lady serving up Arabic Coffee and Emirati pastries:

Of course, there’s always henna.

Question: What do you do at your International Day?

How and Why to Clarify Butter ~ For Arabic Cooking & Other Cuisines

February 27th, 2012 8 comments

Clarified butter, called samneh in Arabic, provides a distinctive taste to Arabic sweets and savory dishes. It also features strongly in French cooking and other cuisines.

When regular butter is melted, a clear yellow liquid rises to the top and separates from the milk fat. This pure, transparent yellow liquid is clarified butter. Rich and strong with less water content than regular butter, it has a slightly nutty taste.

Clarified butter offers many cooking benefits. Because it has no milk solids and less moisture, it can withstand higher cooking temperatures without burning. It also lasts much longer than regular butter. Furthermore, a little goes a long way. Because it contains only a tiny amount of lactose, it’s safe for most people with lactose intolerance.

Canned ghee, found is Middle Eastern and Indian grocery stores, is basically clarified butter. However, sometimes low-grade vegetable oil fillers are added to ghee, which can give an unpleasant flavor. Instead, I recommend making a homemade version of this purified butter. It’s an easy task. You can do it in bulk and it will keep for months.

Using Clarified Butter

Julia Child recommends using it in butter sauces, roux, scalloped potatoes and for sautéing. Martha Stewart recommends it for omelets while I have used clarified butter to make hash browns, crepes, and grilled cheese sandwiches. In other words, use it whenever you’re cooking over high heat and seek the flavor of butter rather than oil.

In Arabic cuisine, clarified butter (samneh) gives pastries a distinctive taste. It’s used in sweets such as baklawa, shortbread, kunafe, nammoura, and filled cookies. It’s also used in savory dishes that are eaten hot, particularly grain dishes, soups and meat stews. There is nothing more delicious than halloumi cheese fried in clarified butter. Heaven.

How to Clarify Butter

You can clarify any quantity you wish. If you require it for a specific recipe, figure that 1 cup regular butter makes slightly more than 2/3 cup clarified butter. For everyday cooking, I usually clarify 1 pound (500 g) unsalted butter at a time to keep on hand in the refrigerator.


1. Cut the butter into pieces and melt in a heavy-duty saucepan over moderate heat until foamy and bubbling. Lower temperature and simmer for a few minutes or up to 20 minutes. (Longer simmering time will give a nuttier flavor.)

2. Remove from heat and cool for about 10 minutes. The milk solids will fall to the bottom. Skim any foam from the top and discard.

3. Spoon the clear, yellow liquid into a measuring cup or sterile glass container lined with a sieve or cheese cloth (also called butter muslin). Leave the white milk solids behind (either discard or use in soup, sauces or over popcorn).

4. Store in refrigerator in sterilized glass container for up to six months and use as needed.

Question: How do you use clarified butter in your cooking?

Ful for You ~ An Egyptian Breakfast

February 13th, 2012 23 comments

Ful, a hearty dish made from fava beans, is an everyday food across the Arab World, but is unknown to most Westerners. Ful is most associated with Egypt, which considers it their national dish, typically eaten for breakfast, but also any time of day as a dip, a main dish or sandwich filling. 

Some consider ful a “dish of the poor,” but there’s nothing poor about its nutrition or flavor, which is tart, pungent, and earthy, enhanced with lemon and garlic. A peasant dish eaten in the street and the home, ful also appears as a mezze plate in expensive restaurants. 

What I love about ful: it’s not only healthy and delicious, but a great dish for those in a hurry, on a budget or who need something filling. It offers a tasty alternative to hummus, which has become a been-there-done-that food. 

Egyptians traditionally cook fava beans for hours over a low flame in an idra, a special pot which tapers to a narrow neck. Egyptian street vendors prepare and serve ful in this way. 

However, it seems most home cooks today prepare ful in a saucepan on the stove. Some even use a microwave. When I first saw my Palestinian husband’s family make ful, they heated it over a flame right in the can, cowboy-style. I do not recommend this method. 

The variations for ful are endless. Fava beans can be puréed, mashed or left with the beans intact. The seasonings vary widely from cumin to paprika and chili powder. Those who like a kick will add cayenne pepper or finely diced hot chilies. Lebanese and Palestinians often add chick peas. 

The standard garnishes are olive oil, tomatoes and fresh parsley. Additional toppings on the side can include: chopped onions, fresh mint, radishes, tahini, or hard-cooked eggs. There is no one right way to make this dish. 

Fava Beans

Fava beans, also known as broad beans, are a staple in much of the world. The beans come encased in long fat green pods. Fava beans vary in size from ½ inch to a full inch. The large greenish beans require longer soaking and cooking and need to have their skins removed. What we are concerned with here are the small brown beans, the ones commonly used for this dish. The beans are labeled in a variety of ways.


Below is my recipe for Ful Medammes, the most common and basic way to serve ful. Some cooks will want to soak dried beans overnight while spontaneous cooks will prefer to open a can. I have included directions for both. Proportions are not precise; cook according to your taste and preference.


Serves 4 as a side dish


1 can (14 oz. / 450 g) fava beans (ful medammes) or 1 cup small dried fava beans

1 teaspoon baking soda (for dried beans only)

2 cloves garlic, pressed

½ teaspoon cumin

juice from 1 lemon


1 tomato, chopped

olive oil

¼ cup fresh parsley, finely chopped


  1. Prepare the beans. For dried fava beans: sort and soak overnight in 3 cups water with baking soda. The next day, rinse and cover with fresh un-salted water in large saucepan. Cover and simmer gently about 1 hour or until beans are soft enough to mash. Stir occasionally and add more water if necessary. For canned fava beans: heat the can of beans (including liquid) gently in large saucepan until boiling. Simmer on low for 10 minutes to heat through. (Alternatively, heat beans in microwave.)
  2. In a small bowl, mix the pressed garlic with the cumin, lemon juice, and salt (½ t salt with canned beans, more for dried).
  3. Remove the fava beans with a slotted spoon and transfer to mixing bowl. Partially mash the bean mixture with fork or pestle, leaving some or most beans intact. Add the lemon juice mixture and gently stir in. Add more cooking liquid if necessary, keeping the beans wet but not soupy. Taste and add more salt or lemon juice if necessary.
  4. Transfer the ful to a shallow serving dish. Top with chopped tomatoes and a generous drizzle of olive oil. Finish with the chopped parsley.
  5. Serve warm or at room temperature with sweet tea and fresh Arabic bread.  Optional additions on the side: extra lemon wedges, chopped onion, sliced cucumber, chopped green pepper, fresh mint, crumbled feta cheese and/or one hard-cooked egg for each person.