I have a long, checkered history of ingredient stalking. My cupboard holds the sad detritus of a dozen hopeful moments, standing in the aisle of an ethnic grocery, imagining how the foreign foodstuff might be fashioned into a dish of transporting deliciousness.
At home, without a recipe or a plan, the packages gather dust.
Last week, as I parked behind Sinbad Market, the Middle Eastern grocery at 2896 Delaware Ave. in Kenmore, I knew it would be different. I was getting professional help from Faith Gorsky, a food writer and photographer who grew up in West Seneca before marrying Mike, whose family is Syrian. That led her to learn the intricacies of Middle Eastern cuisine in Damascus at the side of her Syrian mother-in-law.
Gorsky has been back to the Middle East to eat, cook and research its cuisines firsthand four more times. She shares experiences and recipes on her food blog, anediblemosaic.com. Several months ago, she released “An Edible Mosaic” (Tuttle, 144 pages, $24.95), her first cookbook.
Turning its pages, filled with clear explanations of the secrets of Middle Eastern ingredients and flavors, as well as loads of detailed photographs, gave me hope. So I agreed to meet Faith and Mike at the grocery, whose shelves, freezers and cold cases hold one of the area’s broadest arrays of Middle Eastern groceries.
It was time to get freekeh.
As Gorsky explained, the box I pointed to held kernels of young wheat, harvested before it’s fully mature and loaded with vitamins. The grain is roasted, sometimes over open fire, and dried for storage. As it turns out, freekeh is another ancient food that is now hip among whole grain fans.
“It has this wonderful, smoky, toasty flavor that’s really hard to come by,” Gorsky said. “It’s easy to cook, with a 30-minute soak, and it’s typically served with chicken.”
I saw the pomegranate molasses and sighed. I own two unopened bottles.
“It adds a complex, sweet-tart flavor to a variety of dishes, like muhumarra, a red-pepper spread,” said Gorsky. It shows up as an unexpected deliciousness intensifier in a casserole called kowaj, made with ground beef or lamb plus zucchini or eggplant, and simple enough for an after-work dinner. “This makes an average weeknight dinner special,” she said.
Pomegranate molasses also appears in Gorsky’s recipe for cauliflower meat sauce. “In Damascus, our favorite falafel vendor uses it as a secret ingredient,” along with the chickpea patties and salad fixings, she said.
She was looking for a cake of tamarind pulp, the same ingredient used in Asian, Indian and Mexican cuisines, because of the wonderful drink it makes. “You let it soak overnight, cook it and strain it, then sweeten it. It makes the most refreshing drink ever, almost lemony, but with a deeper, more complex flavor.”
I picked up an envelope of ground cardamom, and Gorsky shrugged.
“It was worth it for me to buy a small jar of the ground spice because I use it frequently,” she said. It’s standard in Turkish coffee and in lots of savory dishes, including biryanis and other rice pilafs.
But buy as little ground cardamom as you can, because it loses its flavor quickly, she suggested. (Sinbad has an assortment of bulk spices sold by weight.) “You’d be better off getting whole cardamom and grinding them as you go,” she said, even though whole cardamom has to be hulled before it’s ground.
Another jar of ground spice was labeled “mahlab.”
Gorsky explained that it’s the kernels of the St. Lucie cherry, with an almond-cherry flavor. Like cardamom, where possible buy the whole spice and grind it yourself as needed, or buy small amounts of the ground variety.
“This is your secret ingredient for cookies, cakes or quickbreads,” Gorsky said. “I put a pinch of this in and it enhances it, gives added richness and makes the cherry flavor pop. I never make anything cherry now without it, Middle Eastern or not.”
While still in the spice aisle, I picked up a container of “shawarma spice” mixture, because I’m a big fan of the classic Middle Eastern sandwich of shaved spiced meat in a pita.
Gorsky’s recipe for shawarma spice has 11 different spices I’d have to measure out. I am cheap and lazy, therefore my interest.
Good shortcut? I asked.
“Not if you can help it,” she said. Mixes can give you similar flavors, but not the real thing, she said. They have different formulas, the quality of the ingredients is unknown, and you don’t know how long it’s been on the shelf, getting duller by the day.
“Make the mix yourself,” she said. “It makes a huge difference.” A big batch is no more work than a small one and could keep you in shawarma for months.
I was getting hungry, and I imagined I could smell fresh toasting pita bread.
“What’s orange blossom water for?” I asked, trying to distract myself.
Like rose water, orange blossom water is used in a wide swath of Middle Eastern sweets, like baklavas, puddings and sesame fudge, or halwa, she said. “It’s cooked into a syrup, then used to sweeten sweets. You’d use these the same way you’d use vanilla extract, a half teaspoon or teaspoon per batch.”
We gave the cashier our purchases to ring up. As we headed out, I realized that the smell wasn’t my imagination: Fresh pita bread was being baked in the back of the store. A man was putting pizza-sized discs of dough into a clay-lined oven similar to an Indian tandoor and pulling out flatbreads bubbled and charred in spots.
A plastic bag of four, steamy with the heat of the warm bread, cost $3. It’s fragrant, supple and practically addictive, but it only retains its fresh characteristics for a day. I’ll have to go back.
Roasted Green Wheat
with Chicken (Freekeh bil Dajaj)
Preparation Time: 10 minutes, plus 30 minutes
to soak the wheat
Cooking Time: 40 minutes, plus 10 minutes
to let the wheat sit after cooking
1¼ cups roasted green wheat (freekeh)
3 tablespoons clarified butter (or 1 tablespoon
unsalted butter and 1 tablespoon canola oil)
2 tablespoons pine nuts or blanched almonds
1 onion, finely diced
1½ teaspoons 9 Spice Mix, divided
2 bay leaves
1¼ teaspoons salt, divided
2¼ cups boiling low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast,
sliced crosswise into ½-inch thick slices
Plain yogurt (optional, for serving)
Sort through the wheat to remove any irregular pieces, small stones, or pieces of dirt, and then rinse with cold water in a colander. Soak the wheat in cold water for 30 minutes, skimming off any debris that rises to the surface and changing the water two or three times; drain.
Add the butter and pine nuts to a medium heavy saucepan; over medium heat, stir until nuts are golden brown, about 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer nuts to a small bowl; set aside.
Add the onion to the same saucepan and cook until softened and just starting to brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the wheat, 1 teaspoon 9 Spice Mix, bay leaves, and 1 teaspoon salt, and cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in the boiling chicken broth or water, turn the heat up to high.
Once mixture reaches a rolling boil, stir the wheat a stir, cover the saucepan, turn the heat down to low, and cook until tender, about 20 to 30 minutes; the water should be mostly absorbed, with the wheat slightly moist. Remove from heat and let it sit with the lid on for 10 minutes, then fluff with a fork.
While the wheat cooks, cook the chicken. Sprinkle the remaining ½ teaspoon 9 Spice Mix and the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt onto the chicken. Heat the oil in a large skillet over moderately high heat; add the chicken and sauté until fully cooked and lightly browned on both sides, about 4 to 5 minutes.
To serve, arrange the chicken on top of the wheat on a large platter or bowl, then sprinkle with pine nuts. Serve immediately, with plain yogurt if desired.
Meat and Vegetable Casserole with Pomegranate (Kowaj)
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Cooking Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, diced
1 pound lean ground lamb or beef
1 and 3/4 teaspoons salt, divided
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound tomatoes, peeled and diced
1 pound potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 pound marrow squash, zucchini, or
eggplant, cubed (peeled if using eggplant)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1/2 cup water
1/4 bunch fresh parsley leaves, minced
Flatbread or rice with toasted
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat; add the onion and sauté until starting to soften, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the meat, 1 teaspoon salt, and the pepper; turn the heat up to high and cook until the meat is fully browned and the onion is tender, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally and using a wooden spoon to break up the meat. Add the garlic and tomato and cook 5 minutes more.
Transfer the meat mixture to a medium-sized casserole dish along with the potato and marrow squash (or zucchini or eggplant); stir to combine.
Whisk together the tomato paste, pomegranate molasses, water, and remaining salt in a small bowl; drizzle on top of the casserole.
Cover the casserole dish and bake until the vegetables are tender, about 60 to 75 minutes.
Stir in the fresh parsley leaves and serve with Arabic ﬂatbread or Rice with Toasted Vermicelli Noodles.
Find more recipes at the Hungry for More Blog.