Feast like an Egyptian at the Cleveland Museum of Art
The Cleveland Museum of Art’s centennial exhibition “Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt” has a culinary component. The museum’s restaurant offers a chance to eat like an Egyptian.
In today’s Quick Bite, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports on a feast fit for a pharaoh.
Chef Doug Katz stirs up some kusheri, the national dish of Egypt, tasting to make sure it’s just right.
“Oh, it’s perfect,” he decides.
Kusheri, a spicy mixture of rice and legumes, is on a fixed-price menu at Provenance, the museum’s fine dining restaurant.
It’s part of a three-course dinner designed to complement the ancient art in the museum’s Pharaoh exhibition. The kusheri accompanies a chutney of leeks and dates, a squash and cucumber salad and seared duck breast with a pomegranate gastrique.
Executive Chef Joe Perez helped create the menu.
“It was a little challenging. But funny enough, a lot of Egyptian cuisine is very similar to any other Mediterranean cuisine, so it utilizes a lot of the same ingredients and spices.”
Chef Perez researched both ancient and modern Egyptian preferences.
“They eat a lot of grains, a lot of legumes, and a lot of really nice protein like duck and Mediterranean fish. But it’s all very, very simple preparations of all those items.”
Sweet from start to finish
A baklava dessert completes the menu, and there are sweet notes in the entrée, too, coming from dates.
“It was actually a sugar substitute back then. They would use dates to make alcoholic beverages. They’d use it in regular cooking and baking just as a sweetener in the absence of other sweeteners like honey.”
There is honey for dipping in the appetizer, a typical Middle Eastern mezze plate.
“We do house-made clay bread that’s made in our Tandoor oven, with some fava-bean hummus, some local honeycomb, some pickled turnips, some candied nuts, and that becomes the first course of this dish. And it would be something that would be enjoyed on the shores of the Nile on a nice afternoon.”
To start the kusheri, Katz caramelized some local leeks and made saffron rice.
“And we’ve also cooked some lentils in a flavorful stock and cooled that down. We will actually combine that and add a little bit of extra stock and seasoning, just a little salt and a little pepper. And that will be one of the components of the dish. That’s the kusheri.”
He likes the look of it.
“It has a really nice yellow color from the saffron. There’s a little bit of cumin. And we toast that and give it some really nice flavor.”
Street food of Modern Egypt
It’s unlikely the pharoahs enjoyed kusheri. Rice is not indigenous to Egypt.
But an Indian dish made with lentils and rice called “khichri” was popular with British colonialists who brought it to Egypt in the late 1800s.
Kusheri has been Cairo’s most popular street food ever since. There, they make it with sumac. But Perez says at Provenance they leave out that lemony spice.
“It has kind of a tart acidity to it we just couldn’t find a place for the sumac in this version of the kusheri because it kind of pulled away from the subtleness of the saffron and the toasty notes of the cumin and coriander that we put into it. It just didn’t quite fit with what we were doing with this dish, so we decided against it.”
They also decided against local duck.
“For this prix fixe menu actually some of the vegetables, the cucumbers and the squash we’re using on the salad on this dish come from a local farm that we utilize, Chef’s Garden out of Huron," says Perez, “but unfortunately the duck, for the quality that we’re looking for, there’s not a local farm around here that we can utilize. This duck actually comes from upstate New York.”
“Local is really important, “says Katz, “but only if you can get the best quality. And if you can’t, I think it’s important to look outside and go with an artisan source. Artisan is a great term, especially at the art museum.”
Art as inspiration
Katz drew inspiration for the special menu from the Pharaoh exhibition itself.
“It just really takes you to that time and that period and that place. And I think that’s what’s so great about the art in the museum and even the food. I mean the idea is to transport yourself from your daily life maybe and have something, be able to experience something new.”
The choice of seared duck was a natural. Both rich and poor in ancient Egypt would hunt for duck.
“You know, it really eats well with the kusheri,” says Katz. “We just thought it would be a great pairing and with the pomegranate syrup as well.”
Pomegranate was also prominent in the ancient Egyptian diet.
“Very important,” says Perez, “and it was used again in savory and sweet dishes, used to make alcohol, used
to make vinegars, all of those things.”
Searing the duck
“And then here’s our duck breast,” says Katz, showing how he’s prepared it for the pan.
“Duck has a lot of fat on it, and so it’s really important as you prepare the duck to score the skin. You really want to render the skin so that it’s crispy. And if you don’t score it, it tends to have a layer of fat throughout that duck breast that can be a little bit tougher and less delicious.”
Katz lets his oiled pan get good and hot while he readies the duck breast.
“We’ll season this with a little bit of salt, and a little bit of pepper, and flip it over. Do both sides. Drop that into the pan. And you want to press that duck into the pan so that it evenly sears and gets a nice crust on that. Just check that skin, and make sure it's nice and crispy before you flip it over."
No need for the oven
The total cooking time is about 10 minutes.
“We like to cook it on the medium rare to rare side,” says Katz.
He can hear from the sizzle how things are going.
“In a restaurant kitchen you tend to start things on the stovetop, but then you finish them in the oven. With this duck, it cooks so long on that skin side that it should cook through to the doneness that we’re looking for.”
Touching for doneness
He’s also feeling for it.
“I’m also going to press on the duck and just feel the temperature. ... We’re very close. And then we want to turn the heat off and let it rest for about 3 minutes. And then we’ll slice it. Because if you cut it right away all the juice will run, and we want that juice to stay in to the meat.”
He pays a little more attention to the kusheri, adds a little butter and lets it sit while he slices the duck.
Katz spent some time in the Middle East while the Pharaoh menu was in its planning stages.
“So I was able to really immerse myself in that area of the world, which really made it fun. I was going through markets in Israel, and I just really felt that I could get the sense of what the food was like in that area.”
Perez also wants to check it out.
“I’d love to go to have some Egyptian grandmother cook this dinner for me, and see how this one holds up.”