Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Gas Food Lodging

Dubai. Gotta love it.

The kids have a month off from school and K had a week off during Eid Al Adha, therefore we decided to leave Doha for a while. But with the global economy continuously spiraling downwards, we did not want to venture too far or too expensive. Dubai quickly became the logical choice. The United Arab Emirates is an extremely popular destination for many residents of the Arabian Gulf countries, for both locals and expats alike. It is more developed, modern and socially permissive.

We decided to drive since it is approximately 440 miles/709 km (one way), roughly a 7 hour drive. But one must travel through Saudi Arabia in order to enter the UAE. For this we needed to obtain a visa – called a transit visa – in order to pass through the Kingdom. This was not a problem; there are many travel agencies which provide this service for a nominal fee. The visa is processed within a week, no worries, hassles or headaches. We also found out we can stay in Saudi Arabia for 3 days, but we did not avail to this. Not for lack of want though. We did not have enough time, but will certainly take advantage of this on our next border crossing. The visa to enter the UAE is obtained at the border for ‘certain privileged nationalities’. Our’s probably tops the list.

Gas StationIt took us almost 8 hours to reach Dubai. Crossing the boarders took a bit of time. Leave Qatar; go through 3 check points – car registration check, passport check, customs. Enter Saudi Arabia; go through 3 check points – car registration check, passport check, purchase insurance for car (very cheap). Leave Saudi Arabia; go through 3 check points – car registration check, passport check, customs. Enter UAE; go through 3 check points – car registration check, passport check, and purchase insurance for car (very cheap). Reverse this for the drive back – with the exception of purchasing insurance at Qatari boarder.

At the UAE border one also needs to go through a retina scan. So out we poured, dragging our heels. We filled some forms and waited in a separate room for someone to take pictures of our eyes. After 15-20 minutes no one showed up so K went to another counter. An Emirati man asked Eye check? K tried to give him a long winded answer in English, that we waited for a while, no one was there, yada, yada, yada... The man looked at all 5 of us, stopped K in midsentence and stamped our forms. Khalaas, eye check! I guess we don’t look like terrorists. On the way back we had to get an exit permit. The same man was at the counter. Ahlan habibi! Stamp x5 Ma’asalaama!

FoodWe also stopped at a few places to refuel – the car as well as ourselves – along the way. Both K and I, much to the ire of the older kids, have always loved truck stops. Even here we prefer to patronize these roadside restaurants over western or westernized eastern fast food joints. These establishments are clean and efficient, service is extremely courteous, and they are always a culinary adventure. Here we often order freshly baked khubz (Arabic for bread) with the curry of the day (almost always chicken) or freshly grilled kabobs. Sometimes we get a rice dish which is always called beryani, but no 2 have ever tasted remotely similar. Cutlery is optional, just a good hand wash will suffice. We do however avoid the salads. The finale is always the cloyingly sweet milky tea served in a glass. Sorry kids, we’re not in Kansas any more!

LodgingThis time in Dubai we wanted to see the places we were not able to visit on our previous trip and even found some places we did not even know about. I particularly enjoyed the day trip to Hatta, a small village near the boarder of Oman. It is a little over an hours drive and is a historically preserved town with a heritage site. The terrain chances dramatically as well, with craggy lithic mountains replacing the usually desert vistas. The kids were pacified by a round of miniature golf – this is the UAE of course!

We enjoyed strolling though the Ibn Battuta Mall, named after the famous and cherished Moroccan explorer. The mall is divided into themed sections - Andalusia, Tunisia, Egypt, Persia, India and China – a few of the major destinations taken by Mr. Battuta. Each section represents the best of each region and outdoes the other in splendor. Details of Ibn Battuta’s journeys and the contributions of other great Arab scholars and scientists are also inscribed throughout the mall. Therefore it is also a history lesson as well, one which is often overlooked in most text books and classrooms. It is certainly a must see for Dubai bound travelers, history buffs or otherwise.

We also roamed through a few souks, which are located in the older, less developed neighborhoods (compared to the newer contrived construction projects). This is the old Dubai, and in my opinion, the real deal. Tour guides abounded everywhere followed by camera wielding tourists of every nationality – ourselves no exception. The only difference was we were not wearing shorts or carrying fanny packs.

I will leave you with these pictures, which for the weary and often desperate traveler is certainly worth a couple of a thousand words.

Hammam men

Hammam women

Monday, December 1, 2008

Let's Talk Turkey

Give thanks
Thanksgiving recently rolled in and rolled right back out, giving us a nostalgic glimpse of our lives back then. It also added about 4,000 additional calories towards our expanding waistlines.

Last year, much to the dismay of the children, I had eschewed the time-honored festivities. I missed my family and friends and did not want to have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner without them. In other words I was feeling sorry for myself. So we went to Chili’s instead and had a bloomin’ onion. It was bloomin’ awful.

But this is now our home. And I am happy to report we have resumed our beloved holiday. I invited a few friends who enjoy turkey and we had a grand time.

Thanksgiving is an occasion when we eat a certain combination of foods which we most certainly will not eat for the remainder of the year. It is also when we use many kitchen gadgets which we won’t use for the rest of the year either. So out came the turkey baster, citrus zester, pastry cutter, nutmeg grater, yolk separator… I also prepared the dishes according to what I was able to find in the local supermarkets. Here is a breakdown of the items I prepared, along with a few minor details:

Halal turkeyTurkey: When I told K I was going to make turkey he began to pale. To put it mildly, he’s not a turkey fan. But Thanksgiving is not the same without big bird, so turkey it was – no compromises here. I saw Butterball turkeys in Megamart, but did not purchase one since we never bought them back home; we had always purchased organic Halal ones. Makes me wonder if they are slaughtered in the Islamic way for the Middle East? I found one with the Halal stamp, and at almost 3 kilos (a little under 7 pounds) it was much smaller then the ones I generally bought back home (think 20-25 pounds). Needless to say we did not have many leftovers.

Stuffing: Stove Top - easily found, with sautéed apples & onions added by me. I baked it separately; as apposed to stuffing it into the turkey itself. I would have made it by scratch, but did not have the time.

Gravy: Graciously supplied by Mr. Turkey himself, with a little chicken stock and roux added as a thickener.

Cranberry relish: I found cans of cranberries for 17 riyals at Megamart, but could not justify spending so much for something that I once used to purchase 2 for a buck. I bought some dried cranberries instead, resuscitated them in water and made a fantastic cranberry-orange-ginger relish.

Mashed potatoes: There is only one kind of potato available here, the good old potato kind. Forget the Russets, Yukon Gold’s, Fingerlings, Peruvian Purples, etc. Occasionally I see small new or red potatoes, which are for the most part flown in from the US or the Indian subcontinent. To this I added ample butter made with milk from cows who graze bucolically on the hills of Normandy.

Other vegetables: Sautéed green beans and broccoli (both fresh) and steamed corn (frozen) – the broccoli added for my 4 year old broccoli lover.

PumpkinPumpkin Pie: This is H’s favorite, so we had to have it. Here not many people know what it is, thus requiring me to make it from scratch – including the crust. I never knew I would miss Pillsbury. I had heard that canned pumpkin was available in Doha, but I was unable to find it. I must admit, I also did not trek to every single store in the city. For canned pumpkin? Fuhgetaboudit. I asked one of the stockers in the supermarket I frequent if they had any. Can pomkin? No ma’am. all the while nodding his head sideways. Frankly I believe he didn’t even know what the heck I was talking about. But he was polite so I forgave him. I bought chunks of a lovely Indian pumpkin called Bober and stewed it. I then followed a recipe I found on the Food Network. It came out to be more of a mousse like pie, but delicious nonetheless. I served it with whipped cream from a can (it was French, so I felt better about it).

We also had rolls with butter and vanilla ice cream with passion fruit syrup, made by me a few days ago in one of my creative moods.

Compared to Thanksgiving back home I kept it simple since I did all the preparation and cooking. The day before I had a midterm for one of the classes I am taking, so I was also pressed for time. I must acknowledge this was not completely an American Thanksgiving; it was a Qatari one as well. And, if I may say so myself, everything was fabulous!

A's light It was the first Thanksgiving for our guests, and they thoroughly enjoyed it. They eagerly took home whatever leftovers there were – also an age old custom. After dinner we went outside and lit up firecrackers graciously provided by our quests.

But Thanksgiving is not only a time when our tables groan with the weight of a delectable and copious array of food. It is, more importantly, a gathering of family and friends. There is an old saying that no one should be alone on thanksgiving, so every year we often would have a few new faces at our table. But mainly it is a time to look inwards, reflect upon our lives and give thanks for what we have.

In the end I must add that although our feast was superb and well appreciated, and we are certainly grateful for many, many things, our celebrations would have been complete if some of the seats were filled with loved ones I have left behind.


Pumpkin Pie
Crust recipe courtesy Joy of Baking, pie recipe from Paula Deen - The Food Network

Shortbread Crust:
1 cup (140 grams) all purpose flour
1/3 cup (36 grams) confectioners (powdered or icing) sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (114 grams) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
2 cups canned pumpkin, mashed – I had prepared my own
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg plus 2 egg yolks, slightly beaten
1 cup half-and-half
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, optional

In your food processor, place the flour, sugar, and salt and process to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the pastry starts to come together and form clumps. Place the pastry in the prepared tart pan and, using your fingertips; evenly press the pastry onto the bottom and up the sides of the pan. (Can use the back of a spoon to smooth the surface of the pastry.) Pierce the bottom of the crust with the tines of a fork. (This will prevent the pastry crust from puffing up while it bakes.) Cover and place the pastry crust in the freezer for 15 minutes to chill. (This will help prevent the crust from shrinking while it bakes.)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C) and place rack in center of oven.
When the pastry is completely chilled, place the tart pan on a larger baking pan and bake until the crust is golden brown, about 13 - 15 minutes. Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool while you make the filling.
Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees (177 degrees C).

In a large mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese with a hand mixer. Add the pumpkin and beat until combined. Add the sugar and salt, and beat until combined. Add the eggs mixed with the yolks, half-and-half, and melted butter, and beat until combined. Finally, add the vanilla, cinnamon, and ginger, if using, and beat until incorporated.
Pour the filling into the prepared pie/tart crust and bake for 50 minutes, or until the center is set. Place on a wire rack and cool to room temperature.
Cut into slices and top each piece with a generous amount of whipped cream.