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).

Kitchen Tips (cont.)—Processing & Freezing

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Cilantro/garlic frozen cubes. Photo: © 2016 Fadia Jawdat

The ice cube tray is a useful kitchen tool.

A great way to keep some essential ingredients on hand at all times is to portion and freeze. The ice cube tray is the perfect vehicle for the process.

#1. Frozen lemon juice

Squeeze lemons and pour the juice in a tray. Once frozen and solid, place the juice cubes in a zip lock bag to bring out at a moment’s notice to use in soups or cocktails in the evening, or to mix with warm water for a detoxing cleanse in the morning. 🙂

#2. Frozen Garlic and Cilantro mix

If you  are a cilantro lover and use a lot of cilantro-garlic combo in your cuisine, you’re familiar with the hassle. This combination is used to flavor many a Middle-Eastern dish. Use it for Tex-mex and Mexican dishes as well: chilis, tacos and salsas. Chopping cilantro, every time you need it, is time consuming and will interrupt the flow of a quick weeknight meal. Making big batches of cilantro and garlic in one sitting saves hours of labor down the road. Simply assemble crushed garlic and chopped cilantro, or throw it all into a food processor adding a little oil and salt. Sautéing is a practice that will deepen the flavor but is not necessary. You can sauté the thawed cubes when you are ready to use or you can do so before freezing. Whatever your  inclination or time constraints, portion the mix in ice cube trays and freeze. Once frozen, you can place the cubes in a bag or container and return to the freezer.


Recipe:

6-8 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon of coriander
1 Cup chopped Cilantro
2 teaspoons Olive Oil
1/4 teaspoon of salt

Warm the oil in a small pan, add all the ingredients and toss around until garlic looks golden. If mixture sticks to the pan loosen with a little water. Be careful not to burn. Remove from heat, cool and place in a container and freeze.

Here’s a link to a recipe for Garlic Cilantro Salsa! http://www.food.com/recipe/garlic-cilantro-salsa-96866

I love Sautéed Potatoes with Garlic and Cilantro. Here’s a link to Mamas Lebanese Kitchenhttp://www.mamaslebanesekitchen.com/mezza/potatoes-saute-garlic-cilantro-batata-kizbra/#sthash.vJKYzDWD.dpbs


#3. Frozen Pesto cubes

I need not tell anyone how to make pesto. I like to make it in big batches all throughout Basil season to place in ice cube trays and freeze.
I use pesto not only for pasta, but to spread over fish before baking, in sandwiches and as a base for crostini with various toppings. My daughters like mixing pesto with Hummus. A Caprese salad is a natural pairing, but try it with chicken salad or mixed in with quinoa, petite peas, toasted pignoli and cubed tomatoes.

#4. Freezer tips in general…and more…

Get in the habit of labeling containers that go in the freezer with content and date. Much of the food looks the same once frozen. Having a large freezer is a mixed blessing: containers tend to get lost and forgotten for months: Bone broth, beef or mushroom stock look similar.

Precious spices, and nuts will last longer in the freezer than on the shelf.

If you don’t have a large freezer…

  • Revive wilted herbs and greens: I’ve had a fair amount of success soaking wilted cilantro or parsley—greens too— in a bath of fresh cold water, for 10 minutes or so. The salad spinner is perfect for this since you can immediately drain and spin out the excess water.
  • Radishes and carrots, if soaked in tubs of water and placed in the refrigerator, will last a whole lot longer and will keep their crunch.
  • Cooking your veggies and greens immediately is one of the better kitchen practices. Don’t wait for mushrooms to get slimy, and greens to wilt and mold in your refrigerator. Sauté mushrooms, blanch your veggies and greens. Leave them to drain and dry out before refrigerating or freezing.
  • I often get carried away at farmers’ markets because everything looks so appealing and fresh. Curb your enthusiasm by giving yourself a budget and a limit. I suspect we all buy way too much for our weekly needs. But if you process what you buy right away, you will get your money’s worth, rather than letting things wilt to the point of no return —destined for the trash. You and I know how much that hurts!

 

 

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.