Articles in Tradition

Qara bi’l-tahina (pumpkin purée with sesame seed paste). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

In the Middle East food is shared and one place it is shared is on the meze table. Meze are small samplings of prepared dishes that make a meal. They are not appetizers, nor tapas, nor hors d’oeuvres but are actually more philosophically related to the Scandinavian smorgasbord.

Food is shared in another way. The food of the Levant, meaning the food eaten between the Turkish-Syrian border all the way to Egypt, is the same food eaten by Muslims, Christians, and Jews. One can’t really say there is Muslim food, Christian food and Jewish food, but there are certain foods that are typical for those communities centered around holidays such as Ramadan, Christmas, and Yom Kippur, for example, but the foods are not unique to those cultures because everyone eats them.

One very typical, almost obligatory, meze dish is hummus. Hummus means chickpea and does not mean dip. The proper name of the preparation called hummus is hummus bi’l-tahina, chickpeas with sesame seed paste.

One delightful variation of this dip is made with pumpkin, all the more appropriate this time of year when Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. All the more so if we reflect on how much we can be thankful for especially at a time when the Middle East seems to be disintegrating into a frenzy of blood-letting. At a time when all religious communities, be they Jewish, Christian, Shiite, Sunni, Yazidi, Alawite, or Kurdish Muslim, are threatened in the Middle East and the stories from those lands are nothing but sadness, it behooves us to remember the rich contribution and integral role played by all these people who once –it is hard believe given the modern headlines — lived together. If there is one thing they all shared it was surely food.

And a dip is a food that is shared. Please don’t call it pumpkin hummus. It’s called qara bi’l-tahina and that means pumpkin with sesame seed paste.

This will be one of many dishes on the menu of a series of communal dinners arranged by Clockshop, a nonprofit arts and culture organization based in Los Angeles. The event will take place over three weekends in November, beginning Nov. 8 to celebrate what they call the Arab-Jewish diaspora. The meals will feature the culinary traditions, music and culture of this diaspora. If you live in the Los Angeles area you can check them out by RSVP.

Qara bi’l-tahina (Pumpkin Purée With Sesame Seed Paste)

Yield:  6 servings
Prep time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Ingredients

5 pounds pumpkin flesh, cubed

1/2 cup tahina

4 large garlic cloves, peeled and mashed in a mortar with 2 teaspoons salt until mushy

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

Seeds from 1/2 a pomegranate

Directions

1. Place the pumpkin slices in a saucepan and cover with water. Turn the heat on and bring to a gentle boil and cook until soft, about 40 minutes. Drain well and pass through a food mill. Return the pumpkin to the saucepan and cook over a medium-high heat until all the liquid is nearly evaporated, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and run until creamy. Transfer to a mixing bowl

2. Stir the tahina paste into the pumpkin and mix well. Stir in the garlic mixture and lemon juice. Mix well and transfer to a serving platter. Garnish the pumpkin mixture with parsley, some olive oil, and cumin. Decorate the outside edges of the platter with the pomegranate seeds and serve with Arab flatbread to scoop up the dip.

Main photo: Qara bi’l-tahina (Pumpkin Purée With Sesame Seed Paste). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Brown rice can serve as the base for delicious sushi rolls. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Hideo Ono, a lean 65-year-old with deep crow’s feet around his eyes and a farmer’s tan, has been growing rice in the village of Tajima, Niigata, in the northwestern part of Japan for 20 years. The region is known for growing the best rice because of its distinct four seasons and good water that filters down from the surrounding snow-capped mountains.

Despite being a late comer to his career as a farmer, Ono is the founder of Joint Farm, a co-op that grows one of the most sought-after premium-grade heirloom short-grain rice varieties, known as Koshihikari rice. The varietal is sold under several labels, including Gensenmai and Mugenmai. Compared to the insect-resistant, higher-yielding, modern strain of the Koshihikari BL varietal most Niigata farmers are cultivating these days, Ono prefers the heirloom Koshihikari because of its distinct flavor and fragrance.

Koshihikari rice is sold in milled and unmilled styles, but if Ono had his way, everyone would eat brown rice, the unmilled variety. In fact, when Ono is not in the fields working, you will find him on the road, doing brown rice cooking demonstrations and tasting events all over the country and overseas.

Brown rice the better choice for good health

Why is he so passionate about spreading the gospel of brown rice? Ono advocates brown rice instead of white rice because of its many health benefits. Brown rice is known to lower the risk of developing diabetes, and it’s high in fiber, which promotes cardiovascular health. It is also a good source of minerals that support bone health, and its oil has been known to lower cholesterol. Finally, it can also help prevent weight gain.

Ono attributes his well-being to eating a diet full of brown rice, but he said he was not always so healthy.

On a recent visit to Ono’s rice farm, he pulled his wallet out of his pocket and showed me a faded photo of him taken with a sumo wrestler nearly 20 years ago. “Can you guess which one is me?” Ono asked. At first glance, I could not tell because both men were heavy. Ono pointed to the man on the right and said, laughing, “That’s me. I am fatter than the sumo wrestler.”

In a flashback to his days as a furniture salesman in the 1980s, Ono said that in his 40s he suffered from obesity and high blood pressure. Warned by his doctor that he was a walking time bomb, he knew he would die early if he kept up his excessive drinking and poor eating habits. That’s when Ono decided to restore his health through a diet centered on vegetables and brown rice. At the same time he took up farming, a much more physical job. He went to apprentice with a local farmer and never looked back.

While pursuing his new lifestyle, Ono met Atsuko. They got married and moved to Tagami, where they started their rice farm.

Ono and the farmers in the Joint Farm co-op grow rice sustainably and organically; they make fertilizer pellets from naturally recycled rice bran; coffee grinds; tea leaves; minerals; and okara, which are soybean curds that occur as a byproduct of tofu. He is against using animal manure in farming because the feed given to fertilizer-producing animals can contain a number of chemicals which, if used, would inevitably pass through to the rice.

“The fertility of soil and quality of fertilizer together play important roles with regards to the quality of the rice,” Ono said.

One of the highlights of the visit was the farm-to-table suppers at Ono’s farmhouse. His friend, chef Fumihiko Ono (no relation) from the Yagi Culinary Institute, joined us from Tokyo for what turned into a two-day feast. It began with a trip to the market to buy local fish to make sushi.

Tagami is about 45 minutes inland from the Sea of Japan, which is known for its abundance of seafood. We bought a whole young Isaki (baby yellowtail), Hachime (a local fish that looks like a small snapper) and a wiggly leg of an octopus with the biggest suction cups I have ever seen.

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Japanese rice farmer Hideo Ono in his fields. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Back at Ono’s farm, Chef Ono cleaned the fish and prepared sashimi while the rest of us harvested tomatoes, eggplant, okra and cucumbers from the farm. We also enjoyed regional delicacies the Onos had prepared in advance, but the unique part of the sushi supper was the rice.

We made it using short-grain brown rice, which would be considered heresy to most Japanese people, who are accustomed to eating short-grain white rice with sushi.

To make the sushi rice, the brown rice was seasoned with vinegar and salt, but no sugar. Chef Ono arranged the sashimi for the temaki-zushi (sushi hand rolls). The vegetables were washed in cool well water and left whole for us to bite into.

The diners all made their own hand rolls, starting with a stack of nori seaweed. The fillings along with soy sauce, wasabi paste and pickled ginger were passed around so everyone could create their own sushi rolls.

The brown rice sushi tasted nutty and sweet and paired very well with the seafood, vegetables and sake. We spent two days feasting, visiting a nearby egg farmer, a soy sauce artisan and Ono’s majestic rice fields.

When it was time to leave, Ono said, “Come back to Tajima during harvest time,” filling his face with a wrinkly smile. The distinct flavor and texture of the brown rice lingers. I appreciate what it takes to make such exquisiteness.

Brown Rice Hand Rolls

For the best results, follow the rice-to-water ratio recommended by the rice manufacturer. Pickled ginger and plum vinegar are sold at Asian grocery stores. Plum vinegar is a byproduct of making pickled plums. The vinegar is salty, so no salt is needed to season the sushi rice.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

For the brown rice:

2 cups short-grain brown sushi rice

1 strip of konbu seaweed, about 3 inches long

3½ cups water

4 tablespoons plum vinegar, or add more to taste

For making and serving the sushi:

12 sheets nori seaweed, toasted and cut in half lengthwise

4 tablespoons wasabi paste

Soy sauce (Japanese-style koikuchi shoyu)

Pickled ginger (optional)

Filling ideas:

2 Persian or Japanese cucumbers, cut into sticks ¼ inch by 4  inches

2 ripe avocados, peeled, seeded and cut into eighths

1 pound albacore tuna, cut into slices ¼ inch by 4 inches

4 kiwis, peeled and sliced

8 ounces salmon roe

8 medium shrimp, cooked and peeled

½ pound smoked salmon, thinly sliced and cut into strips

2 bunch of sprouts (daikon, scallions, kale or any sprouts you like)

½ cup roasted sesame seeds

1 bunch green scallions, julienned about 2 inches long

Directions

To make the brown rice and sushi fillings:

1. Combine rice, konbu seaweed and water in a heavy pot and let stand overnight.

2. Bring rice to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce heat to a low simmer and cook 45 minutes. (No peeking.) Remove from heat, without peeking, and let it continue to steam for 10 minutes.

3. Season the cooked brown rice with plum vinegar, then transfer it to a large bowl. Prepare the rice as close to serving time as possible.

4. To arrange the sushi platter, slice up as many fillings as you like to make a colorful presentation. Store in the refrigerator until just before serving, and then prepare the sushi rolls as close to serving time as possible.

To assemble temaki-zushi:

1. Each roll is made of half a toasted nori seaweed sheet. If smaller rolls are preferred, cut the seaweed sheets in quarters. The roll should contain about 2 tablespoons of sushi brown rice, or enough to grasp with one hand.

2. With a spoon or chopsticks, scoop up the rice and lay it onto the sheet of nori. Spread with hands chopsticks or a spoon.

3. Dab the nori with a little wasabi paste, then lay 2 to 3 fillings on top of the bed of rice.

4. Wrap the seaweed sheet and its contents into a roll.

5. Dip it in soy sauce and eat. Freshen your palate with a few bites of pickled ginger.

Main photo: Brown rice can serve as the base for delicious sushi rolls. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

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Emmer and wheat bread with jam is a good choice for breakfast. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

Every time you bake a load of bread, it’s a small miracle — combining flour, water, salt and air to get the final product.

When humans found a way to store grains and make them into flour, it changed the course of history, enabling economies and populations to grow. In so many ways, bread is at the core of our history. Bread is culture, and it is about people. It’s also about love — think about how we bake for people we love, our family and friends.

I recently read Michael Pollan’s book “Cooked,” and it made me think a lot about my relationship with bread. I did not relate to his idea of the perfect bread, which he claims to have found in Chad Robertson’s Tartine sourdough bread. Robertson’s bread, I’m sure, is amazing. I have not tasted it from his cafe, but I have enjoyed Robertson’s book, and I think it is a thorough and detailed baking book with a guide on how to make sourdough bread.

Bread shouldn’t be perfect, but varied

But to Pollan’s point, is there such a thing as perfect bread? I sustain myself every day on rye bread — actually, I can’t live without it. In the Middle East, they live on flatbread and pita, and in many parts of Eastern Europe they live on different types of rye bread. Thousands of bread traditions exist around the world, and the new and trendy sourdough bread made with a dark, tasty crust and light, airy texture can’t take all them out in one go.

I bake bread according to what I am going to eat and what kind of flour I have in the house. I often like to eat dense bread with a lot of fiber, and I like to bake with varieties of flour such as rye, spelt, emmer and different heritage wheats. I use a lot of local flours, such as Ølands wheat. This summer I met a farmer at a Kneading Conference in Maine who had just started growing some Øland hvede wheat. Interest in that particular variety is growing.

The flavor of bread comes from the flour, so bread can’t be better than the flour you use to bake it. You can add to that with your skill and knowledge, which comes from practice. Baking doesn’t have to be only scientific; it can also be very intuitive.

Pollan writes in “Cooked” that he has concerns about the Tartine sourdough bread being 100 percent plain wheat and therefore not as healthy as a whole-grain bread, but it’s a challenge to get the same crust and texture with whole grains. My question is why not just enjoy a variety of breads baked using different methods?

I believe bread has to be about variety, and that comes from diversity in both craftsmanship and grains. Both have more or less disappeared in Western food culture, with the food-manufacturing industry taking over food production.

No matter what, good bread needs quality flour milled from grains treated with care and grown in an environment with crop rotation and care for the soil. The flour has to be stone ground and not separated in the process, and it can’t be older than 7 months when used. Finally, when baking bread, the dough needs time to ferment. Large-scale food manufacturers do not apply to any of these above-mentioned techniques, and many small bakeries do not either.

So, do you have to bake your own bread to have good bread? The answer is both yes and no. If we don’t bake it ourselves, we have to make conscious choices about the bread we buy.

If you are hesitant about the idea of baking your own bread and all it involves, you should know that baking is not hard or time consuming; most doughs take care of themselves.

Baking is part of my everyday life; I bake rye bread every week, and I also bake a lot of other breads, including this dense and tasty emmer wheat bread. It contains about 25 percent whole-grain flour, so it’s very filling. I eat only a slice for breakfast, and it’s perfect for a sandwich on the second day or with soup during the winter months.

Emmer and Wheat Bread

Emmer is an old wheat variety that contains a lot of protein and minerals and tastes wonderful. Eat the bread the Danish way with cheese or jam for breakfast or with a salad or soup.

Prep time: 1 hour

Cooking and proofing time: 8 to 12 hours

Total time: About 2 hours active work, spread over multiple days

Yield: Makes two loaves

Ingredients

2 cups (280 grams) stone-ground whole-grain emmer flour

4½ cups (500 grams) strong wheat flour

1½ teaspoons organic dry yeast

1 tablespoon flaky sea salt

2¼ cups (600 milliliters) cold water

Directions

1. Start by mixing the flours in a large mixing bowl, then add in the dry yeast and salt.

The bread dough. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

The bread dough. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

2. Pour in the water, mixing the dough until it is smooth and even. If you have a Kitchen Aid or similar mixer, use it to mix the dough. The dough should be quite sticky and will absorb a lot of the water while rising.

3. Place the dough in a bowl and cover it with a kitchen towel, then let it rise at room temperature for a half-hour.

4. After it rises, cover the bowl with cling film and place it in the refrigerator for 8 to 12 hours.

5. After proofing in the refrigerator, place the dough on a floured surface and let it rest for 30 minutes.

6. With spatula and a bit of flour, divide the dough into two equal pieces and shape it into two round loafs without kneading too much.

7. Place the loaves on a baking tray lined with parchment paper and cover with a kitchen towel. Leave to rise for about 30 to 45 minutes.

8. Check on the dough. It should have risen a little and bounce back easily when touched lightly. If the dough rises for too long, it will start going flat.

9. Preheat the oven to 450 F (225 C or Gas 7).

10. Sprinkle the oven with water or place a small oven-proof bowl filled with water inside. This will create some steam in the oven.

11. When the dough is ready, place it in the oven and bake for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 400 F (200 C or Gas 6) and bake for 35 more minutes.

12. Remove the bread from the oven and leave it to cool on an open wire rack. It’s important not to cut the bread before it’s cool because the bread continues to bake during the cooling time and is not done until entirely cooled.

Main photo: Emmer and Wheat Bread with jam is a good choice for breakfast. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

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Smiling sugar skulls are a mainstay of Mexico's Day of the Dead celebrations on Nov. 1 and 2.

Many cultures around the world honor departed ancestors with holidays each year. Some feature altars. Some burn incense. But feasting is the common thread that runs through many of the celebrations.

The dead are part of that — with food offerings left in their honor.

In Mexico’s two-day Day of the Dead celebration — el Día de los Muertos — Nov. 1 celebrates the lives of departed infants and children. Nov. 2 honors those who died as adults. On both days, families provide the favorite food and drink of the departed.

In China, families set out plates of food during for their ancestors at the Hungry Ghost Festival. An empty place at the dinner table is sometimes left for an ancestor to join in the feast.

The Hungry Ghost Festival, which is thousands of years old, is traditionally celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. Chinese families place ancestral artifacts on a table, burn incense and display photographs of the dead.

Remembering the dead with food, flowers and festive décor

Mexico’s tradition also features colorful altars to honor ancestors.

MexicanSugarSkull.com offers this detail on the offerings — ofrendas — that families set out on their Day of the Dead altars:

“They are decorated with candles, buckets of flowers (wild marigolds called cempasuchil and bright red cock’s combs), mounds of fruit, peanuts, plates of turkey mole, stacks of tortillas and big Day-of-the-Dead breads called pan de muerto. The altar needs to have lots of food, bottles of soda, hot cocoa and water for the weary spirits. Toys and candies are left for the angelitos, and on Nov. 2, cigarettes and shots of mezcal are offered to the adult spirits. Little folk art skeletons and sugar skulls, purchased at open-air markets, provide the final touches.

 

The Day of the Dead sugar skulls are an example of the festive way that the Mexican culture approaches death -- with an air of celebration as a way to joyfully remember departed loved ones. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

The Day of the Dead sugar skulls are an example of the festive way that the Mexican culture approaches death — with an air of celebration as a way to joyfully remember departed loved ones. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Mexico’s Day of the Dead is believed to trace its origins to pre-Hispanic Aztec rituals. After the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, the celebrations were moved to coincide with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2).

Not just a Mexican holiday anymore

Today, Day of the Dead has grown in popularity far behind the borders of Mexico and Latin America. The traditional observance from central and southern Mexico can now be seen in Día de los Muertos imagery and art around the world.

You can purchase just about anything you need for your own Day of the Dead celebration. From sugar skull molds to authentic Mexican Día de los Muertos folk art pieces, which are sometimes used as an altar decoration by celebrants.  The happy skeletons are shown doing many different things, from cooking to selling wares at the market. There are even skeleton mariachi bands. Families will purchase the colorful skeletons that depict activities their departed family member enjoyed in life.

Creating Mexican calaveras - the sugar skulls that are omnipresent in Day of the Dead celebrations - is an easy holiday activity for families. Youngsters get as much joy out of decorating the skulls as their parents do.

Creating Mexican calaveras – the sugar skulls that are omnipresent in Day of the Dead celebrations – is an easy holiday activity for families. Youngsters enjoy decorating the skulls as much as their parents do. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee

Making sugar skull decorations is very simple, using only three ingredients and a mold. The fun part is decorating them. I recruited my 7-year-old daughter and her friend to decorate the skulls. The kit came months ago, and my daughter had been bugging me since the day it arrived to make them. Not only was it a fun activity, it gave me a chance to talk about honoring our ancestors and remembering them in a fun — not sad — way.

I encourage families to make the skulls together, even decorating the skulls to resemble the deceased in their families and extended families.

Día de los Muertos Sugar Skulls

Prep time: 10 minutes

Drying time: 8 hours

Yield: 5 medium skulls

Ingredients

For the sugar skulls:

3 cups granulated sugar

3 teaspoons meringue powder

3 teaspoons water

For the royal icing:

1 pound powdered sugar

⅓ cup water

¼ cup meringue powder

Gel paste food coloring, assorted colors

Directions

For the sugar skulls:

1. In a medium bowl, mix the sugar and meringue powder.

2. Sprinkle the water over the sugar mixture.

3. Using clean hands, knead the mixture until all the sugar is moistened and it feels like wet sand. Make sure there are no lumps.

4. Pack the mix firmly into the sugar skull mold.

5. Carefully invert the mold onto a baking sheet or piece of cardboard.

6. Gently tap the mold to release the sugar skull from the mold.

7. Let the skulls dry for at least 8 hours to overnight.

8. Decorate the skulls with royal icing.

For the royal icing:

1. In a stand mixer, beat the icing until it makes stiff peaks.

2. Divide the icing and use paste food coloring to make assorted colors.

3. Using a piping bag, decorate the skulls as desired.

Main photo: Mexican sugar skulls for Day of the Dead celebrations. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee 

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With a bit of tahini sauce and pomegranate molasses, even kids love the author's Brussels Sprouts With Panko. Credit: Peter Cassidy

When I first opened the doors to my restaurant Tanoreen 15 years ago, I had a clear intention: offer my diners a peek into the Middle Eastern cuisine I knew beyond falafel and hummus. I also wanted to share a rich, nuanced culinary world that — contrary to popular belief — was more slow food than fast food.

At that time, hummus was not served at cocktail parties with carrot sticks, people didn’t know what tahini was or how to use it. Freekah (smoked wheat) was not proclaimed a “super food” and za’atar and sumac were not the trendiest spices in the land. But to me, these foods were things we consumed and used daily. They were part of the tradition of food in the Middle East that was then unknown in America. I am quite pleased that the Mediterranean diet has become so popular. It’s healthy, fresh and in my opinion, delectable.

But let’s be honest. Most of the popular Middle Eastern dishes that have worked their way through the food chain were, until recently, “fast food” such as supermarket shish kabob carts and hummus party trays. Middle Eastern food is about much more than dips and sandwiches. The spice mixes and the use of fresh vegetables, lean meats, grains and olive oil are all cornerstones.

Our meals, when I was growing up and with my own children, were and remain an active meditation. It’s not “on the go” but rather celebrating slow-cooked food, togetherness, conversation and phones off!

Unlike baking, cooking is not formulaic, even though recipes can feel that way sometimes. I always say two people can make the same recipe, and it will taste completely different. There is a soulfulness in this kind of cooking.

It’s an inner, almost empathetic connection to the people you’re cooking for. The focus is on what really tastes good, and not just on your tongue. It’s also in the emotions and memories triggered as your guests eat the meal you’ve prepared.

Chef and author Rawia Bishara: A great meal is a conduit to togetherness. Credit: Peter Cassidy

Chef and author Rawia Bishara: A great meal is a conduit to togetherness. Credit: Peter Cassidy

Similarly my cookbook, “Olives, Lemons & Za’atar,” comes from that same premise. I want to celebrate the variety of recipes, which are not at all difficult, along with the traditions and memories that come with Middle Eastern food.

Memories of such meals stand like flag posts throughout my life: the first meal I cooked for my husband (stuffed artichoke hearts), our traditional Christmas dinner (roast leg of lamb), my daughter’s favorite breakfast food as a child (potatoes and eggs) and traditional wedding mezzes.

I learned all this from my mother, a schoolteacher and home cook. Technically speaking, she was a genius chef. But her real strength as a cook lay in her ability to make meals that were an extension of her love for her family and guests — of which there were many! Her meals created an environment of warmth, safety, comfort and a total blast for the senses. It was hypnotic, with all your synapses triggered simultaneously.

A snapshot of a favorite meal: a warm winter stew of slow-braised cauliflower and fragrant spiced lamb, served alongside warm rice pilaf and toasted vermicelli noodles, fresh tomato salad with shaved radish and herbs from her garden. There were heaping plates of olives, warm fresh Arabic bread, long thin hot peppers to crunch on. And small plates of hummus and labne, served before the meal but later banished to the outer corners of a table almost wiped clean. Two parents, five children and almost always a guest or two — because if you cook for seven, you are cooking for 10.

Ghada, as we called it, was a refuge. The biggest meal of the day, served in the late afternoon, with dinner usually later and much lighter.

In today’s world, we may seem more connected, but really we’re more disconnected than ever. People click away on their smartphones on the train, walking down the street, at the gym and, yes, at the dinner table.

As a chef, I try to create a cozy bubble-like environment in my restaurant, just as I did in my own home as a mother and wife. Middle Eastern food creates that mood, using dishes that invite connection. A great meal is a conduit to togetherness.

Brussels Sprouts With Panko

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

Corn oil for frying

4 pounds Brussels sprouts, outer leaves removed, cut in half

1 cup Thick Tahini Sauce (see recipe below)

1 cup lowfat plain yogurt

2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon finely chopped garlic

1 cup panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs)

Pinch sea salt

Directions

1. Pour ¼ to ½ inch corn oil in a large skillet and place over a high heat until hot. To test the temperature, slip half a Brussels sprout into the pan; if it makes a popping sound, the oil is hot enough.

2. Working in batches, fry the Brussels sprouts, turning occasionally, until they are browned all over, 2 to 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the sprouts to a paper towel–lined plate to drain.

3. Meanwhile, whisk together the Thick Tahini Sauce, yogurt and pomegranate molasses in a medium bowl. Set aside.

4. In a small skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high until hot. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.

5. Add the panko and stir constantly until the crumbs are golden brown, about 2 minutes.

6. Stir in the salt and remove the bread crumbs from the heat. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to cool.

7. Place the Brussels sprouts in a serving dish, drizzle with the sauce and top with the panko crumbs. Serve immediately.

Notes

Brussels sprouts were not part of the Palestinian kitchen when I was growing up. I discovered them here in the States and very eagerly tried to push them on my children. To that end, I did what any good mother would do — I pumped up their flavor by adding a little tahini sauce and sweet pomegranate molasses. It worked!

In fact these Brussels sprouts were so delicious that they made it onto the original Tanoreen menu and I’ve never taken them off.

Thick Tahini Sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes

Yield: 2½ cups

Ingredients

1½ cups tahini (sesame paste)

3 to 4 cloves garlic, crushed

Juice of 5 lemons or to taste (about 1 cup)

1 teaspoon sea salt

Chopped parsley for garnish

Directions

1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the tahini, garlic, lemon juice and salt and process on low speed for 2 minutes or until thoroughly incorporated.
2. Turn the speed to high and blend until the tahini mixture begins to whiten.
3. Gradually add up to ½ cup water until the mixture reaches the desired consistency.
4. Transfer the sauce to a serving bowl and garnish with the parsley. Leftover tahini sauce can be stored, tightly covered in the refrigerator, for up to 2 weeks.

Notes

Tahini sauce is ubiquitous in Middle Eastern kitchens. It is the condiment. There is hardly a dish that isn’t enhanced by it. At Tanoreen, I mix it into salad dressings and drizzle it into cauliflower casseroles. My daughter? She dips French fries into it! Learn to make this and you will have a simple, delicious, versatile sauce to add to your repertoire.

Main photo: With a bit of tahini sauce and pomegranate molasses, even kids love the author’s Brussels Sprouts With Panko. Credit: Peter Cassidy

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Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Looking for a black Halloween food to make grown-ups howl with delight? Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto tastes like it took all day simmering on the back burner, getting rich and thick from hours of loving attention.

But when time is too short to stir dried beans in a witch’s cauldron, canned black beans that have been carefully rinsed are the fast and easy answer to perfect results, because they’ll be intensely flavored and then puréed smooth in the resulting soup.

My favorite black bean soups are from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, specifically around the city of Mérida; their unctuous, creamy textures contain no cream and are packed with characteristic layers of flavor from gargantuan amounts of herbs and a whisper of regional habañero chile. For decadence, locals often swirl in a spoonful of crema for special occasions, and Halloween is definitely such an occasion, at least in the U.S.

You start by making a flavor bomb similar to an Italian pesto to embellish the finished soup: Pull a big handful of basil leaves off stems, add cilantro and, if you can get some of the herb, throw in a little epazote with spicy habañero chile for traditional tastes. Because pine nuts aren’t found in the Yucatan, substitute pecans, Mexico’s national nut, for the right texture profile. For cheese, my choice is a not-too-salty queso añejo (aged queso fresco), or use Parmigiano-Reggiano. Only the best-quality extra virgin olive oil will do for its fruitiness, and then finish the soup with Merida sunshine: a generous squirt of bright Mexican (aka Key) lime juice.

Mexican pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Mexican pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: Makes 4 servings (may be doubled)

Ingredients

For the pesto:

4 large cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped

¼ cup coarsely chopped pecans

1 fresh habañero chile

¼ teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt

⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup basil leaves, tightly packed

½ cup cilantro leaves

10 epazote leaves (if available)

¼ cup grated queso añejo or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil

For the soup:

The soup's ingredients include habañero chile, garlic, pecans and cilantro. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

The soup’s ingredients include habañero chile, garlic, pecans and cilantro. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

One 3-inch white onion, coarsely chopped

2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

½-inch piece of the habañero chile, minced

Three 15-ounce cans organic black beans

2 cups organic chicken broth, divided

2 Mexican (aka Key) limes

Sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

½ cup Mexican crema, or sour cream thinned with a little milk

Directions

For the pesto:

1. Combine the garlic, pecans, a tiny ¼-to-½-inch piece of the chile finely chopped (wear disposable gloves while doing this), salt and pepper in a food processor. Process for 10 seconds. Toss in the basil, cilantro and epazote and grind again for 10 seconds. Turn the processor off and scrape the sides with a spatula to get everything down into the mixture.

2. Add the cheese. Turn the machine back on and pour the oil slowly through the feed tube, processing until the mixture is fully incorporated and smooth. Taste carefully for saltiness and if the sauce is spicy enough — it should be hot! If not, mince another small piece of the chile and process again to fully incorporate the bits. Taste again and adjust accordingly.

3. Using a rubber spatula, scrape into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

For the soup:

1. Heat the oil in a large pot and sauté the onion until translucent. Toss in the garlic and chile and cook until starting to brown. Remove from the heat.

2. Rinse the beans carefully for a few minutes. Scrape the onion, garlic and chile into the processor using a spatula and then dump in the beans. (You may have to do this in two batches.) Process until smooth, adding 1 cup of broth. Pour back into the pot.

3. Mix in the remaining 1 cup of broth. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat to a simmer, squeeze in the lime juice and season the bland beans assertively to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer 10 minutes.

4. To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and top with a generous tablespoonful of pesto on each. If using, swirl a tablespoon of crema in a circle around the pesto and pass the remaining crema in a small bowl.

Main photo: Black Bean Soup With Mexican Pesto. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Recently harvested olives from the Cimicchi family’s Le Caselle estate in Italy. Credit: Andrea Pupek

Are olives an aphrodisiac? My research suggests they are not, but for Andrea Pupek and Fabio Cimicchi, they most certainly were. Andrea’s Global MBA thesis project, a comprehensive marketing plan for Fabio’s family olive oil business, resulted in love, marriage and now a vibrant olive oil export business, Caselle Italian Imports.

Andrea’s mother knew early on that Andrea would travel the globe when at 13 she became a student ambassador of People to People. Her parents provided her with roots and wings. Her roots were firmly planted in Western Massachusetts, and her wings took her to Italy.

Family’s pierogi ‘factory’

Andrea recalls the strong ties her family had to her paternal grandmother, her babci. Her favorite memory with her babci is what she calls “the Pupek family pierogi factory.” As with many family recipes, none were ever written for the pierogis. Andrea had the foresight when her babci started forgetting things at 92 years old to document and photograph the pierogi factory. A legitimate recipe now exists, and an indelible memory was forged between Andrea, her sister and their babci.

Family values were the centerpiece of Andrea’s upbringing. Even after her parents divorced they continued to celebrate the holidays together. This exceptional situation of support, love and respect was one Andrea would find among the olive groves in Orvieto, Italy.

Andrea’s thesis work took her to Italy — to the Cimicchi family — to develop a business and marketing plan for the export of their olive oil. She never imagined that one of the Cimicchis would become her husband or that she would call Orvieto home.

The transition she says was easy.

Fabio’s family’s values echoed hers. His family is emotionally and physically close, resembling what one might imagine a prototypical, multi-generational Italian family to be. Sunday lunches are a ritual. It anchors the family solidly in their generational traditions of meals that are simple, but long and delightful. There are multiple courses that include some form of roasted chicken, potatoes and, of course, a homemade pasta dish.

Marriage of family traditions

At the holidays, Andrea integrated her family’s Christmas cookie-making traditions into the Cimicchis’ traditions. When Andrea and Fabio traveled to the United States for the holidays, she made sure to include one of the Cimicchi family’s Christmas Eve favorites – chocolate spaghetti – in her family’s festivities. Imagine spaghetti with olive oil, chocolate, walnuts and sugar paste. Now that’s a decadent tradition worth importing.

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Le Caselle, located in the Umbria region of Italy, has 195 acres of olive trees and vineyards (and Ozzy, the dog, keeps all of the animals on the estate in line). Credit: Andrea Pupek

The love affair has produced much more than the fusion of family values and food traditions. It has also resulted in the creation of Caselle Italian Imports. The Cimicchi family owns more than 195 acres of land, planted with more than 2,000 olive trees.

Le Caselle is located the between Orvieto and Castel Viscardo in the Umbria region, which is known for its olive oil and is frequently referred to as the green heart of Italy.

The Cimicchi family’s ties to Le Caselle date as far back as the 1700s when the family came to care for the land under Knight Guiscardo, who was himself hired to protect the land for the church. The land changed hands a few times among a small group of families, but Fabio’s great-grandfather Alessandro ended up owning the majority of the original Castel Viscardo estate. In 1984, Fabio’s parents purchased the rest of the family land that makes up the original Le Caselle estate from Uncle Guiseppe Cimicchi, with the goal to produce wine and olive oil.

Family’s olive oils

The Cimicchis produce two types of olive oil for sale: Madonna Antonia, which is made from 100% moraiolo olives, and Olio delle Caselle, their signature Umbrian blend. The blend is a closely held, secret family recipe perfected over several generations, using just the right proportions of moraiolo, leccino, frantoio and rajo olives. Olio delle Caselle has a golden color with a tinge of green.

When tasting the olive oil, Fabio told me to slurp the olive oil along with some air. Adding the air emulsifies the oil and allows it to spread across your entire mouth for a full taste bud experience. The taste was smooth and fresh, with a little spicy aftertaste. Delicious. It is perfect on young greens and tomatoes, in salad dressings and soups, and as a dip for crusty Italian bread.

With the matrimony of Andrea and Fabio, and the loving support of close family friends, Caselle Italian Imports was born. Andrea put her masters thesis to work, sharing the amazing fruits of the Cimicchis’ labors with the wider world. Caselle Italian Imports also offers other Italian specialty products, such as traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena.

Main photo: Recently harvested olives from the Cimicchi family’s Le Caselle estate in Italy. Credit: Andrea Pupek

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Nutmeg-Cinnamon Nuts. Credit: Kathy Hunt

At times, just thinking about Halloween causes my stomach to lurch. No, it’s not the creepy costumes, scary movies and pervasive pranks that make me queasy with fright. Rather, it’s the mounds of sickeningly sweet, artificially flavored, mass-produced candies that show up in my house every Halloween season that give me tummy aches.

For as long as I can remember, Oct. 31 has meant collecting and eating gobs of individually wrapped, store-bought candy. Yet, there was a time when Halloween served reverent roles and featured much tastier and more nutritious foods than candy corn and peanut butter cups.

Halloween descends from harvest festivals, fall celebrations

During ancient times, Celtic tribes in what are now Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom held annual three-day harvest festivals known as Samhain. Beginning at dusk on Oct. 31, these feasts marked the end of summer and the temporary abundance of foods, such as apples, potatoes, turnips, cabbage and grains.

Along with celebrating the season’s bounty, the Celts used this time to remember and communicate with their ancestors. They believed that on Oct. 31 the doors to the afterlife opened, and on that night the living could interact with the dead.

Although by the 7th century the pagan Celts had converted to Christianity, many of their autumnal customs remained. On Hallow’s Eve or All Hallow’s Eve, which fell one day before the Catholic Church’s All Souls’ Day, Europeans remembered their dead by placing lighted candles on loved ones’ graves and in hollowed out beets, potatoes and turnips. The forerunner to the modern-day jack-o’-lantern, the “neep lantern” was said to symbolize a soul trapped in purgatory. They were placed in the windows of homes to welcome departed relations and friends.

Apples starred in harvest celebrations

Harvest fetes still took place in the Middle Ages. Apples remained a star of these occasions and were made into tarts, pies, breads, dumplings, puddings and cakes.

So plentiful was this fruit that people set out apples for the dead and used them to tell fortunes. If you saw two seeds in your apple, you’d soon marry. Three seeds indicated future wealth.

Potatoes were equally important to Hallow’s Eve meals. In Ireland and Scotland, colcannon — mashed potatoes, onions and cabbage — was such a popular Oct. 31 dish that the date became known as “Colcannon Night.”

On Colcannon Night, cooks hid small favors inside bowls of colcannon as well as in champ, potatoes mashed together with leeks and buttermilk. Supposedly, guests’ fates were determined by the tokens they found. If you received a dried pea in your serving of mashed potatoes, you’d have prosperity. Dig out a coin and you’d achieve great wealth. Unearth a thimble and you’d be destined for spinsterhood.

Nuts also acted as prognosticators. Before going to bed on Hallow’s Eve, people would mash together walnuts, hazelnuts, nutmeg, butter and sugar and consume the concoction in the hopes of having prophetic dreams. Earlier in the evening, they roasted walnuts or chestnuts over an open fire to determine the nature of future relationships. If the toasted nuts tasted bitter, they’d end up in an unhappy marriage. If the nuts seemed sweet, they’d have a pleasant spouse.

In addition to telling fortunes, food played a major part in the medieval act of “souling.” On Hallow’s Eve, the poor would travel from house to house, offering to pray for the souls of the dead. In return they requested soul cakes, small, spiced buns studded with currants and other dried fruit. Every household seemed to possess an endless supply of soul cakes. It sounds a bit like trick-or-treating, minus the sugary confections and pranks.

Irish, Scots brought Halloween to America

Although this holiday has a long, rich history in the United Kingdom, it didn’t permeate American culture until the mid-19th century. It was then that famines in Ireland drove millions of Irish immigrants to the United States. Wherever the Irish and, to some extent, the Scots went, Halloween, as it came to be called, went with them.

In America, Halloween took on new customs and flavors. Large, plump, orange gourds replaced turnips and other root vegetables in those hand-carved lanterns for the dead. At parties, apples took the form of entertainment, as in bobbing for apples, and in drinks, such as apple cider and juice. Guests no longer pulled tokens from bowls of mashed potatoes. Instead they pulled strands of boiled sugar and butter to make taffy.

By the end of World War II, Americans had largely abandoned plain apples, nuts and homemade Halloween treats for commercially produced candy. The sugar-corn syrup-wax combination known as candy corn became all the rage. So, too, did individually wrapped sweets. Unquestionably, the passion for store-bought goods continues to this day.

Rather than defy current customs, I’ll continue to stock up on bags of chocolate bars and gummy worms. However, I do plan on giving my belly a break and keeping my own stash of historic Halloween treats. At the top of my cache will be spiced nuts. Hearkening back to the tradition of eating walnuts and hazelnuts with nutmeg, sugar and butter, I created the following Nutmeg-Cinnamon Nuts.

Nutmeg-Cinnamon Nuts

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Yield: Makes 3½ cups

Ingredients

1½ cups walnuts

1¼ cups hazelnuts

¾ cup pecans

1½ tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons firmly packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon salt

⅛ teaspoon allspice

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Spread the nuts over a large baking sheet and bake, tossing once or twice, for 10 minutes or until golden in color.

3. As the nuts are toasting, melt the butter. Place it along with the cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and allspice in a large bowl and stir to combine.

4. Once the nuts have toasted, add them to the bowl and stir until all the nuts are coated with the spice mixture. Cool to room temperature and serve.

Main photo: Nutmeg-Cinnamon Nuts. Credit: Kathy Hunt

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