After Hours: Middle Eastern Pantry

Kathy Biehl is the food writer for Diversion magazine and the former longtime dining critic for the Houston Business Journal. She has reviewed restaurants as well for the Houston Press, Time Out New York, My Table and the TONY guide Eating & Drinking 2000. Her food writing has received awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Houston Press Club. She is also the author of the LLRX Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, a member of the State Bar of Texas and co-author of The Lawyer's Guide to Internet Research.

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Link to Kathy Biehl's cookbook recommendations here.

New Product Alert

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.

Book It

Claudia Roden’s encyclopedic 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.
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Middle Eastern Pantry

Spanning 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

Seasoned 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 Kalustyan’s, 800/352-3451.

Comfort Food

Dark 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 Kalustyan’s, 800/352-3451. Ethnic Grocer carries a 15.5-ounce can ($3.51) of large fava beans by Ziyad.

Going With the Grain

While 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).

Lickety Split

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).

Alwadi 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 Madhur Jaffrey's World of the East Vegetarian Cooking. Each is a snap to make, and delicious.

Fragrant Flavorings

Many 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

Spice 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