All delicious and all homemade

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One of my most cherished possessions is a cookbook given to me by my great-grandma. It’s titled From The Lands of Figs and Olives and it’s a Middle Eastern cookbook filled with exotic and delicious recipes, some of which, I grew up eating. My great-grandma Mary was a beautiful, loving, petit woman and one hell of a cook. Her parents were Lebanese yet she grew up in the States. I was extremely fortunate enough to know my great-grandma as more than just a bleary memory from early childhood. She didn’t pass away until I was well into college so I spent many days at her home and in her kitchen. She always had a bowl of olives sitting on the kitchen table much like other people have a dish of nuts for snacking. She threw egg shells into the garden which my cousin and I would merrily crunch into the earth with our shoes. There was a hanging basket in the kitchen never empty for the onions and garlic that filled it waiting to be cooked into something delicious by her delicate little hands. Her refrigerator was always full (partly due to my great-grandpa’s healthy appetite, I’m sure) and there was always something yummy for us to eat. Most American families gather to feasts of fried chicken, potato salad, pasta salad, hot dogs, hamburgers, chips and dips. We had that but also sitting there among the more typical BBQ fare was a colorful bowl of tabbouleh, dolmathes, and perhaps some kibbeh. All delicious and all homemade.

Before she passed, my great-grandma gave me that blessed cookbook. Not only did she sign it and tell me she loved me but she went through it and made her own little notes on many of the recipes. Additions, substitutions, omissions…it’s all there. Her special touch on typical recipes. For a gal who grew up eating all of this food but had no idea how any of it was made, this cookbook was one of the best gifts I will ever receive. My paternal grandmother, Mary’s daughter, continued the tradition of creating these beautiful dishes and now I’m doing my best to perfect them in order to keep them in the family. It’s also been a lot of fun to share these dishes with friends who have never tried them, let alone heard of them. Most recently, I made tabbouleh and dolmathes for a holiday party with co-workers. Most of them had never tasted these and all were pleasantly surprised.

I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out how to describe the taste of the dolmathes. There’s nothing else like them. Most people have probably eaten stuffed cabbage leaves but the taste of the actual grape leaf is completely different. It’s typical to find grape leaves sold in jars packed with a vinegar brine. This brine adds a very nice tang to the otherwise rich dolmathes filled with lamb. Mixed together in the dark chamber of your mouth, these flavors make your eyes pop and simultaneously melt closed with satisfaction. The tabbouleh is vibrant with lemon, herbs, juicy tomatoes, and crunchy cucumber. If dolmathes are like tea time, tabbouleh is cocktail hour.

Listed below are the recipes for both dishes as written in my cookbook with my great-grandma’s notes included. Which ingredients are original and which are my grandma’s secret touches? That’s for me to know and for you to enjoy.

Tabbouleh

Serves 6-8

1/4 cup cracked wheat (bulgur wheat)

2 medium ripe but firm tomatoes, diced

1 cup chopped scallions

2 large bunches of parsley, stems removed and leaves chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves

1/2 cucumber, diced

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

salt and pepper to taste

Place the bulgur in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand 15-20 minutes or until the wheat is tender and no longer crunchy. Drain, pressing well, in a colander, then place in a mixing bowl.

Add the remaining ingredients, mix thoroughly.

This salad should be made one day in advance, ideally. The longer it sits and the flavors meld together the better it gets.

Dolmathes

1 lb ground lamb

2 cans tomato sauce

1 cup white rice

salt and pepper

4-5 pieces of raw chicken drumsticks, thighs, or wings

1 jar of grape leaves

1 lemon

Place the chicken pieces on the bottom of a medium stock pot.

Combine the lamb, rice, and tomato sauce in a mixing bowl. Add some salt and pepper. Placing the smooth side of the grape leaf down, spoon 1 tablespoon full of the mix onto the leaf. Fold up the sides and roll up the leaf, enveloping the lamb mix. Place the rolled leaf seam side down into the pot on top of the chicken. Repeat with remaining grape leaves and lamb mix, piling them up in the pot. Add 1/2 inch-1 inch of water to the pot. Place a plate, face down, into the pot on top of the leaves to weigh them down. Bring the water to a boil, lower the heat, cover the pot and let the dolmathes simmer and steam until done, 45-min to 1 hour. Cut one open to check for doneness. Squeeze the juice of 1 lemon over the dolmathes in the pot and serve.

Note: I’ve had many dolmathes served cold and I’m not a big fan. Great-grandma always served hers hot right out of the pot and the heat made them almost melt in your mouth.

Frenchness and European allure

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It’s Christmas cookie time! I wasn’t actually planning on making cookies this year. I didn’t want sweets sitting around the house tempting me to eat them. I know it’s really hard to be nice to your body during the holidays when there are so many naughty treats to be had. Sometimes I think, “Meh, life’s too short. More cake, please!” But then I realize it’s so much more important to have a healthy body in the long run. So I decided not to make any sweets for Christmas. Then I read an article in the Tribune about these delightful little cookies and I just had to make them. They appealed to me for two reasons. One, they didn’t have frosting, chocolate or boat loads of sugar. When I think Christmas cookies I think of sugar cookies shaped like snowmen with colored frosting piled on. Those are yummy but just a little too much sometimes. Secondly, they’re French cookies. Being a Francophile, I was instantly sold on the Frenchness and European allure. Let’s make Christmas fancy this year and bake French cookies! Somehow, the fact that they’re from a French recipe makes me not want to gorge myself on them but rather, enjoy a single cookie with my morning espresso or my afternoon tea. They’re refined cookies. They’re French.

Baking these simple cookies made me think of the year in high school when I thought it would be a good idea to make a dozen different homemade cookies for a dozen different people and deliver them in pretty tins. I collected my recipes (a few of them from my grandma’s 1963 Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book) and started baking on a Saturday  afternoon. Twelve hours later, in the middle of the night, with my legs aching so bad I think I shed actual tears, I finished the damn cookies. Everything but Christmas cheer went into those tins. I resolved never to do that again.

This baking experience was quite a bit more cheerful, I must say. And the cookies are fantastic. They look like Christmas (thanks to the star-shaped cookie cutter) and they smell and taste like Christmas (thanks to the vanilla paste and cinnamon). Vanilla paste, by the way, is my new obsession. I had never even considered it before. The pies I made for Thanksgiving suggested vanilla paste so I gave it a try. If you haven’t used it as a substitute for vanilla extract yet I highly recommend it.

My Christmas cookie time has come and gone. I took a dozen to share with my co-workers today and Kevin has mostly eaten the rest of them. There are a few left that I will most likely enjoy with my evening tea tonight and my morning latte tomorrow. Below is the recipe I copied from the Tribune website. It’s easy to follow and worth the effort. If you’re looking for a little holiday treat with a French flair bake up a batch of these petites étoiles. Joyeux Noël!

Christmas sables (Sables de Noel)

Prep: 1 hour

Chill: 3 hours

Bake: 10-15 minutes per batch

Makes: About 5 1/2 dozen 2-inch cookies

Adapted from Jacquy Pfeiffer’s “The Art of French Pastry.” The amount of egg called for is equivalent to about 3 tablespoons beaten egg.

2 1/3 cups flour (300 grams)

1 cup almond flour, skinless (100 grams)

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

7 ounces butter (French style, 82 percent fat), softened

2 teaspoons vanilla extract or paste

3/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons granulated sugar (150 grams)

3/8 teaspoon sea salt

1 extra-large egg minus 4 teaspoons (40 grams)

Egg wash, see note

Sift the flours; combine them in a bowl. Add cinnamon; mix with a fork.

Place butter, vanilla, sugar and salt in bowl of stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix 2 minutes on medium speed. Add egg; mix another 2 minutes. Scrape bottom of bowl with a rubber spatula; make sure all ingredients are mixed together.

Add dry ingredients; mix just until dough comes together. Scrape down bowl and paddle. Beat again just until dough holds together. Do not overbeat, or you will activate the gluten in the flour and the dough will be rubbery. Scrape dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap. Divide in half. Press each half gently until it is about 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick. Wrap each half airtight; refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight to allow flour to absorb the water in the dough. This will make the dough much more stable and easier to roll out. Dough can be refrigerated up to 5 days.

Remove half the dough from the refrigerator. Cut piece in half; re-wrap remaining dough and return to refrigerator. Let dough sit at room temperature 5 minutes. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Position rack in middle of oven. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Lightly dust work surface with flour. Roll out room-temperature dough 3/16-inch thick. Cut into shapes with cookie cutters; place on parchment-lined baking sheets.

Brush tops of each cookie lightly with egg wash; take care it doesn’t drip down the sides of the cookies. Let sit 10 minutes; apply a second layer of egg wash. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, reversing pan front to back halfway through baking, until cookies are golden brown throughout. The low oven temperature will allow all of the water to evaporate, resulting in very flaky cookies. Cookies will keep for 1 month in a tin or airtight container.

Hearty bowl of brown rice

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It’s freezing here in Chicago today. I took the long way home from work to make a pit stop at the library. With the weather getting colder and colder it’s important I have a good book to read since I’m spending less time outside. By the time I got home, I walked in the door with half of my body feeling ice cold and needing something to warm me up. I was also extremely hungry since I had just left work. Thankfully, I always have our freezer stocked with brown rice and frozen veggies. I’m kind of obsessed with the frozen microwaveable brown rice from Trader Joe’s. Is there a better way to get fast, perfectly cooked brown rice? I highly doubt it. When I’m making a stir fry, I microwave a couple of pouches while I sauté up any meat or vegetables in the wok and I throw it in. So easy and tasty. Sometimes I will add some butter and sugar and lots of cinnamon to a serving of the brown rice and eat it for breakfast along with my tea. Other times I throw in some quick microwaved vegetables and eat it for a snack or lunch.

I wasn’t a kid who grew up eating a lot of rice. Grandma probably never made it because cooking rice perfectly can be a little tricky and if it comes out bad, it’s bad. Actually, I do remember her making Rice a Roni once in a while but those were almost fool proof. So I basically only ever had rice when we would order Chinese food from the local joint down the street.  Or at the mall. There was always that Chinese place in the food court at the mall. I remember the first time I ever had brown rice. It was at a P.F. Chang’s in San Diego. The texture was like nothing else I had ever had. I loved it! I tried making brown rice once in college. I was just beginning to appreciate good food and cooking at the time and I felt like a failure when the rice turned out tacky and overdone. Sadly, I never tried cooking brown rice again. Why, you ask? Once again, we return to that Trader Joe. Once I found the frozen brown rice at Trader Joe’s I never felt the need to make my own brown rice again. I’m not too heartbroken about it.

So when I got home I changed into my sweats (or as I like to affectionately call them, my “fat pants”), popped a pouch of brown rice in the microwave, nuked some frozen peas, added a little butter and pepper and sat down to enjoy my warm, quick snack/lunch. All in under 5 minutes. I totally enjoy planning menus and cooking a special dinner but I hardly ever want to spend time making myself some lunch. This hearty bowl of brown rice and peas was the perfect fix for my cold muscles, empty belly and lazy bones.

Little bite of heaven

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Here I am writing about sugar again. Tis the season, I suppose. Except this sugar fix has nothing to do with the holidays. Well, maybe it does in my own twisted way. I was watching one of my favorite holiday movies on Sunday. Can I get a hells yeah for Love Actually? Man, I love that movie. It makes me laugh and makes me cry. That scene where Emma Thompson is standing in her bedroom listening to Joni Mitchell gets me every time. I also got some sad news regarding grandma this weekend. Her health isn’t too good and I was feeling a bit downcast. Perhaps it was the combination of watching an English film and the need for some comfort food that made me remember I had saved one of my favorite candy bars for a rainy day. When I say I saved it I really mean that I hid it. Living with Kevin has taught me to hide any yummy food that I don’t want to disappear overnight. He eats everything and he finishes it fast. I keep our jar of peanut butter hidden because he will devour an entire jar in a couple of days. It’s really quite hilarious.

There’s a little shop in Chicago that sells all things cherished in Britain and Ireland. It’s called Jolly Posh and we go there every so often to stock up on our favorite treats. From tea to bangers they have just about anything to eat you can find in the U.K. We don’t leave there without a handful of candy bars. I think I’ve now tried every candy they have available. My absolute favorite has become the Nestle Drifter bars. Delicate little bars consisting of crispy wafers covered in chewy caramel and dipped in chocolate. I know there must be an American candy bar similar to this English treasure but I can’t put my finger on exactly what. I think it’s the caramel that make this bar so special. It’s unlike the caramel you’d find in a Snickers or Twix. It’s more like the caramel you find on the Samoa Girl Scout cookies. It’s chewy and buttery sweet. It’s delicious. If you ever get the chance to eat one of these amazing little bars, take it. Take it and run with it!

I was sitting there watching Love Actually and thinking about my grandma and I realized I had hidden away a Drifter bar. I snuck away, pulled my Drifter out of its hiding place and savored every single bite. I didn’t even tell Kevin I had one. I didn’t want to share! Haha. That’s terrible of me but I’m sure he understands. When I’m feeling sad I don’t always have a big appetite but I rarely walk away from a little bite of heaven that will lift my spirits if just for a minute.