Middle Eastern cook book feature
I’ve bought so many Middle Eastern cookbooks in the past year, I’ve probably made it onto a government watch list. It started with a fiction book in which food played a major role. Diana Abu Jaber’s “Crescent” focused on the homesick feelings of Middle Eastern immigrants longing for a home that no longer exists. It perfectly described the pungent coffee made with cardamon pods, and the heroine’s uncle had a fondness for sweets that had him licking his fingers and mopping up the fallen sugar, grain by grain, once the cookies were gone.As the characters – one a chef – shared this ritualized snack, they told stories. I was seduced. My buying spree led me to Claudia Roden’s latest offering, “Arabesque.” Divided into sections on Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon, the gold-stamped cover promises entry into a world filled with other-ness. It says, “Welcome stranger.” After reading through it for the first time, my sleep was steeped in honey and pistachios, rose petals and smoky meats. I was anxious to break out the pots and pans, and wishing I had a tagine. Roden’s 1968 tome, “A Book of Middle Eastern Food,” has now become a classic, updated and re-issued as “A New Book of Middle Eastern Food.” In other cookbooks she’s explored Mediterranean cuisine, the history of coffee, Italian regional fare and outdoor cooking.Born and raised in Cairo, Middle Eastern cookery isn’t Roden’s only interest, but it’s certainly a passionate one. She’s like an archeologist, sifting through the history and changes of a dish, and offering the most authentic version she can find. But she never leaves modern times behind, and gives variations, or omissions of particular ingredients, that are more in tune with contemporary tastes. And sometimes she just makes things up, inviting her readers to try this or that simply because she likes it.Each chapter begins with a condensed history of that country’s cuisine, as described through its street food, restaurants, ingredients and cooking methods. Sometimes it’s the small details that build the larger picture for a reader:In Morocco, visitors to a typical home enter through a dark hallway that gives way to a patio filled with fruit trees and and scented flowers. Before eating, guests wash their hands in water poured from a jug, and then in rose water sprinkled from a silver flagon. In Lebanon, the mezze is practically an institution, and represents an art of living where socializing is all-important. Born in the Bekaa Valley, the snack-laden mezze tables developed as a way to soak up conversation and the national drink, arak, made from sweet, white grapes flavored with aniseed. Affectionately called lion’s milk because it turns cloudy when water is added, it’s served with a large chunk of ice. In Turkey, cooking has historically been considered the most important art. Poets, physicians and princes all wrote recipes, sang songs and recited poems about food. A pot and spoon was the insignia of the Imperial guard, the Janissaries. The officers’ titles included First Maker of Soup, First Carrier of Water and First Cook. If their giant caldron was spotted upside-down, it symbolized rebellion – a frequent event on payday.Though the introductory pages to each country are rife with information, there’s plenty more to be had with each recipe. Roden introduces each and every one with details as varied as make-ahead tips, historical oddities and personal, rather enthusiastic, memories.But ultimately, cookbooks are made to be cooked from. Last year I bought a lamb from my postmaster in Wolcott. She delivered it to me in a series of packages wrapped in white butcher’s paper, clearly marked shoulder, chops, leg, stew meat. Because lamb is an essential ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine, it’s no accident I’ve been attracted to those particular cookbooks. I have to get rid of that lamb. So I’ve been tearing through the lamb recipes: skewered on kebabs (Turkey) and braised in tagines with dates and almonds (Morocco). But it’s the Lebanese kibbeh recipe, found a few pages from the very back of the book, that I’ve made again and again. Kibbeh is something I’ve read about – bulgur wheat ground with aromatic spices and meat (often lamb), and then cooked in a complicated series of steps involving grilling, braising, frying and glazing. As my grandmother recently wrote in a letter, “I looked at the recipe and it made my feet hurt.” But Roden’s version is a new beast. Within the recipe’s introduction she explains the countless regional variations of kibbeh. “One thing they all have in common is bulgur. Since most are labor-intensive and require skill and application, they are not the kind of thing you undertake if you are not part of the culture. So I was very happy to discover a traditional kibbeh that was truly delightful and relatively easy.” She found it in a restaurant in Beirut, and recommends it as a hot main dish or cut into small pieces and served as part of a mezze. After grinding up the ingredients, it’s pushed into an oiled cooking vessel and baked like a pie. Once out of the oven, it’s topped with pine nuts and fried onions and, if you adhere to Roden’s preferred variation, pomegranate molasses. (I did.)I’ve discovered it’s impossible to finely grind the type of bulgur available in Eagle County in my food processor, so my version is a bit more toothsome than it probably ought to be. And I prefer things to have a kick, so after my first attempt I included generous amounts of ground chiles and even more cinnamon. But I really veered off the path when I was trying to disguise it as the same dish I’d fed my husband twice in a week.Scooping out the raw puree, I patted it into discs and fried them in a pan. Topping them with sweet chile sauce and jack and parmesan cheeses, the piece de resistance is a fried egg crown whose broken yolk oozes into the lamb, enriching it. We’ve happily eaten it again and again, and have made a real dent in our lamb supply.I recently read in April’s Gourmet Magazine that a cookbook is worth its price if there’s a single recipe that becomes part of your repertoire. Roden offers several, including paper-thin pastries laden with nuts and honey (the Bride’s Fingers, long and thin, are my favorite so far), and dips made with tahini and eggplant. But her real gift to the reader is the encouraging authority with which she presents her recipes. She leaves her audience with no doubt as to the authentic preparation, but her own suggestions point toward the importance of cooking what you like to eat. There is no sacrilege if you enjoy what you’re tasting.