Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Libyan Spaghetti

When my friend Eissa got access to a kitchen his second year of college, he began a culinary campaign that somehow permeated into my home cooking. Eissa is a skinny, carnivorous, half-Libyan Southern boy who lives forever resenting his father’s choice not to teach him and his brother Arabic. Instead, he taught them how to cook. Although Eissa knows about as many home-cooked Southern recipes from his stint in Alabama during the early years of his life, whenever he invites guests over the menu is invariably Libyan. From tajin to stuffed pepper, many spices and hard bread, everything cooked slowly over a low flame or in the oven, spicy beyond his white-bred American roommate’s ability to cope and created with the serene nostalgia of an immigrant searching for a piece of home. Granted, Eissa has never set foot in the Great Maghreb but his fascination with his heritage comes out purely as a culinary expression.             

The first time Eissa had me over for one of his Libyan feasts, the menu consisted of what he calls Libyan spaghetti, stuffed peppers, and bread. Everything was good enough for second and third helpings, a world apart from what any other college student on a limited budget would ever dream of attempting, but this was fun for Eissa, it meant something to him, and it came out in his food. Other dishes, tajin (baked meat and potatoes) and Hassah (meat slow-cooked in tomato sauce thickened with flour), have also come up but nothing as often as the peppers and spaghetti. To the extent that I decided I needed to learn to make them. Specifically, the spaghetti. Something about that recipe resonated with me. I loved that it took a classic dish- spaghetti- and added so many unexpected elements to it, that it was simple but very complex at the same time, and it was a relatively easy recipe. Ha! I can do this. 

I had Eissa walk me through the process. Onions, meat, tomato paste, tomato sauce, another can of tomatoes, spices (including a secret spice his grandmother in Libya makes and sends to all her children around the world), lots of cayenne, chickpeas. Let it cook on low heat for several hours and then add the raw pasta straight into the sauce. His father had taught him some general rules of thumb: The longer it cooks, the better. If it’s not spicy then you can’t taste it. Never stir. Sure thing, pops, whatever. My eyes had a dangerous glint to them as I purchased my ingredients. I can totally do this. Except, as I found out, I actually couldn’t. At least, not the “right” way. Even though, I accepted I wouldn’t be able to recreate Eissa’s dish exactly, and I didn’t actually want to, I was never satisfied with how I made my versions of Libyan spaghetti, which prompted me to make it again and again and again. Each time I ate it, was marginally satisfied with it, and made notes of how to make it better. In essence, through the repetition and variation of this dish, the same cycle I’d gone through with rice and beans (my own nostalgic culinary expression of my childhood in Puerto Rico) when I first started making them. I was learning how to be a better cook. 

My first lesson was that the substitution of meat for anything else is unrealistic and eventually futile. I have a rule that I never cook meat at home, except fish and some seafood, so the how to replace the meat element in the recipe. I tried using tempeh on one occasion, which crumbled, the grainy texture didn't work with the pasta or the chickpeas, giving the whole dish a weird texture. I then tried salmon. Why I thought this would work is beyond me. 

Obviously it gave the perfectly tasty sauce the fishiest flavor you could possibly imagine which was only slightly neutralized by the bottled lemon juice I ran downstairs to the deli to buy (I advice against this whole-heartedly, I was so lazy about my ingredients, but the bottomline is pre-minced garlic, bottled lemon juice, and sundried tomatoes you buy in plastic containers from the supermarket will ruin rather than enhance your food). The latest attempt was with cut up veggie burgers. I added too much and not enough pasta but that aside, the veggie burger itself brought its own flavors to the mix which didn't mesh at all with the spices in the sauce (cumin helped a little with that). I had to face it, seitan was never going to be beef, tuna was never going to be chicken. Lesson: Embrace them for what they are, not for what they should be.             

At that point, Eissa stepped in. Like a seasoned physician he observed, diagnosed, and recommended a remedy at the patient’s discretion. A problem with how I'd been preparing the recipe was that I didn't trust low heat cooking. Since I didn’t have meat, I got nervous the vegetables would turn to mush or burn or be overcooked. So while Eissa recommended cooking it for at least three hours, I rarely got to two. 

“Libyan food is not in a rush. I've been given many a lecture from dad about how cooking in a rush isn't cooking. These recipes came to what they are because after the kids left for school in the morning, my grandma would stay home cooking all day long. These were the times when you made your own bread, your own olive oil, your own noodles, your everything. Cooking was an all day activity. It's turned into something that takes time. It's not the same anymore, but it’s largely about the process.” 

My other hang up was the spices. I love spices, I love their potential, how they make a kitchen smell, the way they transform food, so I tend to use them liberally, albeit with only a modicum of an idea as to how to use them “properly.” Often my dishes were a chaotic mess of spices with an undertone of ingredients. This was no different. 

“You're putting too much faith into the spices. I usually forget to add or don't have at least one of the spices every time I cook the food, but the differences are negligible. The spices aren't as important as the time and the process.” 

OK, chill out on the spiced, got it. But something was still missing, something wasn’t right. 

“Your personality is supposed to be a part of it, so you're not doing it wrong, per se. I think that’s why my dad taught me and my brother two different ways to cook it.” 

Making Libyan spaghetti for Eissa was what making rice and beans was for me, what making meatloaf and mashed potatoes is for other people or grilling the perfect burger, what making an old recipe is to any new generation. It’s not until you embrace your own presence in it that it becomes good. So I took a step back and regarded the progress (and all the setbacks) in my many variations, revisited Eissa’s instructions, and precariously embraced what I could bring to this dish. The missing element wasn’t meat or Eissa’s grandmother’s secret spice or even just time necessarily. What was missing was that second-hand nostalgia Eissa brought to his version, the rules his father taught them, his brother’s recipe variation. I was missing my personal flavor choices, my intentions, my original inspiration for wanting to make this at all. 

First, I stopped looking for a substitute for meat. I chose to add chopped celery once, out of whim. The new texture filled a hole in the composition while the subtle flavor blended with the harsher spices and acidic tomato. Based on that decision, I added a small amount of honey which softened the edge, added garlic to add a new layer that was missing along with the meat, disregarded the tarragon since I never used it, and cooked the sauce for at least two hours (some day I would make it to 3) before adding the pasta. The process felt smooth, it harmonized, and when I finally served it, it finally seemed right. I’d created my own Libyan spaghetti, one I loved even more than Eissa’s version, which is different from his dad’s and different from his brother’s. That’s what makes great home-cooking, the personal variations and touches that harmonize inside a classic recipe that means something to you. 

Now on to figure out how to make the stuffed peppers.

1 comment:

  1. Libyan dishes that are cooked in the oven are far easier to do. instead of having to sit nearby and be tempted to play with it while you stare at it on the stove... you can't. you do it as soon as you get home then eat when you feel like it. I made stuffed peppers for lunch once. I got home kinda late at night from working at my dads and decided it was time to try making the stuffed peppers for the first time on my own. By the time I put it in the oven and gave it two hours, I was dead tired. I turned the oven off, leaving the peppers covered in tin foil in the oven overnight.

    In the morning I turned the oven on again, giving them two more hours, then I uncovered the top of the foil and let them get a nice brown mark on top. I ate one before taking them to work. I don't know if it was just the first bite of success at making another of my fathers dishes or that I've never had the luxury of time to twice bake the stuffed peppers again, but it was unbelievable. That was the best one I think I've made, and my dad wasn't there for it. I tried it again when he got back, and he admitted it was equal to his own. I was happy about that but at the same time vaguely disappointed that I didn't outdo it like I did the first time. Or at least it didn't seem like I did, eating it all by myself in my dad's empty house.