Food, family, friends

A meal from any culture is a joy, but preparing Palestinian food is an experience not to be missed.

pita 88 248 (photo credit: Noreen Sadik)
pita 88 248
(photo credit: Noreen Sadik)
A Palestinian proverb says, "The eye is the one that eats." Although this may be true, those of you who have actually indulged in a Palestinian meal probably found that you had entered a world of sheer culinary delight. For those of you who haven't yet had this pleasure, what are you waiting for? Palestinian cuisine comprises a delicious array of foods, influenced by the kitchens of Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. However, there are authentic Palestinian dishes that have their own distinct flavors. The abundance of freshly-picked vegetables and herbs, newly pressed olive oil, spices and meat straight from butcher's shops allows cooks to create healthy, tasty meals. Kitchens in Palestinian homes are always filled with the aroma of seasonal vegetables - mloukhyyeh (Mallow leaves, a kind of mint), grape leaves and freekeh (grains of immature, roasted durum wheat) in the summer. Za'atar (wild thyme) and khoubazi (a leafy mountain plant) in the spring. And peas and fava beans in the winter. Palestinian women have a talent for turning vegetables and meat into meals that leave guests eager for more. My mother-in-law, who married at 17, left her parents' home to live with her husband, his mother and his unmarried sister. She learned to cook from her mother and mother-in-law, and it became her passion. Her kitchen is a cook's paradise - nothing is lacking. A peek into the cupboards reveals pots and pans in a range of sizes from huge to small and patterned plates and cups. Also on hand are an endless supply of the staples found in every Palestinian kitchen: homemade olives, hard white cheese made from the milk of white sheep, chick peas for humous and falafel, olive oil, rice, spices, coffee, tea and sugar. Eating a well-cooked meal from any culture is a joy, but helping prepare Palestinian food is an experience that shouldn't be missed. Family members and neighbors stop by for a visit and will often sit down, grab a handful of the "vegetable of the day" and quickly become absorbed in the time-consuming task of preparing it for freezing, or for the next day's meal. Bunches of mloukhyyeh or za'atar leaves need to be separated from their stalks. Fava beans must have their strings removed. And freekeh has to be freed from the sand and rocks hiding among the grains. Working as a team, it doesn't take quite so long to get through five or six kilos of vegetable. THIS IS a time not only for food preparation, but also for bonding, socializing and local gossip. Over the raw vegetables, each person contributes information about who is having a baby; who fought with who's in-laws/husband/neighbor; who's getting married; who died, local politics... The list is long. Feeding the family is a topic that is constantly discussed, and cooking tips and favorite recipes are often shared. No cookbooks grace my mother-in-law's shelves; she is able to recite every one of her recipes from memory. She knows how to make all the traditional foods, and with enviable ease, wraps grape leaves; stuffs whole lamb's ribs; turns flour, burghul and water into tiny balls for maftul (couscous); cores zucchini to stuff with rice; and makes spinach and za'atar pies. One day, as we were taking the za'atar leaves off the stalks, I asked her how to make za'atar pies. Slapping her cheek in amusement, a sarcastic smile played on her lips, for she was sure her American-born Palestinian daughter-in-law would never be able to make the delicious pastries. "It's too difficult for you," she stated in Arabic, but I insisted that if she could learn it, so could I. As she dictated the recipe, what seemed to make sense to all the other women present was almost incomprehensible to me. She doesn't measure ingredients. "How much olive oil should I put in?" and "How much baking powder is needed?" I asked. She gave me her standard answers: "A tea cup." "A big spoon." Frustrated and trying not to look foolish, I asked again. "Is that a small tea cup or a big mug? A soup spoon or a serving spoon?" It does make a difference, after all. She answered by spreading her fingers to demonstrate the size of the cup, and opening the palm of her hand to show the size of the spoon. I made a mental note of how far apart her fingers were, and how wide her palm was opened, and continued listening to the rest of the recipe. As it turns out, my "how to cook" conversations with the ladies in my neighborhood have proven that the measuring methods that confused me seem to have been passed down from generation to generation in other families, as well. In case you're wondering, I did finally make the pies, but used less olive oil than she suggested. Although she felt they needed more, my family preferred them less greasy. Now burdened by poor health, her husband and his mother long gone, my mother-in-law and her sister-in-law still share a home and the cooking responsibilities. They cook large meals because they know that every day some of her eight grown children, their spouses and 23 grandchildren will enter the kitchen, and won't leave without opening pot lids, tasting the contents and treating themselves to a plate of their mother's and aunt's cooking. This celebration of family and food is not unique to my in-laws. Palestinians are accustomed to, expect and welcome visits from strangers and family members alike. Each weekend, homes are filled with parents sharing large meals with their married children's families, for the warmth and love that goes into a mother's cooking draws the family together. The following recipes are favorites of my mother-in-law and her sister-in-law, and can easily be prepared by cooks who keep kosher. MUSAKHAN This delicious Palestinian dish, which originated in the area around Tulkarm and Jenin, consists of layers of taboun bread covered with olive oil, onions, and nuts. Taboun bread is flat, thin and large, and is baked on a very hot, round iron surface in an outdoor oven, traditionally made of clay, brick and straw, and can be found in bakeries in Arab cities. Serves 4. 4 taboun breads 2 chickens 1 kilo red onions 1⁄2 kilo olive oil salt sumac, to taste pine nuts almond slices Cut the chicken into the number of pieces desired. Place into a pan of water with one chopped onion, salt and either olive oil or vegetable oil. Bring the water to a boil, and cook the chicken until tender. In the meantime, chop the onions into very small pieces (or chop in a food processor). Sprinkle salt on them, and fry them in olive oil. Stir continuously until they become dark yellow. Do not remove from the oil. In a separate pan, fry the pine nuts and almond slices. Rub some of the olive oil and onion mixture all over the cooked chicken pieces, and brown them in the oven. Next, put one of the taboun breads in a large tray. Cover it with a quarter of the fried onions and some of the oil. Sprinkle with sumac and a generous amount of pine nuts and almonds. Place another taboun bread on top of it, and again cover with onion, olive oil, sumac, pine nuts and almonds. Put the browned chicken pieces on top of the second bread, skin side up. Cover with the third taboun bread. Again spread with onions, olive oil, sumac and nuts. Do the same with the fourth bread. • This dish is traditionally served with yogurt, but kosher cooks can leave it out. ZA'ATAR PASTRIES Time-consuming, but well worth the effort. Great with a cup of tea. DOUGH 1 kilo flour 3⁄4 cup olive oil 1 Tbsp. yeast salt warm water a pinch of sugar, if desired FILLING 1 kilo fresh za'atar leaves 4 large onions, chopped 2 cups olive oil salt, to taste Dough: Put the dry ingredients in a bowl, and make a well in the center. Pour the olive oil and warm water into the well. Mix until a dough forms. It should not be too soft or too hard. Cover and let sit until it rises, about half an hour. Filling: Wash and chop the za'atar leaves. They can be chopped in a food processor, however they should not be small. Chop onions into small pieces and add to the za'atar and sprinkle with salt. Rub the za'atar leaves and the onion together, and then squeeze them to drain as much water as possible. Put in a bowl, and mix with two cups of olive oil. Set aside. Punch the dough down, and divide into small balls. The size is a matter of preference. (I made them approximately 8 centimeters in diameter, and they made medium size pastries.) Knead each one, and flatten into a square shape on a tray covered in olive oil. The dough should be thin. Spread the za'atar mixture over the dough. Fold one end to the middle of the square, and then the opposite side to the middle. Do the same with the other ends of the dough square. Once again, flatten the squares with your hands, making the desired size pastry. Place on a tray generously greased with olive oil. Bake in a hot oven (top and bottom burners should be lit). Remove from oven when they are light brown. Makes approximately 40 medium-sized pastries. IRKAK IB ADIS If you like lentils, you are going to love this healthy dish. Serves 4 11⁄2 cups brown lentils 1⁄2 kilo flour, preferably wheat flour 1 large onion, chopped olive oil water salt, to taste 5 cloves of garlic, pressed In a large pot, fry the onions in a generous amount of olive oil until they become golden. Wash the lentils and put them in the pot with the onions. Add salt, the pressed garlic, and enough water to cover the lentils. Let the water boil until the lentils have reached the point where they are beginning to soften. In the meantime, make the dough. Put the flour and salt in a bowl. Slowly add water, mixing until a dough forms. It should not be too soft or too stiff. Let rest for a few minutes. Punch dough down, and divide into two balls. Cover a surface with flour and knead one ball of dough. With a rolling pin, roll the dough into a very thin square. Cover generously with flour. Starting at one end of the dough, fold over about three or four centimeters. Continue folding the dough until you reach the end, and a long strip of dough has been formed. Repeat with the second ball of dough. Cut each strip in half lengthwise, and then widthwise, cut into 1⁄2 centimeter slices. Fill the pot with water, and when the water has reached a boil, slowly begin to add the pieces of dough. Let the water continue to boil, until the dough cooks and the lentils are soft. Fry garlic in olive oil, and stir with the lentils and dough. (The garlic does not have to be fried, in which case it should be added at an earlier stage.) Suhtain!