PeaceMeals in Iraq: Graduation

The therapeutic cooking class graduation will go down in my history as one of the most precious days of my life.

Like a mama hen, I am so proud of these ladies for all they accomplished during the cooking course.

Like a mama hen, I am so proud of these ladies for all they accomplished during the cooking course.

Graduation day was a lesson in catering, as we planned out the menu and cooking schedule. Over the course of two days, the students made an enormous spread of food, with healthier twists than the typical Kurdish fare. On the menu:

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Tomato and Cucumber Salad with Pomegranate

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Cheese fatayer (yeasted rolls stuffed with cheese)

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Kurdish Chicken Biryani

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Dolma of all kinds (Vegetables stuffed with rice and meat. We even cored out carrots and potatoes and stuffed them! I have never seen that before)

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Red Lentil and Vegetable Soup

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Handmade Baklava

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Vanilla and chocolate cakes (yes, plural!) with the ladies’ cake frosting skills on display

After a family-style meal for guests and staff, we held a ceremony where the eight students received graduation certificates and the small gift of an apron.  They were so proud of themselves and I felt just like a mama hen.

This was so much more than a typical cooking course. The skills they learned in the course did not just include sanitation, kitchen safety, knife skills, and nutrition. They did not just learn how to make familiar recipes healthier. They did not just learn hard skills that could potentially get them a job someday. Above and beyond all that, they also learned psychosocial skills like stress management, mindful eating, relaxation techniques, counting your blessings, and values and goals, among others. The discussions we had around the table were as valuable as the lessons in the kitchen – if not more.

After weeks of hard work, big meals, and lots of laughs, I am confident that these women will bring their new skills into their families, communities, and, in effect, to this beautiful and broken country.

Below is a recipe for Iraqi Chicken Biryani. My students unneccessarily deep fried each and every piece of this dish separately (deep fried the peas, then deep fried the nuts, then deep fried the raisins…), which of course makes it taste greasy and decadent, and takes forever. I showed them how to dry toast nuts and pan fry veggies in just a thin layer of oil, and – to their shock and surprise – to leave the raisins raw. They agreed it tasted just as nice.

This recipe is adapted from Maryam, one of my favorite food bloggers, who also happens to be Iraqi. Her knowledge, skills, and volumes upon volumes of recipes are invaluable to any home chef. She also recommends to deep fry everything the Iraqi way, but again I don’t think this is necessary (nor healthy!)

A mound of Iraqi Chicken Biryani, with one of our honorary little sous-chefs

Iraqi Chicken Biryani

Ingredients:
  • 500g chicken breasts or 1 whole roasted rotisserie chicken
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tsp Madras curry
  • 2 tsp biryani spices (sometimes called baharat in ethnic grocery stores). If you can’t find that, use 1 tsp cinnamon + 1 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 cup cashews
  • 1/2 cup almonds (preferably marcona almonds without the skin)
  • 1/2 cup raisins (preferably golden raisins)
  • 1/2 cup barberries or currents
  • 2 potatoes
  • 2 onions
  • 1 Tbsp ghee or olive oil
  • 1 cup frozen or canned and drained peas
  • 1 cup canned and drained chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
  • 1/4 cup rosewater (optional, but delicious)
  • 3 cups basmati (long grain) rice, rinsed and drained
  • 3 tsp salt
Directions:
  1. Boil or roast the chicken until cooked through. Shred the chicken and set aside.
  2. In a dry frying pan, toast the cashews and almonds until golden and set aside.
  3. Soak the raisins and currants in hot water for about 10 minutes, until puffy. Allow to drain in a sieve until dry and set aside.
  4. Cube the potatoes. (Don’t bother peeling – that’s where most of the nutrients are!). Dice the onions. Saute both in a little ghee or coconut oil until golden and tender. Add the peas and chickpeas and warm through.  Set all of this aside.
  5. In a large soup pot, add the rice, salt, rosewater, and enough boiled water to cover the rice by 1/2 inch. Return to boil, cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 20 minutes until the water is absorbed and the rice is cooked.
  6. Carefully stir all the other ingredients you have prepped into the rice: shredded chicken, nuts, sultanas, currants/barberries, potato, onion, peas, and chickpeas.
  7. Serve hot on a large platter.

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