Pantry Favorites: Tahini

 

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If I were to choose some items from my pantry that I couldn’t live without, Tahini would be one of them. I’m in love with sesame. “Open Sesame!” was the password to the sealed treasure cave in the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It’s what I think of when opening a jar of Tahini, expecting glittering gems. Instead, a golden layer of oil floats atop! A-nno-ying! I take a long spoon, forced to stir the oil into the paste below.

Used all over the Middle-East, Egypt and Turkey, it has also become popular in Europe and the U.S.  Sesame is an ancient seed used by the civilizations of Egypt, China and India. Probably originally grown in India, it is widely grown in Africa and Asia. Gardeners use sesame as a companion plant because it inhibits root knot nematodes. And in the U.S. a certain non scattering variety of the plant has been developed to allow mechanized harvesting. The sesame plant is used to alternate with cotton to improve soil quality. To read more about the agricultural background in the U.S. visit the site of the American Sesame Growers Association.

In India the oil is revered for the beautification of the skin. Sesame contains natural oil-soluble and water-soluble antioxidants. It is used in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries as well. The oil and paste are so stable they can go months without refrigeration and resist going rancid.

So why is it a pantry fave?

Tahini is very nutritious. Although high in fat, it has no cholesterol. It is considered an energy food, rich in calcium and iron, copper, magnesium and protein. It has an impressive nutritional profile which you can see on this website. As a child I found it bitter, but now I could spoon it straight into my mouth if it weren’t for minding my manners—but I confess that I will lick the spoon when I’m done! I can’t help it.
#1. Taratoor or Tahini Sauce is my number one “go-to” sauce: Mostly used in pita sandwiches with falafel and shawarma, it’s fantastic with fish, roasted cauliflower and mixed in with roasted beets or carrots!
There are a couple of things you need to remember when making taratoor. The amount of garlic, lemon, salt is totally up to you. It’s a question of taste. Adding water changes it’s consistency and therefore whether you need it to be creamy or runny will depend on the quantity of water you add to the mix. Add a little at a time and stir as you go.

Tahini Sauce Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup tahini
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 Tblsp lemon juice
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • Optional: ¼ cup chopped parsley

Instructions:

Place the tahini in a small bowl and pour in water a little at a time, while stirring. The mixture will “seize” at first but will eventually loosen as you keep adding the water. Stir and add water until you reach the desired consistency. Add the lemon juice, the crushed garlic and salt to taste. Add the parsley if desired. If you want to double the quantities and throw it all in a blender, you can do that too. Tasting as you go.

Although I often make this sauce, I no longer make my own hummus. I find that some store-bought brands are so good and so cheap, I don’t bother making my own anymore. But I have yet to find an excellent store- bought Baba Ghannouj. This, I will gladly make at home, but only if requested by a family member or a friend: Here again the roasting of the eggplants, peeling the charred skin etc.. is such a mess that I would rather live without it.  Of course when I was cooking for a family I would inevitably make it, but for now… I remind you that I am all about efficiency and speed in the kitchen—My mother used to roast and peel the eggplant and freeze it whole until needed. A practice I would encourage.

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#2. The next best thing about tahini, is that you can mix it with date or carob syrup or honey. It’s a delicious spread to satisfy your sweet craving and you can control the sweetness yourself. The honey/tahini combo on toast is a soothing relief for a soar throat. Trust me.

#3. For an Asian variation, I use a tahini-miso sauce over Soba noodles mixed with chopped cool cucumbers, or steamed asparagus, fresh snow peas, cilantro, scallions and sesame seeds. You can use it as a salad dressing over some baby kale or spinach, sliced pear or orange with a sprinkle of sunflower seeds.

Tahini-Miso Sauce Recipe

  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
  • 1 clove garlic crushed
  • 1½ teaspoons sesame oil
  • ¼ cup tahini
  • 1 tablespoon white or yellow miso
  • 1 tablespoon mirin
  • 1 teaspoon maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon tamari sauce
  • ¼ cup warm water (more if needed)
  • Optional: 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

Mix all together until smooth. This recipe makes about 3/4 cup. Use as much or as little as you’d like.

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Kitchen Tips (cont.)—Processing & Freezing

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Cilantro/garlic frozen cubes. Photo: © 2016 Fadia Jawdat

The ice cube tray is a useful kitchen tool.

A great way to keep some essential ingredients on hand at all times is to portion and freeze. The ice cube tray is the perfect vehicle for the process.

#1. Frozen lemon juice

Squeeze lemons and pour the juice in a tray. Once frozen and solid, place the juice cubes in a zip lock bag to bring out at a moment’s notice to use in soups or cocktails in the evening, or to mix with warm water for a detoxing cleanse in the morning. 🙂

#2. Frozen Garlic and Cilantro mix

If you  are a cilantro lover and use a lot of cilantro-garlic combo in your cuisine, you’re familiar with the hassle. This combination is used to flavor many a Middle-Eastern dish. Use it for Tex-mex and Mexican dishes as well: chilis, tacos and salsas. Chopping cilantro, every time you need it, is time consuming and will interrupt the flow of a quick weeknight meal. Making big batches of cilantro and garlic in one sitting saves hours of labor down the road. Simply assemble crushed garlic and chopped cilantro, or throw it all into a food processor adding a little oil and salt. Sautéing is a practice that will deepen the flavor but is not necessary. You can sauté the thawed cubes when you are ready to use or you can do so before freezing. Whatever your  inclination or time constraints, portion the mix in ice cube trays and freeze. Once frozen, you can place the cubes in a bag or container and return to the freezer.


Recipe:

6-8 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon of coriander
1 Cup chopped Cilantro
2 teaspoons Olive Oil
1/4 teaspoon of salt

Warm the oil in a small pan, add all the ingredients and toss around until garlic looks golden. If mixture sticks to the pan loosen with a little water. Be careful not to burn. Remove from heat, cool and place in a container and freeze.

Here’s a link to a recipe for Garlic Cilantro Salsa! http://www.food.com/recipe/garlic-cilantro-salsa-96866

I love Sautéed Potatoes with Garlic and Cilantro. Here’s a link to Mamas Lebanese Kitchenhttp://www.mamaslebanesekitchen.com/mezza/potatoes-saute-garlic-cilantro-batata-kizbra/#sthash.vJKYzDWD.dpbs


#3. Frozen Pesto cubes

I need not tell anyone how to make pesto. I like to make it in big batches all throughout Basil season to place in ice cube trays and freeze.
I use pesto not only for pasta, but to spread over fish before baking, in sandwiches and as a base for crostini with various toppings. My daughters like mixing pesto with Hummus. A Caprese salad is a natural pairing, but try it with chicken salad or mixed in with quinoa, petite peas, toasted pignoli and cubed tomatoes.

#4. Freezer tips in general…and more…

Get in the habit of labeling containers that go in the freezer with content and date. Much of the food looks the same once frozen. Having a large freezer is a mixed blessing: containers tend to get lost and forgotten for months: Bone broth, beef or mushroom stock look similar.

Precious spices, and nuts will last longer in the freezer than on the shelf.

If you don’t have a large freezer…

  • Revive wilted herbs and greens: I’ve had a fair amount of success soaking wilted cilantro or parsley—greens too— in a bath of fresh cold water, for 10 minutes or so. The salad spinner is perfect for this since you can immediately drain and spin out the excess water.
  • Radishes and carrots, if soaked in tubs of water and placed in the refrigerator, will last a whole lot longer and will keep their crunch.
  • Cooking your veggies and greens immediately is one of the better kitchen practices. Don’t wait for mushrooms to get slimy, and greens to wilt and mold in your refrigerator. Sauté mushrooms, blanch your veggies and greens. Leave them to drain and dry out before refrigerating or freezing.
  • I often get carried away at farmers’ markets because everything looks so appealing and fresh. Curb your enthusiasm by giving yourself a budget and a limit. I suspect we all buy way too much for our weekly needs. But if you process what you buy right away, you will get your money’s worth, rather than letting things wilt to the point of no return —destined for the trash. You and I know how much that hurts!

 

 

Top 5 Tips for Kitchen Survival

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Bunches of rainbow chard, need washing and chopping. I cook the stems separately with chopped onions and crushed garlic to make a nutritious and colorful garnish. Photos © Fadia Jawdat 2016

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#1: Dedicate one shopping/prepping day/week
I don’t care how insane this might seem, but my number one advice to anyone trying to eat a healthy diet is to dedicate one shopping day a week, followed by some “prepping” time. Even if you are single, you can save a lot of money by making your own meals at home and packing a daily lunch for the office. This works particularly well if you have a pretty predictable routine. If you’re traveling off and on, are the adventurous type and do not have a predictable work week, then this is not for you. But if you have a family to come home to after a full-days work, or if you are super conscious about your nutritional intake, then read on.

The biggest life-saving practice for me was to spend one day in the kitchen, prepping, peeling, washing, drying, blanching, sautéing, and storing. The rest of the week would seem like a breeze once I had cooked veggies, juiced lemons, peeled garlic and portioned sauces, and had them ready, right there at my finger tips. For the greater part of my adult life, I shopped for my  family’s weekly needs, then came home to spend the rest of the day in the kitchen. I had a planned weekly menu—nothing fancy, just well-rounded and balanced with enough variety not to bore the adventurous but also homey enough to be comforting. I would allow room for a couple of nights of recycled leftovers, and perhaps the occasional frozen pizza night with salad. Sundays seemed best for this practice, when dad took the kids to play-dates while I cooked up a storm.

My daughters were in no way banished from the kitchen. On the contrary, when they crawled, they had their designated lower drawers to open and explore, when they sat in their high chairs they had wooden spoons and plastic bowls to play with. When they were coordinated enough to sit at the high island counter across from me, they made their own sandwiches, learned to make their own salads and dressings, mixed batter, greased baking sheets and shared and enjoyed in the experience.

Chopping and freezing herbs, apportioning sauces, pesto and other ingredients are basic practices that help turn even the most elaborate dishes into a breeze. Here are a few to be followed by a few others next week.

#2: Peel entire heads of garlic at a time
I use at least a clove a day for my salad dressing and another few for sautéed mushrooms, soups, stews, roasts, marinades. A jar of peeled garlic in the fridge is very handy for “grab-and-use without switching gears.
Peeling garlic is my least favorite activity. If you peel a clove at a time, it’s an ordeal. Buy yourself one of those rubbery hollow cylinders to make your life a lot easier, and give it a go. Simply insert 4-6 cloves in the cavity, roll the cylinder on the counter while applying a little pressure, and voila! It’s done. Cloves as clean as a whistle. (Still, you need to clean off the mess on your counter and rinse out your peeler).

#3:  Chop and freeze parsley
Frozen parsley does  not seem to retain much flavor, but for garnishing dishes at the last-minute, or for a touch of green and a shot of potassium and anti-oxidants in a chicken soup, or a bowl of noodles, a sprinkling of frozen chopped parsley is visually and nutritionally miraculous.

#4: Freeze Ginger Root and Lemons
Place in Ziplock bags and freeze. I have been freezing ginger for years. Lemon, frozen whole, is a new-comer to my freezer. This practice makes the grating with a micro-plane less tedious.

#5: Freeze Tomato Paste
I buy tomato paste in cans, rarely in tubes. I only use a teaspoon or tablespoon at a time. Scoop out the paste into a ziploc bag and flatten out while evenly spreading the content to all sides of the bag. Seal and freeze. Once frozen, it is so easy to break off a piece to add to your pot.

As the children grew older, our habits changed and so did our palate. My cooking adventure grew and grew and my cooking repertoire expanded. But those basic tips mentioned here remain invaluable. When the kids come back and delve into their own recipes, my freezer is still filled with frozen essentials for them to use at a moment’s notice.

My freezer and I are always ready for the occasional snow day and the impromptu guests’ or daughters’ visits.

First Kitchen Memories-Part 2

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Ma’amoul mold next to my mother’s old tweezers. Photo: 2016 Fadia Jawdat

 

By the time my mother was twenty-five, she had two children, ages five and two, and was to leave my father’s side to move to Beirut where we were to be schooled. She lived and shared her kitchen with her mother-in-law, a practice not uncommon to the Middle-East: elders, especially when widowed, lived with their children.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, my mother and grandmother worked around each other. The kitchen was large enough to accommodate both of them and to allow for overlap in activities, but they preferred to work on separate schedules, focusing on different tasks.

My mother was an excellent and meticulous cook and we loved her cooking, but her personal preference was to hone her baking skills. Her savory pastries were the best. With their various fillings—za’tar or cheese for the sambusek or onion, meat and pignoli for the open-faced meat pies, Lahm ba’jeen— these pastries were not only delicious but their claim to fame was in the perfection and consistency of flavor, shape and texture— the dough was crusty on the outside and spongy on the inside. She made dozens and froze them, hoarding and saving them for special occasions or to bring out at a moment’s notice to impress unexpected guests, sending them squealing with admiration and praise.

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Za’tar mini mana’eesh. Photo: Fadia Jawdat

In response to her mother-in-law’s austerity and to satisfy her own sweet tooth, my mom transferred her life’s frustrations into exuberant cake and cookie baking. When holiday season came around she’d turn the kitchen into a factory. She spent days on end doting over her Western cook books making cookies, fruitcake, stollen and lebkuchen at Christmas time. Easter called for the traditional semolina cookies (Ma’moul) filled with either dates, crushed pistachios or walnuts and delicately flavored with orange blossom and rose waters. Over the years I helped her occasionally and witnessed several friends and relatives sit with her in the kitchen for hours while she taught the art of making and decorating those specialties with a pair of serrated tweezers. Most people used wooden molds, but she preferred the personal touch of the dainty methodical patterns.

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Date & walnut Ma’amoul. Photo: Courtesy of marlenematar.com

I don’t know when and how her love for western baking began, but my father made sure she had a stand mixer and a special electric oven for cake-baking purposes alone. She made a delicious apple pie, pineapple upside-down and Dutch apple cakes: those three were her regular repertoire. Occasionally, a most elaborate Blitz Torte with lemon custard filling and meringue and slivered almond topping would make its appearance for my father’s birthday. Each of us had a favorite, and each of us got theirs for their birthday.

She gave it all up when we became aware of the ills of sugar and refused to indulge in her sugary confections. I don’t believe she minded. By then, all of her three children had moved away to England, Scotland and the U.S.. and she finally had a chance to join my dad permanently: first in Saudi Arabia then in Dubai and Cyprus, leaving behind the mixer, the oven, her baking paraphernalia and her mother-in-law!

Baking was my mother’s art and salvation for many years. She took pride in her work as though she was in some eternal competition or on a mission to impress and please. It was a creative outlet and an escape. She had many other skills and a few other talents but none that she could fully develop.

Her savory pastries and her tweezer-pinched Easter cakes would continue to be produced year-round wherever she went for her children and grandchildren to enjoy. They became the treasure and tradition that she carried with her from kitchen to kitchen all the way to Washington, D.C. where she spent the last years of her life.

And so we indulged when we came “home” to visit. We cherished the treats and she delighted in watching us bite into them slowly, carefully and thoughtfully, appreciating and savoring every ounce of love and care she had kneaded and folded into them.


Ma’amoul resources: recipes, videos and where to order.

  • To watch the process of hand making and decorating semolina cakes. on marlenematar.com under walnut and date pastries. The video is in Arabic and the photo and method are identical to my mother’s confections.
    http://www.marlenematar.com/videos/walnut_and_date_pastries_video.html
  • For instructions and recipe in English watch Chef Kamal on Youtube
  • And if you can’t be bothered making them yourself, you can order on line in the U.S. from Shatila Bakery in Detroit @shatila.com

p.s. this blog is not sponsored by any of the chefs or businesses mentioned here. Those are the result of my personal searches and choices I thought to share.