26 August 2009

Mango Pie

We're taking a break from our usually scheduled Middle Eastern fare for something quite deserving of your attention: Mango Pie! I'll admit that I would not have thought of this myself, but a certain someone I know is quite obsessed with pie, and rather enamored of mangos, and using the five-year-old logic that things you like must go well together, thus begat mango pie.

And though mangos may not be traditional in pie, they certainly stand up perfectly to the short-crust treatment. They were soft and sweet without being runny or mushy. Looking at the price and labor of using fresh mangos, I decided to go for frozen, which turned out the be an excellent economical choice. The only thing I would say about frozen mangos is to thaw them and check them over for under-ripe pieces. Our bags had a few firm pieces that never softened up in baking, so I wished I had gone over the fruit first. Of course, fresh mangos would be even better I imagine. The pie is spiked with a bit of rum ad ginger, and we served it with an excellent homemade coconut ice cream for the a la mode treatment.

Mango Pie
If using frozen mangos you'll need 2 bags of frozen. Thaw them, check over for any too-firm pieces, and slice in half any of the larger segments. Then use as below.

dough for a double-crust pie
4 1/2 cups cubed mango
2/3 cup brown sugar
3 tbl cornstarch
2 tbl dark rum
1 tbl diced crystallized ginger
optional:1 egg for egg wash

1. Preheat oven to 425F. Roll out pie crusts and refrigerate.
2. Combine filling ingredients (mango, sugar, cornstarch, rum, ginger) in a large bowl.
3. Fit pie crust into pan, add filling, top with second pie crust and trim edges. Cut slits for vents on top crust. If desired, beat egg with a tablespoon of water and brush over crust.
4. Bake for 20 minutes at 425F, then lower oven temperature to 375F and bake for 30 minutes.

20 August 2009

Middle Eastern Cooking: The Saj

The saj (صاج ) is a round domed grill found across the eastern Mediterranean, particularly in Lebanon, that is used for cooking a preparing a variety of breads, sandwiches, and meats. The saj is literally a metal dome with a heat source underneath, usually a ring of gas flames. Saj's are often seen at roadside stands and cafes where they are used to prepare sandwiches.

For the sandwiches a piece of flatbread dough is quickly cooked on the saj, then one side of the flatbread is spread with toppings (za'atar with oil, cheese, diced chicken, or thick labne yogurt are popular choices). The toppings are allowed to warm and melt and then the sandwich is folded up and eaten. Crispy in some parts and chewy in others, it's the Middle Eastern marriage of a crepe and a panini. The large round surface of the dome allows multiple sandwiches to be made at once.
Numerous types of flatbreads can be made on a saj, so the term "saj bread," occaisionally seen on Middle Eastern style menus in the West, could refer to any number of breads. Probably the most famous type of bread made on the saj is marquk (markook, marquq) bread. This bread, native to the Chouf Mountains of Lebanon, a yeasted flat bread that is a very large, with the rounds paper thin in some points and thicker and chewier in others. It is also probably one of my all time favorite breads.

Meat can also be cooked on a saj, though this is less common because of the convex surface of the grill. The meat is usually very thinly sliced, marinated, and then the strips are grilled on the saj.

The easiest way to replicate the saj at home is to find an old wok you don't care about, then clean the bottom well, invert it over a gas burner, and heat it up. It worked quite nicely for me to make breads and sandwiches on a makeshift saj. Last time I was in Paris I think I saw more saj stands than in Lebanon, such was their popularity for tasty cheap street food. A friend and I always thought we could make a profitable business in bringing the saj to New York, but until we do, the U.S. may continue to be a sadly saj-less place.

13 August 2009


There are several Middle Eastern recipes that I have not yet posted here for several reasons: a) I don't particularly like the dish (ahem, sheep's feet), b) I lack the special molds, tools or ingredients to make the dish (ma'amoul, kishik), c) it makes a huge amount and I don't have a crowd to feed it to (whole roasted lamb anyone?). And finally, there is a whole slew of dishes that I haven't posted here simply because they are so common and obvious to me that I forget they might be new to someone else. Heck, it took me two years to get a baba ghanoush recipe on this site.

So, while I realize I've been absent from this site due to recent events, I hope to delve more into the both the basics and the more unusual dishes of Middle Eastern cuisine here in the future. I've got a whole bunch of ideas for postings, it's just getting them written down and uploaded. I hope you'll stay tuned.

One example of those most basic of Levantine staples is mujadara- a simple pilaf of rice, lentils and caramelized onions. I hesitated to post it here because it's been blogged about so many times before.

Like so many rice and legume staples- it relies on a simple but key combination of spices and flavors to elevate it from belly-filler to table-decorator. Every cook should know how to caramelize onions, an essential skill that mainly takes patience. Whenever my pantry is bare, leaving me only with some onions lolling in the vegetable drawer and a bit of old bread, I caramelize the onions and eat them over toast, with cheese melted on top. It's delightful.

So mujadara is just rice and brown lentils (cook them separately so they are both done just right), then cooked together with caramelized onions and spices. A simple cheap Mediterranean staple that I finally got around to sharing with you. Sahtain.

I love this dish with dollops of plain yogurt on top, even though it's not traditional it's very, very good.

2 large sweet white onions, thinly sliced
2 tbl butter
2 tbl vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups brown or green lentils (not red lentils or french lentils!)
2 cups long grain white rice
3-4 cardamom pods
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cumin
salt and pepper to taste
splash of good olive oil
optional: plain thick yogurt for serving

1. Melt the butter along with the oil and a pinch of salt in your largest skillet, and add the onions. Set heat on medium-low and stir occasionally until very soft, about 30 minutes. Turn heat to medium high and keep cooking and stirring often until deeply browned and sweet, another 20 minutes or more. Deglaze the pan with a splash of water (or more untraditionally white wine), stir and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, cook the rice and lentils separately according to the package directions. Add the cardamom pods to the rice pot while cooking, then discard when done. The lentils should be tender but not smushy or soupy, they should retain their shape.

3. Combine rice, lentils, half the caramelized onions, cinnamon, cumin, salt and pepper in a large pot. Add about half a cup of water and the olive oil and heat everything together until fragrent, warm and combined.

4. Place mujadara in serving dish. Scatter remaining caramelized onions over top. You can also decorate with some toasted pine nuts or chopped parsley. Serve, with plain thick yogurt on the side if desired.