To the uninitiated, these cheeses pies – or fatayer (pronounced, “fat-eye-ah”) – look no more impressive than miniature pizzas without the pepperoni, though I assure you they are one of the most coveted foods to the members of my family. They are unparalleled in their taste and difficult to track down – a kind of Lebanese truffle. My mom and I have a frozen stash of fatayer that we hoard away in our freezers, as our stock doesn’t get replenished often. We moved from Montreal to the west coast, where there seems to be only 12 people of Lebanese descent, so finding a Lebanese restaurant nearby would be a miracle.
Food is one of the things my family misses most of Montreal. When my brother flies back for a visit, he spends more time in the shawarma shop than sleeping. When my mom or I visit, we arrange a rendez-vous with our fatayer supplier, a small hole-in-the-wall establishment run by middle eastern octogenarians who speak little English. We transport back several dozen fatayer in our suitcases, often the only souvenirs from our trip, that we then distribute and dole out to the other members of the family. My teeshirts smell like a middle eastern souq for a week, but it’s worth it.
My mom has been begging those old women for their fatayer recipe for years; though the only way they’ll give it up, they say, is if she stays with them to work. I can picture the old wrinkled hands busily kneading dough in the back room, the smell of anise and pita bread wafting out into the chilly streets, and the sound of a woman’s voice on the radio singing beautifully in Arabic. My mom declines, though with hesitation I can tell, and chooses to search for the recipe on her own instead. Maybe when she turns 80 she’ll reconsider and join these women with their melodic tongues and culinary prowess and immerse herself in a culture that has been absent from her world since she was a child.
My mom and I have come across this recipe for fatayer, though it isn’t quite how I remember my Sito making it. It is close enough, however, and still worthy of being stashed away in the freezer for a day when Montreal calls to me most.
I used to be very pretentious when it came to Lebanese food. If I went to a Greek or Middle Eastern restaurant and came across a dish that didn’t look the way my grandmother used to make it, I’d put on airs and make faces with every bite, like a fussy child. At a work potluck recently, someone brought in stuffed grape vine leaves filled with pork, instead of lamb, and I gave them the cold shoulder for nearly a week.
Tabouli has always been one of the greatest offenders, as there are countless variations on its preparation (and spelling), many of which sadly involve being too stingy on parsley. Grocery store tabouli is one culprit: it consists mainly of bulghur wheat and offers the same satisfaction as munching on kitty litter (I’m guessing). My preference is to throw in heaps of parsley, cucumber and tomato, and making a complete meal out of it. The trouble is that I’m sometimes too lazy to undertake the lengthy task of finely chopping 2 bunches of parsley. I own a food processor, but with tabouli is just feels like cheating.
This easy-to-make recipe is a far cry from my Sito’s tabouli, but requires much less preparation and chopping. Although taking liberties with the classic Middle Eastern salad – and hopefully not offending the omnipotent Tabouli Gods by doing so – I know you won’t be disappointed with this version. I’ve reduced the parsley amounts and replaced the other ingredients with roasted pumpkin seeds and cranberries for a pleasant tartness. I’ve still used bulghur wheat here, but it would taste equally good with couscous or quinoa instead. If my grandmother ever asks, this will be our little secret. Shh. Continue reading
Ten days into 2011 and my resolve to eat healthier has not yet abandoned me completely, except for the short-lived Ferrero Rocher that I found in my jacket pocket this afternoon. In addition to starting a 21-day yoga challenge today to whip myself into shape, tonight I also decided to delve into my ancestry for a healthy and creative salad – Fattoosh. I don’t normally get much satisfaction from eating salads; they are too light and unfilling, too limp and without personality, and they always leave me with dressing down my shirt – though this Levantine dish which sounds liked a sneeze makes other salads wilt in shame. The ingredient list for this salad reads very much like that for its close relative, tabouli (also recommended), except Fattoosh uses romaine lettuce, ground sumac for tartness and hardened pieces of pita bread crumbled in, originally conceived as a practical use for stale bread besides using it as a middle eastern frisbee.
Sumac is an ingredient that is hard to come by here in Victoria – at least I haven’t found it – though you may be in luck if you live near a middle eastern grocer. Sumac always makes me think about an ill-planned entrepreneurial endeavour from my high school days, when my best friend Jon and I ground up the fuzzy red berries from the sumac tree in my backyard, rolled them up in cigarette paper, and sold them to our grade 8 friends under the brand name “Smacs”. They tasted pleasantly sour and fruity when inhaled, though the trend never caught on with our peers. I wouldn’t advise trying this at home, but I do highly recommend that you add this spice to your kitchen collection for the purpose of cooking. If you can’t find it, I’ve added a variation to the recipe using lemon zest, which tastes close enough. Continue reading
Like the stuffed grape vine leaves, the stuffed squash, Koosa, is another Lebanese favourite. My mother’s first vegetable garden this year on Saltspring Island was almost wholly devoted to growing this unique vegetable. The recipe can be done with regular-sized squash or zucchini, although this family recipe has always traditionally been done with small, pale green or summer squash.
15 small squash (or other squash), hollowed
1 Lb. lean ground lamb or beef
1 cup rice
1 can of tomato juice (4-5 cups)
Juice from 2 lemons
1-2 tsp. salt
Freshly ground pepper, cinnamon and allspice Continue reading
Tabouli was one of the first salads I ever ate when I was young. My grandmother, or Sito in Lebanese, always had a heaping bowl of it ready-in-waiting whenever we dropped by, like her tin of Peek Frean cookies that never seemed to deplete in stock. At every holiday dinner or event at the house of a relative, tabouli was also featured on the menu. To a child, the salad represented a colourful and visually appealing ensemble of greens and reds; as an adult, it is a healthy and tasty alternative to other side dishes.
Every weekend I now make a bowl-ful of tabouli that lasts me for several lunches and dinners during the week; and although it’s probably getting old and tiresome, I typically bring tabouli to every potluck I’m invited to. It’s different that the usual potato salad or nanaimo bars that I used to bring, and is just so easy to make – 15 minutes…and voila!
Note that there are many different ways to make this salad – each time is usually different for me depending on what I have in the fridge. Continue reading
A wonderful childhood memory of my grandmother – Sito, as she is known in Lebanese – is of her bringing my brother and I behind the neighbourhood swimming pool to pick grapevine leaves to make Yabrek, stuffed grapevine leaves. Although the ultimate payoff was the mouth-watering fingers of lamb meat we would feast on later that evening, also tantalizing to our young tastebuds was to nibble on the new vine shoots, shaped like curly-cues, which often had a sweet flavour to them.
I’ve searched the internet for years to find a recipe that was a close match to the Yabrek I remembered from my childhood. After many trials, my mother finally came across the secret ingredient – rhubarb – which, when added to the cooking pot, adds a distinct sweet flavour that is unmistakeable. Continue reading