After Hours: Middle Eastern PantryBy Kathy Biehl, Published on March 15, 2004
Link to Kathy Biehl's cookbook recommendations here.
Amy's Kitchen has released organic versions of a few Mexican favorites that deserve to be pantry staples. If you equate "organic" with "bland" (or, heaven forbid, "tastes like cardboard"), Amy's new refried beans and salsas will show you otherwise.
One whiff of a just-opened can of Amy's organic refried pinto beans is
proof that your taste buds are in for anything but deprivation. The beans
are made without the traditional lard, yet manage to be satisfyingly
creamy all the same. The seasonings, a combination of onions and spices,
are right on the mark. Amy's refried pinto beans (15.4 ounces, $1.89) come
in a traditional version and one with green chilies, which are mild enough
for most tender tongues.
Amy's organic salsas come in mild, medium, and black bean and corn (17.5 ounces for $3.59). I've tasted only the medium, which impressed me with very fresh tastes and pleasing accents of lime and cilantro. Many salsas are strident; this isn't, in the slightest. It proved a graceful accent for bean burritos and also played a role in some stunning breakfast tacos. Amy's Organic Refried Beans and Salsas are available in natural food stores and some supermarkets nationwide.
The New Book of Middle Eastern Food
(Knopf; $24.50 at Amazon.com), the 2000 update of her seminal 1974 work on
the region’s cuisine, makes for great reading as well as great eating.
Generous helpings of folk tales, culinary history, and personal
reminiscences of growing up in Egypt provide a captivating context for her
collection of more than 800 recipes. The recipes have a straightforward
presentation that makes them easy to follow; Roden adds to their usability
by explaining (and recommending) key ingredients, as well as identifying
the regions or cities associated with each dish.
Middle Eastern Pantry
some 5,000 miles from Northwestern Africa to the Arabian Sea, the Middle
East has a diverse culinary tapestry that reflects ancient farming
cultures, nomadic traditions, grand empires, and the finds of early spice
traders. All converge in several distinct, common, defining threads that
transcend the abundance of regional variations (notably the sweet
firepower of Moroccan cooking, the Greek fondness for layered
casserole-like dishes and feta cheese, the rich, rice-based delicacies of
Persia). Middle Eastern cuisine shares a preference for lamb, grains,
beans, nuts, dried fruits, and the flat, round bread called pita, as well
as a flair for harmonizing fruity, spiced, and savoury notes. One favorite
of the Middle Eastern table is becoming trendy on our own shores: mezze
(which comes from a word meaning “to savor in little bites”), an array of
appetizers, akin to tapas, that offer variety in textures and flavors.
Whether you’d like to make your own mezze or add a Middle Eastern touch to
your pantry, read on for this month’s recommendations.
The Rice Stuff
rice is a common filling throughout the Middle East for a variety of
vegetables. Stuffed grape leaves are perhaps the most familiar in our
country; a reliable commercial brand is Türtamek, which makes uncommonly
palatable canned grape leaves (14 oz. for $3.99), restrained in both
perfume and oil. Cabbage and eggplant also make satisfying, savoury
wrappings for complexly flavored rice, which is flecked with pine nuts,
currants, mint, and spices. Türtamek offers either stuffed cabbage or
eggplant in a 14-ounce can ($3.99). Order any from
brown fava beans (foul mudamas) are a regional staple -- particularly in
Egypt, where they are the anytime food, even at breakfast. The beans’
meaty, mildly bitter flavor blossoms with their traditional companions of
garlic, parsley, and lemon juice. Alwadi Alakhdar makes a 15-ounce can of
medium-sized fava beans alone ($1.29) or combined with garbanzo beans
($1.49), which are available from
carries a 15.5-ounce can ($3.51) of large fava beans by Ziyad.
Going With the Grain
rice is a mainstay of Persian cooking, wheat serves the same function in
other parts of the Middle East. North African cooking favors couscous, a
tiny pasta made from rolled, dried semolina and often served pilaf-style.
A springy, larger variation is roasted Israeli couscous, sometimes called
pearl because of its size. The rest of the region is partial to bulgur or
cracked wheat, which is made by boiling, drying, and grinding whole
kernels. Bulgur comes in four grades: from fine (#1), suitable for the
ground lamb cigars called kibbe, and medium (#2), which is used in tabouli,
to coarse (#3) and half-cut (#4), which are ideal for pilafs. A one-pound
bag of any grade costs $1.99 at
Kalustyan’s (800/352-3451), which also
sells a sixteen-ounce box of fine couscous by Sahadi ($2.99) and a house
brand of Israeli couscous (one pound for $3.99).
Convenience foods generally strike me as ghostly (and often ghastly) imitations, but four Middle Eastern favorites survive translation tastefully. Tarazi Specialty Foods’ tabouli mix (8 oz. for $3.99) provides enough bulgur, parsley flakes, dried mint, and other seasonings to serve six; all you add is water, olive oil, and diced tomatoes. It's available from Kalustyan’s (800/352-3451).
Alakhdar falafel mix hydrates into a well-seasoned dough (primarily ground
fava beans and chickpeas) that holds its shape in the deep fryer, where
some competitors fall to pieces. A seven-ounce box makes about 20 pieces.
Alwadi Alakhdar also makes quality canned bases of two popular dips.
Hommos tahina (13 oz.) provides the pureed chickpeas and tahini (sesame
paste) for what often goes by hummus. Baba ghannouge (12.75 oz.), for the
eggplant dip by the same name, saves the work of roasting the eggplant and
pureeing it with tahini. To either, add chopped garlic and lemon juice to
taste, then top with olive oil. These three products, unfortunately,
illustrate the vagaries of Web shopping, because my source has disappeared
and I have yet to locate another. My recommendation is to keep a lookout
for these products in your local specialty stores. As far as hummus and
baba ghannouge go, I can happily direct you to their respective recipes in
World of the East Vegetarian Cooking.
Each is a snap to make, and delicious.
desserts, syrups, and pastries enjoy intriguing floral overtones from rose
water or orange blossom water. A ten-ounce bottle of either, by the
Lebanese manufacturer Cortas, costs about $3.99. Pomegranate molasses
lends a sweet-tart accent to savoury dishes, such as stews, duck, or
roasted eggplant, and also enhances salads with bread (fattoush) or foul
mudamas. A ten-ounce bottle by Balady costs $5.99. All but the orange
blossom water are available from
Kalustyan’s online catalog, 800/352-3451;
I have found the orange blossom water on the shelf at the physical store
(which is on Lexington Ave. near 28th St. in Manhattan.).
Spice It Up
blends are commonly kept on hand as condiments and seasonings. Zatar
(eight ounces for $3.99) is a blend of wild thyme, sumac, and toasted
sesame seeds, which is mixed with olive oil for a bread dip or pita
topping. Used with chicken, meat, and stews, bharat is a mix of spices and
herbs that varies by region. Spice Bazaar’s version combines cumin,
nutmeg, allspice, and coriander and is called Middle Eastern Blend (two
ounces for $3.95).
Spice Bazaar also offers non-traditional blends of ground spices and herbs that its owner, Mary Karadsheh, developed during 25 years of operating a Middle Eastern bakery and deli in Phoenix. All priced at $3.95, her lively blends include Jericho Falafel Spice (2.75 oz.), Jerusalem Hummus Spice (3.75 oz.), Jordanian Roast Lamb Spice (three oz.), and Lebanese Kifta Spice (three oz., for kabobs of ground lamb, parsley, and onion). Each is useful for more than its namesake dish; they warrant their own index in the Spice Bazaar Cookbook ($14.95), a sturdily spiral-bound collection of recipes and tips for soaking bulgur, prepping rice for grape leaves, and other shortcuts Karadsheh honed at her food business. The fattoush and foul mudamas recipes are both worth adding to your salad repertoire. If you're a fan of burgers or grilling, try the patty variation of Karadsheh's Kifta Kabobs recipe, which fills out ground beef or lamb with parsley, onion, bread crumbs, and kifta spice. Serve this alone or on a bun and you will have difficulty going back to plain burgers -- that's how tantalizingly flavorful the recipe is.
Spice Bazaar’s blends are for sale at select Wegman’s nationwide or from The Spice Bazaar (800/30-SPICE), which also sells the cookbook and a cabinet's worth of herbs and spices, including pungent Greek oregano (1.2 oz. for $2.99).
ã Kathy Biehl 2004