Monday, February 20, 2012

My first Syrian dinner party

Some of you might know, or have read, that my awesome grandmother (who reads this blog) is a Sephardic Jew of Syrian descent. Though American (Brooklyn)-born, she grew up speaking Arabic at home and English in the street, and as the eldest of 5 was taught to cook from an early age. So my earliest recollections of going to Mom-Mom's house always revolved around eating amazing food. Her cooking, Syrian Jewish cooking, differs slightly from typical Middle Eastern fare (like Lebanese, Turkish, Israeli, Moroccan, even Greek) as most dishes were designed to work around Kosher laws. So while there is a lot of meat, it's never served with dairy products. And the few dairy recipes that exist are always served with vegetarian dishes. Syrian food overall uses quite a lot of fruit with sweet-sour flavors, and some interesting spice combinations that bring the sweet-sour balance into sharper focus. There is less garlicky-ness and more fullness to the food. Mom-Mom's family hailed from Aleppo, home of what some people claim is the best food in the Middle East; I just think it's my Mom-Mom's food.

Fast forward thirty years, and I'm mastering cooking her dishes by myself. Despite learning to roll grape leaves for Passover over a school holiday at age 8 and being the fastest pistachio sheller in the West, I really didn't do much Syrian cooking until relatively recently. I think it had to do with all of the dishes being so Mom-Mom that it was much better, and more comforting, to get my fix by visiting her. But now that I'm so far away, I have to take matters into my own hands and start cheffing the meals all on my own.

Luckily, Mom-Mom has embarked on an epic project of writing down all of her recipes – recipes that she has known by heart for years. I'm so impressed with her; at 84, she's typing them all up in Word and emailing them on to me. The most amazing part is that these are recipes that previously never had measurements or gauges; she uses her eye and the palm of her hand as a guide. Once when we had a lesson, she told me that because my palm was so small, I would have to add more spices to a dish – and that's just the way it is. But now nearly all of her signature dishes have been written down for me and the family.

So yesterday I hosted my first Syrian dinner party for my former roommates. We started with za'atar flavored pita chips, a really easy snack that you can make in no time. Za'atar is super hard to find in the US, mostly available only in Mediterranean or Arab food stores, but you can pick it up at Waitrose here. We then moved on to a main dish of yebrah or stuffed grape leaves. But these aren't sour, rice-stuffed grape leaves like you get in Greek, Turkish or Lebanese restaurants; these grape leaves are stuffed with a meat and rice mixture, covered in apricots and then cooked with a tomato-tamarind sauce. Side dishes were Syrian-style rice with spaghetti bits, peas cooked with allspice and kiftes (meatballs), and a sweet-sour sauce called hamoud. For dessert, I let The Irishman into our kitchen to make cardamom ice cream and together we made little cookies with semolina dough and a sweet nut mixture inside.

Happily, the food went down a storm and I was really pleased with the results. It's really rewarding to cook the food I grew up loving for others, and introducing them to something that is so familiar and comforting to me but sounds exotic and wonderful to them. If you are interested in this special type of cuisine, here are a few books you might want to check out – unfortunately, I'm under strict orders not to release Mom-Mom's recipes outside the family otherwise I would totally share.

by Jennifer Abadi
This is a great primer for Syrian Jewish cooking, written by a girl like me who loved her grandmother and worked with her to write down all of her recipes. She then illustrated the book and published it, and the recipes are fairly close to Mom-Mom's.

by Poopa Dweck
When you're done laughing, this is the coffee table book of Syrian cooking. I'm actually related to this woman through distant cousins, and Mom-Mom highly approves of this tome. It's a lovely book of lovely recipes.

by Claudia Roden
Claudia Roden is the grand-dame of English cook book authors from the Middle East. Her book of Middle Eastern recipes is the bible when it comes to Middle Eastern cooking on this side of the pond.

by Claudia Roden
If you're Jewish and/or interested in food, or both, Claudia Roden devoted a few years to researching and writing this tome of traditional Jewish cooking from both Ashkenazi and Sephardic regions. It's a great history book as well as a great cookbook. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Follow Friday

I never really do that #FF thing on Twitter, mostly because I don't really *do* Twitter that well, but this week I am going to #FF here AND there to introduce you to my friends who just entered the blogosphere.

You may remember that I mentioned earlier about some friends who have decided to save up to throw it all in, quit their jobs, and travel across Asia for several months. Well, the dream is on its way and the one-way tickets have been purchased and the blog has launched! Head over to Banh Mi and You to read about their preparations for their big trip. PS: Their blog will soon have a sweet new blog look and feel, thanks to YOURS TRULY. When I get around to it.

I'd also highly suggest that you follow them on Twitter (@banhmiandyou) and join them as they embark for the biggest and most exciting adventure of their lives! Wheeee!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

I declare this week a fail.

You know how they say "beware the Ides of March"? Someone should have said something about the ides of February this week. It seems as though everything I've touched this week has spoiled in some way, and staying positive has been rather trying.

I started the week by picking a massive fight with The Irishman about Life Priorities. Without going into specifics, I acted like a prat and he told me so. So I cried and didn't talk to him for 18 hours. Yes, prat.

The biggest fail of all was learning that our the house we put an offer on is being viewed seriously by a few other couples. One of those couples is taking a builder in with them to cost up doing a lot of renovations that could be done to the house before making an offer. It's a cruel blow, because, while this house has a lot of amazing potential, it is potential that The Irishman and I both dreamed about saving up for and doing slowly. So it feels pretty sad to think that some people with deep pockets might just be able to pay more for something we really want. It left me feeling powerless and depressed. But there is still hope, I suppose; we are still the only people who have actually made an offer on the house at this point.

But a close second was that same day, my anti-Valentines plans were completely dashed. At the end of last year, I spent a good hour scouring the National Theatre website for cheap tickets to see One Man Two Guvnors before James Corden left the cast. I finally found some for Wednesday February 15th, and The Irishman and I planned to use the tickets as an excuse for a night out – just not on Valentines. Until he looked at the tickets and realized they were for the 2:30pm matinee show, not the 7:30pm show. So I requested an emergency half day off from work and felt like a total fool.

Add to all that a pretty bad blunder at work and the fact that I haven't exercised at all since last Tuesday, and by yesterday I felt a little bit useless. But the upside is I've turned it all around in some way... I think. I made up with The Irishman, and feel like we are stronger than ever in our house search and life goals. I've reframed my expectations of the house, and made peace with the fact we may not get it. And our impromptu skive from work was actually really lovely; cocktails at The American Bar at The Savoy and dinner at Spuntino were perfectly timed instead of rushed before / after the show.

I wish I had a way to prevent weeks like this from getting the better of me, but sometimes, especially recently, I've felt like I drag myself across the Friday finish line just to sleep it off on the weekend. I do wonder whether being more consistent with running it would make a difference in my mood and how I handle stress (YES) but also how to make it easier to get out from under the dark clouds and onto the road to run. Running wouldn't have fixed someone else having more money to buy the house I want to buy, nor the fact that I booked tickets to a matinee show rather than an evening show, but it might have helped me laugh it off that little bit quicker.

PS This post is also dedicated to my lady friend who I ALSO had words with this week but whom is still  in my corner and who I'm lucky enough to have my back through all of this LIFE STUFF. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

And the winner is...

And the winner is…

Double decker busses symbolize London for her, which I agree is one of the most iconic things about London. Congratulations, your print will be with you early next week!

Thanks to everyone for entering, and for following and supporting Bloody Brilliant. xx

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The emotional ups and downs of expat home buying

Photo from Flickr courtesy of Limonada

So no progress I can report as of yet on the house situation. Offer is in and we're waiting.

Waiting in these types of situations opens the door to all kinds of thoughts: the good ones like "what type of bathtub should we install if we redo the bathroom" and bad ones like "oh my god I cannot believe I am contemplating spending this much money in one fell swoop."

It also gives a person time to self-reflect in quite a deep manner. Lately I have been rethinking my identity as an expat, what it means to buy property in another country and who I will be afterwards. The expat adventure is obviously alluring; just look at how many expat bloggers there are out there, people who dream of selling it all and moving clear across the world. It's a thrilling and illuminating, self-improving and horizon-expanding experience that I advocate to everyone. But at what point does it stop being an experience and begin to just be your life? Does buying property make you a local, or a resident, any more so than paying taxes? Does it make you less American? Or does it just make you a person who lives somewhere else? And what does that mean?

On a more personal level, buying a house changes priorities in a way that completely reframes the expat experience. At this stage, if our offer is accepted, there will be no more jetting off for city breaks, no more long weekends in Paris, no more extravagant meals in foreign lands, no more big holidays in the sun – at least for the first few years. Does that mean I'm going to miss out? Do I actually even want to buy a house? Or do I just want to travel more and live in a small flat to be able to afford that pleasure? And if I refocus my energies on building a home rather than exploring the world, will I realize that actually I don't want to live here anymore? What if I end up hating England?

And of course, there is then the big elephant in the room of me buying a property with The Irishman – I refuse to call him boyfriend, but he sure isn't my husband – and what that means for our relationship. We've already had a few corkers in terms of arguments, and, despite having a very equitable financial relationship, the idea of purchasing a property together is putting our relationship under a microscope. Everything he does I scrutinize, I'm sure he is evaluating everything I do, every penny we spend separately and together I analyze, and I'm feeling like at some point we'll either end up hating each other or self-implode. Or both! I blogged before about how buying a property together is the biggest commitment two people can make, and it's proving itself to be true on a daily basis. I've already demanded a declaration of trust so that neither of us can clean the other out if we split, but I'm also hoping that we can get through this period of doubt and tension so much stronger than we entered it. But if we do split up, and own a property, will I stay in England? Will it still be my home? Is my entire expat experience based on one man? Is that healthy? AM I HEALTHY? OH MY GOD WHAT AM I DOING?!

I guess what I'm trying to articulate is that while buying a property is emotional purchase regardless of where it takes place, as an expat it is even harder. It's surfacing all sorts of issues that I've either managed to bury or never knew I had, and in some ways they are harder to quantify than the figures on our mortgage spreadsheet. The only way to really deal with them is to just plow ahead, keep talking to The Irishman, and be honest with myself. Whatever will be will be and I will end up where I'm supposed to end up – whether it's London, New York, or somewhere inbetween.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Oops - giveaway extended!

In total Danielle-bad-girlfriend-style, I forgot that The Irishman is away until Thursday of this week for work! So entries for my first giveaway contest have been extended until Thursday, 7pm UK time, at which point The Irishman can make the blind draw to pick a winner! So get posting on what symbolizes London for you on the entry here. Good luck! xx

Friday, February 3, 2012

My first giveaway: London A-Z

In dire need of a way to take my mind off the home purchase induced hyperventilating, I decided to host my first blog giveaway! Two supporting reasons:

1. If I actually am successful in buying a house, I will need to move and therefore clean out a lot of stuff;
2. Blogger told me I'm up to 49 followers (love you guys!) and I'd love to add one more special person to our Bloody Brilliant crew and make us 50 strong.

What's in it for you, you ask? Why, the chance to win a limited edition, signed screenprint by yours truly featuring 26 iconic symbols of London (pictured above)! You may remember I took a screenprinting course last year, and this was the output – I have 2 more left, one on pink paper and one on cream, so your choice if you win! It's A4 size and will fit perfectly in an Ikea frame.

So here are the rules:

1. Be a follower of Bloody Brilliant (click on the Google Friend connect widget on the right side of the page if you're not already part of the action)
2. In the comments, tell us all the one thing that symbolizes London for you

The winner will be randomly selected through a highly scientific method (paper slips in a bag, The Irishman will do a blind draw) on Monday night and I'll announce the winner Tuesday. That gives all of you procrastinators (my homies) all weekend to think of your truly iconic London symbol. It's not like you'll have anything better to do – we'll all be snowed in!

Good luck and happy snowy weekend!