Sunday, February 3, 2013

Soup #5 / Molokhia

For this week’s soup, we’re taking a trip to the Middle East.  Molokhia, or jute, is a type of leaf common in Egypt, where my mother-in-law was born and grew up. This soup of the same name is made with the leaves of this plant and lots of garlicky goodness. According to my mother-in-law, Molokhia was made as a soup in large households in villages around Egypt. It was made in a large pot and when ready, the children would gather around first, each with a piece of bread in hand, dipping it in the soup and savoring its flavor. When they were finished the adults would gather around and enjoy in dinner next, the same with, with bread in hand. It was a simple soup that could be made easily with few ingredients and serve many. 
Passed on to each generation, Molokhia remains a simple soup with an acquired taste. You either love it your you don’t, but to me it’s a tasty soup, especially when paired with rice pilaf, or with some warm bread for dipping. One thing you have to remember is that in Egypt, they cook Armenian style, which is “atchkee chop” (ah-ch-key chop), meaning measured by eye, or to taste. None of the ingredients we used were measured perfectly and if you needed a little more of this or that you just sort of wing it based on how much you think it needs before it tastes just right.  When cooking this soup, we kept in mind that not everyone cooks atchkee chop and so we tried to make guesstimates at our measurements for the sake of recipe making. So here we have it: Molokhia.

You will need:

  • 5 packs of minced Molokhia leaves –they come frozen, and you’ll put them in the soup frozen (*you can find these at Arabic or Middle Eastern markets and they are shipped from Egypt)
  • Approximately 5 qts of chicken stock or broth (another estimate, it was a very large pot of chicken stock
  • Approximately 2-3 heads of garlic with cloves minced (this part you can do completely to taste. This soup is meant to be VERY garlicky and this is where most of the soup’s flavor comes from, so I am not exaggerating with the amount, however, if you don’t want to use it remember to just measure atchkee chop)
  • About 4-6 tomatoes cut in half (the Molokhia can be sort of slimy much like okra, and the acid of the tomatoes helps cut the slimy-ness and adds additional flavor).
  • 12 heaping tablespoons of browned, ground coriander seeds (see below for instructions)
  • Olive or grape seed oil
  • About 1 cup of lemon juice (for flavor and to help the tomatoes in de-slime-ing the soup)
  • One large soup pot
How to make Molokhia:
First the coriander seeds. For some reason these seeds need to be browned and ground before use, otherwise the soup tastes completely different. This is the 2nd most prominent flavor of the soup, and therefore very important. You will want to use a large amount of seeds – remember that you will need about 12 heaping tablespoons after its ground.  In a pan, pour about 1-2 tbsp of olive or grape seed oil, place on medium-low heat and add coriander seeds. Turn the seeds until they become toasted and brown all over and the oil has burned away. Turn off heat and remove the seeds. When cool, run the seeds through your coffee grinder (or something similar, or bust out the good old mortar and pestle) and grind until it's the consistency of ground pepper.

In your large pot on medium-high heat, pour oil - enough to just about cover the bottom of the pot. Add your garlic and saute. Then add 12 tbsp of ground coriander seeds and stir. Use the back of your spoon to mash the coriander and garlic to the bottom of the pot, browning the garlic.  Once the garlic is browned, or it looks like everything has sauteed enough, add your chicken broth. Reduce heat to medium low and stir.  Add your 5 packets of minced Molokhia leaves, frozen and straight out of the package (add them to the broth carefully so you don't splash!). Cover the pot and allow to lightly boil, watching the pot and stirring about every 3-5 minutes to break up the Molokhia and help it defrost.
As you stir, you will begin to notice the slimy consistency the leaves bring to the soup. Now it's time to add the cut tomatoes and about 1/2 the lemon juice. Continue to stir and let the soup simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Now taste the soup and add more lemon juice to taste, as you like it. I like mine extra lemony.
Serve with rice pilaf on the side  (or in it like E and I like too), or some warm bread for dipping.
The verdict: Like I said before, the thing with this soup is you either love it or you don't, but we love it. It's simple and light but can be strong on the garlic, depending on how  you prepared it. For me, I like it paired with more of a meal, like chicken and pilaf, rather than having it by itself. The great thing about cooking atchkee chop is that you can adjust it to your taste. Don't want it so leafy? Don't use as many packages of Molokhia. Don't want it too garlicky? Use only 1-2 heads. Like it more lemony? Juice another lemon, or serve your soup with a wedge on the side.  You can make it however you want, the way you want it to taste. 

What we would do differently:  It feels weird answering this question since I was learning this soup from another family member... rather than following a recipe in a book. I think I personally would have added more tomatoes and more lemon. I really like the flavor that the tomatoes added, and I enjoyed eating them in large chunks in the soup. Their purpose is really to make the leaves less slimy, but I think they really add a good flavor to it all. And I like the lemon too, in lots of foods. E said he would have liked some more garlic - yes - more garlic. That's how we roll, lots of garlic. Don't worry, there are lots of breath mints and gum in our pockets and purses.

Well, that's Molokhia for you. I hope you enjoyed this Middle Eastern treat. Stay tuned for soup #6!