Archive for the 'mideastern' Category

Watermelon feta salad or soup

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

Chilled watermelon soup

As you can see, Evan is particularly pleased with this simple watermelon dish. The baby version of watermelon salad turns into a creamy soup, which Evan found a bit strange at first. He tried to eat the soup off the spoon, and realized that was not the most convenient method of consumption. "Slurp, slurp", I said, as I fed him, making the noisiest slurping sounds that would be perfectly polite at a Japanese ramen house. "Hoo!", he giggled. The more he eats this soup, the more practice he gets at conveying liquids to his mouth with a spoon, rather than a bottle. He seems to find the result worthy of the effort.

The grownup version of this dish is a warm weather favorite. With its juicy sweetness, watermelon begs for the salty counterpoint of feta cheese. The salad is incomplete without fresh mint leaves and some grassy, peppery extra virgin olive oil. I like to top the salad with some Aleppo chili pepper flakes. The salad would pair nicely with a good chilled beer, I think, and is best consumed outside in the hot summer sun.

This is the third post in a series on making your own baby food. See the first and second posts here:on making baby food, what am I, chopped liver?.

watermelon feta salad

Leave out the chili flakes to make the baby-friendly version of this recipe (see below). You can always add the chili flakes later.

1 small or 1/2 large watermelon
1 8 oz/226 g package feta cheese, cubed
1 bunch fresh mint
black pepper
olive oil
Aleppo or other chili pepper flakes

  1. Cut the watermelon into large bite-sized cubed and place the fruit in a large bowl.
  2. Add the feta cubes to the bowl. The ratio of cheese to watermelon should be a little less than one to one.
  3. Rip 2-3 handfuls of mint into the bowl.
  4. Season to taste with freshly ground black pepper, and drizzle with olive oil.
  5. Sprinkle the chili flakes over the top.

Serves 4-6.

watermelon feta soup

  1. Follow the directions for preparing watermelon salad as shown above, skipping the last step.
  2. Remove a few chunks each of watermelon and feta cheese from the bowl, and place them in a coffee grinder.
  3. Add another mint leaf or two, if you like, and another drizzle of olive oil.
  4. Pulverize the salad in the coffee grinder. Correct seasoning with freshly ground black pepper and olive oil.
  5. Optionally, sprinkle in a dash of finely ground chili pepper such as cayenne or hot paprika.
  6. Store in a 4 oz/125 ml canning jar.

beef meatball, olive and lemon “tajine” with tehineh sauce

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Jewish new year is forever marked in my mind with the thick, heady sweetness of honey. Everything is drenched in it—-the raisin-studded challah bread, the tart apples ushering in the autumn season and a sweet new year, the overwhelmingly sweet concoction that is tzimmes: carrots, prunes, raisins and honey stewed to a soft consistency just beyond a reasonable compote. Even the sabbath and holiday tradition of sprinkling bread with salt at the beginning of the meal flies right out the window, along with anything deemed too sharp or spicy on the palate, such as hot sauce (Mizrachis) or garlic (Ashkenazis).

Most children love the idea of a holiday meal based entirely on sweetness, but I bristled at the thought. My beloved challah was defiled by raisins, which I would carefully remove before sinking my teeth into the rich, eggy bread. I would dot the chastened slice with the tiniest bit of honey, so as not to spoil the flavor of the bread (which, to my salty palate, was plenty sweet on its own). Next was the carrot, raisin and pineapple salad which my mother made every year. I would avoid the raisins and try to eat mostly carrots with the occasional bite of pineapple. Tzimmes was completely impossible to eat, full as it was of the dreaded dried fruit and honey. I would skip it completely and focus on the chicken and rice. “Macht nicht kein tzimmes!” my father would joke. “Don’t make a fuss.” But a bite or two was really all I could manage.

The end of the meal brought “lekakh” or honey cake, and with it a “glezele tey” with its contrasting bitter tannins. I loved the spicy earthiness of the cake, its moist crumb and (comparatively) subtle sweetness. Hot tea was the perfect accompaniment.

For those of you who–like me–could do with a little less sweetness in your holiday meal, here is a recipe for a meatball olive and lemon tajine type dish with tehineh sauce (inspired by siniyeh). Save the honey for the honey cake. Happy new year!

beef meatball, olive and lemon “tajine” with tehineh sauce

I used clarified butter to fry the meatballs as it is a very stable and tasty fat that does not oxidize when heated. If you keep kosher or prefer other fats, feel free to substitute schmaltz or the oil of your choice.

1 lb ground beef
1/2 TBS baharat spice mixture
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste (both black and white pepper, if available)
1/2 TBS dried mint
2 TBS finely ground burghul
2 TBS clarified butter, schmaltz or oil
olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup good quality olives, pitted
1 fresh lemon, thinly sliced and seeded, the slices cut into quarters
1/2 cup chopped celery leaves
3/4 cup stock
8 stalks celery, chopped into large bite-sized pieces

2 TBSP tahini
1/2 lemon, juiced
1/4 cup water
salt and white pepper to taste

  1. Combine the beef with the spices, herbs and burghul. Mix well and form into small meatballs.
  2. Place a large, heavy skillet on medium heat. Melt the fat in the skillet and add a little olive oil.
  3. Fry the meatballs in the pan, turning to brown on all sides. When browned, remove meatballs to a plate and set aside.
  4. Pour or wipe off some of the oil in the pan and fry the onions. When the onions are translucent, place the meatballs back in the pan.
  5. Pour in the stock, then add the olives and lemons. Stir to distribute.
  6. Cover and simmer on medium-low heat for 15 minutes.
  7. Add the celery and continue cooking another 10 minutes.
  8. Meanwhile, prepare the tehineh sauce. Combine the tahini and lemon juice, then slowly add half the water. Mix, and add more water until the sauce is light beige and slightly runny. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  9. Serve the meatballs over rice, burghul or couscous. Drizzle the tehineh sauce on top and garnish with lemon zest.
Serves 2-4.


Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

On a recent bright Saturday morning at the Ferry Plaza farmers’ market, I was pleasantly surprised to find large bouquets of za’atar. Star Route Farms grows the herb and sells large bunches of it at the market.

Za’atar is more commonly known as an herby spice mix spiked with sesame seeds. The mix is named after the plant, which is dried and mixed with a variety of ingredients such as sumac, cumin and salt. Traditionally, people in the Middle East have mixed their own za’atar according to family recipes and the local palate. The dried mix is sprinkled on labneh (a sour sheep’s milk yogurt cheese) and on small round flatbreads drizzled in peppery olive oil.

Fresh za’atar is a rare treat. I’ve never seen it in bay area farmers’ markets. It was hard to find the herb even in the markets of the greater Tel Aviv area. Once you get your hands on some, you can use it fresh and dry the rest in the sun. Store it in a tightly sealed jar.

Fresh za’atar has an aroma and flavor somewhat similar to wild oregano, but different. Za’atar has a little more attitude. It’s oregano’s hot-headed cousin. Its scent is a little more heady, its taste a little more powerful. Za’atar goes very nicely with soft cheeses, especially goat and sheep cheeses, as well as hummus. It spices up a roast chicken, along with a little lemon, sea salt, pepper and olive oil. Sprinkle some on sliced heirloom tomatoes in lieu of basil, or add it to cheese kreplach. Gently fry some leaves in olive oil as a sauce for pasta, then top with chunks of cooked chicken or fish and olives with a squeeze of lemon juice. I haven’t tried it, but I suspect it would go well with lamb kebab. It might also enliven a packet of shrimp or fish en papillote.

My favorite use of za’atar—dried or fresh—is on a round of traditional flatbread, warm and redolent with toasted sesame seeds and a thick layer of za’atar mix drenched in strong olive oil.

What do you like to do with za’atar?

sens and sensibility

Monday, October 8th, 2007

What’s it like to open a new restaurant? My favorite pastry chef can tell you all about it.

And what’s the new restaurant like, anyway? It’s like a cozy cabin in the mountains but big enough to feed and water a very large, well dressed crowd. It’s like eating your way through the local farmers’ market but with za’atar, sumac, and harissa for flavor (and kadaif for crunch).

Read more at Well Fed on the Town

couscous with vegetables

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

Couscous is a marvelous dish when prepared properly. I don’t mean the kind of couscous you make by soaking it in hot water for ten minutes. I mean the kind of couscous you steam forever, smother in butter, steam forever again, etc. OK, I admit, this type of couscous comes in a box too. (Most of us don’t have the time to painstakingly prepare the tiny pasta from scratch.) But when served with traditionally cooked vegetables and meat, couscous is a pleasure to eat—deeply satisfying and soulful.

Traditionally, couscocus is served on Tuesdays, laundry day in certain North African communities. While waiting for their laundry to dry, North African women would prepare the pasta and dry it in the sun. Thus laundry day became a social event, an opportunity to get together with friends and neighbors to gossip and exchange recipes.

The Tuesday couscous tradition persists in Israel at North African mom and pop eateries. Traditionally, couscous is served with a soup of vegetables and meat, eather chicken or beef. The types of vegetables and the spices used vary depending on the regional extraction of the cook.

The couscous joint I frequented in Israel was run by a family of Tripolitan extraction. Their couscous included carrots, potatoes, turnips, and zucchini, as well as chicken. Effie, the owner, always had a full house on Tuesdays, when all the high tech employees in the neighborhood would converge on his place for a plate of some down home couscous and little complimentary plates of mezze and pita. Effie’s has no menu.

Instead, Effie would greet everyone with a smile and some friendly banter, and proceed to rattle off the specials of the day. He’d then take everyone’s order faster than any waiter I’ve seen before or since, and pass them on to his wife in the kitchen. One of his sons would cover the table with simple sheet of butcher paper, and another son would arrive with plates and cutlery. The first son would return with a basket of fresh, warm pita bread and small mezze plates, including hummus with olive oil, olives, a Tunisian pumpkin spread, and two types of eggplant salad. It was always a challenge to eat all the mezzeh and still have room for couscous.

Couscous veMafroum
(That’s the official name, but everyone calls it Effie’s)
12 Yehezkel Kazaz St.
Or Yehuda, Israel

couscous with vegetables

Here’s my vegetarian version of couscous with vegetables, loosely based on my memories of Effie’s couscous.

for the vegetables:

1 onion, chopped, or 3 shallots, chopped
2 cloves garlic
3 small carrots, peeled
1 large turnip, peeled
1 large potato, peeled
1 cup garbanzo beans, soaked and cooked
1 bunch chard, spinach, or other greens, washed and coarsely chopped
1/2 tsp whole fenugreek
spice mixture: 1/2 tsp each whole fennel and coriander seeds, 2 tsp whole cumin seeds
(If you don’t have whole spices, use pre-ground. Just spice the vegetables a little more cautiously, reserving any leftover spice mixture for a later use. It is best, however, to use whole spices.)
salt to taste

for the couscous:

250 gr coucous
salt to taste


couscousiere, or a medium sized pot with a steamer or sieve
(I used a small pot and a vegetable steamer for the couscous, and a separate pot for the vegetables. Ideally, the couscous should steam above the vegetables to as to absorb their flavors.)

  • Pour the couscous into a large, shallow bowl and soak in 1/2 cup very cold water for 20 minutes.
  • Chop the vegetables into coarse chunks.
  • If using whole spices, place in a clean coffee grinder and grind to a powder.
  • Heat some butter and olive oil in a pot and add in the onions. Season with salt and stir. You don’t want the onions to turn transluscent without browning.
  • Press the garlic cloves into the onions, then add the fenugreek and half the ground spice mixture. Stir to distribute evenly.
  • Add chopped vegetables to pot, along with garbanzo beans, and cover with water.
  • Drain the couscous and rake it with your fingers.
  • Place steamer, sieve, or couscousiere steaming insert above vegetables and place drained couscous in steamer.
  • Bring vegetables to the boil, uncovered.
  • Keep the vegetables on a low simmer and turn the couscous into a bowl.
  • Rake the couscous with your fingers, sprinkle it with 1/4 cup cold water, and season with salt and butter to taste.
  • Let stand, and then steam again over the simmering vegetables.
  • You can repeat the raking-sprinkling-seasoning-sitting process, as recommended on the Ya Rayi site. I was lazy and hungry, so I steamed the couscous twice, rather than three times. It was still delicious.

Serves 3-4


Friday, November 3rd, 2006

Falafel’s lesser known little sister is sabikh. Sabikh is a pita sandwich with fried eggplant, a sliced boiled egg, chunks of steamed potatoes, salad, hummus, tahini sauce, and amba, a sort of sour mango pickle sauce. Traditionally, sabikh was eaten by Iraqi Jews on Saturday morning. According to lore, the sandwich didn’t really have a name back in Iraq. It was named sabikh by the Iraqi immgrants who opened the first kiosk in Israel to sell the sandwich. Filling, tasty, and messy, sabikh is a favorite street food among Israelis today.

Sabikh is inherently fun to eat. With its abundance of ingredients, it’s an everything but the kitchen sink type of sandwich. Every bite yields a combination of flavors and textures, and often a dribble of tahini down your chin. Keeping the full-to-bursting pita in one piece is always a delicate balance. (The trick here is to use slightly thick, soft, pliable pita, not the sort of thin cardboardy stuff you find at the supermarket).

Sabikh was one of A‘s favorite street foods when we lived in Israel. So on the morning of his recent birthday, I made sabikh with homemade pita. Sabikh makes a tasty breakfast served with Middle Eastern cucumber and tomato salad. And pita is much easier to make than you’d think. You can finish the meal with a small glass of strong Turkish coffee, or sweet mint tea.

sabikh with middle eastern cucumber and tomato salad

Hanit has a recipe for pita here, which you can halve. Or you could make the entire recipe and freeze the remainder for later.

1 small or medium eggplant, preferably the multi-cleft heirloom variety known in the Middle East as “baladi
2 hard boiled eggs, sliced or coarsely chopped
good quality plain hummus, such as Sabra brand, or homemade
prepared tahini sauce (prepare according to instructions on the jar of tahini paste)
2 steamed potatoes coarsely chopped, or several bite-sized steamed potatoes
amba (optional)
2 good quality pitas
Middle Eastern cucumber and tomato salad (recipe below)

  • Place a heavy frying pan on medium heat and melt a good tablespoon or two of coconut oil in the pan. Alternatively, you could use olive oil (not extra virgin).
  • Fry the eggplant slices until browned on both sides. Remove from pan and drain.
  • Slice the tops off the pitas so that you now have two D-shaped pocket. Gently separate the walls of the pockets to make them easier to stuff.
  • Invert the sliced pita tops and nestle them at the bottom of each pita. These pita tops reinforce the sabikh, preventing dripping from the bottom (for a while, anyway).
  • Hold the bottom of a pita, gently squeezing the rounded edge in your hand so that the pocket opens.
  • Smear a bit of hummus in the pita, then add the eggplant, eggs, potatoes, and salad.
  • Drizzle tahini sauce and amba into the pita.
  • Serve with salad on the side.

Serves 2

middle eastern cucumber and tomato salad

Middle Eastern cucumber and tomato salad resembles salsa in that its ingredients are diced very small, creating a cohesive cross between a salad and a chunky sauce. The tartness of the lemon juice, the bite of the olive oil, and the freshness of the parsley meld with the sweet juices of the tomatoes and the crispness of the cucumbers. It just isn’t the same if you chop the vegetables any other way except a tiny dice. A salsa style salad is made to be eaten in a pita.

2 Mediterranean, Persian, or small pickling cucumbers
2 medium sized very fresh tomatoes
1 lemon, sliced
good olive oil, preferably Middle Eastern or Greek
salt and pepper to taste

  • Trim the ends of the cucumbers.
  • Dice the cucumbers and tomatoes. You want a very small dice, say, a quarter of an inch.
  • Finely mince a handful of parsley and add to the cucumbers and tomatoes.
  • Squeeze some lemon juice over the salad, and drizzle a good glug of olive oil.
  • Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Taste and correct dressing.

Serves 2

N.B. If you’re in NYC, you can get sabikh at Taïm. If you’re in the San Francisco bay area, you’re out of luck. But you can get Sabra hummus at Berkeley Bowl, and baladi eggplants at the Ferry Building farmer’s market. Check the farm stand across from Point Reyes Preserves.

shakshuka nopalitos

Tuesday, May 30th, 2006

Shakshuka is one of my favorite middle eastern breakfast foods. It’s a simple dish, usually made with garlic, peppers, tomatoes, and eggs. Garlic and chili peppers are sauted in olive oil, along with bell peppers and lots of fresh tomatoes, forming a chunky vegetable stew. The eggs–nestled into little indentations–are poached in the stew itself. The dish is typically eaten with a thick slice of cheap, fresh crusty white bread, perfect for mopping up the tomatoey juices. Shakshuka and bread make a great breakfast, but if you’re still hungry, add a small Arab style salad–cucumbers, tomatoes, and parsley micro-chopped and dressed with s&p, half a lemon, and good olive oil.

Shakshuka Nopalitos is a Mexican twist on a middle eastern favorite, using chopped nopales or nopalitos, cleaned chopped cactus leaves that taste of green pepper and lime. “Mexican-Israeli?” you may ask, eyebrow raised. Shakshuka Nopalitos is a bit of a leap, but it’s a far cry from the chipotle sun-dried tomato hummous you find at highfalutin’ supermarkets. (If there is a hummous god, then verily, chipotle sun-dried tomato hummous must be an abomination unto Him).

For the record, though, tampering with the traditional classics of Israeli cuisine is risky. Israelis are very passionate about their multi-faceted cuisine. They love to argue about the authenticity of the regional dishes they love most, usually those their mothers or grandmothers prepared at home.

The “correct” preparation of shakshuka, for example, is a subject of much contention on Israeli food forums. Some add onions, while others are horrified by the very thought of an onion appearing in shakshuka. Some insist that peppers are the only vegetables used in the dish, while others add okra or zucchini.

Ironically, shakshuka isn’t Israeli at all, rather it is a North African dish that probably originated in Turkey and migrated to Israel along with the displaced Jews of those regions. Many versions abound, each one most likely evolved as a result of regional differences. The “correct” version that any given Israeli enjoyed at his grandmother’s table is probably a variation on the local version from grandma’s tiny Algerian village.

Is the shakshuka prepared by a weathered matriarch hailing from an obscure Algerian hamlet superior to that prepared by her compatriot from the equally obscure Morrocan boondocks? Which painting is better, an oil or a gouache? It’s an endless argument. As in many versions of traditional Israeli dishes, all and none are correct. And so, in the spirit of deconstruction, here is Shakshuka Nopalitos.

Shakshuka Nopalitos

1/2 red onion, coarsely chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1/2 lb cleaned, chopped nopalitos

1-2 TBS butter
1/2 red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
6 small tomatillos, halved and chopped
2 fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 can whole peeled tomatoes, chopped, drained (or save the juice for another use)
salt and pepper to taste
hot paprika to taste
1-2 tsp fresh oregano, chopped
2-4 eggs, or 1-2 eggs per person

  • Fill a small pot with water, add salt, and boil. When boiling, add the nopales, onion, and garlic.
  • Simmer uncovered for about 10 minutes, then drain.
  • Melt the butter in a large pan over a medium flame. Add the onion and garlic and saute.
  • When the onion and garlic are transluscent, add the tomatillos and tomatoes. Stir and cook for a few minutes.
  • Add the canned tomatoes without the juice. Stir and cook for a few minutes.
  • Mix in the nopalitos and season to taste with salt, pepper, hot paprika, and fresh oregano.
  • For each egg you want to cook, make an indentation in the vegetable mixture. Crack the eggs into their indentations and season each egg with a little salt and pepper.
  • When the whites start to become opaque, cover the pan and cook until the eggs have just set.
  • Serve with thick slices of simple, fresh bread and perhaps an Arab style salad on the side.

Serves 2-3

Thanks to Rancho Gordo for tips on cooking nopales. Rancho Gordo is a local grower of delicious heirloom bean varieties, and other goodies.

baladi eggplant

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2006

I’ve been jonesing for a fire-roasted eggplant with yogurt and tahini sauce ever since I left Israel. This dish appears in myriad variations at almost every trendy Middle Eastern fusion restaurant in greater Tel Aviv. And with good reason–it’s delicious.

Ordinarily, the dish is prepared with a “baladi” eggplant, an Arabic word which roughly translates to “grown the old fashioned way,” according to a greengrocer at the Carmel market in Tel Aviv. Baladi eggplants are smaller than globe eggplants, usually about half the size. They’re squat and appear sort of cloven, with three to five grooves extending from the base towards the top of the fruit. Think of a slightly more squat looking globe eggplant, with multiple–ahem–cleavage. Baladi eggplants are wonderfully delicate and sweet. They’re great sliced and fried in a little olive oil, with a sprinkling of sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

A fire-roasted baladi eggplant is even better–still sweet, yet slightly smoky tasting with a creamy texture. Cow, sheep, or goat milk yogurt adds a cool tanginess to the eggplant, tahini sauce keeps the whole thing grounded and earthy, while pine nuts add texture and, well, a piny flavor that spices everything up. My favorite recipe for this dish is tucked away in the pages of a cooking magazine, lying in a box in storage way over on the other side of the planet. Here’s my attempt at reconstructing it.

Fire-roasted Eggplant with Yogurt and Tahini Sauce

1 medium sized eggplant
coarse sea salt
freshly ground pepper
1 TBSP tahini
1 TBSP freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 TBSP water
1/2 cup good quality cow, sheep, or goat yogurt
toasted pine nuts, lightly crushed or chopped
1 TBSP finely minced fresh herbs such as wild oregano, coriander, or parsley

– Light the smallest gas flame on your stove and rest the eggplant directly on the grate. If you don’t have a gas stove, use a barbecue or hibachi outdoors.

– As the eggplant darkens and starts to smell roasted, you’ll want to turn it over. Keep an eye (and a nostril) on it. If you notice large patches of still purple eggplant skin, turn the uncooked area to the flame.

– While the eggplant is roasting, mix the yogurt until it’s creamy. Try to whisk out the lumps, if any.

– In a small bowl, mix the tahini, lemon juice, and water until well combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

– Remove the eggplant from the flame. You’ll know it’s ready when its skin is no longer purple and it is fairly soft. The skin should not be charred (like used coal), just blackened.

– Let the eggplant rest for a few minutes, and drain any liquids that escape.

– Split the eggplant open (careful, it’s hot) and run a fork along the flesh like a rake. This will make the flesh easier to eat as you won’t need to work at separating it from the skin. Season each half lightly with salt and pepper to taste.

– Spoon some yogurt on each half. Drizzle tahini sauce over the yogurt. Sprinkle with pine nuts and minced herbs.

Serves 2

– Instead of yogurt, use labaneh, a kind of tangy yogurt cheese of Middle Eastern origin.
– Instead of crushed pine nuts, use black sesame seeds, or nigella seeds.
– Sprinkle roasted cumin seeds on top.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
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