Middle Eastern

Basic hummus: Basically wonderful

A Welcome Change: Remember those veggie trays with a big tub of ranch in the middle? The ones with lots of raw broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower? While I still see those at social gatherings from time to time, I’m much happier about what seems to have replaced them: hummus served with pita, chips, and crackers. I consider this a major improvement because raw crucifereous vegetables make my face itchy. Hummus, on the other hand, makes my face smile. I’ve got a real love for legumes in pretty much any form, and hummus has been a favorite of mine since my mother introduced it to me as a kid.

Here’s the problem: the store bought stuff (sorry, Sabra Salad) just pales in comparison to what you can make at home. Even if you go the shortcut route by using canned garbanzos, the flavor will almost always be better than the stuff that’s been sitting on the cooler shelf at the grocery store. I’m a big fan of fats, particularly natural fats, and getting to put more tahini (sesame seed paste) in the hummus to make it richer and creamier is a simple luxury I can afford. The good men behind Jerusalem offer a fantastic “basic hummus” recipe whose humble name belies how outstanding it is.

Beans soaking

Garbanzo beans soaking

A Soak in the Cold Tub: Like many recipes involving uncooked legumes, you must soak the garbanzos overnight. I’d been holding on to this bag of Rancho Gordo beans for a couple of months with the intention of using them for hummus. I’d read about how great and fresh this brand of beans and products from Napa is for a while and finally bought a bag at their outpost in the Ferry Building in San Francisco. While they seemed pretty good, I couldn’t tell a major difference between them and the German brand I used when I made this recipe previously. However, I want to order some beans from Ranch Gordo because they have so many heirloom varieties that I’ve never even heard of and would love to try.

Beans cooking without water A Brief Sauté Before the Boil: After draining the soaked beans, you saute them over high heat for a few minutes with a bit of baking soda. Don’t worry, you won’t taste the baking soda in the finished product. After that, you add the water and bring it to a boil, cooking the beans for 20-40 minutes. While they cook you should periodically skim off any skins and foam that float to the surface. I am not sure why it’s important to remove these skins but perhaps it contributes to a silkier hummus.

Beans in processorNow for the Fun Part: I love watching disparate parts come together as a unified whole in a food processor. It’s oddly mesmerizing and I enjoy watching it the same way I sometimes like staring in the oven to watch things bake. After blending the beans on their own until it becomes a stiff paste, you then add the tahini, lemon juice, garlic, salt, and a bit of ice water. The recipe calls for 6.5 tbsps of water but I added two more because I thought it was a tad too thick.

Other ingredients

The supporting players

Mouth Luxury: All of the tahini that this recipe uses really pays off. It creates the best mouthfeel without the hummus being overly rich or even oily. Try the recipe yourself. You will thank yourself for going to the extra trouble. I served mine with some grocery store pita and it was lovely, but I’d like to have it with better quality pita next time. Eat it plain or top it with a bit of pine nuts, olive oil, and paprika like I did. Either way, it is outstanding and I am looking forward to trying the other variations offered in the cookbook. It might be a while until I write about that but stay tuned!

Basic hummus

Basic hummus

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Roasted chicken with clementines* and arak

Spoiler Alert—This Dish Underwhelmed Me: I wish I could start by saying, “Keep reading, this is an amazing recipe!” but the truth is that it gets a big “Meh” and shrug of the shoulders. I should have known that a recipe calling for arak, a Lebanese liquor similar to ouzo or Pernod (both of which are substitutions the cookbook says you can make), would not necessarily go over well with me. I have come to like anise flavors a bit in small doses but the heavy-duty anise flavors provided by ouzo and the like totally repulse me. Not my thing. However, I imagine that there are people out there who would really enjoy this dish, it just so happens that my husband Andy and I both agree that it’s not a do-over recipe for us.

Arak

Arak, a Middle Eastern anise-flavored liquor. I am not into it but at least the bottle’s pretty!

First World Chicken Buying Problems: I have to start by saying that the problem I’m about to describe is a thoroughly first-world problem, but it’s a problem nonetheless. This recipe called for “1 large organic or free-range chicken, about 2.75 lb divided into 8 pieces, or the same weight in skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs.” Ok, great. (Side note: Can a 2.75 lb chicken really be called “large”?)

I ended up going to three different stores to find this. The first store had plenty of whole organic chickens, all of which were 5-6 lbs. The next store had slightly smaller organic chickens, about 4-5 lbs, and so I bought one of those in the hope that I could divide it into 8 pieces without totally butchering it (pardon the pun; is that a pun?!).

Staring hopelessly at all of those chickens that were mostly two times the weight of what I needed, I thought of the great hot dog bun scene from Father of the Bride. I didn’t want 5 lbs of chicken, I only wanted to buy 2.75 lbs pounds of chicken! Picture the absurd and disgusting sight of me ripping open the chicken packaging to divide one in half with my car keys. I wonder how long it would have taken before I was escorted out of the store.

Deciding that I didn’t want to mess up the recipe’s proportions by using too much chicken, I went to one more store in hopes that it would have the requisite amount of free-range and/or organic chicken. The recipe advised that you can also use 2.75 lbs of skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs, but there was only one package of those that weighed in at about 1.5 lbs. Not only was that not enough but it was priced at the astronomical price of $5.99/lb. Yikes!  I was afraid that using the skinless chicken thighs would result in dried out chicken so I finally opted to just use drumsticks. Three different stores in one afternoon and I finally settled on drumsticks, which I could have gone with at the first store and saved myself some trouble! I plan to roast the whole chicken I purchased at the first store in my slow cooker with this awesome-sounding recipe.

Fennel bulbs marinating

Fennel bulbs in the marinade

Possible Reasons This Didn’t Turn Out as Well as It Might Have:

  • I skipped the hours-long or overnight marinating because I failed to read the recipe through before I started. It said that “skipping the marinating stage is also fine” but I am guessing that a longer marination would have made this much tastier. The flavors didn’t really absorb into the chicken very much and the flavor was pretty boring and one-dimensional.
  • In addition to the three stores I went to not having the right amount of chicken, none had clementines. I substituted Honey mandarins, which are gorgeous and delicious (see photo below) but I stupidly didn’t remove the seeds from them. Those seeds sort of melted into the sauce as it reduced and gave a very unwelcome punch of bitterness. Whoops. Even if that bitter flavor hadn’t been present, I still don’t think I would have really like this dish very much. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that I prefer pretty much all of the recipes from Jerusalem I’ve tried over this one.
  • The fennel bulbs are really pretty but they didn’t cook fully. They would have been a much nicer accompaniment if they had been able to cook a little longer. It might be a good idea to take the chicken out of the pan when it’s done and set it aside while the fennel bulbs go back in and cook for 10-15 minutes more. The insides of the bulbs were barely softened and it was not fun to try to bite through them.
  • Maybe the substitution of drumsticks for thighs was a bad call. I have no clue.
Honey tangerines

Honey mandarins

Not for Me But Maybe It’s For You: Digging around online about this particular recipe, it seems to me that people are slightly less enthusiastic about this recipe than they are for other recipes from Jerusalem, but there are plenty of people who really liked it. Perhaps you might be one of them. In that case, here are a few places you can find the recipe, or slightly adapted versions of it, to try:

Chicken marinatingI Enjoyed Looking at this Dish More Than Eating It: Sometimes a dish is super homely yet super-delicious. Sometimes a dish is like a supermodel: really beautiful to look at but there’s not much going on beyond looks. That’s how this dish was for me. I am not exaggerating when I say that I enjoyed looking at and photographing it more than I enjoyed eating it. The bright yellows and oranges were beautiful. At least it sort of redeemed itself visually!

Roasted chicken in pan

Supermodel Chicken

Roasted chicken with clementines and arak meal

Thank goodness for the salad, basmati rice, and asparagus I made to accompany this chicken. I might have been pretty bummed about the meal had I not had these other things to enjoy.

 

 

Tahini cookies: Taking matters into my own hands

Tahini Tales: Hummus was my gateway dish to tahini. I really like the stuff and it’s more versatile than it might suggest when simply used as one of the ingredients in hummus. A paste of roasted sesame seeds, tahini is quite similar to nut butters in taste and also quite nutritious. One of the most compelling features of  Jerusalem: A Cookbook is the lovely stories that they tell about each recipe. For this cookie recipe, they explain how, “when it comes to food, Israelis can be very fickle” and describe how cookies were super-popular and trendy in the country a few years ago (similar to the cupcake craze, I imagine). One of the most popular types of cookies there at the time were tahini cookies. I have had tahini in the context of dessert a few times but have never made anything with it other than hummus, so these cookies sounded pretty enticing.

dry ingredients

A Crumby Situation: I followed the instructions pretty religiously but after mixing everything for even longer than I was supposed to, the dough would not form into a unified whole. The crumbs just kept moving around but wouldn’t play nice and just get along. So I decided to play around buy adding little extra spoonfuls of tahini and dashes of vanilla but it still would not form into a dough. Finally, deciding to live on the edge a bit and take matters into my own hands, I decided to add one large egg in a last-ditch attempt to get it to form. That worked perfectly! Typically, I post links to the recipe from other blogs or websites, but since I adapted this recipe so much, I’m including my adapted version of it below.

crumby dough

Well, that’s just crumby.

bonded dough

Much better. Thanks, Mr. Egg!

Recipe for Tahini Cookies (Adapted from Jerusalem: A Cookbook):

  • 2⁄3 cup / 130 g superfine sugar*
  • 2⁄3 cup / 150 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2⁄3cup / 150 g light tahini paste**
  • 1 tbsp / 14 ml vanilla extract
  • 5 tsp / 25 ml heavy cream
  • 2 cups plus 1.5 tbsp/ 270 g all-purpose flour
  • 1 large egg
  • cinnamon
  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F / 200°C. Place the sugar and butter in a stand mixer fitted with the beater attachment (or use a hand mixer) and beat on medium speed for about 1 minute, until just combined but not aerated much.
  2. With the mixer running, add the tahini, vanilla, cream, and egg, then add the flour and beat for about 1 minute or until the dough comes together.
  3. Pinch of 2⁄3 oz / 20 g of the dough and roll into a ball between your palms. Use the back of a fork to push down lightly on top of the ball so that it flattens just slightly and takes on the marks from your tines.
  4. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (you my need to bake in 2-3 separate batches, depending on the size of your baking sheet). Sprinkle a little cinammon on each cookie and then bake for 15 to 17 minutes, until golden brown.
  5. Transfer to a wire rack to cool before serving. They will keep in a sealed container for up to 10 days.

*Only have regular granulated sugar and not superfine sugar on hand? Not a problem. Check out this video from America’s Test Kitchen to learn how to make your own.

**The better-quality tahini paste that is commercially available doesn’t contain emulsifiers so you should definitely mix the tahini well before measuring it out. I use my hand mixer for this.

ready to bake

Twist on an Old Favorite: As they mention in Jerusalem, tahini is basically the local take on peanut butter in Jerusalem and the surrounding region. Therefore, I think of these cookies as a tasty spin on the classic peanut butter cookie, only more shortbread-like and significantly less sweet. Even though I added an egg to mine (not called for in the original recipe), these are very similar to shortbread in consistency and totally melt in the mouth after all of the little crumbs break up. Personally, I like the fact that they are not super sweet because, though I do enjoy sweets, a lot of desserts are just cloying for my taste.  I have a hunch that these would go very well with tea.

P.S. I found this recipe on Scribd for some other tahini cookies that have a tasty-sounding twist: incorporating almond paste and dried cherries. I might have to also try these!