In the Kitchen With Lebanese-American Chef Rayya Danielle
Many folks I meet automatically assume I possess culinary flair because I’m a seasoned food blogger. I like to draw the distinction between food writer and chef, if it's not already self-evident. The former documents, describes, and stirs up the appetite through vivid imagery and details, whereas the latter cooks, creates, and pleases.
Now I don’t mean to deprecate myself by saying I’m null in the kitchen. I stood next to my mother long enough to know how to prepare some Lebanese classics, and I did live all by my lonesome for three years in grad school. So I know a thing or two about simple, fast, and healthy fixes. I assure you, I would never starve, but the extent of my innovations would likely fall short of admission to the Cordon Bleu.
When I do have time, I love to dabble in the kitchen. Ask my husband about the numerous eggless cakes I hatched up around the Christmas season, from banana-chocolate chip bread to orange and lemon loaf. I even concocted a decadent molasses cake studded with white chocolate chunks.
|It's true: baking is therapy|
Beyond baking, I love to craft artisan-style pizzas on whole-wheat tannour bread, or to toss organic beetroot noodles in De Cecco extra-virgin olive-oil pesto. I make a mean okra-tomato stew, and my nutty foul mdammas would keep garlic-averse vampires at bay.
But who wouldn't mind learning from the masters? So last week when I had the rare privilege of cooking alongside Rayya Danielle Abou Ezzeddine, a fellow Lebanese-American who, four years ago, left behind Texan life for the Lebanese homestead, I jumped at the opportunity.
|Rayya on the far left|
Rayya welcomed us at Gemmayze’s KitchenLab, a stellar space outfitted with four fully-equipped stations conducive to instruction-led cookery. She had devised a pescetarian Mexican-inspired menu to introduce a frozen fish product line to the Lebanese market from Asmak. Recipe booklets with detailed directions awaited us, and Rayya animated the entire process with her bubbly disposition and commanding voice.
We started with dessert, as the cakes could bake while we moved on to the starter and main. On the menu, a margarita chiffon cake which called for tequila, lime, and cream cheese in addition to the usual suspects: flour, eggs, sugar, and butter.
|Baking Margarita chiffon cake loaves|
With the filled loaf molds tucked in to the oven, we proceeded swiftly to the shrimp ceviche. The recipe featured Asmak cooking shrimps, which are PUD (peeled undeveined) and blanched, though we eventually supplemented them with Asmak’s large shrimps PDTO (peeled deveined tailed on). You can imagine how onerous it is to extract the delicate intestinal tract of baby shrimp. Switching to the larger, plumper, and deveined variety was undoubtedly more facile.
Rayya’s version of ceviche incorporates ketchup, cucumber and Mexican hot sauce, which was new to me. I am more accustomed to ceviche drawing on raw fish and an acidic marinade like citrus juice or vinegar that essentially cooks the fish.
The star dish was the Pescado a la Veracruzana, or fish in the Veracruza fashion. Think of a tomato-based sauce simmering in a sautéing pan with jalapeños, onions, garlic, capers, olives, bay leaves, rosemary, parsley and marjoram. We threw in flaky white fish fillets -- Asmak’s frozen catfish sourced from Vietnam -- and let them bask in that zesty soup until thoroughly cooked. The result was enviable and oh-so healthy!
|Preparing Pescado a la Veracruzana|
|Shrimp ceviche and fish Veracruz with corn chips and white rice|
Afterward, we sat outside in the fresh spring-like air beneath an overarching tree. No doubt we all wished there were second helpings of what we had slaved over. Alas, there was not. But, as consolation, at least we could have our (margarita) cakes and eat them, too.
|Representatives from Asmak, Rayya, and us!|