keito potato

Syrian Pistachio Ice Cream
April 1, 2012, 3:00 pm
Filed under: desserts, recipes | Tags: ,

I remember eating vanilla ice cream topped with pistachios in Damascus, in an old ice cream parlor with high ceilings and tiled walls near the Umayyad Mosque.  This pistachio ice cream recipe also comes from Syria, but has ground pistachios in the ice cream itself, instead of a topping.  Creme fraiche adds a touch of freshness and tanginess in the ice cream, instead of plain milk and cream.  You can find creme fraiche in most grocery dairy cases, even TJ’s.

I’ve adapted the recipe from Anissa Helou’s book Mediterranean Street Food, but have made two changes.   I have omitted the rose syrup because I think it tastes like cheap perfume.  I’ve also substituted brown sugar instead of white sugar for a deeper flavor.  I had a fantastic toasted-almond-brown-sugar ice cream in Jounieh, Lebanon that inspired me to pair pistachios with brown sugar as well.



2   3/4 cups whole milk

3/4 cup brown sugar

1 cup pistachios (peeled if you have the patience)

1  1/2 cups creme fraiche



Heat the milk and brown sugar in a saucepan over medium heat.  Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat.  Let cool.

Peel the pistachios.  Put the pistachios in a food processor and process until ground medium-fine.  Add the nuts and the creme fraiche to the milk mixture.  Stir to incorporate.  Pour into a tupperware container to chill fully.  Use an ice cream maker to finish, and follow the ice cream maker instructions.  

If you don’t have an ice cream maker, you can still make this.  Freeze the mixture completely in a tupperware container.  Pull it out of the freezer and use a large knife to chop the block into 1-inch squares.  Put the squares in a food processor or blender to break up the ice crystals.  Return to the tupperware to let it set.

Egyptian Lemony Red Lentil Soup
February 19, 2012, 1:41 pm
Filed under: recipes, soups | Tags: , , , , ,

The lemony red lentil soup comes from Egypt, but it’s a common soup all over North Africa and the Middle East.  I often enjoyed it as a first course when I spent time in Lebanon and Syria in the summer of 2009.  It has enough lemon juice, garlic, and cumin to be interesting, but not overpowering.  Don’t be intimidated by the amount of garlic in the recipe.  The whole cloves acquire a mellow and soft flavor when simmered as whole cloves in the soup.

This soup is made with red lentils (masoor dal), that are orange when raw, and turn goldenrod-color when cooked.  They disintegrate a bit when cooked (similar to split peas), but a quick whirr with the immersion stick blender smooths the soup out fully, pureeing the onion and whole garlic that have softened during simmering.  When the potato cubes in the soup get pureed, they soften out the texture of the soup and give it body.

It’s simple to pull together for company.  Because you puree the soup, you only have to roughly chop the onion and potatoes, and use whole garlic cloves.  Just simmer everything, then puree it all at the end.  I had friends over for lunch two days ago, and served this soup paired with olive-bread panini and mint tea.  It would also be nice with a Middle Eastern salad like fattoush or this parsley salad.


1 cup dried red lentils

2 cups roughly chopped onions

2 cups chopped potatoes

8-10 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole

5 cups water

1-2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon salt

3-6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (to taste)

salt and black pepper to taste


Wash the red lentils in several changes of water, and rinse.  Do this in the way that you wash and rinse rice.  Combine the lentils, onion, potatoes, garlic, and water in a large soup pot.  Cover, and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer until everything is tender, 15-20 minutes.  Remove from the heat.

In a small skillet on low heat, warm the oil until it is hot but not smoking.  Add the cumin, turmeric, and salt.  Cook, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes.  Take care not to scorch the spices.  Add this to the soup.

Puree the soup with an immersion stick blender until smooth.  Add the lemon juice.  Reheat gently and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Macedonian Eggplant and Chickpea Stew
October 14, 2011, 8:46 pm
Filed under: main dishes, recipes | Tags: , , ,

I’m joining the cool kids, and am beginning to learn how to grow vegetables in the backyard.  This week, a few of the eggplants look ready, so I wanted to find a delicate eggplant recipe to highlight a super-fresh vegetable pulled right from the garden. 

After perusing all of my Middle Eastern cookbooks, I happened upon this Paula Wolfert recipe from The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean.  Her long introduction to this recipe was exuberant and poetic, and I knew that if the stew made her this electric, then I would love it as well.  Paula first tasted this dish at a conference in Greece on traditional Greek food-ways, at a special Lenten meal accompanied by clerical prayers, candles, and ancient Christian music.

This dish takes some time to cook  — 2  1/2 hours in the oven, or all day in a crock pot — but is pretty easy to assemble.  The advantage of slow-cooking is that the delicate eggplant softens to melt in your mouth, and you don’t have to worry about last-minute kitchen management before supper.  I enjoyed smelling this cook all afternoon while I read textbooks in the next room.  If you like something like a French ratatouille, this is somewhat similar in terms of ingredients, but is far superior and delicate because of the slow-cooking.  The flavors have time to marry and soften. 

Note that you’ll need to plan ahead and soak your dried chickpeas overnight.  You could used canned chickpeas in a pinch, but the dried chickpeas have a better texture, and are cheaper.  Paula Wolfert says the ultimate version of this stew is achieved from baking the stew in an earthenware pot, but I think most of us don’t own clay pots, or at least not yet.  I baked mine in an enamed cast iron pot (Le Creseut) and it was lovely.

The large pepper and hot chili provide an appropriate soft echo of heat.  Along with the eggplant, I was also able to use a larger pepper and a smaller chili (jalapeno) from the garden as well.


1/2 pound chickpeas, soaked overnight

1-pound eggplant

coarse salt

1/4 cup olive oil

2 cups chopped onions

1 large green frying pepper

2  1/2 teaspoons chopped long green chili

1  1/2 teaspoons garlic

2 cups canned tomatoes with juice

1/2 cup chopped parsley

1 teaspoon oregano

1 bay leaf


Drain the chickpeas after soaking overnight.  Place in a saucepan, add fresh water to cover, bring to a boil, and simmer, covered, over low heat until half-cooked, about 45 minutes.  Set aside.

Meanwhile, peel the eggplant and cut into 1-inch cubes.  Sprinkle lightly with salt and let stand in a colander to draw off excess moisture, about 45 minutes.  Set aside.

Chop the onions.  Chop both the large pepper and small chili into small pieces.  Peel and crush the garlic with pinch of salt.  I used a mortar and pestle for this.

Preheat the oven to 300F (if baking instead of using a crock pot).

Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet.  Add the onions, frying pepper, and chili.  Stir 3 minutes.  Add the eggplant and saute without browning it, 2 more minutes.  Add the garlic, tomatoes with juice, parsley, oregano, and 1 teaspoon coarse salt.  Cook at a simmer 10 minutes, stirring often.

In a 4-quart oven-proof cast iron pot, bean pot, clay casserole, or crock pot, mix the chickpeas,  1  3/4 cups of their cooking liquid, the bay leaf, and the contents of the skillet.  Cover and bake in the oven 2  1/2 hours, or alternatively all day in the crock pot.  The aroma will be extremely fragrant, and the chickpeas very tender.  Remove the lid and bake 10 minutes more to allow excess moisture to evaporate. 

This stew is so completely satisfying that Paula Wolfert suggests that it only needs to be accompanied by dense, chewy bread.  I served it with a rice pilaf today.

Lemony Potato Stew
May 19, 2010, 6:38 pm
Filed under: main dishes, recipes | Tags: , , , , , , ,

This Mediterranean stew helped me earn a reputation in college as a cook. Madhur Jaffrey’s World of the East Vegetarian Cooking was one of my 2 cookbooks in college, and was formative in shaping my sensibility as I experimented in my tiny college apartment kitchen. This stew became a favorite, and I made it so often that my roommates affectionately called it “The Red Stuff.”

It’s a simple, earthy stew, but the simplicity is far from boring. The clean flavors have kept my friends happy over the years, and it is a great addition to a potluck. This recipe feels like an old friend, and I can’t believe I didn’t share it will all of you sooner.

I usually serve the stew over rice or bulgar pilaf, but today I poured it over a piece of toast from a rustic loaf. That made the stew seem even more homey, almost like an Italian bread soup.

I have strayed from Madhur Jaffrey’s original recipe in increasing the amounts of garlic and lemon juice.


4 medium size potatoes
6 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic
2 medium size onions
14 oz whole canned plum tomatoes
14 oz canned chickpeas
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice


Boil the potatoes in their jackets. Drain. When they are cool enough to touch, peel and roughly chop them.

Roughly chop the onions. Mince the garlic.

Grate the canned tomatoes with a cheese grater into a bowl. This is a trick that will given them a rough and rustic texture You will use both the tomatoes and their canning juice. Rinse and drain the canned chickpeas well in a colander.

Heat the oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. When hot, put in the garlic and onions. Stir and fry until onions are translucent, turning the heat down if necessary. Add the tomatoes and their juice. Stir and cook for 1 minute.

Add all the remaining ingredients (potatoes, chickpeas, salt, pepper, lemon juice) plus 1 cup water. Bring to a boil. Cover. Lower the heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes.

December 16, 2009, 11:04 am
Filed under: recipes, starters | Tags: , , , ,

Honey, are you still buying hummus from a plastic carton? Can I help you break that habit? Honestly, hummus is one of the easiest things to make from scratch, and is worlds away from that stuff in the refrigerator case. Most packaged/processed hummus cuts corners by omitting the tahini, the crucial ingredient that makes hummus what it is. Haram! Without tahini, those dreary tubs are merely bean dip. If you’re ready to try, I can hold your hand through the process.

You can experiment with different brands of tahini to find a rich, toasty, flavorful tahini that you like. You might decide to avoid some of the cheaper tahinis which are pale in color, and as bland as mortar. Arab groceries and health food stores tend to carry a good variety. Try to find something dark and rich, something tasty enough to spread on toast. You can always ask the clerks what their favorite brands are.

I’ve been making hummus from scratch for 10 years, but 2 years ago a Palestinian friend helped me refine my recipe. He told me the basic ratio is 1 can of chickpeas to 1 lemon. In the past, I had added the lemon juice a few tablespoons at a time, tasting as I went. Now I know to simply start with a whole lemon as a solid foundation. You can always add more to taste, but this takes alot of the guesswork out of it. Since then, I have also started adding lemon zest. The zest adds a deeper, more elemental freshness.

Some people keep 2 kinds of olive oil in the kitchen at all times: one of decent quality for a saute, and another darker, fruitier olive oil for raw things like salads. If you have a fruitier olive oil on hand, you’ll want to use that here.

I’m lucky enough to have a big food processor in the kitchen, which whips this up in a snap with its big blades and massive motor. If you’re working with a blender or “stick” immersion blender, it will take just a bit longer because the blades are small. With a blender, you’ll need to pause from time to time to scrape down the sides and make sure everything is incorporated. You might also want to mince your garlic clove ahead of time, in case it gets ignored by the tiny blender blades. I suppose it’s easier than making it the traditional way with a mortar and pestle.


14-oz can of chickpeas
zest of 1 lemon
juice of 1 lemon
3-4 TBS tahini
1 garlic clove
1/4 tsp ground cumin
generous pinch of salt
generous stream of olive oil
1/4 cup water


Wash and rinse the canned chickpeas thoroughly in a colander over the sink to wash away all of the canning slime. Throw the chickpeas in a food processor with the rest of the ingredients. Blend until very smooth. Taste for adjustments. If you think a particular batch needs more flavor (depending on the size of the lemon or the brand of the tahini) you can add more lemon juice or tahini.

Serve at room temperature in a wide, flat bowl. Make a wide, shallow well in the center of the hummus with the back of a spoon. Drizzle olive oil in the well. Sometimes I sprinkle sumac or zaatar over the top for a pretty presentation. I also had a great version in Lebanon topped with warm, toasted pine nuts. If you’re setting up a mezza spread, muhammara is a natural complement.

Memorable meals in Lebanon and Syria
August 23, 2009, 10:06 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues | Tags: , , , , ,

I spent most of my summer in Lebanon, in a program through my grad school. My mornings were spent volunteering at a center in Beirut for street kids, doing art with them and setting up an exhibit for their work. My afternoons were filled with Arabic language classes. I also spent my last two weeks (and my free weekends) traveling around Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Needless to say, I ate very well. I kept all of you friends in mind, and properly documented my memorable meals.
A typical breakfast for me in Beirut was manaeesh, a grilled flatbread topped with fresh cheese. This particular one was topped with feta and fresh thyme.
eggplant salad
This arugula salad was topped with a mound of sauteed eggplant. It lacked a conventional dressing because once tossed, the sticky eggplant would slick up against the arugula to create its own sweet and sour coating. The flavor reminded me of the rich and complex Sichuan dish “yuxiang qiezi”.
Hummous in Lebanon in always fantastic, but approaches the realm of the divine when topped with warm, toasted pinenuts.
After wandering the old souq of Tripoli for hours, we had a late lunch at this cafe that only served hummous. This one was garnished with chickpeas.
When in Syria, I had to visit Aleppo, the birthplace of muhammara. You might remember that my first recipe on keitopotato was for muhammara. I’m crazy about the pepper-walnut-pomegranate mash, and I got a few friends there addicted to it as well. This little batch of it in Aleppo was by far the best. It had the perfect balance of walnuts to peppers. Rich and luscious, yet spicy. I wanted to lick the plate clean. In Syria they know how to make it pretty, topped with crushed walnuts and a drizzle of more pomegranate molasses. I’m going to start serving it like this at home.
thyme salad
These two dishes were part of mezze at a rooftop cafe in Damascus. The thyme salad was for serious thyme-lovers. A mound of thyme mixed with feta, kalamata olives and minced onion in a lemony dressing. The labneh next to it is a stiff yogurt, that here was mixed with fresh mint, walnuts and garlic. A friend told me that the Lebanese have always eaten so much yogurt that the name of the country might possibly have been named after their favorite food. Labneh. Lebanon. The land of yogurt. What an adorable legend.
Look at this cute little log of haloum! This particular log of the squeaky cheese is coated and deep fried, ready to be sliced and eaten with fresh hot flatbread. There are so many ways to serve haloum, and you honestly can’t go wrong with any of them. I first fell in love with haloum at a backyard birthday party in London for a guy from Cyprus. The party was populated by Cypriot guys, who were having a good time at the grill. They grilled platters of super-fresh haloum, in hunks a full inch thick and 3 inches wide. They squeezed lemon over and brought it out on platters to us white-wine-sipping girls. Hot and chewy, but sizzlingly-crispy on the outside. I was smitten. Because of my crush, in Lebanon my fragile little heart wouldn’t let me pass up a haloum dish. And there were many.
stuffed eggplant
Eating this stuffed eggplant, I finally realized why people wax poetic about them. This little guy was stuffed with roasted peppers, kalamata olives and walnuts. Rich and spicy from the walnuts and peppers, with a solid floor of earthy, salty umami flavor from the olives.
In Syria we tried fatta, which is an unusual assembly of humble ingredients. It consists of crunchy, dried flatbread that is then soaked in tahini. It’s finally topped with chickpeas and drenched in olive oil and yogurt. This one had a sprinkling of pistachios as well.
The Syrian Lonely Planet disappointed me time and again with inaccurate descriptions. One time they actually got it right was when they recommended this little cafe in Aleppo that only serves ful. Ful is a warm fava bean stew, rich and zesty with fresh garlic and plenty of lemon juice. Since this cafe only serves ful, they know how to make it memorable. They add to the stew a thick stream of tahini sauce, and pour the famous Aleppan red pepper sauce over. The cafe was tiny and dingy, packed with men inhaling bowls of the hot bean stew. What a find.
potatoes with herbs
Mashed potatoes isn’t a common mezze dish here in the states, but I’ve got to tell you that it works. Instead of being mashed in butter and milk, imagine then smashed into olive oil and fresh thyme. The result is fragrant and soft, and easily lends itself for bread-dipping. I wouldn’t serve this by itself as an appetizer, but it’s a great complement to other mezze dishes.
fried potatoes
This was another fun potato mezze dish. They’re like cube-shaped french fries, but they’re tossed in garlic, parsley, red chiles, and lemon juice. This restaurant near the Place d’Etoile made the best ones I found. They were the crispiest and had the most assertive garlic-lemon flavor.
Le Chef
I ate at Le Chef at least 4 times. It’s a scruffy hole in the wall place tucked in between the posh restaurants and bars of Gemmayzeh. We kept coming back to Le Chef because they make affordable Lebanese comfort food. The daily assortment of vegetarian stews won me over. Things like Turkish eggplant with cinnamon or the broad beans stewed with tomatoes. This “Lebanese omelet” was fun. It’s flat (instead of folded like a French omelet) and the additions are incorporated into the egg mixture instead of being a filling. This one had minced onion and fresh herbs. Tasty. The owner of Le Chef is known for repeatedly calling out “welcome!!” to his guests and folks on the sidewalk. When I asked about the vegetarian daily specials, he cried out, “welcome vegetarian!!” He brought out this omelet as a mezze for the whole group, but made a point to me that the omelet was indeed vegetarian. Adorable. On my successive visits to the restaurant, he would see me in the doorframe and call out “welcome vegetarian!”
lentil soup
Each time I was at Le Chef, I had this lemony lentil soup as a starter. Only a dollar. You’ll notice the arak next to it. I was actually the only one in our group who enjoyed arak. But I couldn’t help it. I think licorice liqueurs are pretty fine.
eggplant on rice
I don’t normally seek out fussy things composed in a mold, but this eggplant dish just happened to show up at the table that way. What a complete delight. The thick slices of eggplant had been cooked so delicately that they completely fell apart in my mouth. Gushing to friends later, I gasped that the eggplant was so soft that it “felt like a down pillow in my mouth!” I never heard the end of it.
I had Arabic language classes every afternoon in the Hamra neighborhood of Beirut, and naturally ended up perusing the cafes. Du Prague was one of my favorites. This spinach dish there isn’t profound in any way, but after eating salads day in and day out, I started to crave cooked greens. These were perfect, with garlic, lemon, and Spanish almonds. I had tried Spanish almonds a few times before the trip, but it seemed pointless to eat something shipped in from Spain when I could get great almonds from right here in California. But there is something special about that particular variety of almond. They are flatter and smoother than California almonds, and feel more comfortable on the tongue. Once again I was teased by my friends for being impressed with the “mouth-feel” of food.
Iraqi rice
Upon arriving in Damascus, tired and hot after a drive from Amman, we stumbled into this Iraqi restaurant near the convent we were staying at. We were told to simply order the number of rice platters we wanted, and they would bring out the rest of the food that goes with it. We got a table full of mezze dishes, bowls of soup, then the rice platters accompanied by 5 vegetable stews. Perfect comfort food. Stews and rice always get me. It reminded me of Iranian and Afgani food (which makes sense). We ended up eating there 3 times. We always finished our meals with Iraqi tea, a sweet cardamom tea carefully crafted by the man on the sidewalk who was commissioned by the restaurant.
The highlight of Tripoli was the baklava. This grand bakery is known as making the best in the world, and apparently ships boxes of their baklava to Lebanese expats everywhere. In my limited experience, they are by far the best I’ve ever had. The butter is browned, which provides a richer, toastier floor of flavor. The toasted nuts are packed in a thick layer. Simply exquisite with a cup of espresso or arabic coffee.
Spent a lovely afternoon at the Massaya winery in the Bekaa valley. After a fantastic lunch, we were brought a bowl of apricots and plums to finish off our bottle of reserve wine.
Here’s another spread of complimentary fruit. We had been waiting weeks for figs to come into season, and these were our first, served with perfect plums, miniature green apples and watermelon.
ice cream
Most ice creams in Lebanon broke my heart because they were infused in rose water. I find rose water insipid like a cheap perfume. This cafe in Baalbeck was one of the few we found that served rose-water-free ice creams. Refreshing.
pistachio ice cream
We heard the best ice cream place in Damascus was near the Umayyad mosque. They make soft homemade vanilla and chocolate. It’s so soft that the server just grabs it with his (gloved) hand and smooshes it in your glass dish. The next guy down the counter pounds bright green pistachios with a behemoth mortar and pestle (think of the girls pounding lemons at the hot-dog-on-a-stick). A handful of the pistachios are pressed onto all sides of the ice cream like emerald sequins. The best part of the ice cream experience was Amanda’s accidental charades with the waiter, but you’ll have to ask her about that.
tea with mint
My first week in Beirut, I was profoundly baffled to find my tea options limited to Lipton yellow label. It was the main concern I wrote home about. I had always assumed that tea was a big deal in the Middle East. I quickly learned that tea just wasn’t a big focus for the Lebanese compared to their other foods and drinks. Once I arrived in Syria, I found fantastic “tea with mint” on every menu. Not “mint tea” mind you, but strong, sweet, black tea with floating fresh mint leaves. It’s usually served in clear glasses which enhances the visual experience of watching the green leaves float lazily. I always loved getting it at places like this, served on a traditional round metal tray that sat on a tripod to create a table.
coffee beans
It’s easy to fall in love with Arabic coffee. It’s the cardamom. When I came home, I made a pot for my Grandpa Elvin, who is normally suspicious of non-american-style coffee. Even he became a quick convert.
juice stalls
One of the joys of a hot summer in the Middle East is finding a fresh juice stall in the afternoon. This row of stalls was a block from my hotel in Aleppo. My favorite was half orange, half strawberry.
frozen lemonade
This man in Damascus makes the best frozen lemonade. He pours fresh lemonade into the whirling ice cream maker. While it is spinning, he constantly drags splashes of the lemonade up the side with his spatula. In a few minutes, this process creates super-fine ice crystals that feel like velvet on the tongue. It’s chemistry magic.

March 23, 2009, 8:03 pm
Filed under: recipes, starters | Tags: , , , ,

Muhammara (pronounced with emphasis on the 2nd syllable) is a complex Syrian dip that marries roasted red peppers with walnuts.  The richness of the nuts and roasted peppers is contrasted by the acidity of concentrated pomegranate juice.  The flavor combination is surprising, but addictive.


I have always used Paula Wolfert’s recipe from The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean as a starting point, but have altered it in recent years.  In contrast to Paula, I toast my walnuts in the oven, and use whole wheat breadcrumbs instead of cracker crumbs.  These little changes add a bit more depth to the spread.

Ideally, one should use pomegranate molasses, a sticky and sour concentration of pomegranate juice.  Get familiar with your local Arab grocery.  You will likely find it there in a slender bottle.  Sometimes it is labeled as “pomegranate concentrated juice,” like the bottle currently in my pantry.  If you don’t have an Arab grocery in your area, you can substitute regular pomegranate juice or lemon juice.


Muhammara Recipe

4 red bell peppers

1-2 small hot chilis

1  1/2 cups walnuts

1/2 cup whole wheat bread crumbs

1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or more to taste

2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons olive oil

Roast the red bell peppers and little chilis over a gas burner or under the oven broiler, turning frequently until blackened and blistered, about 12 minutes.  Place in a covered bowl or paper bag to steam 10 minutes.  This will loosen the skin.  Rub off the skins and slit the peppers to remove the membranes and seeds.  Spread on a paper towel 10 minutes to drain.

Meanwhile toast the walnuts in the oven until brown and fragrant.

In a food processor, combine all ingredients, with the bell peppers and walnuts last in order.  You can make your paste smooth like hoummus, or chunky with the walnuts rough like gravel.  Adjust the salt and lemon juice to taste.

Paula Wolfert suggests making Muhammara a day in advance to allow the flavors to marry.  This is ideal, but if you are pressed for time, it is also fantastic warm and fresh.  Serve Muhammara with belgian endive, flatbread such as pita or lavosh, or crackers. Leftovers work as a sandwich spread.