When Marry Ann Joulwan invites us to dinner, we know we are in for stupendous food. And most importantly, we know we will eat well, eat without fuss or frills, but eat beautiful food that is incomparable in taste and satisfying beyond description.
Cauliflower with tarator sauce was simple but far from simplistic. Cooked correctly. Mary Ann worried that she had gone too far with the cooking. But in end, we all felt it was actually perfectly cooked. Had just the right texture. Often I wonder if American kids would eat more vegetables had Americans taken just a few more minutes in the preparation of these amazingly healthful ingredients. We either serve kids raw vegetables (crudites) or overcooked goopy and limp veggies that taste and look nothing like what they ought to be. And in cooking them that far, we also lose all of what is good in them. How I wish more would strive for perfection the Japanese way. Nothing is done short of perfection or close to it. Whilst they are not a culture one ought to look at for total inspiration, at least we can strive to come close to them in food perfection. If we can cherry pick various things from various cultures, why do we not cherry pick cooking habits from the correct places? Tarator is a great addition to most tables I think. It goes with vegetables such as this cauliflower, but beautifully with meat and fish too. I can see it accompanying certain grilled chicken as well. Made in the food processor, it is not too bad for you either. Mary Ann's tarator was made with tahini. It is made also with pine nuts and bread by some. Of course olive oil, garlic and lemon juice.
Walking into Mary Ann's home is akin to walking into an art gallery, or a home furnishings store. Things belong here. They are at her home for a purpose. Nothing is out of place. Order is the heart and soul of this space. And yet, even in disorder, you see a purpose. The lemons greeted me first. They are used a lot in this household. It makes sense then that they greet you and they hold center stage, under her grandparents tiffany style lamp. The impatiens welcoming the falling leaves of the vinca vine. The fruits bringing color to the table whilst looking like a subject waiting to be painted into a still life. Everything has been planned. Everything is natural. Edible art, functional art. Form, function and design all come together. There is magic to all of this, but also a wondrous frugality, that I wish more people would catch, copy and make their own. Especially in times of economic distress, when we all need to spread out our resources but also celebrate life and living. Mary Ann has a natural knack for being practical and wise. It is part and parcel of her DNA. As you walk through the living room and into the back yard, you realize the table and the surroundings are all sharing the Mary Ann way with you. I bow to her sensibilities, I salute her for being a gourmet beyond most I know, and celebrate her every day for the magic she brings into all lives she enriches.
Give me Rishta and I will love you a lifetime! Well almost. Mary Ann was the first person I was formally introduced to in America. And she has remained my dear friend since that evening in fall of 1993. This soup above (Rishta) has given us comfort over warm summers, bitter-cold winters, rainy evenings, seen us through sad times and given us a companion to relish in times of celebration. It is a perfect partner - always! No surprise then that both my books have a version of it. Indian Home Cooking has a straight-on recipe from Mary Ann. American Masala has a one pot version, that now Mary Ann follows I believe. Is that true Mary Ann? Of course she might not add the cumin or chili that I add. Rishta and Mujadarrah are very comforting and very delicious. They also happen to be extremely healthful. Honest food has a sincerity that makes it healthy and good. I would also add Harira to this group, and make it my Trio of Never-fail-to-please dishes. Hence the desire to get people into the kitchen, cooking real food, with fresh ingredients (or dry peas, beans, lentils if that is the case) and with love and care. Mary Ann has parsley on the soup when I first met her. She now add cilantro as the garnish. I wonder if she only does it for my family and I. Of course lemon juice takes the soup to great heights of higher culinary nirvana. The key to the brilliance in taste, and that rich burnished color lies in the browning of the onions. Browned till they are DARK but not burnt (but almost to the point of burning) and CRISP with a lack of any moisture. At this point, when you add water, they melt away to create this richly flavorful, sweet and slightly bitter, broth that will enrobe the lentils, cook them, and flavor them magically.
Stuffed grape leaves are not for everyone, and yet, millions eat them daily, or at least very regularly. Such was not the case with me. I have never found them appealing, and still, even seventeen years after having had these (which made me fall in love with them at first suspicious bite) I have little if any courage to try them, and most always find them not for me. But this particular recipe made by Mary Ann, changed my heart, and has stayed with me, as a loyal friend, as a friend I come to for blissful flavors, every time I crave stuffed grape leaves and good food. It is a luxury all of us that know Mary Ann have come to spoil ourselves with. We do not ask for them often, for we all know stuffing grape leaves is hardly anything one ought to do on a regular basis. Mary Ann just does it more often than she should. That is how she is. Spoiling all she knows, with boundless love and affection and countless acts of kindness. Last night was no exception. Finally feeling the jet-lag from my express trip to India, this was the perfect meal for a body and soul needing the comfort of home and comforting food. Far from home still, this meal, and Mary Ann's home, made me feel at least whilst I was there, as if I was at home, and nestled in my chair, enjoying bowls and plates of my favorite foods. Her stuffed grape leaves are not Lebanese and this might explain the love all of us have for them. Somehow the Lebanese, Syrian and Israeli version just do not do it for me, or most I know. They require a certain acquired taste, that has to be created from birth. This version came to Mary Ann from Armenian friends of hers. In fact the Wolohojian family has given the world many wonderful things. Jon Andrew Wolohojian was one such gift the family shared with the world. A dear, dear man, kind beyond how words could ever describe him, beautiful even when challenged by life and moments, and with a spirit that transcended the mortal and went to angelic heights. Sad that he was robbed from our world at a very young age. For me, his families recipe of these supernal stuffed grape leaves, is also a way of remembering Jon. A man who helped me every time I needed it, and many times when I did not even realize I needed help and support. Such was his intuition. Jon gave NYC and its antique lovers the Antique Cafe in Chelsea. If Jon touched something it became gold. Midas Touch could easily have been renamed Jon Touch! Jon and his family have also given us all these great stuffed grape leaves. And Mary Ann is the vehicle through which they come to many of us. Thanks Mary Ann. I have very fond memories of eating these, making them with Mary Ann, and also sourcing the grape leaves. This is food fit for the Gods. And luckily for us, Mary Ann treats her friends as very special beings, whom she indulges with the best gift of all, the labor of love.
NYC is home to people from all over. People with stories. People with a life that is beyond just mere living. People that make this city home come here expressly to have a NY Experience. Part of that experience is the ability to find in NYC fellow minds, hearts and souls, that each have traveled and longed for something similar in their own life. It is this that makes us different from the rest. This is not a city for the meek of the heart. Those that are afraid. Or the ones that cannot leave family for fear that they would miss family when living miles and oceans away. Those that land in the womb of NYC create in an instant, or at least within weeks a vast family of friends, neighbors, and even strangers. It is this hunger to search for people like oneself, or at least people that we understand and who understand us that makes associations and friendships made in NYC, ever lasting and precious. My family is VERY dear to me. My parents are pillars of strength, and my sister and brother always a minute away when I am in a place of angst, doubt or need. NYC has also given me friends like Mary Ann, who have opened home, heart and everything else they have to me. Fattoush is one such discovery made by me because of Mary Ann. She has brought much too much into my life. Fattoush was a gift given to me by an assistant I had whilst managing the Metropolitan Museum's gift store in Short Hills Mall in New Jersey. Jehan (Jihan) Tannous was of Lebanese descent, and would bring Fattoush at least a couple of times each week in her lunch box. It was always something she shared with me. She knew I had fallen in love with this salad. This was fifteen years ago. And then I left NJ. And moved on with the trails of my own life. I can never forget Jehan (sp?) and her mother, and how they spoiled me. Luckily, Mary Ann came to my rescue and took me to places where we enjoyed Fattoush. No Fattoush ever came close to how the mother and daughter duo would make it. I was always excited, but in end also sad, and wanting. Then one day Mary Ann got us invited to the home of Najwa Sarkis Stone and at her table in Midtown-East. Everything changed that very moment. Fattoush came alive again. It sang and danced in my mouth and warmed my heart. Najwa's fattoush was just like that I remembered from my days in Short Hills. An invitation to Najwa's home is nothing you take lightly. It is an invite to experience something beyond the ordinary, and in a setting that is equally as precious and charming as the food you will eat. We knew we were lucky to be at this table, but little did I know it would transport me back in memory lane, and afford me that enjoyment I had forgotten. Good fattoush should bring you the joy of tasting tart, crispy, crunchy, sour, savory and herbal all at once. But that only if made correctly. Sumac and mint, lemon and garlic and crispy pita all come together to take the cucumber, tomatoes, radishes, scallions and lettuce to heights you can never imagine. I love a mix of fresh mint, cilantro and parsley in mine. But am just as happy eating it with mint and parsley. Which is more traditional. There is a recipe for Najwa's fattoush in American Masala. I get rave reviews of it from people that buy the book. We also sell it at Cornell University and it pleases students and faculty alike. Last night we tossed fattoush on the go. It tasted marvelous. The garlic, sumac, lemon, freshly ground black pepper, dried mint and fresh herbs do something together, that make this salad a salad beyond most salads.
We had the soup as the first course. Both Charlie and I had two bowls each. I could have had four or five. And then we had a plateful of Mezze that looked stunning and tasted even better. Fattoush, cauliflower with tarator, hummus, muhammara, stuffed grape leaves and tzatziki.
Who needs meat with such glorious food on the plate? This is the kind of food that makes carnivores into vegetarians. It is also the kind of food that ensures you live a health, long and joyous life.
How I hope more people would love mindfully, eat food made with love, and share that food with loved ones. It is not that difficult to cook and certainly not as much of a chore as we make it out to be. An hour a day, spent in the preparation of that which we put into our mouths, should not sound as too much to give. But it seems that is where we are stuck. People are convincing themselves that an hour is too much. They do not have it to spare. And so our family structure, our family lives and our health have all been compromised. Perhaps good food, great taste, and the comfort one gets from eating well will change at least some minds, and then those minds can change others. That is my hope. I know Mary Ann has changed my mind around some amazing things in life - and good food is one of them.