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Archive for the ‘appetizers’ Category


Sautéed shiitakes for the perfect ski weekend

I’m writing this blog post remotely, from my brother’s house in Vermont. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll have seen the amazing snow conditions we’ve had this weekend. The night before I arrived, the ski gods delivered a snow storm that covered the mountains with about 15″ of fresh powder. It was perfect timing! All the evergreens were covered in snow. The views from the chairlifts were stunning. I spent all day Friday and Saturday skiing. My body is sore, but it’s the good kind of sore. The satisfying kind. And when your body is aching and you don’t want to move a muscle, you should have simple and delicious recipes in your back pocket. Because no amount of aching is reason not to eat well.

15″ of fresh powder
fresh powder
Vermont evergreens
Vermont evergreens
this view <3
this view
chairlift
chairlift

I grew up not liking mushrooms. Something about the texture and flavor didn’t appeal to me. It probably didn’t help that in school we learned that mushrooms are a type of fungus. I was missing out. At one point, my taste buds had a revelation and now I can’t get enough! My favorite preparation for most kinds of mushrooms is sautéed in a bit of butter, with minced garlic, fresh thyme (or in this case leftover marjoram from Melissa Clark’s Tarragon Chicken), and finished with a splash of vermouth. If you don’t have vermouth, you can substitute a dry white wine.

mise en place
mise en place

The preparation is simple. If you start off with great quality fresh mushrooms, you don’t have to do much to them. I got these beautiful shiitakes from my local farmers market in Baltimore. Shiitakes are famous for their wonderful meaty texture and an earthy and slightly smokey flavor profile. They’re great for a hearty side.

mushroom prep
mushroom prep

You don’t want to rinse fresh mushrooms under water. They’ll inevitably absorb some of that water, which will make it more difficult to achieve a nice sear on the surface. Searing mushrooms triggers the Maillard reaction, which helps draw out the rich, smokey, and earthy flavors of the shiitake mushrooms. Shiitake stems can be tough. If the mushroom is big or the stem is particularly dry, I recommend cutting it off. If the stems are small and feel tender to the touch, I generally leave them on and only cut the tip, where the mushroom was attached to the soil.

garlic & marjoram
garlic and marjoram
light brown garlic
light brown garlic

This step is important. If you look away for one second, you run the risk of burning the garlic, which is no good. You can’t recover from burnt garlic. If that happens to you, toss out the garlic, wipe the pan, and start over. As the first specks of garlic barely begin to turn golden brown, you want to add the mushrooms and toss them in the garlic butter. The mushrooms will absorb all that garlic-infused butter, which is what you want. You also want to hold off on seasoning the mushrooms at this point. Adding salt will draw out the moisture of the mushrooms, which will make it more difficult to get a nice sear on the surface.

a splash of vermouth
a splash of vermouth
sautéed shiitake mushrooms
a splash of vermouth

Sauteed Shiitake Mushrooms with Vermouth

yields ~4 appetizer servings

Components

  • 1 lb fresh shiitake mushrooms
  • 3 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 bunch fresh marjoram, chopped
  • 2-3 cloves garlic
  • 2 Tbsp vermouth
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. With a sharp knife, remove any tough stems from the larger shiitake mushrooms. With a damp paper towel, wipe any specks of dirt from the surfaces.
  2. In a large skillet over medium low heat add butter, olive oil, and garlic.
  3. Cook the garlic until barely golden brown and add the shiitake mushrooms. Coat the mushrooms in the garlic-infused butter then allow them to sear by not stirring too frequently.
  4. Add the chopped marjoram, the vermouth, and season with salt. Stir to mix everything together and enjoy.

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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

Muhammara, revisited

I don’t know why or when it hit me, but the other day, as I was laying in bed after lunch, I realized I had been struck with a case of homesickness. My stomach was in knots and my thoughts floated home, across the Atlantic. We were told by the Fulbright committee during our pre-departure orientation that this is common; I wasn’t worried. This period of longing, however gloomy, gave me time to clear my thoughts and get other work done. I took a trip with friends to the outskirts of Aleppo and also worked on programming — behind the scenes geeky stuff that secretly makes me happy.

sunset in the outskirts of Aleppo
sunset

As for my blog, I think it has also benefited from this period of thinking and rethinking. It has planted in me a new seed of enthusiasm and great ideas.

I consider my blog my baby. As of today, it is 3 years and 5 months old. It may sound strange to those who don’t blog, but I feel my blog has evolved over the years and has made me grow in ways I had never anticipated. My blog opened my eyes to web design and web development; it continuously fuels my immense passion for photography. My blog connects me to wonderful people and encourages me to try new foods and food techniques. It offers me a creative space to write and express my feelings in words, pictures, and videos. And although I have on-and-off spells where I feel unmotivated to produce, this is something I’ve realized is a part of life. I have learned to grow from these bursts of inspiration and grapple with the moments when my mind wanders and my stomach is in knots.

One of the things that makes food blogging so appealing, I think, is the community it is built on. When I write a blog and post it on this tiny corner of the internet, I feel I am sharing stories and experiences with friends gathered around my dining room table. It’s an amazing feeling. It is real and intimate and funny and mushy and I love it. This is a metaphor that has stuck with me from early on, and one that has kept me focused on what my blog means to me. Thank you, always, for your encouragement.

Today, in celebration of rethinking, I want to share with you a recipe that I’ve blogged about before: Muhammara, a rich and tangy Middle Eastern spread of red peppers and chopped walnuts. It’s a spread that should never be missing from your refrigerator. My aunt cleans red peppers and keeps them in a bag in her freezer for on-the-fly muhammara. It’s a spread that you can put together in 5 minutes and tastes better if you prepare it the day before. The flavors meld and food magic happens. In Aleppo muhammara is commonly served as a side platter as part of the mezze spread, but I put in on almost everything. Sandwiches being my favorite so far. Just a light smear on the bread does the trick. Try it, and let me know.

In the olden days, muhammara used to be considered a spread for royalty and the wealthy upperclass because of the ingredients required to make it. Walnuts and red peppers still aren’t cheap, but have become more accessible. Today the amount of walnuts you add to your muhammara has even become a pseudo status symbol.

Since we’re friends, and I know you won’t laugh (OK, you could laugh a little bit), I’ve also dug up this old video of me making muhammara for a Food Network audition. The video was filmed and produced by my very talented friend, Marilyn Rivchin, Senior Lecturer of Filmmaking at Cornell University. I didn’t get the part, but this clip reminds me of how much I love cooking.

The ingredients for this muhammara are mostly the same as the last recipe I posted, but my aunt taught me to add a dash of sugar to the spicy dip. It’s not traditional, but it works. It rounds out the spiciness of the pepper paste and balances the tang of the pomegranate molasses. I added it as an optional ingredient in the recipe.

mise en place
mise en place
chopped walnuts + kaak (كعك)
walnuts and kaak
clean peppers, inside and out
cleaning red peppers
red pepper puree
red pepper puree
pomegranate molasses
pomegranate molasses
extra virgin olive oil
extra virgin olive oil
muhammara (محمرة)
muhammara
typical mezze spread
mezze spread

Muhammara

yields approx 1 cup

Components

  • 3 red bell peppers
  • 1 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
  • 3/4 cup kaak, finely ground (3/4 cup breadcrumbs)
  • 1 Tbsp cumin, ground
  • 1/4 cup pomegranate molasses
  • 1/4 extra virgin olive oil
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 Tbsp spicy red pepper paste, optional
  • 1 tsp sugar, optional

Putting them all together

  1. Process the kaak in a food processor until finely ground and set aside.
  2. Process the red bell peppers in the food processor until finely chopped.
  3. In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients together, cover, and refrigerate until ready to serve.
  4. To serve, spread the muhammara into a shallow dish, drizzle with some extra virgin olive oil and garnish with toasted walnuts. Plate alongside some pita bread and enjoy!

Notes: You can find kaak in most Mediterranean or Middle Eastern markets, but breadcrumbs serve as a suitable substitute. I recommend a tiny bit of red pepper paste for a kick, but feel free to adjust the quantity to your liking.

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In my early days of experimenting with muhammara in Aleppo, I came up with this simple snack that I now eat on a regular basis. It’s simple and incredibly delicious: a slice of Aleppan Mortadella, topped with a dollop of creamy hummus, and a kiss of spicy muhammara seals the deal. Enjoy!

my favorite snack
mortadella, hummus, muhammara snack

Mortadella, an Aleppan variation

Almost every lunch, dinner, or formal event in Aleppo begins with an endless spread of mezze. Tabletops brimmed with plates of appetizers. Hummus and Muhammara. Labne and cured olives. Roasted nuts and homemade pickles. These are some of the popular ones. There is also yalanjii, vegetarian stuffed vegetables, which I still have to blog about. Every family has their favorites, their own style of hosting, but the common theme is abundance. The food should appear endless — this is the unspoken rule of Middle Eastern hospitality. You’d be hard pressed to find a gap between the plates.

A popular mezze in Aleppo is the Mortadella Halabiye, or Aleppan Mortadella. Not to be confused with the popular Italian cured meat, Aleppan Mortadella is much smaller in size and is blanched, not cured. Also, Italian Mortadella is made from pork, whereas the Aleppan version is made with either beef or lamb. On a couple of occasions, however, I’ve seen chicken varieties, as well.

Aleppan Mortadella is usually served as a starter as part of a spread of mezze — leftovers go into sandwiches. This is how my aunt taught me. You take fresh bread — pita or baguette — add a liberal shmear of hummus, cover with slices of Aleppan Mortadella, fanned out, and voilà. It’s that simple. If you add some muhammara to the sandwich, even better; it gives it a spicy contrast, not enough to make you cry though, just smile.

Now, to make Aleppan Mortadella, you want to start out with kaak (كعك), a Middle Eastern kind of bread stick that is incredibly crunchy and usually served alongside tea. Middle Eastern or Mediterranean stores should have it. If you can’t find kaak, however, you can use breadcrumbs; ultimately, its goal is to bind the mortadella.

kaak (كعك)
kaak
Middle Eastern style breadcrumbs
middle eastern bread crumbs
mise en place
mise en place

The next ingredient is the habra, which is basically very lean meat, essentially fat-less. A good habra should have no fat. I’ve blogged about it before. Habra is the basis of all kibbeh, which makes it readily available at any butcher in the Middle East. In the States, however, I usually ask my butcher to ground for me top-round beef, with all its fat removed. My butcher even goes the extra length to ground my meat early in the morning, before they ground any other meat, so that fat inside the machine doesn’t get into my habra. Then, once I get home, I process the meat in my food processor with a few ice cubes until a paste is formed — that’s all habra is.

The rest is mixing the ingredients together.

seasoned mixing
mixing

I noticed my aunt doesn’t mix the ground kaak with the meat all at once, only handfuls at a time. The reason being you might not need it all. The best mortadella, she told me, is made with as little kaak as possible. Only mix in as much as you need. The goal is a mixture that barely comes together and holds its shape.

oh, there’s garlic, too
garlic
add the pistachios into the center
steps

The reason for not mixing the pistachios in the beginning is so that they remain in the center of the mortadella. This is for presentation purposes.

cover and into the fridge
covered
H2O
water
some apple cider vinegar
vinegar
simmer
cooking mortadella
Aleppan Mortadella (مرتديلا حلبية)
Aleppan Mortadella

Aleppan Mortadella

4-5 logs

Components

  • 500g habra
  • 1/2 cup kaak, grated*
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup unsalted pistachios
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 Tbsp allspice, ground
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 8 cups water, for blanching
  • 2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • ice water, for forming the mortadella
  1. Prepare habra, the lean meat that comes from the top-round.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the habra, ground kaak (or breadcrumbs), minced garlic, sliced garlic, and egg, until well incorporated.
  3. Divide the meat mixture into 4 to 5 equal pieces.
  4. To form the mortadella: flatten a piece of the meat mixture, sprinkle with pistachios, fold closed, and form into a smooth log. Use ice water to smooth the meat mixture if you feel that it is a bit sticky.
  5. Refrigerate until ready to blanch (can be done a day in advance).
  6. Prepare the blanching liquid by mixing 4 parts water to 1 part apple cider vinegar.
  7. Bring the blanching liquid to a simmer.
  8. Add the mortadella and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes or until the middle is no longer pink.
  9. Refrigerate until ready to eat.

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hummus + muhammara + mortadella = best friends
muhammara hummus, and mortadella

Sujuk, Armenian sausage, from scratch

There is something about making a dish completely from scratch that is wonderfully satisfying — a feeling of merited accomplishment. A mixture of happiness and relief. I’m sure this is true of most things, really, not just food. It comes with any craft you can pour your soul into. With food, you appreciate individual ingredients; you savor every ounce of effort that goes into preparing a dish. Something magical happens in the cooking process; a part of you, your essence, probably while you’re mixing ingredients and not particularly paying attention, dives into the bowl and adds that special something to the dish: warmth, brightness, love, something you can’t really put your finger on, but everyone knows it’s there.

In Syria, particularly Aleppo, wintertime means it’s time for sujuk, an Armenian sausage made with beef, lots of garlic and a mix of aromatic spices. Sujuk is bold; it’s a stick-to-your-ribs kind of sausage. And when it gets cold out, it’s what my heart and stomach crave. Yes, sujuk is pretty fantastic.

In Aleppo you can find sujuk all over the place. This is one of the culinary gems the Armenian community brought with them when they moved to Syria. One of my favorite places to eat sujuk outside of home is Shtoura. Shtoura, named after the Lebanese town, is a 24-hour fatayer place famous for their heavenly dough creations. I’m a regular there.

shtoura (شتورة) at 11:11pm
shtoura

Nothing is better late at night than a couple Shtoura palm-sized pizzas topped with classic tomato sauce, liberal amounts of shredded mozzarella, and dotted with nuggets of spicy sujuk.

sujuk pizza
pizza suju

My aunt, luckily for me, makes her own sujuk at home. And to my surprise, it’s pretty simple, and actually borders on effortless. It’s a matter of combining a blend of spices with meat and allowing the mixture to air-dry in a cool place, away from any sunlight. Prep-time is no more than 15 minutes, tops. No sausage casings or fancy equipment necessary; my aunt stitches her own bags from scraps of cloth that are clean and have not been treated with scented detergent.

mise en place
mise en place
lots of garlic
garlic
spices: fenugreek, allspice, cumin, Aleppo pepper, salt
spices

After asking a few of my Armenian friends in Aleppo, I’ve discovered that it is not common to add ground fenugreek to sujuk. If you can’t find fenugreek, you can certainly leave it out, however, I like the taste it adds to the sausage.

mix well
mix
bags of sujuk
bags

My aunt uses her balcony to air-dry her sujuk. She moves the rack of sujuk bags depending on the time of day to keep them away from any sunlight. Once the bags feel firm and dry to the touch, the sujuk is ready. This usually takes 3-5 days depending on the weather and the thickness of your sujuk bags.

Once they’re done drying, my aunt and I keep all the bags, except one, in the freezer and bring them down to the fridge as we go through them.

sujuk sandwiches
sujuk

Sujuk is an extremely versatile sausage that you can eat any number of ways. It’s great over pizza or mixed into pasta sauce. It’s delicious with eggs for breakfast — a different take on the classic sausage and eggs. In Syria and Lebanon, however, it’s popular to make sujuk sandwiches with pita bread. The grease from the sausage melts over the heat and toasts the bread to a pleasant crisp. No extra butter or fat necessary; just good, homemade sujuk.

cheese
cheese
old school sandwich press
sandwich press
sandwich
sandwich

Sujuk Sausage

yields approx 1kg

Components

  • 1kg ground beef, freshly ground
  • 2 Tbsp cumin, ground
  • 2 Tbsp allspice, ground
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp fenugreek (optional), ground
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp Aleppo pepper
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp salt
  • 1/4 cup garlic, minced

Putting them all together

  1. Mix all the ingredients together and refrigerate overnight.
  2. Stuff meat mixture into clean, porous stockings and let hang for 3-5 days in a cool, dry place away from any sunlight.
  3. Once pouches are dry and firm to the touch, remove from the hanging rod and store in the refrigerator — leftover pouches keep great in the freezer.

Notes:Make sure whatever you use to encase the meat is clean, but more importantly make sure it does not have any detergent scent. Sujok keeps great in the freezer. I bring down a pouch at a time from the freezer to the refrigerator as I go through it.

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