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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Cheese, Bread and Magic

"So, Dad," my son asked at dinner last night, "What's with all of the salads and flatbreads?"

I guess he's noticing a pattern. Honestly, though, there haven't been that many salads, except for the garden salads that have always been a part of our regular diet. My guess is that, after two weeks away with his grandparents, Ian has forgotten how we usually eat at home.

He's right about the flatbreads, though. I've sort of fallen in love with them. The first breads I ever made were the chapatis that I mentioned in my blog on August 17. Since then, chapatis have appeared again alongside a chickpea, paneer and cauliflower curry that I found in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, (p. 623) both on the curry's first night and again as leftovers. The curry was a success, though I'm not sure I see any advantage to baking it, as Bittman's recipe directed, instead of simply stewing everything together.

I enjoyed making the paneer, an Indian cheese made by bringing milk to nearly boiling and stirring in lemon juice, then draining off the liquid when the milk cracks and pressing the curds so that they form a solid cheese, similar to a farmer cheese or queso fresco. It feels rewarding to be able to create such a satisfying food practically ex nihilo. "And Paul said, 'Let there be cheese' and there was cheese..."

I've made cheese a second time this week, too. Lebneh (which has lots of variant spellings) is a middle-eastern yogurt-based cheese that is a snap to make and is also really good. Basically, all there is to it is stirring a bit of salt into yogurt and then hanging the salted yogurt in cheesecloth to drain for a day or so. Then, the lebneh can either be served as a soft spread or rolled into balls to dry out a bit, like fresh mozzarella. We found that it was really good with fresh sliced tomatoes. I served the lebneh and tomatoes as an accompaniment to a lentil, rice and sultana salad from Flatbreads & Flavors (p. 57) and a Pebbled Persian Bread that the authors featured on the preceding page. The salad wasn't bad - it was today's lunch and we'll probably finish it up at dinner tonight - but it was sort of underspiced. I've been adding cumin to it at the table, which seems to be working well.

The bread, on the other hand, was wonderful. Unlike Chapatis, the Pebbled Persian Bread is a raised yeast bread that is made with LOTS of water. It starts cooking in a skillet on top of the stove and then moves to the oven for a few minutes, giving it a typical flatbread shape, but with a rough textured top and a delightful chewiness inside.

So what is up with all of the flatbreads? I think it is really all about magic. Like making cheese, or brewing beer, baking bread is elemental in a way that few things in our world are anymore. The flour, water, salt and yeast interact in ways that are almost supernatural. Living yeast transforms a heavy blob of dough, literally inspiring it to become something greater than it once was. That lifeforce then energizes us as we share it together as companions in life's journey.

THE MENU FOR AUGUST 29-SEPTEMBER 3

  • Friday - Broiled Salmon and potatoes, steamed broccoli and a garden salad.
  • Saturday - Lentil, rice and sultana salad, fresh sliced tomatoes with homemade lebneh and pebbled Persian bread
  • Sunday - Leftovers
  • Monday - Grilled Teriyaki steaks, baked potatoes, grilled zucchini-kebabs and garden salad. (It is Labor Day, after all.)
  • Tuesday - Yucatecan shredded beef tacos, homemade tortillas, sliced avocado, pinto beans, fruit and coffee flan (Kimberly is fixing all of this for me as a late birthday dinner!!)
  • Wednesday - Leftovers

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