Monday, January 24, 2011

A Taste of Iraq

This past weekend I took a cooking lesson.  From time to time, my mother suggests that I take a cooking lesson with her for fun.  I usually beg off because the lesson duplicates something I paid the big bucks to learn in culinary school.  But when she suggested we go to a cooking demonstration by her new and dear friend Taghreed, I quickly agreed. 

Taghreed, along with her husband and three children, has recently moved to this country from Iraq.  They suffered terrible persecution there, fled to Syria, and are now in the process of becoming American citizens.  Because they are being sponsored by my mother's church, Mom is very involved in getting them settled and has become very close to the family.  In their first few months here, my mother spoke of them so fondly that I was eager to meet them and invited them to my house to dinner.  Taghreed and her husband were lovely guests; their children sweet and shy.  I served chicken curry and hoped that it tasted a little like home.

I have not seen them much since that dinner, but upon entering their home for the lesson this past Saturday, I was greeted as if we were the oldest of friends.  After a tour of their house, insisted upon by the children, each eager to show off their bedrooms in turn, I settled in with the other 19 or so students and watched Taghreed cook us a feast. 

She first made Tepsi of Chicken (below, right), which is a simple yet elegant dish made of skin-on chicken drumsticks and thighs roasted at 400 degrees over onions, potatoes, and carrots that have been tossed with cumin, curry, nutmeg, and garlic.  Lemon juice and vinegar are poured into the roasting pan and give the vegetables a wonderful tang.  They come out soft and delicious, having been basted with the chicken drippings throughout the cooking process.

While that was in the oven, she made Birianni, (above, left) which she said was a holiday dish, meant to serve a lot of people at a party.  It consists of a layer of spiced rice with ground meat (in this case beef) mixed vegetables, potatoes, nuts and raisins on top.  The rice has browned vermicelli mixed in and cooks with cinnamon, cardamom, and garlic.  It is delicious.  I wonder, and should have asked, if she ever mixes the raisins in with the rice or even the meat, so that they plump and add their sweetness to the dish during cooking rather than at the end.  When I make this, I will try adding the raisins earlier.

Finally, Taghreed made a gorgeous salad of lettuce, red cabbage, green cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, green beans, and pomegranate seeds, which was tossed with a light coating of dressing made from olive oil, lemon juice and vinegar.  It was refreshing and a perfect compliment to the spiced dishes.

After she was finished cooking, it was time to eat!  Everything was wonderful, and I led the charge back for seconds.  It was also Taghreed's birthday, so there were two American-sized cakes (read: huge) there to help celebrate.

While some ladies joked that this was a "busman's holiday" for me, I truly enjoyed myself.  If it weren't for some klutz (me) dropping and shattering a glass of soda all over the floor, it would have been a perfect day!  It was a great pleasure for me to get a little taste of Iraq right here in my own neighborhood. 

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