Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sesame Possum

sesame art courtesy of the obsessive, amazing Philip Brooker

I remember a time when I was a little girl, riding in the car somewhere with my parents. The car, I believe, was a Dodge Dart, and it seemed to go on for a city block, This was before the days of confining car seats and I was in my own vast world of the back seat while my hip, progressive parents sat in front, discussing someone. They described this person as obsessive-compulsive, which my little girl ear and brain translated as sesame possum.

I had seen this creature and I adored it. We used to have a plethora of possums in South Florida before they became road kill and I admired how they hung from trees by their tails, like ripe fruit. Their short, bristly fur could look as though composed of sesame seeds, and they have those sharp, seed-like teeth, which somehow never scared me. All I wanted to do was get to this sesame possum and play with it.

I popped up behind my parents. “Where?” I asked. “Where is the sesame possum?”

My parents laughed and from the front seat, one-armed hugged me for being the cute and clever kid I was. I’d say they affectionately mussed my hair, but it was Beatle-short in those days (why, Mom, why?) and unmussable.

In any case, the term became part of our family argot. Anyone stuck in some crazed brain loop, anyone fixated, anyone who’s your classic type A -- we call him a sesame possum.

I have a tendency towards being one myself, alas. I noodle, I stew (ah, two cooking terms, no wonder I write about food -- it sublimates my crazies). It isn't that I want to be obsessive. It's that I'm very, very good at it. And I’m an equal opportunity obsessor -- I can obsess over the state of the world or the health of a friend or what I’m going to make for dinner. In fact, I’d been noodling and stewing about how to create this very sesame possum blogpost, wondering how to frame it. Could I get away with a “Sesame Mucho” pun? No, no, no. What sesamesque recipe should I create for it? Maybe I’d make halvah. Does anyone like halvah but me? I could do an Asian sesame something or other. I fretted, I noodled, I stewed. Because, really, obsession is never done, and indeed, I could have gone on for a long time.

Literature came to the rescue, not for the first time.

I interviewed Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk in conjunction with his appearance at Miami Book Fair International. His new book The Museum of Innocence is narrated by Kemal, in love with Fusun, and when their affair goes south, he creates a museum of artifacts of their lost love. He collects her stray earrings, empty cologne bottles, her 4,213 cigarette stubs.

“I may not have ‘won’ the woman I loved so obsessively,” says Kemal, “but it cheered me to have broken off a piece of her, however small.”

I asked Pamuk in what ways he might be as obsessive as Kemal. A semi-playful softball question, I thought, assuming he’d go for a parallel between love and literature. Never assume.

“It’s not obsession,” he insisted. “It’s normal.”

Part of me thought, oh, really, Mr. Pamuk, because here in America, we call anyone who moons after someone for eight years, as Kemal does, obsessed, if not a bit of a stalker weirdo. And part of me felt accepted, absolved, relieved, grateful. Call it obsession, call it love, call it, as Pamuk does, normal, “It happens to so many people.”

So, what the hell, a little obsession isn’t so bad, it’s just the dark side of passion, and we need that. I do, anyway. I’d rather be passionate than perfect. Most of us would. For more on that, stay tuned for my next post, Weird Science, which features another author and (yay) another cooking metaphor. In the meantime, here’s

Obsessive Turkish Noodle Stew With Sesame

Sometimes obsession pays off, as with this recipe -- a 21st century version of guvech, a classic Turkish stew, an homage of sorts to Mr. Pamuk. You can bake this for an hour in a covered casserole. You can also throw everything in a generous soup pot, clap the lid on it and cook it over high-ish heat atop the stove for 25 minutes and be done with it. Both ways work. No need to obsess about it.

8 ounces noodles (whole grain fusilli holds the sauce rather nicely)

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 zucchini

1 onion

8 ounces mushrooms

2 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes (or 3 to 4 really gorgeous ripe tomatoes)

1/4 cup red wine or vegetable broth

1 handful fresh mint leaves

juice of 2 lemons

2 tablespoons tahini

2 tablespoons harissa (Moroccan red pepper paste)*

1/4 cup sesame seeds

sea salt and ground pepper

To bake:

Preheat oven to 400.

Pour pasta into a large casserole. Slice zucchini, onion and mushrooms, and scatter on top. Drizzle olive oil over all. Top with mint leaves.

In a large bowl, stir together together tomatoes, wine or broth, lemon juice, tahini and harissa. Pour over noodles and vegetables. Cover with lid and bake for one hour.

Toast sesame seeds in oven (same temperature as guvech) for 4 minutes, or until just golden. Scatter sesame seeds over casserole, season with salt and pepper.

To do stovetop:

Pour olive oil into a large soup pot. Heat over medium-high heat.

Slice zucchini, onion and mushrooms. Add to pot, along with pasta, stirring to coat.

Pour in tomatoes, wine or broth, tahini and harissa. Bring mixture to boil. Stir well and place lid on pot. Reduce heat to medium and let cook for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until vegetables and pasta are just tender and have absorbed most of the sauce. Squeeze in lemon juice and add mint leaves. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 400. Pour sesame seeds into a small heatproof bowl or ramekin. Toast for 4 minutes. .Sprinkle sesame seeds over pasta and vegetables and serve.

Serves 4.

*Should you find yourself harissaless, substitute a teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon coriander and 1 teaspoon caraway seeds and hope for the best.