Dinner Party: Middle Eastern Feast

Stevie, Alexxa, and I are attempting a bi-coastal book club. While we haven’t actually talked about anything yet, I read the first book on the list: Annia Ciezadlo’s Day of Honey. It’s an American woman’s memoir of her time in Iraq and Lebanon during the conflicts of the past decade, told from the perspective of the people she met and the food she ate amidst the bombs, checkpoints, and other dehumanizing aspects of war. I loved the book and found it so inspiring and challenging. Especially when it came to my palate.

I have very little experience eating Middle Eastern food–outside of the occasional shawarma and falafel–and even less cooking it. So, why not cook a feast dedicated to the subject for ten people? That seemed like the most logical way to me to understand more about this cuisine. I spent one entire weekend sourcing ingredients (thank you Sahadi’s); soaking lentils, beans, and bulgur; cooking onions so long that they puffed up like Rice Krispies; and creating some of the most interesting, at least texturally speaking, dishes of my life. Who knows how authentic everything was, but in the end, it was all delicious.

My Middle Eastern Feast Menu
Homemade Hummus, Babaganoush, Labne Cheese served with Croatian Olive Oil, Stuffed Grape Leaves, Leftover Caponata (I threw this in there, since I had it in my fridge and Sicilian cuisine is heavily influenced by Arabic culture)

 The bulgur and greens dish shown here was one of my favorites, perhaps because the texture was one more familiar to me… it reminded me of cous cous.

Main (served family-style):
Lebanese Wheat Berry and Dried Corn Soup with Yogurt
Bulgur and Greens with Pistachios and Yogurt
Slow-Roasted Tomatoes with Rosewater and Sesame Seeds
Mjadara (Red Lentil Stew)

 These roasted for 4 hours in a 250-degree oven, dressed with a mixture of turbinado sugar, coarse salt, and cinnamon, then were topped with toasted sesame seeds and rosewater.

Greek Semolina and Yogurt Cake
Rice Pudding

The semolina cake was delicious and moist, topped with a lemon sugar syrup. 

I’ve been doing some research on Lebanese wines, so we tasted a few bottles from the portfolios of Massaya, Chateau Kefraya, and Chateau Musar.

We washed the meal down with a series of Lebanese wines,
including the 2003 Hochar Pere et Fils featured here.

Many recipes inspired by and adapted from Paula Wolfert‘s Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking and Ciezadlo’s recipes in Day of Honey. Photos by Anique Halliday.

How-To: Putting Up Tomatoes

Yesterday, I woke up early, trucked it over to Stevie’s, then together we headed up to the McCarren Park farmers market to pick up 25 pounds of not-quite-ripe Roma tomatoes. Because we were buying so many, the farmer even gave us a discount: $1/lb., rather than the advertised $2. With trembling arms, we carried these home, then went back out to Brooklyn Kitchen to get quart and pint jars, as well as a wide-mouthed funnel.

25 pounds of tomatoes.

We began by sterilizing the jars. We filled Stevie’s extra large pot with water and placed the jars and their lids inside, then set it over high heat to come to a boil.

Floating jars.

Then, we began to scrub the tomatoes to get all of the dirt off. Stevie put another pot of water on to boil. In the meantime, she scored the bottom of each tomato with an “x” to facilitate peeling later on.

Scoring the tomatoes.

Once the water was hot, she put in one batch of tomatoes at a time, removing them once their skin cracked.

Washed and ready to go in the water.

As she removed the tomatoes, she brought them over to me to peel, core, and quarter. With one hand gloved to protect it from the heat, I began the arduous process of peeling, using the edge of a paring knife to literally get under the tomatoes’ skin.

Peeling back the skin.

We removed the large pot of jars from the stove to make room for the batches of tomatoes that needed to cook but left everything covered in the hot water. Stevie explained that the jars need to be hot when we put the tomatoes into them in order for them to seal properly. In separate pots, she cooked the tomatoes with a bit of salt and sugar, accenting the natural sweetness of the tomatoes while adding salt (a preservative) to the mix. When they were ready, she removed them from the heat and brought over a few jars to begin the canning process.

 Placing the hot tomatoes and their juice into the hotter jars.

The funnel is important because it keeps the lip of the jar clean – necessary in order to seal them properly. If anything gets between the jar and its lid, it will not close up and make the much-anticipated “popping” sound that signals that all air is out of the jar and its contents are sealed for later use. Stevie had read that an acidifier was recommended in order to help preserve the tomatoes, bringing out their natural acidity, so I placed a tablespoon of lemon juice per pint on top of the tomatoes before we closed the jars. Then, we sat and waited, making sure that each and everyone popped, sometimes for an agonizing thirty minutes! At the end of the day, however, we succeeded, with about 10 and a half quarts put up.

Our beautiful jars of canned tomatoes!

Can’t wait to try these this winter!