Best Lebanese Recipes for Easter, a glass of ice water, and a word of thanks

It has always struck me that the first thing that happens whenever someone walks up the front steps and enters the home of anyone in my family, they are welcomed with a tall glass of ice water. It’s our pineapple, our refreshment. As my father used to say: don’t even ask them. Just put the glass out there, and watch what happens (they’ll drink). That he anticipated a need was a simple, but true, satisfaction.

Many of you have been here at Rose Water & Orange Blossoms from the start, and a great many of you have just walked up the front steps recently. Old and new friends, welcome. Thank you so very much to everyone who last week found this place worthy of a vote (and the time that took) in Saveur’s Best Food Blog Awards—there were so many great blogs in the running, and in the end, we won!  Your support means the world to me, and I am honored every day to share in our love for fresh and heritage Lebanese recipes, good stories, and beautiful photography—it’s my way of handing you a tall drink of water, in hopes you’re refreshed, in hopes you’ll come back often.

 

I’ve been enjoying hearing from cooks around the country who are planning their menus for Easter, and asking about Lebanese recipes to make for their families and friends. People like my Aunt Louise have already rolled at least a good hundred grape leaves and put them in the freezer, so when it’s go time, they’re ready. She’s putting out a spread, as she always does, that is not just a feast, but a serious feat, given all of the dishes she makes.

 

 

How cool is it that spending Easter with my soon-to-be in-laws, as I will this year, is so much like spending it with my own family (miss you all). As my mother says, because Dan and I are both Lebanese and come from such similar families, we “speak the same language.” And yes, I call Dan’s mother Aunt Louise. But he is not my cousin. No, not even a little bit. She is an aunt by affection, not blood, and I’m quite content to keep right on calling her that after the wedding. Don’t you think so?! It’s fun making people wonder, anyway.

So the menu, for a meal that falls anytime after 11 a.m.—for us, holiday meals always take place at about 2 p.m. One meal for the day, but with plenty of grazing before and again in the evening. Here is something of what goes on in the kitchen at Aunt Louise’s (her menu, believe it or not, is far more extensive). It’s not unlike what went down at Aunt Hilda’s (that’s a blood aunt, my father’s sister), and then not surprising that the two of them were best friends. They spoke the same language, too.

Grape Leaf Rolls, Vegetarian or Meat & Rice
Always, at every big meal.

 Spinach Fatayar
Some work. Worth it.

Pink Deviled Eggs with Yogurt and Mint
Not a tradition here, but maybe time to start one.

Lamb Lollipops with Fresh Mint Sauce
One of life’s great pleasures. 

Kibbeh Sahnieh
We’ll also eat it raw, the favorite. 

Za’atar Roasted Potatoes
A mid-winter, mid-manuscript discovery for me this year. It’s here to stay. 

Fattoush Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette
Big and crunchy. 

White Asparagus with Pistachio Oil
For the spring we wish we were having in Michigan. 

Ka’ik Spiced Sweet Bread with Rose Water Milk Glaze
Aunt Louise’s specialty of the season.

Lemon Meringue Tart, the Most Extraordinary
My specialty of the season.

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Postcard from Up North


Thaw, with her gentle persuasion, is more powerful than Thor with his hammer. The one melts, the other breaks into pieces. ~ Henry David Thoreau

(Little Traverse Bay responds beautifully to gentle persuasion, as we all do…. )

Thank you for your patience these months of work on my book, my dear friends. First draft is complete!

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May I ask for your vote for Lebanese cuisine?!

 

   

   

Great news! Rose Water & Orange Blossoms is a finalist in the Saveur Best Food Blog Awards…I’d be so honored to have your vote (takes just a moment, right here), which closes April 9th.

As a warm welcome to all of our new readers, the photos here (they’re linked to stories and recipes) are meant to give you, and all of us, a little taste of the Lebanese table we love to gather around….

   

Being recognized by Saveur means a lot to me for a whole slew of reasons.

Food magazines like Saveur have been a staple of my reading diet for a lot of years. As long as I can remember, really, since my mom always had them around when we were kids. I remember sitting behind the family room door (the only place the fourth of five kids could find some privacy) to dive into Bon Appetit and, for good measure, Ladies Home Journal. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t meant to be reading the “Can This Marriage Be Saved” column so religiously at 10 years old, and I don’t think it did much for me after all (this happened), but the food stuff—that stuck with me.

As soon as I had my own address, my mama started me on my own magazine subscriptions. I signed on for others whenever I found a magazine I didn’t want to miss a single issue of, which included the then-brand-new Saveur magazine (launched in 1994). Saveur’s way with story, with history, and above all with culture and cuisine was completely unique and riveting.

From the start I thought This is my food! These are my people! I remember telling a guy I was dating that if I could do anything at all, it would be to have Lebanese food, written by me, published in Saveur. That I might even like to write books about it. He kinda laughed, and not in a way you’d approve of. He, also a writer, thought I was reaching a little too high. Good thing that one ended when grad school did.

    

Then, when I was living in Chicago working on everything but my food writing, I could see the eyes of the culinary world turning its gaze and palate toward Middle Eastern ingredients and recipes and culture. I was anxious that I wasn’t in the mix. I was living with my sister, and every month when the magazines arrived, we’d scan for traces of our food.  Each time we saw a tidbit, Peg would wait for my reaction, which was not pretty. Yes, happy for Lebanese and other Middle Eastern cuisines, happy for the world to get to know how special, delicious, and interesting it is. But not happy, not happy at all, that I wasn’t the author of any of it.

One day I walked in and Peg said: Ummmm, go in the kitchen?

Saveur was on the kitchen table, opened to a full-on spread about hummus. I stared at the thing viciously. Tears burned my face. I grabbed it and tore the story out of the magazine. Peg thought I was going to trash it in the alley before she could even read it.

Instead, I marched to my desk and taped the ripped pages to the wall above it, directly in my daily line of vision.

Not too long after that, I did publish a short piece in Saveur, about learning to make laban, yogurt, with Sitto. And then some other stories, here and there, inspired by the beauty and love of Lebanese cuisine.

I started taking the (not always obvious, not always easy) leaps from one stone in the path to the next: leaving my corporate job in the city, going to culinary school out west, moving back to my hometown in Michigan, launching the Rose Water & Orange Blossoms blog, and now, publishing a Lebanese cookbook.

Do I still freak out whenever I see our food authored by other writers in all kinds of places? A little (okay, sometimes a lot; just ask Peg). Do I struggle not to laugh away my own big dreams? The “yes” to that has an expletive before it, it’s such a big yes. But above all, I’m so very glad the stories and the writers of the Lebanese way in the kitchen, and the wonderful magazines that publish them, are out there shining the light. And I’m grateful to be right there with them, sharing the love.

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Crisp Lentil Patties Recipe

There are very few downsides to my work with Rose Water & Orange Blossoms. Except one thing: I share stuff, and then I’m held to it.

Sweetless, Meatless March? It sounded good, and I was really ready to get off the sugar parade that had lingered since the holidays. Also the red meat: less is best and yet this is something I have not been good at abiding.

So I went for it, and just to make it extra real, I let all of you know. What happened to keeping our sacrifices private, so that no one but God above is aware that a girl is pining desperately for French macarons, but she digs down deep and finds a way to resist?

Not Maureenie; she has to put it all out there so that every time I’m in the presence of those in the know, which is very often, and the sweet things or the juicy meats tempt her, they stand there and watch and wait to see if she is going to have a #lentfail right before their eyes.

I’ve done alright so far, in case you were wondering. In case you were hoping for a big ‘ole give-in that just might assuage any guilty feelings of your own for whatever eating habit you may be trying to change….

But when you work with food and have a personal obsession for pastry, then it seems that there’s no rest for the weary. Take those macarons. They’ve been everywhere I turn lately. In Chicago, they peeked out from the pastry case at Pierrot Gourmet and ever so sweetly, every so gently tempted. But no. NO!

Then there is the crazy macaron-laden cover of Martha Stewart Living magazine. With step-by-step instructions, no less! We did make macarons in culinary school, so that experience along with this tutorial…I’m so money to lay down beautiful macarons with and for you. But no. NO. I shun macarons. I open the magazine and see lentil patties, pan sautéed and served with a cool yogurt sauce.

Hey, that looks good. That sounds good. And even though I promised you classic Lebanese lentil soup (rushta) in my meatless/sweetless line-up, I decided then and there to switch course and put my lentils to use as a pattie, a lentil burger, if you will.

I’m not saying these really very delicious, crispy flavorful lentil patties have completely cleared my mind of macarons—my daydreams consist of a honeymoon in Paris just so I can visit Laduree—but they are more than worthy of the plate during a meatless, sweetless commitment and, I suspect, long after.

Crisp Lentil Patties with Yogurt Sauce
This recipe is adapted from Martha Stewart Living. Makes 8 small, delicious patties.

1/3 cup French green lentils, sorted
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
1/3 cup sweet or red onion, finely chopped
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup fresh or 2/3 cup dried breadcrumbs
Few grinds freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, plus more for garnish
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
1 head of lettuce, such as bibb or romaine, leaves separated
1 cup plain yogurt or labneh
Pinch cayenne pepper

In a small saucepan, cover the lentils with water by a few inches and bring them to a boil over high heat. Add a teaspoon of salt and reduce the heat to simmer, cooking until the lentils are tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and cool the lentils for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to release the heat.

Puree half of the lentils, the onion, eggs, and bread crumbs in the food processor, blender or with a potato masher. In a medium bowl, combine this mixture with the remaining lentils and season with 1/2 teaspoon of salt, pepper, and 2 tablespoons of chopped parsley. The lentils can be chilled at this point for up to one day; bring to room temperature before proceeding. Form patties with about 1/4 cup of the lentil mixture for each.

In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat. Cook the patties, in batches if needed, until they are golden brown and crisp on each side, flipping them once.

In a small bowl, stir the yogurt with a pinch of salt until it is smooth and creamy.

Arrange the lettuce leaves on a platter or individual plates and lay the lentil patties over them. Serve them with the yogurt, drizzling the lentils and yogurt with olive oil and sprinkling all with chopped parsley and a pinch of cayenne pepper.

Posted in Stories and Recipes | Tagged , , , | 24 Comments

The Silver Lining

A few years ago, right about this time of year, I was living in Chicago and went to an event celebrating Saint Mary’s College with my sister. It was a gathering of alums and families who are especially connected with and supportive of the college. We were seated at a table with a woman who had caught my eye the moment we walked in, because of her striking beauty and her magnetic smile.

During our conversation over dinner, Hollye asked everyone at the table who our most inspiring teacher was. Mine was an English teacher at Saint Mary’s, a memory that led me to mention that I wanted to pursue my writing more fully, and how I was thinking of leaving my job and going to culinary school in San Francisco. It was the first time I’d really said anything to anyone outside the family about the plans that were starting to take shape. You absolutely have to do this!, Hollye said, you’re going to go for it and it’s going to be so great! At the end of the meal we had a table toast, which included Hollye saying to me: here’s to new beginnings.

She and her family were just getting ready to move to California themselves, to Santa Barbara. I kept tabs on Hollye here and there, as we tend to do when we connect with our invariably cool fellow alumnae from SMC (I always tell my mom: Saint Mary’s was the gift that keeps on giving).

It was a bright moment in time, looking ahead to new beginnings. So it was such a shock, such troubling news when Peg told me that Hollye had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s writing a blog about it, Peg said, and you’ve got to check it out.

Which I did, immediately. I had just finished culinary school and was getting set to launch Rose Water & Orange Blossoms. I was interested in seeing how Hollye was doing hers, and once I went online and started reading . . . and reading . . . and reading, I just wanted to keep reading the installments like the page-turner story that it was.

What I found on The Silver Pen blog was such honesty, and beauty, and humor, and vulnerability.  Hollye was not only writing her way through her experience (why must we call it a “battle” that we win or lose?, she asks) of breast cancer, treatment, and recovery as a nurse-turned-patient, but also delving deep in every direction of her interests like literature, philanthropy, fashion, travel, family…and nourishing food—I’ve contributed a post or two to The Silver Pen’s Friday’s Fixins–and giving us all kinds of inspiration.

All of this is infused with Hollye’s emphasis on finding the silver linings in life. In other words: the more aware of and grateful we are for the good things that always do surround us even in the midst of adversity and pain, the stronger, more joyous, and hopeful we are.

Hollye’s experience brought to mind Ruth, my brother’s wife who had cancer not long before, but who had passed away with two young children at home (hers was non-smoker’s lung cancer).

And my own mother, who had breast cancer in the slow-moving wake of my father’s death. A silver lining there was that my mama takes on these things from a place of calm, from a place of what can only be described as faith. The other huge silver lining: Mom didn’t need any treatment other than the (difficult, painful) mastectomy.

Also to mind: the new, state-of-the-art cancer center that my brother Chris and his neurosurgery partners are opening in East Lansing soon. So proud walking through with him for a little tour recently (and also thinking: I hope this is the only reason I ever need to come in here, for a tour…).

The silver linings and everything else Hollye’s been writing about on her blog have sparked a huge interest in readers like me (and you). So much so that she wrote a book that is hot off the presses this week: The Silver Lining, a Supportive and Insightful Guide to Breast Cancer.

Hollye’s co-author is the amazing photographer Elizabeth Messina, whose gorgeous photos together with Hollye’s words of support and wisdom (not to mention checklists of what to do at every step of the way if you have breast cancer, or love someone who does) create a treasure of a book that inspires me to keep going with my own dreams. It’s a book that reminds me of my mama, because it comes to us from a place calm, from a place of faith and hope, a place where new beginnings are possible.

 

Buy your copy of the gorgeous The Silver Lining at your local bookseller, or online at Amazon, Books-a-Million, Indie Bound, and Barnes and Noble.

Posted in Stories and Recipes | 14 Comments