For more than a year, I’ve had this article (see above) I clipped from a food magazine tapped to the corner of my work computer. I have read it probably a dozen times, and of course (unlike those Harry Potter newspapers that magically update themselves), the message doesn’t change: much of the spice labeled “Aleppo pepper” sold in the United States right now is actually from the Turkish province of Kahramanmaras because of the on-going war in Syria.
Aleppo pepper is distinctive for its sweet, almost fruity, smoky flavor, which makes other varieties seem so Plain Jane in comparison. It’s commonly used in marinades for kebabs or sprinkled on grilled vegetables.
I keep this article posted as a reminder of my own personal commitment to cook Syrian food as a way to simultaneously bring attention to the conflict and remind others, and often myself, that the country should be defined by more than its political strife.
I also kick myself each time after reading it for not picking up a ton of pepper during my travels in Syria. But Reason #99 to return when things ‘calm down,’ a wonderful term I picked up from my father who uses it frequently to describe regions under siege where the specifics of what eventual 'peace' might emerge are uncertain.
Approximately three minutes before I planned to announce to Wyatt that on Sunday I would cook a semi-complicated Syrian dish for supper, he announced, as is his wont, that he was making Sunday Gravy. That same day (duh).
Wyatt goes all out for Sunday gravy, procuring various cuts of high-quality meats, plus loads of tomatoes, naturally, and more vegetables from our garden. The whole thing simmers for hours, first, filling our house with an intoxicating umami scent, then filling our bellies, and finally, filling our fridge with leftovers, because he always makes 10 times too much.
Well, me wanted Sunday Gravy and me also wanted to make something Syrian.
I thumbed to the beginning of my cookbook and picked something simple that I would certainly use repeatedly at later dates: Aleppo Spice Mix.
The fact that I didn't make this earlier is pretty shameful, considering it's the go-to spice mix for many Syrian dishes and most introductions to Syrian cooking strongly advise procuring/making your own first.
But I have never been good at following directions. If you've following along picture page-style, you already know most of the components. See below for proportions.
2 tablespoons ground allspice
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 tablespoon black pepper
1/2 tablespoon grated nutmeg
1/2 tablespoon cardamom pods
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
Combine all spices and store in air-tight container.
*If you're feeling extra-fancy, roast the cardamom pods over low heat before combining.
About a year ago, my father- and mother-in-law presented us with a wonderful assortment of vegetables pickled and canned by a local vendor from their home in Maine. Between the two of us, we buy more food than necessary, so embarrassingly some of these treats remained buried in my pantry, whose disordered culinary copia would surely would make me eligible for a televised intervention on Hoarders.
I was initially charmed by the charming translation of Sit Geleila, then further excited by the possibility of swapping the pickled turnips for beets given their similar flavor profile. Incidentally, beet juice is used for coloring in the traditional form of the recipe, so I wasn't straying too much from authenticity.
Sit Geleila is by far the best mezze I have made this year. There is something about how the nuttiness of the cumin complements the acidic twang of the onions and sweetness of the beets that makes it incredibly refreshing yet filling. This dish is one of the few that doesn't not benefit from extra olive oil because you really don't want the rich fats to overwhelm the simpler botanical flavors.
14 ounces pickled turnips (or beets) chopped into small chunks
1 small onion chopped
2 teaspoons cumin, ground from fresh seeds
3 tablespoons olive oil
1. Slice turnips or beets into bite-size chunks.
2. Add chopped onion, cumin, and olive oil.
3. Mix vigorously to combine. Serve immediately if eating indoors or chill in the fridge a bit for al fresco celebrations.
I have been very slowly reading through recipes in my new Syrian cookbook, and had planned this week to make an intriguing salad involving mint and pickled beets, but after an unexpectedly stressful week at work and some late nights, I needed a bit of comfort food as a reward. I also needed (#firstworldproblems) to use at least some of the massive bag of saffron I lugged home from Thailand.
For me, rice pudding is the perfect eat-your-feelings food because it combines pure sugar and carbohydrates and its texture is so delightfully spoonable. I remember reading in Comfort Me With Apples how Ruth Reichl ate an entire pot of rice pudding one fretful evening standing up by the stove and I could totally relate. I also liked the backstory of zarda, which apparently was the equivalent of the cupcake in 16th-century Ottoman Syria as it was the go-to dessert for celebrations. The recipe below is adapted from The Aleppo Cookbook.
1 cup short-grain white rice
1 tsp ground saffron plus a few errant whole threads
4 cups water
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons orange blossom water
Handful of almonds or pistachios
1. Combine ground saffron with 3 tablespoons hot water and let steep 15-20 minutes.
2. Wash rice thoroughly and combine with water in a medium-size saucepan. Cover and warm over medium heat until water is boiling vigorously.
3. Lower heat and add saffron. Simmer on very low heat until rice is very soft (about 30 minutes).
4. When there is just a splash of liquid left in rice, add sugar and orange blossom water. Mix thoroughly and remove from heat. Rest on adjacent burner until remaining liquid is absorbed.
5. Garnish with almonds to taste. If you like a creamier pudding, eat immediately, even out of the pot, but sit down for God's sake, you've had a long day. For a thicker, sturdier pudding, refrigerate for one hour.
Tonight marks Eid-al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan and in the spirit of gratitude and fellowship through the fusion of food and culture, I made freekah pilaf and a smoked turkey. Well, okay, Wyatt made the turkey unprovoked but I thought including the signature American Thanksgiving dish in the feast a fitting gesture. Although the smells that wafted from our backyard smoker were enough to make me swoon, I was even more excited for the freekah perhaps because just procuring this hearty Middle Eastern grain was an adventure that involved several false leads, multiple trips to different grocery stores, and eventual triumph at Wholefoods.
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup diced white onion
1 cup freekah
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 cups chicken stock
Salt to taste
1. Brown onions in olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat.
2. Add freekah, allspice, cinnamon, and pepper. Toast grains and spices for 5-8 minutes. Watch carefully and reduce heat if necessary as not to burn.
3. Add chicken stock and reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer for approximately 30 minutes.
4. Remove from heat when grains are soft and all liquid has evaporated. Do not overcook; it should not be creamy.
Serve with smoked turkey and fresh watermelon juice.
It is upon us.
I'm referring to Summer, also known affectionately as "hell" by Houston residents, including myself, who must brace themselves almost daily for triple-digit temperatures and high humidity. You know it's really hot when a part of you wishes there would be a tropical storm to cool things down.
But let's leave mass-spread devastation by Mother Nature for another day, and enjoy a more modest means of refreshment in the form of a wonderful Syrian drink called polo. I first wrote about polo last year in the dead of "winter" in Houston, and it seems fitting now I revisit the recipe not only because it is now Summer With A Capital 'S' but also because my agrarian-inclined husband has built a thriving rooftop garden that is yielding, among other botanicals, scores of fresh mint.
4 cups of cold water
5 lemons, juiced
6 tablespoons sugar
1.5 cups of fresh mint, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon orange blossom water.
1. Blend on high in blender; strain out bits. Or not, if you like some pulp in your drink.
There is a little less a week left to Ramadan, and I have neglected to write about one of my favorite customs with regards to the holiday: the breaking of fast (iftar) with dates (tmar).
The association between dates and breaking the day's fast is has religious as well as practical roots. “When one of you is fasting, he should break his fast with dates," said The Prophet Muhammed, "but if he cannot get any, then (he should break his fast) with water, for water is purifying.“
But dates are also in many ways an ideal first food to consume when you haven't eaten in approximately 12 hours. Dates are high in sugar, but have a low glycemic index, which mean they help stabilize blood sugar rather than create those spikes that render you flying high as a kite one minute to absolutely wiped the next. Dates are also easily digested but high in fiber, so, in theory, they fill you up and prevent you from over-eating at the evening meal. In theory. Pretty sure I could eat a pound and still have room for a double-quarter-pound.
Although I could have easily picked up some dried dates at the supermarket, I decided in the spirit of Going Through All the Food Products I Have Hoarded (#lifegoals) to sample the date spread i received from Try the World.
And, while eating the spread straight from the jar is perfectly acceptable, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and use it as a spread for the scones I had been planning to make this evening.
While driving to work this week, I was compiling a list of ingredients in my head I needed to buy to make this Syrian roast chicken and potatoes dish when suddenly I found myself behind an SUV with a single, ominous bumper sticker: "Eat Rice. Not Potatoes. Today!" So random, so weird, but I took it as a sign from God and decided to just make the chicken. And make rice, maybe.
Most recipes for this dish involve just roasting parts (usually legs or thighs) of the bird, but I like the presentation of a whole chicken. Plus, I found a large one on sale for $3 at Randall's.
My general advice with roasting a chicken is 1) Make sure that birdie is patted as dry as possible to ensure a crispy crust and 2) Be aggressive and thorough in your application of oil and spices and 3) A meat thermometer is very, very helpful and may prevent you from making you and your guests sick.
1 medium-to-large chicken
3 tablespoons good olive oil
1/2 cup chopped garlic
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons (or more) ground cumin
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Line roasting pan large enough for chicken with foil; spritz well with vegetable oil spray.
2. Using paper towels, pat chicken completely dry. Trim any excess nubbies of fat if you like from butt. The chicken's butt, not yours.
3. Dust chicken generously with salt.
4. In a small bowl, combine olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice.
5. Massage (yes, get those hands dirty) entire chicken with oil mixture, making sure to coat all surfaces.
6. Sprinkle ground cumin over chicken, then a wee bit more salt, and as much pepper as desired.
7. Roast in oven for at least 1 hour if not 1 hour and 25 minutes. To test progress of chicken, insert meat thermometer in thickest part of the thigh. When it clocks in at 165 degrees Fahrenheit, you should be good to go.
A roast chicken is useful in so many ways in addition to providing fodder for multiple meals. I like to keep the bones for stock and any rendered fat for chopped liver.
Subject of picture now missing...
A quick post to reassure readers I haven't abandoned the project; just a bit busy this week with other writing. Expect more recipes and experimentation next week!
What's a girl to do when her personal chef (and life partner) is away and there's a surplus of leftover buns, lamb meat, home-grown tomatoes at the peak of freshness, and fresh mint?
Quick answer: Make a burger. I seasoned my half-pound of ground lamb with allspice and pepper in addition to the cumin, then cooked it rare in a skillet with olive oil. Garnishes included the tomatoes, parsley, and a schmear of hummus. Holding it all together was a toasted butter bun made by my inamorato the night before he left.
Since we're living in a bizarro, upside-down world, why not eat something similarly inverted (albeit far more palatable)? Time then for maqluba, whose final presentation is achieved by flipping the dish to reveal a stratified plateau of meat, vegetables, and rice.
Maqluba appears in varying forms in different schools of Middle Eastern cookery, though virtually all involve some form of animal protein (usually lamb), cauliflower and/or eggplant, cooked rice, and multiple spices.
1 pound lamb meat (stew meat or extracted from chops)
2-3 cups chicken stock
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/4 cup chopped onions
1 tablespoon allspice
1/4 cup minced garlic
1 cup grilled sliced eggplant
1/2 cup chopped steamed cauliflower
2 cups rice
1/4 cups nuts (pistachios are ideal; I used cashews)
1. Combine lamb meat, 1-2 cups of stock, rosemary, onions, and allspice in a small saucepan. Cook uncovered over low-medium heat until lamb chunks are just barely pink inside.
2. Remove meat from any remaining stock and mix with garlic in a separate bowl.
3. Use all remaining stock (including that left in the saucepan) to cook rice until moist and fluffy. Place in separate bowl.
4. In bottom of original saucepan, layer eggplant slices, then cauliflower, then meat. Add rice last and push down with spatula to compress layers.
5. Place a large plate upside-down on top of pan. Flip contents of pan as gracefully as possible onto plate.*
6. Top maqluba with crushed nuts and season with salt and pepper to taste.
*My technique, as you can see from the photo, needs some work as my maqluba emerged less angular and more hill-like.
This Friday, May 26th marks the beginning in the United States of Ramadan, the most holiday time period in the Muslim calendar. In addition to engaging in prayer and reflection, those observing the holiday traditionally fast during daylight hours for 30 days, a gesture designed as a reminder of those who regularly go without food.
After the sun sets, the fast is broken via a meal known as iftar. The menu varies according to country and region, though the consumption of three dates is most traditional as it way in this way the Prophet Muhammad broke his fast.
When my Syrian friend and I were roommates, I fasted with her during one week of Ramadan and I found it a very difficult exercise, even though we had it "easy" as that year the holiday fell during the winter so daylight hours were at minimum. This year, I will not be fasting; I will, however, be donating money to the Houston Food Bank as well as a refugee fund, and, of course, attempting to cook some traditional iftar foods. On that note, Ramadan Mubarak to Muslims across the world, especially my friend Lena and her family, whose kindness and hospitality inspired this culinary journey.
Last week my in-laws were town and Wyatt planned a wonderful surprise. He decided to make sheesh barak, Syrian dumplings with yogurt sauce (knowing I wanted to feature it on the blog but that its complexity intimidates me) and my father-in-law volunteered to do a photo shoot (knowing I have serious issues with food photography). I am so loved.
3 cups flour
1 pound ground lamb
2-3 shallots (well chopped)
salt, pepper, allspice (heavy shakes of all 3)
1. Knead flour well with a pinch of salt and about 3/4 cup of water.
2. Roll out dough on well-floured surface. Cut into 3-inch rounds (dumplings will be sizable).
3. In a separate bowl, combine lamb, onion, spices, and coriander.
4. Place small scoop in center of each round.
5. Fold over as to form a pocket and pinch shut with knife.
3 quarts yogurt
1 tablespoon flour
1 egg white
2 cloves garlic (minced)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh mint
1/4 cup butter
1. Combine yogurt, flour, and egg white. Beat mixture thoroughly.
2. Transfer mixture to large pot and cook on high heat, stirring constantly, until it comes to a boil.
3. Immerse dumplings in boiling yogurt mixture and cook about 20 minutes on low heat. Transfer to large platter.
4. In a small bowl, combine garlic, salt, and mint.
5. Melt butter in a frying pan and saute garlic mixture for just under a minute. Drizzle over dumplings.
Eat until stuffed.
Readers of this blog will have noticed that many of the recipes I use come from Helen Corey's Healthy Syrian and Lebanese Cooking, which my husband bought approximately one minute after returning to the United States from Damascus because he was so jazzed about the food. At the time, it was one of the very few Syrian cookbooks 1) still in print 2) not astronomically expensive; now, I'm excited to report, there are many.
Corey's cookbook is comprehensive but not without its flaws. I've tested some recipes where the ingredient proportions seem a bit off and others whose authenticity was dubious. But in large part it was a very good introduction to the Syrian culinary ouevre.
Now that I have my feet wet, it's time to move on, which is why I just purchased Marlene Matar's The Aleppo Cookbook: Celebrating the Legendary Cuisine of Syria. Look for one last (but not really) post on the recipe for sheesh barak (lamb dumplings) from the Corey cook, then more adventures with Matar.
Houston, we have a quarterback. To celebrate, a culinary touchdown in the form of toum (also spelled 'toom' in some Syrian cookbooks). Toum is the ketchup of Middle Eastern food (or is ketchup the toum of American food?); an omnipresent condiment, it is used to dress grilled meats, sandwiches, even rice. The ingredients are simple, but the preparation more sophisticated, for its success depends on delicate emulsion. Don't throw all the ingredients in a blender and expect to have anything resembling the correct end product. Patience is key.
5 garlic cloves
1 egg white
Juice of 1 lemon
1 cup vegetable oil
ice water on hand
1. Place garlic and roughly 1/4 of the lemon juice in a food processor. Pulse on medium.
2. Add half the egg white and pulse again on medium.
3. Gradually add the half oil. And, I mean, gradually. Pulse intermittently on medium.
4. Add remainder of lemon juice and egg white. Pulse on low.
5. Add remainder of oil, again slowly. Pulse on low.
6. Add 1 or 2 tablespoons of ice water. Pulse on low until mixture just reaches creaminess.
Slather on your choice of protein.
If I'm not thinking about food, cooking food, or eating food, I'm probably reading about food. Since the start of 2017, I've read over 15 food memoirs in the course of doing research for my own writing project. Some are better than others, and among my favorites for their depth of detail and original phrasing are those written by Diana Abu-Jaber. I first read The Language of Baklava and am now finishing Crescent (technically personally-inspired fiction, not memoir), and next up is Life Without A Recipe.
Abu-Jaber is Jordanian and of course peppers her books with Middle Eastern recipes, which always makes me hungry and eager to cook more Syrian food. Last night, I said to hell with more healthful mezze and made roz bhaleeb, a fragrant rice pudding. Versions of roz bhaleeb are found all over the Arab world and sometimes orange blossom water is used instead of rose water.
5 cups whole milk (don't skimp on the fat!)
1/2 cup medium-grain white rice
1/2 cup white sugar (or brown...drr...if you run out)
3 tablespoons rose water
1/4 cup crushed pistachios
1. Combine rice and whole milk in a saucepan under low heat.
2. Simmer and cook for 90 minutes, stirring FREQUENTLY, until mixture thickens significantly.
3. Add sugar and rose water.
4. Refrigerate for at least four hours, if not overnight.
5. Garnish with crushed pistachios.
You learn something new every day, and yesterday, I learned two new things. First, Randall's on Holcombe Blvd. does not sell bulgur wheat. Second, some forms of traditional tabbouleh are made with couscous. This latter fact was especially heartening, especially since the former revelation initially caused a certain woman craving a refreshing Syrian mezze much consternation. And with a box already at home, she didn't even have to rely on Randall's for the couscous. Suck it, Randall's. (Just kidding. Thanks for the sale on parsley!)
Bulgur wheat gives rise to a grittier, heartier tabbouleh, while couscous tends to soften what is otherwise a very fibrous mixture. I find it also absorbs olive oil more readily, so don't over-pour lest you want your salad very slick.
1 cup cooked couscous
1 bunch of parsley (about 2 cups chopped)
1 medium tomato (about 3/4 cup chopped)
1 small white onion (about 3/4 cup chopped)
3/4 cup chopped mint
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1. Cook couscous according to instructions; usually, this involves a 1.5:1 ratio of hot water to rice.
2. Combine all vegetable ingredients in a deep bowl.
3. Incorporate cooled couscous vigorously into mixture.
4. Add liquid ingredients and toss such that salad is liberally coated.
5. Eat right away.
As promised, I'm celebrating that artichokes are in season by using them in some Syrian dishes. First up, ardi shoki blahmi, Syrian stuffed artichoke hearts (with a bit of modification). Before embarking on this recipe, consider whether you want to butcher whole artichokes in order to secure some hearts or just buy a can or jar of artichoke hearts. The former option is appropriate given chokies are in season but can get expensive if you want to make a large batch. The latter option is definitely not as cool but cheaper and yields meal-size portions. I'm sure you can guess what option this hungry runner selected.
Also note that regardless which option you choose, manipulating the hearts into little cups for the stuffing is a delicate, challenging process that is not to be done in a rush with heavy hands.
1 can or jar artichoke hearts (in water, if possible, not oil)
1 medium onion (chopped)
1/2 pound ground lamb OR chopped lamb shank meat
1 tablespoon allspice
1/4 cup parsley (chopped)
1/4 cup roasted eggplant (chopped)
chicken broth or stock (about a 2 cups)
1 teaspoon cornstarch
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped nuts (pinenuts are most authentic; peanuts will due if you were absent-minded at the store)
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Sauté onion in olive oil until transparent. Add lamb and cook until just brownish. Sprinkle with all-spice and mix well.
3. Remove meat and onions from pan and combine with chopped parsley and chopped roasted eggplant. Drizzle with lemon juice.
4. If your artichoke hearts still have the stem attached, trim so they rest flat on your baking dish. Push down inner most petals to create space for stuffing; try to keep outer petals intact to serve as 'sides' of your 'cup.' Stuff with meat and vegetable mixture. In separate bowl, combine chicken broth and cornstarch.
5. Arrange stuffed artichoke hearts in pan. Pour chicken broth and cornstarch mixture into pan until liquid level just reaches top of hearts. You will probably have extra liquid.
6. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for about 1 hour. Baste occasionally with any remaining chicken stock.
7. Remove from oven and garnish with chopped nuts, salt, pepper. Eat while watching Grace & Frankie.
This post is the first of a series highlighting seasonal ingredients that feature prominently in Syrian cooking. I am thrilled that the inaugural episode focuses on the artichoke, one of my favorite vegetables for its alluring, challenging qualities.
And that's on a good day. On a bad day, artichokes are painfully difficult to prepare well comprehensively and annoying to eat. But every day they are oh-so-satisfying.
Incidentally, although most people associate artichokes with Israel, (i.e., Jerusalem artichokes), Italy actually leads the globe in production. But their choice species is typically the small, purple artichoke not the larger, green variety favored in the Middle East.
Later this week, I will feature one of my favorite Syrian recipes featuring artichokes. For now, a simple, almost fool-proof method of roasting the full flowers.
4 large artichokes
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves of garlic
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Cut off stem of the artichoke where it meets the base. Invert artichoke, then slice 1 inch off the top.
3. Tear off 4 square pieces of foil, large enough to cover each artichoke. Rub each piece with a few drops of olive oil, then place artichoke on foil stem side down.
4. Stick 1 garlic clove into center of each artichoke until it is wedged about 1 inch inside.
5. Sprinkle each artichoke with salt and drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil.
6. Bring four corners of foil square together to "package" artichoke, covering completely and sealing tightly. Repeat for other three artichokes.
7. Bake for 1 1/2 hours. Let rest for about 15 minutes before gorging, er, I mean, serving.
On top of some pita/All covered with ghee/I lost my poor meatball/When somebody sneezed
-Old Syrian Boy Scout Song
In an attempt to roll with the punches last week at work, I decided to embrace spherical foods, my savory favorite of which is the meatball. I like 'em big, juicy, and slightly rare. Again, I'm talking about meatballs.
I found a recipe on SyrianCooking.com for "Dawood Basha", which by the parenthetical that followed implied can be roughly translated as "meatball." But I wouldn't know because I don't speak Arabic. YET. Below is a slightly modified version.
1 pound beef or lamb
2 cups your husband's homemade spaghetti sauce
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped parsley
1/2 tablespoon Baharat (Syrian Spice Mix)*
1/2 cup sesame seeds
Olive oil or ghee