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Archive for March, 2018


In Syria, Aleppo Pepper is King

One of the ingredients I miss the most from Syria is the famous Aleppo pepper. It’s the culinary ambassador to Aleppo around the world— a relatively long and slender pepper with bright, fruity flavor. It packs moderate heat: less than cayenne, but more than jalapeño. It’s the goldilocks of peppers. You can usually find dried and ground in most speciality spice stores or Mediterranean markets, but finding fresh is almost impossible.

Towards the end of pepper season, usually late summer/early fall, farmers and home cooks in Aleppo convert their surplus pepper into the most magnificent red pepper paste called debs flefleh (دبس الفليفلة) or “pepper molasses.” Molasses in Arabic refers to any fruit/vegetable pulp that is reduced low and slow. Home cooks dry the leftover peppers on their rooftops until most, but not all, the moisture has evaporated. You don’t want the peppers to be completely dry otherwise it will be difficult to process them into a paste. The final consistency is similar to tomato paste.

Unlike the rest of Syria or other cities across the Levant, Aleppo’s cuisine is famous for bursts of heat from using Aleppo pepper in all its forms (fresh, dried/ground, paste). A lot of recipes on my blog call for “red pepper paste” (e.g. muhammara, lahme b’ajeen, white bean salad). Unfortunately, most of the store-bought varieties of red pepper paste are packed with preservatives. If you buy it from a Mediterranean market, try to find a reputable brand that only uses only high quality peppers and salt as their ingredients. Make sure not to confuse red pepper paste with shatta, which is a hot sauce used more as a condiment, as opposed to red pepper paste, which is used as an ingredient in cooking.

I’ve received many recipe requests for a red pepper paste. Since it’s difficult to find fresh Aleppo peppers, I’ve come up with a recipe that uses fresh red bell peppers mixed with a handful of spicy red peppers, like cayenne. The process of making your own is fairly simple, although it does take time. You can adjust the spiciness of your paste by adding more or less spicy peppers, depending on your preference.

a bushel of peppers
a bushel of peppers
wash peppers
wash peppers
arrange cut peppers on baking sheets
arrange cut peppers on baking sheets
slightly moist, not dry
slightly moist, not dry peppers
salt paste to taste
salt paste to taste
optimal consistency
salt paste to taste
debs flefleh (دبس الفليفلة)
salt paste to taste

Red Pepper Paste

yields two small jars

Components

  • 25 lbs of red bell peppers
  • 15-20 cayenne peppers
  • salt, to taste
  • olive oil, to seal the jar

Putting them all together

  1. Wash peppers and roughly cut them into flat chunks. Align them across multiple baking sheets so the peppers do not overlap.
  2. Cook for 4-6 hours on your oven’s lowest setting (mine was 170°F/77°C). If your oven can go lower or has a dehydrate option, I recommend using that. Be sure to rotate the trays a few times during the cooking process so that the peppers reduce evenly. You want them to turn a dark red flavor (avoid browning) and slightly moist and soft to the touch, not dry.
  3. Process the reduced peppers in the food processor until a smooth paste is achieved.
  4. Season with salt, to taste.
  5. Store the red pepper paste in clean jars. Finish with a cap of olive oil on top to help keep the paste fresh until ready to use. Store in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Notes: You should only prepare red pepper paste during pepper season (late summer to early fall), when there is a surplus of peppers. Work with local farmers. This recipe is for a medium-heat paste. You can add/reduce the number of cayenne peppers to adjust the overall heat. You should store your red pepper paste in the refrigerator unless you preserve it using canning techniques.

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cap of olive oil for freshness
cap of olive oil for freshness

Marlene’s White Bean Salad

Lately, I’ve been reading The Aleppo Cookbook by Marlene Matar. The book has a permanent spot in my living room. When I’m feeling nostalgic, I pick it up and read through some of the recipes. It’s a beautiful tribute to Aleppo’s legendary cuisine. The photography is simple and elegant, with a focus on the natural beauty of ingredients and the finished dishes. The cover is a wonderful close-up shot of pomegranates, which are quintessentially Aleppan. It reminds me of the day trip I took to Basouta, a Kurdish farming village outside of Aleppo. Basouta is famous for its pomegranates.

Basouta, Syria–outskirts of Aleppo (November 2010)
pomegranates in Basouta

Tucked away on page 103 of Marlene’s book, under salads and vegetable side dishes, is a simple recipe for a white bean salad. I almost missed it had it not been for the reference to red pepper paste, which makes everything taste amazing! Red pepper paste, which is made from Aleppo peppers, is another quintessential Aleppan ingredient. A couple weeks ago, after an intense workout and with no energy left to cook, I remembered Marlene’s salad. I decided to give it a try. I always have cans of cannellini beans stashed away in my pantry for situations like this. The combination of creamy cannellini beans with the spicy red pepper paste dressing and earthy cumin is sublime. Best of all, the salad comes together in less than 10 minutes and can be made the day before. In fact, it’s one of those dishes that tastes better the next day once the flavors have had a chance to marry. I know because I photographed this dish yesterday and I’m enjoying a bowl of the leftovers as I write this post.

mise en place
mise en place
simple prep: parsley, lemon juice, and garlic
simple prep: parsley, lemon juice, and garlic
lots of olive oil <3
love of olive oil
white bean salad (سلطةفاصوليابيضاء)
white bean salad (سلطة فاصوليا بيضاء)

White Bean Salad

yields approximately 6 servings

Components

  • 2 15oz cans white beans, drained and rinsed
  • 2 Tbsp red pepper paste
  • 1.5 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds, optional
  • 1-2 garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • salt, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. In a bowl, combine the beans with the rest of the ingredients.
  2. Mix well, taste, and adjust seasoning. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Notes: Slightly modified from The Aleppo Cookbook by Marlene Matar.

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bright flavors
bright flavors

Not your baker’s lahme b’ajeen

I grew up eating lahme b’ajeen (لحمة بعجين), meat pies, from my grandmother Muna’s kitchen. It was a painstaking work of love, care, and devotion. Sitto Muna always prepared the dough and meat mixture the night before. She would then wake up before anyone else to begin forming the pies one by one. I often woke up to the scent of meat pies sizzling on her griddle. The process took a long time, but my grandmother went to great lengths to make sure my brothers and I connected with our heritage.

When I traveled to Syria for the first time in 2007, I was surprised to learn grandmothers don’t prepare lahme b’ajeen at home. They prepare their own meat topping at home and would often send a young family member to deliver it to the local furn, or bakery. Most neighborhoods in Aleppo have a small, modest furn outfitted with a commercial oven. Ours was a block away, tucked away in an alley. For a nominal fee, the neighborhood baker would form and bake the individual meat pies using the homemade meat topping and their own dough.  This exchange was more about social cohesion than anything the baker profited from. By the time lunch was ready, someone would walk down to the local furn to fetch the freshly baked stack of meat pies.

Every country in the Middle East has their own version of meat pies. Most Middle Eastern recipes call for sautéing meat and diced onions with a variety of fragrant spices. In Aleppo, the recipe is influenced by the Armenian community in the city. The Armenian version of lahme b’ajeen (lahmajun), makes use of fresh mint, a bunch of parsley, onions, red bell peppers, lots of garlic, and vine-ripe tomatoes. It’s a celebration of spring and summer. With a couple weeks left of winter, this is the perfect recipe to kick off the warm weather. It’s a great dish to prepare with friends. If you don’t have a griddle that fits over your stove, you can use an electric griddle or bake them in the oven on a pizza stone.

mise en place
mise en place
rough chop
rough chop of all the vegetables
remove the stems
remove the stems
meat & vegetable topping
meat & vegetable topping
basic dough
basic dough
individual dough balls
individual dough balls
thin dough/thin topping
thin topping
heaven
cooking lahmajun on griddle
golden brown crust
golden brown crust
work of love
lahme b'ajeen tray
lahme b’ajeen (لحمة بعجين)
lahme b'ajeen

Lahmeh B’ajeen

yields approximately 24 pies

Components

Dough

  • 1kg flour
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1/4 tsp dry active yeast
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 2 tsp sugar or honey
  • 3-3.5 cups warm water*

Meat mixture

  • 500g ground beef, ~85% lean
  • 1 bunch of parsley
  • 5-7 sprigs of mint
  • 2 red bell pepper
  • 500g tomatoes, ~2-3 large tomatoes
  • 2 Tbsp red pepper paste
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 2 Tbsp Aleppo pepper
  • 2 tsp allspice, ground
  • salt, to taste

toppings (optional)

  • eggplant pulp
  • plain yogurt
  • mint leaves
  • arugula, baby kale, or your favorite greens
  • Aleppo pepper

Putting them all together

  1. Mix together the flour, yeast, salt, and sugar until well combined (if you’re using honey, add it with the oil in the next step). Add the canola oil (and honey) and begin mixing the warm water into the dough. Stop adding water once a smooth dough is formed. Kneed for 5-10 minutes.
  2. Cut the dough into individual balls slightly bigger than golf balls but smaller than tennis balls (~65 grams each).
  3. Brush some oil to prevent the dough balls from drying, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rest overnight or until you’re ready to make the meat pies (no more than 24 hours).
  4. Add all the ingredients except the meat into the food processor. Pulse until you have a a pulpy mix. Mix the chopped vegetables with the meat mixture and refrigerate until you are ready to make the pies. The meat mixture can also be made the day before.
  5. Add a touch of canola oil to a clean working surface. Open the dough by pressing on it with your hands until you reach a very thin disk. Be careful not to tear the dough.
  6. Add a very thin layer of the meat mixture.
  7. Carefully transfer the meat pie onto a hot griddle. Cook for 3-4 minutes or until the bottom is golden brown. Transfer to a baking sheet in a warm oven.
  8. Continue forming the pies until the meat mixture is done.
  9. Serve the meat pies with a variety of optional toppings for rolling into the meat pies.

Notes: The amount of water you use for the dough will vary on the flour, the season, and how dry the weather is. This dough isn’t fussy — gradually add the warm water until the dough comes together.

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lahme b’ajeen with homemade yogurt, fresh mint, and baby kale
lahme b'ajeen with homemade yogurt, fresh mint, and baby kale

Zaalouk, a Mashed Moroccan Salad

Zaalouk (زعلوك) is an incredibly delicious Moroccan salad prepared with fresh eggplants cooked with ripe tomatoes, roasted peppers, and warm spices. It’s a celebration of spring and all the delicious vegetables that are right around the corner. I can already begin to feel the rays of the sun stretching further and the days getting warmer.

When I visited Morocco in 2016, I ate zaalouk everywhere I went. It was printed on every menu at every restaurant. I was obsessed. You could eat it cold or hot, but I prefer it cold on a hot spring/summer day. It’s very light and refreshing. It’s one of those dishes that tastes better the next day. Think along the lines of picnic dip, sandwich spread, or straight up, digging in with your fork. You can’t go wrong with zaalouk.

mise en place
mise en place

Although Moroccans and Syrians speak Arabic, the dialects couldn’t be more different. Moroccan Arabic is influenced by Berber, French and Spanish. It’s so different than the Syrian dialect that it was often easier to chat with locals in English than it was to try to use Arabic. Sometimes we opted for Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the standard Arabic reserved for the press and news broadcasts. It’s rarely spoken by locals. MSA sounds awkward in any context that isn’t the news. It’s like walking into a bakery and ordering a croissant in Shakespearean English.

In the Syrian/Levantine dialect, the root za-aa-la (زعل) means to sadden. In Modern Standard Arabic, za-aa-la means to anger. By extension, I thought zaalouk would be the word used to describe when someone saddens/angers you (3rd person). Not in Morocco. The word zaalouk comes from the term, m’zaalak, which is used to describe a mashed texture. It is an apt description for how the eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers, mash together to create an incredible burst of flavor. The only way zaalouk could be sad is if you missed out.

salt eggplants
salt eggplants
eggplants coated in olive oil
roast eggplants in 400 degree oven
roasted eggplants
roasted eggplants
fresh tomatoes
fresh tomatoes
cooked tomato puree
cooked tomato puree
everything together
everything together
zaalouk (زعلوك)
zaalouk (زعلوك)

Zaalouk

yields ~4-6 servings

Components

  • 2-3 medium eggplants/li>
  • 2 roasted red peppers, diced
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro, optional
  • 1 tsp Aleppo pepper
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil plus more for pan-frying
  • salt, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. Wash and remove the stems of the eggplants. Cut into 1/2 inch cubes.
  2. Season the eggplants with a little salt. Line a baking sheet with a layer of paper towels. Scatter the seasoned eggplants on the paper towels and cover with another layer of paper towels. Press down on the paper towels to draw out the excess moisture.
  3. Toss eggplants in olive oil. Scatter on a baking sheet and roast at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes, or until cooked through.
  4. Cut tomatoes into 1/2 cubes. Line the bottom of a large sauté pan with olive oil. Add tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Cook until the tomatoes are soft and have lost their shape.
  5. Add the roasted eggplants, diced peppers, cumin, Aleppo pepper, and garlic to the cooked tomatoes.
  6. Cook for another 7-10 minutes until the eggplants have broken down into a chunky paste.
  7. Mix the chopped parsley (and chopped cilantro). Serve hot, cold, or at room temperature.

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zaalouk bite
zaalouk bite