28 November 2010

The Difference Between Roasting and Frying


I've been meaning to write this post for a long time, so long in fact, that this recipe has changed since I originally intended to write about it. That's a good thing, meaning that this recipe is a favorite of ours and that it is quality controlled and tested (another way of saying I ate a lot of it). But the thing I've been meaning to write about is the difference between roasting and frying. If you were to ask a Western chef, say Michael Ruhlman, about the difference, he would probably give you a long answer about heat and molecules and fat absorption. But in the most of the world (that is in the 2nd and 3rd worlds), there is one distinction between frying and roasting: money.

The cost of cooking fuel is a major expense in many households and it costs a whole lot more to heat an oven at a consistent temperature than it does to use a relatively small flame to heat a pot of frying oil. And I'm not talking just about poverty here, for middle class families in places like Iraq and Syria, where people have modern ovens and cooking appliances, the oven is still reserved for use sparingly, for special occasions and big cuts of meat, because of the cost associated. And in many places like China and Japan, ovens aren't even a standard part of the kitchen.


I say this mainly because there are several Middle Eastern recipes where I adapt frying to roasting. Frankly, I don't want to wrestle a pot of boiling oil, and roasting is a bit more healthful and easier. In the case of this recipe, it started with a simple preparation for cauliflower. The cauliflower is broken into florets, fried in a shallow pan of oil, and served with a squeeze of lemon and maybe a bit of tahini sauce. It's addictive, in a way you never thought cauliflower could be.

I roast the cauliflower in a pan in the oven, which means you can roast the entire head at once. I originally served the cauliflower with just a drizzling of tahini sauce, then I added a few slivered almonds, then some golden raisins, and so on until I arrived at this salad. It's crunchy and creamy and tart and perfect for winter.


Roast Cauliflowers with Tahini, Almond, and Pomegranate
Don't be surprised if you find you can eat a whole head of roast cauliflower yourself, it's surprisingly addictive. Pine nuts can also be used in place of almonds.

1 large head of cauliflower
olive oil
salt and pepper
1 recipe tahini sauce
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1 cup of chopped parsley and cilantro (mixed)

1. Preheat oven to 410 F. Place head of cauliflower sideways on a large cutting board, and start slicing about 1/2 inch slices across the top. There will be a mess of tiny florets everywhere, that's okay. When you reach the core, slice the sides of the cauliflower in the same manner. Chop any large florets into smaller bits (about 1-2 inch pieces). Discard core.

2. Drizzle olive oil over a large baking sheet. Add all the cauliflower to the baking sheet, drizzle with a bit more olive oil and roll around so that cauliflower is coated in oil. Season well with salt and pepper. Roast cauliflower for 25-35 minutes, until browned in spots and large pieces of cauliflower are tender when poked with a knife.

3. Meanwhile, while cauliflower is roasting, place raisins in a bowl and pour boiling water over the cover. Let sit to plump. Toast almonds in a skillet until lightly browned and fragrant.

4. Transfer cauliflower to a serving bowl. Drain raisins, and add raisins, almonds, and herbs to cauliflower, stirring to mix. Drizzle tahini sauce over top (you may not use all of it). Sprinkle pomegranate seeds over. Serve warm or at room temperature.

20 November 2010

A Middle Eastern Thankgiving

A few years ago at Thanksgiving dinner, a friend who knows about this blog, asked me if I thought it would be possible to do a Middle Eastern Thanksgiving. Despite some people's scepticism, I said I actually thought it was a great idea. Middle Eastern cooking makes great use of spices like cinnamon and allspice, and they have numerous recipes for things like pumpkin and kale and nuts.

My goal here was to do things that hemmed closely to the traditional Thanksgiving, as opposed to just throwing some tabbouleh and hummus next to the turkey. The only real challenge was the stuffing (aka dressing), especially given my great love of cornbread dressing. But a rice pilaf was a good substitute.


On other things it was much easier to find a good substitute, like pearl onions with a touch of tamarind and swiss chard with a tahini sauce. For the potato kibbeh, imagine mashed potatoes mixed with caramelized onions and then baked until the top is crackly and crispy. I've been told that people actually prefer the mashed carrots to overly-sweet mashed sweet potatoes.

As for the turkey, it's a completely traditional roasting recipe that we tested out last week. A good rubbing of butter, salt, and pepper, and that's pretty much it. But it came out perfectly, moist breast meat and falling-off the bone thighs. But the gravy, infused with some reduced pomegranate gravy, is what makes it special.

As for dessert, what could be more similar to pecan pie than baklava, or a sweet date tart. I know everyone has their die-hard Thanksgiving traditions, but hopefully this can serve as some food for thought for future meals. After all, roast turkey should be served more than once a year. Happy Thankgiving to you and yours!

Pumpkin Hummus
Olive-Potato Bites

Turkey with Pomegranate Gravy (recipe follows)

Pearl Onions in Tamarind
Swiss Chard with Tahini
Potato Kibbeh in a Tray
Anbari Rice Pilaf
Mashed Carrot Salad

Flaky Sesame Rolls

Custard Baklava or Regular Baklava
Marya's Date Tart

(another good addition: Bulgur Salad with Walnuts and Pomegranate)

tahinli baked

Turkey with Pomegranate Gravy
Adapted from Gourmet.

For turkey

* 1 (12 to 14 lb) turkey, any quills removed
* turkey neck and giblets reserved for making stock
* 6 tablespoons butter, softened, plus 4 tbl melted butter for basting
* 1 tablespoon salt
* 1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper
* 1 onion, quartered
* 4 fresh thyme sprigs

For gravy

* 16 oz bottled pomegranate juice
* pan juices (and roasting pan) from turkey
* about 3 cups hot turkey giblet stock
* 1 cup water
* 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1. For stock: place neck and giblets (not liver) in a saucepan with one small chopped onion, one clove onion, one chopped carrot, and some salt, pepper and any herbs you have on hand. Cover with water and set to very low simmer for 2-3 hours, or until you're ready to make the gravy.

2. For pomegranate: Place pomegranate juice in a saucepan and simmer until reduced to 2/3 to 1/2 a cup. Set aside.

3. Preheat oven to 350 F. Rinse and pat dry turkey. From the neck, gently run fingers under skin of turkey to loosen the skin all over breast and thighs. Grabbing bits of softened butter with your fingers, work the butter under the skin all over breast and thighs to cover them with butter. Rub turkey outside all over with salt and pepper. Stuff cavity with onion and thyme and place on roasting rack in roasting pan.

4. Place in oven and bake, basting with melted butter every 20-30 minutes, until turkey is golden brown and thermometer inserted into fleshy part of a thigh (do not touch bone) registers 170°F, 2 1/2 to 3 hours. (If turkey is browning too quickly, tent with foil. If bottom of pan looks like it's burning, add some water to pan juices.)

5. Remove turkey from oven, tilting turkey so any juice in cavity run into pan. Move turkey to carving board and tent with foil. Let rest 30 minutes (this temp will rise to 180 F).

6. Meanwhile, pour off any pan juices into a container and place in the fridge. Straddle roasting pan over two burners, add water and cook to deglaze pan, scraping up any brown bits, about 1 minute. Pour liquid through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl. Add enough turkey stock to pan juices to total 3 cups liquid.

7. Skim 4 tbl of fat off the top of the container you placed in the fridge. Whisk together fat and flour in a heavy saucepan and cook roux over moderately low heat, whisking, until pale golden, 7 to 10 minutes. Add hot stock mixture in a stream, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. Bring to a boil, whisking, and add pomegranate syrup, then reduce heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, until thickened, about 5 minutes.

8. Carve turkey and serve with gravy.

15 November 2010

The Month of Eating French

Well, I had a fish tagine recipe all ready to go for you all, but it seems my computer ate it, and then I decided to give up and go to Chicago to eat delicious food at Topolobampo and Blackbird. I'm kidding, but I highly recommend some margaritas the next time your computer goes on the fritz.

Besides, ever since we got back from France I've been on a full-on French cooking kick. First I made pain d'epices (from this recipe), which is deceiving because you expect it to be a sweet and it's really just a bread.

Then there were stuffed poussins with pearl onions and a fabulous cream sauce (adapted from this recipe). Damn, poussins are expensive in the U.S., but they were delectable.

There were two attempts to recreate the fabulous gratin dauphinois we had, trying both Julia Child's and Anthony Bourdain's recipes. Bourdain won, for what it's worth.

And by the time I got around to making a chicken liver pâté, I think Paul was about to call the psych consult. "You don't even like pâté," he said. Luckily, the guests at our party did.

But all this was not before I made, not one, not two, but three tarte tatins. What can I say? Tarte tatins are pretty damn awesome. We made one with pears and cardamom, and two with apples. Despite many people's fear of caramel, tarte tatin is much easier than you'd think, and you don't even have to make a true caramel. Afterward the oven should do the work for you. Even if you aren't in French cooking madness mode, it's worth a try.

(Lentil de Puy Salad with Pomegranate and Fennel)

Tarte Tatin
Though puff pastry is 100% traditional, I confess that I also like to make this with a nice thick pie dough. The crispiness of the pastry stands up nicely to the apples. Can be made with pears, make sure to used firm pears.

5-6 large cooking apples (we used staymans)
juice of 1 lemon
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
4 Tbl unsalted butter
14 ounces puff pastry (or pie crust)

1. Peel and quarter the apples, removing the cores such that each quarter has a flat inner side. Toss the apple quarters in a large bowl with the lemon juice and ½ cup of the sugar. Set aside while you start the caramel, about 30 minutes.

2. In a 9-inch cast-iron skillet melt 4 tablespoons of the butter. Add the remaining 1 cup sugar, mixing with a fork or flat whisk. Cook the mixture over medium-low heat, stirring regularly, for about 15 minutes, or until the mixture has come together in a smooth, bubbly, pale caramel color. Do not let it get too dark.

3. Turn the heat off and carefully add apple quarters, arranging them rounded-side-down in a decorative pattern. Arrange a second layer of apples on top wherever they fit, closely packed. I usually cut up any larger ones for smaller pieces in the second layer.

4. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

5. Cook the apples over medium-low heat for about 20 minutes, occasionally spooning the bubbling caramel liquid over them. Press them down gently with the back of a spoon — don’t worry if they shift a bit in the liquid; just move them back to where they were. Shift the pan as necessary so that the apples cook evenly. They are ready when the liquid in the pan has turned to a thick, amber ooze. The apples should still be slightly firm. Do not allow them to get entirely soft.

6. While the apples are cooking, roll out the pastry. Cut out a circle about 10 inches in diameter (1/2 inch wider all around than the skillet), and trim away any excess. When apples are ready, carefully lay the pastry circle over the apples in the skillet, tucking the overlap down between the apples and the inside of the pan.

7. Place the skillet on a rimmed baking sheet, and bake for about 30-35 minutes, until the pastry has risen, and is dry and golden brown. Remove the skillet from the oven, and let it to rest for a minute or two. Tilt the pan and look down inside the edge: if there is a lot of juice, pour most of it off into the sink. [Do not pour it all off, or the apples may stick to the pan.] Place a serving platter upside-down over the skillet and, working quickly and carefully, invert the tart onto the platter. Rearrange any apple slices that may have slipped or stuck to the skillet.

30 October 2010


Chermoula is a seafood marinade used in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. Although it's traditionally used just as a marinade, it's pretty good used in other applications, a spicy mix of garlic, cilantro, olive oil, lemon, chili pepper, and seasonings. It's not unlike chimichurri in Argentina. Often fish or seafood are rolled in chermoula, and then layered in a dish with onions and tomatoes and other ingredients to make a tagine. Stay tuned for a tagine recipe coming soon.



1 large bunch cilantro
1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley
1 small red chili pepper, seeds removed and pepper chopped
1 small garlic glove, minced
1 teaspoon each cumin, coriander, salt
juice of 1 lemon
1/3 cup olive oil

1. Dice the cilantro and parsley leaves as finely as possible. Combine remaining ingredients.

19 October 2010

Travels & Interludes


Writing a food blog for over three years is a difficult thing. There are only so many ways I can tell you that something is delicious without starting to sound cliche and repetitive. And there are only so many stories one can tell about, say, cauliflower, or fresh basil. The same words become tired, as if a piano off key, and you start to recognize that same tiredness in other food writers' writing. But I've been traveling for most of the past month, eating lobster in Maine and roast eggplant in the Middle East and gratin dauphinois in Paris,and if those things don't inspire you I don't know what does.

reine claude!

It had been a few years since I've been to Paris, and I felt when we were leaving as if I were being cleaved away from a trip that wasn't ready to end. Oh, sure there were strikes and protests, and the Picasso museum is closed until 2012, but there was delicious stinky cheese to be eaten on a picnic and petanques players in the Luxembourg gardens, and the most delicious meal I've had in quite a long time eaten in a tiny bistro with an old zinc bar and antique silver flatware.


In the middle east, pomegranates are in season, and at juice stands everywhere you can find fresh squeezed pomegranate juice and (my favorite), carrot juice. Fresh dates are in season, bright yellow fading to sticky sweet brown, plump figs, and a reminder that no one does chickpeas quite like the Lebanese.

luxembourg gardens

There are times writing here that I want desperately to talk about anything but food. To tell you about the latest novel I've read or my thoughts about health care reform or to discuss the deepening divide within Lebanon. And then there are times when I've got a great dish I want to share with you but I forgot to take a picture or it came out horribly, or I just can't think of anything to say. That's where travel comes in, time on the plane to plow through novels and time to see new things. So, I hope I've returned re-invigorated and re-inspired, and happy to spend some quality time with my kitchen again.

Recommended in Paris:

Le Chardenoux

Bistro founded in 1908 with classic French cooking executed to perfection. Warm service concludes with a fresh madeline offered to you straight out of the baking tray along with the check.

Shan Gout
Exquisite Chinese food in a tiny place near Bastille, nice wines and delicious cooking, we loved the sichuan eggplant and the crispy sesame pork.

The hot table in Paris, be sure to reserve ahead.

Le Verre Vole
Also very trendy, this tiny place isn't fancy but is fun, and specializes in offal (think pigs ears and boudin noir).

Marche Aligre, for a good market experience.

12 October 2010

Sort-of Mohnkuchen

I made this cake for a party we had at the tail-end of summer, and it got completely over-shadowed by the sour cherry pie Paul made. I don't blame them, it was a damn-good sour cherry pie, but I still like this cake, even if it's not the most popular girl in the room. There's something delectable of the soft souffle-like cake made with ground poppy seeds and topped with tangy cream cheese frosting.


This cake is something I invented many years ago (years!), inspired by the Austrian sweet mohnkuchen. Mohenkuchen is a poppy seed cake, made with a crumbly shortbread bottom, a sweet pure-black poppy seed filling, and a streusel topping. This cake takes it inspiration from that poppy-seed filling, but turns to a French technique and a bit of my own improvisation.


To make the cake a bit healthier, I substitute prune puree for some of the butter. The prune puree also adds a depth of flavor and sweetness to the cake. If you don't feel like making the puree yourself, baby food work perfectly. This sounds odd, but if you think of baby food as just small jars of fruit purees, they're actually great for use in baking to add moisture and flavor to cakes.

Anyway, I don't mind if this isn't going to be the stand-out cake in the room, it's subtle and complex (and frankly rather expensive to make). But it's sort of a stealth favorite, sneaking up on you slowly until it takes a place in your repertoire.

Poppy Seed Cake (Inspired by Mohnkuchen)

6 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup prune puree (I use prune baby food)
1 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups poppy seeds, coarsely ground in a spice grinder
1/2 cup flour
4 eggs, separated
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar (optional)
zest of 1 orange or lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
1/2 recipe cream cheese frosting*
candied walnuts for topping

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a springform tin and line with parchment paper, grease parchment paper.
2. Cream butter and sugar. Add in egg yolks and extract. Add in prune puree. Stir in the ground poppy seeds and flour.
3. Beat egg whites with a pinch of cream of tartar to stiff peaks.
4. Gently fold egg whites into cake batter in batches using a spatula until the mixture is just combined. Transfer to prepared pan. Bake 40-45 minutes, until puffed and browned on top. Let cool completely.
5. Top the cake with cream cheese frosting and candied walnuts as desired.

* Cream cheese frosting - beat together 1/2 lb cream cheese, 1/2 stick (4 tbl) butter, 2 cups confectioners sugar, 1 tbl vanilla extract.

08 October 2010

Meatballs in Swiss Chard and Tahini Sauce

swiss chard, tahini, meatballs
I'm going to start this off by saying, I don't think this recipe really worked. In fact, it seems almost cruel to be posting this now - I'm in Paris oggling the beautiful markets, the abundance of fall squashes, and remembering back to this recipe made on a dark night in my poorly-lit kitchen with a recipe that only half-way worked.

swiss chard

This is an uncommon but not unusual recipe in the Levant, pairing a garlicky swiss chard and tahini sauce with meatballs. Sometimes the meatballs are plain, sometimes they are more fancy, made with kibbeh instead of meatballs. And sometimes this dish can be vegetarian, with chickpeas replacing the meatballs.

tomatoes cookingmeatballs

But here's the deal, I love the swiss chard and tahini sauce, it' the bright spot in this recipe. Friends, this part is a "put-it-in-the-recipe-file" keeper, it's garlicky and creamy and crunchy, and best of all good for you. I also like the meatballs, and really, who doesn't love a good meatball? But together, I just think this combination doesn't work. Maybe if you cooked the meatballs together with the chard for longer, maybe then the flavors would blend. But as it stands it's like two clashing armies battling it out for your taste buds.

So take my advice and just make the swiss chard sauce. Add in some chickpeas if you want the heft of a vegetarian main course. Serve it warm or cold, serve it over couscous or bulgur. Make some meatballs another time.

swiss chard, tahini, meatballs

Meatballs in Swiss Chard and Tahini Sauce

Adapted from various sources. Please read the above post for recommendations.
1 lb ground lamb
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon baharat
1 onion, divided in half
olive oil salt
2 cups chopped tomatoes (canned or fresh)
2 gloves garlic, minced
1 bunch swiss chard
1.2 teaspooon Aleppo pepper
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted
1 recipe tahini sauce (see previous)

1. Grate half of the onion on the holes of a box grater. Mix together the meat, onion, salt, and seasoning, kneading the mixture with your hands until it is smooth and sticky. (Alternately, you can grind the onion in the food processor, then add the remaining ingredients, pulsing to combine.) Roll into meatballs about 1 inch in diameter and refrigerate.
2. Dice the remaining onion and mice the garlic. Heat some olive oil in a saute pan, then saute the onion and garlic until softened. Add the tomatoes, season with salt, and cook until slightly broken down and saucey, about 15-20 minutes. Set aside.
3. Meanwhile, set a pot of water to boil. Remove the ribs from the swiss chard and roughly chop. Add to the boiling water and blanch the chard to soften. Remove with a slotted spoon and chop finely. Add the chard and Aleppo pepper to the tomato sauce, return to heat, and cook until the chard is soft and cooked through. Set tomato sauce aside to cool down.
4. Heat up some oil in a very large frying pan, add the meatballs and cook the meatballs until well browned and cooked through (this may take quite a while). Work in batches if necessary.
5. Stir the half the tahini sauce into the now-cool swiss chard, and stir in the walnuts. Place the warm meatballs on top. Sprinkle with cilantro. Serve.

05 October 2010

Basic Technique: Tahini Sauce

Here's a basic technique of Middle Eastern cuisine: tahini sauce. This is the classic way of preparing tahini, not just a sauce but a component of a myriad of dishes. Add pureed chickpeas to this and you have hummus, add mashed eggplant to it and you have baba ghanoush. Drizzle it on top of fish, toss it with dice tomatoes, or stir it into cooked swiss chard. This technique is embedded in hundreds of Middle Eastern recipe.

tahini sauce
This technique also has a cool chemical reaction in it: the interaction between the tahini and the lemon juice. The acid in the lemon juice causes a very runny tahini sauce to thicken up and become stiff and solid. (Any chemists out there who can explain this??)

This is an old school recipe that's best done with a mortar and pestle. You can do this in a food processor, but I rarely do (mainly because I hate cleaning the food processor), but also because I find it doesn't do a very good job smashing the garlic.

Tahini Sauce
This sauce is classic, and rarely needs anything else, but feel free to try adding a pinch of cumin or Aleppo pepper just to mix things up.

1 garlic clove
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup tahini
juice of 2 lemons (must be fresh!)

1. Bash the garlic and salt in a mortar and pestle until it reaches a smooth paste. Transfer the paste to a bowl and stir in the tahini.
2. Add in the lemon juice, you will see the sauce become very white and "tight." Slowly add in water until the mixture reaches a smooth paste (don't be surprised, you may have to add up to 1 to 2 cups of water). The sauce should be thick put pourable. Season as desired.

24 September 2010

Samkeh Harra (Spicy Fish from Tripoli)


With an entire section of our library devoted to cookbooks, some of which often go unused for months (umm, years) at a time, I will occasionally force myself to cook something out of one of my old cookbooks from time to time. It's a good deterrent from buying that big new glossy book you want that you'll probably cook two recipes out of and then relinquish to the shelf.

Flipping though Paula Wolfert's "Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean," I spotted a recipe called "pepper fish" that I thought looked good. Later, when I checked the recipe again, I realized, with the sort of slow realization of seeing something through frosted glass, that this was in fact a classic Lebanese dish from Tripoli known as samkeh harra, or spicy fish.

While Ms. Wolfert's work done on Moroccan cuisine is unparalleled in its accuracy and detail, her work in other countries often strikes me as odd. Her Levantine recipes tend to wring a false note with me, as if someone came to America for a few weeks and discovered a recipe they called "beef patty with sesame bread and sweet tomato reduction." Aka, a hamburger.

But I digress. I decided to go ahead and make the classic samkeh harra, which is a red snapper stuffed with chopped herbs, walnuts, and chile peppers, and topped with a garlicky tahini sauce. This is a celebration dish in the best sense, not that it is particularly complicated or difficult, but that it just feels festive to eat and serve. It is traditionally served with long grain rice (a sort of red wild rice is traditional) and with all the herbs and nuts, practically makes a meal of itself. When you serve it make sure to top everyone's fish portion with some more of of the tahini sauce and herb-chile mixture.


Samkeh Harra (Spicy Fish from Tripoli)
This festive dish is found along the Northern coast of Lebanon and the coast of Syria. Snapper is traditional, but a similar fish can work, and if you dislike the idea of a whole fish, it can be made with two fillets as well (adjust the baking time accordingly). Serve with wild rice.

1 red snapper (about 3-4 pounds), scaled and gutted
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
1 c walnuts, chopped
2 chilies (jalapenos are fine), finely chopped, seeds set aside
salt and pepper

tahini sauce:

1 c tahini
2 large garlic cloves, mashed in a mortar and pestle
1-1/2 c water
juice of 3 lemons
1 tsp cumin

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Combine the chopped cilantro, walnuts, chilies, and salt and pepper. (If you don't want to do the chopping, you can also toss the ingredients in the food processor and give it a few pulses, everything should be just coarsely chopped). Add in the reserved chile seeds, as few or as many as you want depending on your tolerance, you can omit them if desired.
2. Make three slashes on each side of the fish with a knife and rub the fish inside and out with olive oil and salt. Stuff 2/3 of the herb mixture into the cavity of the fish. Place on a baking sheet and roast for 25 minutes, or until the fish is slightly under-done.
3. Meanwhile combine the tahini sauce ingredients in a saucepan and stir until very smooth. Place over medium heat and heat the sauce, stirring, just until warmed.
4. After the fish has cooked for 25 minutes, pour half of the tahini sauce over the fish, and return to the oven for 10 more minutes, or until the fish flakes easily.
5. To serve, fillet the fish. Place some fish on a plate, top with some reserved tahini sauce, and top with some of the stuffing from inside the fish. Place extra bowls of tahini sauce and stuffing mixture on table for people to use as they like.

16 September 2010

Kebab Karaz (Cherry Kebabs)


This dish is a specialty of Aleppo, Syria, where sour cherries are prevalent. I ate this dish for the first time at the famous Beit Sissi in Aleppo, a must-visit for anyone interested in Levantine cuisine. I'd never made kebab karaz because sour cherries are very hard to come by in my neighborhood. But if you're determined, possessing of friends from Michigan, or willing to order frozen or canned cherries, it is possible to get your fix. You can check out Middle Eastern or Persian/Pakistani groceries too.

At its simplest version, kebab karaz involves stringing sour cherries and little meatballs on a stick and grilling them. The idea is always to have the cherries and the meatballs approximately the same size. In a slightly more complicated version, you make a sauce with the cherries and add the grilled meatballs to it afterwards, and in the most complex version, you make kibbeh (follow this recipe) and then add it to the cherry sauce.


I prefer the middle version, since it's easy and the cherry sauce that coats the meatballs is a beautiful glistening red, and delicious. The photo here really does not do it justice. I'm not a big eater of red meat, and yet I made sure I got the last portion of this to take for my lunch the next day. I think that says a lot.


Kebab Karaz (Cherry Kebabs)

Be sure to serve this over flattened pieces of pita bread, or over rice, to absorb the juices.

1/2 an onion, finely diced
4 cups sour cherries, pitted
2 generous tablespoons pomegranate molasses
2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
1 pound ground lamb or beef
2 teaspoons baharat
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cumin
2 teaspoons salt
black pepper to taste
cilantro, pine nuts, for garnish

1. Prepare meatballs: knead the meat and remaining ingredients together until the mixture is smooth and sticky (you can also pulse it in the food processor if you want. Shape the mixture into balls the same size as large cherries and string onto kebab skewers. Refrigerate.
2. Preheat grill.
3. Saute the onion in some olive oil in a large skillet until it is translucent and tender. Add in the cherries, pomegranate molasses, and sugar and stir to combine. Simmer for 5-10 minutes, just to combine.
4. Grill the meatballs until nicely browned on the outside and cooked through. Add meatballs to the cherry sauce. Garnish with cilantro and pine nuts as desired. Serve immediately over rice or bread.

12 September 2010

Romesco Sauce


I always think the sauce section of a cookbook gets short shrift. Everyone is always drawn to the big meats, the glistening shrimp, or the towering desserts. The poor little sauce section sits, crammed in the back of the book, unillustrated, hoping someone might notice or even use it. But I think sauces are often the best thing a cookbook has going for it. After all, a competent cook knows how to grill a steak or pan-roast a fish, and those techniques don't change, and they don't take hundreds of cookbooks to master. But what you do to that fish or meat, how you dress that salad, that's where the "wow" factor can lie.

Another reason I like sauce, particularly thick ones, is that they're just good to have a round. You can put them under shrimp or over chicken. You can drizzle them over vegetables. You can spread them over bread or in a sandwich, you can add them to part of a cheese plate.

I think of great sauces, like sauce gribiche, which make an excellent dressing for cauliflower. I think of Mexican mole, or Thai peanut sauce, or tzatziki, which I'd happily plop over any rice dish I encounter.

Today, we have romesco sauce, the Mediterranean cousin of muhammara and salvitxada and ajvar. It is a thick sauce made of roasted red peppers, tomatoes, spicy pepper, and thickened with bread and nuts. You can serve it as a dip, you can serve it as a sauce for shrimp, you can plop it over grilled leeks, or you can just sneak spoonfuls of it from the fridge, like I do.

P.S. We're going on vacation (sans internet and phones) for two whole weeks. We can't wait, but comments and posting around here will be a bit slower than usual. Don't worry though, we've got new posts ready to go up in our absence, so stay tuned!

Romesco Sauce

1 large red bell pepper
1/2 cup blanched whole almonds
1 small ancho chile, or other dried hot chile, seeds removed and soaked in hot water
1/2 cup cubed firm white bread
1/2 a garlic clove
2 small plum tomatoes, halved, seeds removed, and chopped
2 tbl sherry vinegar
olive oil, about 1/3 - 1/2 cup

1. Roast pepper directly over a gas flame or under the broiler, turning frequently, until charred all over. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let stand for 15 minutes. Peel, core and seed the pepper and cut it into thick strips.
2. Pulse almonds in a spice grinder to grind to a coarse grind.
3. Place all the ingredients (roasted pepper, almonds, chile, bread, garlic, tomato, vinegar, oil, salt). Pulse to form a paste, it should be fairly smooth, but still have some small chunks. Taste for seasoning. Refrigerate until ready to use.

02 September 2010

Pita Bread

Believe it or not, despite the fact that I make homemade bread every few weeks, and despite that I've made Middle Eastern breads like mishtah and qurban, I've never actually made pita bread. In my defense, very few people in the Middle East make their own pita bread either.

One of my favorite routines in Damascus was to go to my local bakeries, where the fresh baked bread tumbled down on a sort of bread escalator, and was sold to a waiting crowd by the ounce (see pictures here). Young boys could be seen carrying stacks of bread taller than themselves while simultaneously munching on a round of fresh baked khobz.

Old ladies could be found practicing a bizarre form of bread maintenance on view across the Middle East: spreading their fresh bread out to dry on whatever surface available. And yes, that included spare railings, cars parked on the street, and even patches of sidewalk. As unhygenic as it might sound, there is a logic here: fresh baked bread releases steam, and if you immediately stack all your breads together that steam will lead to moisture and to mold.

But on to making pita bread. It won't ever be the super-thin large rounds you find at a Middle Eastern bakery, but homemade bread has its own puffy charm. As for getting your breads to puff, I have no special tricks here. Like making pancakes, the first few never quite turn out right, but luckily even the un-puffed ones are just as tasty.

Pita Bread (Khobz)
It is important that the dough is very moist, and it helps to have a moist environment in the oven, so spritz a bit of water in there if necessary. However, don't worry about the dough being too wet, it's okay to have a little flour on the dough to keep it from sticking to the baking surface. Keep in mind pita bread goes bad pretty quickly, so keep it in a sealed moisture-free bag, and store it in the fridge after the second day or so.

3 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1/4 cup more for kneading (16 oz. total)
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/4 cups water, at room temperature (10.4 oz.)

1. Mix all ingredients with wooden spoon. Knead the dough in the bowl until it comes together. Sprinkle the additional flour on a work surface, turn dough out and knead until the dough is smooth and slightly sticky, at least 5 minutes. Pita dough needs to be very moist so try not to add additional flour.
2. Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover and let rise until doubled in size (in a warm room this will take 1 hour, but in the winter it could take as long as 3 hours).
3. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 500 F at least 30 minutes ahead of time. You want to make sure the oven is nice and hot. Place a pizza stone in the oven if you have one, or a greased sturdy baking sheet.
4. Separate the dough into 8-12 pieces and keep them covered with a cloth. On a very lightly floured surface, roll out 3 of the breads to just under 1/4 inch thick. Let rest a few minutes, then place them in the oven. It is important that the oven is moist, so you may want to spritz some water in it before you put the bread in (if you live a very humid climate like Beirut or Washington DC than you should be fine). Bake the breads for 3-4 minutes each until puffed but not browned.
5. While the breads are baking, roll out the next set of breads. Continue baking until all breads are done. Let cool at room temperature.

27 August 2010


Most of the food I post on here is Levantine cuisine- food from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan or Egypt. I cook a fair amount of other Middle Eastern food, odd dishes from Tunisia or Iraq, Iran or Morocco, and I've long wondered if I should move into a new phase for this blog, exploring those cuisines more. I went through a phase exploring Yemeni breads, but let's just say that not all my experiments were successful.

One of the reasons I like exploring Levantine cuisine is that it is very codified. Maybe it's the French influence in Lebanon, or maybe it's the history of Lebanese cuisine, of traditional preserving (moune) and seasonal cooking. I've often thought about delving into Moroccan cooking for much the same reason, like Levantine cuisine, there are unique pairings, techniques, and ingredients.


Bisteeya is the queen of Moroccan dishes, a towering pie wrapped in phyllo dough and crammed with squab, eggs and almonds. I've always been curious to make bisteeya (also spelled pastilla, bastilla, etc) because it's unlike anything I've ever made before. I was also confused on how you could make a pie with 10 eggs in it without making a runny mess.


On the surface, when you look at bisteeya, you don't think it's going to taste very good- it has shredded chicken or squab, soft scrambled eggs, and sweetened ground almonds. But in reality, it's delicious. You cook the eggs in some of the poultry stock, so that they infuse with the chicken-y flavor and spices, and then drain them so they don't make the pie soggy. The almonds add just a right note of sweetness, something Moroccans love. And really, the whole thing is wrapped in buttery flaky phyllo dough, and who doesn't like that?

Paul said this was one of the best thing I've ever made, but this was coming from a man obsessed with pies of all forms. But I'd be inclined to agree, despite the work involved, I'd make this again in a heartbeat.


Traditionally, a Moroccan pastry called waraka, which is shiny on one side and porous on the other, is used in place of the phyllo. I find phyllo is an easy substitute. Though squab is the traditional filling for the pie, I used chicken legs, whose meaty flavor echoes the gaminess of the squab, but which are a bit easier to find and work with. Adapted from Paula Wolfert.

1 box phyllo dough, defrosted
1/2 cup of butter, clarified, or use ghee or samneh
10 eggs
1 large bunch of flat leaf parsley, stems removed and leaves chopped
4 or 5 large chicken legs and thighs (or 4 squabs or 1 whole chicken, cut into pieces)
2 garlic cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 scant teaspoon fresh ground black pepper or grains of paradise
2 cups whole blanched almonds
a scant 1/2 cup powdered sugar

1. Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Heat some oil in a dutch oven. Saute the chicken until lightly browned, then sprinkle salt, turmeric, ginger allspice, and pepper over the chicken. Add water to cover and add the cinnamon sticks and garlic cloves. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 1 hour, or until meat is tender.
2. Reserve the broth and let the chicken cool. Shred the chicken meat, discarding skin and bone, and set aside.
3. Meanwhile, bring 2 cups of the broth to a simmer in a saucepan. Beat together the eggs, then add to the broth. Cook the eggs, stirring constantly, until the eggs congeal and look like well-scrambled eggs. Stir in the parsley and some salt and pepper in the last few minutes of cooking. Place egg mixture in a fine mesh strainer or colander lined with cheesecloth and let drain for 20-30 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, roughly grind the almonds in a spice grinder or food processor. Toss with the sugar.
5. Preheat oven to 425 F. Using a springform pan, rub the inside lightly with clarified butter. Lay out your phyllo and cover with a towel. Layer 7-8 sheets of phyllo in the bottom of the pan, brushing each with butter, and letting the edges overhang.
6. Sprinkle half the almond mixture over the bottom. Top with all of the shredded chicken. Top with the strained egg mixture, then top with the remaining almonds. Fold the phyllo over, and top with more sheets of phyllo, brushing each with butter and tucking the ends down into the pan. Brush top with butter and pour some of the remaining butter over the bisteeya.
7. Bake for 20 minutes at 425, until top is golden. Reduce temperature to 350 and bake another 10-15 minutes, until pie is golden brown. If desired, sprinkle top with powdered sugar and cinnamon.