A third-generation Lebanese American, Mary Ann is a consummate New Yorker. What is most surprising about her is that she has a deeper hunger for her roots in Lebanon than one would expect of someone removed from them for these many generations.
Her love for Lebanon and the region is one that transcends religion, politics, and societal connections. Hers is love that is based on history, culture, and that which may never be appreciated through mortal words: that which comes alive when dining, traveling, and sharing with others the many layers of magic that form the cuisine and life of the people of this great region.
On Saturday, the dining room table, a large farm table (10' x 4'), became a stunning, sensual statement of the richness that joins the people and cultures of the Middle East and North Africa together, even when separated by religious and political lines. The table was shimmering with the glow that bounced from the reflective quality of some of the foods, the whiteness of other dishes, and of course the brilliance that takes shape when using glass dishes to serve most of the foods.
With tastes small and large, I know all at our table were transported into another era, into another geographic setting, and certainly have been left to rethink any generalizations they had accepted in their minds as being true of life and culture in the Middle East and North Africa.
Whenever Mary Ann wants to spoil Charlie and me, she knows all it takes: a box of her amazingly delicious, one-of-a-kind Armenian Stuffed Grape Leaves. Instantly, we are in heaven, making sounds of joy and guttural/culinary ecstasy.
On Friday, we began our morning quickly mixing the stuffing. So simple, that one would be ashamed hearing the compliments these stuffed grape leaves elicit. There is nothing in them that would make most people stop and pay any more attention that one expects of very modest ingredients. But yes, with a recipe that has been tested by time, and has loyal following, Mary Ann is able to create magic and drama with minimal fuss and very little if any food cost involved. What is involved is a high amount of patience, and respect for tradition and comfort in knowing that modest ingredients, if handled carefully, can create drama without fuss or monetary involvements.
Friday was also the day I had some oral surgery. Had to be administered general anesthesia for the procedure. As a result, by the time we all got home, it was late, the sun had almost set, and I was somewhere between sleep and being all awake. Mary Ann is über-organized and always in perfect state of readiness. I could tell she was anxious to get started with her mis en place for Saturday's dinner.
Within minutes of our arrival back at home, Charlie had rushed out to feed the animals and bring the barns and animal life to a rest for the day.
Mary Ann and I had begun working on creating the simple, yet always delightful recipe of hers for hummus. Hers is clean, fresh, light and airy, and all about the flavors of chickpeas, tahini, and the subtle nuances left by the olive oil and lemon juice. Of course she finishes it with a sprinkling of more olive oil and some parsley. I add toasted cumin seed powder, aleppo pepper and a pinch of cayenne into mine. (And I sneaked into it, later that night.)
We had roasted a single garlic clove to add into the hummus but forgot to add it. The resulting hummus was no poorer. In fact we both feel hummus is better with no garlic than too much garlic. Far too many people make hummus that could kill you because of the gratuitous amounts of garlic thrown into the recipe. We tasted the hummus, loved it, and only after we had put it into a container to be saved for the next evening, did we realize the mistaken omission of garlic. We each thought it was meant to be, and smiled how life had worked itself to our advantage, and in our direction, subconsciously. You too should reconsider the use of garlic in hummus and babaghanouj. Whilst it is tasty if added with great care, it can actually kill the dish if added with too much abundance.
Babaghanouj is so simple as well, and yet a dish most people never make nicely. All the mastering that is necessary to make this dish great and not just average or good, relies entirely in the initial cooking of the eggplant.
The Indian in me has grown up eating amazing renderings of smoked eggplant through the version we make—Bharta or Burrani. Bhurta made with tomatoes and onions (added into smoked cooked eggplant pulp) and burrani that is made with yogurt, onions and mint.
Within minutes of Mary Ann expressing her desire to move onto the preparation of the eggplant, I had taken them and placed them onto our Viking Range Grill Top and with minimal mess and effort, and in very little time, the eggplants had gotten nicely charred and cooked. How life becomes easier with good equipment.
But that said, when I did not have a Viking Range, my babaghanouj was still just as wonderful. I would place the whole eggplant directly on the flame and char them on the stovetop. Rotating them every few minutes. No holes need be made into the eggplant. The charring happens without accidents. Of course if charring them under the broiler or in the oven, it is smart to pierce a couple of holes. Once the charred eggplants had cooled down, Mary Ann sat down on a stool and scraped every bit of the really dark char-infused meat that she could remove from the burnt skins. This is the magical ingredient, that can elevate your babaghanouj into celestial complexity. The liquid smoke that oozes from the eggplant, and the charred flesh that you can remove from the burnt skin, are the key ingredients. Of course we threw in the flesh taken from charred garlic. Mary Ann waited until Saturday evening to finish the preparation of the dish. Everyone loved it, and the smoke was what everyone commented on. Easy to achieve, archaic in its creation, and yet potent in its powers.
On Friday night, Charlie asked us if we could make his favorite of all Mezze items (Labnah). Of course Mary Ann could never say no to Charlie, and so, within seconds, I was taking some paper towels, and placing them on top of a chinois and upturned an entire container of Dannon Plain Yogurt. By Saturday morning, we had gotten a nice and thick, very silky and tasty rendering of labnah (Chakki in Hindi, or Hung Yogurt as some call it). Charlie wanted more,and so, we placed another container of Dannon Yogurt to hang, and by the evening, had made Labnah using both. I added very finely minced onions, dried mint, toasted cumin seed powder, aleppo pepper, kosher salt and a pinch of garam masala into the labnah. Mary Ann had Charlie garnish the labnah with olive oil and pinch of hand-crushed dried mint leaves. Everyone loved the Labnah. It was made at home, easily, with no fuss, and using yogurt that had no bad ingredients. Labnah can be served plain, with none of what I mention above added to it. It is wonderful by itself. Or add all that I say or what you think would please you. But please, pay attention to what kind of yogurt you buy. It may be low fat and organic, but if it is made using gelatin, corn starch or with gum, it is not really the same wonderful yogurt that many across the world eat daily, and add to their diet for the purpose of adding something natural and tasty to their meals.
Next Mary Ann had started preparing Kefta. She adds onions, all spice, salt, freshly cracked mixed peppercorns and garlic to her version. Charlie distracted her and had me add Aleppo Pepper, Cayenne, Toasted Cumin, Garam Masala, Dried Mint and Cinnamon. Mary Ann wanted the meat to be moist and a little more flavorful, and so, she asked if I had any ripe tomatoes. In the absence of nice summer tomatoes, I offered her some Pomi Chopped Tomatoes by Parmalat. She used barely enough to add some acid and moisture.
As I cooked them Saturday night, I could see the juices flowing from the tomatoes into the meat, and out onto the grill. The smell of the Kefta's cooking was amazing. Sammi Lemonik, a friend and dinner guest from Vermont who is also of Lebanese descent, exclaimed how the Kefta's were like those prepared by her Siddi (grandmother). Sammi is the owner of Marble West Inn in Dorset, VT and has a reputation for serving great breakfast to the Inn's guests. As Sammi was celebrating the brilliance of the Kefta, I had to come clean and tell all that Charlie and I had made some additions to a few of the dishes. Simple, honest and worthy additions, that belonged in the food of the Middle East and North Africa and never fight the integrity of the dishes. After all, we Indians got our Tandoori cooking from the world west of us, and certainly with great influences borrowed from the cuisine of the Middle East. Mary Ann has a natural way with food, her hands reminded me of Hemant's as she patted the meat onto the skewers. Effortlessly, with confidence and knowing she has done this before, and it is easier than it seems. To watch Mary Ann cook is to know that good food is all about attention to detail, but also a freedom that comes from knowing you have not compromised quality and integrity ever. That is her biggest asset and tool.
The last thing I remember Mary Ann doing that Friday night was to check on the parsley, make sure it was stored correctly, and contemplate in her head if she thought we had enough. I was worried, she seemed comfortable and calm. There was a game plan she had charted out in her head, and that plan gave her a peace of mind. On Saturday morning, we would wake up and prep some more, then head out to Mrs. London's in Saratoga.
On Saturday morning, as we waited for the Satellite Internet Company to send a technician to fix our faulty email service, we were prepping away and wrapping up as many loose ends as possible, to ensure we could enjoy the evening with our guests. Charlie gave me carrots and parsnips to play with. They had been in the refrigerator too long, and were seeming desperate for TLC. As I looked at the carrots, I was suddenly transported to Fez, in Morocco, where I ate a carrot and turnip dish served with Mezze. It was made with sesame seeds amongst other spices and I remembered the carrots being candied and cooked for so long that they seemed almost dehydrated. All I had was memory to guide me, and a look on Charlie's face that assured me his happiness forever if I would find a way of incorporating these long-neglected veggies into the evening's menu. Carrots, parsnips, dried mint, sesame seeds, aleppo pepper, black peppercorn, salt, cinnamon, ground saffron, allspice and cloves were all sprinkled on the veggies. Olive oil and honey thrown in for good measure.
I also added some sliced red onion with the carrots and parsnips. Knowing that the cooked onions would lend a natural sweetness and caramel flavor to the dish. It was a perfect addition! As you can see in the photo on the side here, the onions melted away and added both sweetness and also a great burnished color and look to the veggies.
Baked for an hour or more in a 400˚F oven, they came out beautifully caramelized and crisp, with enough moisture to keep the veggies pliable and sticky. They were a big hit. Again a winning example of food kept simple and easy.
Charlie and I do our little bit in bringing vegetables to the upstate New York world. At every dinner we host, we make sure there are ample vegetarian choices, and often, it vegetables that we feature as the main dishes. That flip I believe is going to be the savior of our modern day lives, and if we want to remain healthy and relevant. And of course not braving the inevitable onslaught of the obesity pandemic that is staring at us now. Years ago, I had made my families Dum Gobhi recipe, that is in Indian Home Cooking and a quick favorite of anyone entertaining a crowd that loves veggies and wants food that seems fussy but is easy to prepare.
Mary Ann fell in love with the rendering of crispy cauliflower. It reminded her of the Middle Eastern fried cauliflower. So now, both she and I make fried cauliflower but use the Indian technique. I steam the whole head of cauliflower for 5 minutes. And then I fry the head till crispy, in good peanut/canola oil. Drain, and just before serving, I place it in the oven to heat through again. The whole head of cauliflower is very dramatic to look at, and changes any modest airs people may ascribe to this vegetable. At the end of dinner, there were no more than a couple florets left on the plate.
Charlie wanted me to use the tagine we have been testing for our retail brand. And so, of course a chicken tagine was added to the night's menu. Simple and easy, it was drama without any fuss, and great flavors and taste at every bite. In some good extra virgin olive oil, I fry cinnamon, cloves, coarsely ground black peppercorn and one whole dried red chile. Cook them till the cinnamon unfurls and the spices are aromatic and dancing happily in the tagine (pan). I use red onions, not sure why, and fry half until they are wilted and brown on the edges, add the remaining half and cook them till translucent. At this point I added the local (organic) chicken Charlie had got for us. It was cut into 10 pieces. And also added the preserved lemons and green olives. I fried the chicken pieces with the onions for around 10 minutes. And then I covered the tagine and cooked for another 5 minutes. The water from the chicken came out by this point. I uncovered and cooked till the water evaporated, and then added ground cinnamon, ginger powder, mace powder, aleppo pepper and half the ground saffron I was going to use. Cooked for 2 more minutes then added some Pomi tomatoes into the tagine and cooked till the contents of the tagine were simmering again. I added some water, the remaining saffron, tasted for salt and cooked covered at low simmer for at least 30 minutes, maybe even 45 minutes. Added some Ras El Hanout and served with fresh minced parsley and cilantro.
As I was getting the tagine ready, Mary Ann was making the Tabouleh. She had prepped the herbs, scallions and tomatoes in the morning. All chopped as finely as you can. Especially the herbs and scallions. She had the bulghar soaking since the morning, but really not soaking, since she moistens it and then leaves it to sit, 'til ready to toss it just before serving.
The tabouleh Mary Ann made on Saturday night was the best I have ever eaten. I loved that her version is light on the bulghar and more generous with the herbs. The amount of lemon juice she used was perfect. There was a perfect harmony between the sweet-nutty flavor of the bulghar against the sourness of the lemon and the playful herbaceous crisp and short almost bitter taste of the herbs. The scallions gave a wonderful back flavoring. I found myself picking up the tabouleh with the pita bread and then dipping gently into the hummus before placing it in my mouth. Yummy!
My favorite dish of the night, my Middle Eastern version of Khitcheree is Mujadarrah and I LOVE how Mary Ann makes it. Unlike the recipes you will find on the internet, that are either too dull, or have too much rice and far too few lentils, or too light in color (since the onions are not charred to the correct dark dark brown), Mary Ann's version is simply perfect! I have shared her recipe for Mujadarrah in American Masala. Of course I have added some masala to her recipe, but nothing that would take away from the original recipe. In fact, our Lebanese friend Sammi loved the Mujadarrah and could not detect anything different. The toasted cumin seed powder, the cayenne and aleppo peppers and some garam masala add to the magic of this simple and hearty dish; they do not take over the performance that is meant to be the led by lentils and rice.
Mary Ann uses Uncle Ben's parboiled rice. We used that on Saturday. I use Basmati rice, and the recipe Raquel and I tested for American Masala was crafted with that long grain rice. It is a perfect substitution, but as with any good long grain rice, you have to be careful of how much you handle the dish once you add the rice, and also how much liquid you cook with and how you handle the cooking process. They key to remember here is the ratio of liquid vis a vis the rice and you are all fine. Mujadarrah made with Basmati is that much better for it. But it is hardly a must. As I said about the spices, this is a dish where all you concentrate on is the richness of the lentils and rice.
The fried onions add that extra decadence and magic. I fry lots of onions, since I leave unhappy from restaurants where they either give you very little of them or do not fry them well. All our dinner guests loved this dish. With Labnah and some chopped salad (fattoush or any other) or even Tabouleh, you have a perfect meal. Takes me back to New Delhi, where my parents, siblings and I would often want a night each week of just some Tahiree or Khitcheree with raita, chopped salad and papadam. For good dark and delicious Mujadarrah, brown your onions really really brown. Till they are crisp, dark and crackling in the oil. I fry my lentils for a couple of minutes and then add the water. The addition of water after frying the onions so dark will melt away most of your onions, creating a nice and dark and deeply caramelized sauce in which you will cook the lentils and later the added rice. Garnish with the crispy onions and some parsley. This will become your comfort food if given a chance.
As is the case with any thought-out meal, drinks and desserts are never forgotten. Charlie wanted me to make Loomi to serve with dinner. Luckily we had some loomis in the pantry. All it takes is soaking 8-10 loomi limes in the deepest stock pot you have with tons of water. Charlie and I place a pasta insert into the pot, to keep the loomi limes submerged. Bring the water to a boil and allow to simmer for 10 minutes. Add sugar to taste and chill. Serve over ice. You create with little effort a wonderful limeade. It is especially delicious and handy on really hot days. There is something about these dried limes that make the drink very very refreshing.
I first tasted Loomi at Moustache in Greenwich Village. It is undoubtedly one of my favorite spots in NYC. Sadly, I never get to go there. And even sadder that the two people that made the experience happen for me, are both now not as actively involved with this location as they once were. Naja Alrawi is one of the owners and now lends her presence to Mamlouk in East Village. Najah and her family are from Iraq. She opened restaurant, heart and the world of Middle Eastern food for me after our first meeting. And the other person who made my love for Moustache and the foods of the Middle East come alive and thrive is Tarek Aylouch, owner of Two Aprons in New Jersey. Tarek travels the world hungrily. He grew up in Syria and has come of age as well as formed himself through all his world explorations. I am anxious to get to his sweet small spot in New Jersey. If anyone goes before me, please give him a hug from me. And for the sake of each of our curiosity and minds, I hope he is working on his book. Cannot wait to have it in my hands. It will be a page turner, full of beautiful photographs and discoveries and tales beyond our imagination.
The desserts on Saturday were all from Mrs. London's in Saratoga. Without planning, as is typical of our lives in upstate New York (when I say "our," I mean "Charlie and mine"), we decided last minute that dessert would come from our favorite pastry shop in the US. Of course the choices were slim for a large dessert, since they sell out instantly. I quickly picked up the only large cake I saw, it was the Chocolate Mousse Cake. Formidable, DEEELICIOUS and amazingly wonderful. I was nervous some, even though I was buying this cake from Mrs. London's, since I am not the biggest fan of chocolate confections in America. They often are just too banal and boring. This was a revelation, and exactly what you come to expect from Michael and Wendy London. We also all shared a couple of rustic apple tarts. I could eat a dozen of them daily.
How could one go to Mrs. London's and not buy some of their most wonderful offerings, the best sweet European gift given to our world, the Cannelet. Canelets are a traditional confection from the Bordeaux region of France. Created in the 16th century by the the Annonciaden Nuns. These sweet custard cakes are baked in copper tins lined heavily with melted beeswax. The beeswax gives the cannelet the perfect crisp crust. Canelets are made with whole milk, eggs, sugar and flour and perhaps some vanilla and rum or cognac? Everyone got a taste of these beautiful cakes and the conversations that came out from tasting them brought the evening to a sweet and memorable end.
It is our hope that our friends who dined at the table with Mary Ann will now become new ambassadors of the Middle Eastern and North African community and their foods and culture. (Charlie had wonderful music playing in the background, music from all across the Middle East, North Africa, and even India.) As also become champions of this region that is so misunderstood and is always on the verge of explosive exchanges from within itself and from the outside.
Whilst I thank Mary Ann for being my most loyal and wonderful friend (she was the first person I met in the US, and the first home I visited outside of those of my family members), I also thank her for sharing her wealth of cultural and culinary wisdom. She is at once a great cook, an ambassador of Lebanon and the greater Middle East, and also a very stylish and chic person that is easy with herself and kind to others.
The reason to blog about this meal was to open more minds to the cuisine of this wonderful region influenced by the Mediterranean and to celebrate the loves, passions and indulgences of the people that inhabit this treasured part of the world. What is even more wonderful is that food brings this region and its history onto our tables. If we can have it come alive in Washington County, it is my hope that all across the country and around the world, we can find more empathy for what ails and shines in the Middle East and North Africa.