May 30, 2009

Lebanese Cooking with Pomegranate Molasses

I bet many people don't realize that some of the most well-known and beloved Middle Eastern dishes in our country are an integral part of the traditional Lebanese cuisine. You have probably heard of and tasted baba ghanouj, hummus and tabbouleh and maybe even kibbeh (bulgur cake) and fattoush (salad with toasted pita). Lebanese food is absolutely delicious and has much in common with that of other Middle Eastern countries, namely Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Palestine---all of which were once part of the Ottoman empire.

The food of Lebanon is particularly known for its use of legumes (garbanzos and lentils), grains (bulgur and rice), lemon, olive oil, yogurt, pomegranate, herbs (parsley and mint), and spices (sumac, cinnamon, cumin). Also, the use of fresh, seasonal vegetables plays an important role in Lebanese cuisine; some of the most prominent include eggplant, bell pepper, cucumber, tomato, zucchini, and spinach.

An important tradition during family gatherings is the practice of mezze--an array of small dishes and appetizers served with drinks. The tradition of mezze has a long history and remains a favorite aspect of the Lebanese meal. It's hard to imagine why not: a variety of tasty foods with different flavors and textures, served with warm, pita-like bread (khobz halabi), accompanied with olives, tomatoes, cucumbers and radishes. This practice is similar to the Spanish tapas or the Italian antipasto.

I have found that the best guide to the cuisine of Lebanon (as well as Morocco and Turkey) is Claudia Roden's Arabesque cookbook. Roden provides the most delicious and traditional recipes of the regions, and gives the reader a picturesque insight into its domestic culture and culinary history.
A distinct ingredient of Lebanese cooking is pomegranate molasses. It is basically the juice of sour pomegranates, boiled down until it is a thick syrup. Pomegranate molasses lends a rich, tart flavor to many traditional dishes and pairs especially well with eggplant and tomatoes. You can find it at most specialty grocery stores, and in fact, Trader Joe's has begun to carry a product called pomegranate syrup which is similar in taste.

The first recipe I want to share with you is one of the best lentil dishes I have tasted. It was published in Food and Wine by Musa Dagdeviren, chef-owner of three famous kebab houses in Istanbul. The recipe calls for a generous amount of pomegranate molasses, which is drizzled over a stew of lentils, eggplant, tomatoes and green chilies. I love the way that the ingredients are layered so that the flavors and textures of the different ingredients stay distinct.

Eggplant and Lentil Stew with Pomegranate Molasses
From Food and Wine
Serves 6.

One 1 1/2-pound long, narrow eggplant
1/2 cup lentils
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 medium garlic cloves, minced
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
2 long green chiles, such as Anaheims—stemmed, seeded and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped mint leaves
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/4 cup pomegranate molasses
  1. Partially peel the eggplant so it has lengthwise stripes, then cut it lengthwise into 4 slices. Score each slice on 1 side in a crosshatch pattern. Cut each slice crosswise into 3 pieces and set on a rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt. Let stand for 1 hour.
  2. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, cover the lentils with 2 inches of water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to moderate and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain the lentils.
  3. Coat a small enameled cast-iron casserole with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. In a bowl, toss the onion with the garlic, tomatoes, green chiles, mint, tomato paste, crushed red pepper and 2 teaspoons of salt.
  4. Rinse the eggplant and pat dry. Spread 1/2 cup of the vegetable mixture in the casserole and top with half of the eggplant. Cover with half of the lentils and half of the remaining vegetable mixture. Top with the remaining eggplant, lentils and vegetables. Pour the remaining olive oil around the side and over the vegetables, then drizzle with the pomegranate molasses.
  5. Bring the stew to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat until the eggplant is very tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.
The other recipe I want to share is my own creation, based on the traditional flavors of Lebanon. Spicy arugula, tomatoes and roasted eggplant are dressed with a tangy pomegranate molasses dressing and topped with feta crumbles and fresh mint and parsley.

Lebanese Salad in Lavash
This recipe is perfect for lunch or a light dinner. The salad can also be served in a bowl with warm flat bread on the side. I enjoyed mine with a side of crunchy Persian cucumbers and tabbouleh.

Makes 4 half wraps.
Serves 2-4.

1 large eggplant
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 clove garlic, minced
2 9 x 10-inch sheets of lavash
1 cup arugula
1 medium tomato, thinly sliced
2-3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup fresh mint, minced
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil and brush with olive oil.
  2. Peel eggplant and cut crosswise into slices about 1/2-inch thick. Place on prepared baking sheet; brush with oil and sprinkle with salt. Bake about 30 minutes, until soft and browned.
  3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl whisk together pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, garlic, and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  4. For each wrap, arrange 1 sheet of lavash on a work surface and use half the ingredients. Arrange arugula down the center, followed by roasted eggplant and tomatoes. Top with feta cheese and chopped herbs. Drizzle with dressing. Wrap tightly and cut in half.

May 22, 2009

My Sister's Graduation Fiesta

On Saturday May 16, my family hosted a graduation party for my younger sister Renee. This post is dedicated to her.
Special thanks to Rhys Stover for all the fabulous photos.

After all those late nights finishing assignments and cramming for tests she had finally done it--Renee graduated from college. Her achievements as a student, as well as her personal integrity, passion and commitment demonstrate that she will do great things in life. I am convinced that some day she will become a big name in the film industry, living the life in NYC.

The graduates, Renee and her boyfriend Rhys

Graduation is definitely a time to celebrate with a big bash and who better to host it than your own loving family? Naturally, being the family cook I was designated the chef de cuisine. This meant that it was entirely up to me to come up with a menu that is crowd pleasing, delicious, and reflects our unique upbringing on the Mexican border. I am quite familiar with the graduate’s palate, as it is similar to mine, so it was relatively easy to agree on a super traditional, rustic Mexican menu with the freshest ingredients. I will point out now that I could not have done this alone. The preparation and cooking was definitely a team effort, especially with the help of my awesome sous chefs, my Mom and sister Dani.

When it comes to traditional Mexican cooking, the cookbooks of Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy are virtually infallible. These two Mexican culinary experts have exposed the world to true Mexican food, which is remarkably varied and rich, unlike the monotonous, greasy versions available at many U.S. restaurants. As with other national cuisines, Mexican food varies by region depending on local climate and geography, as well as ethnic differences among indigenous inhabitants and the degree of Spanish or other cultural influences.

Traditional Mexican food was heated over an open fire with cast iron or ceramic pots. Nuts, seeds and spices were ground by hand in a molcajete (mortar and pestle) and added to sauces. Tomato and avocado salsas, corn tortillas, beans, tamales, tropical fruits, chilies and chocolate were sold in the Aztec market places. It wasn’t until the conquistadores arrived in what is now Mexico City that beef, chicken, dairy, garlic, rice and wheat were introduced to the cuisine. With an array of flavorful ingredients, the early natives got to work on perfecting regional Mexican dishes that still thrive today.

Mole has become known as the national dish of Mexico and is usually associated with the regions of Puebla and Oaxaca. Mole poblano—the famous rich, thick, chocolate-tinged sauce—is a combination of the flavors of Mexican history. The term mole actually means concoction and its origin remains disputed—many believe that it was a fortuitous accident. It is not unheard of for mole recipes to call for more than 30 ingredients which are all pounded, blended and simmered together to make a thick, flavorful sauce. Many Mexican women have their own mole recipe, which was passed down from her mother. Historically, the recipes were usually made in large batches and the final step involved taking the mole to neighborhood grinders or molinos to form a smooth sauce.

The cultivation of beans in Mexican history happened early on, with ample protein to sustain growing populations. In fact, cultivation began around 5000 B.C. and along with corn, completed the staple diet of the indigenous people. Contrary to what many people believe, there are many regional variations in the preparation and type of beans. Mexican food is not always accompanied by refried beans! Pink and pinto beans are popular in the north and black beans are more common in the south of Mexico. Personally, one of my favorite meals is a big bowl of slow-cooked frijoles de la olla with some kind of grain (rice, quinoa, barley, etc).
Below is a description of the menu for the party.


with chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapenos and cilantro see recipe below
Rick Bayless's Roasted Tomato-Jalapeno Salsa click here for the recipe
Tortilla Chips
Zanahorias y ajo en escabeche (Spicy pickled carrots and garlic) see recipe below

Main dishes

Rick Bayless's Peanut Mole Enchiladas with Braised Greens and Potatoes
click here for the recipe
Diana Kennedy's pork stew in red chili sauce click here for the recipe
Tamales (shredded beef and green corn)


Frijoles negros refritos ("refried" black beans) see recipe below
Arroz verde (green rice) click here for the recipe
Salad with mixed greens, red onion, oranges and jicama


Mexican wedding cookies
see recipe below
Mexican chocolate crackle cookies
from Sur la Table's The Art and Soul of Baking by Cindy Mushet
Very tangy lime bars
from Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich

Guacamole with chopped tomatoes, onions, jalapenos and cilantro

Serves 4-6

2 ripe Hass avocadoes
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
½ small white onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
½ medium tomato, diced
¼ cup cilantro, chopped
½ jalapeno, finely chopped
Freshly ground pepper

1. Cut avocadoes in half and scoop out the flesh into a medium bowl. Mash avocado until smooth and creamy. Stir in salt and lime juice.
3. Rinse onion under cold water to reduce its potency.
4. Add the remaining ingredients. Taste and season with additional salt, pepper or lime juice if desired.

Zanahorias y ajo en escabeche (Spicy pickled carrots and garlic)

¼ cup olive oil
2 bay leaves
5 black peppercorns
1 tablespoon dried oregano
3 cloves garlic coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1-7 ounce can whole pickled jalapenos, with juices reserved
1 lb carrots, sliced diagonally about ½ inch thick
2 yellow onions, sliced about 1/8 inch thick
25 whole garlic cloves, peeled
2 cups cider vinegar

1. Heat oil in a large pot. Add bay leaves and peppercorns and cook 1-2 minutes, stirring occasionally (do not let bay leaves brown). Reduce heat and stir in oregano and chopped garlic, stir until garlic is slightly golden.
2. Add salt, jalapeno juice, carrots and enough water to cover by 1 inch. Simmer for 5 minutes until carrots soften but are still crunchy.
3. Remove from heat and add onions, jalapenos, garlic, and vinegar. Stir to combine and allow to cool. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours for best results.

Frijoles Negros Refritos

This is the best recipe that I have come up with for cooking black beans--it is very flavorful and much lighter than traditional refried beans cooked with lard. The epazote is not essential but adds a wonderful, unique flavor to traditional Mexican black beans. You can find dried epazote at specialty Mexican markets or Whole Foods. I love having a pot of beans on hand. These black beans are delicious in a bowl with brown rice, avocado and salsa or spread on a crunchy corn tortilla.

1 lb dried black beans, washed and picked over
1 medium onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons dried epazote, tied in cheesecloth
1-2 teaspoons salt, to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Crumbled queso fresco (optional)

1. Place beans in large stockpot and add water to cover by 2 inches. Stir in onion, garlic, and epazote in cheesecloth. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until beans are tender, about 2 hours. Every 30 minutes stir gently and add more water to make sure beans are covered by at least 1-2 inches.
2. When beans are just about tender add 1 teaspoon salt and simmer 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Discard epazote.
3. Drain beans, reserving cooking liquid. In same pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add beans and fry in oil about 2 minutes. Begin to mash beans, gradually adding cooking liquid until beans are slightly soupy. Add additional salt to taste. Top with queso fresco.

Mexican Wedding Cookies

Originally introduced to Mexico by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, these shortbread cookies are enjoyed during special celebrations in Mexico, such as weddings, quincenieras, baptisms and religious holidays.

Makes 2 dozen

1 stick unsalted butter, softened

¼ cup confectioners’ sugar
Pinch of salt

1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup all-purpose flour

½ cup walnuts or pecans, lightly toasted and then finely ground

½ cup confectioners’ sugar for dusting and rolling

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Cream butter until fluffy. Add confectioners' sugar, salt and vanilla; beat until smooth.

2. Gradually stir in flour. Add the nuts and mix until just incorporated.

3. Shape dough into 1" balls. Place about 1" apart on a cookie sheet and bake 15 minutes or until edges are lightly brown, turning sheet half way through so that cookies bake evenly.

4. Once the cookies have cooled slightly, roll in confectioners' sugar.

Additional pictures...

May 5, 2009

A Recipe to Change Your Mind About Scones

If you think that you don’t like scones, chances are you haven’t had a good one. Once you bite through a scone that is done right, you will realize all that it should be: deliciously tender, flaky and slightly sweet. Unfortunately, many of the scones available to us are dry and dense, often dressed up with glazes, chocolate and excess sugar.

Scones are thought to be of Scottish origin, where they were originally made with oats and cooked on griddles over an open fire. Today’s scones are a type of quick-bread, similar to a biscuit, made with flour, baking powder, butter, milk (including cream or buttermilk), and sugar. They are shaped into individual wedges or rounds and baked until golden brown with a white and soft interior.

The trick to making scones, or any kind of flaky dough (like a pastry crust) for that matter, is to work cold butter into the flour until it looks like coarse crumbs. It is also very important not to overmix once the liquid ingredients are added, which would result in a dense, doughy scone. The dough is then lightly kneaded, just enough to develop a structure with alternating layers of dough and fat. If these steps are done correctly, a delicious biscuit with a distinct flakiness will result.

In England, plain scones are traditionally eaten split open with preserves, clotted cream or lemon curd. American scones tend to have the sweetness baked into them (and eaten like a muffin), flavored with different fruit, nut and spice combinations.

My favorite scones are those made with fresh fruit. There is a well-known bakery in San Francisco called Arizmendi that makes the most delicious baked goods. They feature a scone-of-the-day with an assortment of fruit combinations. I also really enjoy their cornmeal-cherry and oat varieties. I didn’t think that I could ever make a scone anywhere near as flaky and delicious as those that come from the Arizmendi ovens. I have to say though (and Justin agrees), that one of my first attempts was quite successful. Given that strawberries can be found all over the Bay Area markets, I decided to go with a fresh strawberry scone made with buttermilk. The flavor was reminiscent of a strawberry shortcake. They were especially delicious right out of the oven with a glass of milk.

Fresh Strawberry Scones

Lowfat buttermilk lends a rich, buttery flavor and tender texture to the scones without excess fat. These moist scones are delicious with strawberries, but I bet any type of fresh, diced fruit would do.

Makes 8 large or 12 small scones.

2¼ cups all-purpose flour
5 tablespoons natural cane sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
3/4 cup buttermilk
1½ cups diced fresh strawberries
1 large egg, beaten
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 375° and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. In a large bowl, combine the flour, cane sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda; whisk to blend.
3. Using a pastry blender or 2 knives, cut in the butter pieces until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
4. Gradually add the buttermilk to the dough, mixing with a wooden spoon until the dough just comes together. Gently fold in the strawberries. Do not overmix.
5. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough in half and form each piece into a 2-inch thick disk. Cut each disk into 4-6 even wedges. Place the scones 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheet and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
6. Before baking, brush each scone with egg and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown.