Friday, July 23, 2010

Figs for a Cause

My friend Skipper and her husband are leading a trip to Egypt this November to work with Habitat for Humanity. The traveling group is all married couples, going to help improve some of the substandard housing in the Nile Valley region. Skipper and I went to work with Habitat in Egypt in 2009 and when she got home, her husband loved her stories so much he began to pray that they could go back one day together.

That time is near. Skipper & Preston are doing a bunch of creative things to help fundraise for their trip overseas. It costs about $2700 a person (but part of that money goes towards actually donating to Habitat to make the loans for the houses they will help build). One brainstorm Skipper had last week, as we were picking figs from my tree, was to make fig preserves to sell.

After an hour of picking we had one giant bucket of fresh figs. That night, Skipper worked her kitchen magic and made jar after jar fresh fig preserves. She came back to my house 4 days later and picked 3 more buckets full of figs to work with. Wendy & her climbed our tree to pluck every last ripe fig in 100 degree heat.

Skipper has so far cooked around 30 jars of the goods, and is selling it for $10 a jar. All the money is going towards her trip fundraising. I bought a jar and it is to die for... so yummy!!!!!

So, if you are reading this and want to purchase some, you can email her at

(pictured here, Skipper and our team standing on the roof we just built for a family in a small village in Upper Egypt.)

I Rolled My Own Dolmas

This past weekend was our monthly Women's International Cooking Collective. Anita & Cara invited a refugee friend they met last summer (Leen) to serve as this month's guest chef. Anita actually met Leen & her family the very first day after they arrived in the U.S.-- straight in from Bahgdad. Leen's husband was a translator for the U.S. army and she said his job was very dangerous. So, when the army offered to relocate him & his family to the U.S. to better protect them from harm, they agreed. Leen has been in Austin for just over a year and her husband found a job again as a translator... this time for a refugee resettlement agency where he works with the Arabic speaking resettled refugees.
(below, Leen with Cara & Anita)
On the agenda for our cooking class was learning to make Iraqi food. Technically though, I think we just learned to make Arabic food--but I do think each dish likely had some local twists to it. For instance, we learned to make Tabbouleh, but in a way I'd never eaten before... the parsley was not finely diced, but more salad like, and we added olives. Plus Leen was aghast that we would eat it with pita... it was for eating with a spoon.
(below, tabbouleh salad)

We learned to make homemade hummus. Leen schooled us on why homemade hummus was so much yummier than store-bought... because usually store bought hummus doesn't include tahini in their recipe. Plus she taught us how to "plate" our hummus to have a great presentation, on top of tasting delish!

And finally, the big sha-bang was that we all learned to make dolmas! Dolmas are those stuffed grape leaves that you find in a lot of middle eastern restaurants. Usually stuffed with rice and spices, sometimes also with some ground beef in the mix too.

My history with dolmas was a love-hate relationship. I always hated them (even though I'd never tried them-- I was too scared), until I was in the home of Turkish Muslim mother in Izmir who had slaved all day making them for me and insisted I try them. I was backed into a corner. I had to oblige. My first nervous bite was a milestone. I fell in love with dolmas. Now, anytime I can get them I will.
(pictured left, Skipper taking her dolma rolling seriously, and me being an excited goof)

As a group, we learned to make the stuffing for the dolmas, even hand mixing it-- literally with our hands! And then we prepared the vegetables to stuff. I learned that you can make dolmas out of most any vegetable-- because essentially it just means to stuff something. So we stuffed onions, we stuffed zucchini, we stuffed tomatoes, we stuffed bell peppers... and then, we started stuffing the grape leaves. It was so fun, all of us learned to lay our grape leaves just so on the counter, placing the stuffing just so on the open leaf, and then folding up the sides and rolling the leaf closed, like a burrito (because we're from Texas this was our natural go-to parallel when trying to help each other roll a dolma: "you know, roll it like you would a burrito").
(below, Nicole showing off our pot full of dolmas)

We finally rolled every last bit of our stuffing and piled all the dolmas into a giant pot to stew for an hour. It was a feast! After cooking the dolmas on the stove, we flipped the pot onto a giant platter and began to dig in. Girls who had never particularly cared for dolmas before were loving them. And all of us who tried the vegetable versions for the first time were in love.

We ate, and ate, and ate... and then each filled up giant ziploc baggies with leftovers to take home. Leen was such a great teacher and chef!

(pictured below, our platter of completed dolmas)

Throughout our cooking time, we also learned a lot about her family, and Iraq. She misses her home country a lot. When we asked her what she missed most about home, she said "everything!" It was such a poignant reminder that refugees don't necessarily want to move to America. They love their homelands. They just don't feel safe there. So, to protect their kids, their wives, their families, the flee. But they love their land, their people... and they always hold out hope that things will get better, and one day they could return to what they know.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Women's International Cooking Collective

This past weekend, I hosted my first ever "Women's International Cooking Collective" at our house. When Andy & I moved in January to our new place, the kitchen-- which is huge & gourmet-esque-- begged for me to combine it with some of my passions... namely, hanging out with international women & learning about foreign cultures. Through much brainstorming with Andy & friends, I decided to start this group.
The idea: Once a month, I invite a different international friend in Austin to come and teach me (and a crowd of other internationally-interested Austinites) how to cook their local foods and tell me about their home-country. Not only do I get to learn how to cook awesome global cuisine & hear about foreign countries from natives, but I also get to make or enhance friendships with internationals right here in my city! Win, win!

Our inaugural month was June. Destination: INDIA! My friend Skipper invited her neighbor, Sharda, to serve as our "guest chef". About 12 other Austin gals who I'm friends with joined in the fun. We spent 3 hours watching Sharda cook Spinach Paneer (but we made it with tofu), Indian Fried Rice, and Indian Chai Tea. We all wore aprons and wrote down the recipes on matching index cards. During lulls in the cooking process, we had a short list of questions to ask Sharda about India, Indian culture (both at home & here in Austin), her family, her life, her religion, and even down to her favorite Bollywood movie!

Then came the taste-test. Mmmmmmmm! We all fixed test plates with a generous spoonful of each dish and our own cup of tea. To be honest, my experience IN India was not that great with the local foods, so I was somewhat nervous that our first month's dishes wouldn't be my fav. But, I admit, they were soooo yummy! Sharda was an excellent chef! I even got 2nd & 3rd helpings of the Spinach Paneer. Plus, she left me with the remaining Chai Tea packets so I can make my own cardamon tea any time I want!

I had sooooo much fun! And I am pretty sure all the other girls did too-- including Sharda! I already have countries lined up for the rest of the year... what a FUN way to spend time with ladies I love getting to know!

(**Something I learned from Sharda was that Southern Indians have a traditional spice can-- hers is pictured below-- and they keep their top 5-8 favorite spices in it... always ready to go. Her mother gave her this one before she moved to America so she could always have the flavors at home right at her fingertip!)