Friday, 12 September 2014

A Taste of the Hindu Kush: Bolani with Cauliflower and Cilantro

First food, then religion.

As this ancient Afghan proverb attests, Afghans take their food seriously. Very seriously.

The crops of the valleys nestled in the mighty Hindu Kush mountains offer an incredible array of flavours, textures, colours and aromas, giving birth to a cuisine that has delighted tastebuds over many thousands of years.

One the most amazing things about my travels is that I've brought home the world to my own kitchen. Afghan food, with its fresh wholsomeness that fuels but doesn't overwhelm, has become a permanent part of my cooking repertoire.

As the hot August days fade into cooler September evenings, bolani is the perfect meal. Freshly baked dough with squishy warm fillings, variations of bolani are found across Central Asia. It's kind of like the pirozhki of Russia, Ukraine and even Poland, but bigger. And different.

Traditionally, the staple filling of Afghan bolani is a tiny, thin Asian leek called gandana. This makes a perfectly light filling for hot summer days, but an autumn meal calls for potato. Potato is the staple bolani filling in our house. Because potatoes are awesome. I just boiled some up, like this:

While the potatoes were boiling, I took the dough (made with organic wheat flour) out of the breadmaker and shaped it into small, round balls roughly the size of my fist. Ok, well maybe they're a bit bigger than my fist, but they fit nicely into the palm of my hand. Afghan women would make the dough from scratch for a truly authentic meal, but there are a few areas where I just have to take a shortcut.

Oh wait, I forgot smething important. You need to heat the BBQ up as hot as it will go. Ours goes up to 700F, but the consistent temperature - taking into account all of the lid openings and closings - is around 550F.

With the dough ready, it was time to focus on the fabulous filling. I mashed the potatoes, as you normally would, with a small amount of butter (I prefer olive oil) and milk. And don't be skimpy on the salt. Canadians are terrified of salt, but you need it to bring out the rich flavours of the other ingredients. If you use a high quality pink Himalayan salt, you don't need to worry about whatever health risks you're worried about. Throw in some fresh cracked pepper, too.

This time I experimented - in a futile attempt at reducing our carb intake - and replaced half of the normal potato quantity with steamed cauliflower. Mash that all up into a gorgeous, fluffy, gooey mess.

Spring onions. There is no bolani without this magical ingredient.

Cilantro (corriander). It's not Afghan food if there is no fresh cilantro. Be generous. It's only 99cents a bunch.

Mix it all together. Then spread a thick, luscious layer on the dough.

Fold the dough over and shape into a crescent moon. Then toss that baby on the barby.

Stack them up to keep warm while the others are cooking. I use a clay pizza stone on our BBQ and only three bolani fit on it at a time. So, either everyone is eating at a different time, or you stack them up, cover them with a tea towel and let the steam inside soften the dough.

These are made with fresh, wholesome ingredients, so I think it's ok to be a little naughty and spread a tiny dollop of butter on them, to melt right into the dough. I mean, you don't have to. But why sacrifice perfection?

Top with a thick plain yoghurt of the all natural, full-bacteria variety. Then dig into that pile of pure goodness like there is no tomorrow.
Watch this space as I experiment with the rich flavours of autumn and adjust my bolani recipe. Pumpkin and butternut squash, with hints of cinnamon. The possibilities are endless!

Empowering Edmonton's Kids through the Early Reader's Programs

The media messages we are exposed to every day focus on the misery, tragedy, suffering and despair of innocent people around the world. While it's hard not get depressed about this, I do sometimes  wonder if this singular focus is really just a ploy to detract our attention from serious issues here at home. The truth of the matter is that - though it is hard to see with all of the million dollar homes sprouting up like weeds, the iPhone 6 Pluses selling out in an hour and the luxury cars on the road - there are people here in Canada barely making ends meet.

Last night, as a volunteer of Junior League Edmonton - which is a chapter of a larger organization of women working together to build communities around North America - we devoted our time to helping strengthen the Early Riser's program at Dunluce Elementary School.

The Early Riser's program operates before school  hours early in the morning and provides extra reading support to children falling below the standard level of reading competence. The teachers have found that many of the children participating in the program come with growling tummies in the morning. Many are sent from home without breakfast, and some without much dinner, either. One teacher remarked that back-to-school shopping for these children is done at Value Village. That is a very different reality to children in other neighbourhoods of Edmonton.

The Junior League ladies got together and baked over 700 muffins for the Early Risers program, to supplement the cereal, fresh fruit and smoothies that are enjoyed at the end of each reading session.

I'm often asked the question of why I get so concerned about children overseas when there is nothing we can do. Well, I disagree that there is nothing we can do, but working to strengthen our communities right here at home is something that each and every one of us can do.


Thursday, 17 July 2014

Little Girls, Kites, and Those Things You Ride On

We've been having a heat wave of sorts for the last few weeks. Up here in the great white north, anything over 25 is hot, hot, hot. The heat (which isn't really hot, not on a global scale anyway)  has forced us into a quite enjoyable new routine. As soon as we get home from work, we head down to the cool, dark basement where we dunk freshly BBQed veggie samosas into our mugs of spicy hot, milky chai. De. LI. cious!

As the sun softens and falls to mid-point in the Edmonton summer sky, we head over to the park for our nightly kite flying fun. Our little girl usually runs off the last of her energy by getting tangled up in the spool of thread and running for her Dad's kite when it lands in the grass.

But last night she was more interested in watching the little boys playing basketball. She tottered over to the court where, after trying to take their ball away, she discovered a skateboard type thing with a long pole at the front, topped off with handles. (Yes. I'm that kind of mom. The one who doesn't have any idea what those things are called that all the cool cats are playing with.). It's leaning up against the wooden park bench; she wraps both of her little fists around the pole and tries to stand on it. Oops, over it goes. She tries again. A few times. Then she just sits down on it and tries to pedal herself around.

We show her how to stand up, place her feet one in front of the other, and hold on to the pole. She put one of her little hands in her Grandma's, and off she went. I watched as Grandma pushed her around. Her perfectly round head, her wild brown hair falling into a square little bob at the back. Purple elastics in her pig tails. A pink onesie with a whale on it, unbuttoned and hanging out of her black and white striped jailbird pants. A turquoise baseball cap from Jasper with a toothy brown bear grinning out from the visor, mirroring her own little toothy grin. She rode around, and around, and around. That chubby little fist grasping the pole, the other hand outstretched grasping onto Grandma. Wind blowing through her hair. Riding in circles. Huge smiles, dream-like. Sounds of the boys, and the basketball and the crickets beside her. Not a care in the world. Mom there watching. Dad in the distance flying his kite. Mosquitoes and grass, and sand and cement.





As we walked back home, she ran in front of us all the way, cloth-diapered bum sticking out the back and belly sticking out the front. I wished I had had a camera with me. With the passage of time, these vivid memories will fade.

But then this morning, I turned on the computer. And I know that I didn't need a camera last night. For there was an image staring out at me, tearing into me, all the way from Gaza. Juxtaposed with my little girl in her turquoise cap.

Little girls, with their bikes, on two different sides of the world.

Gaza, during a 5 hour cease-fire. July 17, 2014 


Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Cheap Life of Gaza's Children

This video. That wall. That floor. Those chairs. That beach. Those children. I spent hundreds of hours in that hotel, on that beach, in those chairs, my feet on that floor, my eyes drinking in the beauty of the sea. Oh my God, that little boy. All the little boys. That could be my Yalda, or anyone's Yalda, everyone's Yalda. Please, stop this madness. Please, somebody rein in Israel before I die of a broken heart.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Muslims Hate Terrorism, Too

You don't say?

Seriously, this new study, released by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, has earned its place on my "most ridiculous things of 2014" list.

If life has taught me anything, it's that you can't argue with stupid.

I lived in the Islamic World for well over a decade and I learned something seriously shocking:

Muslims put their pants on one leg at a time

I know. Totally crazy, eh? 

Muslims hate terrorism, too. 

No! No, they don't! They just love getting blown up, watching their children get blown up, blowing up others.

Apparently, the study reveals that "concern about Islamic extremism is high among countries with substantial Muslim populations." Well, I guess so. 

I don't know who comes up with these things. By even asking the question, this study's basic assumption is that Muslims - all 1.6 billion of them - quite possibly like terrorism. We'd never tolerate such a presupposition about any other group. Imagine, studies released claiming Jews Hate Cheapness, too! or Christians Hate Colonization, too! The world would go off the deep-end.

Let's end the Islamophobia. Let's stop seeing Muslims as one faceless, nameless, homogeneous, ideologically impaired group and start seeing them as the individuals that they are, in their full human complexity.