Home is Where the Heart Is

Happy 2016, everyone!

I have been baking away since the holidays and working on getting a little more creative with my cookie recipes. I’m finally getting to a place where I feel much more confident in my abilities as a baker, and that means there’s more room for adventure in what and how I bake.

I’ve also been thinking a bit about cooking in general. I don’t cook savory dishes as often as I used to, and I’m finding that I miss it a great deal more than I realized. I think I’m missing it because I miss being a more nurturing person. Food is a really authentic, heart-centered way to share your love and compassion with others. I certainly do that with my baking, but I just miss cooking. People always have to eat whole foods; they don’t necessarily always have to eat a cookie. (Though, I’m happy to argue the latter point ’til the cows come home.)

Thanks to a recommendation from a friend, I started watching episodes of “The Mind of a Chef” on Netflix. It’s a FANTASTIC show on PBS that follows the philosophies and work of some of the most inspiring and talented chefs in the country. And I am HOOKED. You are transported to a world where you can watch people cook, listen to their stories, delve into the whole world of farming, history, food science, and innovation. It’s utterly fascinating to me. It teaches you, once again AND if you’re listening, how interconnected we are in this world. Food, literally, is life. And for those of us who are passionate about it, food speaks stories, fuels bodies and minds, and serves as a medium for expression and revolution.

The third season (Episode 5 to be exact), takes you to Kentucky, where Chef Edward Lee lives and cooks. I was most struck by a conversation he had with another local chef, Chef Ouita Michel as they cooked together a dish with local ingredients. They discussed the idea that newer chefs that only have restaurant experience versus learning the tricks of the trade from home cooks and incorporating that into their culinary narrative are at a disadvantage. Chef Michel eloquently stated that, “Restaurants don’t define the food community in the United States.”

Now, I had been binge-watching this series all day while I baked for a client and those words made me stop what I was doing, sit down, and listen to the conversation with intent. Being the person I am, I struggle with the fact that I am not a professionally-trained maker of food and desserts. And while I honestly have no interest in being a world-renowned pastry chef, I feel like other people NEED me to be one in order for my work to have real merit. But, her words gave me freedom and reminded me that food is home and it doesn’t really matter where good food gets made.

One of the major threads I see woven into each one of these chef’s stories is how the food they grew up eating influences the food they cook today. I suppose it’s hard to separate the two. The food of your family is where you learned what you liked and what you didn’t like. If you were fortunate enough to come from a family where at least one of your parents, probably your mama, was cooking real food, you probably have a strong memory connection to the foods of your childhood. Use that. Don’t ever let those memories go. Use them to learn more about the food you grew up eating. Use it to comfort you in the moments when you need a hug from someone you love, but don’t, in that moment, have access to them for whatever reason. Food almost always tastes better when someone you love is cooking it for you, but there is immense comfort in being able to cook it for yourself, too.

I didn’t appreciate this enough when I was a kid, but I am SO unbelievably grateful that my mother (and father) inadvertently taught me the value of shopping for and making a meal. I get it now and it has fueled every aspect of this blog and my cooking/baking journeys.

So, I think I’m going to get back to trying out new savory recipes and documenting those experiences here. I have a few ideas in mind, but nothing concrete yet. I’ve just been studying and reading the topic of food for so long now that I want to get out of the theoretical and into the kitchen.

Stay tuned!


Happy New Year from Z&Z!!!

Well, hello there!

I know it’s been awhile, and trust me, my dad has done enough of the “gently reminding” me that this blog exists and I need to “stop being lazy and start writing again.”  So, the part where I feel guilty about not doing so is covered. My dad’s got your back.

I just wanted to take a moment to reflect on this past year in respect to Zayt and Zaatar. Even though I haven’t written in a couple of months, I’ve still been cooking pretty regularly. As mentioned in my last post, (which was what? two months ago) I made katayef. I’ve since conquered a beast of a dish that I was scared to make – Mansaf. And it actually turned out pretty darn alright! The fact that I now have the ability to make a decent laban soup means that shushbarak is on the top of the list for next year.

Zayt and Zaatar has been an incredible experience for me. It taught me that I’m actually a fairly decent cook. It taught me that even if something stresses me out and makes me kind of crazy in the kitchen, I can still love doing it and want to keep doing it all the time. Cooking is one of the few things in my life that I can sincerely say I enjoy doing even if there are moments when I’m not composed or good at it.

This blog taught me it’s okay to fail sometimes, and that is a might big lesson to have learned.

A humongous THANK YOU goes out to my father for being so patient with me throughout this process. It was such a gift to be able to learn all these recipes with you beside me.  I hope you had as much fun as I did.

Another equally big THANK YOU to all my friends and family who took the time to read this blog, to encourage me and to share your own ideas and stories. I hope I’ll get to cook alongside many of you in the New Year!

That’s it. The plan is to be around cooking and writing in 2011. I hope to do more cooking and eating with friends – and actually DOING that, not just saying I’m going to do it.

Here’s to a great New Year!


The Verdict – Baking is Hard!

So, last week I decided I wanted to make homemade fatayer bi sabanekh and sfeeha (spinach and meat pies).  When I say homemade, I more specifically mean that I wanted to make the dough from scratch. I knew baking bread wouldn’t be easy, but I wanted to give it a go anyway.

The act of making  the bread itself isn’t what’s  hard. What’s hard is making sure you have precisely the right amount of this to that in order to yield optimal results – in other words, learning to read and follow directions. I didn’t have a bread recipe from my mama, so I had to use the one in my Sahtein cookbook. Well, after carefully following the recipe, covering up the soon to be baked bread and waiting patiently for it to rise, I realized that I apparently don’t know how to read because I  followed the wrong damn recipe.

My dad, once again, was awesome and promised up and down that the recipe that we used was just fine. To be honest, the two recipes weren’t that far off. The only real difference was the absence of butter/shortening. Now, personally, I think this would have made a huge difference in the texture but my father and one of my aunts said butter wasn’t used in the dough. Who knows.

I have every intention of trying the recipe I planned on using to see if it better resembles my memory of these pies. And once I discover the difference, I’m going to forgo making the bread from scratch and use already-made dough like everyone else does. I just want to be able to know I can make a decent batch of bread if ever there was a need for it.

As far as the fillings go, the meat filling for the sfeeha turned out pretty yummy. I added more tahini than the recipe called for and I personally think it made it a bit more rich. We also added a generous tablespoon of sumac and probably not enough pine nuts for my taste. Overall though, I give my mama’s recipe a big bear hug.

The spinach filling still needs some work. I used two pounds of frozen, chopped spinach and something about it just wasn’t working for me. I don’t think using fresh spinach would have made much of a difference. I do think using a better quality brand and rinsing it several times would improve the taste. It also wasn’t tart enough for me. We used two lemons and a lot of sumac, but I just wasn’t getting that zing. I’m not really sure what I could do to improve that, so if y’all have suggestions – bring ’em!

We also used some of the leftover dough to make this “egg bread” that my paternal grandmother used to make. I have been trying to find someone, anyone, who had any clue how to make this bread. I guess it must have been a tata thing, because none of my cousins have any clue what I’m talking about. My dad loves it though and I remember really liking it as well. Basically, you flatten out the dough and create an edge of sorts  to hold the eggs. Use as many eggs as you think the bread can hold and then sprinkle with salt, pepper, zaatar and a little oil and then bake for 15-20 minutes. Make sure the eggs are fully cooked and the dough is evenly browned.  It’s like a more complicated variation of  egg in the basket.

I’m not unhappy with the results.  For a first try,  I suppose I it went better than expected. As much work as it is to complete the recipes – everything from the grocery shopping to the preparation – I’ve consistently found fulfillment and joy in the process. Yes, I’ve also found stress and anxiety, but, amazingly, the stress hasn’t been so overwhelming that I’ve ever considered not moving forward with this project.

I also really love how learning to cook has afforded me the opportunity to relate to my family in different ways. I like getting helpful tips from my aunts and uncles. I like being able to sit and discuss all the different tricks and tips for making a pickle taste better or where to get the freshest, most affordable produce. I imagine that was a lot of  what my mama’s day-to-day was like and it’s been nice getting a little glimpse into that world.

I really wonder if I’d be this interested in cooking if  my mama was still around.  Interestingly, she didn’t like people in her kitchen when she cooked.  Or, maybe she just didn’t like my dad adding his little twist to the food she’d spent hours preparing. : )

Pictures to come!

Recipe of the Week: Still Figuring That Out!

Yes, I know it’s almost Friday and I have yet to post a new recipe for the week.  These last couple of weeks here at Zayt and Zaatar have really highlighted the emotionality involved in cooking for your loved ones. Last Sunday I cooked for my dad’s birthday and this week I am attempting to pay my respects to the woman who fuels the fire under this little project – my mama.

I’m overwhelmed with emotion as I struggle to remember the past – the food she made, the food she loved to eat, her memory. I’m overwhelmed because I don’t remember as much as I want to remember. I find myself struggling to hold on to things I’ve probably long since forgotten. I’ve been hounding my dad and brother for their memories, but personal histories are so subjective and nothing is helping me feel closer to the memories I wish I had.

I keep flipping through her cookbook, hoping the recipe I want will jump out and hug me. I get frustrated that I can’t read Arabic better than I do and I just feel kind of helpless. I feel like there is something screaming at me from those pages of her cookbook and I am totally missing the boat.

I have a few ideas meandering around my mind. I will be making this dessert she used to make for us that I loved. It’s not an Arabic dessert, but one I always craved and haven’t had since she died. I don’t have the recipe, I’m just going off of memory. It’s a pistachio and chocolate pudding cake of sorts. You crumble these biscuit cookies on the bottom of a glass dish and just alternate layers of pudding and cookie till you reach the top of the dish.  I just hope Jell-O still makes pistachio pudding!

I hope that whatever I do end up cooking will help bring me closer to her memory on a holiday that often serves as a glaring reminder of her absence.

Birthday Kibbeh!

Basim - The Early Years (a.k.a. My Dad!)

I want to start off this post by wishing my dad a very HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!! I decided to share (without telling him, of course. Hi Dad!!) an old photo of my pops to commemorate this special day.  He was a pretty cute kid, no? And, before I get into the boring food stuff, I just wanted to take a moment to share a little bit about my father.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I think the world of my dad. He is sincerely one of the kindest individuals I’ve ever known, and I’d like to think a lot of my “save the world” shenanigans can be attributed to his influence. He’s a beautiful artist who taught me a lot about the importance of creativity and supporting the arts.  He’s a great cook, a patient (well, somewhat patient) teacher and a awesome human being.

When we were younger, my dad used to take my brother and I over to the Arboretum on Sunday afternoons. We’d pack a small bag with stuff like water, lifesavers and snacks and we’d walk the trails together and explore nature. He called them ‘trust walks’.  There were times we’d meander through the trails with our eyes closed and trust that dad would guide us safely to our next destination.  I remember one such Sunday when I was instructed to open my eyes at our given destination only to discover he’d led me right over to a lizard. Now, I’m not a fan of lizards. I inherited that disdain from my mother, and my irrational reaction to their presence apparently served as great amusement for my father that day.  That little lizard and I were having a staring contest, y’all. We were that close to one another.

I never thought much about that story until now, and those walks really say a lot about my dad. No. Not that he enjoys freaking his children out with the things they fear most. Ok, well maybe a little. Mostly, those moments served as comic relief. They were there to remind us not to take everything so seriously and to enjoy the little things in life. I wish I could say I’ve taken those lessons to heart more than I have, but I suppose it’s never too late to get with the program!

So, in honor of his (undisclosed age) birthday, I decided to make a dish he loves – kibbeh. I have to say I was a bit worried about making this dish. After going through both my mama’s recipe and the recipe in Sahtein, I’d convinced myself this week’s attempt at cooking was going to result in an epic fail. I really wanted to try to make this on my own because it’s kind of lame to have your dad help cook his own birthday dinner. Alas, I needed his help throughout the process.

The recipe I shared last week was pretty spot on and I only  made a few minor changes. Instead of using lamb in the stuffing and beef for the raw kibbeh, I opted to use ground sirloin for the kibbeh stuffing and combination of lean ground beef and ground lamb (1 lb. of each) for the raw mixture. I added all the spices to the raw mixture and not just salt and pepper per the recipe. We also added about a tbsp. of a spice called ‘sumac’ because my dad likes the flavor. Sumac is a tart spice with a somewhat lemony flavor. I don’t know that sumac is traditionally used in kibbeh, but it was definitely a nice addition to the dish.

Aside from that, the only other minor change was the amount of burghul needed. Three cups proved to be a bit too much for the amount of meat we used, so we scaled it back a bit. I’d say we used about 2 and a half cups and it was just right.  I will also chill out on how much oil/butter I use next time. I underestimated the natural fat that the meat brings and used a wee bit too much added fat to the dish. I know butter is never a bad thing, but sometimes less is more.  It also took more than 30 minutes to cook. We did end up baking the dish at 400 vs. 450 and it cooked for a little under an hour. Make sure to keep a close eye on it after the 4o minute mark so it doesn’t overcook/burn.

The results, I am happy to say, were fantastic. It tastes just like I remember baked kibbeh to taste and, lemme tell ya, it’s been awhile. I paired it with some plain yogurt (I’m not brave enough to try making my own laban just yet) and a cucumber & tomato salad. I’ll share the rest of the photos tomorrow, but for now enjoy a lovely pic of the final product – cheesy mint leaf garnish included.

A Feast Worthy of A King

Baking 101: Sometimes The Cookie Doesn’t Crumble

Although I am beginner when it comes to cooking, I am somewhat of a veteran to the baking world.  My sweet tooth led me to baking long ago; we’re a natural fit. Cookies, pies, cakes, brownies – they are all filled with heaping spoonfuls of processed sugar and that makes my tummy happy. Beyond the obvious though, I love baking cookies for people and giving them as gifts. I get, usually, a great deal of satisfaction from being able to bake homemade cookies for the people I love. It makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something worthwhile and I’m genuinely good at baking most things.  So, when Easter rolled around, I figured now might be a good time to try making a dessert. I felt confident that I could conquer the recipe and provide my family with something yummy to eat on a significant holiday day.

A few weeks back, I’d stopped by my cousin’s restaurant to grab a bite to eat. While we were hanging out talking, one of my cousins offered me a bag filled with rock cookies. She’d brought them back from a trip to see some of our family in Tennessee and they were just as yummy as I’d remembered.

Rock cookies are nothing fancy. They look bland and uninteresting, but the taste is so addictive. I’m pretty sure they aren’t a traditional Arabic cookie, but one that has been embraced and perfected by my aunts and one I was excited to be able to tackle.

I followed the recipe almost exactly – with an exception of adding a bit more cinnamon to the final mixture – and was satisfied with taste of the batter. My main concern was making sure the cookies baked in the shape of bite-sized mounds. I wanted the texture to be a little dry, but crumbly with just the right amount of sugar to spice.

Well, that’s not exactly how the baking of these cookies went down. All three trays came out exactly the same – flat, spongy and dry as hell.  I’m still trying to figure out what went wrong. We considered the role humidity may have played in the baking process, whether using baking soda was necessary, and even tried adding a bit more flour in the last batch to see if that would make a difference. I could really use some insight from anyone who bakes regularly.  What could I have done differently to get the texture I wanted??

Needless to say, I had a really difficult time accepting my baking defeat. I know it’s merely a hiccup, but something about this experience left me emotional and, ok I’ll admit it, a tiny bit irrational.  I guess part of my reaction stemmed from the Easter holiday being such a symbolic holiday, and while I’m not exactly what one would call devout, the idea of rebirth and second chances was really resonating with me this time around.  I guess the cookies were a symbolic offering of sorts to my family (especially because it was my uncle’s 75th birthday, too) and I feel like I failed at making it a memorable one. My dad kept trying to insist that we take the cookies anyway; that they tasted fine. I refused.

It’s odd. When I cook and don’t such a great job, I am usually pretty forgiving of myself.  When I bake and fail, I go into complete hysterics. I know I was acting like a bratty pre-teen and my family was being encouraging despite the bad attitude.  I’ll also say that I was overcome by how encouraging my extended family has been about this project. You all have been so amazing for taking the time to read and share this endeavor with me.  And I’ll end this post with the words of encouragement from my awesome Uncle Vic: ” Just remember, none of us are born knowing anything. We learn by practicing.”

Y’all better get ready to eat some cookies, because I’m gonna make these suckers a hundred times until I get them right.

Butter...and plenty of it!
Flour with all the fixins'
Changing Batter - One Egg at a Time
Batter + Flour
+ Raisins and Walnuts
Batter Complete!
Final Product

Grape Leaves Won’t Roll Themselves, People.

One of the niftiest – and most unforeseen – things about starting a food-centric blog is how often people reach out to invite you to learn,cook and eat with them.  Last night, I took advantage of  one such invitation and attended a small gathering of women who came together to learn how to roll stuffed grape leaves, share conversation and learn a little bit about how to make good Arabic food.

My friend Hadeel (known as @gazawia on Twitter) loves food and her passion no doubt originated from her amazing mama. She was so kind to extend the invitation to a handful of us and I feel very privileged to have learned a few tricks of the trade from women who know what good food looks like. I am even more appreciative of the fact that I met a few incredible women that I hadn’t known before and became inspired by the energy in the room.

I genuinely understand now why my mother never cooked the tedious meals alone – it’s boring otherwise.  Rolling grape leaves is an arduous process; especially when it’s being done for a large number of people. The act of snipping the stems, laying out the leaf, stuffing the leaf and then rolling is monotonous and tiresome.  But the work is instantly transformed when good conversation is added into the mix.

I am also still trying to digest  how significantly dishes vary by the culture of one’s family or their city of origin.  For instance, I recall my mom and aunts making grape leaves one of two ways. They either stuffed them with a rice/lamb mixture or they opted for the vegetarian version (siyami) which is a mixture of rice, tomatoes, onions, mint, parsley, lemon, oil, salt and pepper. Sometimes they would cook the grape leaves in a tomato broth and other times they’d almost steam them dry and serve with laban (yogurt) for dipping.  We grew grape leaf vines in the backyard of my childhood home, so I have fond memories of helping my mom pick the leaves. I remember being very careful not to pick ones that had succumbed to the wrath of a hungry creature.

Once the rolling was done, my mother would line the bottom of the pan with oil-treated grape leaves to help prevent the bottom layers from sticking. I learned last night that you could also use potatoes to line the bottom of the pot and they are apparently delicious to eat as well. Who knew?? I also learned that apparently the concept of siyami rice for dishes like grape leaves or stuffed squash originated from Christian Palestinians (like me) as an alternative to meat-heavy dishes during Lent.

It was so much fun to share memories and swap ideas. I had a wonderful time and I’m actually hoping to find a group of lovely ladies who might up for a monthly sort of cooking pow-wow in the future.  Any takers?

Gazawia in Action!
Grape Leaves in a Jar
The Stuffing!
Rollin', rollin', rollin'...
@Supernova_star is a natural!!
This is what fresh looks like.
This is what fresh looks like when chopped up & thrown into a bowl.

What? A Break Already??

I swear I have a good excuse though!!

So, I have to say that I’m pretty proud of myself for sticking to this little project. I am, once again, floored that so many of you have taken a liking to this and I can’t wait to get into more complicated dishes – because those are REALLY some of my favorites. I’m proud of how well most of the dishes have turned out and I’m growing my confident in my ability with each day.

What I am still struggling with is sharing more about my personal history. I know that I will grow more comfortable with this over time, so please be patient with me.  In the short time that I knew my mother, I learned what my young mind allowed me to learn about her. I think I am hanging on to a lot of random memories that aren’t allowing me to see the bigger picture about her and my connection to her. I guess I hoped that is what this project would help me accomplish. Especially since a huge lifeline to her memory is something I lost access to long ago.

Anywaaaaaaay – Back to the reason why I won’t be cooking this week and possibly next. I’m going on a “vacation” of sorts. I’ll be heading to Austin on Friday to attend this year’s SXSW Festival. I’ll be in Austin the entire span of the fest; from interactive to music. I’m simultaneously excited and anxious. I’ve covered the music portion of SXSW in the past when I wrote more about music. This will be my first foray into the interactive portion and I can’t wait! I’m hoping the information I learn will be invaluable for the company I co-own with two good friends of mine. I hope to be blogging about the panels I attend and the cool people I meet. You can check out the blog at Your Name [Here] Media’s site (we’re in the process of revamping our site, so please excuse the clutter! We will be running at full speed before you know it!) and Girlyfight – a new site I am working on with another close friend. I’m sure I’ll also be tweeting away from both the YNH and Girlyfight accounts.

So, don’t fret! I’ll be around and be back to cooking before you know it, so stick around.

Happy Eating!

Thank You!

The idea for this project has been a long time coming. I mulled it over in my head for months. I told people I was going to do it for months after that. Then, I did nothing. After the nothingness, I bought a domain name, started a new blog, wrote one touchy-feely post and then…nothing.

I’m not sure if it was timing, a momentary burst of courage, or the memory of my mama that helped me get from point A to point B, but I’m beyond happy that I found the motivation to kick this idea into high gear.

And it paid off, because last week, this lil’ old blog was featured in a post by the Houston Press food blog, Eating… Our Words.

And though I went through a range of emotions that included everything from elation to anxiety, I was reminded by one of the closest people in my life to remember the major purpose of this project and now I’m calm.

I just wanted to take a moment to thank the Houston Press and all of you who decided to join me as I figure this cooking/personal journey thing out.  Y’all are awesome.

New recipe coming tomorrow as soon as I can figure out what the heck I’m in the mood to make.  Stay tuned!

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!

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