A Foundation for Blessings

For the Lebanese, bread is a holy thing. When a piece of bread falls to the floor, it is picked up immediately, touched to the forehead and kissed. This is something the immigrant grandparents taught their children and grandchildren so they would appreciate all that they have in their prosperous American lives.

“We thank God for the bread,” said Hisham Khalifeh from behind his cash register at his Middle East Bakery and Pastry in Chicago. Khalifeh and his family were residents of war-torn Beirut for many years.

“My grandfather lived through war and hardship. He told us if we have bread and oil, that is enough.” He referred to the common Lebanese practice of tearing off a piece of pita and dipping it in olive oil and then in za’atar, a spice mix of sumac, sesame and thyme.

When you order takeout from any Lebanese restaurant, such as Fattoush, Al-Khayam or Aladdin Cafe in Chicago, set aside the typical accompaniment of cellophane-wrapped eating utensils. Who needs a fork?

Triangles cut from rounds of soft, thin pita will come with your meal, because every bite at the Lebanese table moves from plate to mouth with a piece of this bread.

There isn’t a single succulent Lebanese dish that requires the use of fork, knife or spoon. Exceptional flavor is the requirement in Lebanese eating, and with pita in one hand and a plate of food in the other, the diner is ready to experience the pleasure of eating Lebanese-style. A small piece of pita, or kimaj, filled with a bit of everything on the plate imparts the authentic flavor of Lebanese food, which always includes the taste and texture of well-made pita.

Your “bits of everything on the plate” to be scooped up in a piece of pita might include a smattering of hummus, a corner of kibbe ground lamb and cracked wheat, a thimble of tabbouli salad, a kalamata olive and the real flavormaker of Lebanese eating, a slathering of rich, creamy labne, a cream cheese-like spread made of thickened yogurt.

Khalifeh’s Middle East Bakery and Pastry sells pita in the Lebanese tradition, large and thin, along with other thicker styles.

“The bread is so good that I need nothing with it,” he said. “In fact, I eat the bread with the bread!” He has a customer who also eats the bread with bread, wrapping the pita around a sfeha, a meat pie of bread and lamb. Khalifeh said that by mid-afternoon, his stomach is “off” if he hasn’t eaten any pita bread.

His wife, Fadia, shakes her head at any diet that would exclude this bread. “We eat five or six large pitas a day,” she said. “We can’t eat without it. And look at me!” Fadia nodded to her own remarkably thin figure. The bread is both healthful and soulful, she said. Eating it makes one “much better not just in body, but in the mind and spirit,” Fadia added.

Elusive treasure

But this sublime bread is not, unfortunately, on the buyers’ list of many grocery stores in the Chicago area. Mary Claire Miller of Chicago recently served a Lebanese entree at a party, miniature lamb burgers with yogurt-cucumber sauce. The easy part of the meal was supposed to be the pita, which she planned to pick up at any of her local supermarkets.

“It was no simple task,” Miller said. “My desire for a good bag of pita–the thin, soft type I’ve eaten at the home of Lebanese friends–turned into a quest for the Holy Grail!”

The pita she found at Trader Joe’s was more of a thick, spongy flour tortilla than a pita. Whole Foods Market offered another thick pita that resisted the pita trademark pocket center, which makes it perfect for stuffing or wrapping around food. Whole Foods’ name-brand pita is made in Austin, Texas, and contains a suspiciously long list of ingredients. Many of these brands do not live up to the standards that those who know good pita expect: a large, thin round (10 to 12 inches) that is very soft and delicate in flavor.

When Miller couldn’t find what she needed in the grocery stores, she turned to one of her favorite Lebanese restaurants in Chicago, Fattoush. Fattoush is named for the traditional salad that features Lebanese-style croutons of toasted pita bread. Miller ordered takeout with extra bread and was set for her party. The bread served at Fattoush is classic thin Lebanese pita.

“The Lebanese don’t eat without this particularly thin pita bread,” said George Mounsef, Lebanon-born owner of Al-Khyam Bakery and Grocery in Chicago, which supplies some Chicago-area grocery stores and many of its Middle Eastern restaurants.

Simplicity itself

The ingredients in good pita are straightforward: flour, water, yeast, salt and a pinch of sugar to encourage browning. With such simple ingredients, it may seem easy to make this bread yourself. But this is a rare situation in which handmade bread is not superior to machine-made. A machine-made pita acquires a thinness that is not easily or consistently achieved by hand. And though the dough is run through a flattening machine and down a belt through the ovens, many hands are part of the bread baking.

The pita-breadmakers and ovens at Al Khyam were designed by the Mounsef brothers and imported from Lebanon. Pita is baked at a very high temperature, 500 degrees, for just a few minutes to encourage the dough to balloon. The bread seems hard and dry when it first comes out of the oven, but as it cools, it softens in its own steam. Bagging it immediately keeps it that way.

The Lebanese affinity for large pita (Mounsef makes one that measures 14 inches, which he says is the largest available in the country) does not mean that smaller pita, if thin enough, is not good. Mounsef sells his breads and other imported Lebanese products under his label, Zeina, which can be found at his friend Khalifeh’s Middle East Bakery.

Zeina in Arabic means “the perfection of a woman,” though Mounsef noted that “Women are never as perfect as my bread!”

Where to find Lebanese pita

In Chicago

Al-Khyam Bakery and Grocery
4738 N. Kedzie Ave.
773-583-3077

Devon Market
1440 W. Devon Ave.
773-338-2572

Middle East Bakery and Pastry
1512 W. Foster Ave.

Stanley’s Fruit and Vegetables
1558 N. Elston Ave.
773-276-8050

In the suburbs

Caputo’s Fresh Markets in Addison, Bloomingdale, Elmwood Park and Hanover Park.

Lamb and green been stew
(Lubee)

Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

This traditional Lebanese lamb and green bean stew is served over Lebanese rice (see recipe) with pita bread on the side.

2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 pound lamb or beef steak, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 pound green beans, trimmed
1 can (14 1/2 ounces) diced tomatoes
1 can (16 ounces) tomato sauce
1 1/2 cups water

1. Heat the butter and the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onion; cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 5 minutes.

2. Add the meat, salt, cinnamon and pepper. Cook, turning occasionally, until meat is browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. Stir in beans; cover. Reduce heat to medium. Cook until beans are just tender, about 15 minutes.

3. Stir in tomatoes, tomato sauce and water. Heat to a boil over medium-high heat; reduce heat to low. Partially cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until meat is tender and sauce thickens, about 2 hours.

Nutrition information per serving:

220 calories, 41% of calories from fat, 10 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 16 g carbohydrates, 17 g protein, 1,193 mg sodium, 5 g fiber

Lebanese rice

Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 27 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
1/2 cup vermicelli or angel hair pasta, broken into 2-inch pieces
2 cups long grain white rice
2 cans (14 1/2 ounces each) chicken broth
1 teaspoon cinnamon

1. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat; add the pasta. Cook, stirring until the pasta is toasted and golden, about 4 minutes. Stir in the rice until all grains are coated with butter.

2. Stir in the chicken broth. Heat to a boil; lower heat to medium low. Cover; cook until rice is tender and broth is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Fluff rice with a fork; sprinkle with cinnamon.

Nutrition information per serving:

275 calories, 23% of calories from fat, 7 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 45 g carbohydrates, 7 g protein, 329 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

Fattoush salad

Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 2 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

2 rounds Lebanese pita
4 green onions, sliced thinly
3 ripe tomatoes, diced
1 English cucumber, diced
1/2 bunch parsley, finely chopped
1/2 cup each: olive oil, pitted kalamata olives
2 tablespoons finely chopped mint
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
Juice of 3 lemons
Freshly ground pepper

Heat the broiler. Place pita on a baking sheet; broil until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Break pita into 1-inch pieces; place in medium bowl. Add the onions, tomatoes, cucumber, parsley, olive oil, olives, mint, salt, garlic powder, lemon juice and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

Nutrition information per serving:

240 calories, 71% of calories from fat, 20 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 15 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 372 mg sodium, 3 g fiber

Pita and za’atar dip

Preparation time: 5 minutes
Yield: 3 servings

Purchase the za’atar, a spice mix of ground sumac, sesame seeds and thyme, at Al-Khyam Bakery and Grocery, Middle East Bakery and Pastry, The Spice House, or online at wholespice.com and penzeys.com.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons za’atar spice
3 rounds Lebanese pita

Fill a small serving bowl with the olive oil. Spoon the za’atar into another serving bowl. Cut the pita into 3-inch wedges with kitchen shears or a knife. Serve the bread in a basket with the bowls alongside. Dip the bread in the oil, then the za’atar.

Nutrition information per serving:

257 calories, 57% of calories from fat, 16 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 24 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 213 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

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