Keeping Passover in Uzbekistan

Keeping Passover in Uzbekistan is…a challenge. It should come as no surprise that Manischewitz and Streit’s don’t have local factories, so getting a hold of the Passover products we’ve learned to rely on in the U.S. is a bit of a challenge. Last year I asked my mom to send us a care package of key items, such as matzo meal, cake meal, potato starch, and a few other goodies. She also sent us a giant 5-pack of matzos, and I’ll confess that we still have a couple boxes tucked away somewhere. I’m fairly certain that a) you’re supposed to buy new products each and year, and b) 1-year old matzo-based foods can’t really get any staler than they were the day they arrived last March, so I’m not going to worry about a).

Instead, I’m going to share the greatest discovery we made in preparing for Passover last year: homemade matzo. With the absence of kosher-for-Passover products, keeping Passover here is somewhat more symbolic than serious, so obviously these matzo aren’t strictly kosher. I believe that they can be made in a strictly kosher manner, but I’d have to refer you to your rabbi for advice on that one! It’s impossible for me to describe the flavor of these matzo, except to say that they taste both fresh and flavorful, and nothing at all like the dry, cardboard-like typical boxed matzo. This recipe originally appeared in the The New York Times.

Matzo WM.jpg

Olive Oil Matzo by Mark Bittman

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup olive oil

Sea salt, optional.

1. Heat oven to 500 degrees. Put flour, salt and olive oil in a food processor. Once machine is on, add 1/2 cup water. Continue to run machine until dough forms a firm ball, rides around on blade and is not at all sticky. (If you prefer, whisk together the water and oil and add this to machine all at once.)

2. Cut dough into 12 small balls — this is easiest if you cut the ball in half, then half again, then into thirds — and flatten each into a 3- to 4-inch patty. On a well-floured surface, use a rolling pin to roll each patty into a 6- to 8-inch circle. The shapes can be irregular, but dough should be so thin you can almost see through it.

3. Put dough on ungreased cookie sheets, sprinkle with sea salt if you like, and bake for about 2 to 3 minutes, keeping a very close eye on breads — they can burn very quickly. Once they begin to puff up and brown, flip and cook for another minute or so on second side. Repeat with all the dough and let cool completely.

Yield: 12 servings.

La-la-la-la Labneh!

Spring is upon us here in Uzbekistan. The spring holiday Navruz (which translates to New Day) is nearly here, coming with the equinox. Next Monday Passover will be here, and then Easter. Spring is definitely springing!

For us, the arrival of Passover always means shifting the way we eat. It’s not just about forgoing bread and other leavened products, but it’s also about exchanging the heavier comfort foods of autumn and winter for the fresh, crisp spring produce appearing in the markets.

I started my seasonal change of eating last week, after our return from three weeks abroad. For me travel is never a time for dieting, and we ate very well everywhere we went. So well that I was feeling a bit overfull and sluggish once we returned, and I decided it was time to think about some fresh, healthy, and interesting meals.

One of the best meals we had on our trip was a late weekday breakfast at Ottolenghi, the brainchild of chef Yotam Ottolenghi. On our previous trips to London we’d missed going to the sitdown restaurant of this small local chain, despite the exhortations of our friend Linda and her daughter. They are both vegetarian, and while Ottolenghi has its fair share of meat on the menu, the chef’s creativity is really on show with the vegetarian dishes.

Ottolenghi salad

An array of salads at Ottolenghi.

 

We made it in just in time to still catch breakfast late on a Tuesday morning, and I spied my dish immediately: shakshuka. I could write reams about my adoration of shakshuka, which I first had deep in the Negev some seven or eight years ago. Shakshuka is an egg dish cooked over a slightly spicy tomato and pepper sauce. If you’ve ever had menemen in Turkey it’s very similar, but the eggs are sunny side up rather than scrambled into the sauce.

My dish arrived in the copper pan in which it had been cooked, and nestled on top of my eggs was a creamy dollop of labneh, the cheese made by straining the whey from yogurt. In Uzbekistan there is a very similar food known as suzma made from the strained local yogurt (which translates as “sour milk,” but it’s really quite delicious). I am never one to turn down cheese, or nearly any dairy product for that matter, and as I scooped my eggs and tomato sauce onto the generous slabs of toast, I added a little schmear of labneh, too. It was heavenly. Before we departed Ottolenghi we loaded up on goodies for our plane trip home that night, including a couple of vegetable salads and a little plum cake.

 

Shakshuka.jpg

Delicious breakfast shakshuka. With labneh!

 

That meal was the perfect punctuation to our trip, and the perfect transition into spring. We came home to temps in the 70s, but were met with a snowstorm the next day. Ah, spring! But despite the snow my memories of all those crazy salads stuck with me, and I started hatching a plan. Now each week I’m making an interesting salad that goes beyond the basics. Last week I made black bean and corn salad (not the most unusual, but it took a little creativity!), and this week I made a salad with chickpeas, carrots, cucumber, red pepper, and fragrant cumin-scented dressing. I’m actually a little bit excited about lunch today!

Since my reacquaintance with labneh/suzma, I’ve been buying out the plain yogurt at our local store. Every day last week, in addition to my spicy salad, I brought a little serving of homemade suzma dressed with a drizzle of olive oil and some za’atar spice and enjoyed it with a couple slices of the local black bread, tomatoes, and cucumbers. My delicious lunch drew interest, and I gave a little lesson on the making of labneh/suzma with local products.

I’m quite looking forward to the next couple of weeks when all the spring produce will start flooding the local bazars and meal prep will become ever more interesting!

Try Ottolenghi’s divine-looking recipe for labneh with olives and pistachios, via The Guardian. I don’t have access to goat’s yogurt, so I just use plain yogurt. I also strain my yogurt in the refrigerator–haven’t gotten brave enough to leave it out and straining for a full day.

16 oz. goat’s yogurt
16 oz. natural yogurt
Coarse sea salt
20 black olives, pitted
1½ tbsp roughly chopped fresh oregano
1 tbsp chopped parsley
Grated zest of 2 lemons
1 small garlic clove, crushed
1/3 cup olive oil
3/4 oz. pistachios, lightly toasted
3/4 oz. pine nuts, lightly toasted
½ tsp flaked chilli
3 ripe tomatoes
½ a small red onion, thinly sliced

Line a deep bowl with cheesecloth or muslin. In another bowl, stir the two yogurts and half a teaspoon of salt, pour into the cloth, bring together the edges to form a tight bundle and tie securely with string. Hang the bundle over a bowl, or over the kitchen sink from the tap, and leave for 24-36 hours. After this time, much of the liquid should have drained out and the remaining yogurt will turn thick and quite dry; the centre may still be creamy.

Remove the labneh from the cloth and transfer to a serving platter. Spread it over the plate with the back of a spoon, creating a loose, wavy pattern about 2cm thick.

Next, roughly chop the olives and put them in a bowl with the oregano, parsley, lemon zest, garlic and olive oil (reserving two tablespoons of the oil for the tomatoes). Use a pestle and mortar to crush the nuts roughly, leaving some just broken and others finely crushed. Stir into the olive mix, then spoon this over the labneh, leaving a border of about 2cm around the edge (if you want your labneh a bit milder, don’t use the whole quantity), then sprinkle with chilli.

Finally, cut the tomatoes into thick wedges and mix with the sliced onion. Arrange on a side plate next to the labneh, sprinkle with salt and drizzle with the reserved olive oil. Serve the labneh and tomatoes with torn chunks of bread.

What about you? Do you change your eating and cooking with the seasons? Where do you draw inspiration?

Travel Blog Spotlight: Her Packing List

I haven’t quite gotten a blogroll or list of links I love together, but I thought I’d start a series spotlighting travel (and food) blogs I love. Today’s entry is Her Packing List. As the title indicates, it’s a website dedicated to helping female travelers pack their bags and get on the road. I have to admit that this blog won me over with post titles such as A Packing List for Girls with Ginormous Boobs. I promise this post will remain family friendly, despite that title :).

Her Packing List is such a well-organized site, offering readers easy-to-access information in a handful of categories: Packing Gear, Electronics, Clothing, Toiletries, Extra Bits, and Stories and Advice. While the blog does offer quite a number of product reviews by the contributors (who receive items free of charge for a fair and honest review), it also offers smart packing tips, how-tos, and ways to MacGyver your packing to keep it light and functional.

Resources for specific locales and itineraries. Great stuff!

One of the greatest features, though, is the “Ultimate Packing List for…” feature. Each list gives a destination, such as San Francisco, provides a brief overview of the destination and a list of suggested items to pack, from clothing to shoes and specialty items that might make life in that part of the world a little easier. There are packing lists for unusual trips, such as carnival in Brazil, and specialty lists and recommendations for vegan travelers, the aforementioned well-endowed chicks, and first aid items.

For those planning extensive travel and backpacking there is a fabulous collection of reviews of backpacks by their users. These are real reviews from the field on the features, benefits, and drawbacks of several commonly available backpack models. There are a handful of reviews of other luggage, bags, and packing resources.

Overall this site is easy to use and chock full of information. Even if you’re the greatest packer in the world, you’ll find a useful tip or idea on Her Packing List.

Favorite Stuff to Travel With

I’m not the lightest packer in the world, but I do OK. I have several gadgets I like to travel with, so I compensate by taking fewer clothes and shoes (and then usually buy something on the road, which is a baaaaad habit I should overcome!) to make room for the things that really matter. There are a few smaller items that I usually tuck in my suitcase or backpack because they almost always get used somewhere along the way, but some of these are the bulky bits that I rarely leave behind.

Morning reflection on the lake at Khao Sok, Thailand

Morning reflection on the lake at Khao Sok, Thailand

1. Canon Rebel T1i: For years we kept saying we were going to get a good camera and for years we kept putting it off. Around the fall of 2010 we started saving up Amazon giftcards to put toward the new camera, and by Christmas we had nearly 80% of the cost covered. This is the first dSLR we’ve owned, and it’s been a learning experience. But from the beginning I’ve been able to take some fairly decent photos, so it goes along on every trip, despite its bulk and heft. I’ve added a 50mm lens to the kit, as well.

2. iPad: A little secret? Somewhere along the way I transitioned from being a Mac girl to being a PC/Android girl. It happened after I poured coffee into my iBook at 5 a.m., but that’s another story. This summer I bought an iPad2 and I admit I’m still on a learning curve. I do hate that many sites don’t work too well on the iPad, and that I have frequent wifi connectivity problems, but the loads of free and low-cost apps that make travel easier make it worthwhile. I also use it as my primary reading device, having downloaded the nook and Kindle apps. And we’ve always got a few sitcoms loaded on it for downtime viewing.

3. Longchamp Le Pliage bag: These nylon bags fold up into little packets so you can tuck them into your bigger bag. They are also water-resistant, even on the bottom, so they are great on drizzly days. The medium-sized one is like a magic bag of holding–it seems much bigger on the inside than on the outside! I can get a camera, mini umbrella, wallet, iPad, and other bits and bobs in there. It’s a bit of a black hole sometimes, but overall a great bag. The drawback is that the corners fray after several months of use, which is frustrating because they aren’t exactly inexpensive.

4. Noise-cancelling headphones: I’ve had mine for going on 10 years, I think, and they are a bit worse for wear. They are also enormous and clunky and take up a ton of space. But they are invaluable on long flights, making music listening and movie watching far more enjoyable. Paired with some earplugs they also seriously cancel out the noise if you want to sleep. But they are bulky. Did I say they are bulky?

5. Unlocked cell phone: One of the great things about buying my cell phone overseas (a little Samsung Galaxy Gio) is that it’s already unlocked. When we travel I can just buy a new sim card with calling credit and data, and usually it’s activated right away. Easier to manage and smaller than the iPad, it’s just incredibly helpful when you’re in a new place. And it can help with translation when you’re stuck and need help expressing your needs with more than sign language.

I realize that this adds up to a hefty pricetag–all together it’s a couple thousand dollars worth of stuff. Bear in mind, I’ve acquired these items over the years and I’m a big fan of thinking in terms of cost-per-use. Apart from the headphones, I use everything on the list almost everyday. Which is probably why they are must-go essentials when I travel!

I travel with a few other “essentials,” so I’ll share more faves in the future. What are your go-to can’t-leave-the-house-without travel necessities?

Wondering Where to Wander

Although we’ve just returned from a trip, we find ourselves already thinking about the next one. Our suitcases aren’t totally unpacked yet and there are still piles of laundry to do, but instead we’re plotting and planning.

There are three places we’d like to hit before summer strikes: Rome, Barcelona, and Madrid. We’re trying to figure out if we can do it in 10 days without feeling too terribly pressed for time. Ideally we’d spend more time, but I think a week off work is all I’ll be able to manage. If we can work it out to include weekends and a weekday holiday then we might be in business!Continue reading

Taming the ‘Bul

The view from our room at the lovely Hotel Seraglio. Photo courtesy of the Seraglio’s website.

Back in January we took a much-needed long weekend trip to Istanbul. It’s a relatively short 5.5 hour flight from Tashkent on Turkish Airlines, and we gain time flying there, so it’s a very nice option. We found ourselves a bit light on the internet Continue reading

By Way of Introduction

Loi Krathong festival, Khao Lak, Thailand.

Loi Krathong festival, Khao Lak, Thailand.

My name is Lisa and I love to eat and to travel. I sort of found a way of making living overseas my job, and with that has come the opportunity to explore places near and far and mostly new to me. I especially enjoying trying new foods and visiting markets in new places, even when warned that my “gringa” palate might not be able to handle it! I hope you’ll follow me on my travels and enjoy exploring as I share my words and photos here.