As a kid, I loved my parents elaborate Easter egg hunts with detailed cue-cards, and I didn't half mind painting eggs even though I was always a little too impatient for fine arts. I also quite enjoyed waiting for the Easter Bunny to deliver the impending overdose of waxy milk chocolates.
But don't think I ate traditional ham around this time of year....no thanks, ma'am. Let me tell you about a staple dish that's got a little more soul.
As a half-Egyptian kid, even Easter was an excuse to eat Molokhia, a leafy green stew, instead of over-salted, anemic looking food. My Mom, of French-Canadian heritage, learned how to cook this traditional Arabic stew from my Dad's sisters so that she could make it for us. Dad never really told me how my mother's molokhia stocked up against that back home in Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo, but he always has at least two helpings, so I'd say she's done just fine.
Since I couldn't go home this Easter, I figured I'd take a shot at recreating my family's favourite dish. I picked up a new Middle Eastern cookbook that provided some helpful guidelines, but I have to admit that I called my Mom and aunt a couple of times for moral support and affirmation.
There's something exhilarating about recreating a beloved food I spent my childhood eating. I realize that while my father didn't pass down the language to me, all of these dishes that I dream about when I'm in Toronto are a huge part of my roots: stuffed vine leaves, artichokes stuffed with meat and pine nuts, kofta.
Please don't let the look of this stew deter you. It really is quite hearty and tasty, even if it has the appearance of Martian food.
Molokhia Stew (4 Servings)
Adapted from Olives, Lemons & Za'atar by Rawia Bishara, with help from the family Shenouda
3 tbsp of olive oil
1/2 onion, finely chopped
pinch of sea salt, black pepper and nutmeg
6 cups of chicken stock
2 bags of frozen Molokhia (can be found at most Arabic specialty food stores)
Teklai (this is a garlic sauce you add to the stew to give it flavour):
2 tbsp of butter
1/2 head of garlic, crushed
pinch of sea salt
1/2 tbsp. dried coriander
Juice of 1 1/2 lemons
Chicken (a garnish for the soup):
Breast of chicken, roasted
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 tsp. teklai
1 cup of rice, cooked separately
Garnish, if desired:
1/2 raw onion in lemon juice to cover
1-In a big pot, begin by sauteing 1/2 an onion on medium heat in olive oil for a few minutes, until clear. Add in your sea salt, black pepper, and nutmeg and stir for a minute or two. Add your 6 cups of chicken stock and bring to a boil. Take your two packs of Molokhia leaves out of the freezer and carefully stir each into the pot, breaking them up until the stew returns to a boil and a thick white froth appears on the top (which you can scoop off with a spoon).
2-In a small pan, melt your 2 tbsp of butter on medium heat, being careful not to burn it. Add your 1/2 head of crushed garlic and stir constantly. Your whole house will begin to smell fragrant. Add your dried coriander, salt and lemon juice and continue to stir until well-mixed then turn off the heat. Take a tsp or two of this mixture (called Teklai) and spread over your chicken breast on a prepared baking sheet or pan, then take the rest of the mixture and dump it in the boiling stew (it should make a hissing sound). Turn off the stew and cover.
3-Preheat oven to 350 for your chicken breast. Add the juice of 1/2 a lemon to your breast and 1/2 a cup of chicken stock and bake for 20 minutes. Cut the breast into small pieces. Prepare a cup of rice to serve with the stew.
Add toasted pita, if desired. Take 1/2 a finely chopped raw onion in a bowl and cover with lemon juice as extra garnish, if desired.
4-To serve stew, take a small to medium bowl and fill with a bed of rice and chicken pieces. With a large ladle, pour the Molokhia over your bowl. Garnish with raw onions and lemon juice and toasted pita.
We didn't have toasted pita so we used baguette. I'm pretty sure that the Pharaohs would be turning in their tombs right now but it did the trick. Enjoy!