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Archive for the ‘Middle Eastern’ Category


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.

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Award-winning Syrian-inspired Lamb Chili
lamb chili bite

Sweet Cheese Rolls

While I was living in Aleppo, I became the de facto ambassador to the city. I was never shy about expressing how much more interesting I thought Aleppo was than Damascus. As the capital city, Damascus always felt formal relative to Aleppo. Walking down the narrow streets of the old city in Aleppo felt like you were stepping back in time. The old buildings showed age, but also splendor. The hidden culinary gems in tucked away neighborhoods packed some of the most magnificent flavors I have ever experienced. I quickly gained a reputation among the US embassy staff and the Fulbright scholars in Damascus. Anytime anyone planed a trip to Aleppo, I was more than happy to show them around my favorite city. I knew my way though the historical sites, but most importantly, I knew where to find all the best food.

One of my last tours was in April of 2011 when my friend Tom, a fellow Fulbright scholar living in Damascus, visited Aleppo with his family. I teamed up with my cousin Zaki who lives in Aleppo and wanted to practice his English. We crammed into tiny Syrian cabs and ate our way through the city.

Anne (Tom’s mom), Tom, and Zaki
Aleppo cab ride
Aleppo’s Souks
Aleppo's Souks
Aleppan dinner at my apartment
Aleppan dinner at my apartment

One of the stops we made that evening was at a famous sweet shop called Salloura. If you’re from Aleppo, you know Salloura. Salloura evokes sweet happy memories. The original branch was founded in the 1870s by As’ad Salloura’s great-grandfather in the city of Hama about 140km south of Aleppo. There’s a wonderful series by Dalia Mortada and Lauren Bohn titled Salloura: an Epic of Sweets. It chronicles the history of Salloura and current state of Salloura in a series of articles.

The dessert that made Salloura famous in 1870 was As’ad Salloura’s great grandfather’s sweet cheese rolls, halawet al jiben (حلاوة الجبن). He sold them in the streets of Hama carrying a tray of these fluffy, chewy rolls over his head.

mise en place
mise en place

Halawet al jiben, or sweet cheese rolls, is a comforting dessert. It’s a soft, chewy dough infused with the fragrant essence of orange blossom and rose water. It gets its name from the sweet cheese (mozzarella curd) that gets melted into the chewy semolina dough and filled with creamy qashta.

If you have a Mediterranean store close by, the best cheese to use for this dessert is sweet cheese or mozzarella curds. You can also use Akkawi cheese, but you need to steep it in fresh water to remove some of the salt content. The goal is to use a cheese with little salt. If you can’t find “sweet cheese” at your local market, you can substitute regular mozzarella, too.

mozzarella curd
sweet_cheese

The dough comes together in a matter of minutes. Start heating up water and a little sugar in a large pot. Once the sugar dissolves and the mix begins to bubble, add the cheese that’s been cut into small pieces. Stir until the pieces melt together and form a stringy mass.

melted mozzarella
melted_cheese

Once the cheese has melted, mix in the semolina making sure to stir constantly using a wooden spoon. There are many grades of semolina that correspond to different thicknesses from fine to coarse. For this dessert, it’s important to use fine semolina.

fine semolina
fine semolina

This is when the dough will start to thicken up. Make sure to keep stirring to make sure the cheese completely dissolves into the semolina dough.

cheese-semolina swirl
cheese-semolina swirl

Once the dough comes together, you’ll want to add the fragrant orange blossom and rose waters right as you remove the dough from the heat. This will help preserve the intense flavor of the waters. If you’re successful, you’ll be rewarded with a soft, billowy cheese dough.

soft cheese dough
soft cheese dough

Home cooks in Syria roll the dough out on plastic bags that they’ve opened into sheets. Since the dough is hot, I recommend using silicone baking mats instead. Once you transfer the dough to the baking mats, use your fingers to carefully open the dough into a rectangular shape. Then use a rolling pin to continue rolling the dough out into a thin rectangular sheet.

thin sheet of cheese dough
thin sheet of cheese dough

With a sharp knife, cut the edges of the sheet to form a perfect rectangle.

cutting edge
cutting edge

Line the bottom edge of the halawet al jiben dough with qashta and carefully roll the dough around the qashta to form a cylinder.

stuffing with creamy qashta
stuffing with creamy qashta

Cut the cylinder and continue filling rows of qashta until you run out of dough. Cut the cylinders into individual portions. At this point, the halawet al jiben can be plated and tightly covered with plastic wrap until you’re ready to serve. Once your guests arrive, you’ll want to top each piece with crushed pistachios.

pistachios (فستقحلبي)
pistachios (فستق حلبي)

If you recall from the qashta post, the cream filling isn’t sweetened. Serve the plated halawet al jiben with a side of ‘atar or simple syrup so that each person can choose how sweet they would like their dessert.

orange blossom infused simple syrup
orange blossom infused simple syrup
halawet al jiben (حلاوةالجبن)
halawet al jiben (حلاوة الجبن)

Halawet Al Jiben

yields ~24 pieces

Components

  • 1 cup fine semolina
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 2/3 cups water
  • 500g mozzarella curd, cut into small pieces*
  • 2 tsp orange blossom water
  • 2 tsp rose water
  • 4 cups qashta

‘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. In a large pot over medium heat, mix the water and sugar until the sugar dissolves and the mix begins to bubble.
  5. Lower heat to medium low and add the cheese. Stir until the cheese is dissolved.
  6. Slowly pour the semolina while constantly stirring with a wooden spoon. Continue stirring vigorously until the mix becomes a dough. It’s ok for some of the dough to stick to the sides of the pan.
  7. Turn off the heat and stir in the orange blossom and rose waters.
  8. Line a counter with silicone baking mats. Move the hot dough to the baking mats and form it into a rectangle shape with your hands (making sure not to burn your fingers). Use a rolling pin to roll it out to a thin sheet (~1/16 inch).
  9. Using a spoon, run a line of qashta down the long edge of the dough.
  10. Roll the dough over the qashta to form a cylinder. Use a knife to slice down the edge and repeat until there’s no more dough left.
  11. Slice the cylinders into individual pieces. Sprinkle with crushed pistachios and serve on a large tray with the ‘atar or simple syrup on the side.

Note: This recipe makes more ‘atar (simple syrup) than needed. No need to use all of it. Allow guests to make their serving as sweet as they’d like.

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gushing qastha
gashing qashta

Qashta: decadence and versatility

There are no words to articulate how delicious, decadent, and versatile qashta is. Qashta, if you haven’t experienced it before, is Middle Eastern clotted cream. You typically see it used in Arabic desserts, but in Aleppo, they even have it for breakfast (because why not?). One of my favorite breakfasts in Aleppo was zlebiye (paper-thin fried dough) stuffed with qashta topped with cinnamon sugar and chopped Aleppan pistachios. This is not the kind of breakfast you have every day.

Side note about zlebiye: the zlebiye in Aleppo is very different than the zlebiye anywhere else in the Middle East. Most zlebiye are prepared by frying relatively thick pieces of dough, but in Aleppo, the zlebiye is paper-thin. So thin you can read through it. I never met anyone who makes this version at home, even in Aleppo. I used to buy my zlebiye from Halawiyat Diab, a popular sweet shop close to my apartment in Aleppo. After months of asking begging, one of the bakers shared the recipe with me. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out. The dough never became stretchy enough to create that paper-thin pastry that makes Aleppo’s zlebiye so special. All I have to remember zlebiye by is my memory and this behind-the-scene video I shot at Halawiyat Diab in 2011:

In the video, you can see some zlebiye are “plain” (topped with cinnamon sugar and chopped Aleppan pistachios), but in the 1:05 minute mark, you’ll see the ones I was referring to, stuffed with qashta. My mouth waters every time. While I don’t have a successful recipe for zlebiye yet (I haven’t lost hope), qashta is an important component to many Middle Eastern desserts, which brings us to today’s post. This is a key recipe you’ll want to reference anytime a dessert calls for qashta. You can also use qashta to take desserts you already know and love to the next level: think waffles topped with qashta or qashta French toast! The good news is that qashta is incredibly easy to make and only requires four ingredients: whole milk, vinegar, cornstarch, and orange blossom water.

mise en place
mise en place

You’ll notice that qashta doesn’t have any sugar added. That’s because most Middle Eastern desserts, like baklava, use a simple syrup infused for sweetness. If you’re going to use qashta on a non-traditional dessert, I recommend either sweetening it with a little bit of sugar or topping it with honey, which is what I do later in this post.

frothy milk
frothy milk

This recipe uses milk twice. The first one is for clotting. To clot milk, you’ll want to gently bring it to a simmer.

adding the vinegar
pouring the vinegar

Once the milk is frothy and at a gentle simmer, you’ll want to stir in a little bit of white vinegar. The acid in the vinegar will clot the protein in the milk. Don’t worry, qashta is not sour or acidic. The purpose of the vinegar is to separate the curds from the whey. Some recipes online call for lemon juice, but the acidity level of lemons can vary, so I stick to simple white vinegar for a more consistent result. You can turn off the heat at this point and stir gently.

straining the curds
straining the curds

With a slotted spoon, you’ll want to gather the curds that have separated from the whey. The clotted curds will form the foundation for the qashta.

dissolving the cornstarch
dissolving the cornstarch

To make the curds creamy, we next need to prepare a rich base. The rich base is made up of whole milk thickened with cornstarch. Since cornstarch only dissolves in cold liquids, it’s important to dissolve the cornstarch in cold milk. Once the cornstarch is dissolved, transfer it to a sauce pan over medium heat. The milk base will be fully thickened once the milk begins to simmer.

creamy qashta base
creamy qashta base

Once the milk comes to a simmer, test the thickness by running your finger along the backside of your wooden spoon. It should be thick enough to form a streak down the back of the spoon.

mixing the qashta
mixing the qashta

The qashta comes together by mixing the clotted curds from the first step with the creamy base we just made. Break apart the curds with the back of your wooden spoon in order to incorporate them into the creamy base. Depending on how long the clotted curds sat out, this may require more work. If the clotted curds are not coming apart, a hand mixer can make the job easier.

qashta with honey
qashta with honey

Qashta

yields ~4 cups

Components

  • 2 liters whole milk
  • 2 Tbsp white vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp cornstarch
  • 2 tsp orange blossom water

Putting them all together

  1. Bring 1.5 liters of milk to a gentle simmer in a medium sized saucepan.
  2. Lower heat to medium low, add vinegar, and gently stir for one minute.
  3. Turn off heat and continue stirring gently to encourage the milk to clot.
  4. Using a slotted spoon, collect the clotted pieces. Try to strain most of the liquid (no need to make it dry, but you don’t it too wet either). Set aside.
  5. Dissolve the cornstarch in remaining 1/2 liter of milk.
  6. In a saucepan over medium heat, bring milk and cornstarch mixture to a simmer, stirring occasionally so that the milk does not burn.
  7. Reduce heat to low and mix in the clotted curds. Continue stirring and use the back of a wooden spoon to until curds are broken up and suspended in thickened milk. If the clotted curds are difficult to break apart, a hand mixer can help.
  8. Remove from the heat and stir in orange blossom water.
  9. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.

Note: Qashta or clotted cream is not generally sweetened because it gets incorporated into Arabic desserts that are already sweetened. If you plan on eating qashta as a snack or incorporating it into non-traditional desserts, I recommend sweetening it with a little sugar (while mixing the cornstarch with the milk) or topping the finished qashta with honey or simple syrup.

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qashta with honey
qashta with honey

Cookies with a rich history

Like all immigrants, when my grandparents moved from Syria to Venezuela in the late 1950s, they brought a piece of Aleppo with them. To this day, I associate the scent of fresh mint with my grandmother, Marine, Allah yerhama (may God rest her soul). As kids, we used to play around her vegetable and herb garden in Venezuela. My grandmother grew a disproportionate amount of mint. I would occasionally pluck a couple leaves, rub them between my fingers, and press them up to my nose. The scent of fresh mint always reminds me of her.

Aleppo circa 1954 (grandmother is on the right)
Aleppo circa 1954 (grandmother is on the right)

Through food, music, herb gardens, and traditions, immigrants forge familiar identities in a new home. Pomegranate molasses was difficult to find in Venezuela, so my grandmothers often used tamarind paste to recreate that sweet and tangy flavor profile. Lebanese immigrants in Mexico paved the way for tacos al pastor, a twist on the classic shawarma sandwiches known throughout the Middle East. Substitutions make it possible to keep traditions alive. Each substitution or spin on a recipe forges a new identity.

The Middle East is full of these variances. If you don’t believe me, ask a Palestinian and a Syrian how they prepare stuffed grape leaves. Each recipe carries with it the history of its ancestors. Ask a Greek cook about dolmas and you’ll jump to a different, but familiar chapter in the history of stuffing vegetables. The recipes on my blog represent a snapshot in time. That brings me to kleejah (كليجة), the recipe for today’s post.

The origin of kleejah appears to be somewhere in Iraq. My maternal grandmother, Muna, makes amazing kleejah. She lives in Venezuela. Kleejah, at least the one from my childhood, is somewhere between a cookie and a bread. It wasn’t until I lived in Aleppo that I experienced kleejah that wasn’t my grandmother’s. Some bakeries in Aleppo prepare kleejah as a cookie, while other make a chewier variation, similar to brioche. The dough is seasoned with a variety of fragrant spices such as cinnamon, cloves, fennel, anise seed, nutmeg, mahlab, and nigella seeds. The kleeja from Iraq is different. The Iraqi version is flavored with cardamom and stuffed with a date paste, similar to ma’amoul. Somewhere between Mosul and Aleppo, a transformation occurred. In Aleppo today you’ll even find the spice-filled Aleppan version stuffed with dates, forging yet another identity.

Today, I’m going to feature the kleejah I grew up eating. This recipe is from a dear friend and expert Aleppan cook, Siham Baladi. Before I jump into the recipe though, I have to tell you a funny story about Siham. Siham and I have never met in person. She grew up in Aleppo and moved to the US in her early 20s. She stumbled upon my blog while I was pursuing my Fulbright in Syria. She sent me a sweet email about the beautiful memories she was able to relive through my blog. She also connected me with her family in Aleppo in case I needed anything. I was moved by Siham’s email, so I decided to share it with my grandmother’s sister, Christine (Aunt Kiki). Aunt Kiki was helping me get settled in Aleppo and was intrigued by the premise of my research: food. I thought Siham’s email would provide wonderful context to the Fulbright’s mission of cross cultural exchange. As I was reading and translating Siham’s email out loud, Aunt Kiki stopped me at the part where Siham connected me with her family in Aleppo. Curious, Aunt Kiki asked if that note was from Siham… I was floored! Siham hadn’t lived in Aleppo for over thirty years. As it turns out, when Aunt Kiki was a newlywed back in 1959, Siham was a little girl who lived in the building Aunt Kiki had moved into with her husband.

Siham Baladi
Siham Baladi

The Aleppan variation calls for a lot of spices. If your grocery store has a bulk spice section, I recommend picking them up from there. The spices are usually fresher and it ends up being less expensive than purchasing individual jars of spices.

mise en place
mise en place

To bloom the yeast for the kleejah, you’ll want to start by warming milk between 110-115 degrees Fahrenheit (43-46 degrees Celsius). Instant yeast allows you to skip the blooming stage, but this is always a good way to make sure your yeast is alive and well. It takes a few extra minutes, but it saves you a lot of trouble if your yeast doesn’t activate for any reason.

warm milk
warm milk

Dissolve the yeast in the milk and a tsp of the sugar (save the rest for the dough). Cover the bowl and allow the yeast to proof in a warm place for 5-10 minutes.

bloomed yeast
bloomed yeast

In the meantime warm up the spices (except for the nigella seeds) in a skillet. This helps bring out their essential oils.

spices: cloves, cinnamon, fennel, anise, mahlab
spices: cloves, cinnamon, fennel, anise, mahlab

Grind the spices (except for the nigella seeds) in your spice grinder until it becomes a powder. The nigella seeds will get added to the dough whole.

grinding spices
grinding spices

Combine the dry ingredients together (flour, the spice mix, nigella seeds, and a pinch of salt). Mix until they are well combined. The reason you mix the dry ingredients first is so that they are evenly distributed in the dough. Once the dough comes together, it becomes difficult to mix the spices evenly without over working the dough.

mixing the dry ingredients
mixing the dry ingredients

Once the dry ingredients are mixed tougher, you can add the wet ingredients: yeast-milk mixture, butter, olive oil, and yogurt.

adding the wet ingredients
adding the wet ingredients

Stir the mix a few times with a wooden spoon until it comes together and then knead with your hands until a soft dough is formed. Coat the dough with a layer of olive oil, cover with a kitchen towel, and allow the dough to rise for 4-5 hours in a warm, dark place.

kleejah dough
kleejah dough

Deflate the dough and divide it into tennis-ball size pieces (roughly 60 grams each).

dividing the dough
dividing the dough

Form the dough into an 8 shape. You could also form them into buns. Cover the dough with a damp towel and allow to proof a second time for 45-60 minutes.

second round of proofing
second round of proofing

Brush the dough with an egg wash (1 egg + 1 Tbsp milk). This will give the kleejah a shiny, golden brown coat once it bakes. Bake the kleejah in a 350 degree oven for 18-20 minutes or until golden brown. Baking times will vary depending on the shame and size you made your kleejah.

egg wash
egg wash
Kleejah (كليجة)
Kleejah (كليجة)

Kleejah

yields approx 16-18 pieces

Components

  • 500g flour (~3 3/4 cup)
  • 113 g butter (1 stick)
  • 1 cup milk, plus 1 Tbsp for egg wash
  • 1 Tbsp mahlab
  • 1 Tbsp nigella seeds
  • 1 Tbsp fennel seeds
  • 1 Tbsp anise seeds
  • 1 Tbsp cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 tsp whole cloves
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 2 Tbsp plain yogurt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tbsp yeast
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • Putting them all together

  1. Heat up milk to 110-115 degrees Fahrenheit (43-46 degrees Celsius). Dissolve the yeast in the milk and a tsp of the sugar (save the rest for the dough). Cover the bowl and allow the yeast to proof in a warm, dark place for 5-10 minutes.
  2. Warm up the spices (except for the nigella seeds) in a skillet over medium low heat, making sure not to burn the spices. Remove the spices from heat once they become fragrant.
  3. Grind the spices (except for the nigella seeds) in a spice grinder until they’re a fine powder.
  4. Combine the dry ingredients together (flour, the spice mix, nigella seeds, and a pinch of salt). Mix until they are well combined.
  5. Add the wet ingredients: yeast-milk mixture, butter, olive oil, and yogurt.
  6. Stir the mix a few times with a wooden spoon until it comes together and then knead with your hands until a soft dough is formed. Coat the dough with a layer of olive oil, cover with a kitchen towel, and allow the dough to rise for 4-5 hours in a warm, dark place.
  7. Deflate the dough and divide it into tennis-ball size pieces (roughly 60 grams each)
  8. Form the dough into an 8 shape. You could also form them into buns. Cover the dough with a damp towel and allow to proof a second time for 45-60 minutes.
  9. Brush the dough with an egg wash (1 egg + 1 Tbsp milk). This will give the kleejah a shiny, golden brown coat once it bakes. Bake the kleeja in a 350 degree oven for 18-20 minutes or until golden brown. Baking times will vary depending on the shame and size you made your kleeja.
  10. Transfer kleejah to a wire rack until they have cooled. Enjoy!

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Kleejah served with tea
Kleejah served with tea

Fadi’s Red Lentil Soup

When the bomb cyclone hit the New England area a few days ago, I was prepared. The cyclone may have packed bitter cold wind chills and the ability to crush my soul like a popsicle, but I had soup. Specifically, Fadi’s red lentil soup. The bomb cyclone didn’t stand a chance. Before I get to the soup though, let me tell you about Fadi.

Fadi aka Abu Jack (Jack’s dad)
Fadi aka Abu Jack

Fadi makes some of the best sujok sandwiches in all of Aleppo. Sujok, if you haven’t had it before, is an Armenian sausage flavored with lots of garlic and a variety of fragrant spices such as cumin, fenugreek, Aleppo pepper, and allspice. That’s what drew me to Fadi in the first place. His sujok is legendary. Once the temperature in Aleppo begins to dip, butcher shops throughout the city prepare their own sujok recipes and hang them out front to dry. You can’t miss the aroma of garlic and spices as you walk around the city.

hanging sujok
Hanging sujok

Fadi is second generation Syrian. His grandfather fled from Urfa, Turkey to Aleppo during the Armenian genocide. You can see a photo of Fadi’s grandfather hanging above Fadi in the first image. Fadi inherited his small sandwich shop, Abu Jack’s Sandwiches, from his grandfather. When you walk into Fadi’s shop, you’ll be greeted by the scent of sujok sizzling on a sandwich press and the sound of a soccer match playing loudly on the tv hanging above your head. The shop is pretty small — it can barely fit four adults standing in front of Fadi’s counter. This usually means there’s a line out the door.

Fadi’s shop
Fadi’s shop

That’s where Fadi’s red lentil soup comes in. In order to keep his customers warm and happy, Fadi retrofitted a coffee dispenser for his simple yet delicious red lentil soup. It’s easy for soup to be overshadowed by sujok, but Fadi’s soup is incredible. It merits its own blog post. Before winter is over (or if you find yourself in another bomb cyclone), you need this soup in your arsenal. The good news is that the soup is incredibly simple to prepare.

Fadi offering me soup
Fadi offering me soup

The ingredients are simple. Fadi uses a mix of rice and potato to thicken his soup. And the soup is very forgiving, so don’t worry about precise measurements.

mise en place
mise en place

You also don’t need to worry about perfect dicing. Since the soup is pureed at the end, a rough chop does the trick.

chopped veggies
“chopped

I start by sweating the onions and garlic in a little bit of olive oil. I season with salt and pepper. The key to any good soup is to season in layers. It’s better to season gradually as you go along rather than try to season the dish at the very end. It doesn’t taste the same and you end up using more salt if you season at the last minute.

sweating the onions
“sweating

Once the onions have become translucent (~8-10 minutes on medium low heat), you’ll want to add the spices. I don’t add the spices in the beginning because I want to make sure my onions don’t caramelize. It’s also easier to tell when the onions are translucent if they’re not colored by the spices.

spices: cumin, Aleppo pepper, coriander, and turmeric
cumin, aleppo pepper, coriander, and turmeric

I like to cook the spices for a couple of minutes, which helps draw out their flavors. Once you begin to smell the spices, add the rest of your ingredients.

everything else: lentils, rice, carrots, potatoes, and broth
“lentils,

Bring the broth to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cover the pot partially with the lid and simmer for 30-45 minutes or until lentils, rice, and potatoes are fully cooked.

gentle simmer
“gentle

At this point, you can serve the soup as is, but I like to puree the soup for a rich and creamy texture. If you decide to puree the soup in a blender, make sure to leave the lid partially open to allow the steam to vent. Otherwise, you’ll end up with soup on your ceiling! This is the perfect job for a hand blender, if you have one.

puree
“puree”

I like to serve the soup with an extra sprinkle of Aleppo pepper, cumin, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Fadi’s red lentil soup
“Fadi’s

The best part about this soup is that spritz of fresh lemon juice at the end. It brightens up the entire dish!

spritz of lemon juice
spritz of lemon juice

Fadi’s Red Lentil Soup

6-8 servings

Components

  • 500g red lentils
  • 10 cups chicken stock
  • 50g rice, preferably medium grain
  • 1-2 yellow onions, roughly chopped
  • 2 carrots, roughly chopped
  • 1 medium russet potato, roughly chopped
  • 4-5 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
  • 1 tsp cumin, plus more for garnish
  • 1 tsp Aleppo pepper, plus more for garnish
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. Coat the bottom of a large pot with olive oil. Sweat the onions and garlic with a little bit of salt and pepper over medium low heat. Make sure not to caramelize the onions. You want them to become translucent (~8-10 minutes of medium low heat).
  2. Add the spices (cumin, Aleppo pepper, coriander, and turmeric) to the translucent onions and cook until fragrant (1-2 minutes).
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients and bring mixture to a boil. Partially cover the pot with a lid and lower heat to medium low in order to maintain a steady, but gentle simmer. Simmer for 45 minutes or until rice, potatoes, and lentils are fully cooked. Stir occasionally to avoid anything sticking to the bottom of the pot.
  4. Puree the soup with a stick blender.
  5. Garnish each bowl with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of cumin and Aleppo pepper.
  6. Serve with lemon wedges on the side.

Notes: If you’re using a regular blender to puree the soup, be sure to vent the lid of the blender to allow the steam to escape. The soup can be made the day before and heated before serving. In fact, it tastes better the next day!

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empty bowl of soup