Thursday, October 22, 2015

Lamb Kefta Meatballs in Tahini Gravy

If you are looking for a rich, savory, satisfying meal, I have one for you today. Spiced lamb meatballs, browned up in a skillet, and then served with a simple tahini and lemon gravy, has all of the classic flavors of the Levant, and all of the comfort of a traditional meatball. Just as in other cuisines, the same seasoned ground meats can become meatloaf or meatballs, kefta can become a kefta meatloaf, when spread flat in a pan to bake, or kefta kebabs, when formed into ovals and grilling over charcoal, or meatballs. In Palestine, butchers often grind orders of beef and lamb together, to save the cooks one step. That's because there is something magical about combining a little lamb with your beef. The flavor deepens, becomes richer and a little more savory. These little lamb meatballs, stuffed with parsley, onion, allspice and cinnamon, will perfume the entire neighborhood as you are frying them up, so be careful: if your neighbor smells it, she will knock on your door!  You might want to have some toothpicks handy!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Red Lentil Soup with Sourdough Sumac Croutons

This ancient soup is the stuff of stories.

Maybe you've heard this one before:

A long time ago, a woman carries two babies inside of her belly.  They wrestle in her womb, each longing to be first-born, until her labor pains come and one baby boy emerges, ruddy-fleshed and with a full head of hair.  The second is longer, leaner, and grasping the heel of his now older brother.

The ruddy one becomes tall and strong.  He hunts for game, bringing home limp animals slung over his shoulder, ready for the fire.  The ankle-grasper stays by the fire, seasoning and stirring pots of stew.

"Quick, let me have some of that red stew!  I am famished," said the ruddy one, throwing down his burden, and thrusting a bowl towards his brother.

"First, sell me your birthright," said the second-born, with a little laugh, stirring the pot.

"Look, I am about to die.  What good is a birthright to me?"

And so the ankle-grasper poured his ruddy brother a bowl of this ruddy lentil stew.  He gave him some bread.  And the older brother ate and drank, and then got up and left.

A humble, simple pot of soup sits in the middle of this ancient, Middle Eastern story of two brothers, Esau and Jacob.  This isn't fancy food.  This isn't feast food.  It isn't the wild game, dripping with fat, roasting over the fire, that the older brother brought home.  This is just simple, every-day fare, the kind you eat for lunch most days, the kind that you find waiting for you when you get home.

And yet, it is delicious.  If you have never cooked with red lentils before, they are a little revelation.  Bright red in the bag, they look like little chips of a legume, but when cooked down, they yellow, soften and melt into the soup.  Smooth and creamy, when this soup cools a little, it sets up into a thick and stodgy stew.  Yes, I said it:  stodgy.  Palestinians like to keep this soup very simple:  a little onion or garlic, maybe, a few spices from the cupboard, lemon squeezed on top.  It is a humble, everyday sort of soup, but it sings until you scrape down the bottom of your bowl.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Chicken, Sumac and Onion Flatbread, or Musakhan

I have been sitting on this recipe for a little while.  I wanted to get it just right.

After all, musakhan is as important to Palestinians as deep-dish pizza is to Chicagoans.  A girl has to tread lightly here.  I have to hit all the right notes:  the soft, pillowy bread doused in broth, and then broiled crisp, the tangy sumac-spiced sauteed onions, toasted pine nuts and roast chicken, with just a drizzle of peppery olive oil to finish.

Musakhan is one of those traditional recipes that has breathed with the generations of Arabs who have birthed, lived and died in Palestine. It is one of our signature dish - the wild sumac, the pine nuts, the olives from our groves - and born from our ancient clay taboon ovens. These communal ovens served as a gathering spot for villagers, where families brought their trays of rolled out loaves of bread, proofed and puffy and ready for the oven. Taboon ovens are made of clay, and filled with hot stones, and then placed over a fire. Taboon bread, unlike regular pocket Arabic bread, is baked directly on the hot, smooth, rounded rocks, giving the bread its characteristic puff and char.

Palestinian village taboon oven.  Photo taken 1898-1914, by the American Colony, Jerusalem.

The word musakhan (or msakhan)  means heated up. All of the ingredients are precooked, assembled on taboon bread, and then reheated. Similar to other flatbreads, such as our za'atar breads (mana'eesh) or spiced meat pies (sfiha), these dishes were economical and practical since they used the dough from the villager's daily baked bread and turned the dough into a  meal.  In this case, the bread was soaked in broth, topped with sauteed onion, chicken and nuts, and then returned to the oven to finish.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Middle Eastern Lemon Herb Potato Salad

Many years ago, I had a summer job in a grocery store deli in the rural Wisconsin. It wasn't a glamorous job. I rode my bike to the grocery store, pulled on my hair net (ugh), and disappeared into the kitchen. When I wasn't on frying chicken duty, I was on potato salad duty. On those days, I would spend the day making my actual body weight in potato salad. I washed and peeled buckets of potatoes, added in another bucket of preboiled eggs, glopped in giant vats of mayonnaise. Of course, I wasn't allowed to veer from the given recipe. I remember bending over the massive tub of potato salad, mixing and mixing the potato salad by hand, because there was just too much to mix with a spoon. I was literally up to my elbows in mayonnaise. At least it's moisturizing, I told myself.

Customers said that the potato salad was really good. Maybe it was. I, for one, could never bring myself to taste it.

But this potato salad is something else entirely. If you are used to the thick, creamy, heavy potato salad, this one is a revelation:  this is bright, lemony, herbaceous, and instantly addictive. I have always known that potatoes need fat - think baked potatoes and sour cream, or mashed potatoes with butter - to balance the flavor and your blood sugar. My most recent revelation is that to make potatoes really sing, you need to add an acid - think of the British and their malt vinegar potato fries. In Middle Eastern cuisine, that acid is usually lemon. Here, in this classic Arabic dish, the lemons make the potatoes sing, and when you throw in the trifecta of fresh herbs - mint, parsley and scallions - oh, and a tiny hint of crushed garlic - the salad just about gets up and does the dabkeh!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Everybody Cooks Rice

Not long ago, I shared an  article on Indian food with my Facebook friends. What ensued was a lively discussion about Indian and Middle Eastern food - which spices are used, why they are so delicious. There may have been just a teensy little bit of good-natured rivalry between me and a dear college friend, who hails from India. In the end, there was only one way to end the discussion:  take it to the table. So, a few weeks ago, we gathered up our families, and converged on one home to enjoy a potluck luncheon of food from all of our cultures.

As I ran out the door to the luncheon, balancing platters of food, I grabbed a children's book that I had picked up at the last library book sale a few weeks earlier.

Everybody Cooks Rice, said the book.

Yes, I had thought.  Of course, they do.

It was the perfect book to bring to such a luncheon, for child and adult alike to peruse.

Everybody Cooks Rice is a gentle story about a little girl who lives in a very diverse urban neighborhood.  Her mother asks her to run outside and find her brother; dinner is ready. So, off this little girl runs to find her brother, and in doing so, pops her head into many of her neighbors' homes. In each home, someone is cooking a pot of rice - from Creole-style Haitian rice to fancy Indian biryani. As the girl flits from home to home, we, the reader, get to peek into each pot, each family and each culture. The book ends with recipes for all of the rice dishes described.

It was a simple story, but a sweet one.  To my surprise, my friends were already familiar with the theme of the book, for they had a copy of a similar book, Everybody Bakes Bread.  Still, as we lunched on kofta and coconut rice, mnezzali and allspice and cinnamon rice, and laughed and proclaimed that these dishes were absolutely delicious, I chewed on the words:  everybody cooks rice.

I thought about our own little multicultural gathering, and my own multicultural street, and all of the pots of rice served in each house.

I thought about the way rice sustains entire populations around the globe.

I thought about how my mother taught me how to make rice. How to do it, just so: soak, rinse, spice, simmer.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Passing Oranges in the Park (and other Distressing Cultural Encounters)

I sat in a park this week, my two older children digging wildly in the sand, and the baby in my lap, cooing and twisting my necklace. It was a brightly sunny morning, with whipped clouds, and the northern Virginia park, often desolate on a Monday morning, was filled with children running free on spring break.

I found a shady spot and sat on the cool, damp ground and nursed my baby. A little girl plopped down on the grass next to me. I noted her thick hair, her hot-pink sparkly baseball cap, her white long-sleeved shirt and too-short purple pants. She didn't say anything, just sat next to me as I nursed my baby. She spread out her sweatshirt as a makeshift picnic blanket, took out a sandwich. I was charmed. Soon, a little boy joined her. He was sturdily built, with curly brown hair peaking out from under his hat. As he darted back to the playground, the thought flitted through my head:  I think that they are Israelis.

Anywhere in the world, I can always pick out the Arabs, and the Israelis. It's something you learn how to do, when you are living a blurry, line-crossing life in Jerusalem. When you are an American and an Arab and an Israeli and a Palestinian, you learn to read the fine print.

I was right. A woman came over from the nearby picnic table, to sit cross-legged in the grass with the little girl. She spoke to the little girl in Hebrew. As I nursed my baby, along came two more women, the little boy, another little girl. The circle grew wider and wider, closer and closer to me.  A little girl in stretchy pants frog-hopped all around me. I smiled at the woman and said, in English, She is so cute. She smiled back.

I sat and listened to them speak to each other, listened to the sounds of my home wash over me. For a second, the ground tilted, and I was sitting on the lawn of Independence Park, in West Jerusalem.

I wanted to ask them where they were from, what they were doing here, in the park, and tell them that, I, too, was from Israel. We've eaten the same tomatoes. We've browsed in the same shops on King George's Street. We've hiked the same wadis. Our feet have pressed into the same soil, eaten the same olives, poured the same water.

And yet.  I stared straight ahead at my children.

It really wouldn't do, would it?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Baked Kibbeh, or Kibbeh bi Saniyeh

In the Middle East, meat is sacred food, feasting food, celebratory food.  And while every day dishes are often vegetarian or feature vegetables, when it is time to celebrate, it is time to slaughter the fattened lamb.

So get ready:  we're serving meat today.  And by that I mean that meat stuffed with more meat.

On the outside, a glorious, buttery, crispy crust, laced with the savoriness of rich meat. Inside, sweetly spiced ground meats, tender onion.  A few stray buttery pine nuts tumble out.  This platter, cut deftly in the traditional diamond pattern, is enough to make any meat-lover swoon.  It isn't a party until a platter of kibbeh shows up at the door.

I imagine that without refrigeration, and in the hot, arid climate of Palestine, my grandparents and great-grandparents ate their meat quickly.   When it was time to slaughter the fattened calf, lamb or goat, everyone was invited to the feast, the dishes were served quickly, and any leftovers were eaten at the very next meal.

Kibbeh, (also kibbe, kubbeh, kubbi), is the steak tartare of the Arab world.  Immediately after the animal was slaughtered, my ancestors prepared this dish with choice cuts of fresh, extra-lean meat. The meat was minced finely, and beaten with burghol and spices, drizzled with fruity green olive oil and dressed with herbs, and served as a luxuriant raw appetizer.   If this seems strange, remember that most every traditional culture has a raw animal protein delicacy, from steak tartare to sushi, carpaccio to ceviche.

Today, while raw kibbeh (or kibbeh nayyeh) remains the darling of the Arab world (and I'm sorry, but for a good giggle, you just have to watch this ode to kibbeh nayyeh) it is most often cooked, formed into patties or a torpedo-shaped ball, stuffed with the meat filling, and then deep fried.   Fried kibbeh's less fussy sister is kibbeh bi saniyeh, or baked kibbeh.  It is just as tasty, but faster to pull together and perfect for feeding a crowd. Today, I'll show you how to make this baked version.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

How to Fry Eggs like an Arab: Crispy Fried Eggs in Olive Oil

Smooth or Crispy?

As a young newlywed, my husband's Pennsylvania-Dutch father taught me:  heat the pan gently, melt a pat of butter, crack the egg and wait.  Flip once, if you like.  Slide out of the pan.

I was amazed.  I had never had a fried egg like that.  The whites were tender, with a homogeneous texture, and the yolks were smooth, smooth, smooth, with all of the comfort of a diner breakfast.   My husband and I ate these gently butter-fried eggs since we were newlyweds, perfecting our technique on leisurely weekend mornings.

And then, recently, I remembered.

I remembered the crispy olive-oil fried egg of my Palestinian childhood, with all of its dramatic sizzling olive oil, the writhing whites boiling up and puffing, and the technique my own father showed me:   tilt the pan and spoon olive oil over the yolk to help it set.  I wondered, after all of those years of  tender buttered whites, would I relish the crisped, laced bottom of an oil-fried egg?

Only one way to find out.

Frizzled Whites, Crispy Bottoms, Runny Yolks: Yes, Please.  

The verdict?  YUM.

This fried egg has a completely different personality than those buttery-smooth eggs.  The bottoms are crispy and caramelized, like the bottom of a good grilled cheese sandwich, with the whites perfectly set on top and the ooey-gooey goodness of a runny yolk.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Middle Eastern Breakfast Bowl: Za'atar Skillet Potato Hash with Fried Egg

It's February now, the dreariest month of the year, in my book. Too cold to go out much, and the sniffles and coughs are passed around in my house, from preschooler to baby to mommy, and we begin to feel just a little bit, well, crazed. Know what I mean?

My Palestinian great-grandmother used to say:  If all of the old women in the village make it through February, they will live to see another year.  

Not to be bleak or anything.

I remember February in Jerusalem as being the longest, coldest months of my life. With no central heating, and not enough sunshine to heat up the water on our roof-top solar panels, we were cold, cold, cold. It was an inescapable cold, from the moment my feet touched the icy tile floors, that persisted during our (unheated) school hours, where I reluctantly sat shivering at my desk, until deep in the night, when I listened to wind wailing through my bedroom windows, hauntingly mixed with with howl of roaming dogs and the mosque's early morning call to prayer. I bathed with basins of hot water that my mother heated up in kettles, slept with hot water bottles wrapped in flannel sheets, and in the afternoons,while rain flogged the green metal shutters, I warmed my hands over the kerosene heaters, my fingers too stiff to work the piano keys.

On frosty mornings, my father warmed up frozen loaves of pita bread by setting them on the top of a kerosene heater to defrost.  I still remember the sizzle as the ice dripped down into the heater, and the smell of charring bread. My mother worked at the little stove top, frying eggs and potatoes or white cheese, or stirring a hot porridge. Warm breakfasts for cold mornings, she said.

Here, in northern Virginia, I get to watch the cold from my window, darting quickly to a car and back. February is now the month of long, snowed-in days, of blizzards, of crafts and reading inside, of snowy romps on frozen streams.

Time to stir up a little warm breakfast, I thought to myself this week:  something easy, something filling, something that I can make without leaving my house. A few minutes later, I found myself gathering ingredients to make a Middle Eastern breakfast bowl, akin to the breakfasts my mother made for us.

If you have a stocked Middle Eastern pantry, you already have everything you need to make this for breakfast.  Or lunch. Or dinner. I won't tell. Nor will it matter when you are snowed in for days on end.

These potatoes are flavored with the classic Middle Eastern seasoning, za'atar, which is a blend of our indigenous thyme, lemony sumac, sesame seed and salt.  While this seasoning is usually used for bread, such as za'atar bread (mana'eesh), or for dipping, I think that the flavors of thyme also work beautifully with potatoes. By frying the potatoes in olive oil, the same zayt-and-za'atar flavors of our olive oil-and-za'atar sandwiches comes through, and a final squeeze of lemon lifts and balances the dish.

Arabs regard za'atar as a medicinal herb for warding off respiratory infection. Perfect excuse to eat these again tomorrow? I think so.  

Add an olive-oil fried egg (have I shown you yet how Arabs fry eggs? I must do so), or scramble an egg and stir it in at the end, to make a warming breakfast dish sure to scare away the February blues.

Za'atar Skillet Potato Hash with Fried Egg

(serves one)

1 large white potato
2 tbsp olive oil, approximate
Small clove of garlic, minced
1 tsp za'atar*
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Lemon wedge

1.  Scrub potatoes. You may leave skin on or off, as desired. I like them on.

2.  Optional, time-saving tip:  microwave potatoes (or you could also  parboil in salted boiling water) until slightly tender, about three minutes in the microwave, flipping once. Then cool slightly until you can handle them. You can also prepare potatoes in advance and refrigerate until ready to proceed with the recipe.

3.  Coat a skillet with a layer of  olive oil and heat over medium heat. Dice the potato in a 1/2 inch dice. When the oil is hot, add potatoes in a single layer. Season with salt and pepper. Stir only occasionally, letting the potatoes fry until golden brown. If they are precooked, this will take 5 minutes.

4.  Sprinkle potatoes with za'atar and stir to coat. Add another drizzle of olive oil, and minced garlic, and fry for another minute or two until golden brown and fragment. Remove from heat; squeeze fresh lemon juice over the potatoes, toss and pour out into a bowl.

5.  Serve with a fried egg on top. Or, leave the potatoes in the skillet and scramble in some eggs. Sprinkle with a little more za'atar.

*Za'atar can be purchased at large grocery stores, Middle Eastern grocers, or online.  If you want to make it, combine 1/4 cup ground thyme, 1/4 cup ground sumac, 1/4 cup sesame seeds and 1 tsp sea salt.


Related Posts:

*Ancient Herbs: Za'atar and Sumac

*Za'atar Bread, or Mana'eesh

*Zayt-and-Za'atar Sourdough Crackers

Thursday, February 12, 2015

How to Stock a Middle Eastern Pantry

Food shopping was (and is?) a laborious affair in the Middle East, with many stops to make and many heavy bags to carry home, but the enticing smell of spice and coffee, or a chance to nibble on fresh "pita" bread in the backseat of my father's marroon Opal Ascona, always brought me around.

Spice shops down winding, stone-flagged streets of the Old City of Jerusalem offered up bins of spices, and for a few shekels, hefty spoonfuls of spice could be measured out and captured into a plastic bag.  Visits to the butcher were more traumatic.  In Cairo, my young sister once mistook the rows of rabbits and chickens in crates outside of a butcher shop for a pet store, and while we admired and stroked the little animals, the butcher behind us slaughtered the chickens my mother had picked out.  It was some time before my sister could manage to eat chicken after that.  We bought produce from villagers, their cabbages, cousa, prickly pears spread on mats in front of their laps. Other times, my mother laughed and announced it was time to go to THE GARDEN OF EDEN, our loftily-named neighborhood produce market, where bins of grapefruit and eggplants waited for customers under dusty fans, and faded tropical wall art.  Finally, we purchased our milk, eggs, mustard and coffee from our small neighborhood grocery store, Ja'fars.  It had parking spots for five cars, and many times we would have to circle back, waiting for one of their five customers to leave.  Its narrow aisles were stuffed with bottles and jars, packets and tins -- all expensive, I was told.  We filled a little basket, and sometimes I would look at the imported foods with wonder - a cake mix!  Look at that! But we usually shopped simply, for olives and nuts, butter and cheese.

Today, people would say that "we shopped local and in-season."   But we didn't do this by choice, we did this by necessity.  We built our menu around a basic list of available ingredients.  Our food was predictable.

In many part of the world now, simplicity is not something that our culture gives us, but something we have to choose for ourselves.  We have So. Many. Choices.  We cook Italian pasta one night, Indian curry the other.  We can cook classic French on Valentine's Day and classic American on Super Bowl Saturday.  Grocery store aisles go on for days.  Variety is the spice of life, we say. But that is sometimes the problem.  In the face of Pinterest, food blogs (yikes!), recipes abound, but with so many choices, comes choice paralysis.  And every week, you face the same questions, what to make, what to buy.  And this takes time, time that you could be using to just make dinner.

In the face of so many choices, choosing to to centering your food purchases around one regional cuisine isn't just fun, it's smart. Stocking ingredients for one cuisine relieves your wallet and your cupboards, as they are no longer littered with  half-used bottles, and forgotten ingredients. The ingredients just work together, so dishes suggest themselves.  Lemon and lamb, rice and almonds, cucumbers with minted yogurt- these beckon from the kitchen.  And so while my Garden of Eden days are behind me, I have learned that one of the best ways to keep my kitchen simple is to keep a kitchen stopped with basic ingredients for one cuisine.

If you want to center your kitchen provisions around Middle Eastern Dishes, here is what to do:

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Making "Fawaffles": An Experiment with Arab and American Cultural Identity

Last week, I ran across this post from the blog Food Republic, describing a collision of two of my favorite foods:  waffles and falafels.   

Enter the fawaffle.  


Really?  Fawaffle?  Make falafels in your waffle iron?  

I jumped right up on my soapbox, and began to mentally enumerate all of the ways that this dish was just.  plain. wrong.  Leave it to Americans, I thought to myself, to take a perfectly good falafel and squish it into a waffle iron.  Always innovating.  Always trying to change things up.  Always trying to improve on perfection.   


But.  I kinda wanted to do it.  My leftover falafel mix in the fridge beckoned me.  It would be so easy, I thought, so fast.  And who knows?  Maybe it will also taste all right.  Even if it doesn't, won't it be fun?

I walked around the house for a while, taking care of this and that, and listened to the two competing voices in my head.  One voice, calling for tradition and authenticity.  The other voice, calling for playful innovation.  And as I listened, I really heard these two voices clearly, maybe for the first time.  One, the collective voice of the neighbors, relatives and friends from my childhood in Palestine, extolling the virtue of authenticity, the beauty of tradition, vying between them to produce the best versions of classic dishes, laughing at strange variations. The other voice a quieter one, Western and pragmatic, but just as compelling.  It just shrugged and said, seductively:  what if it's great?  

What if?

I can't believe I'm about to do this.  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Blackstrap Molasses Milk Steamer {Naturally-Sweetened, Kid-Approved}

On the first nippy fall day every year, my children begin clamoring for hot cocoa. And once the snow falls in earnest, they come in, icy cold from their romps, with snow-whipped rosy cheeks, peel off their wet, frozen clothes, and plonk down at the kitchen table to wait for a hot beverage.

And I can't help but think, as I heat up the milk, how much my Palestinian grandmother would approve.  

You see, Arabs are serious about their hot milk.  Yes, they love traditional coffee, and they serve up glasses and glasses of hot mint tea to their guests.  But in the privacy of their homes, at the kitchen table or in the drafty glassed-in verandas of the West Bank, you will find the mamas and the aunties drinking steaming mugs of milk, scalded in saucepans on the stove top and then poured into heavy mugs.  My grandmother always had one of these mugs nearby.  In the morning, my mother added a spoonful of Nescafe instant coffee (why instant coffee is all of the rage in the Middle East is beyond me, but it is).  In the afternoon and evening, she switched to plain milk, or a little Ovaltine before bed.  But milk, always hot milk.

In fact, nothing made my Palestinian grandmother, my Teta, cringe more than when she saw my sister and I drinking glasses of cold milk for breakfast in the winter (well, venturing outside with damp hair or without an undershirt provoked a great deal of dismay). My mother had tried to convert us and served us hot milk for breakfast, but we simply refused.  Perhaps, if she had offered us this beverage we would have warmed up to the drink (wink, wink).

Now that snow is falling and my little ones are asking for hot cocoa, my thoughts have turned back home, to the nourishing power of a mug of warm milk.  I am still not overly fond of plain hot milk, but I love a warm mug of creamy milk, as long as it has a little bit of flavoring.  I make homemade chocolate syrup (not my recipe, but find the link here) for this purpose, which we enjoy.  Still, I wanted something easier, faster, and even more nourishing for my family, so  I experimented in the kitchen to see if I could create another flavored hot milk drink.  I dug through my cupboard and found a jar of blackstrap molasses, and this new favorite drink was born.  It has all the warm creamy sweetness of a mug of hot chocolate, but with the warm spicy flavors of your favorite molasses cookie.