A Few of My Favorite Things

There’s a lot of great food in El Paso, but the best food here is Mexican-style burritos guisado (burritos filled with stewed meat until it’s soaking and messy and divine) and anything with roasted chiles. We have all manner of chain restaurants and some great burger places (green chiles on mine, please!). We’ve even got a bunch of good Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese places on our side of the mountain range. There are supposedly good Middle Eastern restaurants on the west side of town, but that’s about forty minutes from me and oh wait there’s a pandemic so we are only having what I can cook or whatever can be delivered. There’s a Greek place on this side of town that is fine, but not great.

Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food is my favorite. And I mean all the way around the Med, from Moroccan tagine to Turkish coffee to Greek greens to Spanish tapas. You just can’t get that variety of color, texture and flavor from other regions, in my opinion. You’ve got to have warmth and sunshine to be able to grow the abundance of vegetables and herbs involved in these dishes, but also you need a tapestry of cultures to get you from slow cooked meat with dates to a meal of crisp salads and dips.

Now, I adore Asian food as well, particularly Vietnamese with it’s mix of hot and cold, sour and salty, soft and crunch. But we can get okay Vietnamese delivered here, believe it or not. The thing I miss when I’m in El Paso for a long stretch (say, a pandemic) is Middle Eastern food. I have a delightful Turkish friend who is an excellent cook, but I can’t just invite myself over to her house for drive-thru pickups of her roasted eggplant and meaty pastries every day.

For Christmas I got two cookbooks from Yotem Ottolenghi and one from Eden Grinshpan. Both focus on Israeli-style cuisine but include dishes from around the region, like a crispy Persian rice dish I made a few months back. The key to Mediterranean food is condiments, so making one isolated meal can be overwhelming. When I’m in the mood for the good stuff, I start on the weekend. I spend a day mixing up zhoug — an herby hot sauce, some chopped salad (a must), maybe a lemon yogurt, and sometimes a red pepper or eggplant spread. That first meal is epic, but then I’ve got the leftover condiments to carry me through the week.

Burger with (from the top down) chopped salad, sumac pickled onions, crumbled feta, beef burger, and harissa greens. Served with more chopped salad and seasoned oven fries.

Y’all, I’m so tired of burgers. The kids like them and they are fast and easy, so they’ve been on our menu a lot for the last year. This weekend I declared I would eat burgers if they weren’t burgers. I made chopped salad with cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, shallot, mint, and a splash of red wine vinegar. I quick-pickled some purple onions in vinegar and ground sumac, and crumbled some feta. Then, I wilted some swiss shard and leeks with jarred harissa I had left over from my last Mediterranean feast. Lastly, I mixed minced garlic, paprika, lemon zest, dried oregano, and flake salt in the bottom of a big bowl and threw in some fries fresh from the oven and gave them a toss. All told, it was a Greek feast in burger and fry form.

The next day my husband grilled some chicken thighs with a Turkish spice blend from Penzeys, and I whipped my leftover feta with Greek yogurt to make a sauce, and stuffed everything in pita for day two. Day three was a hodgepodge of leftover salad, chicken, yogurt sauce, and dots of harissa. *chef’s kiss*

A few weeks ago I made a bunch of Russian recipes, but no dessert. Common desserts are fruit with honey or nuts, but there is one famous cake I could have made. I just chickened out. It has a lot of very thin layers and requires a cup and a half of honey and I just wasn’t sure I could pull it together. I’m in the midst of writing a very bad book that takes place in pre-revolution Russia and decided I wanted my character to make this very complicated cake, and then I figured if she had to make it then I should probably make it, too.

Turkish spiced grilled chicken with chopped salad, harissa greens, pickled onions, and whipped feta yogurt.

So yesterday, after procuring a large amount of honey, I gave it a go. The thing about Russian honey cake (medovik) is that it’s very time consuming but not technically difficult. You need a lot of sheet pans and silicone mats (just like in pre-revolutionary Russia, right?) as each layer cooks individually and there are eight. You’re basically making a very thick pancake batter, smoothing out thin rounds of it on a pan, baking it for 6 minutes, and repeating. Cool everything, cut off the scraps, toast and grind them, whip the most whipped cream you’ve ever whipped in your life, add honey and sour cream, and assemble. It’s like an icebox cake, so you put it all together and then don’t get to take a bite until the next day, but it’s well worth it.

The key flavor is “burnt” honey, which is like a honey caramel. You boil honey until it’s a shade darker and smells like toffee, and then STOP before it burns. The whipped cream ended up being the scariest part because it seemed like it would never whip and then I had to lunge and shut off the mixer seconds before it turned to butter. So many things in cooking and baking are seemingly doing nothing until suddenly they’re on fire, and this recipe contains two such things.

I tasted all the ingredients as I assembled and I had my doubts about the cake. The sour cream was really prominent in the whipped cream and I was pretty sure the cake would taste like a baked potato. The “burnt” flavor seemed a little sharp in the layers, too. But once assembled and rested the flavors really blended well and I didn’t even notice the sour cream anymore. It’s like a honey-caramel-cream flavor with a bit of cinnamon for warmth. I imagine it would be Winnie the Pooh’s favorite cake, were he to sample it.

If, due to a pandemic or any other reason, you are unable to travel — cook. Bon voyage!

Russian Honey Cake (Medovik)

Bonus dish: Saturday’s roasted game hens

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