Friday, July 25, 2008

Perfect Pita on the Volcano

Here at the Ecovillage Training Center our cook for a number of seasons was a former-kibbutznik, Shmuel Ofanowski, and when he left to return to Israel, his tradition of making pitoh in the traditional Middle-Eastern style was kept alive by Murad Al-Khufash, director of Global Village Institute’s Marda Permaculture Farm, who was a visiting instructor here at The Farm off an on for five years. Murad is back in Nabluus now, where he liaises with Shmuel in the Peace Thru Permaculture initiative, and manages our tree-planting program. When Starhawk was unexpectedly detained and refused entry to the West Bank to teach, with Jan Martin Bang, our permaculture course at Marda earlier this year, Geoff Lawton came to our rescue and peeled off two of his local volunteers to fill her shoes. The Marda course was a great success, transmitting orchard and garden design, natural building with cob, earthbag and stone, traditional Palestinian terrace farming, rainwater harvesting and graywater recycling, swales and keylines, vermiculture, composting, cover crops, bioremediation with mushroom mycelium, chicken tractors, and much more.

I have to think that Murad’s skill in making pita has to be at least one small part of why these courses are so successful. Back in 2003 when Murad needed to go to the big city for a while to make some money to help his village back in the West Bank, he got a job in a restaurant in Chicago, and they soon appreciated his skill and put that to work. Nobody could make pita like Murad. Before long, he was catering to restaurants all over Chicago.

In order for some of our newer staff to be part of the ecovillage design course here this week, we are tag-teaming in the kitchen and I drew a lunch slot with pita and zucchini hummus on the menu. Where is Murad when I need him, I thought. I emailed him for tips on pita, and he sent me several. One was to not bake the pita, but rather do it in a large skillet, using flour to keep from sticking.

Since it is pretty hot here this week, I got up early this morning and set out a summer kitchen on a picnic table. I pulled down our volcano stove from where it hangs under the eaves and lit a fresh batch of charcoal. The volcano burns anything, and very efficiently, so it is a tool I recommend in my book.

The process actually began around dawn, when I started the dough while my tea-water was coming to a boil. Pita dough is pretty simple; just pizza dough with less sweetener. I recommend freshly ground flour and corn meal (which we now get in bulk from the Yoders, our Amish neighbors), sea salt, and cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. I start by pouring warm water into the mixing bowl, and adding the yeast, a pinch of sugar, a pinch of corn meal, and the oil, stirring just one turn, and then watching to see if the yeast is working. It should start bubbling up to the surface and spreading out from the center if it is a healthy, active yeast. Once it does that, I whisk in the flour until it is too stiff to whisk, then stir with a wood spoon or my hand, adding more flour and beginning to knead it. I actually used 3 kilos of flour this morning, but most folks won’t need that much, so I have cut the recipe below to 1 kilo, which will make about 15 large pita.

The dough gets covered with muslin and set in a warm place to rise, until it doubles in size. Time enough to light the fire and get the pan good and hot. Most pita recipes call for an oven at 400°F but both Shmuel and Murad favored our 18-inch skillet, so that is what I use. It takes a long time to get the skillet hot enough, but while it was heating, I began to divide the dough into fist-size balls and set them out for rolling. They needed another 20-minutes of rising, uncovered, after being divided.

As expected, the first pita in the skillet did not make a pocket for me, so I knew the pan was not hot enough and went to fetch the oven thermometer. I discovered that the pockets start happening above 250°F and pop really fast at anything over 300°F. I could tell the pan was hot enough if they bubbled on the uncooked side, like pancakes, when laid in the pan. As soon as I flip them, they should pop out the air pocket. They deflate in the covered dish, but can be re-opened by the guest when it is time to put in the hummus.

When I rolled out the dough, I used corn meal with a dash of salt to cover the balls and protect the rolling pin, and that also kept them from sticking to the pan. Murad did not use corn meal, but I found it better than flour to keep the pita from burning or sticking, and it also gave the bread a nice flavor and crunchy crust. I found I could speed up the pan-baking process by covering the skillet with a lid.

2 c. lukewarm water
1 Tbs active dry baker’s yeast
2 tsp salt
¼ c. olive oil
1 pinch sugar or tsp honey
1 kg (2.2 lb.) unbleached wheat flour
1 c. cornmeal
Mix water, yeast, oil and sugar, add a pinch of corn meal, stir briefly, and let stand for a minute or more. Add salt and stir, whisk in flour, stir as it stiffens, and knead. Cover and let the dough stand until it doubles in size.

Heat pan as hot as you can get it. Form small balls (tennis-ball size) with your hand let them stand uncovered for 20 minutes. Roll out the balls into flat circles 1/8-inch thick, dusting with salted cornmeal to keep them from sticking. Dry fry the pitas in the hot pan until they puff out and brown, then place them in a metal or ceramic bowl and cover the bowl to keep moist and flexible.

These go well with hummus on a hot day, or stuffed with falafels. They are also good for personal pizza shells. We never have any left over, because people will eat as many as I make. Thanks again to Shmuel and Murad for enriching our lives in this lasting way.

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