No matter how much you prepare, you can’t anticipate everything. This is true in most facets of life, and it’s been true on the promotional tour for the Rose Water & Orange Blossoms cookbook.
On my part there’s preparation for what to say, what stories to tell, and what to cook if it’s a demo. But my favorite time of any gathering is when people ask questions. So many interesting questions!
At a recent, beautiful Lebanese dinner and book signing in Minneapolis, my brother Tom asked a great one: who are your influences and inspiration?
It’s such a good thing to think on who it is we admire most and how they’ve helped us, knowingly or not, on our path. I hadn’t spent much time in my preparations for my talks anticipating this question, so here I needed to wing it.
First thought that came to my mind? Mama. That beautiful, graceful, warm, generous woman that is our mom plays an enormous role in my psyche and all that I do. My hands get choked up here writing about it just like my voice did there that night talking about it.
There are many others of course, the big influencers so many of us culinary devotees turn to. I’m talking the Julia Childs and Jacques Pepins, the Ottolenghis and the Dori Greenspans of our bookshelves, blogospheres, and YouTubes. I can’t imagine a life in the kitchen without them and my whole team of masters who I look to so often.
But there are others who I want to note as well, with the utmost, deep-down profound gratitude. And they are: All of you. You. You. And you.
You people influence and inspire me in the most remarkable ways. In your comments here on the blog, and in the many many emails you send me, I am the recipient not only of your abiding encouragement and friendship, but also of your stories about your own Lebanese families or friends and the dishes you’re making or want to make (almost always with a desire to remember a time past, a Sitto or a parent or a childhood of love), and especially your tips and techniques and questions.
What fun it is for me to hear what you’d like to see me share here, recipes for how to brine olives (Wow. I might have to spend some research time in California or Lebanon for that one, right?!), or how to make sesame halva (it’s far from obvious to achieve that crumbly texture in a home kitchen). You’ve asked for sfouf cake (can’t wait; it’s coming!) and how in the world to make chicken shawarma taste good at home.
The shawarma is a challenge because it’s traditionally layers of meat (and fat…) that are long-roasted on a vertical spit, then shaved off all hot and juicy and beautifully charred. In my experience—which isn’t extensive given that shawarma isn’t typically made at home, and it’s not one we ate growing up—shawarma isn’t served this way too often even in Lebanese restaurants here, where it’s more like lackluster marinated chicken pieces with no char at all.
Shawarma is meant to be fast food, street food. When I asked my brother (another one) what he ate on a recent 24-hour trip to New York City, he said they couldn’t land a good restaurant at a late hour and ended up eating fantastic shawarma from street vendors. You don’t find that just anywhere, Dick said.
One reader here is so into perfecting authentic homemade shawarma that he bought a small commercial spit. He wrote with pride about his tool, sending a photo and asking for a method, not just a recipe. I felt at a loss to help him with this, but it did get me to thinking how we could enjoy shawarma at home without using the spit most of us don’t have on hand.
The results of the shawarma-quest are more than acceptable; they’re downright delectable. Using the qualities of dark meat to keep everything tender while roasting at high temperatures (you have to work hard to overcook dark meat), I’d say this is as close as one could expect to come to the mouthwatering flavor and texture of spit-fired shawarma at home.
But then you all might just up the ante with more of your good ideas for how to make phenomenal shawarma at home. I hug you for that! And as always, I say: Bring it! And, most especially: Thank you! I love you dearly.
- For the shawarma:
- Juice of 2 lemons
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ cup yogurt (any fat percentage)
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons sumac
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2 pounds skinless boneless chicken thighs
- 1 large red onion, peeled and quartered
- 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- For the sauce:
- 1 cup whole-milk yogurt, chilled
- Pinch kosher salt
- Cayenne pepper, to taste
- Olives, cucumbers, pickled turnips, and flatbread or pita bread, for serving
- In a medium bowl, combine the lemon juice, olive oil, yogurt, garlic, salt, sumac, cinnamon, and red pepper flakes. Add the chicken, cover, and marinate for at least one hour and not more than one day.
- Heat the oven to 500°F with a rack positioned in the upper third of the oven. Line a sheet pan with parchment or non-stick foil.
- Toss the red onion with the chicken in the marinade, then place the chicken and onion evenly on the sheet pan, discarding the marinade. Roast for about 30 minutes, flipping the chicken halfway through cooking, until the chicken is nicely crisped around the edges and golden brown. Broil for a few minutes to get the chicken caramelized, if needed.
- Immediately slice the chicken into ¼-inch strips, then lay them over a bed of rice.
- Make a quick yogurt sauce by whisking the yogurt with cayenne and salt. Adjust seasonings to taste. Drizzle the sauce over the shawarma, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve the shawarma hot, with the roasted onions, olives, pickles, cucumbers, and bread on the side.