Recipe of the week: Spaghetti with lamb

Ah, yes. This week we’re going to explore the ancient Arabic secret of spaghetti. This dish was one of my favorites growing up and I have to say that my paternal grandmother’s recipe of saneeya (baked) spaghetti gave my mom’s a run for its masaari (money).

I, sadly, don’t have my tata’s recipe for this dish. I thankfully do still remember when she would make it for me though. I spent many a Saturday hanging out at my tata’s house. She lived in this awesome house that sat right at the corner of Hawthorne and Mandell in the Montrose. It had red shag carpet, bars on all the doors and windows (one can never be to careful, yo)  and a huge kitchen where she would make me food. Interestingly enough, she also had like three freezers. She kept one unplugged and used it to store, well, everything imaginable; spices, cash and  crinkled brown bags filled with randomness to name a few.

She knew how much I loved this dish in its pre-baked phase and she’d always cook it for me when I asked for it. It’s so simple, but something about the way she spiced it was perfect. It was the right ratio of tomato to pasta to spice. It had a slight kick to it that definitely set the tone for my love of spicy vs. sweet tomato-y-based dishes.

My mom was a pro at making this dish, too. But, when I think about saneeya, my memory always takes me back to my tata and how much she loved cooking this for me. I’ve tried several times over the years to duplicate her sauce, but it’s never worked. I always did it by memory vs. a recipe – mainly because I never had access to one.

So here’ s my mama’s version. I can’t wait to try it out.

Spaghetti with lamb

Boil 2 12 oz. packages of spaghetti until it gets tender, strain and leave aside.

In another pot, brown chunks of lamb with butter and diced onions (to taste, I guess) then add water and salt and let boil until the meat is done.

Add to the meat and cook until it’s thickened:

2 cans of tomato paste

pepper

allspice

cinnamon

Then, in a large pan, add the soup and the spaghetti and put in the oven at 500 degrees for 15-20 minutes until it gets golden brown (almost burnt) and crisp on the surface.

Simple, Savory and Satisfying…

That is exactly what Imjudarah is to me. I am so glad I got over thinking this meal was bland and boring. It is such an easy, inexpensive way to feed your family and friends. It’s vegetarian/vegan friendly and did I mention it was easy to make?

This is the first meal I’ve managed to make without too much help from my dad and that makes me just feel super. I adjusted the recipe a bit to make more so we’d have leftovers. I used 1 1/2 cups of lentils and 3 cups of rice.  I boiled the lentils in just enough water to cover the lentils. It cooked over high heat for about 10-15 minutes and then I added 3 cups of pre-soaked rice, 6 cups of water, salt, pepper and about a tbs. of ground cumin.  I boiled it for about 5 minutes and then reduced the heat and covered it until the rice was cooked and the water had evaporated – figure 15 minutes or so.

My dad cooked up some onions while I made the tomato-cucumber salad. I ended up added both fresh and dry mint and I chose to use two large hot house tomatoes and one huge cucumber.  I substituted the traditional onion you are supposed to use for the salad with a small clove of finely chopped garlic.

After a long day, this was the perfect meal to make. I can understand now why my family cooked it so much. I just wish I’d appreciated it more. I also wish I had appreciated how much time and attention my mom and my aunts put into buying the freshest, most affordable ingredients to feed us. I honestly had no idea how much work went into making a meal when you do it with quality in mind. I have a whole new respect for the art of cooking. I was with my family early today and it my heart was so full being able to talk to several of my aunts and cousins about this project. They gave me helpful hints about the different dishes I want to make. They shared their suggestions for the best places to buy lamb or cucumbers. It reminded me that cooking doesn’t have to be a singular activity. The whole point of food really should be community. I’ve already seen the potential impact this project can have on the people I love and I can’t wait to see how that potential grows as the dishes I cook grow more complex in execution.

Drop me a line on Twitter or leave a comment and let me know about the dish you love to make to bring your loved ones together!

Look! Lentils!
Imjudarah - Mmmmmm...
The Start of Something Goooooood
A Salad of Champions
Simple. Savory. Satisfying.

Recipe of the week: Imjudarah

There were a handful of dishes that my mom made that I considered her default meal for a given week. If she just didn’t feel like cooking, she would make one of maybe five meals at the beginning of the week and we’d be stuck eating it for days. To be considered a meal of default status, it has to be fairly easy to make and easy to make in massively large proportions. We used to have these huge tunjaras (pots) that she would fill to the brim with all sorts of stuff I bitched about eating.

Imjudarah was one of those dishes. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t like the taste of  Imjudarah. I was kind of neutral about it, really. It was more that I found it a. less exciting than say fried chicken or mac and cheese and b. I hated the salad she used to make that accompanied the dish.  Traditionally, Imjudarah is eaten with either laban ( which is essentially homemade plain yogurt – just more tart in my opinion) and/or a tomato-cucumber salad. For some reason, I hated any salad that used olive oil and lemon; probably because it meant there were raw onions included and we all know how I feel about raw onions.  I was actually just having dinner with a cousin of mine tonight and she  asked what I was making this week. When I told her, said she just doesn’t get why you would put cold salad on top of hot rice. Up until very recently, I totally agreed.

Either my taste buds have changed or I’m willing to be more open minded about the food I eat because I love Imjudarah now. And once I altered the tomato-cucumber salad to include fresh garlic vs. onion, I even love it with the salad.

I’ve actually made this dish before. My dad and I had a trial run a few months back where he tried teaching me how to cook. I spent a really long time typing out his recipe for everything while we cooked and I can’t find that damn Word document anywhere. I’m going to make it this time with my mom’s recipe – obviously. I’m actually really excited about making it this week because my confidence in cooking rice has grown a great deal since I started this blog. Making rice was such an elusive thing to me. I don’t know why I was so apprehensive.

Imjudarah

1 cup of lentils “washed”

2 cups rice “soaked for 30 minutes”

Salt, pepper and cumin

Cook over medium heat one cup of lentils in four cups of water for about twenty minutes.  Add rice and spices and continue to cook over medium heat for about 15 additional minutes. Lower heat and cook until all the water is absorbed.

Garnishes:

Fried Onion

1 onion

4 tbs. olive oil

Cut and slice onion and fry in the oil until a dark brown – almost burnt. Serve on top of the rice.

Salad

Tomatoes

Cucumbers

Onion ( I love how my aunt put “optional’ next to this. I have no idea if my mom really had that written in her recipe)

Salt

Pepper

Lemon

Oil

Fresh mint – finely chopped ( you can probably use dried mint, but it won’t have the same pow to it)

All of this is to taste and portion depends on how much of the rice you choose to make. Chop up the veggies into small,  uniform bites and add salt, pepper, lemon and oil to taste. The mint is optional, but really does make a difference. Serve over rice.

: )

Food for Thought

Don’t act surprised. You knew that cliche would be used at some point. I mean this is a food blog after all.

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day and shared with him my idea for Zayt and Zaatar. He was incredibly encouraging and shared with me some of his ideas for archiving his family’s history – a history that inevitably includes fascinating stories of food and the meaning behind its making.We’re both Palestinian, but our family histories seem to be drastically different. What also seems to be different is the food we ate.

One of the many reasons I started this project was to learn from others how the food we all grew up eating was prepared. I know this might seem like a “duh” concept, but aside from the Arabic food I ate within my family culture, and the watered-down version of Arabic cuisine you eat at restaurants, I have no real frame of reference for regional Arabic cooking.

When I told my friend, mentioned above, that I was making Mishat he didn’t know what I was talking about. Hell, I even mentioned it to my cousins and it took them awhile to figure out what I was talking about. Although our mothers spent a lot of time together sitting around coffee tables chopping slabs of meat, gossiping and watching soap operas, the similarities stopped there. And now that many of our mothers have passed on, we find a great deal of comfort in sitting around and remembering who made what best of all.

My hope is that we create our own versions of these recipes and perfect them so we can pass them on to future generations.

Food is in my family’s blood. It’s how a majority of my relatives earn a living. The funny part? I just made that correlation this evening. It just dawned on me that many of my family members all over the U.S., from New York, to Texas to Tennessee, either own fairly successful restaurants or companies that supply food to restaurants. This should have been a no-brainer but I’m slow.

Let’s hope I have some untapped culinary gene that kick into high gear once the real cooking begins. I’m still torn on what I’ll be cooking next, but I’ll hopefully have that figured out sooner than later. Stay tuned!

The History Behind Zayt and Za’atar

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Zayt wa Za'atar

Zayt and Za’atar is a Middle Eastern snack consisting of oil (zayt) and a thyme-spice mix (za’atar) that I grew up eating as a kid. It may not sound all that appetizing, but dipping warm, fluffy pieces of pita bread into the zayt and za’atar was a source of real comfort for me growing up. It is still one of my favorite snacks – no matter what time of day it is – and it is probably even more comforting for me now than when I was young.

So, when I came up with the idea for this blog (which I will get to eventually), the concept of Zayt and Za’atar seemed like a natural fit. Two strong and savory flavors that work as beautifully apart as they do together. Two flavors that stand boldly on their own – but compliment each other in unforgettable ways.  Just like my mother and me – when she was still alive.

My parents grew up in Ramallah, Palestine. I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. I was a fat kid who loved food. My mom was a self-taught cook who used food as a way to nurture her kids both nutritionally and emotionally. So many of the memories I have from childhood include food. It’s not  just the eating of her food that remains with me, but also the time and energy my mom put into picking the best ingredients and preparing the Arabic dishes that I miss so much today.

Making traditional Arabic food – not the stuff you get in most water-downed versions of Middle Eastern restaurants – takes a lot of time, patience and skill. I was too young to appreciate just how labor-intensive cooking this food was for my mom and she died before I realized it would be something I’d miss as much as I miss her.

I was 13 when my mom lost her battle with breast cancer and it wasn’t until recently that I conceived an idea that might allow me the opportunity to connect to her memory in a way that would feed both my inner fat kid and that part of my soul that has been missing for almost 20 years.

Which brings us full circle back to Zayt and Za’atar.

Over the years, my mother taught herself how to cook using recipes from her family and from random other sources and she compiled it all into this notebook that she titled “Nawal’s Cookbook”.  A lot of the recipes are written in Arabic, so it is currently being translated by one of my aunts.

It’s important to me to learn how to make the food I grew up eating. It connects me to my culture, my personal history and to a mom I never really got to know. My hope is that as I teach myself how to cook using my mother’s cookbook, I will be able to learn more about her short life, more about me and more about the food that helped create my culinary palate.

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