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The Secret for the Best Yalanji

The best recipes I learned in Aleppo were from home cooks. They have all the secrets. They taught me how to touch and feel food. They chided me for measuring ingredients. They always had the best stories.

Before the internet, this is how secrets were passed around. Person-to-person. Only the best tricks survived the test of time. During Lent, my grandmother’s sister, Aunt Kiki, invited me to prepare yalanji with her. Yalanji is originally a Turkish word. It means “liar” or “fake.” In the food world, yalanji refers to vegetarian stuffed vegetables or dolmas. That’s because dolmas are typically stuffed with a fragrant meat and rice mixture, whereas yalanji dolmas are “fake” because they’re vegetarian.

The star of yalanji is really the filling. The vegetable on the exterior is merely a vehicle for the delicious, vegetarian stuffing. You typically find yalanji made from stuffing grape leaves and even tiny baby eggplants, but my grandmother’s sister loved the delicate, silky texture of Swiss chard. I’ve had yalanji at many restaurants and homes, but none come close to Aunt Kiki’s recipe.

Yalanji takes time, preparation, and lots of effort. The day Aunt Kiki taught me her recipe, I remember we woke exceptionally early to go to Aleppo’s main vegetable market (سوق الخضرة). This was a real farmers market. The vendors were all local farmers selling what was plentiful and in-season. The vegetables were overflowing, freshly picked, with dirt still on the surfaces. Prices were competitive, too. As we walked past the carts, vendors belted their best prices. It was like walking into an auction hall of produce. It was loud and exciting. I drew a lot of attention with my big camera. Kids followed me around posing with their family’s produce.

Aleppo Vegetable Market, 2010
Swiss Chard with a Smile

In order to make the best yalanji, you need to pack lots of flavor into the stuffing. Unlike meat-based dolmas, yalanji don’t have the benefit of fatty meat. That’s where Aunt Kiki’s secret comes into play. Once we washed our produce from the market, I remember she asked me for Turkish coffee from the pantry. I assumed she wanted to re-energize. I reached for the brik (Turkish coffee pot) and handed her a couple of demitasses. She chuckled; I was confused. That’s when she revealed that the coffee was for the filling. At first I thought she was joking. I had tasted her yalanji before. It was amazing. Delicious. Full of flavor, but it didn’t taste like coffee. That’s because a spoonful is all you need. The coffee adds depth that’s satisfying, yet barely noticeable.

mise en place
mise en place
sweat yellow onions
sweat yellow onions
rinse rice
rinse rice
vegetarian stuffing
vegetarian stuffing
wash Swiss chard
wash Swiss chard
remove stems
remove stems
blanch chard leaves
blanch chard leaves
shock in ice bath
shock in ice bath
prepare to stuff
prepare to stuff
stuffing: step 1
stuffing: step 1
stuffing: step 2
stuffing: step 2
stuffing: step 3
stuffing: step 3
stuffing: step 4
stuffing: step 4
stuffing: step 5
stuffing: step 5
potatoes to prevent sticking/burning
potatoes at the bottom of the pot to prevent sticking/burning
yalanji, organized
yalanji, organized in pot
heavy plate
heavy plate
yalanji (يلنجي)
yalanji (يلنجي)
yalanji (يلنجي) with lemon
yalanji (يلنجي) with lemon

Yalanji Dolmas

yields ~32 pieces

Components

  • 16 large Swiss chard leaves
  • 1 cup medium grain rice
  • 3/4 cup walnuts, chopped
  • 3-4 medium yellow onions, diced
  • 1 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • 1 Tbsp red pepper paste
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 Tbsp Turkish coffee, ground
  • 1 tsp dried mint
  • 1 tsp granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 potato, optional
  • 2 lemons, for garnish

Putting them all together

  1. Wash Swiss chard leaves in cold water. With the chard leaves vein side up, flat on a cutting board, remove the stems by running your knife along both sides of the stem (do not discard stems*).
  2. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Season with salt.
  3. Blanch the Swiss chard leaves submerging them in the boiling water for 15-30 seconds, then removing them to a bowl of ice water to halt the cooking process. This preserves the leaves’ vibrant green color and makes them easier to stuff. Drain leaves and set aside.
  4. Rinse rice under cold water. Drain and set aside.
  5. In a large sauté pan over medium low heat, add olive oil and diced onions. Season with salt. Sweat onions until translucent. Make sure not to brown or caramelize the onions.
  6. Add the rice to the onions. Cook over medium-low heat for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally to give the rice a head start.
  7. Mix all the stuffing ingredients together (everything except for the Swiss chard, potatoes, and lemons). Season with salt (taste and adjust accordingly).
  8. Lay one strip of blanched Swiss chard leaf on a clean work surface. Add a tablespoon (Tbsp) of filling to the base. Fold in a triangular pattern as shown in the photos (like folding a flag) until the filling is securely tucked inside the leaf. Continue until all the leaves and stuffing are complete.
  9. Line the bottom or a medium to large pot with sliced potatoes* to protect the yalanji from burning.
  10. Arrange the triangular yalanji in the pot in a way that minimizes the space between them, like a game of Tetris.
  11. Add 3/4 cup of water to the lemon juice. Season with salt (to taste). Pour lemon mixture over the yalanji. Add more water until it the top row is covered by about 1/2 an inch.
  12. Insert a heavy, heat-proof plate over the yalanji to keep them submerged and prevent them from moving while cooking.
  13. Place the pot over medium high heat until the water comes to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer (low) and cook for 45 minutes.
  14. After 45 minutes, taste a yalanji from the top to make sure the rice is fully cooked. If not, continue cooking until rice is slightly al dente.
  15. Drain excess cooking liquid from the pot. Allow yalanji to cool to room temperature. Gently remove the yalanji from the pot and store them covered in the refrigerator until ready to eat. Yalanji taste better the following day, once they’ve had a chance to cool and the flavors have married.

Notes: Make sure not to add Turkish coffee infused with cardamom, otherwise that will throw off the flavor of your yalanji. If you don’t have a potato, you could also use the leftover stems from the Swiss chard. If you line the bottom of the pot with potatoes, do not discard the Swiss chard stems. Chop them up into large chunks and cook them with thinly sliced onions and minced garlic in a bit of extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt, ground coriander, and serve over a bed of rice. You can finish off with a fried egg or serve it alongside a creamy, mint-garlic yogurt sauce.

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the perfect bite
the perfect bite

Bird’s Beak Qatayef

The month of Ramadan is around the corner, which means everyone should have a qatayef recipe on hand for iftar. During Ramadan, Muslims around the world fast between sunrise and sunset. Friends and family will gather around sunset to break their fast together. This celebratory meal is called iftar. In true Middle Eastern fashion, there’s always more food than anyone can possibly eat, but everyone knows to leave room for dessert. Because dessert during Ramadan almost always means qatayef.

Qatayef are a cross between a sweet pancake, crepe, and a dumpling. They’re usually stuffed with clotted cream or nuts, then deep fried, and coated in delicious orange blossom-infused simple syrup. During Ramadan, you’ll find street vendors frying up these delicious pastries late into the night as families celebrate with their loved ones.

There’s a slightly healthier version that isn’t deep fried– that’s the one I’m featuring today. They’re called qatayef asafiri (قطايف عصافيري), or bird-shaped qatayef. That’s because final shape resembles the beak of a bird. Instead of frying the qatayef, you fold and pinch the pancake on one side so that it opens up to hold a delicious clotted cream filling.

mise en place
mise en place
warm water, between 110-115ºF
warm water
dissolve the yeast
dissolve the yeast
mix it all together
mix it all together
tiny qatayef/pancakes
tiny qatayef/pancakes
cook only on one side
cook only on one side
fold and pinch
fold and pinch
qatayef asafiri (قطايفعصافيري)
qatayef asafiri (قطايف عصافيري)
drizzle of ‘ater (simple syrup)
drizzle of simple syrup

Qatayef

yields ~24 pieces

Components

  • 210g flour (~1 3/4 cups)
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp yeast
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • pinch of salt
  • ~3 cups of ashta (clotted cream)
  • 1/2 cup pistachios, crushed

‘Atar (Simple Syrup)

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 Tbsp orange blossom water
  • 1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice

Putting them all together

  1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, prepare the ‘atar (simple syrup) by mixing the sugar and water together.
  2. Simmer for ~5-7 minutes until the mix begins to thicken.
  3. Add the orange blossom water and lemon juice. Turn off heat and allow to cool. The ‘atar can be made days in advance and stored in a mason jar in the refrigerator until ready to use.
  4. Heat water and milk between 110-115ºF (~43-46ºC).
  5. Dissolve the sugar and yeast in the water.
  6. In a large bowl, whisk all the ingredients together (not including the ‘ater).
  7. Whisk until smooth. You should end up with a loose batter, slightly thinner than traditional pancake batter.
  8. Cover and allow to rest for 30 minutes in a warm place (next to the oven is a good spot).
  9. Heat large skillet or griddle over medium heat. Cook qatayef on one side, until the uncooked side is almost dry and the bottom is golden brown.
  10. One by one, pinch each pancake on the uncooked side so that the dough sticks together.
  11. Fill with clotted cream and decorate the exposed end with crushed pistachios.
  12. Serve alongside ‘atar (simple syrup) and enjoy.

Notes: The clotted cream filling can be made a day in advance. You can also prepare the batter a few hours in advance and store it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to cook the qatayef.

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the perfect bite
the perfect bite

Teta’s Kibbeh Nayyeh

Kibbeh nayyeh, the Middle Eastern version of lamb tartare, is a festive dish steeped in culinary tradition. Before refrigeration, you used to prepare kibbeh nayyeh the day a lamb was slaughtered. This was standard for weddings or holidays. The entire village used to come together. There would be more food than anyone could possibly eat. There was music and dancing. It was a production.

The best kibbeh nayyeh is made with ultra lean meat. It shouldn’t have any fat or gristle, lest you ruin the delicate flavor and texture of the meat. Before the advent of meat grinders and food processors, the meat used to be finely minced using a sharp knife and pounded into a smooth paste using a large stone mortar, called a jurn. The person behind the jurn would typically hand out samples and adjust the seasoning accordingly.

I have fond memories of my grandmother (teta) preparing kibbeh nayyeh at home. My mom and aunts would help prepare other dishes, but kibbeh nayyeh was my teta’s specialty. She used to grind her own meat using a huge, commercial-grade meat grinder tucked away in a small room behind her kitchen. She used to pass the meat through grinder three times, using progressively finer disks. I remember staring into the machine as braids of meat streamed out of the extruder. After three runs through the grinder, she blended the meat in a food processor with a few cubes of ice until the meat resembled the smooth, creamy consistency that’s emblematic of kibbeh nayyeh pounded in the jurn. The ice helps keep the meat chilled. I loved being around teta in the kitchen because she used to feed me bites of whatever she’s cooking. Food always tasted better from her hands.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a back room in my kitchen or space for a commercial-grade meat grinder, so I rely on my local butcher at Parts and Labor for kibbeh meat. If you work with a local butcher to prepare kibbeh nayyeh, it’s important they know you plan to eat the meat raw. Ask for fresh meat without any fat whatsoever. They should grind it three times on a clean machine, before any other meat is ground. If you find a butcher who will do all this for you, bring them back some kibbeh nayyeh for them to try — they’re a keeper.

mise en place
mise en place
rough chop
rough chop
red pepper + onion pulp
red pepper + onion pulp
soaking bulgur wheat
soaking bulgur wheat
ice keeps the lamb chilled
ice keeps the lamb chilled
habra: lamb paste
habra: lamb paste
mix habra and seasoned bulgur
mix habra and seasoned bulgur
kibbeh nayyeh, platter presentation
kibbeh nayyeh, platter presentation
kibbeh nayyeh, mezze presentation
kibbeh nayyeh, mezze presentation
kibbeh nayyeh (كبةنيّ)
kibbeh nayyeh (كبة نيّة)

Kibbeh Nayyeh

yields 6-8 servings

Components

  • 1lb fresh, lean lamb, finely ground
  • 1/2 lb bulgur wheat, #1 (finely ground)
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 yellow onion
  • 1 Tbsp red pepper paste
  • 1 tsp cumin, ground
  • 1 tsp Aleppo pepper, ground
  • salt, to taste

Sides

  • fresh mint
  • fresh onions
  • fresh peppers
  • fresh pita bread

Putting them all together

  1. Chill the freshly ground lamb in the freezer for an hour or until very cold, but not frozen.
  2. Blend the onion and red bell pepper in the food processor.
  3. In a large bowl, combine the red pepper and onion pulp, Aleppo pepper, cumin, red pepper paste, and salt. Add the bulgur wheat and knead until well combined. Set aside.
  4. Blend the chilled meat in a large food processor with a couple cubes of ice until a smooth, creamy paste is achieved.
  5. . In a large bowl, combine the meat paste with the bulgur soaked bulgur wheat. Knead until well combined. Check for seasoning and adjust accordingly.
  6. Shape the kibbeh nayyeh on a large platter or into individual patties*. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and serve with fresh mint, onions, peppers, and pita bread.

Notes: Traditionally, kibbeh nayyeh is served alongside a glass of Arak, an anise-infused distilled drink made from grapes. To prepare the kibbeh nayyeh, form a small ball (the size of a golf ball) and gently squeeze it in your fist until it forms the appropriate shape. If you don’t have access to lamb, you can prepare kibbeh nayyeh using fresh beef, either top or eye of the round cut.

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the perfect bite
the perfect bite

Abu Abdo’s April “Ful”

One of the most popular and iconic restaurants in all of Aleppo was Abu Abdo’s— a tiny fava bean parlor tucked away in the city’s historic Jdaydeh district. There was only one item on the menu: ful (fava beans). Fava beans for breakfast is to Arabs what steak and eggs is to Americana. It’s the beloved breakfast of champions. One bowl of fava beans packs enough fuel to keep you going all day.

Abu Abdo’s dad, Abdo, opened the iconic shop bearing his name in 1885. Everyone from celebrities and high-ranking politicians to the poorest in the community have eaten at Abu Abdo’s. Wealthy entrepreneurs have tried to convince Abu Abdo to sell his shop or open a franchise, but Abu Abdo always turned down these offers. He has worked behind the counter, serving the community, since he was twelve years old.

Abu Abdo
Abu Abdo

Photo credit: Emily Smith Chammah

Abu Abdo’s shop has a couple tables, but most patrons pick up their fava beans to-go (سفري) in small plastic bags. Abu Abdo is always the one behind the counter, greeting customers while frantically filling orders. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

Unfortunately, Abu Abdo’s has since closed due to the ongoing war in Syria. The historic Jdeydeh district has sustained substantial damage from fighting between rebel and government forces.

The secret to Abu Abdo’s success though was never tied to his fava beans. He was successful because of the way he greeted and interacted with his community. He was honest, kind, and never turned away a hungry visitor, regardless of how little money they had. Kids would sometimes ask how much ful they could buy with 5 Syrian pounds (the equivalent of a few cents), knowing Abu Abdo would take care of them and their families.

Abu Abdo was committed to his craft, as was his father before him. He never let fame get in the way of his work. While you can find ful in a can these days, it’s a treat to pay homage to this hard working Syrian legend by recreating his classic fava beans from scratch.

mise en place
mise en place
soaked fava beans
soaked fava beans
cooked fava beans
cooked fava beans
tahini-lemon-garlic sauce
tahini-lemon-garlic sauce
ful in tahini sauce (فولبالطحينة)
ful in tahini sauce (فول بالطحينة)

Ful in Tahini Sauce

yields 6-8 servings

Components

  • 2 cups dried fava beans
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 1-2 cloves garlic
  • 1/4 cup tahini
  • 1 tsp cumin, ground
  • 1 tsp Aleppo pepper, ground
  • diced tomatoes
  • chopped parsley
  • fresh mint
  • fresh pita bread

Putting them all together

  1. Rinse dried fava beans. Soak beans in cold water with 1/4 tsp of baking soda* for 36-48 hours.
  2. Rinse soaked fava beans in cold water. Fill a large pot with cold water and cook fava beans for 4-6 hours or until they are soft. Do not add salt until the very end.
  3. Prepare the sauce by mixing freshly squeezed lemon juice with garlic, cumin, Aleppo pepper, and tahini. Season with salt (to taste).
  4. While the beans are still warm, drain (don’t worry about removing every drop of water) then toss with the tahini-lemon-garlic sauce. Serve alongside, diced tomatoes, chopped parsley, chunks of raw yellow onion, fresh mint, and plenty of extra virgin olive oil. You can eat the ful with a spoon or with pita bread.

Notes: Soaking the beans in water with a little baking soda helps yield a more tender, creamier bean. You can add a spoon of red pepper paste to the top of your ful for a spicy kick.

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ful bite (لقمةفول)
Ful bite (لقمة فول)

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