Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Lebanese Fusion Comfort Cooking
I am a product of my culinary environment and the house that I grew up in. After all, the food that we eat during our main developmental years will shape us in so many ways. Nurturing both body and spirit, it helps us to define who we are and how we fit into this world. I was lucky to have grown up in a house where growling tummies had little to do with hunger but rather with the cauldrons of stews and sauces bubbling away on the stove and scintillating aromas wafting out of the oven. My childhood obesity (ha! Please enjoy how I made it seem like that was past tense) and I really have to thank my father for inspiring me to be a culinary crusader who is always happiest surrounded by precarious heaps of dirty dishes and friends who are willing to eat the mountains of food that I prepare. My father, after all, is one of the best home cooks that I know and I was truly lucky to have had the opportunity to learn by watching him toil away in front of the stove.
Dinner at our house brings Mike and I to many places, from the Far East to the Midwest. Through mouth and spirit we celebrate Morocco, Tunisia, India, Hong Kong, Mexico, the Caribbean, and anywhere else that we can imagine into being….at least on the table. If there was one ethnic cuisine, however, that was the truest staple in our household, it would be Lebanese. I just can’t get enough of Lebanese food in all of it’s many iterations. But again, that’s a reference to the kitchen of my childhood. My father was born in Lebanon and the comfort food that I always crave is what he and my lovely aunties used to make, which is Lebanese home cooking at it’s best. A couple of decades later, stuffed grapevine leaf roles, baked meat and burghul pies, soft unripened cheese and green bean and tomato stews are still like crack to me.
I don’t want to make it sound like all that we ate was just kibbeh and fatayer, because that’s not true. My mother, being a Scandinavian-Canadian, had a propensity to lean more towards traditional North American and European fare. There was still lots of breaded chicken cutlets, pot roasts, and hot turkey sandwiches. We all have our own culinary flair though, don’t we? It’s that little je ne sais quoi that lets you identify the author of each dish at a potluck without having to ask. For my father, it was clear; his culinary identity could be best described as Lebanese fusion. I grew up expecting that everybody else made spaghetti Bolognese that was rich and dark with cinnamon and the studded with walnuts. I thought that mouthwatering roast chicken was, by necessity, flavored with a simple blend of garlic, lemon and paprika. Cinnamon and nutmeg scented apple pie? No, thank you very much. It was all about the flaky crusted apple pie with minimal seasonings and the unmistakable flavor of orange blossom water.
For our Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 post I had three main goals:
1) To show you the food that I grew up, because this is the food that shaped who I am and how I cook. This food, of course, can best be characterized as “Lebanese fusion comfort cooking”.
2) To make Lebanese food accessible. Many people are reticent to try Lebanese food, and that’s probably for a couple of reasons. It doesn’t always immediately look familiar, and the table usually holds many shades of brown, green, brownish gray and greenish brown along with a bowl of olives. But how different are the Lebanese foods, really? For example, kibbeh is like a meatloaf made with burgul instead of bread crumbs. Putting these dishes into a context that we know and understand means that people are less likely to be intimidated by them After all, a lamb and walnut ragu is just spaghetti with meat sauce, but in a slightly different context.
3) To illustrate how easy it can be to make the everyday exotic, or to make the exotic slightly more…everyday. For the most part these dishes use herbs, spices and seasonings that are readily available and you likely have most of them in your pantry right now. After all, most of us have cinnamon, allspice, garlic, onions, parsley and mint at our fingertips. It’s easy to put a Middle Eastern spin on the foods that you already know and love. For picky eaters that you want to encourage to branch out, it can sometimes be easier to start with familiar foods and ease them into experimentation with different ethnic cuisines through a tweak here and a special spice there…
I suppose that it’s about time that I invited you to my dinner table so that you could see what Lebanese Fusion meant to us…..
- Mini falafel kebabs with lemon dill tahini sauce
- Lebanese Caprese salad with jibneh, field tomatoes, parsley and mint
- Assorted brined and oil cured olives
- Mini pitas
Every Torontonian who spent any amount of time as a club kid is familiar with falafel. It’s as ubiquitous as street meat (aka, the hot dog stands that pepper downtown TO every 10 feet or so) but even better for soaking up the late night liquor saturation. Even people who get confused and think that Middle Eastern food is “curries and spicy kebab” (sigh), when asked about Lebanese food can still say, “Uhhhh…..hummus? And falafel?” That’s not a win, but at least it’s a starting point.
Falafel are spiced chickpea fritters which are deep fried and generally served in a pita with cucumber, tomato, lettuce, and tahini (a sauce made with a base of ground sesame seeds). However, they also make just the cutest little app that ya ever did see when you make mini balls instead of patties, and skewer them with sliced cucumber and cherry tomato. The falafel are crispy and golden brown on the outside, with a soft, fluffy chickpea and spice filled interior. Texturally the fresh crunch of cucumber and softly sweet acidity of the cherry tomatoes can set the falafel off without being too heavy. Wee little pitas, of course, are served on the side.
For the dip? Well, it has to be tahini. There’s just no two ways about that. However, I’m not entirely unwilling to compromise. “Tahini” refers to both a loose sesame seed paste and a garlicky sauce which is made from sesame seed paste thinned with lemon juice and water. The wee bulbous skewers are cute and accessible, falafel is traditional but not intimidating, and all that we really needed to work on was the sauce. If you’re not used to tahini sauce, the rich and nutty flavor can be a bit bitter. The bright lemon and dill sesame sauce was just the right complement to these light kebabs, and just enough to give our little Lebanese appetizers a North American flair.
Now tell me if those aren’t the cutest little falafel that you ever did see? I’m telling you, if you want a non-believer to try Lebanese food, start with the carb-y goodness of falafel.
The other starter was a Lebanese spin on the popular Caprese salad. Caprese is, at it’s most basic, alternating slices of ripe tomato and unripened mozzarella or bocconcini with fresh basil. Sometimes there’s a drizzle of olive oil or balsamic, other times it stays as simple and delicious as the day is long. The Lebanese Caprese is made with jibneh, a soft unripened and slightly chewy cheese. The texture is slightly softer and less dense than a water packed mozzarella, and it also tends to run on the salty side due to the saline brine which is used as a preservative. With clean, sweet mint and fresh parsley to balance out the acid, a drizzle of fruity olive oil and a squeeze of lemon makes this simple dish an absolute star.
I could eat this for dinner. If I didn’t have a pasta course, main and dessert waiting in the wings, I probably would have.
- Lamb and walnut ragu over bucatini pasta
My father’s spaghetti sauce, which is the benchmark against which I measured all future Bolognese sauces, was actually a rich and slow simmered tomato based meat and walnut sauce with the slight scent of sultry cinnamon. For a simple pasta sauce, this is a case of the product truly being more than the sum of it’s parts. Although his choice was beef, lamb is earthy and rich but not overwhelming, and the sauce has a balance of sweetness and acidity which begs the question, “Can I have some more? Please?” If you haven’t had the pleasure of combining nuts and meat, this may sound a bit off key. But believe me, it’s not. The texture of the finely chopped walnuts will soften and almost start to mimic the meat, but with a more toothsome feel. They just add another layer of richness and complexity to the dish., which is truly not to be missed out on.
This is meat sauce on steroids, and when I was packing up leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch I will fully admit that I licked the spoon….and then shaved some sauce off the top of Mike’s tupperware. Because, hey, I’m greedy like that.
Also, you may be wondering about the granular beige topping. That’s processed dried parmesan. From a can. Yes, you read that correctly. Now bear in mind that you are talking to a veritable cheese fiend, and that the thought of good, aged parmigiano reggiano with a glass of rich red wine is enough to make me weak in the knees. The thing is, I didn’t grow up with freshly grated parm. In fact, I didn’t even know that parmigiano was different from parmesan, and if you had told me 10 years ago that parm came from a wedge and not a can I would have laughed. But parm in a can is what I grew up on, and when I think of comforting pastas, sadly, I take the low road….which is also known as ‘the cheap road’, and ‘the road often followed’. On the plus side, this lamb ragu is a sauce that can stand up for itself, and doesn’t need a quality bold cheese to lend credence to the flavor. For comfort cooking spaghetti sauce, canned parm is just fine by me.
(But don’t tell anyone. I have a reputation to uphold, dubious though it might be)
- Lemon garlic and spice roast chickens
- Tangy garlic braised potatoes
- Lebanese chopped salad
Roast chicken is some pretty traditional comfort food. There’s just something about the aroma of a chicken roasting away in the oven, with the promise of crispy, flavorful skin and succulent meat. The heart breaking part, of course, is that it’s actually cheaper for me to buy a deliciously seasoned roasted chicken from Loblaws or Costco than it is to make it myself. How is that fair? I mean, a perfect and juicy rotisserie chicken costs $7.99 and an uncooked bird is $8.50? I don’t get it. Well, actually I do get it…..the pre-cooked chicken, that is.
Then I think of comfort foods, and I just can’t shake the thought of a home cooked roast chicken with potatoes. The mere thought of roast chicken aromas wafting through my house and I start to drool in a most unbecoming way. Although I cook chicken on a regular basis, I’m not a huge fan because it can just be so…blah. It’s the people pleaser, true, but there’s rarely something really compelling about chicken. At least, not until your freshly roasted chicken with it’s crispy flavorful skin and alarmingly juicy meat hit the platter. That’s enough for me to do the chicken dance.
A lemon and garlic roasted chicken is hardly unique, but that’s what makes this chicken such a hit. I mean, sure it’s flavored with the same spices and seasonings as shish taouk. And okay, maybe ‘regular’ roasted chicken doesn’t have crusty browned pockets of spice that you flick off before serving, but this is still one accessible dish…while also being flavorful like you would not believe. You know how a spiced roast chicken carries all of it’s flavor in the skin? Not this bird. Oh, no. Leftover chicken meat is just as juicy and flavorful as the day that it was made.
Sometimes I have imaginary seminars with my SEA group (Starch Eaters Anonymous).
“Hi. My name is Tina, and I have a fiendish fetish for starch.”
“Welcome, Tina. You can speak freely with us.”
“Well, it all started with these potatoes…..they were roasted. No, braised. Oh, I don’t know. Sometimes these memories, they get confused. But the potatoes, they were lemony and garlicky, with a sweet heat and acidic twang of tomato paste, and…oh god, I can feel it coming on again….”
“It’s okay, Tina. We understand the temptation of flavorful and tender potatoes. You’re safe with us.”
To summarize the entree, our garlic and lemon spiced chicken was served on a bed of tangy Middle Eastern roasted potatoes with a light, parsley laden chopped salad on the side. It was at just about this point that we thought, “Boy. I wish I hadn’t gorged on pasta twenty minutes ago….Okay, all good. Found my Second Dinner stomach.”
- Apple pie scented with orange blossom water and served with cinnamon walnut ice cream
You can’t have a guest for dinner without dessert.
So when is the last time that you heard someone say, “It’s as Lebanese as apple pie”? Never? That’s understandable, but think about apple pie for a minute. Apples are a sponge for flavors, and the very beauty of apple pie lies in your ability to recreate it in a way that makes sense to you and suits your tastes.
This is not your grandmother’s apple pie. Why? Because this is my Tata‘s apple pie.
Like many new immigrants, my grandmother landed in Canada with a firm sense of culinary ethnicity, but a drive to assimilate the elements of local culture that she understood. Apple pie is a North American icon, and she embraced this treat as best she could….but with a Lebanese spin. Now you see where my father gets it from. The apple pie that I grew up eating, my favorite apple pie above all others, was my Tata’s apple pie . She scented it with cinnamon, of course, but it was also redolent of rose and orange blossom water. Happily, this is one situation where the phrase “apples and oranges” just doesn’t apply.
For our dinner, we paired the delicate orange blossom scented the ice cream equivalent of baklava: a rich vanilla ice cream imbued with a cinnamon and walnut caramel swirl. Sweet, flaky, gooey, and layered with flavors, this is a fusion of a classic dish with a sweet Lebanese slant.
I can’t wait to share these recipes with you, but please be patient as I’m going to have to roll them out gradually over the next week or so as time permits.
In the mean time, why don’t you check out the other 23 fabulous 24, 24,24 posts and we can touch base about all the delicious food that we dream of one day eating? Uh huh. I agree.