A Time Before Tabbouleh


I had been cooking for only a few years when, in 1972, a friend gave me “A Book of Middle Eastern Food,” by a woman named Claudia Roden. In my cooking life, there was no more important influence than that book.

Roden rose to prominence later than Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, the two grandes dames of mid-20th-century cooking in Britain. (David and Grigson helped Britons “fix” a cuisine that had gone horribly wrong because of war and the accompanying hardships.) But when Roden published “Middle Eastern Food” in 1968, she built on their influence, expanding — almost exploding — the vision of what was possible. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say there was effectively no hummus or tabbouleh before then. And suddenly there were not only those, but also rosewater, meat cooked with dates and phyllo dough.

The reason for Roden’s broader view is simple: She was born in Cairo to a family of Syrian Jews, left for school in Paris when she was 15 and was reunited with her parents and siblings in London, when the Suez crisis of 1956 chased the Jewish community out of Egypt. Her first book was inspired by the food of her childhood. Her research ultimately led her to write extensively about the foods of North Africa, Spain, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Her “Book of Jewish Food” is the most comprehensive work on the subject and, unlike many books on the topic, gives equal weight to the cooking of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews.

I wanted to cook with Roden for years, and finally, on a recent visit to London, I was invited to her home to do so. What to cook with someone who awes you?

Read the rest of this article and get the recipes here.

Posted in Middle Eastern

Roasted Chickpeas


Makes: 4 servings

Time: Less than 30 minutes with cooked chickpeas

When you cook chickpeas long enough, whether on the stovetop or in the oven, their exterior becomes crisp. These are equally good as a side dish or finger food.  Recipe from How to Cook Everything. Continue reading

Posted in Middle Eastern, Recipes

Pearl Couscous Pilaf


Makes: 4 servings

Time: 20 minutes

Pearl couscous is so forgiving: It won’t turn to mush with too much liquid, it can be served hot or at room temperature, it reheats well, and it’s delicious in a number of different guises. Highly recommended. Recipe from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 onion, minced

1 cup pearl couscous

4 sun-dried tomatoes, reconstituted in warm water as you would mushrooms, and chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

3 tablespoons chopped pitted black olives

11/4 cups vegetable stock or water

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Chopped fresh basil, mint, or oregano leaves for garnish

1. Put the oil in a pot with a lid over medium-high heat. Add the onion and pearl couscous and cook until the couscous is lightly browned and the onion is soft, about 5 minutes. Add the sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, and olives and cook for another 2 minutes.

2. Stir in the stock, sprinkle with a bit of salt (remember the olives will add salt) and a good amount of pepper, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to low so that the mixture bubbles gently, cover, and cook until the liquid is absorbed and the couscous is al dente, about 10 minutes. Taste, adjust the seasoning, sprinkle with chopped herbs, and serve hot or room temperature. Or store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days (reheat or bring back to room temperature and stir in a little olive oil just before serving).


Posted in Middle Eastern, Recipes

Sour Cream or Yogurt Dip, 5 Ways


Makes: 6 to 8 servings

Time: 10 minutes

Perhaps the easiest dip to make, but a revelation if the only version you’ve had is onion dip made with dried soup mix.

A couple of pointers and ideas: If your yogurt is thin, drain it in a cloth-lined strainer for 15 to 30 minutes before using it. You can chop the vegetables in a food processor, but be careful not to purée them. If you prefer a slightly more textured dip, add 1/4 cup or so of creamy cottage cheese to the mix. For a stiffer and more flavorful dip, substitute mayonnaise for half the sour cream or yogurt. Recipe from How to Cook Everything.

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Posted in Middle Eastern, Recipes

Barley with Cucumber and Yogurt-Dill Dressing


Makes: 4 servings

Time: 40 minutes

Cool, crunchy, and chewy, this is a perfect summer salad, and quickly made with pearled barley, which cooks relatively fast. Other grains you can use: brown rice, wheat berries, cracked wheat, pearl couscous, or wild rice. Recipe from How to Cook Everything.

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Posted in Middle Eastern, Produce

Grape Leaves 2.0


By Freya Bellin

There’s a whole subset of foods that I would normally be hesitant to make at home because they sound too complicated or too messy. And until this past weekend, stuffed grape leaves would have fallen into this category. Yet, as it turns out, grape leaves—or chard leaves in this case—are pretty easy to make yourself.

I was totally impressed by the filling in this recipe. As I often find with the vegetable side dishes or fillings in this book, I couldn’t resist just eating it straight from the mixing bowl. The tabbouleh is herby and fresh, and I added raisins and walnuts for extra flavor and texture. I highly recommend that addition, especially if you’re accustomed to sweet dolmades. You could also substitute Quinoa Tabbouleh for the filling if you prefer quinoa to bulgur.

The next piece of this recipe is part arts and crafts project. The chard leaves become surprisingly pliable yet sturdy once shocked, and they’re pretty easy to work with. It took me a few tries to master the rolling, but once I got the hang of it they started to look quite professional. It’s tough to take a clean bite of the final product, but the leaves become softer and easier to bite into on day 2, probably due to the acidity of the lemon juice. You may experiment with coating the leaves with extra juice or olive oil to soften them. Needless to say, they take well to being made in advance, and you still end up with an impressive-looking, delicious new take on a classic. Recipe from The Food Matters Cookbook.

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Posted in Middle Eastern, Recipes



Makes: 1 large loaf

Time: At least 3 hours, largely unattended

The traditional Sabbath bread of European Jews is rich, eggy, and very, very tender.  There is enough dough to make a festive braided loaf, which is easy to make and fun to shape. However, unless you have a large food processor (one with at least an 11-cup workbowl), you will have to make this by hand or with a standing mixer. Leftover Challah makes excellent French toast or can be used in bread pudding. Recipe from How to Cook Everything.

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Posted in Baking, Middle Eastern

Perfect for Winter: Stir-Fried Lentils, Mushrooms, Caramelized Onions


By Freya Bellin

Thanks to the combination of hearty lentils and mushrooms, this vegetarian dish tastes uniquely meaty. Plus—perhaps the best thing about stir-fries—it’s a quick one-pot meal. Even if you don’t have pre-cooked lentils on hand, they cook in just 30 minutes, so it’s easy enough to have those ready by the time you’ve finished washing and chopping the other ingredients. You won’t need the lentils until the end of the recipe anyway. If you opt not to use (or can’t find) the dried porcinis, consider adding an extra handful of fresh mushrooms to keep the proportions balanced.

The seasoning for this dish is simple, which allows the caramelized onions to really come through. Onions cooking in olive oil always smell great, but once they break down and release their natural sugars, they transform into something other-worldly. As is often the case with foods this delicious, you must be patient with them. I used a heavy pan and probably had the heat a touch too low when cooking this recipe, so my onions took closer to 25 minutes to fully caramelize. Rest assured that it is worth the wait. While the recipe below calls for the onions as a garnish of sorts, I eventually ended up mixing mine into the rest of the stir-fry. The dish makes excellent leftovers, either reheated as is or served over a green salad.  Recipe from The Food Matters Cookbook.

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Posted in Middle Eastern, Produce

Chickpea Tagine with Chicken and Bulgur


By Freya Bellin

I’ve had several variations of tagine, but this one is easily my favorite, thanks to spot-on seasoning and the unusual addition of bulgur. This spice blend is deliciously aromatic, filling my kitchen (not to mention the hallway leading up to the apartment) with an irresistible sweetness. The raisins plump up beautifully and complement the cinnamon and ginger. The chicken thighs become super tender from being browned and then braised.  Yet the real winner for me was the bulgur. It makes a great hearty base for the other ingredients and manages to absorb all the flavors of the stew. My only suggestion for varying this recipe would be to add a dash of cayenne pepper to the spice blend for a little heat and contrast to the natural sweetness. Recipe from The Food Matters Cookbook.

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Posted in Middle Eastern, Recipes

Quinoa Tabbouleh


By Freya Bellin

This take on tabbouleh, a Middle Eastern classic, is quite versatile. While herbs still remain the star of the show here, the recipe includes a variety of less traditional ingredients (olives, beans, nuts). During the colder seasons, you could try replacing the tomatoes with a variety of roasted root vegetables, like sweet potatoes or parsnips, or roasted squash. Anything roasted will add a nice smoky flavor too. As mentioned below, pretty much any leftover or vegetable will work.

Quinoa is a great substitute for the traditional bulgur; being very high in protein, it makes this salad a bit more filling. The lemon juice and scallions add a nice brightness. Since the herbs really are the main ingredient, try to get them as fresh as possible. The more fragrant, the better. I filled a pita with Quinoa Tabbouleh, hummus, roasted eggplant, and caramelized onions to make it a meal.  Recipe from The Food Matters Cookbook.

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Posted in Middle Eastern, Recipes