Monday, December 10, 2007

Mezze II - Tabouleh

Hands down, tabouleh is my favorite salad. It is what I want when it’s too hot out to even think about chewing, what my body will accept after a day or two of heavy holiday eating, and what I crave at least once a week. Scooped up with a crisp leaf of Romaine, every bite is filled with parsley, mint, bulghur, tomatoes, lemon and mild spices. Oh so good.

My love for this salad makes me very particular about it. Like many other mezze items, tabouleh has its variations based on culture. And now, due to its popularity, restaurants and markets make their own versions of what they call “tabouleh” which frustrate me. Cutting back on the cost of parsley, these little pre-packaged cups often are mounds of oily bulghur with flecks of parsley and tomato. No, no, no, no, no.

Yes it takes time, but tabouleh should be made the right way. It should be green, a beautiful green, with small chunks of tomato and flecks of beige, and a balanced dressing of lemon, olive oil, garlic, and spices. Do it right and oh how your body will appreciate it.

The Real Lebanese Tabouleh

(recipe handed down to me from Mom)


Serving 4

2 bunches of fresh parsley (curly preferred)
1 handful of fresh mint
1 medium tomato
2 green onion
1 small cucumber (optional)
3 tablespoons fine bulghur (#1)
1 lemon
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ tsp allspice
¼ tsp cumin
¼ tsp red chilli pepper or paprika
½ tsp salt

There is a lot of chopping involved in this dish making this dish easy but definitely not a quickie.

Before washing the parsley and the mint, de-stem them. Picking off the leaves when they are dry makes the job much easier. Once done, rinse off the leaves well and then mince them. You want very small pieces. A great tool to chop parsley, or any herb for that matter, is the berceuse or mezzaluna (also called a triangle). I learned about this amazing tool through Chocolate & Zucchini, and ran to E. Dehillerin to pick one up that same week. You can get a fancier one from here.

Ok. So once you’ve minced the parsley and mint, move on to the tomato. Dice that into tiny pieces too. Do the same with the cucumber if you’re using it. Pile everything into a bowl as you go. Add the bulghur, the juice of half a lemon, the olive oil, the crushed garlic, and the spices. Toss it well and let sit for at least 15 minutes. The bulghur has to absorb all the liquids and soften. This isn’t a crunchy salad. I recommend letting it sit for 30 minutes or more so that all the flavours are absorbed into settled nicely.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

time for something sweet

I don’t eat enough fruit. You rarely see me pick up an orange and start peeling it for dessert. I try, oh how I try to be healthier, to boost my vitamin intake with actual vitamin-filled fruits instead of “supplements.” I go on mad spending sprees and stock up. Such a shame. So many apples and bananas sit in the fruit bowl turning brown and mealy, and oranges start to wrinkle (yes it’s possible). So sad.

I could blame it on my upbringing but it would be a lie. My father always has an apple in his hand. My mother is always pushing watermelons and oranges on us like it was the latest flavor from Ben and Jerry’s. I just never went for it – even though I actually like how they taste.

I can’t explain it. But I am trying to fight it.

So I am taking baby steps. I am fooling myself into eating more fruit. I hide it in salads, tuck them into sandwiches, roast them up with all kinds of meats – chicken and figs, pork and apples, and of course bake them. Pies and cakes are my primary sources of fruit intake. Banana cake, apple pie, strawberry tarts, and my favorite afternoon energy boost – l’oranais. OK. So I know they have lost almost all their nutritional value through the baking and sugaring process, but let me dream won’t you.

My latest favorite is the Gateau aux Poires, or the less romantic name - Pear Cake. With all the pears at the market I couldn’t resist hoarding some at home. A few days later I realized I better use them quick or else…. And here is what I discovered and have made again and again before the pears disappear. The basic recipe is from a simple cookbook I was given when I first moved here. I adapted it to add more flavor. The pears practically melt into the cake but not completely so that you bite into a delicious warm chunk here and there. It is important to use flavorful, ripe pears, such as Bosc. I added cinnamon and vanilla to give it a warmer, deeper flavor, and the brown sugar gives it a little caramelisation but not too much so that it’s not a super-sweet cake.

Gateau aux Poires (Pear Cake)

Adapted from « Le bonheur est dans la cuisine » edited by Clorophyl


250 g / 2 cups cake flour****
125 g / 1 stick butter, softened
150 g / ¾ cup sugar
3 medium eggs
4 ripe pears (Bosc are good)
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp vanilla
1 tbsp brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350 F / 180 C.
In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and the sugar. Add the eggs (one by one) and the vanilla. Mix them in well with the butter-sugar. Sift together the flour, baking powder and cinnamon. Add them to the batter little by little, just until incorporated in. (Read italicized section below.) Don’t over-stir it. I didn’t know this before, but I learned from an aunt that once the flour is in the batter, you are supposed to stir only in one direction.

Set the batter aside.

Peel, core and slice the pears lengthwise into roughly ½ inch-thick pieces. Butter the bottom and sides of a cake pan, and then cover with a sheet of pastry paper. If you have a good non-stick pan, you can probably skip the buttering, but I like to make sure. I used a 22 cm (8 ½ in.) springform pan. Pour the batter into the pan (onto the pastry paper). Layer the pear slices artfully (in a circular pattern, flower patter, as you wish) on top of the batter. Sprinkle the top of the cake evenly with the brown sugar.

Bake for 30-45 minutes. If the top of the cake is browning to quickly – cover with a tent of foil to avoid burning the top. Test doneness by inserting a toothpick in the center of the cake. If it comes out clean – then it’s done.

To get a bit of a crunch to the cake, let the cake cool for 5-10 minutes, take it out of the pan, flip it over placing the top onto the pastry paper this time and put it back in the oven (upside down) for maximum 10 minutes.

Goes great with vanilla ice cream.

**** If you are making this recipe in the US, the flour there is different so you have to adjust the measurement. I have not tested this myself but read that you should reduce the amount by 1/4 when using French recipes in the States. I used cake flour which is much lighter than all-purpose flour. If you want to use all-purpose flour then reduce the amount by at least half. Give it a try and let me know how it turns out. As recommended add the dry ingredients a little at a time until it's incorporated and has a slightly lumpy but wet consistency. It should look like all cake batters and not be very thick. Good luck!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Mezze Series I : Hummus

Let's get down to the basics.

If you have any Middle Eastern roots, have traveled through the region, or been to any party of hosts who are of Middle Eastern origin then you have had meals that start with mezze. Mezze is like the appetizer portion of a meal. It is made up of a variety of usually pita-dippable spreads and salads that should be served family style. Often they serve as a meal itself.

Hummus is a requisite for a complete mezze. It is also the best known and the quickest to prepare.


When I was in Tel Aviv last year, colleagues took me to a hummus restaurant. This type of restaurant serves only hummus. They offer a series of variations to the concoction - simple hummus with a little bit of olive oil, with a topping of whole chick peas sautéed or baked with spices, and even with a super hard boiled egg (the kinds they let simmer over a burner all through shabat). Given that hummus is one of my favorite foods, I was pretty happy at that restaurant.

The last time I was in New York, I noticed a few hummus bars opening up in the Upper West Side. This comes as no surprise since hummus has been a trendy food in the States for some years now. But if I hear Rachel Ray or Bobby Flay call any bean puree hummus one more time....

Hummus is basically chickpeas (aka garbanzos, pois-chiches) pureed with tahine (sesame paste), olive oil, garlic, lemon and cumin. And every hummus maker and eater has their own preference of how much each ingredient should stand out. Some people like it heavy on the garlic, some heavy on cumin, others like it very simple (just tahine and chickpeas please). Culture has a lot to do with it. For example, in Israel the hummus didn't have cumin in it and very little garlic. In Syria and Lebanon, however, these spices are absolutely necessary.

I like it flavorful but not overbearing. I will share my formula and you can give it a try as is. A bit of advice is to add in the ingredients in order of your comfort or taste. You add a little bit of the first ingredient, whizz, taste, if you can handle more, go to the next step. Second bit of advice, if you’ve got one (and if don’t you should consider getting one) use a hand immersion blender. They come in so handy for hummus, soups, and anything that needs to be pureed. I love it, especially since I don’t have space for blenders and food processors.

You can use dried chick peas and let them soak overnight then boil them. Or you can just pick up cans of pre-boiled chick peas and have them ready and waiting in the pantry for spur of the moment hummus. Yes, it might taste better if you boil the chick peas yourself - but I really don’t think the taste difference is worth all that extra time and preparation. I should warn you now – I am not that kind of cook – the kind that has to do everything form scratch. No thank you. I’d rather go for a walk, have a little more time with friends, take an extra 10 minutes in bed before getting up….

Serving 4 for mezze or 2 for lunch

1 16 oz (425 ml) can of chickpeas / garbanzos / seeser /pois-chiches
1 ½ tbsp tahine (easily found in most major supermarkets these days, but you can also find it at Middle Eastern specialty stores)
1 tbsp olive oil plus for garnish
2 crushed cloves garlic
Half a lemon
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp salt

Drain the can of chick peas, rinse them and then drop them in a pot of boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain the chickpeas and rinse again. Let them cool. This will cut down some of the “bean” effect but if you don’t have the time for the boiling and cooling part (5 minutes), at least rinse them out well.

Put the chickpeas in a medium mixing bowl. Add the tahine, olive oil, garlic, lemon, cumin and salt. Remember, you can always add more of each later according to your taste, so start out by adding half of the ingredients. Puree until you get a nice spread-able, dip-able paste. Taste and add more of each ingredient as you see fit. Experiment until you get the taste you like. If the hummus is too thick, add a tablespoon of water.

Spread onto a plate or a shallow bowl. Garnish with a swirl of olive oil, sprinkling of cumin and red pepper, and an olive or the top of a sprig of mint in the center. Serve with pita bread. Smile.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Comments please

It has come to my attention that the option to make a comment was limited to Google subscribers. I fixed that. So now anyone can make a can even be anonymous if you want.

Please let me know what you think of the recipes, share your thoughts or memories of these foods, share some tips or how you might prefer to make things.....

As it is open for all to see, please be respectful.

Thanks for reading!

Oh -- and I also added a service (to the right - FeedBlitz) that is supposed to email you whenever I add a post. Take advantage of it if you wish.