With Alan now in Israel for the year (rolled into Nazareth…), close friends in the middle of a big family vacation in Israel, other friends having just made aliyah with their three children, and we ourselves leaving for Israel in a few days, not to mention all the distressing news from this part of the world, Cookbook Cornucopia looks to the Middle East and two vegetarian cookbooks. Vegetarian dishes are not necessarily what one expects from this region, but on the other hand it is reasonable to expect a long tradition of vegetable dishes from a part of the world in which vegetables have been cultivated for thousands of years.
Arto der Haroutunian, the author of Vegetarian Dishes from Across the Middle East rates a brief Wikipedia page, from which one can learn slightly more than from the author blurb on the back of the book. Our author studied architecture, designed restaurants, painted, composed music, translated Turkish, Arab, Persian, and Armenian authors, all in addition to founding a chain of Armenian restaurants with his brother and writing twelve cookbooks. He died in 1987 at the unfortunately young age of 47. I wish I liked this book more, since the author seems like an interesting person, but most of the recipes that I tried were not that great. On the other hand, there are still a few untried recipes that catch my eye. I think, though, that I will pass on the recipe that that amused Alan and Henry: “Avocados in Wine” (page 60): you mix a half cup of wine with a fourth cup of sugar and some lemon juice, then fill avocado halves (pits removed) with this syrup.
“Potatoes, Peas, and Pickles” (page 69) is a standard potato salad with peas and pickles (as advertised) as well as carrots, celery, and scallions. Arto offers two choices of dressing: one made with cream, and the other with a combination of mayonnaise and sour cream; I opted for the mayonnaise and sour cream dressing. This is, after all, supposed to be a Russian type salad, and opinion at the lunch table this last Shabbos was that Russian salads were often distinguished by the presence of mayonnaise.
“Almond Soup” (page 15) is described as “an extremely delightful soup from Turkey” but it failed to delight anyone at our house. It looked promising, unusual enough to be a taste sensation. Instead, it tasted of almost nothing. The soup consists of hard boiled egg yolks, ground almonds, lemon rind, coriander, basil, and cream. Perhaps not was not a good idea for me to use almond flour instead of grinding my own almonds; perhaps it was not a good idea to use fresh basil instead of ground basil. The basil dominated, the almonds and everything else left no taste, so we were left with hot basil flavored cream. The leftovers were never touched.
“Zucchini with Egg and Cheese” (page 100) was a very pleasant zucchini soufflé. The vegetables are zucchini and mushrooms; the cheeses are feta and Parmesan. This soufflé is quite sturdy, and I cooked it in advance and reheated it; although not not as light and airy as when first out of the oven, this dish still had a good texture. I actually used twice as much zucchini, feta, and mushrooms as specified in the recipe, with quite good results. [Go to the recipe.]
“Spinach and Chickpea Salad” (page 80) is not exactly my idea of a salad. This dish consists of spinach cooked with chickpeas in a tomato butter sauce. I did serve this at room temperature, but it would have been very good hot; I’m not so sure about cold. Unfortunately, I came close to ruining this dish by forgetting and salting it twice, so my spinach and chickpeas was way too salty. But when I tried to forget the salt, it seemed that the the slippery spinach, with texture from chickpeas, and the buttery tomato sauce could have been really good.
Habeeb Salloum’s book, Classic Vegetarian Cooking from the Middle East & North Africa is a great cookbook. Amazon reviewers agree, except for the reviewer who gave the book one star because it had no pictures. I suppose this reviewer also gave The Joy of Cooking and Mastering the Art of French Cooking one star: although those cookbooks have line drawings, there are no color photographs, at least in the editions that I have, to show what a dish should look like. Who cares what a dish looks like? It is taste that matters, and taste that Habeeb delivers. In his introduction he notes that Middle Eastern food often seems to be quite meat-centric, but this is only because the food served to guests (and so in restaurants), the most highly esteemed food, is meat. The diet of most people of the Middle East, most of the time, over the millennia, has been, however, vegetarian, and it is this vegetarian diet that Habeeb celebrates. The recipes are simple, as recipes of the masses should be, yet make the most of their ingredients.
“Algerian Salad” (page 96) is your standard Middle Eastern chopped salad; what distinguishes it is the addition of olives (ideally salt-cured) and hard boiled eggs to the usual combination of peppers, cucumber, tomatoes, and onion. Both olives and eggs made a fine addition to this type of salad, and Habeeb’s rendition of this classic stands with the best.
“Carrot and Egg Salad” (page 106) was a little more unexpected. For this salad, we briefly cook carrots in boiling water, then chop them up in the food processor. The carrots get a dressing of cilantro, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. Next, you are supposed to spread the carrots on a plate and decorate with hard boiled eggs, olives, and tomatoes; not being too interested in this sort of presentation, I just mixed olives and eggs into the carrot salad and omitted the tomato. This all made a tasty and slightly different salad.
“Olive Dip” (page 46) gets high points for taste, ease of preparation, and unordinariness. You just toss green olives (pitted!), tahini, cilantro, lemon juice, garlic, tomato, olive oil, and some hot red pepper into the food processor and whiz until the dip is as smooth as you want it. Habeeb says “smooth”; I like a little bit of texture. This dip was great on bread; I also like it mixed into lettuce salad, and even plain.
Habeeb has lots of hot soups, most based on beans, and all calling for water, not vegetable broth. This I appreciate; too often soup recipes are just for flavored chicken (or fake chicken) broth. I have made several of his hot soups in the past; the ones I tried were good and filling, but not remarkable (and this is really the best one can usually say for a bean soup). It’s the middle of summer, though, so instead of hot soup I tried two cold yogurt soups: “Tahini and Yogurt Soup” (page 84) and “Cold Yogurt and Cucumber Soup” (page 66). I am not a huge fan of cold yogurt soups, so I was not impressed with either soup, but our guests who liked yogurt soups thought that they were quite good, especially the tahini soup.
The trick to enjoying vegetarian kibbeh is to forget that there is a much better meat version, and just appreciate the dish for what it is. So, forgetting that meat exists, “Cashew Nut Kibbeh” (page 178) is not that bad. The cashews stand in for the not-to-be-thought-of meat. This is baked kibbeh: a layer of cashews and bulgur, a layer of onions, and a final layer of cashews and bulgur. Once cooked and cut, the squares of kibbeh sort of fell apart, which was not that satisfactory. Although tasty, this would have been better with a spicy sauce of some sort.
“Eggplant and Cheese Casserole” (page 190) is a srt of Middle Eastern eggplant parmigiano, with feta instead of Parmesan or another Italian cheese, the eggplant fried but not breaded, and a rather weird egg and onion topping. The dish seems normal enough until the topping: just fried eggplant layered with tomatoes and cheese. The topping consists of beaten eggs with allspice, oregano, sage, and raw onions. The cooked dish looked strange, but tasted great.
Several people mistook “Almond and Tahini Cookies” for peanut butter cookies, a very understandable mistake. The cookie dough is made in the food processor, with all the ingredients thrown in and processed. I cut the sugar in half, although I think that these cookies could have used a little more than half the sugar. I might have left them in the oven too long, since the cookies were quite hard. Although I was not that fond of these, some people, including Danny, really liked them, even preferring them to the other cookie I made, below.
“Date and Almond Cookies” (page 261) are perhaps the best non-chocolate cookie in the word. It is unlikely, though, that people who do not share my fondness for soft, fruit-sweetened cookies will agree. But for those who also like such cookies, get some dates and almonds, pull out your food processor, and prepare yourself for a sublime experience. Like the tahini cookies, you make these cookies by processing all the ingredients together. I was not immediately successful in blending the ingredients, so I added a little more cream, then a little more flour. My dough was too soft to form into balls, so I just made drop cookies, which held their shape without much spreading. I cut the amount of sugar in half, and these cookies, unlike the tahini cookies, did not need any more sugar. The cookies were incredible when first made; the quality declined slightly as the cookies aged, but they were still delicious when I made a mid-morning snack of the last five cookies, by then at least four days old. [Go to the recipe.]
Adapted from Arto der Haroutunian, Vegetarian Dishes from Across the Middle East
4 tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
½ pound mushrooms, chopped
1 pound zucchini, grated
¼ cup flour
1¼ cups milk, heated
½ cup crumbled feta cheese
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
¼ cup parsley, minced
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 350º. Butter a medium sized baking dish (about an 8 cup capacity).
Melt the butter in a large skillet. Cook the onion in the butter until soft, then add the mushrooms and cook a little longer. Add the zucchini. Stir in the flour. After the flour cooks for a minute, begin gradually adding the milk, stirring all the while. When the milk has been all stirred in and the mixture is thick, add the feta, salt, and pepper. Remove from the heat.
Separate the eggs. Beat the yolks. Add a little of the hot vegetable mixture, then mix together all the vegetable mixture and the yolks. Beat the egg whites until stiff, then fold the whites into the yolk and vegetable mixture. Scrape into the prepared pan, top with the Parmesan cheese, and bake for about 40 minutes. Eat right away, or later: either cold, room temperature, or reheated.
Date and Almond Cookies
Adapted from Habeeb Salloum, Classic Vegetarian Cooking from the Middle East & North Africa
1 cup almonds
1 cup pitted dates
6 tablespoons butter
½ cup sugar
½ cup cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350º. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
Add the almonds to the food processor bowl and pulse until powdery. Add the dates and pulse until you get a fairly homogeneous mass. Add the butter, sugar, eggs, cream, and vanilla and pulse until all mixed together. Add the rest of the ingredients and pulse until combined. Drop spoonfuls of dough onto the baking sheets and bake for about 10 minutes. Cool on racks.