Diner en Blanc

Diner en Blanc. An event that started with a group of friends in Paris 20-plus years ago has turned into a global gathering, and I was lucky enough to attend Cincinnati’s first pass at it.

A very glamorous flash mob…wearing all white and taken to a secret location, you bring the party with you. Literally.

White table, chairs, linens, china, glasses; everything you need to set a lovely table. And the food, and wine, of course. It was really fun to see all of the creativity and effort people put into their settings; I went a bit sparse and modern, but was totally comfortable with that. I didn’t know what to expect, and it was a lot of work to get things together, so it was all about being super simple. Next year…the sky is the limit.

Our Humble Little Table
(image by The Global Reader)

The Menu

First Course – L’Apéritif

Some light bites, served with Champagne

Provencal Rosemary Almonds

adapted from a recipe at http://frenchfood.about.com/od/appetizershorsdoeuvres/r/rosemaryalmonds.htm

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons dried rosemary, crushed
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 cups raw almonds

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Put almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet
  3. In a small saucepan, melt butter
  4. Mix seasoning into the butter, and then pour over  almonds. Make sure all almonds are coated
  5. Bake for about 10-12 minutes, stirring once, until toasted and fragrant
  6. Remove from heat and serve warm or at room temperature

Prosciutto Wrapped Melon

No real recipe needed here. Wrap the melon of your choice and shape (slices, wedges, cubes) in prosciutto.

The First Course
(image by Todd F)

Second Course: L’Entrée

Cold White Bean Soup
Velouté de haricot

adapted from a recipe at http://www.easy-french-food.com/cold-soup-recipes.html#.UHwiRMWHL-8

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup chopped white or yellow onion (as mild as possible)
  • 2 – 15 ounce cans white beans
  • 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Place onions in a food processor (or blender)
  2. Drain and rinse the beans completely;  add them along with the vinegar and olive oil to the onion.
  3. Blend until you have a smooth puree.
  4. Add the milk, cayenne pepper and cumin and blend again until you have a smooth liquid. If you think it is too thick, add a little water (or chicken stock)
  5. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Chill for at least 30 minutes, but also good at room temperature
The Second Course
(image by Todd F)

Third Course – Le Plat Principal

Served with a lovely French white wine.

I had big plans for this but to be honest, with all of the other preparations…I ran out of time. So I served store-bought roasted vegetable souffles (baked at home, in individual servings, and wrapped in tin foil a few minutes after coming out of the oven) with an arugula salad, lightly dressed. I will be going all out for this course next year…

The Third Course
(image by Todd F)

Fourth Course – Le Fromage

Had just a few selections – mostly Spanish. By this point, I no longer knew what wine I was drinking…but it was good.

We were having too much fun to remember to document the food…our neighbors were awesome. We were super lucky to be sitting next to them.

Our Awesome Neighbors
(image by Todd F)

Fifth Course – Le Dessert

Cardamom Madeleines

adapted from http://www.marthastewart.com/333936/orange-cardamom-madeleines

The original recipe is for cardamom cookies with an orange glaze, which I skipped for the evening. So good, even without it.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for pan
  • 1 tablespoon good-quality honey
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs

Directions

  1. Brush molds of a madeleine pan with butter; set aside. Make the batter: Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Remove from heat, and stir in honey and vanilla. Let cool 10 minutes.
  2. Whisk flour, baking powder, cardamom, and salt in a small bowl; set aside.
  3. Preheat oven to 325, with rack in center. Stir together sugar and eggs in a medium bowl. Gently fold in flour mixture until combined. Add butter mixture, and fold until combined. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate 30 minutes.
  4. Spoon batter into prepared pan, filling each mold halfway. Tap pan on work surface to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until cookies are puffed and edges are golden, 7 to 8 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack; let cool slightly. Unmold cookies onto rack, and let cool completely.

Balloons! Sparklers! Wine! Dancing! A truly memorable evening; I cannot wait until next year.

Diner en Blanc
(image by The Global Reader)

Dinner in the UAE

It was thumbs up for the food from Egypt, and it’s another win for the food from the United Arab Emirates. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I like everything I’m cooking, since I am the one picking out the recipes I’m cooking…awesome how that works!

Anyway. I tried to roll out old-school, which wasn’t particularly easy to do. From what I can tell, the UAE is now such a mix of cultures that traditional Emirates food takes a bit of a back seat. Lebanese and Indian food seem to be very popular – both of which I love, but whose time is not now on this blog.

Okay then. Let’s get down to it, shall we? All of the recipes below are adapted from the book  “The Complete United Arab Emirates Cookbook” by  Celia Ann Brock – Al Ansari. Copyright © 1994 by Celia Ann Brock-Al Ansari and were found via the following websites / blogs:

http://gingerandscotch.com/category/recipes/recipes-uae (this is a really fun blog – you should check it out!) and http://www.fahad.com/Dishes/

The basis of Emirates cooking is a spice blend called bezar. This isn’t readily found on the spice racks of neighborhood stores here in Cincinnati, but we are lucky to have Findlay Market’s resident spice guru Colonel De. They kindly mixed up a batch for me and I was on my way.

Bezar

(Traditional UAE spice blend)

  • 1 cup cumin seeds (whole)
  • 1 cup fennel seeds (whole)
  • 1 cup cinnamon sticks
  • 1 cup coriander seeds (whole)
  • 1/2 cup pepper corns (whole)
  • 1/4 cup dried red chillies (whole)
  • 1/2 cup turmeric powder
  1. Roast cumin, fennel, cinnamon, coriander, pepper corns and dried chilies over a low heat, stirring continuously, until the spices turn golden.
  2. Remove from heat, cool for a bit and then grind in a blender or mortal and pestle. Stored in an airtight container, the mix will keep for up to 10 months.

I didn’t ask them to toast the spices (and I got a much smaller amount), and then I promptly forgot about it, which I’m sure has an impact on the taste. Next time, I’ll buy the components and do the whole process myself.

The other critical ingredient in many UAE recipes is dried limes (loomi). Not the most attractive things in the world, but they are little powerhouses of flavor. Just toss them in whole and let them work their magic. I could have gotten these at Colonel De’s as well, but I had found them just a few minutes earlier at Dean’s Mediterranean Imports. (Try their homemade Greek yogurt – it’s in one of the cases in the back.)

Dried Limes

The meal was looking to be a little heavy for a hot summer evening, so I wanted to balance the food out with something refreshing to drink. The recipe below references homemade rose water, but I had some store-bought in the pantry. This was so, so good and very easy to make! My husband bent the rules a little and threw in some vodka, which he said was quite pleasant (of course).

Loomi ma bourta-gal
(image by The Global Reader)

Aseer tazza / Loomi ma bourta-gal

(Lemon/Orange Drink with Rose Water)

  • 6 oranges (juiced)
  • 3 lemons (juiced)
  • Sugar to taste
  • 1 teaspoon rose water
  1. Place all ingredients in blender and mix. Add a little water if needed to get to desired texture.
  2. Garnish with orange slices and a mint sprig.

The main entree I chose to make is a stew called Saloona. Made with chicken, fish or other meat, it is something that traditional Emirates and Bedouin households have cooking on the stove pretty much all of the time, especially during Ramadan. I found this to be very easy to make and super tasty – and the house smelled so good while it was cooking. And the leftovers kept getting better and better. I’ll be making this again, especially during the winter.

De-jaj Murrag / Saloona

(Chicken Stew)

Serves 6-8

Ingredients:

  • 1 chicken cut into 8 pieces
  • 2 onions finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup corn oil
  • 2 cloves garlic crushed
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons bezar
  • salt to taste
  • 2 fresh tomatoes chopped
  • 2 potatoes cut into chunks
  • 1 carrot finely chopped
  • 1 bunch chopped cilantro
  • 6-8 cups water
  • I teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 2 whole loomi (dried lemon)
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste

Directions:

  1. In a large stock pot, saute onion until soft. Add bezar and saute for a minute or two.
  2. Add chicken and salt. Brown.
  3. Add spices, garlic and both loomi. Saute for 5 minutes on low heat.
  4. Add all remaining ingredients (except cilantro)
  5. Boil slowly until chicken and veggies are tender.
  6. Transfer to serving dish and sprinkle with cilantro.


De-jaj murrag / Saloona
(image by The Global Reader)

I served the stew with its traditional accompaniment, steamed rice. The recipe calls for samen, which is clarified butter. I don’t know why I didn’t try to find it, but I just used ghee instead. I assume the flavor is the same? I’ll do better research next time…The cooking method for the rice was a little different than just boiling, and produced the fluffiest rice. We really enjoyed it; yet another dish going into standard rotation! I feel like I am learning so much.

Aash-ab-yad-th

(Boiled White Rice or Steamed Rice)

Ingredients:

  • 8 cups boiling water
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 cups rice, soaked
  • 5 tablespoons samen

Directions:

  1. In saucepan, boil water and salt
  2. Add drained rice, stir and then cook, covered, over a low heat for 10 minutes
  3. Test rice – you want it just slightly undercooked
  4. Drain and run cold water over to keep grains separated.
  5. In the same pot, melt half of the samen (or ghee)
  6. Add rice, then top with remaining samen (or ghee)
  7. Cover with a tightly cover lid and let steam for 20 minutes. No peeking!
  8. Serve hot

We were pretty full by this point, but a special meal is never complete without dessert. This is another recipe that would be great in the winter – warm milk with cardamom. Served with medjool dates, it’s as easy as it sounds, and even more delicious. I’m not a big milk drinker, so I don’t know how it would normally affect me, but after a mug I fell happily asleep on the couch.


Haleeb ma hal

(Milk with Cardamom)

Ingredients:

  • 6 cups fresh milk
  • sugar to taste
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom

Directions:

  1. In a saucepan, bring all ingredients to a rapid boil. Stirring constantly, boil for one or two minutes.


Haleeb ma hal
Haleeb ma hal and Dates
(image by The Global Reader)

Cleopatra

As can happen sometimes, I jumped into this project with both feet – and without mapping out a schedule. Not really an issue of course, but I’m more than a little behind on my reading, and cooking. Oh well. This is a marathon, not a sprint, right? And lesson learned: I do need to give at least a small amount of thought to my pace, otherwise it will take 10 years to get through this…

Anyway.

To fill in the gap, I thought it would be fun to take a look around town and see if anything of Egypt exists in Cincinnati. As luck would have it, Cleopatra is visiting. How thoughtful of her!

Through mid-September, the Cincinnati Museum is hosting Cleopatra: The Exhibition. It highlights new archeological discoveries of her life and times, and offers up a nuanced image of her as a person and a leader.

Overall, I thought it was well worth the price of admission. I’ll go ahead and get the “negative” (if you even want to call it that) out of the way first: this exhibit is definitely based on the Vegas model of More is More. It is not a calm, soothing museum-like experience; there are lighting effects, a rather confusing flow of images, and more audio cues than you can sometimes process at one time, but viewed in a larger context, it really doesn’t matter. It’s built to handle crowds, and to convey information to a very diverse audience, and it does those things quite nicely.

That said, my husband and I were there on one of the first sunny Friday evenings in memory, and we had the place to ourselves. We had plenty of space and time to wander around, which I really enjoyed. The exhibit is primarily based on artifacts that have been salvaged from the Bay of Alexandria, the city where Cleopatra and her court resided. Just the history about the destruction of parts of the city, mostly from an earthquake and tsunami, was fascinating – especially in light of recent events in Japan.

I think I was most impressed by how stylish and graceful so many of the items were, and how diverse and lively the society appears to have been. These were obviously sophisticated people, so much so that The Romans seem dull and plodding in comparison. If I had been around then, I would have thrown in with the Egyptian crew for sure. Even their religion seemed fun!

Oh and the statues. The best part to me. Some of the smaller ones were very expressive; you can see the emotion and care that the artists put into them. And the pair that guarded Cleopatra’s temple – major wow factor is all I can say. I just hung around them for awhile; it was easy to imagine them at their posts, gleaming in the bright Egyptian sun and how they certainly inspired a sense of awe and reverence. I will probably go back before the exhibit leaves just to see them again.

But that’s enough about that. You deserve to have your own experience without my words rattling around in your head.

And one last thing you learn right at the end – Angelina Jolie is going to be the latest actress to play Cleopatra. I’ll probably go see that too.

Queen Cleopatra
(image from Wikimedia Commons)