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.

Archive for the ‘entrees’ Category


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.

Print

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.

Print

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.

Print

ful bite (لقمةفول)
Ful bite (لقمة فول)

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.

Print

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

Alan’s Syrian-Inspired Lamb Chili

On October 26, 2011, a few months after I got back from my Fulbright in Syria, I noticed a new email in my inbox. From: Alan Janbay. Alan is Syrian American. He has extended family in Venezuela. And, like me, is also a food blogger. The coincidences seemed uncanny. I remember thinking, this guy is my digital doppelgänger!

We exchanged emails for about a year until we finally met in person in 2012. Alan was born and raised in the southern city of Sweida, Syria (السويداء), approximately 100km south of Damascus and 450km south of Aleppo. His birth name is Alaa’ (علاء), which is short for Aladdin (علاءالدين) in Arabic. While our stories are similar, there are fascinating differences between our food cultures. Dishes in Sweida incorporate plenty of yogurt, specifically dried yogurt or jameed (also known as kitha in Sweida). Jameed is yogurt that has been salted and dried into a rock, which helps preserve milk through the long winters in the Hauran mountains, where Sweida is located.

Alan and his Nana Nadia in Sweida
Alan and his Nana (Grandma) Nadia in Sweida
Alan and his mom in Sweida
Alan and his mom in Sweida

Alan learned how to cook from his grandmothers, Nadia (“Nana”) and Raeefeh. He recalls sitting at the kitchen counter while Nana prepared his favorite dish, vegetarian stuffed grape leaves called yalanji. She often tasked him with the simple jobs like peeling potatoes and fetching utensils. This exposure to cooking influenced his perspective on food. Before moving to the US, he lived with his grandparents for four years. He woke up every morning to the aroma of Teta Raeefe’s Arabic coffee brewing in the kitchen and his grandfather’s BBC Arabic radio station playing loudly in the background.

Ever since he was little, Alan was fascinated by planes and airports. When Alan moved to the US in 2001, he pursued a masters degree in Aviation Management and was able to realize his dream. Upon graduation, he started working for Delta Airlines in Oklahoma City. Before the war broke out in Syria, he used to surprise his family in Sweida. Without them knowing, he’d hop on a last-minute flight on Delta to Amman, Jordan and take a short cab ride across the border to Sweida. Sadly, he hasn’t been able to visit since the war broke out in 2011.

Alan has since moved to Atlanta, where he works at Delta’s Global Offices. He is passionate about sharing his Syrian heritage with friends and colleagues. His delicious food offers a glimpse into Syria’s rich culture. This is what prompted today’s post. Alan recently developed a unique recipe for Syrian-inspired lamb chili that incorporates ingredients from his childhood. He seasons ground lamb with a mixture of aromatic spices and creates a delicious chili base using reconstituted jameed, the dried yogurt traditionally used in dishes like mansaf.

There is no such thing as “chili” in Syria, but Alan does an amazing job of marrying the concept of American chili with the flavor profile of his culinary heritage. If you love lamb (and even if you think you don’t think you like lamb), you need to try this recipe!

mise en place
mise en place
jameed (جميد)
jameed (جميد)
reconstituting jameed in hot water
reconstituting jameed in hot water
beautiful colors
diced peppers
potatoes for richness
diced potatoes
Alan’s Syrian-Inspired Chili
Alan's Syrian-Inspired Chili
ground lamb + spices
ground lamb + spices
blending jameed
blending jameed
creamy jameed sauce
creamy jameed sauce
bay leaves, cilantro with reserved spices and garlic
creamy jameed sauce
cannellini beans #beanchili
cannellini beans #beanchili
Syrian-Inspired Lamb Chili
Syrian-Inspired Lamb Chili

Syrian-Inspired Lamb Chili

yields ~6-8 servings

Components

  • 2 pounds ground lamb
  • 28oz cannellini beans, rinsed
  • 100g jameed*
  • 6 cups of hot water
  • 2-3 yukon gold potatoes, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 8 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
  • 2 Tbsp red pepper paste
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, more for drizzling
  • 2 tsp cumin, ground
  • 2 tsp Aleppo pepper, ground
  • 1.5 tsp turmeric, ground
  • 1.5 tsp cinnamon, ground
  • 1 tsp allspice, ground
  • 1 tsp coriander, ground
  • 1 tsp black pepper, ground
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • salt, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. Roughly chop the jameed. Cover in a bowl with 6 cups of hot water. Set aside.
  2. Mix all the spices in a bowl. Reserve roughly 3/4 for the meat and 1/4 for the broth.
  3. Preheat large large dutch oven (or heavy bottom pot) over medium high heat.
  4. Coat the bottom of the pot with olive oil and sear the lamb with the spices (do not add salt because the jameed has plenty of salt).
  5. Set aside 1 teaspoon of minced garlic. Add the remainder of the minced garlic, red pepper paste, and tomato paste to the seared meat. Mix until well combined.
  6. Add the diced potatoes. Coat with lamb fat and cook for 6-8 minutes or until potatoes are cooked halfway through.
  7. In the meantime, pour the soak jameed (along with the soaking water) into a blender and blend until smooth.
  8. Add the diced peppers to the potatoes and meat mixture. Cook for 1-2 minutes then add the blended jameed. Taste for salt and adjust accordingly.
  9. Add the bay leaves, chopped cilantro, remainder of the spices, and reserved teaspoon of minced garlic to the pot. Mix until well combined. Lower heat to medium low, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.
  10. Gently mix in the rinsed cannellini beans. Cover until ready to serve.*

Note: You can find jameed at your local Mediterranean market. If you don’t have jameed, you can substitute greek (strained) yogurt, but be sure to adjust the salt/water accordingly. Jameed is preserved with salt, so does not require (much, if any) additional salt. This dish tastes better the next day.

Print

Award-winning Syrian-inspired Lamb Chili
lamb chili bite