Author Faye Levy, the chief food columnist for the Jerusalem Post Magazine, has devoted her career to educating people about Middle Eastern cuisine. She is also the author of a new cookbook, "Feast From the Mideast," which features more than 250 recipes.
We asked her to take our Chef on a Shoestring challenge to create a three-course meal for four on our budget of $30.
Levy's cookbook focuses on the biblical lands of the Middle East: Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Jordan, Cyprus, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. She writes, "The Middle East is a bridge between three continents and was one of the chief cradles of civilization. At its heart is the Fertile Crescent, an ancient agricultural region extending from the Tigris and Euphrates basin in Iraq to the Mediterranean coast and the Nile River valley. Dishes were modified based on the availability of spices imported by Arab merchants, who also spread their culture and cuisine."
She says the cultural differences in the region influence the dishes of certain areas. In addition to climate, available foods and history, religious faith (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) has affected the development of certain dishes and dietary practices.
Levy writes in her book, "Observant Muslims and Jews prohibit pork from their tables. Muslims also avoid wine, while Jews do not eat shellfish. On the calendar of Middle Eastern Christians there are numerous meatless days, which has led to an extensive repertoire of vegetarian entrees."
Entrees in the Middle East are flavored more often with cilantro or mint than with basil, according to Levy, and often feature sesame, cumin, cinnamon and allspice, which are used infrequently west of Greece. Although not all Middle Eastern food is spicy, Levy says black and red pepper and chiles are often used with a more liberal hand.
"The variety of spices used is a legacy of the period when the spice caravans passed through the area," she writes. "Cooks in the region do not shy away from bold flavors and exuberantly use fresh garlic and raw green onions in generous quantities."
The walnut dip calls for Aleppo pepper, which can also be found as "Near East Pepper." Levy says it is a sweet and sharp chile from the Aleppo region of Syria, with moderate heat that doesn't overpower it's fruity flavor. If you cannot find Aleppo, says Levy, you may use cayenne instead.
Faye Levy's Chef on a Shoestring menu: an appetizer of Red Pepper Walnut Dip with Pita Bread; an entrée of Mideast Minestrone; and for dessert, Figs in Fennel Syrup.
Kale: Levy calls for kale or spinach in the minestrone. You can also chard for this recipe if you like. These are all big, leafy greens. Chard is a member of the beet family. It is available year-round. Kale is a member of the cabbage family. It is also available year-round. Levy says these greens are perfect for the soup because they add a nice flavor without overpowering the other ingredients.
Fennel Seeds: Levy uses fennel seeds in the dessert to make fennel syrup. Fennel seeds are oval, greenish brown in color. They may be found whole or ground. They can be used both in sweet and savory foods. Store them in a cool, dark place for no more than six months.
Figs: Originally hailing from southern Europe, Asia and Africa, figs were thought to be sacred by the ancients; they were also an early symbol of peace and prosperity, according to "The New Food Lover's Companion." There are hundreds of varieties of figs, all having in common a soft flesh with a plenitude of tiny edible seeds. They range in color from purple-black to almost white and in shape from round to oval. Fresh figs are available from June through October. They're extremely perishable and should be used soon after they're purchased. Figs may be stored in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.
Red Pepper Walnut Dip (Mohammara)
This walnut spread from Aleppo in northern Syria, is also loved in Lebanon and Turkey. It's liberally spiced with red pepper to give it plenty of heat. Levy says when she tasted it at an Istanbul restaurant that specializes in southeast Anatolian cooking, she was immediately taken with the spread's rich texture and spicy flavor.
The dip is easy to make - simply blend all the ingredients in a food processor. It's a tasty hors d'oeuvre with fresh pita bread or pita crisps and is also a delicious sauce for grilled fish, roast chicken or kebabs. Levy also tosses it with pasta as a pesto-like sauce.
1 cup walnuts
1/3 cup bread crumbs
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses or lemon juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 package of pita bread
Grind walnuts and bread crumbs in food processor. Add oil, pomegranate molasses, sugar, cumin and paprika, and process to a slightly chunky paste. If it is too thick, add 1 or 2 tablespoons water. Transfer to a bowl. Season to taste with salt and Aleppo pepper or cayenne, adding enough to make it hot. Serve with pita bread. You may serve the pita bread whole and have everyone rip it as they eat or you can cut them into quarters.
Chef's note: The dip should be deep red, so add some paprika if you don't want a large amount of hot red pepper. If you can find Aleppo pepper or Turkish Maras pepper, they add a pleasant heat and are much less fiery than cayenne. When fresh red chiles such as red jalapenos are in season, add one or two for a good fresh touch instead of or in addition to the cayenne. Serve with fresh pita. You may quarter the pitas or serve them whole and everyone can tear a piece off.
Mideast Minestrone (Shurbat Al-Khudar)
Makes 6 first-course or 3 or 4 main-course or servings
In the Middle East hearty minestrone-like soups appear on family tables during the cooler months. Like Italian minestrone, they are composed of vegetables, legumes and either noodles or rice, and may be meat-based or vegetarian. Yet in color and flavor, the Mideastern soups are strikingly different. Instead of a pesto of basil and Parmesan, the minestrone is likely to be fragrant with cilantro, mint, cumin, turmeric or cinnamon. Some people top their soups with thick, rich yogurt, while others like a tangy squeeze of lemon juice.
Chickpeas and lentils are the favorite legumes, according to Levy, but white beans are used as well, or mung beans in Persian homes. Spinach, chard or other greens appear frequently and there are always onions and often garlic. Other candidates for the minestrone pot include carrots, leeks, zucchini, celery, green beans, tomatoes, potatoes and turnips. If you like, Levy suggets frying an extra onion for garnish, as is customary in many homes, or you can stir in some Egyptian takliah.
Levy says this main-course soup is a staple in so many regions. It is balanced nutritionally, providing vegetarian protein from the beans, vitamins and minerals from the greens and filling carbohydrates from the pasta or rice. It thickens on standing, so add a little water when reheating, if necessary.
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
1 large leek, split, cleaned and sliced, or 1 additional onion
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
1 3/4 cups vegetable or chicken broth or a 14 1/2-ounce can or a mixture of broth and water
1 large carrot, diced
1 large boiling potato, peeled and diced (optional)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
3 or 4 small Middle Eastern pale-green squash or zucchini (about 1 pound), diced
4 to 5 ounces spinach, turnip greens or other greens (kale, chard), rinsed, large stems removed, or half a 10-ounce bag leaves of spinach or other greens, chopped (about 4 cups)
3 ounces vermicelli, spaghetti or extra-fine egg noodles, broken in 3- to 4-inch lengths (about 1 cup)
1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas (garbanzo beans) or white beans, or a 15-ounce can, drained salt and freshly ground pepper
cayenne pepper to taste
small loaf of sourdough bread, sliced
Heat oil in a large saucepan. Add onion, leek and half of parsley and cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes or until onion is soft and light golden. Add broth, 1-quart water, carrot, potato, cumin and turmeric and bring to a boil. If using a potato, add an additional cup of water. Cover and simmer over low heat for 12 to 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender.
Add squash and spinach and bring to a boil. Add pasta and simmer uncovered over medium-low heat for 3 minutes. Add chickpeas and simmer for 5 to 8 minutes or until pasta and vegetables are tender. Stir in remaining parsley. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne. Serve hot with a slice of sourdough bread.
Figs in Fennel Syrup (Khoushaf Teen)
Makes 3 to 4 servings
Figs are native to the Middle East and cooks have developed countless ways to use them, both savory and sweet. This easy dessert is inspired by Lebanese fig jam, which contains anise seeds. Instead of making jam, Levy poaches fresh figs in a light syrup with fennel seeds, which give an aroma similar to that of anise and provide a lively accent to the rich-flavored figs. You can make this easy dessert with purple-skinned or green-skinned figs. For the prettiest result, Levy suggets using some of each. The compote is also good when made with dried figs; in that case, use 1 1/2 cups water.
1 cup water
3 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
6 to 8 ounces small fresh figs (about 2 cups)
2 teaspoons lemon or lime juice or 1 tablespoon Meyer lemon juice
Mix water with sugar and fennel seeds in a heavy saucepan over low heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to a simmer. Add figs. Return to a simmer, cover and cook over low heat for 7 minutes or until figs are tender. Remove from heat and add lemon juice. Transfer figs gently to a container. Taste syrup and add more sugar if you like, stirring very gently to dissolve it. Pour syrup with the fennel seeds over figs and let cool. Refrigerate at least 1 or 2 hours before serving. Serve cold.
Chef's Note: You can make this easy dessert with purple-skinned or green-skinned figs. For the prettiest result, use some of each. The compote is also good when made with dried figs; in that case, use 1 1/2 cups water.