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Let's Middle East

Let's Middle East

The Middle East, referred to as the lands around the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, expanding from the Arabian Peninsula to Iran, North Africa, and sometimes beyond, is my newfound muse.

Growing up in Colombia's Caribbean Coast, many of my friends were Jews of Israeli descent. Others were Lebanese, and others were Saudi Arabian.

I remember tasting delicious morsels, homemade pita bread, burekas, humus, and sweets pillowed in phyllo dough topped with sticky honey.

Lately, a calling to find more about my Sephardic paternal grandmother has sparked a curiosity to travel to Spain and Israel, if not in person, at least through food.

Inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi, Sami Tamimi, and Eden Grishpan, I designed these recipes for my friends and clientele in Montana.

Spice it up. One of the many reasons I love Middle Eastern food is because it uses spices and herbs to enhance the flavors on every plate. Nuts, seeds, and dried fruits are often used as toppings or accompaniments.

Baharat is a mixture of aromatics and spices. In this menu, we use it to marinate the chicken for the kebobs and the vegetables.

Get yourself a bunch of 4-ounce mason jars, and start your spice blend collections.

There are many versions of baharat, but here we use Grinshpan's recipe. 1/4 cup toasted coriander seeds, ground; 2 tablespoons of toasted cumin seed, ground; 2 teaspoons ground clove; 2 teaspoons black pepper; 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamon; and two teaspoons ground nutmeg. Place all of the spices in a small mason jar, give it a little shake, and store it near your stove, so it's always available.

Chicken & Vegetable Kebabs

1 lb, boneless chicken thighs cut in 1" squares ( if doing a plant-base version, use eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini/squash)

2 teaspoons baharat

Salt and pepper to taste

2 TBSP olive oil

Combine the chicken ( or vegetables) baharat, salt and pepper, and olive oil in a medium bowl and allow it to marinate for at least an hour.

Meantime, soak four bamboo skewers in water for about 20 minutes.

Divide the chicken or veggies in the skewers, threading each piece through the center.

Heat your BBQ grill until it is nice and hot. Grill chicken for 4 minutes, flip, and grill for another three.

Remove from grill and serve with labneh, roasted carrots, and farro with lentils. Recipes follow.

Labneh- this creamy, thick, and tangy yogurt has become one of my best friends. It is easy to make and stores well for days. I dress it up many times with cilantro, citrus, parsley, olive oil. I love topping it with Za'Atar, sesame seed, crushed nuts of orange, lemon, or lime zest.

1- 32 ounce whole milk yogurt

1 TBSP freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 TBSP Kosher Salt

I have to be honest to say that I have made labneh without the lemon juice, and it was still outstanding. I usually don't have a cheesecloth handy. Who does? So I used paper towels, and it worked pretty well too.

Place the yogurt in the bowl and mix in the lemon juice and the salt.

Take a medium-size bowl and a fine sieve that fits the bowl. Then take a good amount of paper towels, have at least 3 layers, and place it over the sieve. Add the yogurt so it fits nicely, and then cover with another couple of layers. Place the bowl in the fridge for at least 24 hours. Taste, and if it needs a little more flavor, squeeze more lemon or add more salt. Use within two weeks ( it won't last that long, believe me).

Roasted Carrots with Cumin-Cinnamon

Did I tell you my favorite spices start with a "C"? As I mentioned, I have all my spices and blends in 4-ounce mason jars in the drawers next to my stove. They are always handy.

I take 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, 1 of cumin, and 1 of Kosher Salt, mixt it, and use it to flavor my carrots.

I don't peel the carrots; just scrub them clean. If they are too broad, I half them lengthwise.

6 long and skinny carrots, or 3 broad ones, halved lengthwise

Pixie Dust mix of cinnamon and cumin

2 TBSP of olive oil

Heat oven to 400.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Blend pixie dust with olive oil and spread over carrots.

Roast for about 20 minutes, or until you see bottoms are getting chard.

Spread labneh, top with carrots, a little more olive oil, and black sesame seeds on a plate.

Cinnamon Farro & Lentils

I love my Timeless Food family. Their pearl farro cooks as quickly as rice, and I know that I can blend my lentils with the farro, and in about 20 minutes, I have an al dente protein-dense dish to serve with the kebobs, or on its own.

1/2 cup farro, rinsed

1/2 cup DePuy Lentils, rinsed

1 TBSP olive oil

1 3/4 cups of water

1/2 cinnamon stick

1 clove of garlic, pressed

1 Teaspoon Kosher Salt

I prepare this mix as I would rice. They both cook at a very similar pace, and if not, I just give it another minute or so.

I first add the oil to the pot, and when it is hot, I add the garlic. Once I catch a whiff of the garlic, I add the farro and lentils and saute, as you would a pilaf. I add the salt and the cinnamon, and then the water.

I've found out that if you cook in a non-stick, you usually need a bit less water. If you are using a Dutch oven or a Caldero like I do, I may end up adding a bit more water.

Give it a nice stir, and let it be.

Once you see that the moisture is evaporating, cover.

It usually takes about 20-22 minutes from start to finish.

If you have raisins, dates, or dried figs, add them to the mixture before putting the lid on. Do not stir until you are ready to serve. The high sugar content may burn them a bit.

Enjoy in good company.

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