Zaitoun, a book about Palestinian food, offers culinary clarity in the middle of suffering. The creativity and human warmth in an occupied, blockaded land inspired a recipe.
Time appears to be at a premium in the first month of the first year of the new decade. A country roiled by unrest requires the attention of reporters, which is what I and the wife are. But this is happening at a time when the nine-year-old appears to be gaining more strength, stamina and, thus, making greater demands on our time.
I was struck by photographs that my brother sent over the weekend of my niece and nephew at play—climbing trees, hanging out with friends and scootering through their cul de sac in Tampa, Florida. Our weekend, in contrast, was mainly spent on the go with our bouncy child.
In addition to her gruelling swim class on Saturday morning, when she swims about 60 laps of a 25m pool, she decided she wanted to play tennis. This after playing a holiday version of the game on an uneven, stone badminton court with a lowered badminton net.
Will you play tennis with me after swimming, my otherwise loud child asked softly.
My first instinct was to say, are you mad?
She already attends—of her own choosing—piano class after school on Monday after a morning swim in school, stays back at school to play football on Tuesday, swim class after school on Wednesday, basketball on Thursday, art class on Friday and swim class on Saturday.
After all this, you think, she might be calm, tired and relaxed the rest of the time. Instead, her favourite question, when she gets back from school or after she has tired herself out, is: What shall we do now?
So, you can understand why I thought tennis before or after swim class on the weekend was madness. She follows tennis avidly, and, thanks to her mother, watches the Grand Slams. She knows of many players, from Sania Mirza to Serena Williams.
“You cannot possibly want to join another class," I said.
“No, I don’t," she replied, brightly. “I want you to play with me."
I stared at her. Me?
I don’t think so, I said tentatively.
This did not sound like a good idea.
We leave home at 8am every Saturday, have breakfast out, swim and then turn our attention—at least I do—to weekly shopping, weekend cooking and writing. On Sunday, I do not rest. We may go cycling, or I may go running. Afternoons are the only time I, sometimes, squeeze in a nap. Now, she was suggesting I play tennis at 3pm—nap time—on Sunday before another unscheduled swim.
I have often been called stubborn by my friends and family, and once I set my mind on something, it is hard to change it. But since my otherwise crochety poppet, conscious of her father’s weaknesses, came and wrapped herself around my arm, I found myself changing my mind very quickly.
This situation was made more complex by the fact that I have persuaded the wife to abandon a full fridge on the weekends and leave it to me instead.
The perfect storm?
As time gets scarcer, I find there is always time for good food. All it requires is a little imagination and a willingness—as I always emphasize—to make do with whatever you have. Sometimes, a little inspiration can help. This weekend, my inspiration came from Zaitoun, a wonderful book that collates recipes and stories from the Palestinian kitchen.
Zaitoun was gifted to me by a former colleague—thank you, Shreehari—and it is an inspiration to read about creativity, hospitality and human warmth in an occupied, blockaded land. The food focuses on natural and fresh ingredients, and, as author Yasmin Khan writes, “tastes alive", a welcome quality in a region that “too often feels as though it is dying".
If, in the middle of ferment and suffering, the Palestinians can express themselves with culinary clarity, surely I could at least keep my kitchen functioning around one hyperactive child?
That is what I did, ensuring simple but changing meals. On Friday, it was a soup with vegetables and pasta, and on the busy weekend, meals built around a simple, baked Palestinian tomato stuffing, which you can read about in the recipe below. My mother mixed the stuffing with pasta, my wife had it with fresh sourdough bread from our local baker.
Two days later, when Monday dawned and there was no lunch for the child, I recreated the stuffing, without baking, and used it as a sandwich filling. She loved it. When the next weekend comes along, I will be ready. She’s already talking about horse-riding.
STUFFED RED PEPPERS
2 red peppers, sliced in half, deseeded and pith cleared
7 cloves garlic
3 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp chipotle powder or Kashmiri chilli powder
Pepper, freshly ground
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp capers
3 tbsp black olives, pits removed and chopped
Sea salt to taste
Prepare the stuffing by mixing all the ingredients, except the peppers. Fill the peppers with the stuffing and place on a greased oven dish. Cover with foil. Bake at 200 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake for another 25 minutes until the edges of the peppers start to blacken. Serve with bread or pasta.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
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