Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Intentions for a Healthy Ramadan

June 15th, 2015 5 comments


Ramadan is coming up fast. I’ve observed this month of fasting for the past two decades. As always, I anticipate the month with equal measures of joy and dread.

Yes, joy. I look forward to our nightly iftars, leisurely family meals where everyone is in a good mood, the food tastes twice as good, and my teenage kids linger at the table for more than five minutes. I also appreciate special gatherings with friends, as well as the time set aside for self-discipline and devotion.

Meanwhile, it’s not the fasting that I dread, but the decline in physical activity, the over-eating, the excess of desserts, the loss in fitness level, and the inevitable weight gain.

I admit, my eating habits generally sink to lower and lower levels as the weeks progress—the wrong foods and too much of them. Even worse, I typically stop exercising while fasting and become a Ramadan couch potato.

Yes, I realize this defeats the point of point of the holy month. What’s more, I used to be able to bounce back from this way of observing Ramadan, but no more. Besides, it just feels wrong. Ramadan is meant to be spiritual and self-reflective—not lazy and over-indulgent.

So, in light of all this, for the past several years I’ve been striving for a healthier Ramadan. Here are my intentions for this year:

Change up Habits

Since the whole schedule is turned upside down, Ramadan is a good time to discard bad habits. For example, many people try to give up smoking. As for me, I’m intending to make more vegetarian meals and eat as a pescetarian—opting for seafood over meat and poultry. As I plan iftars, I remind myself every evening need not be a feast. We can enjoy simple meals like mujaddara.

Quality over Quantity

Like many in this region, we start each iftar with lentil soup, which is a great way to break a day’s fast. However, it’s easy to slide downhill after that into a glut of fried foods and carbs galore. Instead, I intend to serve more vegetables, including in a big salad and my secret weapon: the raw veggie platter. When I have that Ramadan-urge to just graze, I’ll reach for raw veggies—snap peas, bell peppers strips, cucumbers, carrot sticks—the crunchier the better.

Count my Dates

Dates are the special food of Ramadan. Everyone I know breaks their fast with dates. At our house, we keep snacking on them into the evening. If that’s not enough, we eat desserts made from dates and more dates at suhour.

Despite the revered role of dates during Ramadan, they are sugar-loaded and calorie-dense. Therefore, this year I’m avoiding the date free-for-all. Two or three dates at iftar are enough.

Dodging Dessert

I used to promise my three fasting children a homemade dessert every night of Ramadan as a “reward” for their efforts. What a terrible habit! It’s bad for many reasons, including the fact that sugar is addictive, and, according to some sources, added sugar causes as much damage as alcohol and fat.

And yet….

It’s not Ramadan without traditional treats like qatief. It’s impossible to avoid desserts during Ramadan, and some treats I wouldn’t want to miss. However, I plan to indulge selectively. At home, I intend to prepare some fruit-based options, such as apple pie, blueberry crisp and fruit smoothies.

Keep Moving

This is going to be tough. There’s a big benefit to having a day job during Ramadan. When I was teaching English, my work ensured that I had a regular routine and moved around during Ramadan.

For the past two years, I’ve had my pedometer and set a daily Ramadan intention of 8,000 steps. It’s worked well, so I’m aiming for that again. However, I won’t be walking outdoors while fasting, as the temperature in Dubai will be soaring. Instead, I’ll stroll in the mall and do some gentle yoga. Some Muslims say their yoga practice is actually better when they’re fasting.

Evenings are a different story. Even though it’ll be hot and humid, the dog still needs to be walked. And I’m planning on midnight walks on the beach with my family, as the cool mist provides a small reprieve.

The malls in Dubai are a great place to walk in the evenings. Open until 1:00am during Ramadan, the malls are filled with Ramadan decorations and window displays, as well as a bustle of people. Of course, I intend to walk right past the pastry shops…

Drink Six Tall Ones

People ask how I stay hydrated when I can only eat and drink after the sun goes down. Actually, at our house we consume more water during Ramadan than other months. I commit myself to drinking six glasses of water after the sun goes down.

This is how I do it: I break my fast with a glass of water, and I drink another during iftar. I drink two more glasses during the evening. I drink a fifth glass before I go to bed. I drink another glass when I get up at 3:30am for suhour. It takes effort, but I feel so much better this way.

Rise and Shine with Suhoor

I don’t understand how people can skip suhour, the pre-dawn meal. It’s an important tradition at our house. I used to stuff myself at suhour out of fear of starving, and I would even have dessert. Those days are over.

Now I opt for a fiber-rich meal that will stay with me. My suhour of choice is steel-cut oats (cooked in advance) with some dried fruit and walnuts.

When my husband is charge, we’ll have hummus, foul or fatayer from the Lebanese bakery down the street (which has a queue at 3:00am).

Avoid Buffets like the Plague

I say this every year. Then I read the local magazines featuring “Best Ramadan Iftars.” Then we get an invite to some over-the-top buffet in a hotel. Next thing you know, there we are, heaping our plates. And then—the inevitable regret.

These buffets are wrought with problems: they are wasteful; they are against the spirit of Ramadan; they encourage over-eating, and we completely forget the concept of remembering those less fortunate.

And yet, if I do find myself at a buffet, I intend to follow the “dieter’s rule” of filling half my plate with vegetables, such as those delicious Arab mezza salads.

Ah, Sleep

In case you didn’t know, sleep is the secret key to wellness. Scientists are still discovering all the hidden benefits of sleep. Without enough, we are grumpy, less focused, forgetful, unmotivated, and more apt to get sick. What’s more, lack of sleep combined with fasting is a double-whammy to our well-being.

My intention this year is not to stay awake all night until suhour. So slovenly! It creates a jetlag-like stupor. Instead, I’m planning to keep regular hours—at least until the final week.

Easing Back

Regarding weight gain, I discovered last year that the real danger zone is actually the week after Ramadan. You know that holiday week of decadent breakfasts, non-stop ma’amoul, and big Eid lunches? Well, this is the time to be careful. After a month of fasting, our bodies have adjusted by slowing down and conserving energy. The week after Ramadan is a time to eat light and ease back into our regular meals.

* * *

Ramadan is a challenging month—spiritually, emotionally and physically. I always count down the days until it’s over. Sometimes I secretly wish for a “holy week” of fasting instead of a holy month. And yet, when the month is over, I feel a touch of remorse. I miss those family iftars when we come together in a meaningful way.

This year, I’m intending to have both: the spirit and joy of Ramadan, as well as physical wellness.

Question: How do you stay healthy during Ramadan? 

Classic Apple Pie ~ Easier Than you Think

November 20th, 2013 24 comments

Applie Pie ~ Traditional pastry I’m diverting from my Arab theme this week because apple pie is a universal favorite, and the American holiday of Thanksgiving is coming up. 

I’m a bit obsessed with apple pie. As a child growing up in Washington State (the apple state) I learned how to make it. And now as an expat living in Dubai and a homesick Washingtonian, I’ve made countless apple pies for holidays, international days, and for no reason at all.

Some people stress out about making pies and pie pastry. I think they are aiming for “perfection,” not realizing that a fruit pie is a RUSTIC dessert. Any cracks and imperfections and liquid oozing out of the top will simply make the pie look more delicious!   

Classic Apple Pie

As for types of apples, I use mostly Granny Smiths, which are green and tart, and I include a few sweet red apples, such as Braeburn, Rome Beauty or Pink Lady. Here in Dubai, apples are labeled simply “green” or “red” so sometimes it’s a bit tricky figuring it out. Just keep in mind, you can’t go wrong with Granny Smith. 

Not everyone grew up eating this dessert or watching their grandmother making pie. So, here you go, my Apple Pie Primer.  

Apple Pie Slice

 Pastry Ingredients

2 cups (300g) all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

2/3 c + 2 Tablespoons (160g) softened butter and/or shortening

5 T ice cold water

Filling Ingredients

½ cup (100g) sugar (or less)

1/3 cup (50g) flour

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

¾ teaspoon cinnamon

7 medium apples, peeled and sliced thinly


1.  Prepare pastry.  In a large bowl, mix flour and salt. Add softened butter and cut into flour with pastry blender or fork. Keep blending until butter particles are the size of peas. This texture will create a flaky crust.  Apple Pie ~ blend in the butter with a pastry blenderSprinkle in the ice water, a few tablespoons at a time, blending the mixture with a wooden spoon. Form pastry into a ball and divide into two.

Apple Pie ~ Cut ball into twoOn a floured surface, form one half into a disk and dust with flour. (Cover the other half with a dish towel and set aside.)  

Apple Pie ~ Form dough into disk

With a rolling pin, roll dough out, rotating the dough frequently to prevent it from getting stuck to the counter. If you are nervous about this step, try rolling dough between two sheets of wax paper.  

Apple Pie ~ Roll out DoughRoll out dough only once. When the dough rips—and it will rip—repair by pressing the dough back together. Do not re-roll or over-handle. Rolling the dough again will destroy the lovely flaky layers of the crust.  

Apple Pie ~ Expect the dough to rip

Apple Pie ~ Press the dough back togetherCheck to see you have the right sized round—about 2” larger than the pie dish.   

Apple Pie ~ Check size with pie panTransfer the dough to the pie dish. Using a scraper or metal spatula, gently loosen the dough, fold into thirds and transfer to pie dish.  

Apple Pie ~ Fold with scraper

Apple Pie ~ Fold dough into thirds

Apple Pie ~ gently transfer dough to dish

Apple Pie ~ unfold dough in dish

2.  Preheat oven to 425°F / 220°C. Move rack to the center of the oven.  

3.  Prepare the filling. Mix flour, sugar, and spices in small bowl. Peel and slice apples thinly—or better yet, get a loved one to do it for you. Apple Pie ~ slice apples thinlyStir the sugar and spice mixture into the sliced apples until all the apples are coated. Fill the pastry-lined pie plate with the apple mixture. It may seem like too much, but keep adding.Apple Pie ~ tansfer applie mixture to dishWith both hands, pack down the apples. This will help avoid air pockets and create a nicely packed filling.Apple Pie ~ pack  applie mixture into dish4. Prepare the top pastry. Roll out the remaining dough the same as before and transfer in the same way as before. If the dough rips, don’t stress, just try to press back together and think “rustic.” Apple Pie ~ transfer top pastry to dish

Apple Pie ~ unfold top pastryThe pastry will overhang around the pie dish. Tuck pastry under all around the dish, trimming and discarding as needed, sealing the edges.Apple Pie ~ tuck pastry evenly around edge

Apple Pie ~ prepare edges of pieFlute the crust by pinching in a uniform, decorative manner around the edges.   Apple Pie ~ add decorative fluted edges to pieCut slits in the pie to let the steam escape.

Apple Pie ~ add vent slits to top of pieLightly brush the top with milk and sprinkle with sugar.    Applie Pie ~ brush top of pastry with milk

Applie Pie ~ Sprinkle with Sugar5. Prepare aluminum foil cover. This step may seem like a hassle, but it prevents excess browning and hardening of edges. Cut out a square of foil. Fold in half and cut a ring of foil to fit the pie. Save the center of the foil.   Applie Pie ~ Cut square of foil

Applie Pie ~ Fold & cut ring in foil6. Bake for about 45 minutes. The following is my own method for baking: For the first 15 minutes, bake the pie completely covered with foil. That is, press the ring of foil around the edges and place the center of foil on top.Applie Pie ~ cover top with foilThen remove the top foil and rotate the pie dish in the oven. For the next 15 minutes, bake with the foil on the edges only.    Applie Pie ~ Bake with only edges uncoveredRemove all foil and rotate the pie dish again. For the last 15 minutes, bake the pie uncovered—unless there are dark spots, which you can cover with a piece of foil.   Applie Pie ~ Bake last 15 minutes  uncoveredThe pie is finished when the crust is lightly browned and bubbling. Remove from oven and cool before cutting.     

Apple Pie ~ traditional  American pastry_ (800x604)

Questions: What are your apple pie tips and tricks? What pies do you serve on Thanksgiving?

Fun & Festive Eid Recipes

August 4th, 2013 4 comments

Date-Filled Ma'amoul for Eid

Can you believe Eid al-Fitr is almost here? It seems only last week we were starting the month of Ramadan. No worries. There’s still time to gather ingredients and prepare some festive treats for Eid. For detailed step-by-step recipes, click on the links below.


For me, it’s not Eid without beautiful little ma’amoul pastry dusted with powdered sugar. I’ve been making the same Date-filled Ma’amoul every Eid for years. My husband’s family has finally embraced my all-flour version and has stopped pressing me to add semolina (smeed).  After all, there’s more than one way to make ma’amoul!

Date-filled Ma'amoul

I’ve also started making Pistachio and Walnut-filled Ma’amoul, which I love just as much—especially the pistachio ma’amoul which I’m a bit obsessed with. Before I made this, I had assumed (wrongly) that the nut-filled ma’amoul would be somehow trickier than the date kind. Actually, chopped nuts are faster & easier, partly because there are no dates to pit. 

Ma'amoul filled with Walnuts

Ma'amoul filled with Pistachios

I use the same dough in both ma’amoul, regardless of the filling, so it’s easy to make some of each kind—date, pistachio & walnut.

Arabic Coffee 

But what to serve with the ma’amoul? Arabic Coffee, of course! In the Gulf, this is the standard beverage served alongside pastries at Eid (along with a helping of gossip).

Arabic Coffee for Eid

I’m not talking about dark Turkish coffee, but the pale coffee served in tiny handle-less cups, made from greenish coffee beans and scented with cardamom, rose water and saffron. This is the standard welcoming beverage served in Dubai and the Arabian Gulf (with some regional variations). It’s the classic Eid beverage, elegantly served in a della or Arabian-style thermal flask.

Date Truffles

If you’d like to avoid the richness of ma’amoul pastry, I have a (somewhat) healthier alternative: Date Truffles. This is a terrific Eid sweet because it’s delicious and looks festive, but without the fattening pastry.

Date Truffles

Rose Lemonade

In case you’d like to offer your guests a cool beverage, here’s something fun: Rose Lemonade. You can adjust the taste to make it as sweet or as tart as you like.

Rose Lemonade

Meanwhile, enjoy these last special days of Ramadan. Before you know it, we’ll be celebrating Eid and deciding which pastry to eat next. Wishing you a beautiful & blessed Eid!

Question: What are you serving up this Eid?