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Archive for the ‘Aleppo’ Tag


Marlene’s White Bean Salad

Lately, I’ve been reading The Aleppo Cookbook by Marlene Matar. The book has a permanent spot in my living room. When I’m feeling nostalgic, I pick it up and read through some of the recipes. It’s a beautiful tribute to Aleppo’s legendary cuisine. The photography is simple and elegant, with a focus on the natural beauty of ingredients and the finished dishes. The cover is a wonderful close-up shot of pomegranates, which are quintessentially Aleppan. It reminds me of the day trip I took to Basouta, a Kurdish farming village outside of Aleppo. Basouta is famous for its pomegranates.

Basouta, Syria–outskirts of Aleppo (November 2010)
pomegranates in Basouta

Tucked away on page 103 of Marlene’s book, under salads and vegetable side dishes, is a simple recipe for a white bean salad. I almost missed it had it not been for the reference to red pepper paste, which makes everything taste amazing! Red pepper paste, which is made from Aleppo peppers, is another quintessential Aleppan ingredient. A couple weeks ago, after an intense workout and with no energy left to cook, I remembered Marlene’s salad. I decided to give it a try. I always have cans of cannellini beans stashed away in my pantry for situations like this. The combination of creamy cannellini beans with the spicy red pepper paste dressing and earthy cumin is sublime. Best of all, the salad comes together in less than 10 minutes and can be made the day before. In fact, it’s one of those dishes that tastes better the next day once the flavors have had a chance to marry. I know because I photographed this dish yesterday and I’m enjoying a bowl of the leftovers as I write this post.

mise en place
mise en place
simple prep: parsley, lemon juice, and garlic
simple prep: parsley, lemon juice, and garlic
lots of olive oil <3
love of olive oil
white bean salad (سلطةفاصوليابيضاء)
white bean salad (سلطة فاصوليا بيضاء)

White Bean Salad

yields approximately 6 servings

Components

  • 2 15oz cans white beans, drained and rinsed
  • 2 Tbsp red pepper paste
  • 1.5 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds, optional
  • 1-2 garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • salt, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. In a bowl, combine the beans with the rest of the ingredients.
  2. Mix well, taste, and adjust seasoning. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Notes: Slightly modified from The Aleppo Cookbook by Marlene Matar.

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bright flavors
bright flavors

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.

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

Aleppo’s Omelette

Growing up, weekend breakfasts meant frying aajeh in the kitchen. Aajeh is a delicious parsley-rich omelette popular across the Middle East. Unlike the classic French omelette, parsley is the star of the show; the eggs are there to hold everything together. Aajeh are fried, simple, and delicious. I love aajeh so much, I stole convinced my mom to give me her traditional aajeh pan from Aleppo. The pan has small dimples/craters that allow you to make individual aajeh fritters. As far as I’m aware, no other city in Syria (or the Middle East for that matter) prepares aajeh this way. Most recipes call for frying the aajeh as a large disk in a non-stick skillet.

Today I’m going to feature the Aleppan variation that I learned from my mom. If you want to prepare individual fritters, but your mom doesn’t have a special aajeh pan you could steal, you can make free-form fritters by carefully ladling spoonfuls of aajeh mix into a non-stick skillet lined with oil. Alternatively, the Danish/Dutch have popular pancake (aebleskiver/poffertjes, respectively) that are cooked in a similar pan. You can find them on Amazon.

mise en place
mise en place
fresh eggs
fresh eggs
whisked
whisked
aajeh fix-ins
aajeh fix-ins: featuring parsley
Mom’s aajeh pan
Mom's aajeh pan
weekend mornings
weekend mornings
aajeh عجة
aajeh عجة

Aajeh

yields ~6 servings

Components

  • 6-8 eggs
  • 1 bunch parsley, finely chopped
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 medium yellow onion, grated
  • 1 tsp dried mint
  • 1 tsp Aleppo pepper
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • olive oil, for pan-frying
  • salt, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. Grate the onions making sure to squeeze out some of the excess water.
  2. Lightly whisk the eggs until the yolks and egg whites are combined.
  3. Mix all the ingredients together.
  4. Place an aajeh pan or a non-stick skillet over medium heat.
  5. Line the bottom of the pan with a thin layer of olive oil.
  6. Once the oil barely begins to shimmer, begin ladling spoonfuls of the aajeh mix.
  7. Cook 2-4 minutes on each side (depending on how big you made your aajeh and how high your heat is. Repeat until aajeh mix is finished.
  8. Transfer the fried aajeh to a plate lined with paper towels to absorb the excess oil.

Note: The Danish/Dutch have popular pancake (aebleskiver/poffertjes, respectively) that are cooked in a similar pan. You can find them on Amazon.

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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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happiness
empty bowl of soup