Mouna Kabalan might not always do it for herself, but she'll cook "the old time stuff" for her family.
Her roster of classic Lebanese recipes, learned at her mother's side in the mountain village of Douma, has gained a third generation of American fans. The dishes include chunks of beef, scented with allspice and stewed with fava or kidney beans and served with rice.
"My grandchildren love this dish, too," said Kabalan, The News' September Cook of the Month. "Because nobody makes it like they used to make it a long time ago."
Kabalan, who came to the United States in 1971, settled down in Buffalo and raised four children while operating a Hertel Avenue deli. The children are grown and gone, but they have produced a crop of 16 grandchildren who rely on her Lebanese cuisine skills for holidays.
The menu usually includes roasted leg of lamb -- "I need two of them, because I have a big family," Kabalan said. There's usually ham as well, with Kabalan's honey mustard glaze, bathed in beer and orange juice. "The children love it the way I make it," she said.
Mashed potatoes and vegetables usually make the table, along with traditional Lebanese salads like tabouli, with its parsley, tomatoes and cracked wheat, the roasted eggplant spread baba ganouj, and hummus, the pan-Levantine chickpea-and-sesame-paste favorite.
Fattoush is usually there, too. It's a salad of parsley, mint, tomatoes and onions that's driven into the tastiness stratosphere by its other main ingredient: freshly toasted pita bread.
Just-tossed fattoush, tangy with lemon juice and enriched with olive oil, manages to hit crunchy, juicy and tangy with every bite. It's the kind of salad where you start eyeing the bowl and your co-diners' plates while you munch, instantly calculating the odds for seconds. Crouton lovers might make it for the crunch alone.
Unlike many salads, timing is crucial to fattoush. Like waiters at fancy restaurants making Caesar salads at tableside, fattoush benefits from instant delivery. "You have to make it and eat it," said Kabalan. "If you leave it in the fridge for a couple hours, the bread gets soggy. It's delicious when the bread crunches in your mouth."
So get all the ingredients ready, if you're making it as part of a meal, and mix it together at the last second. If you like, you can use two spoons to toss it, but that's not how Kabalan does it.
"Usually, this kind of dish, you want to use your hands," she said.
Preparations for the dish come in two main parts: cut up vegetables, and make the pita chips. One step Kabalan insisted on was including some stem when you chop up the parsley. She chopped an inch or two of stem, in pieces about an eighth of an inch long, besides chopping the leaves.
"If all you have is leaves, you won't taste the parsley when you crunch it," said Kabalan. "You have to have a little bit from the bone here."
There are variations in Lebanese fattoush, Kabalan said. In city settings, fattoush would usually be made of whole leaves of parsley and mint. "They chop the tomatoes big and the onion big" as well, said Kabalan.
But in Buffalo, feeding children and others who didn't enjoy the foliage, more chopping was needed. "Because we have children and grandchildren, we chop it so children don't choke on it," said Kabalan, who is widowed. "It's more safe for the older and the younger."
What hasn't changed is the cornerstone of the dish, toasted pita. Bread that's a little dried out and past its prime is easier to toasts.
Take the thin, durable pocket pitas and separate the two sides, then toast them on your oven's racks.
"When you put it in the oven, you have to stay next to it," or it'll burn, Kabalan warns. "You can't leave it and go elsewhere in your house. You need to pay attention to it."
Don't crumble the dry, toasted sheets in your fist, either -- the pieces will be too small. Instead, snap them into silver dollar-sized flakes.
Another Lebanese classic that's part of Kabalan's daily diet is yogurt, which she makes once or twice a week. Drained overnight in the refrigerator, it becomes lebneh, a tangy, rich spread with a consistency between sour cream and cream cheese.
Her yogurt-making process is a simple affair. Kabalan heats up milk, adds starter yogurt, stirs, covers it, and lets the pot sit on the counter, with a blanket around it to hold in the warmth. Every time she makes a batch, she takes out a small jar full before she drains it. That jar, kept in her refrigerator, becomes the starter for the next batch.
Kabalan drizzles some olive oil over a small bowl of lebneh, and spreads it thin inside pita bread.
That and a plate of fattoush would make a terrific meal, she said. "It's light, it's healthy," Kabalan said. "It's very good in the stomach."
>Mouna Kabalan's Fattoush
3 pieces thin pocket pita bread
2 bundles of parsley
1/2 bundle of mint
3 medium-large tomatoes, chopped small, about 2 cups
1 medium onion, chopped small
1 cucumber, sliced thin
2 lemons, juiced
1/2 cup olive oil, or to taste
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
Chop tomatoes, onions, and slice cucumber.
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Tear open pita bread pieces into two thin discs each. Place pitas on oven racks until well toasted, 3 to 5 minutes.
Set pita aside and let cool. Meanwhile, chop parsley, including several inches of its stems. Chop mint leaves.
If bread is cool, break into chip-sized pieces in a large bowl. Place chopped parsley and mint on top. Add tomatoes, onion and cucumber.
Pour lemon juice and oil over the top, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Taste to see if it needs extra salt or pepper. Mix everything together and serve immediately.
Mouths to feed: From one to many, when she has company
Go-to instant meal: Lentils and riceGuilty pleasure: Half a Snickers bar