Tony is all about food. His ongoing food events and special projects have been featured in the press. To learn more, you can view his gallery, read his blog, or simply contact him directly.

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Olive Juice

Lahme B’ajeen

Aleppan Meat Pies (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
  • lukewarm 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

garnish (optional)

  • eggplant pulp
  • plain yogurt
  • mint leaves
  • arugula
  • 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 in the lukewarm water into the dough. Stop adding water once a smooth dough is formed.
  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 36 hours).
  4. Add all the ingredients except the meat into the food processor. Pulse until you have a a pulpy mix. Mix the processed 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 (I use a large plate). Open the dough by pressing on it with your hands until you reach an ultra thin disk.
  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 low oven to keep warm.
  8. Continue forming the pies in this manner until the meat mixture is done.
  9. Serve the meat pies with the option for guests to add some of the garnishes.

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 hot water until the dough comes together.

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Chocolate Love

I hope everyone is enjoying their Valentine’s Day this year. If you already bought truffles or chocolates for your partner, bookmark this recipe. But don’t wait till next Valentine’s Day to prepare these. Pick a random day that’s not February 14. Buy some flowers. Prepare a special dinner that you both enjoy. Then pull these out for dessert. They’re amazing. These espresso-infused chocolate truffles melt in your mouth and pack a jolt of espresso. They’re also incredibly simple to make — as long as you don’t mind getting your hands a little dirty.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

mise en place
mise en place
coffee infusion
coffee_infusion
chocolate + cream
chocolate + cream
ooey, gooey chocolate
ooey gooey chocolate
chocolate mounds
chocolate mounds
form into balls
chocolate_balls
chocolate love
chocolate love

Espresso-Infused Chocolate Truffles

yields 20-24 chocolate truffles

Components

  • 5.5 oz dark chocolate* (I use 60-70%)
  • 1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1/2 tsp instant espresso powder
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

Putting them all together

  1. Chop chocolate into small chunks with a serrated knife.
  2. Heat up the cream to a boil, add the instant espresso powder, then remove from the heat.
  3. Add chopped chocolate and stir gently until completely dissolved.
  4. Pour chocolate ganache into a bowl and set aside until it reaches room temperature. Place mixture in the refrigerator for 10 minutes to cool down even further (this helps form the mounds).
  5. Using two spoons scoop small mounds of cooled chocolate ganache onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
  6. Wear food-safe gloves and smooth out the chocolate mounds into balls (if the chocolate starts to melt quickly, throw the mounds back in the fridge for a few minutes).
  7. Toss the chocolate balls in cocoa powder and enjoy.

Note: *Make sure to use the best quality chocolate you can find because the flavor will come through. Valrhona, Callebaut, and El Rey are some of my favorite brands.

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a bite of heaven
a bite of heaven

Piece of Cake

Buying my first house was a huge step. The experience was filled with a thrill, panic, and excitement that I’ll never forget! I shared some horror stories in my last post, but homeownership has its upsides. I bought a historic row home from the late 1800s with beautiful exposed brick and a charm that makes me happy to come home.

I recently converted the inside panels of my kitchen cabinets into a magnetic spice rack. Out of all the DIY projects I’ve worked on this past year, this has been my favorite! I was able to clear an entire shelf of precious cabinet real estate and now I can see my spices front and center. I documented the process with my iPhone.

before: spice cabinet in disarray
spice cabinet disarray
materials for project
materials for project

If you plan on doing this, make sure you use gloves while working with the sheet metal. The edges are extremely sharp! I ended up cutting two pieces of sheet metal by hand using the snips in the photo. They came out ok, but not perfectly straight. It also took a really long time and considerable effort to cut each piece. That’s when I decided to called a few local metal fabricators. One of them was really nice and helped me cut the remaining two pieces perfectly straight using their industrial-sized cutter. I wish I had a picture of this — their machine was huge! It took less than a second per cut and they came out perfect.

measuring & marking the panel
measuring & marking the panel

The inside of my cabinets have a little curve at the top that I wanted to recreate in the sheet metal. The metal fabricator who cut the metal for me recommended I do this part by hand. I traced the curvature of the cabinet onto a sheet of paper. Then I cut the paper into a stencil that I used to re-trace the curve onto the sheet metal.

sand away the rough edges
sand away the rough edges

Sanding metal is important to remove any sharp edges. Interestingly enough, it also helps remove any scratches. The best way to get rid of scratches on the sheet metal are to blend them in with more scratches. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but it works.

clean cabinets
cleaning cabinets

Before you can adhere the sheet metal to the inside of the cabinet, you have to make sure the cabinet is clean and dry. Unmount the cabinet doors from the hinges and wipe them clean with your favorite cleaner. Make sure the doors are completely dry before moving on to the next step.

100% silicone caulk
100% silicone caulk

Use 100% silicone caulk to mount the sheet metal to the inside of the cabinet doors. Apply the silicone liberally, but not too close to the edge so that it doesn’t ooze out from the sides.

weights
weights

Apply some weights on the sheet metal while the silicone cures. This is a good time to go do something else: watch a movie, read a book, etc. I left my cabinets like this for a few hours to make sure the silicone had set.

the final project
the final product

Once the silicone has finished curing, you can mount the doors back on their hinge. Fill your spice tins with your favorite spices and you’re set!

clear labels
clear labels

I hope you enjoyed this DIY post! Now, onto the food. If you haven’t tried this Sicilian Orange-Infused Olive Oil cake from Saveur, you absolutely must. The recipe calls for two entire oranges that get pureed into the batter, skin, flesh, and everything. This is a common technique in Italy; it helps impart a wonderful citrus flavor.

I discovered this recipe while living in Italy back in 2007. My host mom made it for me a couple of times. She didn’t follow any recipe. She made it from memory and it came out perfect each time. This is the closest I’ve come to recreating my host mom’s cake.

2007: Making biscotti with my Italian host mom
mise en place
mise en place
cut oranges into quarters
cut oranges into quarters
boil orange quarters thrice
boil orange quarters twice
pureed oranges
pureed oranges
pour batter into cake pan
pour batter into cake pan
simple orange glaze
simple orange glaze
apply glaze
apply glaze
piece of cake!
“piece

Orange-Infused Olive Oil Cake

yields 1 cake

Components

  • 2 oranges
  • 2 ⅓ cups sugar
  • unsalted butter, for greasing the pan
  • 2½ cups flour, plus more for pan
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 4 eggs
  • 6 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¼ cup fresh orange juice
  • ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar
  • Sea salt, for garnish

Putting them all together

  1. Trim the tops and bottoms of the oranges — enough to barely expose the flesh.
  2. Quarter the oranges lengthwise.
  3. Bring 6 cups water to a boil and add the quartered oranges. Bring the water back to a boil and drain. Repeat this process twice more with fresh water. This will help cut the bitterness in the orange.
  4. Put oranges, 1 cup sugar, and 4 cups water into a 4-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring often, until the sugar dissolves and the orange rind can be easily pierced with a knife (about 30 minutes). Remove pan from heat and let cool to room temperature.
  5. Heat oven to 350°. Grease a bundt pan with butter and dust with flour.
  6. Whisk together flour, baking powder, and baking soda in a medium bowl and set aside.
  7. Remove orange quarters from syrup, remove and discard any seeds, and puree the orange quartered in a food processor. Pulse until oranges form a chunky purée.
  8. Add remaining sugar, flour mixture, vanilla, and eggs, olive oil, and process until incorporated, about 1 minute.
  9. Pour batter into prepared pan; bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool for 30 minutes.
  10. In a small bowl, whisk fresh orange juice and confectioners’ sugar to make a thin glaze.
  11. Remove cake from pan and transfer to a cake stand or plate. Brush orange glaze over top and sides of cake; let cool completely. Garnish cake with salt.

Note: Recipe modified slightly from Saveur.

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cake served
cake_served

Ringing in 2015 with Sujuk Rolls

Thank you to everyone who sent emails, encouraging me to keep blogging. It took a long time. OK, a really long time, but I’m back. A lot has happened since my last post. Let me fill you in — I entered into an amazing relationship (right around the time I stopped blogging… go figure). I bought a house. I experienced the misery of a flooded basement (without a wet vacuum to help). I became a pro at fixing drywall. I traveled a bunch (Peru, Japan, and England). Now that the DIY projects have slowed down (fingers crossed!), I want to get back to blogging.

I’m going to keep today’s post short and simple. This is a quick hello and a delicious winter recipe — sujuk rolls. Sujok is a special Armenian sausage that I blogged about back in Syria. My host mom used to prepare sujuk in bulk and preserve it by wrapping the sausage in breathable cloth bags and air drying them on her balcony. Fortunately, this recipe doesn’t call for dried sujuk, which makes it a lot simpler.

One of the things that makes sujuk so special is the combination of all the fragrant spices. Home cooks in Aleppo eat sujuk for breakfast with their eggs. Sujuk also makes for a great topping on pizza (a twist on the ordinary sausage) and a legendary late night sandwich/snack. Sujuk rolls are popular appetizers at restaurants in Aleppo and are perfect for parties. Enjoy!

mise en place
mise en place
Colorful Sujuk Spices
sujuk spices
Fragrant Sujuk Sausage
sujuk meat
Authentic pita bread
thin pita bread
The thinner the pita, the better
open bread
Good pita-to-sujuk ratio
sujuk on bread
Roll tightly
rolling sujuk
Slice with a sharp serrated knife
cutting sujuk rolls
Sujuk rolls about to go into the oven
sujuk rolls going in the oven
Sujuk Rolls (سجك رولز)
sujuk rolls

Sujuk Rolls

4-6 appetizer servings

Components

Putting them all together

  1. Prepare the sujuk as described in the recipe, but do not dry.
  2. Separate the pocket pita bread into two halves.
  3. Spread a thin layer of sujuk on the pita bread.
  4. Tightly roll the pita and sujuk into a log.
  5. Use a sharp serrated knife to carefully cut the sujuk-pita log into individual rolls.
  6. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 12-15 minutes, or until crispy.*

Notes: It’s important to use thin pita bread so that you have a good sujuk-to-pita ratio. Also, some restaurants in Aleppo fry these rolls, but in order to keep the recipe healthy, I bake mine. They still come out crispy because I use beef with 85/15% fat content.

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Not traditional, but fresh salsa on the side is great
bite of sujuk rolls

I hope everyone is either already celebrating in 2015 or getting ready to ring in the new year with those they love. I’ll be back soon with more recipes and stories <3

Cab rides through Aleppo

I used to love exploring Aleppo by cab. Occasionally I’ll catch myself daydreaming about these simple, ordinary memories: leaning forward from the sidewalk of a bustling street; hailing a cab in the ancient city. The experience made me feel like a local, like a halabi.

As I waited for a cab to pull over, I would practice how to pronounce the name of the street or destination where I wanted to go. “A’al jama’a, low samahet,” I repeated softly, placing extra emphasis on the a’a sound — to the university, please. The a’a sound in Arabic, produced by the letter aeyn (ع), is the most difficult for me, as a non-native speaker, to pronounce. The sound is that of a deep “a” that is starts at back of your throat. Linguists refer to this as an epiglottal sound.

I miss these small yellow cabs (even with all their honking)
cabs in Aleppo

In Aleppo, if you’re male, you’re expected to ride in the passenger seat alongside the driver. This makes the experience more casual — it encourages conversation. It also ensures there is never a dull or quiet ride through the city.

Once I sat in the passenger seat, a few utterances of my soft-spoken Arabic were usually enough to cause intrigue. The Aleppan dialect is known for its rather sharp and assertive tone. When the driver would ask me where I’m from, I usually turned the question back to him, asking where he thought I was from. This way my way of breaking the ice. It was also how I informally kept track of my progress in Arabic. When I arrived to Syria, I started out as an ajnabi, a foreigner. Towards the end of my Fulbright some cab drivers actually thought I was an Armenian from Aleppo. I was elated the first time I heard that.

After a few guesses, I would clarify that I was an American studying food culture in Syria. Mentioning food in Aleppo is an ice breaker in its own right. Aleppans, as you may gather from my blog, are famous for their food. Once food entered the conversation, cultural barriers suddenly dissipated. Shoulders relaxed and polite smiles felt more sincere. If I was welcomed before, the driver would make sure to welcome me again: Ya ahla w sahla, ya meet el salameh.

Cab rides provided great opportunities for cultural exchange. On many occasions I was the first American the driver had ever met. Cabs were also a great place for me to interact with Syrians from all walks of life. I met professionals looking for a second source of income, religious men, young adults who had run-ins with the law (well, just one), business men, Kurds who played lovely Kurdish music, food enthusiasts, and many others. One cab driver, I will never forget him, entertained me with his Arabic-English riddles. “Cat in light” he exclaimed — “cat in light!!” I’m hardly good at riddles in English, let alone riddles between two languages. After a few seconds, he blurted out, ou’t fil duow (قط في الضوء), and then repeated more fluently, ou’tfi el douw (أطفي الضوء). “Get it“, he asked, cackling. You see, the Arabic translation for “cat in light,” if pronounced quickly, will sound like someone is saying, “turn off the light.” I laughed with him. He then presented me with another riddle, which I will leave for my Arabic-English readers to guess: “small donkey, my money.” If you get it, leave your answer in the comments!

One thing I learned about Syrian cuisine is that it is resourceful. Recipes were never exact; more like simple instructions that vary between neighborhoods, and even families. A series of handfuls and pinches that, when executed properly, lead to extraordinary meals. One of the dishes that exemplifies this culinary ingenuity is called maldoum (ملضوم), an incredibly delicious layered meat and eggplant dish. The classic way to prepare this dish is over a grill, where you alternate meat patties and eggplant slices on a skewer. When the dish is prepared over the grill, it is called, kabob banjan (كباب باذنجان). But if you don’t have access to a grill, you can prepare kabob banjan in the oven, and call it maldoum.

Either way you prepare it, the dish is incredibly simple and only takes a few basic ingredients: eggplants, ground meat, tomatoes, tomato puree, salt, allspice, and paprika.

mise en place
mise en place

The eggplants should be sliced fairly thick, about an inch wide, because they will release a lot of water while they cook in the oven.

thick slices
thick slices

Traditionally, the eggplant slices are pan-fried and then layered into the casserole, but I think it tastes better when the eggplants are roasted in the oven. For one, it’s healthier, but you also won’t have to stand over the stove frying slices of eggplant individually.

Before I roast the eggplants, I sprinkle them with a bit of salt to help break them down and remove some of the liquid stored inside.

sprinkle with salt
sprinkle with salt

Then I cover the eggplants with paper towels and place a baking sheet on top. I weigh the baking sheet down with anything heavy to help the eggplants drain more quickly. I used my cast-iron wok, but anything heavy, like cans or even a brick, will do.

drain the eggplants
drain the eggplants

The meat is important. You can use lamb or beef, but make sure it is freshly ground and seasoned properly. I used beef. You might even try ground chicken or turkey for healthier alternatives. Remember, these are merely guidelines.

If you’re using beef, I suggest using 90/10 ground beef (10% fat). The grilled version calls for 85/15 ground beef (15%), but that’s because a lot of the fat drains into the grill.

simply seasoned: salt, allspice, paprika
simply seasoned: salt, allspice, paprika

Maldoum is traditionally prepared in a large round metal pan, similar to cake pans, but slightly shorter. I didn’t have one of those, so I used an oven-proof rectangular casserole dish. I also sliced the eggplants in half so that they can fit nicely in the casserole dish I had. Then I formed the meat patties and sliced the tomatoes to roughly the same size.

alternate: eggplant, meat, tomato
alternate: eggplant, meat, tomato

Top the casserole with your favorite canned tomato puree and bake in the oven for about an hour. The tomato puree not only compliments the flavor of the fresh tomatoes in the casserole, but also protects the meat from drying out in the oven.

maldoum (ملضوم)
maldoum (ملضوم)

Bonne appétit,صحة و هنا

Maldoum

yields 6 servings

Components

  • 1.5 lbs 90% ground beef or lamb
  • 3 medium eggplants
  • 2 large tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup tomato puree
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt, to taste
  • 1 1/2 allspice, to taste
  • 1 tsp paprika, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. Rinse and dry the eggplants.
  2. Remove the tip of the eggplants, then slice into thick, even slices (approximately 1 inch thick).
  3. Season the eggplant with salt on both sides, cover with a layer of paper towels, and place a baking sheet with weights on top to drain some of the water from the eggplants. This will take about 15-20 minutes.
  4. Roast eggplants in a 425 degree oven for 20-25 minutes until tender, but not soft.
  5. Slice the eggplants in half if they are very large. Slice the tomatoes into roughly the same size as the eggplant slices.
  6. Season the ground beef with salt, allspice (freshly ground, if possible), and paprika.
  7. Divide the meat into even patties, approximately the same size as the eggplant slices.
  8. Alternate between eggplant, meat patties, and tomatoes in the casserole dish.
  9. Pour the tomato puree evenly across the top of the casserole and bake in a 425 degree oven for an hour.
  10. Serve with rice or pita bread and enjoy.

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