Lebanese summer salad recipes (and many ways to eat your mint)



Lebanese salad recipes are bright, light, and always high on flavor. Plenty of crunch too. Oh, and don’t forget the mint! It’s everywhere in Lebanese recipes, especially summer salads, most of which happily end in the word “mint.” As you collect all of the good stuff we’ve been waiting for all year from the farmers markets near you, or your own garden (God bless you), consider:

Tabbouleh Salad, and its Quinoa cousin
(see how to prep your parsley the proper way here)

Cucumber and Tomato Salad with Mint

Radish and Arugula Salad

Yogurt Cucumber Salad with Garlic and Mint
(my favorite)

Lemony Potato Salad with Mint
(your favorite…this recipe gets a lot of attention!)

Grilled Corn Salad with Feta and Mint
(as Geralyn says: addictive)

Fattoush Salad

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Grilled Corn Salad with Mint and Feta Recipe

The truth is that even though Dan and I are newlyweds, it is summer up north in Michigan. This is where I do most of my work. His work, however, is downstate. So when all of the festivities of wedding and family took their leave this past week, so did he. By the end of the week, he promised he’d be back up north.

I did my best to persuade him to take one more week off, but it wasn’t so long ago that my office was not my kitchen, so I understood his quiet smile that had “not happening” written all over it.

Then midweek my mom and my sister and I had the great good fortune of a visit from our family from Lebanon. They would be in town for just a few days, and one of those would include dinner at our house. The gift of this opportunity is that this family has been so very special to us, big stuff like helping Ruth when she was in Lebanon adopting baby John amid another summer’s warzone (read my posts about it, the first posts that launched my blog, here and here). When Mom and Peg and I were in Lebanon two years ago for our first visit, this family rocked a Lebanese dinner for us like none other.

So when Dan heard we’d be hosting this dinner, he started to think he might head back up north sooner than planned. The stomach is a persuasive agent, isn’t it? But the poor guy was imagining a full-on Lebanese feast, and when he asked me to run through the menu with him, his response was a simple: Oh.

Our dinner plan was for a feast, for sure, but we wanted to give our cousins a taste of Up North, a Northern Michigan immersion. That meant Michigan’s whitefish dinner with all of the trimmings of dilled new potatoes and cherry pie. That’s all well and good, but for a Lebaneser who had visions of fatayar and kibbeh and coosa dancing in his head, there was certain disappointment. And his early arrival? Not so much!

Too too bad for Mister. The menu was nothing to scoff at, since it branched out beyond the whitefish to include beef tenderloin (good, clean grass-fed meat) and locally-raised chicken for yogurt-marinated kabobs with red onion and peppers (that one’s coming out in my book, so delicious), along with a truly to-die-for Lebanese-style grilled corn salad with fresh mint and feta.

The reality, though, is that there was nothing we could put on our table to rival the meal our cousin May prepared on a day’s notice in Lebanon, so maybe our Michigan supper was my sheepish way of steering clear of the foods she, and all of the others who were with her, are beyond-the-beyond experts at cooking.

As for Dan, there was more than one phone call the afternoon of the dinner, wanting full details about what was cooking. The cherry pies and the corn on the grill and its salad, which we also ate last week when my brothers and the whole clan was up north for the wedding? That elicited the greatest response of all: “Lady, I should’ve come.”

Grilled Corn Salad with Mint and Feta
The salad takes really well to the throw-it-all-in approach, and to variations on the theme: don’t like mint? Use cilantro or basil or parsley. No feta on hand? Goat cheese or fresh mozzarella (or no cheese at all) work perfectly.  Grill the corn on high heat for summer-char, brushed with olive oil first to keep it from drying out too much (my brother Richard’s great idea). Put it all together in a pretty bowl, and start passing the love around! When you have full fridge, the salad stores easily in a Ziplock bag.

5-8 cobs of corn, shucked
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing and for dressing
Big handful fresh mint, finely chopped
1/2 red onion, finely diced
1/2 cup crumbled feta
Juice of 1 lemon
Big pinch of kosher salt, grind of black pepper

Grill the corn over high heat, brushing the cobs all over with olive oil to keep it from drying out. Cool slightly and slice the kernals from the cobs.

Combine the corn, mint, onion, and feta in a bowl and dress with the lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper. Serve immediately, or later, or tomorrow.

Something about this past winter, which was filled with the details of recipe development and writing for my Lebanese cookbook, has me jumping for joy when I go into the kitchen now with no pen and paper, no computer, no measuring cups, and just have at it. I am all about this easy grilled corn salad, which our friend Brooke brought to a picnic out on the Point last summer. I give it an inflection of Lebanese with fresh mint; hers had basil, which was delicious. You barely need to dress it for the flavor to stand tall.

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Postcard from Up North

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. ~ Mt 7:7

(These words never felt truer, or more humbling, than this past weekend when Dan Shaheen and I were married Up North in Michigan. I can’t wait to share more with you about that soon, including photos of a beautiful day–and a cake!–to remember.)

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Strawberry Rose Cheesecake Recipe, with labneh

I was on the hunt for strawberries for all kinds of reasons. Number one: the presence of strawberries at the farmer’s market Up North would mean that the soil, the air, the sun and sky were, at long long last, generous enough to give us a taste of summer.

Secondly, last Friday was the first farm market day of the summer over in Petoskey, and for some unknown reason (delusional fantasies) I thought the market would be brimming over with the riches of early summer. In my head there would be peas, asparagus, morels. And strawberries.

Another reason for my strawberry high-hopes was that I would be at the market with a filmmaker who would be filming the whole scene. This real, live filmmaker is Bob Albers, a professor at Michigan State who is making a documentary film called In the Moment. Here’s how he describes it:

When in the moment, an individual’s performance is at its most focused, effortless, effective, and beautiful, whether it is in art or music or sports, combat, or even everyday tasks like cooking or cleaning. Everyone has these experiences, but, for most of us, being in the moment is a rare and fleeting experience. In this documentary, we open the door to these precious and private experiences and provide the viewer with a deeper appreciation for what it means and what it takes to live in the moment.

Last year, Bob heard an interview I did on Current State, a program WKAR Public Radio. What he heard, what he looks for, is people who live their lives in a full-tilt dedication to the experiences of being “in the moment,” and the remarkable outcomes from that in their lives and careers.

My first reaction was, Wow! You want me to be in this?! Then: Oh Lord, I hope I don’t slouch, as I tend to do, or have a bad hair day, or go blank in my mind about any deep and penetrating question he might ask. And, more importantly, what will I cook for him?

Back in November Bob and his crew jumped into one of the big family baking days we like to have, to get a feel for the Lebanese kitchen at its best. He clipped a microphone to my lapel and I surprised myself by forgetting the thing was there, and just, well, got into the moment of baking with my cousins.

Then last week he and his student-filmmaker Izak, who happens to have been born and raised in Harbor Springs, headed north to visit with me in another element, my quiet element where solitude reigns most of the year and the writing life, the photography, the stories and memories and recipes, take hold. We would go to the first farmer’s market of the year where I would find glorious strawberries and then take them home and show off my ever-so-cool idea for a strawberry cheesecake made with my trademark ingredient, rose water, and made that much more delicious with some labneh in the mix.

However. Northern Michigan is not wont to acquiesce to the needs of a food blogger sourcing her ingredients before it’s time. When it is in fact time, she will give and give and give. But not before.

We found no strawberry at the market, and we lasted just a few short minutes in the wind chill and rain (I saw a woman in a down coat and was green with envy). But we did run into some of my favorite growers from Pond Hill Farm and Farmer White’s, so nice to see them again. I bought some fresh, homemade pasta and a jar of Pond Hill marinara, and we stopped in at Symon’s where I bought a hunk of good Parmesan. It made for a great lunch, a few solid chopping moves to get on camera, and assuaged my boo-hoo over the berries. I must have talked about that a little too much (the microphone is ON, Maureen) because at one point Bob asked, in his genuine and cool way, why the misery over the lack of strawberries?

He and Izak also asked a whole slew of other interesting questions, which were probing and intriguing and got me thinking about what I do when I’m “in the moment”, how I do it, and why. Izak even introduced me to one of the artesian wells in Harbor Springs that I couldn’t believe I’d never seen before.  It was so interesting and exciting that I got over the fact that I couldn’t make a strawberry-rose cheesecake for them. And that worked out fine because now the berries are making their beautiful, fragrant, summery debut—a moment that, however late, I am delighted to be in.

Strawberry-Rose Cheesecake
For all of its luscious richness, this cake is delightfully light, refreshing, and beautiful. It doesn’t hurt anything for our summer days that it’s not baked, but chilled for a good long time, so you can make it up to a few days in advance. Top the cheesecake with strawberries and blueberries for a 4th of July beauty. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

1 envelope plain powdered gelatin (such as Knox brand)
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
4 ounces salted butter (1 stick), melted
1 pound cream cheese (2 8 oz. boxes)
1 cup labneh or plain Greek yogurt
2/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon rose water
1 pound strawberries, hulled and coarsely chopped, reserving a few for garnish
1/3 cup sour cream

In a small saucepan, slowly sprinkle the gelatin over the pomegranate juice, letting the powder saturate in the juice as you go. Warm the mixture over medium low heat until the gelatin is dissolved, taking care not to bring to a boil. Pour the mixture into a small bowl to cool completely.

Heat the oven to 360°F. In a medium bowl, combine the graham cracker crumbs with the melted butter. Press the damp crumbs evenly into the bottom of a 9-inch spring form pan. The crumbs can be pressed up the sides of the pan partially, or kept along the bottom only. Bake the crust for about 20 minutes, or until it is fragrant and firm. Cool completely.

In the bowl of a food processor, or in a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, pulse or whisk the cream cheese and labneh with 2/3 cup of the sugar and rose water until they are completely smooth and no lumps remain.

Add the strawberries and pulse or whisk until the berries are fully incorporated into the cheese mixture. Pour in the cooled pomegranate juice mixture and mix just to combine (over-stirring the gelatin can render it less effective). Taste and add more rose water if needed.

Pour the strawberry-cheese mixture into the prepared and cooled graham cracker crust. Chill for at least 8 hours and up to 3 days. To remove the cake from the spring form pan, wrap the pan with a kitchen towel that has been rinsed in very warm water and wrung out. Run a sharp knife around the edge of the cake, then open the spring form ring, run a large metal spatula under the crust, and transfer the cake to a serving platter.

Combine the sour cream with a teaspoon of sugar and spread it over the top of the cheesecake. Arrange the reserved whole berries in the center of the cake, and serve cold.

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Michigan’s Smoked Whitefish Dip Recipe

Everyone has their own. It’s like Lebanese seven-spice mix: which seven depends on who is doing the mixing, but the mix is happening, everywhere you go there. And for the record, it’s not always seven. I grew up on three (salt+pepper+cinnamon).

Here in Michigan, where whitefish dinners reign supreme (and lunches too–I ate the finest whitefish sandwich of my life at American Spoon’s Gelato Café recently in Petoskey–God bless them), we do find lots of other ways to eat the abundance of the mild, tender fish that comes from our cold, generous waters.

Whitefish takes to smoking like a boat to water. Like all of the best flavors of summer that come from smoke, from char, smoked whitefish tastes deeply of the outdoors, of both lake and bonfire, an ironic synthesis. Not too many smoke their own fish at home, far as I can tell. I like to think I would if I could stand the steady scent of the smoke. The one project in culinary school that left me intrigued yet somewhat woozy was hot and cold smoking. I tended the wood and the fire and the meats and fish, and by the time we were through, I was through too, so smoked out I vowed I would never eat a smoked anything ever again.

A little time and distance got me back on track, at least enough to embrace smoked whitefish when I headed back to Michigan. Recently my mom and I took a drive over to Charlevoix to watch the whitefish gurus in action at John Cross Fish Market. The fourth-generation, family-owned business is the whitefish heartbeat of the region, supplying pretty much every store and restaurant with its fish, both fresh and smoked.

When we stopped in unannounced the other day, Kellie Cross Sutherland took us in as though she’d been waiting for just such a visit all morning long. That’s the Up North way. The fishery handles a ton of fish every day, turning out filets and smoked whole and hunked whitefish, along with their own smoke whitefish pepper sausage, so delicious, and their family-recipe pate or dip.

The pate and dip monikers are interchangeable. As far as I can tell they end up being the same thing—smoked fish with some sort of creamy binder along with spices and whatnot—call it what you will. I call mine dip because I’m such a huge fan of liver pate that anything else just feels like a fake-out to me. It’s like hummus with no chickpeas. NoCanDo.

I didn’t dare ask what was in the John Cross dip, knowing how protected, how proprietary whitefish dips are in this neck of the woods—every grocery store and restaurant in these parts offers its own special recipe, and puts a pretty price tag on it. And that’s okay, because like every proud cook, I like my own the best, by a lot, of any whitefish dip I’ve tasted (I know, kitchen arrogance is not pretty). We’re talking cream cheese, we’re talking labneh. See?

But Kellie did tell me everything you’d want to know about the process of preparing the fish, which was made that much more real as I stood in a pool of fish guts (next time I won’t wear flip-flops): the fishing in waters all over the place here, the scaling and heading, dressing, fileting, pin-boning, and finally brining before smoking over a maple wood fire.

Our porch time is getting into full swing up north now, which is just the place for lemonade and cocktails, Michigan’s ubiquitous smoked whitefish dip with vegetables, Neva Betta crackers, and happy summer-talk that every year feels as though it’s really never been better.

Michigan Smoked Whitefish Dip

1 hunk smoked whitefish (about 2 cups flaked meat)
3 ounces best-quality cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 cups labneh or Greek yogurt
2 scallions, thinly sliced
pinch kosher salt

Remove the skin from the fish and flake the meat into small shreds using your fingers and a fork, taking care to remove any pin bones and tough edges.Flaking the fish finely is key, so take your time.

In a medium bowl, stir the cream cheese until it is smooth. Add the labneh and stir until the mixture is smooth, using a whisk if needed. Stir in the smoked whitefish and scallions, taste, and season with a pinch of salt. Serve the dip with vegetables and crackers.

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