The Great Pumpkin

Once October rolls around, out come the pumpkins, filling the bins and crates of every market. Why does the pumpkin have a whole mystique that captivates and enchants? It inevitably has to adorn doorsteps, stoops and porches in every neighborhood.

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All photos© 2016 Fadia Jawdat

The month is almost over, but I am driven to share my own fascination with the iconic pumpkins. I understand the association with Halloween and jack-o’-lanterns to ward off spirits and ghosts. I am neither superstitious (well maybe a little) nor a stickler for tradition but I am still completely smitten and bewitched by their annual arrival, like aliens out of nowhere.

The orange glow of their hard and smooth skin—that is more like a tortoise shell or crustacean carapace with ridges that meet at the base of a scrunched up coarse and sometimes gnarly stem—contrasts ever so vigorously with the grays of the side-walk cement and the washed-out hues of brick and paint of city buildings and townhouses.

The first time I laid eyes on a pumpkin was in an illustrated children’s book, probably the Cinderella story. That is perhaps where the magical entrancement began. I don’t remember ever seeing a real pumpkin until I came to the U.S., although I am sure it grew in Lebanon, but I do not recall any of my family ever eating or cooking with pumpkin.

I have taken my children to pumpkin patches to pick their own. I have carved pumpkins at Halloween events year after year, or turned them in to vessels to hold floral centerpieces for Halloween and Thanksgiving table settings (thank you Martha Stewart). I have taken hundreds of photographs of pumpkins. It’s as though by taking photos, I might break the spell or unveil the secret behind my obsession.

The path to demystification is to get to know your subject. Wikepedia tells me that the U.S. produces 680,000 tons of pumpkins each year and that 95% of the crop intended for processing is grown in Illinois. I’d be blown away by the sheer size of those pumpkin fields and my small iPhone camera will certainly have a hard time wrapping it’s frame around that picture!
I also discovered (see Colonial Williamsburg Journal (CW Journal : Autumn 09 : Some Pumpkins!) that the colonials did not celebrate Halloween. The holiday was brought over to the U.S. by the Irish immigrants in the 19th century along with the jack-0’-lanterns that were originally carved turnips. The article also mentioned that the pumpkin had been, for thousands of years, a nourishing staple both for North and South America’s indigenous people. Pumpkin along with corn and beans was cultivated as part of the three sisters crop (a symbiotic relationship that improved yield). By the mid 1600s the settlers in the colonies were growing their own and incorporating them in their meals.

The plant itself is described as a delicate, thirsty and voracious feeder. It  produces both female and male flowers and depends heavily on pollination by bees. The pumpkin that is cultivated for decoration (not cooking) is just one variety of pumpkin also known as winter squash. They come in all shapes and colors and much is discussed about the difference in flavor and sweetness. Food52 has a post showing all the varieties (in case you have the time and the interest).

It’s not the visual aspect of the fruit alone that thrills me, it’s also the arrival of all things pumpkin in bakeries and stores: pumpkin pie, bread, scones and pumpkin cheesecake. But I draw the line at pumpkin flavored latte in coffee shops! There is pumpkin eggnog and ale… both not for me either.

Yes, I have made curried pumpkin soup and pumpkin scones in my day, I also use some varieties of squash in soups and stews— but I never made a pumpkin pie. Since all confections are ready-made, easily available, delicious and for the most part cheap(-ish?), why bother with the mess. I turn to canned pumpkin puree for some needs or the conveniently peeled and cut winter squash at the markets. But I am encouraged to do try working it from scratch someday when I have time for the ritual. Maybe that will exorcise my enchantment for good.

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Pumpkin kibbeh in the making, with filling (above) and completed and baked (below). All photos© 2016 Fadia Jawdat

Soon after moving to D.C. I discovered that pumpkin kibbeh is a regional Lebanese dish that is found ready-made in Middle-Eastern take-out delis in the suburbs. The small pumpkin kibbeh balls stuffed with spinach, onions and nuts are delicious but too time-consuming to make myself. I recommend The Gourmet Basket in McLean, VA (no, they are not sponsoring this post). Call first to ensure they have enough on hand. They sell out quickly.

One snowy Sunday last February, I tried making the kibbeh “pie” using canned pumpkin puree. It was a lot of work but I had a pair of helping hands: a vegan daughter who was invested in the process in order to reap the benefits. I used the recipe from the Classic Lebanese Cuisine cookbook by Kamal Al-Faqih, but there are others on line including Emeril Lagasse (can you believe it?!) and a multitude of videos ranging from the good, the bad and the funny, showing method and process for making either the balls or the “pie”.

Finally no pumpkin story can go without mention of a longtime (baby-boomer) favorite, the comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz and the Great Pumpkin, a mythical figure in whom only Linus van Pelt seems to believe. Every Halloween Linus awaits in a pumpkin patch but the Great Pumpkin never appears. Unlike Linus, I know that pumpkins, luckily, will appear every year in October. Wake up Linus, the Great Pumpkin is all around you, focus on what is real. The Great Pumpkin is here in all its magic and all its glory.

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Tireless Food Explorer

Lisa Gershenson. Photo © 2016 Eric Futran

When I met Lisa she had just bagged her career as a therapist and was cooking for small parties and events. I was supplementing my designer income by moon-lighting with a small group of interesting people including my friend Nadra. We tended bar, passed hors-d’oeuvre and served dinner at bar mitzvahs in Westchester, wedding receptions on Park Avenue and UN parties on the Upper East Side. We were hired by several caterers, Lisa was among them. Petite in stature, short, salt and pepper hair, twinkly green eyes, a beaming smile and large dangling earings—which she stroked almost as a nervous tick—she spoke in a husky voice, giving the team clear articulate instruction.

Our professional relationship quickly turned into friendship. Polite conversations were replaced by passionate exchanges over cuisines and markets. Eventually, I was to be invited into her “sanctuary”.  It was there, in her New York apartment on West 73rd and Riverside, that a privileged few had the pleasure to participate in the development of her culinary repertoire. She fretted about upcoming jobs and needed to submit her entire menu for critique before presenting it to clients. We were at least a half dozen women, but diverse enough to represent a reliable cross-section of New York’s demographic profile deeming us the perfect participants and tasters for her “test kitchen”. It was all in good fun: nowhere near a scientific market study, but a forum of friends who were the lucky recipients of Lisa’s huge talent and generosity.

The dining area was separated from a miniscule kitchen by an opening in the wall. The dining table, normally turned into a production area for lack of counter-space, was transformed for the occasion into an elegant setting complete with flowers and candles. We were in one of the world’s greatest culinary capitals sipping our sake or wine, overlooking New Jersey’s glistening skyline and savoring sips of soups, appetizer bites and samplings of entrees. Lisa served one dish at a time in small exquisite bowls. She never missed a beat, never forgot a thoughtful garnish and always announced and explained what was being served. She joined us for a few minutes at  a time, her eyes scanning our faces, intensely deciphering reactions and expressions. We purred over velvety concoctions, hummed to the melodies of tropical salsas and died and went to heaven over her chocolate and ginger confections. That was the time when “fusion” cuisine had begun to surface and that in itself was exhilarating enough. But with Lisa being our master guide, our guru and host, we felt snobbishly enlightened and initiated. Drenched in praise and compliments, our chef checked off another dish from the testing list.

Although I was sad to see her leave New York, Lisa’s culinary career took off after moving to Chicago. She took on one project after another while going back to culinary school and constantly traveling and exploring the world’s markets and eateries in search of knowledge and inspiration.

She and her husband established one of Chicago’s finest catering companies J & L Inc. She later became director of the Community Kitchen program at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. After that she wore many hats in various positions helping out non-profits and consulting for businesses, culinary start-ups and food entrepreneurs. She has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and Jim Lehrer News Hour on PBS. Her recent  Cook’s Gazette, an online journal which she started a year and a half ago, is the culmination of her life’s achievements and experiences. The content of her articles reflects her generosity of spirit, her curiosity about world markets and cuisines, her openness, her affinity and empathy with cooks from all walks of life bringing their stories, methods and ingredients into the limelight.

She has inspired and mentored many. We have kept in touch and visited each other a few times over the years. We call each other to check in but I often call her in a panic: “what should I do???!! I have twenty people for dinner and a huge whole grouper that will not fit in my oven!”
-“First”, she says, “you pour yourself a glass of wine, take a deep breath, and then you have two choices….”  —On a side note I no longer invite twenty people for dinner and have never again roasted a whole grouper in my oven, not that it wasn’t a success… it’s just that I have chosen to turn my kitchen into a stress-free zone ever since that experience.

Lisa has a gift of making you feel at ease no matter the situation. The wealth of her knowledge appeases all anxiety instantly. She is also tirelessly enthusiastic, always ready to jump in and help. And what do you think we do when we get together? After chatting over a cup of the “elixir of life” (Lisa’s name for the arabic/turkish coffee with cardamom I introduced her to when we first met), we shop the markets, we (she) cook(s) and we (I) eat! On her last visit to DC she made a delicious dinner that we shared with neighbors and friends. On the menu was an eggplant dish which I share below.

“Eggplant is my signature” she says proudly. There are many other eggplant recipes on her website that you might explore and enjoy.

Lisa’s Delicious Way of Making Eggplant 

Ingredients:
1.5 lbs eggplant
1 lb. onion
1 lb. tomato
Half a head of garlic
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp oregano
1/2 cup chopped parsley
Olive oil for tossing* onions and eggplant. You have to eyeball quantities.

Method:
Slice onions thin, toss with olive oil and saute until rich brown.  Do not hurry this step.  Add garlic when onions are almost ready cook 5 minutes or so more, add skinned chopped tomatoes, 1 cup water, herbs, salt and pepper and simmer for 15 minutes covered.

Toss eggplant with olive oil, begin to brown in saute pan and then add water, cover and cook until just soft all the way through.

Combine tomato mixture and eggplant mixture and bake in 350 F oven for around 45 minutes when tomato starts to caramelize.  Good hot, room temp, especially good the next day!

How It All Began

“You have a master’s in design and you work for a grocers?” my mother shrieked in disbelief. Deprived of a college education, she lived vicariously through her children. I was neither the doctor, the engineer nor the lawyer she would have liked to see and I found myself responsible for her shame and humiliation. “anyway, either way (designer/artist or grocer) you’ll die poor”! she said. Thanks Ma, for the vote of confidence !

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“To Market To Market”:  18″ x 14″, acrylic on canvas. © Fadia Jawdat, painted when I first began working in the grocery store.

I worked in design studios for years, until late-night production and demanding clients conflicted with child rearing. As a graphic designer, no salary was hefty enough to pay a caregiver or baby-sitter.  After three to four years at home, two babies and a zillion diaper changes later, I had to get out. A job at a small local grocery store allowed me a flexible schedule. I came home for snack, homework (that came a little later), dinner, bath and bedtime stories. I sometimes worked weekends while my husband (also a graphic designer) took over parental duties. The joy of watching my girls change and grow was more rewarding than the career path I chose initially. Furthermore, I purchased all my groceries at a discount and I was often offered delicious samples to take home for my family.

Learning the retail business was new and different—I am all about new and different. I quickly became part of the grocery crowd. Product sourcing, trade-show ordering, purchasing and merchandising fascinated me. It came naturally: armed with a trained eye and a discerning palate, I developed a knack for predicting consumer and market trends. I read everything on the subject of food. I witnessed, firsthand, the growing industry of gourmet and natural products. My love for food was slowly becoming an obsession and materializing into the making of a career. It was also then that I started writing a newsletter for the store (the grandparent to this blog?), complete with stories, recipes and illustrations. (BTW this was pre-internet and SM days).

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Illustrations by Barry Moyer, Design by Rakan Jawdat and written by yours truly: Summer, Fall and Holiday issues, of a grocery store newsletter, many years ago.

After the small gourmet grocers, I joined the ranks of Whole Foods Market. I worked for the very first WFM store in the mid-Atlantic region. At the time, it opened under the name of Bread & Circus, the name of a North-East chain that WFM had purchased. WFM was highly suspect. Rumors ran wild: The company was a cult, the store was built on an ancient sight of a native American burial ground. The store seemed jinxed in its first few years. It would be in poor taste to go into detail. But I will say that store leadership brought in Feng Shui specialists who smudged every corner, hung crystals and mirrors from every ceiling, turning the store into a shrine, adding insult to injury by fueling those budding suspicions and turning them into a solidly notorious reputation.

My rebellious soul enjoyed being part of this “cultish” company that believed in being humane to animals and kind to the environment.  A progressive form of management allowed each team member to be involved in the decision making process on their teams and to bend over backwards for each and every customer. This was not the union-led grocery business that this region was accustomed to. Any team member could be rewarded monthly for customer service excellence. We could be nominated “rising stars” if we lived up to expectations. After all, team member happiness was part of the company’s core values. I was starry eyed and converted. That was a long time ago. A very long time ago.

The love affair eventually got old. The company grew too fast too soon. Profits took precedent, core values were taking a hit while team members scurried around trying to work harder and harder. We hung in there, diligently trying to keep it real and keep smiling. The growing pains forced WFM to lay off 1500 employees in one fell swoop last October. I was one of them.

Although I still have to work, I’ve chosen to stay away from retail. I want my week-ends back. I want to be home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. There will be stories to tell eventually. But like with PTSD, memory is selective and I prefer not to dig up the most painful. I’m just grateful to have survived the trenches: Fifteen years of missing family-time during the Holidays, while keeping customers from falling apart and trying to stay cool and level-headed among the chaos, the insanity and the hysteria of holiday shopping.

What can I say, Ma? I simply got sucked into it: jumped on that treadmill and didn’t get off until they kicked me off. But I can breath now and I will figure out something and keep on going. That’s what I do. I’ve grown a little cynical and a tad blasé. But I can mine my memory-bank for anecdotes and stories to tell, some delightful and some disturbing. I may be penniless but I have amassed a wealth of knowledge, resources and inspiration. I will also cherish the many amazing encounters, relationships and friendships that I have developed with some of the most unique and wonderful people, customers and colleagues alike.

Another story for another day.

 

Mulukhia: My Summer Obsession

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Photo©2016 Rakan Jawdat: Dupont Circle FreshFarm market, farmer Heinz of Next Step Produce, growers of fresh Mulukhia.

The sultry humid days of DC summers are made tolerable by soaking with friends in the neighborhood pool, early morning deck gardening and the Sunday trip to the Dupont Farmers’ market. There is nothing more exciting than the sight of summer produce abundance and color. The world around me stands still while I zero in on the bright yellow squash, ripe juicy peaches and heirloom tomatoes. I’m a crazed woman spinning out of control: in a matter of seconds my arms are piled high with eggplants, peppers and peaches. I take a deep breath and decide to take it slow: walk around…(breath)…scope the stands …(breath)…I remind myself that I am on a budget and, at this point in my life, I am sadly, only cooking for two.

But then, there is mulukhia, available at one stand, and one stand only. I rush over…It is always surprising to find it here. Its season is short but it is also little known in the U.S. and therefore its presence always seems a miraculous apparition. There is nothing terribly attractive about its long spindly stems with non-descript leaves. It is hard to explain why this obsession of mine has become a focus of my summers. It evokes strong childhood memories of my mother and grandmothers turning their kitchens inside out into mulukhia-processing factories, spreading out the heaps of green leaves over white sheets to dry out in the sun on their Beirut balconies.

I grab a bunch. Why not two…or three? It’s a lot of work…but what the heck…who knows whether I will find it again next week. The farmer looks down at the bundles in my arms, raises his eyes and looks me over checking me out from top to bottom. He smiles and says: “you don’t look Lebanese!?” He tells me that he grows the mulukhia for the Lebanese and Palestinian community in Virginia. “I’ve been coming to your stand for years, my friend”, I tell him, “coming back every week for more until you run out… and yes, I am thrilled that you grow it JUST for us! Thank you!”

Mulukhia is not for everyone, once cooked, it is velvety and mucilaginous. The viscous texture has turned off a couple of my friends—consider yourself warned. But it is popular not only in the Middle-East, Cyprus and North Africa but in Asia as well. It is also known as mallow or jute originally grown in Egypt since the beginning of time. It’s growing season is summer but you find it frozen in Midlle-Eastern grocery stores year round.

Its amazing health benefits exceed those of Kale it seems. High in fiber, potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium and antioxidants, K and B vitamins … everything you’d expect from a dark leafy green and more (?). Mulukhia is made into a green soup by simmering the chopped leaves in chicken broth, flavored with garlic, coriander, cilantro, and lemon juice, and eaten over rice and chicken topped with toasted pita bread chips and chopped onions soaked in red wine vinegar. Egyptians keep it simple, serving it plain (often made with rabbit broth), but we make a more elaborate deal out of it. Its preparation seems endless but I’ve learned to take short cuts.

I began making a vegan version a few years ago for my daughters and I prefer it that way. I use store-bought vegetable broth and for protein I serve garbanzo beans (giving credit to my daughter for this one) or baked tofu cubes—a totally unconventional suggestion, but another added topping with a different and welcome texture. I make the soupy version in winter. It lends itself to pomp and ceremony in the layering of ingredients drenched in the green slime. It has unintentionally become a Christmas day tradition: my French nephew would ask my mother to make it every time he visited DC in December. Now that my mom is gone, I feel obliged to carry on bearing the torch.  But In summer I prefer to simply sauté the leaves with onions, garlic and cilantro and finish it off with lemon juice.—I love all my greens this way. I spice my spinach with nutmeg, my kale with ginger, chard with allspice, and my beet greens with Ume plum vinegar. But those recipes are for another day.—

After decades of living in the U.S. I have adapted to a new world, transforming tradition and thinking outside the box even with the most ancient of foods. I believe we hold on to our past, our memories and families even after they are gone—for reassurance. Our childhood foods will always provide comfort. Mulukhia is one of those dishes, it requires time and effort, making it all the more a work of love. And that is why I keep its tradition alive and commune with my past and my people every time I bring it home from the market. It is not so much the flavor or the dish itself that matters but the concept of staying connected to my roots and honoring my past and my ancestors.

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Mulukhia  two ways: with chicken (top) and vegan version (bottom)

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I doubt that any of you are rushing to make mulukhia but below are a few blogger websites that have recipes that are authentic and filled with additional interesting information. Marc Matsumoto’s website and recipe for mulukhia is elaborate and very visual. You can omit the whole chicken and use store bought chicken broth or substitute veggie broth for a vegetarian version. I used to make my own broth boiling the chicken with onion, cinnamon sticks etc… but who has the time these days?  Food & Wine‘s recipe is decent. I also like the Mideats (blog and website) recipe and Edible Milwaukee has a lovely story on molokhia. I hope you enjoy the reading as much as I did.

Below is my recipe for the summertime version. Good luck!

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Fresh mulukhia leaves with chopped onion ready to saute.
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Cooked whole leaves are ready to serve garnished with toasted pita and lemon wedges.

Sautéed Mulukhia Greens

Ingredients
2 bunches of mulukhia: stems stripped of leaves, stems discarded
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
I very large onion, chopped
6-10 cloves of garlic crushed
1 bunch cilantro finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon to 1 tsp salt
1/2 teaspoon to 1 tsp coriander
2 cups veggie broth
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Pita chips, to serve along side or as topping
Optional: 1/2 cup of chopped onions soaked in red wine vinegar (for topping)

Method
After stripping stems of the mulukhia, wash leaves and spin dry in salad spinner, then lay out on dishtowels on your kitchen counter. Chop onion and sauté in oil over high heat. Place mulukhia leaves in a pile on chopping board and, with a large knife, make a few cuts through the leaves. You do not want to chop too much since that is what renders the leaves mucilaginous. Add the leaves to the onions and fold a few times. Sauté for a few minutes and then add broth a half a cup at a time. Cover, reduce heat and let simmer. You want to keep adding broth and cooking through until the leaves are very dark green and tender.
Meanwhile, in a separate small pan, sauté in a little olive oil the chopped garlic and chopped cilantro. Add salt and coriander. Add and stir in the mix to the mulukhia. Cover, simmer until done. Add lemon juice and  adjust salt and lemon to taste. Let cool or refrigerate. Serve with pita chips and lemon wedges.

I particularly love to serve Hummus with it, and the small meat or pumpkin Kibbehs, green olives and some pink turnip pickles. Makes for a lovely mezze spread. Sahtein!


All photos ©2016 Fadia Jawdat

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.

 

Chutney faxes
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. 🙂