This week has been a blur. I'm coming to realize that if I'm not careful, all of my weeks out here could become a blur. The days are over before they start. I come home with enough energy to grab a bite and the ubiquitous and, dare I say it, necessary, glass of wine. And then, as my dad always said, I sleep as snug as a bug in a coffee can.
I'm trying to punctuate each day with something. An activity, a moment, something which will stop time just long enough for me to make a memory of all of these lost moments. So far this week my successes have been tiny, baby steps. I'm trying though. I'm working very hard at it.
First there was the incident with the lemon tree. Did I mention it? We have a lemon tree? Well, I cannot tell a lie, we do. I've ventured out to gaze at it, long enough to dream up what my lemon-infused activities will be. Not, however, long enough to snatch a lemon for myself to inspect it, sniff it, and perhaps even taste it. Nope, I've merely gone out back to take a gander at the tree and then wandered aimlessly about my day. Yesterday though, yesterday was my day. It was a rare day, arriving home with still the smallest bit of sunlight lingering above the horizon. I ran outside and snatched a lemon down. And that's when I realized. These weren't any old garden variety lemons. This here, this here is a Meyer lemon.
Let me be frank. I freaked out, like any good non-Californian would. I literally snatched every lemon off that tree, shoving them into every pocket I had. If I had the cleavage for it I'd have been stuffing them down my shirt as well. I took them all, except for two way way high up. And honestly, I'm still poking around my house looking for a chair that will carry me up to those lemons. It's greedy and horrible, isn't it? The entire time I was worried the neighbors thought I was trespassing, stealing lemons I have no legal rights to. I half expected someone to burst out of their door to try and scare me off. But it didn't happen. In fact, no one seems to care a wink about me and my rabid lemon thievery. Nonetheless, I promise, I have oodles of ideas for these lemons, all in the name of preserving them.
Then there was today, an auspicious day indeed. I rolled out of bed, not minding a bit that it was 5:35AM. A good start, to be sure. I then boarded the train and unknowingly sat next to a woman reading the very same book as me. That in and of itself was funny enough. When I got off the train and went to my bus stop I sat next to another girl reading the very same book. Now don't tell me that's not good luck. I won't believe you for a moment. At school we baked a backbreaking seven breads. I paused long enough to consume the greater part of a ciabatta I made. The poor thing didn't stand a chance. Neither did the chocolate chip cookies at lunchtime, but that's another story. Point being, today was a flurry of activity, but somehow I managed to both bake 35 loaves of bread and appreciate the little things, including one very large ciabatta. It was a fantastic day.
And then there was dinner. Wednesday night I feasted. It was only one dish, and the ingredients, they weren't so hard to come by, but it was a heady, rich and wonderful feast. There was an Algerian style of ratatouille I tried once. The vegetables were stewed in piles of garlic and the whole thing was stirred together with a beaten egg, transforming a simple vegetable dish to an earthy, filling meal. It was good. It wasn't mind-blowingly, transformationally good, but those Algerians, they were on to something with this dish. And I had an inkling of an idea on how to take it from good to amazing. So that's what I did this week. This is how I turned a would be lazy evening scarfing down dinner into one of the high points of my week.
Here's the breakdown. I threw together some Israeli couscous (which, incidentally, if you have not tried, go try right now!! you'll kick yourself if you don't. literally.). I emptied two peppers, filled them with steamy couscous, mixed with aforementioned ratatouille, sans eggs. I baked the bunch of it. Then I fried an egg, ala the Spanish style. Pulled peppers out of oven. Plopped egg on pepper. Broke yolk of egg and watched it ooze into pepper. And well, the rest is a moment in history which left in indelible mark in culinaria. Okay, perhaps not, but it was one of the best meals I've ever invented and I urge you, while there's still the tiniest chill in the air, make these.
Peppers Stuffed with Toasted Couscous and Shakhshukha
For the couscous
1 cup Israeli couscous
2 cups very hot vegetable broth
Splash about 1 - 1 1/2 tsp olive oil in a saucepan. Once warmed, add the couscous. Toss the couscous in the oil for about 5-10 mins. This will toast it lightly. It will start to smell wheaty once it's ready. Some of the grains will turn a toasty brown color. Be sure it doesn't burn!
Once toasted add the vegetable stock. Cover and bring to a light boil. Check after about 5 mins, and frequently thereafter until it's cooked through. It should not be al dente. There may be extra broth after it is finished cooking. Just drain it off. Set aside.
For the Shakhshukha
Adapted from Mediterranean Vegetables by Clifford Wright
Serves two to three
1/2 a green bell pepper (about 1/3 cup)
2 ripe medium tomatoes
1 fresh green chile or jalapeno, diced, seeds removed
1 large eggplant peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch thick rounds, then quartered
1 cup olive oil
2 small zucchini, sliced into 1/2-inch thick half moons
8-10 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Set oven to 400 degrees.
Place the bell pepper half and tomatoes in a roasting pan and splash with some olive oil. Roast until the skins are coming off of the tomatoes, about 40 minutes. Once cool enough to handle, core the tomatoes. Cut the peppers into 1 inch pieces and the tomatoes into chunks.
Meanwhile, lay the eggplant pieces on some paper towels and sprinkle with salt. Leave them to drain of their bitter juices for 30 minutes then pat dry with paper towels.
In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then add the eggplant rounds and cook until light golden, about 7 minutes, tossing every so often as they cook. Remove the eggplant with a slotted spoon and let the oil cool significantly, about 15 minutes with the heat turned off.
Turn the heat to low, then add the zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, chili pepper and garlic, season with salt, pepper and cayenne pepper. Cook until the zucchini wilts somewhat, about 10-15 mins. Set aside.
2 or 3 bell peppers
2 or 3 eggs
1/4 - 1/3 cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
While shakhshukha and couscous are cooking, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cut the tops off your two bell peppers and remove the seeds.
Once couscous and shakhshukha are ready, stir about 1 - 1 1/2 cups of the shakhshukha into the couscous. Fill the peppers with the couscous mixture. Put a thin layer of shakhshukha in the bottom of a casserole dish just a little larger than your peppers. Nestle the peppers in the dish. Top each pepper with a generous spoonful of shakhshukha, then fill the casserole with the remaining shakhshukha, surrounding the peppers. Cover the dish and bake for 30-40 mins. Remove the cover and bake for 10-15 more mins. You want the peppers cooked through and some of the liquid cooked off, but not all of it.
As soon as you remove the peppers from the oven, heat the olive oil in a small frying pan. Crack an egg into the very hot oil and sprinkle a portion of the garlic on top. As the egg fries, spoon the hot oil over it, cooking the top too. It should be cooked in about a minute. You want the center liquidy. Repeat with the other eggs. Top each pepper with an egg and serve the dish hot.