Category Archives: Middle Eastern food

mediterranean chickpea salad (aka balela, my way)

med chickpea saladThe other day I was catching up a little on my blog reading, and came across something on a very well-known food blog that kind of blew me away.  It was a recipe for a pepper salad, and was basically just red & yellow peppers, red onion, feta and cucumber.  The kind of thing that I throw together without thinking twice; not the kind of dish I would deem “blog-worthy”.  There was no cute story with it; just the recipe and a bit about how the author had stopped eating salads with lettuce.  But there, underneath the post, were close to 150 comments saying how great it was, and how people were dropping everything to rush to the store to make this salad.  I have to say, I was flabbergasted.  Really?!?

Reading this person’s post, it jolted me back to the reality that many people (possibly even the majority?) who regularly read food blogs and watch the Food Network rarely cook! All those commenters that said stuff like “Wow, that looks so delicious”…?  I would bet money that less than 5% of them go on to actually prepare the recipe.  (I guess this isn’t so strange if you think about, for example,  all the people who read fashion magazines but don’t dress fashionably.)

So what does this have to do with balela? (Huh?  Remember that… the title of this post? Oh yeah…)  Well, I made some a few weeks ago (or rather, my interpretation of it), and even took a couple photos, but never posted it because I didn’t think it was “fancy” enough or something.  Clearly, I am out of touch with what the blog-reading public wants!   I guess the moral of the story is that  instead of trying to second-guess what people may want to read about, I should just post whatever I feel like?

Trader Joe’s sells balela in little plastic tubs, but the portion they sell amounts to about one whole serving, and it’s easy and much cheaper to make yourself.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of making big batches of grain or legume-based salads to take in my lunch.  They’re also good potluck fare- this one was for the Memorial Day BBQ I went to (the one with the grilled pizza).  My version isn’t “authentic” balela in any way, as I added some extra veggies (peppers, cucumbers), but I like the extra crunch they add.  The dressing is inspired by the dressing for fattoush and can be used in any salad where you want Middle Eastern flavors.

Mediterranean Chickpea Salad (aka Balela, my way) (printer-friendly version)

1 can chickpeas & 1 can black beans (or two cans chickpeas), drained & rinsed
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
1/2 an English cucumber, peeled, seeds removed and diced
1/2 a small red onion, diced, or 3-5 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 red or green bell pepper, diced
1 good handful flat-leaf parsley leaves, minced

salad dressing shakenDressing:
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbs fresh lemon juice
1 large clove garlic
1 tsp za’atar
1/2 tsp sumac
1/2 tsp salt
several grinds black pepper

Notes: I use grape tomatoes because they’re more reliable year-round, but if you have good-quality regular tomatoes, go ahead and use them.  This salad is excellent with a bit of feta crumbled into it- I don’t believe it’s traditional, but it makes it a little more substantial and adds a welcome texture and richness to the austerity of raw vegetables.  If you can’t be bothered with the za’atar and sumac, the salad will still be good without them- I threw them in because I happened to have some handy. And if you’re inclined to use a whole lemon, just sick with a 1:2 ratio of lemon to oil and up the seasonings a bit; if you have leftover dressing it’ll keep indefinitely in the fridge, and is great on green salad too.

Directions: Combine all of the vegetables in a large bowl.  Smash the garlic clove with the flat side of a chef’s knife.  Place in a small screw-top jar with the other dressing ingredients and shake well.  Let the garlic clove marinate in the dressing for 5-10 minutes and then fish it out and discard. Pour the dressing over the salad and stir well to combine.  Taste and adjust for salt and pepper, or for more oil or lemon juice according to your taste.  (It will almost definitely need more salt, but I’d rather err on the side of you having to add some.) Let the salad sit for at least 15-20 minutes to let the vegetables marinate and release some of their juices. Taste again and add more salt or dressing if needed.  If not serving immediately, wait until serving to add the parsley. For best flavor, serve at room temp or only slightly chilled.

pucker up: moroccan preserved lemons, meyer lemon marmalade, meyer lemon sherbet, and candied lemon slices

candied-lemons-on-plate

lemons-in-sinkThe last couple weekends A few weeks ago, I went just a little nuts with the citrus.   I wanted to make sure to take advantage of it before the season is over, so I made no less than four different things out of lemons.  I’m calling it my “Midwest citrusfest”.  It’s finally starting to warm up here, but the lemons were a much-needed burst of sunshine while we wait for the real thing.

preserved-lemon-prep1There’s a condiment I’d been wanting to make for a couple years now and never got around to, but I have no idea why, because the “recipe” is simplicity itself: just lemons and salt.  I’m referring, of course, to Moroccan preserved lemons.  I looked at several sets of instructions, and they were virtually identical: cut the lemon in quarters, but don’t cut all the way through; stuff the lemon with as much salt as it will hold (measurements were given, but unnecessarily so, in my opinion); reshape the lemons and stuff them in a jar.  Some of the recipes said to add additional lemon juice to cover, but others said it was fine to wait a few days; by then, the lemons should release enough of lemons-in-jar-top-view2their own juice.  So now I have a big jar of lemons in some liquid that is starting to take on a slightly viscous, mucus-like appearance.  I’m hoping this is normal.  I have to wait another 2 weeks or so before they’re ready, at which time I plan to make the classic tagine of chicken with preserved lemons and green olives.  Hopefully I will not perish due to botulism or some other form of food poisoning.  Although I cannot imagine any living thing surviving the amount of salt I used.

lemons-on-sill1

My second lemon experiment was Meyer lemon marmalade.  Again, I looked at a couple different recipes, mostly following this one.  Don’t you love it when a recipe says “reduce to 2 tbs” or “reduce by half”… like, how do I know what that looks like? Am I supposed to eyeball what 4 cups looks like?  Or interrupt the cooking marmalade-jarsprocess while I take the the hot liquid out of the pan to measure it?  For this recipe, I actually did just that, since you’re supposed to add an amount of sugar that is equal to your boiled lemon-water mixture.  I followed the cooking instructions but my marmalade never got close to 230º, and after cooking it for 30 minutes, I decided I was done.  I think it could have gone even less time, because my yield was a full 2 jars short of what the recipe said it would be, and the marmalade was very thick.  But, I thought it wasn’t bad for a first effort.  The flavor was a little too sweet for my taste due to being cooked down so much, but I think spread on something like a scone or toast that isn’t sweetened, it’ll be just fine.  The marmalade was also incorporated in my April Daring Bakers challenge, which I can’t reveal until the end of the month for a few more days, but I can tell you was delish. [Update: I am now convinced the thermometer I was using was broken, which explains why my marmalade was overcooked even though it “never got to 230º”.]

lemon-sherbet1

Ever since my sister gave me the Cuisinart ice cream maker for Christmas, I’ve been whipping up lots of frozen treats.  Fruit ices and sorbets are the easiest because you don’t have to do a custard base.   I still had lemons left, so next up was a batch of Meyer lemon sherbet.  I have to pause here and question all the foodie love for Meyer lemons.  I honestly was hard-pressed to taste a difference between the sherbet I made with Meyers, and any other standard lemon ice.  With the marmalade I get it, because regular lemons would have too thick a skin for marmalade.  And the Meyers are pretty juicy, but for the difference in price, I’m just not sold.  Perhaps I need to taste them in a lemonade, or a lemon curd, to fully appreciate their superiority… Anyone else with me on this one, or are my taste buds just not that sophisticated?  Supposedly they’re sweeter than regular lemons, but if you’re adding a bunch of sugar to a recipe, what’s the difference?  In any event, the sherbet tasted like lemons, so I was happy.  I used a recipe out of Chez Panisse Fruit and adapted it a bit- see recipe below.

candied-lemon-crop

candied-lemons-in-pot

lemon-syrup-in-handThe last thing I made with my remaining lemons was candied lemon slices.  These were also utilised in my Daring Bakers challenge.  I used the instructions found here; the only variation I made was to strain and save the syrup in which the lemons are cooked, rather than discarding it.  You can use this syrup in cocktails where simple syrup is called for (as long as the lemon flavor won’t clash), or to sweeten iced tea, or to make lemonade.  Or muddle some mint, add the syrup and some club soda for a nice refreshing bevvie for your teetotaler friends.  I’ve already used mine to drizzle over some berries, to sweeten a smoothie, and for a couple other things including the sherbet recipe below.

I enjoyed my midwest citrusfest, but am definitely looking forward to the fruits of summer!

Meyer Lemon Sherbet (adapted from Chez Panisse Fruit)
(printer-friendly version)
3 cups lemon syrup from the candied lemons you just made (or 1 1/2 cups each sugar & water, heated gently to dissolve sugar)
1 cup freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice
1 tbs Microplaned or finely chopped zest
3/4 cup whole milk
1 tsp gelatin in 2 tbs water*

Directions: Combine syrup, juice, zest and milk. (Don’t worry if milk looks a little curdly; it will be fine once frozen.) Gently heat gelatin mixture until fully dissolved and no longer grainy. Add to other ingredients and refrigerate until cold; then freeze according to the directions of your ice cream maker.

*Note: for those not wanting to use gelatin, you could add a tbs or two of some sort of alcohol (vodka or limoncello, perhaps?) as an anti-freezing agent, or try using half-and-half instead of milk.

mujadara: lentils with bulghur (and mushrooms)

lentil-cropThe other day I was craving earthy flavors, namely mushrooms.  I bought a pound, not knowing exactly what I was going to do with them: perhaps do a pilaf with wild rice?  or something with lentils?  I was flipping through cookbooks and saw a mujadara recipe and thought, why not just add mushrooms?  I liked the the-other-night-004 idea of mujadara because you have to make the super-caramelized onions for it, and I had been wanting to try out a new technique I read about on the blog Tigers & Strawberries.  The final dish combination of lentils/bulghur/mushrooms satisfied my craving, and the sweetness of the caramelized onions rounded things out.  (The only thing I would have changed is to increase the proportion of lentils to bulghur.)  A dollop of lightly salted plain yogurt on top was the final component.  If you have some on hand, a  little sprinkle of finely chopped parsley adds a welcome fresh note to the dish as well.

Mujadara with Bulghur & Mushrooms (adapted from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden)

4 cups broth of your choice: chicken stock, vegetable or mushroom stock (see notes)
12 oz white mushrooms, or 8 oz white mushrooms & 2-3 oz dried porcinis (see notes)
3 medium or 2 large yellow onions (see notes)
1 1/4 cup bulghur (cracked wheat)
1 cup green or brown lentils, rinsed & picked overthe-other-night-005
1 tbs tomato paste
1/2 tsp ground allspice
pinch of cayenne
olive oil
salt & pepper

optional garnishes: plain yogurt or a lemon wedge; chopped parsley

Notes:  You can easily make this a classic mujadara by omitting the mushrooms and using chicken stock.  For the liquid, I used a concentrated mushroom stock called “Better than Bouillon”.  It’s a paste that comes in a little jar and it’s handy for soups, etc.  If you’re using the dried porcinis, steep them in a cup or two of boiling water. When they’re rehydrated, fish them out and use the remaining water as part of your 4 cups liquid.  You should either strain it or pour it very carefully so the sediment remains in the bowl.

For the onions, you may want to consider making extra since they take a little work.  They’re so tasty and versatile that you can throw them in almost any dish.  They also freeze well.  For a lengthy set of instructions on how to properly brown onions, go here; otherwise just follow my summary below.  If you do make extra onions, there’s a great recipe for a non-soup-mix onion dip here.

Directions:  Put your 4 cups liquid in a medium-to-large saucepan, cover and bring to a simmer.  If you’re using porcinis, prepare as mentioned above.  Peel the white mushrooms or brush clean with a dry cloth (don’t rinse!) and slice them.  Heat a little olive oil in a sauté pan and sauté them over medium heat, adding a little salt as they start to cook.  Slice the onions in half lengthwise and then into half-moons as your mushrooms are cooking.  When the mushrooms are almost done, stir in the porcinis.  Set aside.

the-other-night-007When your liquid comes to a boil, add the allspice, cayenne (up to you how much, but you’re going for a subtle warmth rather than hot & spicy) and tomato paste and stir well.  Add the lentils and cook at a low simmer, covered, for 15 min. Add the bulghur and a little salt & pepper, taking into account the saltiness of your stock.  Stir and cover.  Cook over very low heat for another 15 min, adding water if it looks too dry at any point.  Turn off the heat and leave covered for another 10 minutes until the bulgur is fully tender.  Optional: stir in 3-5 tbs olive oil.  (I forgot this step when I made mine, and it was still good and obviously less caloric.)

the-other-night-010

Meanwhile, heat a few tbs olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan (NOT non-stick!!!).  A stainless steel pan is best (as opposed to cast iron) because then you can see your browning process better.  When the oil is hot, add your onions, salt them in the pan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly.  The onions will take at least 30 minutes to get fully and properly browned, so be patient.  Bear in mind that the higher the heat, the more you’ll have to vigilantly stir them.  Keep a cup of water next to you, and each time the caramelized residue starts to build up on the pan (see photo above), add a SMALL splash of water and stir quickly to dissolve this buildup and re-incorporate the caramelization back into your onions.  (When I did mine, I probably repeated this process at least 10 times.)  You’re not done until your onions have a nice deep amber color.  It may sound like a lot of work, but it’s really just stirring, and when you taste the end result you’ll think it was all worthwhile.    the-other-night-011

To serve, stir in the mushrooms and onions.  If you like, reserve a few of the onions to go on top (see photo).  Garnish each serving with a spoonful of plain yogurt and a little chopped parsley.  If you’re vegan or don’t have yogurt, a wedge of lemon might be nice.