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. 🙂

 

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).

Spring: Ris & the Ramp

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Red veined Sorrel, ramps, watermelon radishes, beets and white Hakurei turnips. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Since living in Washington I have grown accustomed to making a big deal over spring. Spring is a THING! It’s a happening.

My heart skips a beat at the sight of the first robin or the first peeping crocuses. Soon the trees will burst with gigantic magnolia blooms and a little later the glorious cherry blossoms will summon the photo-snapping tourists. The stretches of daffodils color the drive along the parkways, and the tulips adorn front yards with splashes of pinks, whites, purples and yellows.

But it seems the wait is a slightly longer for spring at the farmers’ markets. I drive myself sick with anticipation. I look for the appearance of ramps that indicate the beginning of Spring produce. I hadn’t heard of ramps until a few years ago when a celebrated Washington chef, Ris Lacoste brought them to my attention.

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Ramps. Photo ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Ris is a dedicated mentor, contributor and educator. I am genuinely fond of her. I admire her sincerity, humility, her wit and her brilliance. She is not only one of DC’s top chefs, but her generosity of spirit allows to sit on many a board, consult and advise many restaurants and organizations, teach and mentor young aspiring chefs. Over the years, Ris and I would run into each other at the store and at every community event in the city where we never missed a chance to chat. She was in the restaurant business and I worked in the food retail business. We had loads to talk about and share.
So when Ris mentioned ramps one day, I took note. I went searching and researching for this illusive plant that turns out is a small wild leek, native to the Appalachian mountain region in eastern North America—now how would I ever have known that?—It is foraged in the woods. Ramps  have a short seasonal appearance that grace the market stands in April. Communities in Southern Appalachia celebrate ramps with annual festivals and restaurant chefs, plan whole menus around them.

But there is also a controversy around the ramp. Chefs may have glorified it but botanists have scorned its over-harvesting. It takes five to seven years for ramps to produce seed, and a year at least, for the seeds to germinate. Quebec, Canada, has banned its sale since 1995 and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has banned its harvesting since 2002. For further detail this NYTimes article tells it all.

Boycott or buy?
I usually get carried away with my shopping at the market, often coming home with enough stuff for a family of eight. Maybe it’s an exaggeration. But seriously, the amount of produce that could go bad while waiting for me to find time to process is overwhelming. I therefore commit to a specified budget. A $5 small bouquet of ramps that dwindles down to a mouthful when cooked, may not be the most economical way for a poor foodie to be spending her money. Maybe I will buy one small bunch as a ceremonial act of confirmation— to mark the beginning of the season and to bring in the Spring.

That said, there are so many other lovely temptations that won’t burn a hole in my pocket. Ramps are gorgeous but so is everything else at this time of year. I cannot resist the red-veined baby sorell, the zucchini blossoms, and the baby new potatoes, the spring onions and baby beets, not to forget the white Hakurei turnips and rainbow radishes as well.

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For dinner I will make a salad with roasted beets, sliced turnips and baby sorrel, and a Spring Minestrone Soup that was inspired by Heidi Swanson’s recipe in her cookbook Super Natural Cooking.

Here’s her recipe: I have substituted quinoa for the brown rice and I have added lemon juice for a touch of brightness. I find quinoa earthy and delicate in flavor, overall more nutritious, and it takes less time to cook. If you are looking for a heartier bowl of soup, brown rice is more filling and comforting. You can use a frozen, cooked, store-bought version of both. I always keep a bag of each in my freezer for the occasional need. (Or you can use your own cooked, frozen quinoa or rice. They freeze easily. Place your left-over cooked rice or qinoa in a zip-lock bag, pat to release air, and seal).

Version 2

Spring Minestrone (with 0r without Ramps)

2 Tbsp Olive Oil
2 shallots or Spring onions, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced(Bunch of ramps if available)
(Bunch of ramps if available, washed and chopped)
3/4 cup Quinoa (cooked)
6 cups vegetable stock
1 cup sugar snap peas or snow peas trimmed and cut in half
8 spears asparagus trimmed diagonally into 1 “ pieces
1/2 cup green petite peas (frozen or fresh if you have them)
Lemon juice, Salt and Pepper to taste

Heat olive oil, sauté the shallots and garlic, (and chopped ramps) until soft. Add the stock and bring to a boil. add the the vegetables and cook until desired tenderness. I like them crisp and bright green, that will only take a few minutes. Stir in the cooked quinoa. Add lemon juice, S & P to taste.

As for my bouquet of ramps, I photographed it, washed and minced it, sautéed it with fresh thyme and added it to my sautéed chicken livers, finishing it off with a splash of sherry.

Happy Spring!

Years ago, I fell in love with Heidi Swanson’s blog: http://www.101cookbooks.com/ after I had come across her book in 2007. You may not come back to my blog ever again after you’ve seen hers. But I need to give credit where credit is due and after all, my blog will always reference the books, cooks and people who have inspired me over the years.

All photos ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Breaking Bread

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Paper collage © 2016 Fadia Jawdat

Exodus

With the last few decades of war and upheaval in the Middle-East, my family and friends began their exodus in the mid-nineteen seventies. Moving to different continents and various cities we searched for asylum, safety and stability. For those of us in our late teens and early twenties, the initial excuse was to further our education. But over the years with safety and lack of jobs becoming a concern, entire families and older generations followed their young and their friends, leaving homes and lives behind and starting over in lands that could offer them opportunity and safe haven. Young and old would begin new lives, acculturating themselves to their newly found environments. Dreams were broken, family ties and social structure threatened and loss was traumatic. Isolation was unbearable at times. Uncertainty over our future was the new normal.

My extended family was dispersed over a few continents. We would grow apart culturally, adopting our new environments and making new friends. When we’d meet up again, maybe once a year, we were guests in each others’ homes, politely poking and scratching the surface to help uncover and reveal our new selves. The discovery and revelation of our differences was often painful. Eventually we’d understand, forgive and accept. We had new opinions, new politics and ideologies—change is the name of the game when you are trying to survive and fit in.

Redemption in food

Throughout the years, somehow food was the only constant in a sea of variables. We all transported and exported our traditions into our kitchens. We quickly populated our pantries with staples we sought and found at specialty stores and spice shops . We called each other long-distance for “recipes” or what I should label “how to”s: “How do you make okra stew?” I would call my mother 6,000 miles away in an eight-hour difference time zone. “Do you use lemon juice or Dibs (pomegranate molasses)? …How much garlic?… Can I make it without tomato paste?”
In reality, our family dining table was fractured and scattered, but we managed a virtual reconstruction, where our mothers and grandmothers, aunts, cousins and friends would join us in our kitchens and at our tables to share every dish together in spirit and in soul.

One thing was certain though, no matter how different our lifestyles had become, we all maintained one basic passion for the food—food we had grown up with, food that was the link to our culture, to our mothers and grandmothers. When we met, we indulged in an orgy of the most delicious dishes, seasonal and unseasonal: it might have been July but Easter pastries, Christmas puddings and special occasion desserts would be made especially to welcome us “Home”.
Regardless of location, the host kitchen turned into a classroom of culinary instruction, where participation was instinctive and enthusiastic. All hands and minds were on deck, working together like clockwork. Notes and photographs were taken. Documentation was essential. We’d all contribute to coring Kusa (courgettes), or plucking the leaves off the stems of the fresh Mulukhia bundles. We meticulously stuffed and rolled grape leaves in an assembly line, piling them up in awe and admiration.  We observed, we chatted and sometimes we sipped on tea or coffee, while the room buzzed around us with frenetic energy.

Breaking bread

Food gatherings have become ceremonial. Around the table, we meet each other with warmth and acceptance. We embrace the adopted friends and newly-found neighbors. We try to replicate the lost, repair the broken and preserve the most basic part of our lives with an added openness and excitement of sharing and discovering what each of us has reaped along the way.

When we visit family, travelers haul ingredients, hosts spend weeks in preparation of dishes they’ll freeze or refrigerate. The first question asked is: “what would you like to eat? …what dish have you missed?…what can I prepare for you?” After the initial chaotic moments of emotional ebb and flow, the hugs and the tears, we settle down a little and then we all head for the kitchen!

The food we prepare is loaded with meaning and promise of soothing comfort. Old flavors that link us to our past, whisked together with new life ingredients, promise to bring resolution and healing. Whether we revive old recipes or embrace and experiment with new cuisines, our kitchens remain the meeting place where tradition is perpetuated and innovation is welcomed; a place where we form and fuse new bonds and widen our circles of food, family and friends.

I write this with love and appreciation for my family and friends (you know who you are) who have fed me, taught me, inspired me and spoiled me with their generosity over the course of my life and in memory of my mother especially, my father, my aunts and grandmothers and a few good friends who left us too soon but with whom we ate and drank insatiably.

 

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.