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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 love it when I make something from scratch and have enough left over to store some in the freezer.  It makes me feel so prepared… so wholesome (which is excellent since “prepared” and “wholesome” probably aren’t the first words that come to mind when describing myself).  It also makes me feel smart, because making something from scratch that you would normally buy jarred from the store tends to be much tastier, much cheaper, and much better for you.   

the components

In fact, I love this so much that one may assume by the looks of my freezer that an eighty-five year old woman lives at my house.  My freezer is full of little labeled bags, each one containing enough of some little morsel or ingredient to be used for a specific serving amount.  Didn’t use an entire can of tomato paste or chipotle chiles?  Just divide the rest up and put it in a little bag, I say!  Who doesn’t love stretching one dollar across four meals?!  If only I exercised this level of mindfulness and precision with my laundry or, I don’t know, our budget.

accidental art

Back to making things from scratch; I’ve been really into this lately.  The discovery of very inexpensive spices that can be found at international markets (basically any place that sells food outside of your conventional chain grocery store) opens up a new world of possibilities in this realm.  I’ve always been a relative purist in terms of cooking meals from scratch; I keep it simple and fresh with veggies, grains, meats and bread.  Now I’m moving on to condiments.  I have big plans for some Guiness mustard, a fantastic worsteshire sauce, Harissa paste and maybe ketsup.   Once you deconstruct a sauce or flavor component that you use regularly and typically pick up at the store, you discover that the ingredients in a store bought item tend towards fillers and artificial ingredients that diminish flavor and aren’t really good for you.  Homemade marinara or Bolognese sauce, for instance, is a revelation after years of stuff from a jar.

possibilities

Anyway, I started this journey with Thai Red Curry paste.  The beauty of Thai Red Curry paste (aside from the fact that it is utterly delicious) is that it has so many uses: stir a little into noodles, add some to rice, slather on meat for a marinade, whisk some into soup, add to oil and vinegar for a unique salad dressing… Having some of this curry paste on hand means that a can of coconut milk, shallots, lime and a pound of mussels is all it takes to quickly put together an elegant and exotic meal.  I love this!  I enjoy so much the complilation of all these ingredients, coming together to make something fantastic.  There may be a little extra work on the front end, but I’m so thankful when I pull my well marked baggie out of the freezer for instant flavor.  This little trend has started to extend to a multitude of other genres… spice blends, jams and jellies… I’m actually dreaming of getting my hands on some veal bones to make my own demi glace this Fall.  

the end result

In the meantime, I’ll just share this recipe that I used from Saveur; I hope someone will try it and share with me in the unusual satisfaction that comes from a freezer full of tiny baggies.  

thai red curry paste

  • 8 dried chiles de arbol, stemmed and seeded
  • 1 tbsp corriander seeds
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp white peppercorns
  • 3 cardamom pods
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro, with stems
  • 2 tbsp canola oil
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
  • 5 gloves of garlic, smashed
  • 3 shallots, roughly chopped
  • 2 holland or fresno chiles, stemmed, seeded and chopped
  • 2 stalks of lemongrass, tough outer layers discarded, tender interior layers finely chopped
  • 1 one inch piece of ginger peeled and roughly chopped
  1. break the chiles de arbol into pieces, transfer to a small bowl, and cover with one cup of boiling water; let them soak until softened – about 20 minutes
  2. meanwhile, add corriander, cumin, peppercorns, and cardamom to a small skillet over meadium head; toast spices, swirling constantly, until very fragrant – about 4 minutes
  3. transfer spices to a grinder (I use an electric coffee grinder) and grind to a fine poweder – set aside – (if you’re feeling really rustic, you could smash and grind them with a mortar and pestle)
  4. strain the chiles de arbol through a sieve, reserving the soaking liquid
  5. in a food processor, combine chiles de arbol, ground spices, fish sauce, cilantro, oil, salt, nutmeg, garlic, shallots, fresh holland chiles, lemongrass and ginger – puree until paste is smooth, about 2 minutes (sprinkle in a tbsp or two of reserved chile soaking water to help paste grind)
  6. refrigerate for up to three weeks or freeze for up to three months

Thai Red Curry paste doesn’t have the flavor that many people associate with the traditional Indian Yellow Curry; the word “curry” is used in both Indian and Thai cuisines to indicate a pungeant and flavorful spice paste or mixture, and is not indicative of one specific flavor or aroma.

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