Nizar

Villa Manni Nizar for blog
Nizar Jawdat “at home”,  posing with lemon tree in front of Villa Manni’s main entrance.

Every afternoon, in Orte, sipping on a home-brewed glass of dried lime tea* (Noomi Basra), Nizar would begin his plans for dinner. He had “troops” to feed: four sons, a wife and numerous friends and guests who were either staying at Villa Manni or dropping by.

Scratching his beard first and his bald head second, he stares at the inside of the refrigerator. He then shuffles towards the pantry. He scans the shelves humming to the tunes of Mozart blasting in the next room: “Andiam! Andiam! Mio bene…**”. He admires the jarred tomatoes that the family had processed just a week before my arrival. “We had red splatterings all over the walls, outdoors, indoors! We harvested so many tomatoes! We turned this kitchen into a factory”, he laughs wholeheartedly.

His pantry is well stocked with tubs of dried beans, sacs of rice and onions, hanging braids of garlic, boxes of Pasta, jars of ghee, pickles and Indian chutney. Returning to the kitchen singing and swaying to the music, he grabs knives and cutting board and begins. Completely zoomed in on his actions, serenading his ingredients, he works away. Chopping, slicing, sautéing, toasting and roasting. Utensils and pans pile up around him. Olive oil, onion and garlic permeate the house with their heavenly aroma. Nothing is ever simple with Nizar. The frenetic activity continues for an hour or two and then suddenly, without warning, he announces: “Let’s have a drink!”  Leaving the mess behind, he sips on his scotch. Moving to the living room, he expects at least a few individuals to come out of the woodwork to join him in enjoying the moment. He lights a Gitanes for effect, and switches the music to Barbara or Piaf. Waving his cigarette around, he reminisces of a world gone by, another era. “Non! Rien de rien, Non! Je ne regrette rien”… He has done his part. Setting the table, making a salad and all other important details of bringing the meal and guests to table are now in the hands of his wife Ellen and any other volunteers willing to lend a hand.

I met Nizar and his family in the summer of 1973. Villa Manni was the family home at the time and his sons converged from university or boarding school to spend the summers. They understood and accepted that they were here to work, helping with the endless project of renovating the old farm house that was purchased many years before, after the family’s flight from Iraq. Ironically (or intentionally) the morning call to action was the blasting sounds of Creedance Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son.

I had been invited by fortunate son #3, Rakan, who was a classmate of mine at the American University of Beirut. It was the beginning of a new romance between us and I was feeling slightly nervous about meeting his folks but relieved that no fuss was made over my presence. I was expected to fit right in while everyone went on about their business.

Villa Manni Panorama

Villa Manni is a dream of a place: A massive old stone structure with a terra cotta tile roof nestled into a sunny hillside, fifty minutes North of Rome. The majestic fireplace in the living room competes with the three French windows that open onto a spectacular view of the Tiber valley and its surrounding fields. But the real hearth of the house is the kitchen. It is crude yet charming. Slabs of travertine serve as counter-tops. Pots and pans hang from the ceiling and from metal rods attached to the walls. On one side of the room, two narrow windows frame a huge weeping willow. On the other side, a sunny sill, lined with potted herbs looks out onto a terrace and the green wooded hills beyond where the wild boars roam. A round wooden table in the corner is set with a variety of breakfast choices of cereal, fruit, home-made marmalade, honey, cheese and bread, to welcome guests  emerging at different times of the morning from the three levels of the house. The sun slowly fills the room. A flurry of activity builds to a crescendo and suddenly dissipates.

Cars and bikes zip out onto the pebbled driveway, their humming engines and rumbling motors disappear down the hill towards various destinations: markets, Etruscan or Roman ruins in neighboring towns. The sun rises higher in the sky. The house is still. Now silence reigns for a few hours shattered occasionally by the bark of a dog in the distance or the whistle of a train arriving at the station less than a mile away.

That summer I learned at least a dozen different ways of serving Pasta. I learned to make Pesto, I tasted authentic prosciutto and fresh mozzarella di Buffola for the first time. I ate Riso Nero and the best hand-made Gelato. But I also tasted a few succulent Iraqi and turkish dishes that I would later adopt into my own repertoire. I drank Italian wine, discovered Aperol, Chinotto, zucchini blossoms and dried lime tea.

Nizar prefers to be alone in the kitchen, uninterrupted and undisturbed. He does not share his secrets. He gathers inspiration from Italian, French, Indian, Turkish or Iraqi recipes. If you ask, his answers are politely vague and shrouded in mystery. He has an extensive library of cookbooks yet he engages in bold experimentation. He allows his creative genius to take over, leaving the world’s famous chefs behind, while he concocts the sublime, the magical and the original dishes. An artist in the kitchen he pushes the envelope like he does with his life and lifestyle while relishing every moment.

The only way to learn from him would be to watch him. But the frenetic activity and the unbelievable mess he creates around him is a deterrent even for the most patient of fans. Besides, “Out of the kitchen!” are the words he often hurls at anyone peaking their head in the doorway. Nizar’s greatest gift to my culinary education was that recipes were not necessarily followed. A cook can deviate from the norm interpreting methods, substituting ingredients, using gut and palate as guide and drawing inspiration from the world’s cuisines and flavors. While my mother and grandmothers, had set the stage and established the foundation, Nizar encouraged me down a path of enlightened exploration.

If only I could tell him that now.

Nizar lies silently in bed in Washington, D.C. He no longer recognizes his sons and family. His eyes are shut tight. I hope he dreams of his Orte kitchen, of cooking and singing to Mozart, Piaf, Umm Kulthum and Nathem Al-Ghazali, an Iraqi singer he yearned to listen to during his last lucid years.


*Dried Lime Tea.
from The Splendid Table

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Photo©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Ingredients
2 dried limes (loomi Omani)
4 cups water
1/4 cup sugar, or to taste

Instructions
1. Break the limes into several pieces (you can use a mortar and pestle or put them in a sandwich bag and smack with a hammer.) Combine the water and lime pieces in a small saucepan, bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 4 minutes.
2. Remove from heat and strain through cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Discard the solids. Add the sugar to the tea and stir until dissolved. Drink hot or cool to room temperature and then refrigerate.

Total time:
6 minutes
Yield:
4 cups


**Andiam, andiam, mio bene,
a ristorar le pene
D’un innocente amor.
from the aria “La ci darem la mano“/Don Giovanni by Mozart

Translation: Come, come, my darling,
to restore our pleasure
of an innocent love.

 

Green Tomato Chutney

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Green Tomatoes. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

When I was growing up I never recall my father ever setting foot in the kitchen except to fix appliances and sharpen knives. Once a year he was called upon to dress, cook and carve the Christmas turkey. He was an expert and performed his duties with flawless precision and grace.

My parents moved to Cyprus just about the time my daughters were born. Until my father passed away, I would take my girls to Limassol for a month each summer. My husband would join us for part of the time. For four wonderful weeks out of the year I had the luxury of parents doting over my little ones, giving me a hand, watching over them, feeding and entertaining them. It made up for the the hard work of raising two kids in the city, in almost complete isolation. It was a huge and welcome change for us all: My girls tagged along on errands with my dad, helped him in the garden or played on the beach and splashed around in the Mediterranean. Our favorite excursions by far were to the mountain villages and orchards for fruit and vegetable gathering. When we came home, my mother and I would sort through the bags and baskets taking on assignments of pickling, sauce-making and tart-baking, leaving some produce to incorporate into our week’s meals.

One day while picking through a friend’s vegetable garden, my daughters exclaimed:
“Look mama! GREEN tomatoes!”
“They’re not ready yet,” my dad warned.
Recipes of fried green tomatoes and green tomato chutney flashed through my mind. Having never lived in the U.S., my dad couldn’t have known that green tomatoes were desirable, edible and made to be delicious. Pleadingly I asked if we could pick them anyway. I promised he would not regret it.

 

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Chutney faxes 1992: originals and faxes of tear sheet recipes. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

In my D.C. kitchen I had a stash of recipes: piles of pages ripped out from magazines, ink scribbles on napkins, faded photocopies from newspaper articles. All I needed to do now was to call my husband and ask him to look for that green tomato chutney recipe. This was 1992, pre-internet, you understand.
“It’s a tear sheet from la Maison de Marie Claire, a large magazine format”,  I explained.
“A black background and white drop-out type and color photos of jars filled with pickles. And while you’re at it, there is another recipe of apricot chutney that Lisa (my friend and inspiration) had once sent me from Jaffrey’s book*… could you please?”
I knew it was no easy task to ask of anyone. My files were a mess. But having lived with me for eighteen years, my husband understood the urgency of any situation related to food. An hour later, the fax came through with everything he could find on green tomatoes and chutney— stamped and sealed with his love and devotion.

I had spent many Decembers making pineapple chutney that I distributed to friends as Christmas gifts. I even designed and hand-colored my own labels. That day in early July, I poured over the recipes which included a helpful article by Joanne Halataei for The Washington Post,  “The Chutney Brigade”. Within a half hour I wrote down a formula that intrigued my father enough to make him venture into the kitchen. He carefully observed, asked a few questions and before I knew it, he had joined in the preparations. The production of home-made green tomato chutney that ensued was a turning point in our lives. He was no longer the macho, untouchable super hero commanding fear and respect and I was no longer the sweet frivolous female child. We were no longer father and daughter but partners in potion-making. I could finally teach him something that he took interest in adopting. There also, was a recipe that was complex enough to conceal nutmeg and ginger, two of his most abhorred spices. We chopped, we mixed, we stirred and we bonded.

For the few remaining years of his life, my father did spend time in the kitchen when he needed breaks from his computer. He toasted and roasted peanuts for snack or sesame seeds for his own special Zaatar mix, he also had my pesto recipe down to a T . Once or twice he called to say: “guess what I made today?” Amazingly, he had tried his hand at chutney making all on his own.

Years later I met the creator of the award winning Virginia Chutney Clare Turner and tasted her product. I loved the chutneys and bought them often. But it did not stop me from making my own. Whenever I have a surplus of fruit, I chop up some onions and garlic, grate some ginger, add some spices and go to town. Once you’ve understood the concept you can concoct your own varieties.

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Hand-drawn chutney labels for home-made chutney. ©1992 Fadia Jawdat

Green Tomato Chutney

The basic combination for any chutney is one part vegetable to three parts fruit. And for every two cups of fruit and vegetable combination, you need a quarter of a cup each of the sweet and sour elements. Brown sugar is usually the sugar of choice, but according to Halataei, “Brown sugar sounds earthy and chutney-like, but the clean taste of white sugar is often better at letting other foods shine through. With tomatoes, though, a combination of the two would be hard to beat.”
The recipe below is adapted from “La Maison de Marie Claire” but has been modified and converted to American weights and measures.
Yield 36 oz chutney or approximately 4 – 8 oz jars.

1 lb. green tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 lb. cooking apples, coarsely chopped
1/2 lb. onions, chopped fine
1/2 lb. shallots, chopped fine
1/2 lb. raisins
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 1/2 cups vinegar
3/4 cups brown sugar
3/4 cups white sugar
3” piece of fresh ginger coarsely chopped
1/4 tsp. each nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and cloves
1 tsp. each salt and black pepper

Place all ingredients in a pot, bring to a boil and let simmer over medium heat for an hour to 90-minutes, stirring frequently. Do not let the chutney stick to the bottom of the pot. Lower heat if necessary. The chutney will thicken and keep in mind that it will thicken more as it cools.
When completely cool, pour into sterilized jars. Seal and refrigerate.
Serve to sooth hot curries, to accompany a soufflé or brighten up a plain omelet. Use as a spread over Brie or in a cold cut or grilled cheese sandwich.


*Madhur Jaffrey, World of the East: Vegetarian Cooking

Ours Is Not To Question Why

Questioning makes for a “wobbly” existence filled with uncertainty and hesitation.

I am usually a “do-er”. But when I was laid off last October from Whole Foods Market (along with 1,500 team members and team leaders) there was a truck-load of questions that invaded my world. What now? What do I do? What path do I choose? Nature abhors a vacuum and so do I. I got to work immediately: I took art classes, I applied to over forty jobs in six months, I picked up a few paying gigs, volunteered a little, hosted on Air B&B, traveled, and most of all caught up with numerous friends. Many projects are in the works and I now have a part-time job as well. Everything is fighting for my attention including this blog that I started in February and which came to a halt in May.

I do not have writer’s block, just an existential block. I question why, and what and for whom, I “should” or “ought” to be writing. I seem paralyzed by a bourgeois guilt over “musing” about food while thinking about the malnourished, undernourished and the starving of this world. I wonder if I have now become a slave to my own creation, stuck at a crossroad without direction. I question, I hesitate and find myself going around in circles, burying my head and thoughts under my pillow each night…. then I have to face the silence… the failure to post… another week gone by. Has anyone noticed? Does anyone care? Do I even care about food and cooking anymore?

Then, on a recent morning, I woke up thinking of my red, white and blue salads. It was the Fourth (of course! it had to be). My 18 years of food marketing had me programmed. I am still thinking “holiday-related” foods. At work I would have been figuring out what to push, what to merchandise and what to sample. Now I am neither entertaining friends nor family. I am NOT cooking nor am I barbecuing! And yet I am dreaming of chopped watermelon drizzled with pomegranate molasses and dotted with feta crumbles and blueberries…. Images of basil pesto, mint and cucumber fill my nostrils with hallucinogenic aromas.  Have I gone mad or am I relieved?

I had started to think that perhaps my obsession with food is DEAD! I had been thinking that perhaps I had lost my appetite or that it all had been a false but mandatory professional conditioning. But, let’s face it, it IS summer and cooking in the heat is grueling. Even eating is not a pleasure when you can barely breath. But… I DID wake up thinking about my favorite Fourth of July salad. And perhaps I am ready to write and post again. That said…

There is no question in my mind that summer is for salads, any salad—Green salads, bean salads, fruit salads and red, white and blue salads. Even if I never write about food again, I should at least share the secrets to my successful salad dressing.

First, let me list my favorite classics:

Mozzarella, tomato & basil w/0r w/o shavings of fennel and a drizzle of olive oil
Watermelon, blueberry, feta & mint
Cannellini beans & tuna, onion, parsley with lots of lemon juice & olive oil
Garbanzo beans, tomato & chopped cucumber, garlic, lemon juice & olive oil
Soba noodles, cucumber, spring onion, Thai basil & peanuts (w/soy sauce & lime)
Corn & black bean salad, red bell peppers, garlic, cumin & cilantro
Beet & Arugula salad…

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A variety of salads from meals shared with friends. All photos ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

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The perfect salad dressing

I’ve been eager to share the secret to my dressing. This is as good a time as any. The dressing won’t go with the Soba noodle salad mentioned above, and I would not use it for the Cannelini and tuna—although it might not be bad—I would use lemon juice instead.

I make this dressing on a daily basis for my green salad (mesclun mix, arugula, and or romaine) to which I add pear, orange or apple, cranberries or not, cucumber always, or tomato and roasted corn sometimes, especially in summer.

Fadia’s Never-Fail Salad Dressing:
1 clove garlic crushed, 1/8 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pomegranate molasses and 1/2 tsp olive oil. (If you do not use oil, you could substitute lime juice for the olive oil).

This amount is just right for a 2 – 3 people side salad or 1 large entree serving. The secret is also not to over soak your greens in dressing! That’s a mistake which will kill and wilt your greens and drown your salad in calories. You need just enough to coat it lightly, the juices from some of the fruit or veggies will add to the moisture.

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I used balsamic vinegar for years, but I find the pomegranate molasses (not a molasses at all, but a reduction of pomegranate juice) is less acidic, some brands have a little added sugar, but I swear it is my very favorite secret ingredient and it never fails to “wow” people over.

Salads are like paintings. You mix colors and add ingredients as you go. Add toppings: left-over grated cheese, bits of meats or frozen veggies, dried or fresh fruit, a handful of nuts, crushed seaweed, corn chips, toasted pita chips, the list is endless. Salad is a canvas for improvisation. Go for it! Be fearless and adventurous. Salads were my daughters’ first creations in the kitchen. At age four they’d sit at the kitchen counter and explore the possibilities, chopping, dumping and mixing. It’s a child’s game really.

So there you have it! I have just completed a post, and now… let’s hope I can leave my existential quandary behind and I can get back down to business (or will I ?). Until next week. 🙂