Exploring cuisine from the Arab world

BOOKMARK

Familiar dishes among 175 recipes

September 14, 2005|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN FOOD EDITOR

The Middle East is in the news every day, but usually the events are not happy ones. So it is refreshing to open up May S. Bsisu's The Arab Table (MorrowCookbooks, 2005, $34.95) and read about the rich culinary traditions of Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria and other predominantly Arab countries.

Some of the 175 recipes, such as the hummus, stuffed grape leaves and tomato stew, will seem familiar. Others appear unfamiliar at first, but turn out to be dishes you know (a recipe for almond cookies turned out to be almond-flavored macaroons).

Bsisu, who was born in Jordan and grew up in Lebanon, says Arab cuisine is not especially exotic, nor radically different from Greek or Turkish cuisine.

But that said, some dishes will seem stranger than others. A chicken-and-rice dish known as Fatet Dajaj, which Bsisu describes as one of the oldest in Arab cuisine, had an off-putting sour taste from the lemon-soaked bread cubes that the garlic-yogurt sauce did little to disguise. Directions in that recipe also seemed amiss by calling for baking chicken pieces 20 minutes (my chicken took at least twice as long before it was done).

Ingredients called for in the book may not be readily available in the average grocery store. Some, such as Kuwaiti spice mix, you can make yourself. A source list in the back of the book can help track down other hard-to-find items.

But there was nothing difficult about the classic hummus recipe, especially if you use canned chickpeas rather than dried. Serve it with warm pita bread for a hearty appetizer or a light meal.

Chickpea Dip (Hummus)

Makes 2 cups

2 cups dried chickpeas or three 15-ounce cans

1/4 teaspoon baking soda (for the dried chickpeas)

2 cloves garlic, mashed

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1/2 cup sesame paste (tahini)

1/2 cup fresh lemon, plus more to taste

extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling

paprika-dusted cucumber slices or pine nuts or whole cooked chickpeas for garnish

cayenne pepper for garnish

If using dried chickpeas, place them in a bowl and add water to cover by 1 inch. Add the baking soda and let soak overnight. Then drain the chickpeas and rinse them under cold running water.

Combine the chickpeas with 6 cups of water in a saucepan, and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook, skimming the foam from the surface until no more appears, about 15 minutes. Then reduce the heat, cover the pan and simmer until the beans are tender and break easily when pressed with the back of a spoon, 1 1/2 hours.

Drain, reserving the liquid, and pour the chickpeas into a large bowl of cold water. Gather a handful of chickpeas and rub them between your palms to remove their skins.

Once the surface water is covered with transparent skins, pour off the water, refill the bowl and continue to rub the chickpeas between your palms until most of the skins are removed. Drain the chickpeas thoroughly and set aside.

If using canned chickpeas, drain and rinse them 3 times. Place the chickpeas in a saucepan and add water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 1 to 2 minutes. Drain, reserving some of the liquid, and set aside.

Place the garlic and salt in a food processor and pulse 3 times. Add chickpeas, sesame paste and lemon juice and pulse until the mixture is thick and creamy.

Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the sides of the bowl. Then process the paste until it has the consistency of sour cream, about 5 minutes.

Add a little of the chickpea cooking liquid -- about 2 tablespoons -- if the mixture is too dry. Season to taste with additional salt and lemon juice if desired.

Spoon the hummus onto a rimmed plate or a shallow bowl and smooth it out evenly, using the back of a spoon to put the mixture out toward the edge of the plate and to create a raised border. Then use the back of the spoon to form indentations all over the hummus in which olive oil can pool. Drizzle with olive oil.

Dampen your thumb, place it in paprika, then press it around the edge of the cucumber slices. Garnish the plate with the cucumbers. (Alternatively, mound pine nuts or whole chickpeas in the center of the dish.) Sprinkle the cayenne on top, and serve.

Per 1 tablespoon: 61 calories; 2 grams protein; 3 grams fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 7 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 123 milligrams sodium

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