Archives for category: Middle Eastern

There’s a cafeteria-type restaurant that I frequent because it has the best mutabbal (similar to baba ghanoush) ever.  It’s a Toronto-based Middle Eastern chain and I love it.  My husband grew up in the Middle East and it reminds him of his childhood, eating fresh and puffy pita breads out of the oven with some juicy chicken shawarma right off the spit.  I have to agree the vibe in there transports you to the Middle East.  I have been to Dubai a few times and have a lot of friends from Dubai here in Toronto and the consensus is the same — it’s the Middle East in Toronto!

My sister-in-law came to see me for a day over the summer (she lives in a small town, with no Middle Eastern food), we had lunch at a nice restaurant and shopped for a bit.  After we were done shopping she asked if I was hungry.  I’m always ready to eat, so then she suggested going to the Middle Eastern restaurant.  I’m sure it was her plan all along!  When my sister visited me it was the same scenario all over again.  We got takeout mutabbal every day of her visit!

I know I could easily buy mutabbal, but to be honest I’m kind of embarrassed going back to the same place so often.  The staff probably think, “This girl is crazy and doesn’t she every get sick of mutabbal?!!”  The answer to that is most definitely NO!  Anyway, to save one trip per week to the restaurant, I decided to start making mutabbal at home.  It’s just as good and easy to make.  But when I need a quick fix I know I can get takeout in 10 minutes.  My version tastes the same because I broil the eggplant for the last few minutes.  It gets a charcoal-y and smokey taste, which I love.  It is even better if you have a gas stove or grill where you can roast the eggplant.  The smokiness is my favorite part along with the crunchy contrast of the beautiful pomegranate seeds.  Do try to make this – don’t say I didn’t warn you when you become ADDICTED!

Mutabbal

adapted from this video

Makes a medium-sized bowl enough for 4 people, as a starter/appetizer

Ingredients

1/4 cup olive oil

1 medium-sized eggplant

1 clove garlic

2 heaping tablespoons tahini

2 heaping tablespoons full-fat yogurt

juice of 1 lemon

1/4 cup chopped parsley (I used curly parsley because the flat-leaf was out of stock and I actually liked the texture, even though it seems to be a culinary outcast!)

1/4 cup pomegranate arils (seeds)

salt and black pepper, to taste

1/4 teaspoon of hot paprika, plus extra for sprinkling on top, or to taste

Method

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.  Poke a few holes in your eggplant with a knife and place on a baking tray.  Roast in the oven for about 30 minutes and after 30 minutes turn your broiler on and let the eggplant broil for 5-7 minutes.  If you can roast your eggplant on a gas stove or grill – it will be even smokier.

Once the eggplant is cooked, allow it cool so that you can scoop the flesh out.  Discard any extra seeds if your eggplant has a lot of seeds.

Next, make the garlic clove into a paste by sprinkling some salt on the garlic clove and scraping the garlic on a cutting board with a sharp knife at an angle.

Add the garlic to a bowl with the scooped out eggplant flesh.  Mash the eggplant with a potato masher, fork, or pestle until it starts to become smooth.  Next add in the tahini, yogurt, and lemon juice.  Keep mashing until the mixture becomes smoother.  Add in salt, pepper, paprika, half the parsley, and half the olive oil.  Stir until the mixture is well-combined.

Place the mutabbal onto a deep plate and top with the pomegranate arils, parsley, a little extra paprika, and olive oil.  Serve with warm pita bread.

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When I was seven my family went on vacation to Cairo before going to see relatives in Pakistan.  I guess my parents wanted to enrich our childhood by taking us to see some of the wonders of the world – the pyramids.  Being seven, I didn’t appreciate or understand the greatness of what I was seeing.  I don’t remember much about this trip, but I do remember some highlights.  I’m sure my sister, who was four at the time and I were probably complaining about the heat and continually asking when we would see Mickey Mouse.  My parents were probably kicking themselves for taking their two little brats see these ancient landmarks.

My dad is infamous for telling us stories from our childhood.  Stories we usually would not like every random stranger to know.  Regardless, my dad is always ready to share that he had to carry my crying sister on his back inside the Great Pyramid at Giza and how I complained that the pyramid had a weird smell to it.  As you can see, my sister and I really savored our experience there.  But I do remember bits and pieces of this trip.  We went to the Egyptian Museum, I relished the thought of telling my classmates that I had seen the mummy of King Tut.  We had a guide too, who helped us weave our way through souks and also showed us the famous Tahrir square.  I also recall that we stayed at the Shepheard Hotel, a hotel that my father told me that my grandfather had stayed at during a visit to Cairo.  In that hotel my sister and I feasted on mango ice cream and salade Niçoise.  Out of all the choices of food we had, these two were on our daily wish lists.  At the Shepheard hotel, I recall watching an Egyptian marriage procession in amazement.  I heard ululation for the first time, I did not know whether these high-pitched voices indicated happiness or sadness, whatever the case, I stood there in awe.

Amongst all of these memories, my father always highlights one story in particular.  Looking back, we laugh about the incident, but at the time I still remember my childhood panic.  It was nighttime and after a long day of sightseeing we were back at the hotel.  My sister and I were hungry and requested what we called “Egyptian Pizza,” which was available on the street close to the hotel.  My parents decided to get us some of this Egyptian pizza while they explicitly told my sister and I that they would be back in 5 minutes and we should stay in the room.

A few minutes after they left, I panicked.  I told my sister I was going to look for them.  I went down to the lobby in my nightie and untied Keds sneakers.  Because it doesn’t matter if you’re wearing your Rainbow Brite nightie as long as you’ve got sneakers on – the logic of a child. Anyway, I hustled around the lobby looking for my parents.  I couldn’t find them so I went back up to the room.  My sister was gone.  Apparently, she had also panicked.  I went back down and saw her crying and sitting with an Egyptian man.  He asked us where our parents were and my sister said they left us.  He looked puzzled.  I at seven was slightly more mature and said they were coming back and went to get us pizza.  I don’t remember much else except that within a few minutes my parents arrived and saw us in the lobby with the man and my sister full of tears.  They must have realized that they shouldn’t have left us alone.  This is a story that is repeated practically every time I go to see my parents.

All that commotion was for this flatbread.  I think you can find this in Levant cuisine as well as Turkish cuisine known as Lahmajoun and Lahmacun.  I suspect this Egyptian version might have been Armenian because of the large Armenian population in Egypt.  I recreated it here, with a different crust.  I love adding flax and chia seeds to my dough.  They had a lovely nuttiness and texture as well.  The spicy and smokey ground meat is delicious and the bell peppers minced in shine through.  I made this and was reminded of that trip to Cairo.  I guess my parents did the right thing by taking us to Egypt.  If anything, I have this story to tell.

Spicy Beef Flatbreads

makes 4

Ingredients

for the whole-wheat, flax, chia dough:

1 1/4 teaspoon dry active yeast (or half a sachet)

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 cup warm water

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon champagne vinegar

3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling

3/4 whole-wheat four

1/4 cup ground flax seeds

2 tablespoons ground chia seeds

1/2 teaspoon salt

for the beef:

1/2 lb ground beef (you can also mix ground beef and ground lamb, or just use lamb)

1/2 an onion, chopped

5-6 mini bell peppers, red, orange, yellow, or 1 large bell pepper, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 green chili, chopped (seeds removed, if you like)

1/2 cup chopped parsley, mint, and cilantro

2 scallions, chopped

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1/2 teaspoon, red chili flakes, use less for less spicy

1 teaspoon ground cumin

kosher salt, to taste

olive oil

fresh parsley, mint, labneh, olive oil, olives, and fresh lemon wedges, for serving

Method

First, make the dough by combining the yeast, sugar, and water in the bowl of an electric mixer.  Let the yeast bloom for 10 minutes.  Next, add in the olive oil, champagne vinegar, and salt.  Combine the dry ingredients in a separate bowl.  Attach the dough hook to the mixer and put the bowl on the mixer and turn it to low-speed.  Gradually add the dry ingredients into the bowl, once the dry ingredients are all in the bowl, turn the speed to medium and let the dough knead for 2-3 minutes.  If you need extra water or flour, add it tablespoon at a time.  It should be a smooth dough.  Once kneaded, drizzle some olive oil over top so that it doesn’t form a skin and leave the dough to rise in a warm place for 1-2 hours.

Once the dough has risen punch it down and knead slightly and put it back in the bowl for the second rising, about 30 minutes.  Once the dough has risen again knead it for a few minutes and separate it into four balls.

Next, in a food processor, add in the onions, garlic, peppers, green chili pepper, and herbs.  Pulse a few times until finely chopped.  Next, squeeze out the excess water from the vegetable mixture in a kitchen towel or strong paper towel.  In bowl, combine the vegetable mixture with the ground meat and spices.  Mix it together with your hands.  Set aside

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Next, roll out the dough to 8-9 inch diameter circles, like individual sized pizzas.  dust with flour to prevent the dough from sticking.  Drizzle the dough circles with olive oil. Place the dough on a flat baking tray and then spread the meat mixture over the dough evenly and drizzle with olive oil again.  Bake for 10-15 minutes until the dough is golden brown.  Serve with fresh parsley, mint, labneh, olive oil, olives, and fresh lemon wedges.

I’m all about quick bites lately.  I’m a woman on a mission.  The mission is to get a job and get my career rolling again.  Now, that we’re in a bigger city, I’m more than ready to jumpstart my career and this has been my main focus.  I’ve been cooking, but I really haven’t made anything that could warrant a blog post, or even if it could, I have too lazy to get my camera out and start shooting.

Excuses, excuses.  Just a few days ago, I realized I was becoming a laptop zombie in the vortex of job postings.  Suddenly, the sun began to stream into the room so beautifully and I thought I would be a fool not to take advantage of the sunlight.  It was ethereal and glowing.  When you’re in the zone on your laptop, you don’t take the time to notice the small things.  I’m glad I snapped out of the twilight zone and I instantly went into the kitchen and started to make something.  A lunch for myself.  Why not, I thought.  My husband has been working at all hours of the day, so I’m usually eating cereal for dinner.  Who is this person?  It’s so not me.

Anyway, I started roasted some figs, caramelizing onions, grilling halloumi – getting back into my element.  It was truly fun for me, how can it not be fun when you’re working with such beauties.  When I look at figs I’m amazed, the color, shape, the little seeds, they’re all just perfect.  Griddled, golden and salty cheese, sweet and savory onions – that’s why I love cooking.  Sometimes you just need a refresher.

Sugar-Roasted Figs, Caramelized Onions, and Halloumi Plate

Serves 3-4, a snack or starter

Ingredients

olive oil

6-8 figs, cut in half

1/4 cup caramelized onions*

halloumi cheese, cut into 1/4″ slices, as much or as little as you want, I used about 1/4 lb

1/4 cup brown sugar

a few sprigs of thyme

2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

2 tablespoons chopped mint leaves

sea salt and black pepper

flatbread, for serving

Method

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a baking tray with parchment paper.  Line the figs on the tray and sprinkle with brown sugar, salt, pepper, and thyme.  Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until they begin to caramelize and become candied.

In the meantime, in a medium-sized sauté pan on medium heat with a tablespoon or so of olive oil, grill the halloumi on each side until both sides are golden, about 1-2 minutes per side.  Set aside.

To assemble: you can either serve everything separately or combine everything on one platter.  Use your own creativity and arrange the figs, halloumi, caramelized onions, pine nuts, and mint.  Serve with bread of your choice.

*To caramelize onions: Slice 2 small onions (I used red).  Heat a sauté pan on medium-low heat and add in a good drizzle of olive oil. Add the onions to the pan with a tablespoon or so of brown sugar and gently cook them on for about 25 minutes.  Season them with a sprinkling of sea salt.

Sometimes they are recipes that you want to try and you just don’t for whatever reason.  This is one of those for me.  I first saw this recipe about a year ago in Food and Wine magazine and deemed it as an easy weeknight meal.  But the recipe used roasted eggplant instead of the fennel I used here.  I have been obsessed with fennel this winter.  I have been making a fennel and mushroom soup weekly.  When my husband asks what I made for dinner and I reply, “fennel mushroom soup,”  I get a grunt, a big one.  If my husband wants this to change he can step into the kitchen and make it happen.  Until then, or until I tire of this combination, either of which doesn’t look like anytime soon, I will keep making it.

But back to the recipe at hand, the eggplant and lentils fennel and lentils.  Well, it was really going to be eggplant and lentils.  I even bought an eggplant for this purpose and went as far as roasting it.  Then at the last-minute I opened the fridge for some herbs and there I saw my fennel.  Looking at it with longing eyes, I cheated on the eggplant with fennel.  The roasted eggplant is still in my fridge, oops.  Don’t worry, I will use it.  I’ll make baba ghanoush or eggplant bharta or something, who really cares, I’m talking about fennel right now!

Fennel and lentils, I can’t say I’ve heard of this combination before, but it works.  I gobbled down two platefuls.  Another thing that works brilliantly with fennel is smoked paprika.  I didn’t cook with it much before a few months ago, and now I quite enjoy it.  Initially, I was turned off by the overly smoky smell, but that’s not the case any longer.
Another plus to this dish is that I enjoyed it even more because my husband was out-of-town, well not for that exact reason, but  I didn’t have to deal with any grunts or disgusted faces because he is not a fan of French lentils (or at least the way I make them.)  Notice a pattern here.

Anyhow, I never got around to making the original recipe, maybe another day.

Fennel and Lentil Salad

inspired and adapted by Food and Wine (Eggplant-Lentil Salad) February 2010

Serves 2, as a main

Ingredients

2 cups sliced fennel, fronds reserved

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or to taste

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

kosher salt, to taste

2 garlic cloves, finely minced

2 shallots, finely minced

1 cup French Lentils (du Puy), washed

2 1/2 cups water

zest of 1 lemon and its juice as well

1 jalapeño pepper, minced finely, seeds removed, if you like

5-7 mint leaves, chopped

1/4 cup chopped parsley

some fennel fronds, chopped, optional

plain yogurt, for serving

Method

In a medium sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon of oil and add half of the smoked paprika to the oil and let it infuse the oil for a minute.  Next, add in the fennel and the rest of the smoked paprika.  Season with salt and allow the fennel to caramelize and soften for about 15 minutes.  Once it is ready set aside.

Heat a saucepan on medium heat with the remaining olive oil.  Add in the cumin seeds and crushed red chili flakes.  Allow the cumin seeds to crackle a bit and then add in the shallots and allow them to soften.  Once soft, add in the garlic and allow the garlic to get to the point where it is beginning it brown, but do not burn it.  Next, add in the lentils, water, and salt.  Cover and allow to come to a boil.  When the water starts to boil, remove the lid and and turn the heat to medium low and allow the lentils to simmer for about 40 minutes, or until all the water has evaporated and the lentils mash when you press them between your fingers.

Toss in the fennel, herbs, jalapeño, lemon juice, and zest.   Serve warm or at room temperature. The Food and Wine recipe suggests topping this with yogurt, which I did and serving it with naan, which I did not.

Growing up, my family was all about food.  My parents would drive us 3 hours to New York City to eat “real” Pakistani food.  On the weekend, we were travelers in search for the next delicious meal.  My sister and I would be ever so excited to explore new places and see the hustle and bustle of different cities.  Our eyes were always wide-open, ready for these experiences.  Whether, we went to Newport for fresh, straight from the ocean seafood, or to a little hole in the wall Mexican restaurant that we still frequent to this day, we were set to feast.  We learned about other cultures this way, too.  What better way for parents to expose their children to different cultures than through their food.  Food welcomes you into a new culture.  The tastes of the cuisine transports you to a new place, somewhere less familiar than what we are used to, but at the same time we are ready to embrace the novelty.

Tucked away in the back seat, my sister and I would peer out of the  windows with utter enthusiasm waiting for a new exploration.  If you remember, we were the two sisters who played in the woods and pretended we were pioneers, Indians, French, you name it-we pretended it (the joys of childhood!).  These excursions took our make-believe world into reality.

I have very fond memories of attending the Greek Orthodox festival in Rhode Island.  As many of you are probably aware, Greeks (like most of us) are completely immersed in their cuisine and take great pride in hospitality and serving their traditional dishes to others.  There was food galore.  Souvlakis would be sizzling on hot coals, my sister and I would stare in awe at the roast lamb spinning on a spit with the juices dripping down and coating the lamb with deliciousness, and flaky phyllo pastries such as baklava and spanakopita.  This festival was overflowing with sensory delight.  We would also watch the Greek dancers in amazement.  My sister and I would “choreograph” Bollywood dance skits at home, so the Greek dances piqued our interest as well.

We would walk around just take it all in and we loved every minute of it.  Our main purpose was eating, of course.  Our favorite thing to indulge in were the spanakopitas.  To this day I love them, no matter how introductory they are to greek cuisine.  The flaky and paper-thin phyllo layers were (and still are) so fun to break off layer by layer and in the middle you would meet the spinach filling full of feta, parley, and olive oil.  This is one way to get your kids to eat spinach.  I make spanakopita from time to time and each time I do I am reminded of the Greek Orthodox festival and every time I think it would be so nice to go again.

Spanakopita with Kalamata Olives and Pine Nuts

Serves 8

Ingredients

1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

crushed red chili flakes, to taste

2 shallots, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

12 ounces spinach leaves, stems removed and chopped

4 scallions, sliced

2 tablespoons chopped dill

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 tablespoon chopped mint

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

pinch of freshly ground nutmeg

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

1/4-1/2 cup grated kefalotyri cheese

1 tablespoon sour cream

2 eggs, beaten

1/3 cup kalamata olives, chopped

2 tablespoons roasted pine nuts

salt and black pepper, to taste

16 ounce package of phyllo dough, if frozen defrosted overnight in the refrigerator

Method

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a sauté pan on medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the shallots.  Allow the shallots to cook for 2-3 minutes or until they become to soften and add in the garlic and red chili flakes.  Once the garlic perfumes the oil, add in the chopped spinach.  Let the spinach wilt and cook down.  Add some salt, black pepper, and the pinch of nutmeg.  Once the spinach is all cooked, set it aside and allow it to cool slightly.  In the meantime, grease a 9″ by 13″ baking dish.

Once the spinach has cooled, add in the remaining ingredients (except the phyllo and remaining olive oil), there is no rhyme of reason to the order.  Mix to combine all the ingredients, make sure they are well incorporated.

Next, take the phyllo dough (make sure to cover it with a damp kitchen towel so that it doesn’t dry out) and cut the sheets so that they would fit into the baking dish.  I had to simply cut the sheets in half.  Once the sheets are the right size, divide the phyllo into two equal stacks.  One stack will be for the bottom layer, one will be for the top layer.

Take the phyllo dough two sheets at a time and layer into the baking dish.  Every second sheet should be brushes generously with olive oil.  Once the first stack of phyllo is finished layer all of the spinach mixture over the phyllo.  Then, repeat the process so that the spinach is covered and in the middle of the two stacks of phyllo dough.  Make sure the phyllo layers are well oiled so that they become crispier.

Bake the spanakopita in the oven for 45-50 minutes, or until the phyllo is golden brown.  Once slightly cooled, cut into squares or diamonds.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

When in doubt I turn ingredients into a dip.  I don’t know where I got this habit from, but somehow I developed it.  I think it partially might have stemmed from my childhood love for artichoke dip.  But who knows, whatever the reason is, I am now somewhat notorious for my dips.  When I visit my parents and they have people over I make a dip platter, along with a cheese platter, of course.  When I invite people over I do the same.  You can’t even imagine the attachment I have with my Cuisinart food processor and my mini food processor, which I fondly refer to as C. Junior.  These two gadgets make everything so simple, so effortless.

When I tell you I am attached, I really mean it.  Practically, every time I cook, I use either the “Senior” or “Junior” version of my food processor.  If I want to make a Pakistani dish quickly, then I throw in the garlic and ginger whiz it up and then throw in some tomatoes and within no time without all the chopping and slaving over the cutting board I have a delicious dish.

Believe me, I could go on and on about my food processors, but for the sake of the readers who might abandon me and deem me as off the wall, I will stop now.  The reason I mention the food processor was this eggplant dip I made.  You see, I had a vague idea in my mind as to what I wanted to make: eggplant with pomegranate molasses, and feta.  But, in the initial stages I was not visualizing a dip.  As I went along preparing the eggplant, the idea of a dip struck me.  Call it predictable or whatever you want, but the truth is, it worked and worked quite well I might add.  The smokiness of the spices, the creaminess of the feta, and the freshness of the herbs melded together to form one harmonious dip that was gobbled up by my husband and I in no time.


Eggplant Dip with Pomegranate Molasses and Feta

*I was inspired by this recipe, but I did not stay true to the recipe, I just used it as a jumping off point.

Serves 4-6, as an appetizer

Ingredients

Olive Oil

2 medium-sized Sicilian eggplants, peeled and cut into a small dice (or any variety you prefer), about 3 cups diced

3 shallots. chopped

4 cloves of garlic, minced

1/4 cup pomegranate molasses

1 cup crumbled Middle Eastern Feta

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup chopped parsley

5-7 mint leaves chopped

1/4 cup pomegranate seeds

2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

salt and black pepper, to taste

for the spices:

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon dried pomegranate seeds, found in most Pakistani/Indian grocery stores

Method

First, dry roast the spices in a dry pan on medium heat until you start to smell their aromas, 5-7 minutes.  Cool them for a minute and then transfer to a spice mill or coffee grinder and pulse until they all combine into a uniform mixture.  Set aside.

Heat a medium-sized sauté pan with a nice coating of olive oil on medium heat.  When the oil comes to temperature, add the shallots and allow them to caramelize, about 5-7 minutes.  Add in the garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes.   Toss in the eggplant and pomegranate molasses and allow the eggplant to caramelize as well.  Season with salt and pepper.  After 5 minutes of cooking, add the spice mixture.  Let the eggplant cook down further, until it is completely cooked through, about another 15-20 minutes.

Once the eggplant is cooked, allow it to cool for 15 minutes.  Next, take out a food processor (if you don’t have one you can mash by hand) and add in the cooked eggplant, feta, lemon juice, parsley, mint, a good drizzle of olive oil and pulse until combined.  Taste to see if any additional salt and pepper is required.  Garnish with the fresh pomegranate seeds, toasted pine nuts, parsley, mint, and a drizzle of olive oil.  Serve with toasted pita wedges or any bread of your choice.  I like to serve this slightly warm or at room temperature, but it can be served chilled.

* I decided to make a similar dip with butternut squash and caramelized shallots and posted it on food52, do have a look here.

My younger sister and I are practically in constant contact.  She is half a world away from me in Dubai, but we use all forms of communication whether it is Blackberry messenger, MSN messenger, Facebook, Twitter, Gmail chat, and Skype to keep in touch.  Sometimes we have multiple conversations going on at the same time through these various messaging programs.  We are even known to chat with each other online while in the same room.  When we all come to my parents’ house we call our dining room table the “IT Center.”  My sister, my husband, my sister’s fiancé, my cousin, Henna, and myself all have our laptops open  on the table doing our own thing and also chatting with each other.  If anyone else ever walked in, I’m sure they would think we were not completely “normal.”

The reason I mention these vast forms of communication is because my sister has been asking me to make a Middle Eastern platter, so my husband and I can eat the same sorts of things she is enjoying in Dubai.  For the past few weeks, she has been messaging me about labneh (thickened yogurt cheese) and if I bought it yet.  My answer is always no, because I can’t get any in Kingston.  So, she told me to make it.  My attempt to make it failed miserably, because I went to the only kitchen supply store in Kingston to get  cheesecloth to drain the water out of yogurt and they were sold out and would not be getting any more for two weeks.  I told her this and she was quite upset.  As you can see, we are extremely passionate about food.

Shanklish Cheese- a semi soft sheep's milk cheese popular in Syria and Lebanon. The cheese balls are rolled in sumac, chili, oregano, and spices.

The first thing we ask each other everyday is what did you eat so far today.  Notice, the “so far” because we are never really done eating.  You can imagine my sister’s joy when I told her we were going to Toronto for the weekend.  The first thing she said was if I was going get the things for the Middle Eastern platter.  I got reminder after reminder, just in case I could ever forget.  My husband tells me to shut the sound off on the BB because of all the alerts I get from my sister’s chats.  When I finally was able to go to the Middle Eastern market, I was on BBM with my sister.  Mind you, I am not the type of person who is constantly on my BB, it’s not even mine, it’s my husband’s and I borrow it when I want to talk to my sister.  I actually get annoyed when people are out with you and spending more time with their phone than you.  Eating my own words, I became that person in the Middle Eastern Market.  I wasn’t paying attention to anyone around me and just in search of what my sister was telling me to get.

I love Middle Eastern food, so I enjoyed this “quest .”   I have not travelled extensively in the Middle East, only to Egypt and the UAE, though I would love to. I went to Dubai recently and the food there was just amazing.  Ever since my return from Dubai, I have been hooked on it.  My husband also grew up in Saudi Arabia, so he has the taste for Middle Eastern food as well.

As I mazed through the market, I filled my cart with all sorts of different foods.  I stocked up because some things are hard for me to find here.  My sister, half way across the world was content with my purchases and satisfied with the incognito pictures I was taking of the cheeses, olives, nuts, and sweets.

The thing I love about this food is that it is fresh and easy.  I didn’t do much cooking at all, it was all just assembly.  A platter like this is fun to serve as an appetizer when you have people over because it is like a bounty of food in the middle of the table for everyone to share.  Individually plated formal dinners can be nice too, but there’s nothing like breaking bread together and enjoying fresh delicious food.

Middle Eastern Platter

There are no set rules here.  Use whatever you suits your taste-buds  This time I used a bunch of radishes, Lebanese cucumbers, mint, tomatoes, lemons for squeezing, grilled sujuk sausages, labneh topped with za’atar olive oil and pine nuts, Lebanese black olives, shanklish rolled in thyme, sumac, and oregano, crusty grilled bread drizzled with olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Other options could include herb roasted nuts, dried fruits such as apricots and dates, phyllo pastries, hummus and other dips, salads such as fattouch, tabouleh, halloumi cheese, manakeesh, roasted vegetables, mixed greens.

Use a large platter and bunch the different items together in clusters and arrange everything in an attractive manner.  Let it be messy and organic.  I do not like a platter to look too perfect.

Cheese strikes, yet again.  I love it when I make something and people love it and rave about it.  I especially love it when what I made was simple and easy.  I sometimes get insecure about making things that do not take a lot of time for guests.  Will they judge me because I made something that took me literally five minutes to make.  Me and my hang-ups, difficult to understand for my husband some.  I mentioned this before, I like guests to feel welcome and enjoy the experience of coming over, and part of this includes good food.

In Rhode Island, I helped my parents throw a party for their friends.  Party planning is something that gives me a high.  (On a small scale, large 500 guest parties might cause me to go over the edge, but that’s another story.)  The non-stop action and preparations that are required for a party are thrilling as well as terrifying.  To ease this extreme range of emotions, it is important to have a few tricks up your sleeve.  (Wow, I said a few tricks up your sleeve, am I becoming cliche!?)

Baked Feta definitely qualifies as a crowd pleaser.  The night of the party, it was a big hit and was the first starter to be wiped clean.  Some people do not love cheese in the same way as I do (my husband grrrr, though I must admit he has come a LONG way).  But, even people who do not share in my enthusiasm for cheese enjoy this Baked Feta.  Feta is known to have a salty pungency, but the baking process really mellows it out.  I use a sheep’s or goat’s milk feta of good quality because I have tried this with average supermarket feta and it does not have the same consistency or smoothness.  The sundried tomatoes, and nuts, capers, and thyme ooze together in perfect unison.  I also add a drizzle of honey to cut the saltiness and though most could not discern the honey in the baked feta, they could certainly notice its absence if I did not include it.  The honey and almonds caramelize together, almost forming a candied crunch on top.  Enjoy this with some crusty bread, Greek pita, or crackers.

Baked Feta with Sundried Tomatoes, Almonds, Capers, and Thyme

Serves 6 (as a starter)

Ingredients

10 ounces of food quality Feta, sliced into 1/4″ thickness

1/2 cup sundried tomatoes in oil, julienned

2 tablespoons sliced almonds

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed

10 springs of thyme, left whole

2 tablespoons honey

2-3 tablespoons good quality extra-virgin olive oil

juice of half a lemon

black pepper, to taste

Method

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Use a quiche dish and lay the feta slice son the bottom and assemble the sundried tomatoes, almonds, capers, and thyme on top in an attractive way.  Drizzle with the honey, extra-virgin olive oil, and the lemon juice.  Add a few cranks of freshly ground pepper over the top.  Bake the dish in the oven for about 15 minutes or until bubbly and oozing.  Switch the oven to broil for about a minute, stay near the oven because the thyme can burn easily.  Remove from the oven and serve hot with warmed Greek pita.

My sister and I have these lists called “life lists.”  Nine out of ten times they relate to food.  We came up with this somewhat childish classification system on a long road trip with my husband and his friend.  We were absolutely bored out of our minds and decided to ask each other what were each of our “life foods,” in other, less eccentric terms, which foods can you see yourself loving for life?  Essentially, we broke down our “life foods” by categories such as regional cuisines to something as odd as, “what are your life chips?”  I know, you must be thinking that we are a little off in the mind, but little quirks like this make us who we are.  I’m sure every group of close friends and family have their own innuendos that no one else would understand.

Back to the “life foods,”  I named Mediterranean cuisine as a regional “life cuisine.”  I love the freshness and the lightness associated with it.  It’s such a vibrant area that yields amazing cuisine in my opinion.  Though the term, Mediterranean is a little vague, I love it all, whether it is Southern European, Greek, North African, Turkish, Lebanese, and so on.  I would consider this dip truly Mediterranean, because I’m sure you can find it in one form or another all over the Mediterranean.  It’s a fresh, light, and a delicious dip.  It’s simple, yet packs a lot of intensity.

Eggplant and Pepper Dip

Makes about 2 cups of dip

Adapted from Gourmet Magazine

Ingredients

i medium sized eggplant

1 large red bell pepper

6 cloves of garlic

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 jalapeno chili, roughly chopped (remove the seeds if you like)

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 /2 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon crushed red chilies, or to taste

1 teaspoon ground cumin

6 tablespoons olive oil

10 sprigs on chives, roughly chopped

handful of flat leaf parsley, chopped

4 mint leaves, roughly chopped

crumbled feta cheese, for garnish, optional

extra parsley and chives for garnish, optional

pita wedges for serving

Method

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.  Poke the eggplant and red pepper  with a knife so that you create some holes in the flesh.  Cover both with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste.  Place on a baking tray with 4 whole garlic cloves and bake for about 30-45 minutes, or until the flesh is soft and cooked through.  Allow to cool slightly and remove the skins off the eggplant and the pepper.  Place the cooked eggplant, pepper, and roasted garlic cloves in a food processor with the salt, pepper, cumin, crushed red chillies, lemon juice,  jalapeno, 2 raw garlic cloves, chives, mint, parsley, and olive oil.  Pulse until the consistency is almost smooth, let there still be some texture.  Chill in the refrigerator and garnish with feta cheese, fresh herbs, and a drizzle of olive oil.  Serve with pita wedges.

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Manakeesh is not something I would usually make at home.  But, this past weekend I went to visit my in-laws and we went out to get some freshly made manakeesh.  I devoured it like a ravenous beast and since then I’ve been thinking of it constantly.  I became so obsessed that I bought everything I needed to make it.  When I visit bigger cities I become like a child in a candy store, don’t let me loose!  Not many middle eastern groceries are available in my small city, then again what is *smirk*? (As you can tell I can’t wait for my husband to finish med school).

I was thinking of buying some pizza dough from a bakery but then I thought that would just be the easy way out.  If I’m going to make manakeesh might as well really make manakeesh.  To any of you who don’t know what manakeesh is, well it’s an arabic/lebanese type of flatbread with different toppings, most popularly za’atar.  Za’atar is an herb blend of thyme, sumac, sesame seeds, and olive oil.  I had never eaten it until I tried it at Al-Taib in Montreal.  They fill the manakeesh with pickled radishes, tomatoes, onions, olives, and lettuce.  My friends and I would go to Al-Taib sometimes at 3 in the morning because they were always open.  Thank God for that because you never know when a manakeesh craving will come around.  (Note:  The za’atar manakeesh is vegan!)

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I topped the manakeesh with za’atar and akawi cheese.  Akawi is a semi soft cheese that is often in a salt bath.  If Akawi is not available in your area, you can try Halloumi, which I have seen in major supermarkets.  I love akawi manakeesh and I top it off with a little sprinkling of chili flakes.  The cheese is mild yet still packs a lot of creamy, salty flavor.

Also, don’t be afraid of the dough.  Believe me when I tell you that I am NOT a dough person.  I have had many dough disasters, but the dough I prepared for the manakeesh was fool proof.  It was so soft and pliable.  Not to sound odd, but it felt like a baby’s skin.  Go ahead, and brave the dough!  It will be sooo worth it!  Plus, this dough is multipurpose.  So use it for pizza, manakeesh, calzones, and so on.

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Manakeesh

makes 8 medium sized rounds

Ingredients for Dough

I used a mixture of two recipes: DedeMed and JustforLicks

1 packet dry yeast

1 cup warm water

1 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups flour

Method:

Place the yeast in a small bowl, with sugar and warm water.  Let it activate, about 10 minutes.  In another bowl mix the flour and salt together.  After the yeast mixture is activated add the olive oil in with the liquids.  Using a dough hook on a hand mixer (or stand mixer-still hoping for one *sigh*) add the yeast mixture into the flour.  Do not over mix.  Just enough so that the dough comes together.  If necessary add a little extra water or extra flour depending on the consistency of your dough.  It should be a little sticky at this point.  Knead the dough lightly for about 5-10 minutes.  Place the dough in an oiled bowl, make sure to coat the dough ball with oil.  Cover with a damp towel and let it rise in a warm place.  I let my dough rise for 2 hours.  Once it has risen knead it a little more and separate into 8 balls.  Let the balls rise for 15 more minutes.  At this point preheat the oven to 375 degrees  Then strech the balls out with your hands so that they are about 1/2 an inch thick and have a diameter of about 8 inches.  Brush the top with a little olive oil.  Top with za’atar or akawi. Bake for 15-20 minutes.  The dough should not get brown just light golden.

Za’atar is simply prepared by mixing the herb mix with an equal amount of olive oil and salt to taste until it forms a paste then place a heaping tablespoon on the dough and spread it evenly.

For the akawi simply grate it and place about a large handful of cheese of top of the dough.  Sprinkle with chili flakes and salt to taste.

I served cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, olives, mint, lemon, hummus, and labneh (thickened yogurt cheese) on the side.  This is how they serve it at Al-Hallab in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  The food at Al-Hallab is on another level!  Also, in Dubai is Al-Reef, which has amazing manakeesh.