Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Bomb Scares, and a Recipe for Fear and Absurdity

Last week, an unattended box caused fear and panic at a gas station in Marshalls Creek, PA, according to this account and this account.

With the New York and New Jersey bombings still fresh, and the tri-state area recently on high alert, someone spotted an unattended box with Arabic print at a Gulf gas station and called the police. 

The police were called. The bomb squad came. The area was shut down. Until they realized that this unattended Arabic box was a box of cookies.  

Not just any cookies, but ma'amool cookies. They are a delicate, crumbly semolina and butter cookie, stuffed with spiced dates or nuts, and then either formed by hand or pressed in a mold, and sprinkled with powdered sugar when cooled. They are the quintessential Middle Eastern holiday cookie, used by both Muslims and Christians to celebrate their high feasts. Before Easter, and Eid, women gather in kitchens to turn out hundreds of these cookies, which are sealed into containers and served with coffee throughout the holiday season.

But on that day, in that box, those cookies struck terror.

Living with Bomb Scares

To me, this story is new, and yet also familiar. In Jerusalem, we were trained to always keep an eye out for any suspicious, unattended packages in public spaces. Bus stops, buses, benches, trash cans, everyone was always on high alert. If you stepped away from your things for a moment, someone would ask, loudly, Is that yours? If no one claimed the item immediately, the bomb squad would be called, and then, it would be blown up.  

So, yeah, this happened a lot.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Fried Curried Eggplant with Pomegranate Molasses

Summer is slipping into fall around here, and I couldn't let it slip quite away before I shared with you a simple-as-summer recipe.  I keep finding myself standing in front of my stove, frying up cubes of eggplant, because as often as I make it,  I never seem to get enough of it.

My blog has been quiet, as it usually is over the summer months, because my home has been full of toddlers and children (some of whom belonging to me) running in and out the front door, trips to the pools (with requisite snacks), and a generous handful of trips to visit family, see new places, try new food.

Of special note, was a trip to Pittsburgh's Conflict Kitchen, were my husband and I enjoyed a delicious Iranian lunch.  The Conflict Kitchen is a take-out restaurant with a walk up counter, that serves a rotating menu from countries with which the United States is in conflict.  This month, they serve a beautiful selection of Iranian dishes.  About a year ago, in a controversial move, they rotated their menu to cover dishes from Palestine.  If you are ever in Pittsburgh, do try to find it.

Back in my hot and humid Virginia, my kitchen is overflowing with luscious summer vegetables - zucchini, tomatoes, corn, eggplant.  The summer months, though, bring more ambitious cooking projects to a halt.  I crave simple, light meals, salads and simple cuts of protein, meals that keep me out of the kitchen and at the pool.  On this particular day, I had several eggplants that needed some love, but I was far too hot to fire up the grill for eggplant dip, and far to lazy to contemplate a batch of eggplant bake, or menezali, so I found myself creating this simple eggplant dish.

One spoonful, and I was hooked.  I've always loved eggplant, especially fried eggplant cubes, with its lovely velvety and luxuriant richness.  This time, I added a drizzle of pomegranate molasses to cut through the richness and brightens and sweetens the dish. Add a sprinkle of toasted nuts, and suddenly this plate of vegetables, for me, becomes utterly crave-able.

I've served this over a bed of basmati rice, for a simple, meatless main dish, or as a warm side dish, with grilled chicken.  Either way, you are in for a treat.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Baked Apricots with Honey and Orange Blossom Water, and a Language Lesson.

Aywa, aywa, fil mishmish, I would hear the adults say, with a grin and a shrug, when discussing a time frame for when the city would fix the road, when the plumber would fix the toilet, when peace would come to Jerusalem.  

Yes, yes, in the apricot?  I could translate the phrase literally.  I knew what the word mishmish meant: apricots.  It was an Arabic word that my English tongue found playful and satisfying to say. What do apricots have to do with the road?  With the toilet?  With the peace process?  I never knew, and I never asked, because really, how many times a week, a day, an hour, can you ask your mother, but what do you mean? before you both grow weary of the question.

Growing up in my half-Arab half-American home meant living on the shore of understanding, but never venturing into deep waters.  My Arabic was spotty.  I could understand words, phrases, simple sentences.  My exposure to the language began in earnest when I was nine, when we moved to the West Bank.  Even though Arabic was my mother's mother tongue, she did not pass it on to me, and our years in and out of America, in France, where I became fluent in French, and then in Cario, where I become fluent in a British accent (from British schools!), meant that I was nine before I had a serious encounter with my mother's mother tongue.  

I learned Arabic by listening to my mother speak on the phone, or to the taxi driver, to my aunt and cousins.  I learned it by sitting through family dinners that I could not fully understand, by listening to song lyrics that I couldn't follow, by listening to living room small talk, over pistachios and mint tea.  

My mother usually spoke to my sister and to me in English, or in partial English, enough so that we understood.  We were used to sentences that began in one language and ended in another, and when my grandmother lived with us, we became used to the musical layering of English into Arabic, switching halfway, switching with each breath.  

But there were some things that eluded translation:  insults, proverbs, food.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Sticky Pomegranate Drumsticks + Tahini-Lemon Brussels Sprouts

Yesterday's flavors, today's food.

That has been on my mind the last few months, as I've been pondering what to do next on this blog. Since I don't always have the time to cook traditional recipes, but my kitchen is always stocked with the basics of a Middle Eastern pantry, when it's time to cook dinner, I often find myself staring at cuts of meat, and a whole lot of blank slate.

That's when I throw open my pantry and reach for The Secret Weapon of Arabic Meat Dishes:  pomegranate molasses. And when I need to add more flavor to a roasted vegetable, I reach for one of the basic Arabic sauces - tahini and lemon.

It's really funny, if you think about it, because Arabs are dead against mixing sweet and savory, and yet, they use pomegranate molasses, a syrup made of cooked down pomegranate juice (recipe here). My mother tells of her tongue's culture shock when she first came to American and was served chicken cooked with pineapple, pork cooked with apples, lamb served with mint jelly.  Sweet, fruity with meat?  It just didn't make sense to her palate.

And yet:  pomegranate molasses. This remarkable tart-sweet syrup is a miracle worker in the meat department. Arabic cooks drizzle in a little into their meat stuffing, or over roasts or chickens.   Pomegranate has that tart acidity that the Arabic palate enjoys, and only a very slight sweetness, so I imagine that is what they enjoy.  In this recipe, though, I play up the pomegranate's slight sweetness, and bath the chicken in pomegranate molasses, to create a barbecue-like flavor that my more Western tongue enjoys.

(This marinade also makes a divine glaze for a pork roast.)

I paired this dish with a side of roast Brussels sprouts, a vegetable that my children enjoy immensely, and that I love, even though I never had it when I was growing up in the Middle East.  To make it feel a little more at home next to the tray of chicken, I added the tahini-lemon sauce, and a sprinkle of pine nuts on the sprouts.  And just like that, I think we have a new family favorite way to eat our Brussels sprouts.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

100th Post {!}: Reflection on the Journey

One hundred posts, three years of researching, writing, cooking, photographing, eating, remembering and learning, and I have gained so much.  I am stronger than ever before, both in my sense of cultural self and in my confidence in the kitchen.  I am so grateful.

Today, I am pausing to reflect on this blog, this little experiment of mine.  When I started this blog, as  a way of recording my journey into traditional Palestinian cuisine, I never really expected anyone to read or follow this blog.  After all, I laughed to myself, how many people are interested in traditional food, let alone Palestinian traditional food.

As it turns out, far more than I could have imagined.  What a curious world.

But for me, this return to Arabic cooking became more than a culinary experiment, or even a health experiment.  It quickly also became a meditation on my own criss-crossed cultural identity, and the emerging cultural identity of my own children.  I found myself re-asking all of the painful questions that I had avoided for most of my life:  Since I am both Arab and American, can I ever really be either?  Am I even Arab enough to engage in this experiment - can I ever be authentic enough to cook authentically?

In the early dawn hours of reflections, here is what has come to me.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Palestinian Rice Stuffing, or As My Mother Calls It . . .

It's been quite a journey that I have been on, these past few years.

I decided that I was going to become my mother's pupil, and learn how to cook all of the Palestinian dishes that my mother had prepared for our family when I was growing up in Jerusalem.  Though there were some places where I could find similar recipes, it was important to me that I learned how to make our particular foods, instead of dipping into the wider bowl of Middle Eastern cuisine.  I wanted to cook not just like an Arab, but like a Palestinian.  I was very intentional about finding the exact ingredients, the exact flavors that my Nazareth mother used to make her foods.  

I would call my mother every week, and talk food.  She would ask me how the kids were doing, and then eagerly, I would run through my list of questions:

What spices do you use for the kefta?
How do you make sure the yogurt sauce, for mansaf, doesn't break?
What is the stuffing recipe for the malfoof?  And what about the stuffing mixture for the wara' dawali?

Finally, she said, laughing over the line:  

Listen, honey.  

In every recipe, we use the same stuffing.

It's the same. damn. stuffing

Sometimes, we put it in cousa.  Sometimes, we put it cabbage.  Sometimes, we put it in peppers, or in grape leaves.  Sometimes, we stuff a chicken.   But every time, it's the SAME. DAMN. STUFFING.


How about that.

Same damn stuffing. 

Okay, then. That sure makes things easier. 

I stopped asking her for the recipe for the stuffing, or, as I like to now call it, SDS.

From then on, when I stirred up the rice and meat mixture, dusted it with a little allspice and cinnamon, and began to kneed it with my hands, I would wait to feel the waves of history break over me, to feel the presence of my grandmother and my great grandmother, cheering me on.

Instead, all I could hear is my mother's voice:  Same. Damn. Stuffing.  And this from a woman who's language is usually as squeaky clean as her kitchen.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Salad in Winter: Citrus Spinach Salad with Pomegranate Arils

The season of tomatoes is over.

I feel quite lost.

I miss our simple tomato-cucumber salads of the summer.  I grew up eating salads almost every night (my father was the salad and dressing maker), but they almost always had a little chopped tomato in them: cabbage salad with tomato, lettuce salad with tomato, cucumber, carrots, or a basic chopped tomato and cucumber salad.

When I first came to this country, I would still buy tomatoes year round because I just couldn't imagine my kitchen without fresh tomatoes.  Those piles of tomatoes in the grocery store in December, January, February - I didn't realize how far they had traveled and how little they tasted like real fruit.  I just bought them because I had never, ever, ever in my life lived in a house where there were no tomatoes.

A few years ago, I finally broke down and admitted:  I am not in Palestine anymore.

I am in Northern Virginia.  And here, the winter tomatoes are the worst.

Once I admitted that, I found I could stop buying them.  I walked right past the display case of mealy tomatoes.

Is there still salad after tomato season?  I was wandering in new territory here.  I tried apples and pears, cucumber and feta, cabbage and spinach, bacon crumbles, walnuts, sourdough croutons.   They were good, but they didn't taste quite like home.

A few weeks ago, I was pushing my cart through the grocery store, and my baby squealed with delight and said, "BALL."  He was pointing at a pomegranate.   That's not a ball, honey, I said.  It's a pomegranate.  He didn't believe me, and clutched it in the cart for the rest of the ride.

We brought the pomegranate home, and looked at it for a while, on the counter.  It was so pretty, in a bowl with the baby oranges and the pears and apples, that it seemed a shame to break it open.  I found a video tutorial by Martha Stewart on how to de-seed a pomegranate, and the older children and I followed her instructions and were soon rewarded with a beautiful mound of pomegranate seeds.  (It's not a very elegant video - but it was fun to follow!).

For breakfast, I sliced up oranges and sprinkled them with pomegranate arils.  The children picked up the pretty gems-like seeds, the baby ate them by the fistful, and my daughter studded the center of her orange rounds with the ruby red seeds.

And I suddenly saw my new winter salad: a bed of baby spinach leaves, sliced rounds of baby oranges, and a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds.

Oranges and spinach are a classic combination, but the tart little pomegranate seeds add crunch and a tart burst of juice into each bite.  I drizzled a homemade citrus dressing, with a little Dijon mustard and pomegranate molasses stirred in, to complement the salad.

Unforeseen result:  My salad is in the holiday spirit!  Wouldn't this be lovely to bring to a Christmas party?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Bone Broth: My Two Secrets for Making Beautiful, Abundant and Affordable Bone Broth

So, in my last post, I confessed my bone broth craze.

I've put into baby's cups.  I make soups and stews with my homemade broths all winter long.  I cook it into my rices and my noodles, I cook it into rice porridge.  Bone broth is a staple in my kitchen.

Here in the United States, Thanksgiving is around the corner and everyone is  comparing notes on their turkeys, whether they are going to deep fry or roast them, and whether they are buying frozen or fresh, local or organic.  Whatever you choose to buy, I'm begging you:


Don't throw away those bones.

Nothing breaks my heart like the sight of bones in the trash.  It makes me cringe to think of all of the beautiful soups and broths that could. have. been. 

So, today, I'm going to give you a step-by-step plan so simple that it will take just a few minutes, and you will be rewarded with days of delicious brothy soups in December.  So do yourself a favor and put aside that turkey frame, and after the festivities have died down, and everyone has recovered from their pie-and-turkey coma, come back here and follow my steps to making easy and delicious bone broth.

Over the years of making broth, I have been able to save time and money using two simple broth "secrets." I have shared these tips with many of my friends and even my mother! Here is how I streamline this practice in my kitchen so that I have a steady and simple way to keep an abundant supply of beautiful bone broth.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Bone Broth: Why I Turned My Kitchen into a Bone Broth Factory

I wanted to share with my readers something that I am passionate about.

It isn't beautiful.

It isn't a shows-stopper.

But it is a game-changer in the kitchen, and for your health.

I'm talking about broth.


Yes, broth.  Bone broth, that magical stuff, nourishment in a bowl, made from nothing but bones and water.  If you have never made your own broth, this kitchen routine might seem elementary, but really, it is the backbone of your kitchen.

See what I did there?

I promise to stop.  Maybe.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Twenty Years Later, I Remember: Rabin's Assassination

I don't have a recipe for you today.  I hope you don't mind.

Just a little story.

It's about a day that feels so far away.

It was twenty years ago, today.  Twenty years ago, I was a teenager, a high school senior, worried about things like SAT scores, college applications, friendships, boys, and whether my clothes were right.  

I also lived in Jerusalem.

I went to an international school, filled with people from all over the world, some staying in Jerusalem for a year, two years, ten years.  I went to school with a few other locals, Palestinians and Jews who were also connected to the foreign expat community in some way.  But I also went to school with children of traveling professors, and missionary kids, embassy brats, journalists' children, UN kids, and the list went on and on.

It was a richly layered place, this school, politically and culturally tangled, so that sometimes it seemed a million miles from the West Bank checkpoints, a serene island in the midst of war.  And other times, the pain pierced the stone walls of the school.

Some of us were, after all, the children of the first Intifada.  Some of us grew up in the first wave of uprising, breathed the air of burned tires and tear gas, ducked behind the strikes and the check points, the occasional rock smashing our car.  Our first inhalation of politics was on our own streets, as we ran from the army jeeps.  We came of age in the first Intifada.

But now, we were seniors.  High school was ending, and it felt like new things were happening in our world, too.  Our tenth grade year had brought the Oslo Accords, and, at fourteen, I wept in joy when I saw the Prime Minister Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands. And the accords were marching on. We breathed a little easier, walking a little freer, and I thought, we have overcome.

My eleventh grade attempt at the SAT had been a mild disaster, so I was gearing up nervously for my second round.  I was going to have to make the trip to Tel Aviv on my own, since my father was out of the country.  A new American friend kindly offered to let me travel with her and her mother; we would leave the night before, spend the night at an acquaintances' home, and take the exam early in the morning.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Lamb Kefta Meatballs in Tahini Gravy

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

Friday, October 2, 2015

Red Lentil Soup with Sourdough Sumac Croutons

This ancient soup is the stuff of stories.

Maybe you've heard this one before:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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