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Archive for January, 2010

I’ve just returned from a week of travel, and the refrigerator is a tad bare.  But I’m hungry.  And we need to eat lunch.  There’s half a shallot from last night, some feta cheese that is still good, a jar of roasted red peppers, and four eggs.  A rummage through the fruit drawer leads me to two lone grapefruits.  Ladies and gentlemen – we have a lunch!

It is very interesting how some of the most delicious things that I’ve eaten for lunch have been discovered through the use of odds and ends ingredients and the benefit of a well stocked pantry and spice cabinet.  I will never forget the day the kitchen sink eggwich changed my life… 

Anyway, as I was sauteeing the red peppers, shallots and garlic, I added a little pinch of dried basil and a little pinch of dried oregano.  Everything was smelling fragrant and delicious.  I started feeling sassy and added a splash of dry sherry to deglaze the pan and WOW.  Sherry and eggs and shallot and garlic and feta and basil and oregano and roasted red peppers equate to very, very tasty and wonderful scrambled eggs.  The salty feta is such a wonderful counterpoint to the other flavors.  I think my humble little eggs felt very fancy with the addition of that dry sherry.

Now if we ever have any fancy people show up for brunch, I’ll serve them these scrambled eggs; they’re the best I’ve ever had.  In the meantime, I plan to add this to the regular rotation, finished with two juicy little grapefruits drizzled with honey or any other fruits hanging out lonely in the fruit drawer.  A handful of lettuce tossed in vinaigrette will also make a very tasty addition. 

scrambled eggs – fancy pants style

serves two

  • two cloves of garlic, minced
  • one small shallot or half of one large shallot, chopped
  • one roasted red pepper, chopped
  • four eggs, cracked into a bowl and whisked with a splash of milk, salt and pepper
  • a pinch of dried basil
  • a pinch of dried oregano
  • about two tbsp of dry sherry
  • about 1/3 cup of crumbled feta
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • a splash of extra virgin olive oil
  1. heat a non-stick pan over medium heat and add enough olive oil to thinly coat; add the garlic, shallots and roasted red peppers, and cook until just beginning to brown – stir regularly to prevent the garlic from burning
  2. slowly pour in the sherry, stirring to coat the vegetables (you should hear the sherry sizzle in the pan)
  3. reduce the heat to low and add the eggs, stirring constantly around the edge of the pan to gently “scramble” the eggs
  4. when the eggs have reached their desired consistency, gently stir in the feta
  5. garnish with some chopped chives or parsley if you have fancy people dining with you

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A few years ago I met the most extraordinary Lebanese woman named Diana.  She was living with my in-laws while completing her Master’s Degree in Counseling.  I think she may have secretly been an angel sent straight from heaven; she taught me about Lebanese food and fed it to us in copious amounts, and she consoled our family as we helplessly waited day after day at the hospital, my father-in-law dealing with a devastating illness that nearly claimed his life.   

I relished the time we spent chatting on the sofa for so many reasons, but I found it especially interesting to discuss our different worldviews and the cultural nuances that shaped us both as young, independent, determined women.  For instance, when I hear a rumble of thunder, I think of the spectacular storms that I grew up with in Texas.  Diana wonders where the bombs are falling.  

Apparently Diana cast a spell on us with those meals, because I have been intensely passionate about Lebanese food ever since (and when I say “intensely passionate,” I really mean crazed).  She sent me home with precious little baggies of za’atar, sumac, seven spice and white pepper, but I had high hopes of discovering the exact components of seven spice to simply mix the spices myself.  No such luck.  Between my English and Diana’s mom’s Arabic, we couldn’t get it completely figured out.  Internet research will lead you down varying paths, but the mixture can vary from family to family.  I definitely know that clove, cinnamon, allspice, pepper and nutmeg are the heavy hitters; it gets tricky with the remaining two spices.  Some say ginger and fenugreek, some say caraway and cumin…  I can’t stand to waste a meal not getting it exactly right, so I buy my seven spice from the patient and diligent owner of Leon’s International Bakery and allow it to remain exotic and mysterious. 

The first time I visited Leon’s I arrived armed with my tiny ziploc baggies of Diana’s spices.  I believe I made a memorable impression that day, and not just because I was caught dancing in the aisle to the Arabic music that was playing.  I called the gracious owner of Leon’s over to his spice rack and I held open each little baggie, focusing especially on the seven spice.  “Please smell this,” I said.  He raised an eyebrow and sniffed.  “Please tell me if you are selling exactly this mixture here at your store,” I said.  He assured me that it was likely to be very close.  “This is from Lebanon,” I said.  He nodded.  “I’m very intent on getting this exact mixture because I want to replicate certain dishes – please do sniff again – my bag first and then your spice mixture.”  That blessed man sniffed again, offering his sincere assurance that I would be satisfied.  As I said, “passionately intense.” 

I made my purchases that day, and needless to say, his mixture is the best I’ve tried yet.   During my last visit I was explaining this to him – that I have tried blends from other reputable providers in many U.S. cities, and that his is the absolute best.  “Because it is the original,” he says.  I continued on in my monologue, assuring him that his offerings are unmatched in taste and aroma.  This must qualify me as an expert, because he turned and asked me if I was originally from Lebanon. 

There are so many Lebanese dishes that we eat with great frequency in our home, and I want to share all of them with you.  My favorite dishes call for generous amounts of lemon and garlic and olive oil, astringent sumac for a tangy zip and lots of seven spice for depth and deliciousness.  However, they deserve to be discussed one at a time, so I’m starting with the first dish that Diana served to us – chicken and potatoes.  I haven’t found this exact recipe in the one hundred or so Lebanese cookbooks that I’ve looked through, so I assume that the combo of chicken and potatoes is one that Diana’s mom prefers.  I like that. 

Diana’s way is good enough to have Jon and I pine after it like forlorn lovers, but I recently applied that high heat, miraculous roast chicken method to the recipe, and our lives changed forever.  This post is already exceedingly long, so I’ll spare the finer points of why cooking chicken this way in the oven is really the only way to do it.  You can check the details out in chapter one and chapter two of the fabulous roast chicken saga. 

Let me instead tell you about how the potatoes and will soak up this heady blend of spices, and will cook to perfection doused in lemon and garlic.  The chicken will be succulent and juicy and flavorful and silky and fabulous.  The olive oil and spices and lemon and garlic will meld together in the baking dish to form the most glorious sauce that has ever graced a silly little potato or a humble piece of chicken.  Your house will smell glorious.  Your life will change.  You may cry tears of joy.  And while you belly dance your way through the kitchen to drink the remaining olive oil directly from the baking dish, you too can be transformed into an honorary Phoenician, changed forever by Diana’s chicken and potatoes. 

chicken and potatoes – serves four or two really hungry and over indulgent people

  • one bone in skin on chicken cut into pieces, or two bone in skin on breasts, or several bone in skin on thighs – decide based on the number of people that you are serving
  • three to six russet potatoes, peeled and cut into half inch medallions
  • four or five cloves of garlic, grated with a microplane zester or smashed to a paste in a mortar and pestle
  • two or more lemons, juiced
  • two heaping tbsps of Lebanese seven spice
  • one heaping tbsp of allspice
  • one heaping tbsp of cinnamon
  • 1/2 heaping tsp of ground white pepper
  • kosher salt to taste, about one tsp
  • a generous amount of olive oil
  1. mix all of the spices and salt together in a small bowl, and add enough olive oil so that the spices and oil together form a thick, soupy mix – you don’t really want a paste, but you also don’t want a soup – you want a well stirred homogenous mixture
  2. grate the peeled garlic into another small bowl, and juice the lemons into the same bowl – whisk together
  3. put your chicken in a large glass baking dish, cover the chicken with the spice and oil mixture – be sure and generously coat the chicken, making sure to put plenty of the mix under the skin – then, carefully spoon a small amount of the lemon and garlic mixture UNDER the chicken skin, taking care to keep any of the lemon and garlic mixture from getting on the top of the chicken skin
  4. place the chicken on the very top shelf of a five hundred degree oven, and bake for fifteen minutes
  5. meanwhile, peel the potatoes and cut them into half inch medallions
  6. cover the potatoes with cold water in a saucepan and bring to a boil – simmer for ten minutes and then drain
  7. when the chicken has baked for fifteen minutes, pull the pan out of the oven and add the potatoes, covering them generously with the remaining oil and spice mixture – give the entire pan a few extra glugs of olive oil – be generous
  8. bake the chicken and potatoes for an additional fifteen minutes
  9. pull the chicken and potatoes out and pour over the lemon and garlic mixture, and bake for five more minutes
  10. remove from the oven and serve, with the olive oil sauce poured over the chicken and potatoes

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I was recently reading an article in Saveur’s December issue.  The article is entitled, “Personal Space: an editor’s kitchen reflects a lifetime.”  The writing is about Judith Jones (an accomplished cookbook editor who published Julia Child’s first cookbook), her kitchen and recent publications, and about how one’s kitchen can be a telling reflection of the style and personality of the cook who spends time there.  This was a thoughtful article, but what struck me the most were the pictures of Judith in her little kitchen and apartment, as well as the mention of her latest cookbook, The Pleasures of Cooking for One.

Judith talks lovingly about the design of her kitchen and living space, thoughtfully created and conceived by her and her beloved husband.  Every detail held special meaning to them, even down to the accidental garde-manger they created during renovation, reminding them nostalgically of the years they lived in Paris.  The pictures in the magazine spread show a tiny and elegant woman.  She stands in her kitchen, carefully cutting chicken; she sits alone in her cherished dining space, her beautifully lined face illuminated by candle light, gourmet meal before her (silver platter included) and a glass of red wine in hand.  Her smile conveys the anticipation of sharing her personal space with such an audience and a youthful giddiness radiates through her expression.  So much like me, she is surrounded by books in every room.  As I continue to read, I think, “Where is this husband of hers?”  My eyes read ahead to the title of her cookbook and I realized with sadness that he, of course, had passed away in 1996. 

I know that the author probably intended for me to be impressed with Judith’s quaint and thoughtful kitchen, to consider what message that my own kitchen may send to its guests, but instead I was instantly struck with the sadness of Judith’s solitude at her dinner table.   My mind wandered through a multitude of memories that are filled with laughter, love, memorable meals and even more memorable people.  I have shared countless days and evenings eating the best meals of my life with people that I love indescribably.  I pictured Judith’s life similar to my own, filled with these same common experiences.  Just like she and her husband lovingly created their perfect environment, so have Jon and I spent time sharing our dreams and hopes with one another.  Perhaps her kitchen and her home itself remain unchanged and are host to many lively dinners with friends, but some things in her life have definitely changed.  The realization that everyone will not always sit at the table and stand in my kitchen hit me with immediate force; it literally brought me to tears.  I cannot imagine not sharing my kitchen, my cooking, the experience of eating, the joy of a lazy evening, with the people that are dear to me.  Not one single person could go missing without drastically altering the fabric of my life; especially my husband – my one true love.  To me, the table is such a sacramental place.  How enormously blessed am I that I don’t have to sit at it alone? 

One of the most memorable (albeit simple) moments of my life was a time when Jon and I had just finished a delightful, weeknight meal; our home smelled delicious, candles were lit, music drifted through the house, my belly was full, and I was sitting next to the man I feel honored to share life with.  I specifically remember that my feet were stretched out and resting on the empty chair that sits across from me at our table, glass in hand, mind at rest.    I was struck, at that moment, with the sheer joy of being exactly where I was.  (A very rare moment for me and my chaotic mind!)

Since reading about Judith, I have considered in depth that these meals and experiences are even more of a treasure than I realized.  Of course they are some of the best times of my life, but also ones that are not always guaranteed.  I’ve experienced the truth of this in the painful knowledge that I will never eat another meal at 421 South Euclid Street, surrounded by my Grandma and Grandpa in what was one of my favorite kitchens.  I will never be able to pick another avocado or lemon out of their backyard.  Reading about Judith and her kitchen has caused me to realize the fleeting nature of our lives with a more poignant immediacy. 

That being said, I would like to thank everyone who shares these times with me, everyone who allows me to cook for them, everyone who has fed me well, everyone that sits around the table with me and hangs out in my kitchen, everyone that has shed a tear with me across the table, everyone that has squealed with delight over the perfect bite, everyone that has poured me a drink and danced with me while we cooked, everyone that has allowed me to gracefully unbutton my pants due to an overstuffed belly, everyone that has shared their dreams and listened to mine as we rested from our dining.  These are the best times and you all are a gift and a blessing to me, a beautiful part of my life that I cherish and appreciate.  And even though I am nearly one hundred percent certain that she will never see this, I would also like to thank Judith.  She’s helped me to think about how blessed we are to share these times with one another.  I hope she really has found pleasure in cooking for one, and that her kitchen is still crowded at times with friends and loved ones that fill her heart with joy.  And most of all, I am so thankful for Jon, who shares the table with me night after night and graciously receives my successes and failures in the kitchen.  While my love of food has been with me since childhood, he was part and parcel to the beginning of my culinary exploration in the kitchen.  I hope I never have to sit at the table without him. 

P.S.  And thanks to Becky  – who conspires with me about a full life and continues to encourage me to blog!

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