First Kitchen Memories: Part 1

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When I was five, my mother, brother and I came to live in Beirut. My grandmother Linda was to move in with us as well. My father continued working abroad and came home for every occasion, every holiday and for meetings with employer and client.

Our new home was on the third floor of a six-story building with west-facing balconies overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. A couple of blocks to the north, a black and white lighthouse loomed over our living room and bedroom windows. Our kitchen faced south. Its large central window framed a small neglected lot where a couple of palm trees watched over hedges of prickly-pear cacti. A large sunny, square room with cool terrazzo tiles and white marble counter tops, the kitchen was our first destination in the morning, at noon, and when we came home from school at the end of each day. To the left sat the sink and gas stove separated by a generous span of work-space. On the right, my mother’s electric baking oven and Kitchen Aid mixer proudly stood their ground while my grandmother’s 19th century brass alcohol burner was defiantly placed at the opposite end of the counter.

A table and chairs flanked the window. Since we all ate at different times, having all of our meals in the kitchen did not seem to be a problem except when my father came home. His presence always called for a more formal and inclusive setting in the dining room—at least for lunch which was the main meal of the day.

The kitchen seemed to run on my grandmother Linda’s a schedule. My mother worked around her mother-in-law, respecting her space. They seemed to take turns silently avoiding friction or conflict. Linda would start her day at dawn, puttering around, preparing her own breakfast and setting the table for the rest of us. I often woke up to the smell of her toasting hazelnuts, chickpeas, caraway, cumin and coriander to make her own “Duqqa“, an Egyptian version of Za’tar*. She mixed it with olive oil and spread it over bread and cheese or yogurt. The breakfast table included all of the above with an added bowl of olives and a few jars of honey or home-made jam.

Linda was the twelfth of fourteen children, born in Cairo to a Syrian father and Macedonian mother. She moved to Palestine after marrying my grandfather who was a surgeon for the British military during the Mandate. Widowed in 1938, and escaping to Lebanon with her four children in 1948, Linda was the most frugal and austere person I would ever know. She re-used matchsticks and washed Saran Wrap and plastic bags and hung them to dry on the tiled back-splash. She insisted we turn off faucets while brushing our teeth or washing our hands. She ate leftovers over and over again. She made us wipe our plates clean. She preferred to cook for herself using whatever would be discarded or left over from my mother’s ingredients. She took pride in creating something new and edible from the discarded.

Her cooking was not terribly exciting, but in her defense, it reflected her life’s hardship and the necessity to save. She used her alcohol burner because it was more economical than gas—who was to question? Occasionally she would make a dish that she would share. She made a wonderful Mulukhia** but preferred to hover over my mother’s shoulder giving stern advice and lending an occasional polite hand rather than cook a full meal. I could tell she was used up and tired, but she lit up when we asked her to make us our favorite: her savory squash pie! I would watch her roll the dough with her long slim rolling pin. Thinner than the thinnest of Pizza crusts, she would lay down the cream-colored sheet carefully inside a large round baking pan, gathering it delicately like a piece of satin fabric, and repeating the technique to cover the squash-and-onion filling. Once baked, the golden crust crackled and shattered in a thousand pieces between our teeth while the moist pale yellow-green filling smeared our tongues with a soothing texture and a burst of warm, sweet cinnamon. My grandma knew it was her piece de resistance which set her apart from all the cooks in the family, and she made sure she took the recipe with her to the grave.
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*Za’tar: a mixture of dried crushed thyme (or similar wild herb) mixed with sumac, sesame seeds, salt and sometimes olive oil.

**Mulukhia: A typical Egyptian dish made from a green plant by the same name, with long stems and large green leaves. The leaves are chopped and simmered in broth and eaten as a soup or over rice and chicken, with toasted pita chips and minced onions, flavored with lemon juice, loads of crushed garlic, dry coriander and green coriander (cilantro).

 

Roots, Beans & Greens, Oh My!

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Photo © 2016 Fadia Jawdat

My husband calls me the Queen of Soups and Salads. My soups are not original: I just tweak family recipes, read cook-books and scroll through the on-line suggestions and, practice, practice, practice. I have made the same darn soups for over 30 years—I can make them in my sleep.

I was fortunate enough to discover something new this winter when I came across a New York Times on-line recipe for “Moroccan Chickpea and Chard ”.
Beans and greens combos are healthy and comforting. I love lentil soup with chard or Cannellini beans and kale. Somehow this recipe grabbed my attention, perhaps because of its rich spice combination and perhaps because I was getting a little tired of the usual list of family “traditionals”. It is my go-to soup this season. Here’s my take on the recipe.

Let me be clear: I admire cooks making beans from scratch, but I neither have the patience nor the time. I choose cans. They may be heavy to lug back from the grocery store and are a nuisance for the environment (I know), but speed in the kitchen is my modus operandi.

I omitted the jalapeño and the cayenne—black pepper is enough heat for me and the complexity of flavors in the remaining spice mixture make up for the omission. I reduced the oil and salt by half (they’re bad for you). My family can add salt, hot sauces and jalapeños to their heart’s content and so can you. No dried apricots necessary, and preserved lemons… only if you happen to have them around. They are a staple in my pantry, but I did not need to waste them on a homey soup. It is delicious enough without them. I have made the soup 4 times in 7 weeks and I have never used fennel (my family doesn’t like fennel). On occasion I used more turnips. I tried heirloom yellow and purple carrots too. Big mistake: yellow is fine, but purple will color your soup with an unappetizing grayish color.

To avoid confusion, I have scratched out my omissions and “bolded” my additions. There you go, give it a try.

Moroccan Chickpeas with Chard (New York Times)

Ingredients:
(4 ) 2 tablespoons olive oil
2 Spanish onions, chopped
1 large jalapeño pepper, seeded if desired, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 (+ more to taste) teaspoon grated fresh ginger root
(2½)  1 teaspoons kosher salt, more to taste
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon sweet paprika (I use smoked Spanish paprika, for added depth)
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 fennel bulb, diced (save fronds for garnish)
1 very large bunch chard, stems sliced 1/2-inch thick, leaves torn into bite-size pieces
2(to 4) carrots, peeled and diced
1(to 2) large turnip, peeled and diced
1 pound dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water to cover or quick-soaked
1 Can of chickpeas drained
1 (32 oz.) Carton of veggie broth: Start with 2 cups and add as you go, you do not want the soup to be too liquid (the recipe calls for the the water that the beans have cooked in, but since I use canned beans, the broth is needed)
⅓ cup diced dried apricots
(2 tablespoons chopped preserved lemon, more to taste) Optional
½ cup chopped cilantro, more for garnish Optional

The method is easy, but I recommend that you first line up and measure all the spices, grate the ginger, peel and mince the garlic, peel and chop the veggies and greens (separate the chard stems from the leaves, chop them separately, add the stems only, to the root vegetables—chopped chard leaves are to be added later in the game). Once everything is ready then you can heat the oil, sauté onions until transparent, add spices, veggies and tomato paste, sauté for a minute or two to coat with the spices. Do not let things burn or stick to the pan, start adding the broth a little at a time to loosen up things, and continue stirring. Add enough broth to cover by an inch and simmer until veggies are semi tender, then add the chopped chard and the beans and cook until the greens are tender and to your liking. Add more broth as you go if you like. Serve with hearty crusty bread, some olives and pickles perhaps. Serves 6.

For original recipe and method visit:

http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1017228-moroccan-chickpeas-with-chard

Favorite Mid-East Cookbooks: the link to a distant past.

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Photo © 2016 Fadia Jawdat

My family’s women were preoccupied with food and cooking.

Lebanon was the crossroads of civilization and it’s cuisine reflected it. My mother and grandmother’s culinary repertoire was mostly Levantine with hints of Greek, Egyptian, Iraqi and Armenian. There were no written recipes or records, files or cookbooks, yet there were endless conversations about the latest failures and successes in the kitchen. The spontaneous barrage of questions, detailed comparisons of methods and styles between friends and relatives would lead you to believe that this close-knit community was about to produce a thesis on comparative cookery.

The women I knew were immersed in complex relationships of subliminal competition or undisclosed complicity. Pride bordered on arrogance, admiration was only a diplomatic façade, and praise was a cover for envy. However, it would have been unthinkable not to share one’s tips and secrets. Recipes were handed down from mother to daughter and, each generation, by virtue of marriage, would gain some  hints of new culinary influences. Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian and Lebanese cuisines were similar but had nuances that only the experienced cook could decipher. As I recall, Aleppine and Armenian cuisines were highly regarded and sought after. If you were lucky enough to either marry or befriend someone with either of those backgrounds, then you had it made!

Over the last few decades of wars and revolutions, my family and friends moved to different continents seeking safety and stability. With the upheaval, we clung to memories of togetherness around the table. We longed to re-invent the experience in our own new homes and the countries we’d adopted. We were westernized, but our heritage and culture was still to be found in our kitchens, in our pantries and at the table.

By the time my generation had their own kitchens, we already had a few Middle-Eastern cookbooks for reference and a couple of decades later we witnessed an explosion of books, blogs, and an entire Food Network—who would have thought!

When I began cooking in my (so-called) “kitchen” on the Upper West side of New York City, we only had a landline (phone). The raging civil war back home made it difficult to get through to my mother, but it was still my only life line. I would call her long-distance from NYC to Beirut, Saudi Arabia, Dubai or Cyprus, to grill her on ingredients and methods. It helped that I grew up eating the stuff; I knew what it should taste like. I kept a notebook, cooked religiously and followed tradition to a T.  I had no children then and had time to impress and compete with—yes I inherited that sense of competition—  friends who, like me, were homesick, and yearned for their mama’s cooking.

Between gifts and purchases, I acquired a decent cookbook collection. And although I have embraced many new cuisines, I still seek more Middle-Eastern  books than any others—I am still perfecting variations on a theme, so to speak.
In the late seventies, Claudia Roden’s The Book of Middle Eastern Food was my favorite. Her book helped me overcome the feelings of exile and yearning I experienced at the time.  She made complex recipes accessible, and often mentioned regional spins on certain dishes. It was a relief in contrast to my mother’s long-distance vague garble of instruction that lacked precision and clarity. Ms. Roden’s introduction to the book describes the history, origins and influences of the cuisine which tells an interesting story.  The New Book of Middle Eastern Food has excellent reviews. It is a revised and improved version of her first publication. I will undoubtedly buy it on Amazon along with a newer copy of the first book to replace my stained, shredded and yellow pages held together with layers of aging tape.
An excellent comprehensive new-comer is The Lebanese Kitchen by Salma Hage. It is big, thick and probably intimidating to the novice. But it is clear and well organized. Instruction is slightly inconsistent at times—sorry Phaidon (publisher). It is, however a good addition to any library with its beautiful photographs of Lebanon.

Another impressive and thorough coverage of fine Lebanese recipes is Classic Lebanese Cuisine by Chef Kamal Al-Faqih. It has step by step instruction and photographs that could turn you into a professional, if you are so inclined. Finally, I must mention and recommend Mary Laird Hamady’s Lebanese Mountain Cooking (first published in 1987 by David R. Gordine). I find it uncomplicated, earthy and easy to grasp. It also has sparse but evocative and helpful illustrations by Jana Fothergill.

My life changed with the birth of my daughters. My cooking changed too. Time and energy were considerably compromised, especially when holding down a full-time job on top of everything else. Forever adapting my family meals to our changing lifestyle, I took shortcuts and taught myself tricks. Whether in re-adapting old recipes or experimenting with new cuisines, my kitchen remains a meeting place that upholds traditions (with a twist) while remaining open to innovation. A place where my daughters learn, experiment and practice, where new bonds are fused, wider circles of friends are formed and cookery continues to be an exciting adventure.

What’s with the Quince?

Photo by Fadia Jawdat

Edward Lear’s nursery rhyme, The Owl and The Pussycat, is a favorite of mine. It speaks of romance between an impossible pair who elope to be married in a pea-green boat to the land “where the Bong tree grows”. They dine on “ Mince* and slices of quince” and dance “by the light of the moon”. Total nonsense, but so charmingly romantic.

Quince, to me, conveys romance and poetry: an exotic fruit saved for special occasions. It is not mass cultivated and grows mostly in the Middle East and Asia. It is an ancient fruit that has lived through many civilizations, but it remains uncommon. It is often hard to find in most American supermarkets, except during the winter holidays when people are willing to pay almost five dollars for one.

Quince has a sadness about it when raw. It is nubby, a little fuzzy and unwelcoming to the touch. It never looks perfect and its creamy flesh is woody and tough and would make your mouth pucker if you tried eating it. But when cooked, the quince is transformed: it is luscious and silky, burnt umber in color, delicate in flavor, aromatic and sweet. It is not a fruit you devour, but one you use sparingly or as a condiment. An ingredient to treat with reverence.
It is mostly used to make jam. I can still smell the fragrance of the glowing burnt-orange Sfarjal jam (Arabic name for quince), cooling in jars on the marble counters of my mother’s kitchen. Quince is also added to savory dishes of lamb or chicken from Iran and Syria, Tunisia and Morocco. Quince paste, Membrillo, from Spain, is delicious on top of cheese, and I once came across a quince-infused Vodka recipe, that I plan to try next Fall!

So that’s the story behind the name. Despite my exposure to many cuisines, middle-eastern and mediterranean are still my favorites.  Quince is only one of the many ingredients I associate with the Middle-East. There are so many others that I have idolized in my culinary memory and muse about in my writing. I hope to share them with you. Raising a family and having a full-time job, with no help and support, forced me transform many traditional recipes by taking shortcuts without compromising flavor. Sometimes it is only a matter of prepping ahead of time and being organized.  The end result looks like you have slaved away for hours. In fact, you have, but no one, including you, would even notice.

This blog is about the foods, the tips and stories about the kitchens and the people I’ve known who, through food and cooking, have transformed my life.

*(although most of you who have found your way here probably already know) Mince probably refers to mincemeat, an English filling for pies that consists of dried fruit, distilled spirits like Brandy and spices.