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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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val's lemon tree

val's lemon tree

Minus the handful of years that I was a resident, I have visited California my entire life.  My mother’s side of the family lives there and we are both natives.  I don’t live there anymore but I visit every chance that I get.  Often, as the plane takes off and I head back east, I choke back silent little tears.  I remember my mom doing this when I was young – apparently it is a legacy.  

California:  I love the place.  I love the people that I visit there.  I love the memories that shape my life.  I love the flowers that are abundant everywhere, spilling and tumbling from cliffs.  I love the steely, freezing ocean.  I love the nearly perfect weather.  I love the hills when they are brown and especially when they are green.  I love the snow capped mountains when you can actually see them.  I love the produce.  Good gracious – the produce is better in California than just about any other place in the United States.  I wander through every produce aisle in California smug, grateful, reverent (as a resident) – jealous, grievous, reverent (as a former resident).  I remember thinking, “I can never move away from this place – the weather and the produce will keep me forever.”  Then I met a very beautiful man and the universe shifted.  He won out over weather and produce.  That’s a different story, anyway. 

Every visit to California involves a raid of the Meyer Lemon tree.  Most of my life it was Grandma and Grandpa’s

meyer lemon

meyer lemon

lemon tree, whose fruit was the stuff of legends.  Lemons of mythical proportions, unparalleled in deliciousness.  Let me help you understand my love of these lemons: there are pictures of me at about three years old, running full speed, arms out stretched and face in a full grin, toward the lemon tree.  Those lemons were just that good.  The present finds me swiping lemons from my Aunt’s tree; they are pretty darn tasty, as well.  I pick as many as possible and haul them through the airport, guarding them fiercly and protecting them from checked baggage.  Once home, I make all of my favorite recipes with these glorious lemons (which transforms and elevates them) or I simply juice them into a glass and drink it straight.  Oh, yes indeed.

If you’ve never had a Meyer Lemon, please begin your search immediately.  They are thin skinned and typically deep yellow, almost like a school bus.  The flavor is lemon, of course, but also slightly sweet.  The unpleasant bitter acidity that assaults you with the thick skinned and pithed other lemon variety just isn’t there.  The scent of a meyer is fantastic.  And the juice!  These are the juiciest lemons, full of sweet and tart juice that flows effortlessly from the fruit with gentle coaxing. 

preserved lemons

preserved lemons

Valerie’s tree is in bloom at the moment, covered in giant hanging fruit and delicate white blossoms.  The fragrance is overwhelming – intoxicating.  We were not conservative with our harvest, as I had plans to preserve some lemons.  Preserved lemons are a staple in Moroccan and some Middle Eastern cuisine, often found in tagines and alongside olives, plums, apricots, lamb and chicken.  Preserving lemons transforms them into briny, tangy little flavor powerhouses, the rind becoming soft and silky in texture.  I attempted to preserve some lemons almost a year ago with the thick and inferior lemon variety from my local grocery store; the result was not great.  Too salty, too acidic or bitter – just not pleasant to eat.  I started over this weekend with my beautiful Meyers – a little less salt and much better lemons.  I have searched and found many recipes for preserved lemons, the processes and instructions varied but also specific.  Some say preserve in a dark spot for one week, some for one month, some in the refrigerator, some out.  All say to turn the jar every day for at least five days.  Below are the “guidelines” that I used to preserve my cherished lemons; I believe they came from Paula Wolfert (Moroccan cuisine expert).  Please share your own tips and suggestions, if you have any. 

In the meantime, I’m headed to the kitchen to make dinner; chicken scaloppini with citrus gremolata, fresh asparagus and spring onions, all finished with a bright, saffron spiked sauce made from the juicy meyers.     

 

preserved lemons

  •  10 to 12 meyer lemons
  • 2/3 cup, or more kosher salt
  • mason or other canning jars
  1. sterilize your jars according to food safety specifications
  2. drop lemons into the near boiling water used for sterilization and blanch lemons for a few minutes
  3. cut lemons into quarters and gently remove seeds
  4. toss with salt
  5. pack as many lemons into jar or jars as will fit, covering with the juice from the remaining lemons and adding left over salt into jar
  6. seal the jars and let stand at room temperature, gently shaking the jars once a day for at least five days.

The lemons take about two weeks to cure (some say thirty days) – refrigerate before and after opening.

I added some spices to my second jar of lemons: cinnamon stick, a few allspice berries, a few black peppercorns, a couple of cloves, about a tsp of corriander seeds and one dried bay leaf 

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tashreeb2I am passionately in love with Middle Eastern cuisine.  I crave it, think about it, dream about it.  I search for it in every new city that we travel to.  While some may be dreaming of a vacation, a new house, worrying over the economy, I am deeply pondering the best ingredient combinations for fatoush (a fantastic salad served throughout the Middle East).

My love affair with Middle Eastern food intensified after a long, miserable visit to Lynchburg, Virginia (of all places…).  My husband and I went to VA, planning to stay one week for my father in law’s bypass surgery.  One week turned into three as he clung to life by a thread in the ICU.  Diana is a gorgeous Lebanese student who lived in my in law’s basement.  With a graduate degree in counseling and an expertise in cooking Lebanese dishes, she rescued us with compassion and heaping plates of sumptuous food.  She is a saint or an angel, and I love her.  We eat at least one of the dishes that she prepared for us once a week in our home.

Shortly thereafter, we went to Greece and Israel.  Oh, how I ate and ate and ate and ate!  At one particular restaurant, the waiters asked for my permission (we are sitting at tables of 12) to take the empty dishes away.  They spied me literally bringing a bowl to my lips and drinking the salad dressing.  This incited quite a bit of snickering amongst the wait staff, as well as looks of horror from my husband who was whispering, “I think you’ve gone a bit crazy.  You’re in a frenzy.”  What can I say?  We had a table covered in the creamiest hummus I have ever eaten, fresh and perfect baba ganoush, bowls of fatoush, flat bread straight from the oven, soft grape leaves delicately wrapping little dollops of spiced meat and rice… the list goes on and I digress.  However, if you ever travel to Israel (and I hope that you do) you must dine at Shalizar in the city of Jerusalem.  You will have one of the best meals of your life, dining under ancient stone vaulted ceilings with a view of a courtyard overflowing with citrus trees and trailing geraniums.  Unfortunately, so many travel tours take you to places that serve what they think you want to eat; usually poor interpretations of bland American dishes.  If I ever take a group to Israel, we will NOT be eating chicken and French fries.  Shalizar will be the first stop (after a stop at the Mount of Olives for a panoramic view of the Old City of Jerusalem).

I also love Middle Eastern food because it makes me feel connected with something very ancient.  So many of these  foods have ties that go back to Mesopotamia and other ancient civilizations of the region, with traditions and recipes passed orally through generation after generation.  If you do a little research, you can discover when certain spices entered the mix as trade opened up with neighboring villages, cities, and later other countries.  Typically, this cuisine is prepared with a multitude of spices, which in and of itself feels inherently exotic.  Add to that the fact that a generous serving of garlic and lemon juice accompany most everything that’s served, and you have a truly sexy dish.  The ancient history of the Middle East is certainly marred with oppression, but freedom of expression has not always been so limited.  Today the climate of that region is currently under the veil (literally for women) of self-denial, legalism and prohibition of pleasure and expression; however, the food and flavors of the Middle East remain vibrant, forward, and fragrantly exotic.  You must try it.  You MUST.  I love the fact that food is still telling the story of a continent of people who can claim some of the most ancient written history and global cultural influence.

There are many resources for the purchase of spices and the procurement of recipes that I plan to post at some point in the future.  However, today I will simply recommend that you do not buy these spices at your regular grocery store.  If you live in Georgia, make a trip to the DeKalb Farmer’s Market (definitely expect more on this later) where you will pay an average of fifty cents for several ounces of spice.  Absolutely incredible.  If you don’t have access to the DeKalb Farmer’s Market, look up any other international market in your city and go there – it is almost guaranteed that you will pay a fraction of what you would at a major grocery store chain.

My friend Becky let me borrow one of her Saveur magazines, where I discovered this delicious recipe.  Thank you, Becky.  The author of the article spent some time with a group of young Iraqi men who had escaped the violence and religious mandates of radical Muslims in Iraq.  They are currently refugees in Lebanon with dreams to settle in Texas.  Go figure.  You never know the story behind the people that you pass in your day to day life.  They may have lived a life of adventure and heartbreak, settling for something far different from their childhood dreams, expertly preparing Tashreeb Dijaaj in some town in Texas.  🙂

The author of the article is apparently publishing a book entitled, “Day of Honey,” a memoir about food and war in the Middle East.  I can’t wait to read it.

tashreeb dijaaj (spiced chicken and chickpea stew) – serves 4 or 2 for several meals

  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 6 cloves of garlic
  • 3 small onions, quartered
  • 4 medium waxy style potatoes, peeled and quartered (I used red bliss potatoes – russet will not stand up to cooking)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tbsp spice mixture (see below for recipe)
  • heaping 1/2 tbsp of turmeric
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • 4 skinless chicken legs (about 1 lb – you could also use bone in chicken breast)
  • 4 skinless chicken thighs (about 1 lb)
  • 1 19 oz can of chickpeas (dried may be substituted if properly soaked beforehand – rinse canned chickpeas to get rid of excess sodium)
  • 4 pieces of khubuz al-tannour (Iraqi flat bread), naan, or pita (rice could be substituted for all of these, but not preferable – all of these bread types can be found at DeKalb Farmer’s Market or Leon International Bakery in Atlanta)
  • 1 lemon, quartered
  • 1 tbsp dried sumac
  1. Heat oil in a 6 quart or larger pot over medium high heat, and add onions, garlic, potatoes, bay leaves, spice mixture, turmeric and salt.
  2. Cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot occasionally, until the onions and potatoes are golden, about 10 minutes
  3. Add the chicken and three and a half cups of water, stirring to combine
  4. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to medium, and simmer uncovered for 20 to 25 minutes until chicken is tender and cooked throughout
  5. Add chickpeas and cook five minutes more, seasoning with salt to taste
  6. Line four bowls with bread and ladle the stew over the bread; finish with a generous squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of sumac
  7. Sing Hallelujah and take some tums if you aren’t used to this much spice

spice mixture

  • 1 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 2 white or green cardamom pods
  • 2 whole allspice berries
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 1 chile de arbol (substitute cayenne pepper if you can’t find this)
  • 3/4 dried rose petals (optional – I didn’t use this my first time around)
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/8 tsp ground turmeric
  1. In a dry skillet, toast peppercorns, cumin, coriander, cardamom, allspice and cloves over medium low heat until fragrant (3 to 4 minutes)
  2. Let cool, then grind to a powder in a spice grinder with chile and rose petals
  3. transfer spices to a bowl and stir in nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and turmeric

NOTE – you could substitute all “whole” spices with “ground” spices – still toast ground spices in a dry pan

 

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