To Be Continued…

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Every family has their kitchen story. Here’s another one of mine.

-“So what will you be cooking this evening?” My mother would ask while visiting on a Sunday afternoon, a regular occurrence since she moved to DC and while she still had mobility, vim and vigor.
-“I don’t know? will you stay for dinner?”
-“It depends…” (I suppose she was waiting to see what I’d be making).

Swinging the refrigerator door open, I scan the shelves and the produce drawer, always looking to use forgotten produce, catching it before it wilts. “Hmmm. I still don’t know!”
I pull out some stuff, walk over to my pantry closet, grab another thing or two. Bringing out a pot, a pan, a cutting board, a knife, I begin chopping an onion and mincing some garlic…

My mom hovers around me inquisitively.
-“Fadia, what are you doing? Is this from a recipe or are you making it up?” She sounds irritated and incredulous. It is a variation on a dish she and I know well, but the slightest deviation renders it alien and unrecognizable to her. She brings the fork to her mouth tentatively, tastes, shakes her head and says: “Ya’ni, hayda ikhtira’ik?” (You mean to tell me, this is your invention?). That sentence never ceases to make us giggle. To this day, my husband repeats those very words when an unfamiliar dish appears in front of him. I honestly can’t tell whether she approves of it or not. The good news though, is that she stays for dinner.

If my mother recognized a dish I had prepared, it gave her full permission to pile on the criticism. I have to admit that I maliciously enjoyed teasing her by showing off my wayward colors and flavors. My mother never witnessed my rebellious teen years. I worked hard to present an obedient daughter facade. But as an adult, my relationship with my mom, my rejection of all forms of female submissiveness and the complicated family dynamics were to be reflected in my cooking digressions that I flaunted before her.

My mother was a stickler for order and tradition. I now understand that perhaps she held on to her traditional cuisine as a link to her past and her identity. My mother’s family had fled from their homeland never to return. I know she mourned that loss for the duration of her life.

My mom moved homes many times, but no matter the country or the culture, she carried around her culinary repertoire. To give her credit, she might have picked up a few new recipes over the years, but from what I recall, my siblings and I (who had, in turn, left home during the Lebanese civil war) came to expect the exact same dishes every time we came home. That, in itself, provided us with much needed comfort and reassurance. Her cooking was consistently very good, her baking consistently excellent. It was what we remembered, what we missed, and what we longed for. Through her food, she made us feel loved, safe and satisfied.

Consistency was my mother’s forte. Obviously it is not mine. I may be proud of my sense of adventure in the kitchen, my erratic meals and eclectic dishes, but when my daughters ask me how I made something I draw a blank!  And that, I imagine is somewhat disappointing to them. “Write it down!” they plead.

My daughter thanked me recently for this blog that has morphed into a recording of my family’s kitchen history, but must I write down the recipes of all my “inventions” (to use my mother’s word)? Must I hand down recipes to my offspring? Sometimes I think they don’t need that. They have taken flight and have chosen their own dietary inclinations and found their own way in the kitchen. They too are explorers and adventurers. I have taught them the joys of cooking and given them a sense of good nutrition.

Perhaps as a role model, I could provide my daughters with a little grounding reality before we all spin out of control with our experimentation and exuberance. If we need to veer from tradition, recording our findings, writing down ingredients and methods might be a reasonable task towards extending a loving family’s story and its evolving relationship with food.

I would love to hear some of your stories! Please share. I invite you to contribute to this blog.

 

 

Pantry Fave #2: Za’atar

When I moved to New York City in the late seventies, the culture shock coupled with the civil war in Lebanon left me yearning for a world that would eventually disappear from my life. During my first decade on American soil, I inevitably gravitated towards a handful of Middle-Eastern grocery stores, scouring the shelves for recognizable Lebanese brands of staple ingredients. We did not yet have the Internet and Google with resources and recipes at the click of a mouse. Hummus and falafel had not yet invaded the coolers and shelves of every supermarket. Choices of Middle-Eastern restaurants and foodstuffs were limited. But I managed to get by with what ingredients I found locally and quickly became a good cook, duplicating my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes and dishes.

Za’atar was the ingredient that I missed terribly and sought persistently. More than a staple ingredient in Levantine households, it is a flavor that embodies the essence of “home”.  And so, despite the difficulty of communicating with my family back in Lebanon during a violent and brutal civil war, I shamelessly asked friends and travelers to bring me back bagfuls of that queen of all herbs and spices, stowed in their luggage.

Today, articles about za’atar and mana’eesh fill the Internet. Supermarkets carry tiny jars of it and za’atar flavored pita crisps share the shelves with corn and potato chips. You can buy it on line and Middle-Eastern grocers are now importing excellent blends. I sprinkle za’atar on my avocado toast in the morning. I have a jar of it at my desk at work to brighten my day when I feel like escaping the drudgery. My freezer is packed with five different blends that my family still sends me either from Lebanon or Jordan by way of Boston and Atlanta. Za’atar is my genie in a jar, the link to my heritage and to numerous memories.

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Roasted Beets and Carrots with Za’atar and Tahini Sauce

As I mentioned, za’atar is used in marinades and works particularly well with chicken. Mix the spice with olive oil, crushed garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Let the chicken marinate for several hours and then bake or grill. Recently, I have been using za’atar with roasted vegetables, served with tahini sauce.

Ingredients
1 bunch beets
1 bunch carrots
1 Tblsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp garlic powder
¼ cup honey or maple syrup
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup za’atar

Instructions
Preheat oven 400˚ F.
Clean and peel vegetables and cut into 1 ½ – 2 inch cubes. Mix oil, salt, garlic powder, lemon juice and honey. Pour over the vegetables and toss until well coated. Spread vegetables on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or foil.

Roast for 20-40 minutes or until desired tenderness, stirring once or twice. Remove from the oven, transfer to a bowl and toss with the za’atar. You may also remove vegetables halfway through the cooking process and toss with the spice mix to further deepen the flavor. Return the baking sheet to the oven and roast until the vegetables are fork tender.
While vegetables are roasting, prepare tahini sauce (see previous post Pantry Favorites: Tahini). Serve the vegetables drizzled with the sauce and garnished with sprigs of parsley.

This is an excerpt from an article I wrote last summer for The Cook’s Gazette, a quarterly on-line journal that is a beautiful resource for any foodie, filled with gorgeous photographs, incredible recipes, in-depth profiles of markets, chefs, cooks and personalities.

Here’s the link to my article (Memories of Lebanon).