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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

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

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

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


  • 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.


gushing qastha
gashing qashta

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

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

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

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

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.


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

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


  • 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!


empty bowl of soup

My perfect weekend at the Beekman

Last weekend I checked out from reality and drove to upstate New York to visit my friends at the Beekman. Only a couple hours north of Cornell, I also decided to visit some friends I left behind in Ithaca post-graduation. Everything about this trip was magical, from the gorgeous multicolored foliage that surrounded the highways to the great time I spent with my friends – this was a weekend worth blogging about.


day 1

Luck was on my side as I drove up north; on two separate occasions a simple hand gesture from New York State troopers signaled to slow me down, as opposed to their usual merciless speeding fines and lectures. Even better would have been to avoid the encounters altogether, but I was content with the small slap on the wrist. The rest of the drive couldn’t have been better, no deers jumped out in front of me (one of my biggest fears) and my ipod survived the entire trip, a miracle in and of itself.

While I was in Ithaca, I made an obligatory stop at Wegmans (aka my second home while I was in college) and had two lunches with friends, followed by a quick coffee date before getting back on the road. As soon as I arrived at the Beekman, Brent and Josh greeted with even more food. My stomach was telling me no more, but my mouth instinctively kept going for more of the creamy pumpkin risotto and peppery arugula and raspberry salad. Everything, except the short grain rice, was from their garden. I blog about these seemingly minute details because the flavors brought me back to when I was visiting Italy and the Middle East last winter. Although the ingredients were anything but pretty, their flavors were spot on. The arugula leaves were different sizes and carried a real peppery bite as opposed to the pale flavor that I’ve come to associate with the generic 6 oz bags at the supermarket. We finished our wine in front of the fire place and quietly enjoyed our slice(s) of Josh’s ridiculously good apple tarte tatin. It was the perfect ending to my first night at the Beekman.

last raspberry of the season — what a trooper
last raspberry of the season

day 2

I was forewarned that today was going to be lots of work, but I was ready to work off my gluttony from the previous day. When I entered the kitchen, the fireplace was already lit and Josh was working on getting breakfast on the table. I swear I did more than just eat that entire weekend. We had a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, pork sausage, and goat yogurt; all from the farm, of course. By this point, I was convinced I was going to get a farm of my own one day.

Then came the work. By 8:30am we were outside picking the remaining apples to make fresh cider. One deceptive-looking tree produced seven (COUNT: 7!) bushels of apples. We separated the pretty round apples for pies and desserts and the rest were loaded onto the truck for cider. Josh set some goat meat to braise for dinner, then we headed over to the local apple orchard to press our hand-picked beauties into cider.

apples from one tree
bushels of apples
ready to make fresh cider
apples in water
apples float, but pears don’t (fun fact)
floating apples
artisan cider-maker (15 yrs experience)
making cider
fresh cider
fresh cider
capping at lightening speed
capping cider

37 gallons of fresh apple cider and a few apple donuts later, we loaded everything into the truck and returned for an early start at dinner. As soon as we walked through the door we were welcomed by the warm aroma of braised goat that Josh had set in the oven before leaving.

After having played with the goats earlier that morning, I thought I would have second thoughts about enjoying a plate of braised goat for dinner. Not really. After having read Omnivores Dilemma, I was happy to see the goats on the Beekman farm roam freely in a field as opposed to the clustered and inhumane industrial settings most animals are subject to. These were happy goats. It also helped, of course, that I was completely detached and took no part in the butchering process.

the cutest goats

While the goat continued to braise, we went to the garden and picked some fresh vegetables for dinner. It was easy, almost effortless. We ate what was seasonably available and that was that. No qualms about genetically modified produce or harsh pesticides. I rolled up my sleeves and helped pull some fresh parsnips from the ground and we also plucked some fava beans to accompany the goat. The parsnips were roasted and mashed with lots of butter and goat milk to make a creamy, cloud-like parsnip puree, while the fava beans were quickly sauteed in some bacon fat and minced onions. We polished off the meal with plenty of hard apple cider that has been stored in the Beekman cellar since last year and got ready for a night out.

shelling fresh fava beans
fava beans

After dinner, Brent and Josh gave me a tour of the town and we picked up some local ice cream for a quick dessert. Of course, ice cream alone wasn’t going to be enough. Brent served up the ice cream with homemade cajeta sauce, which is a traditional Mexican caramel sauce similar to dulce de leche. The Beekman cajeta, though, was anything but traditional; jalapeños were steeped in goat milk, that was then used as the base for the cajeta. The combination of the spicy aftertaste in the caramel paired with the cold and velvety ice cream was one of those flavor profiles that made perfect sense.

day 3

On the last day of my perfect weekend, we relaxed. I knew I had a long drive ahead of me and didn’t want to get stuck driving at night and miss out on the gorgeous  scenery upstate New York has to offer. At the same time, I didn’t want to leave the farm. We went outside after breakfast where I got to play with the goats one last time; and then Brent and Josh took me on a walk around the entire Beekman property. We were walking for thirty minutes until I realized we were back where we started. Then it was time to go.

Before I left, they showered me with edible gifts from their garden that I will be using in my next post. I also got to take with me bars of their homemade goat milk and olive oil soap that I’ve been using incessantly since I got back. Seriously, I wouldn’t let anything else get near my hands now – it’s that freaking good! Since I have no recipe for you today, I’ll leave you with more pretty pictures from my amazing weekend. I’ll try to load the rest onto flickr soon, but you know how work can get in the way. I think I need another weekend getaway soon…

looking up from paradise
yellow fall leaves
my favorite shy goat
shy goat
wild grapes
wild grapes