Results tagged za’atar from David Lebovitz

Konza Kiffi: Sicilian Agricultural Estate

cucunci capers

Well, that was quite a day! After a much-delayed plane ride to Pantelleria, an island off the coast of Sicily (it’s technically Sicily, but — let’s hold off on that discussion for another day…), I was told to be prepared to be seduced by the place. But it didn’t hit me until day #4.

harvesting oregano

We’d spent yesterday morning watching people harvest capers (…more on that in a later post), and tasting wine. Then had a below-average lunch, which was barely mitigated by the restaurant’s setting, just on the edge of the ocean. After a heaping plate of wan pasta, all I wanted to do was head back at the home where I’m staying, where there was a hammock waiting for me.

oregano

But my friend Giovanni said to me, “Daveed – it’s going to be very special.” And when a Sicilian talks with such gravity it’s best to listen.

pantelleria

So we found ourselves after lunch, driving on a winding street, high above a spectacular blue lake with the ocean in the background, with rows of grapes and oregano baking in the hot Sicilian (or Pantellerian) sun.

oregano in sicily

The welcome we had from Giancarlo and Cristian Lo Pinto, the two brothers who own the farm, was as warm as the sun.

oregano harvest

With the wind in our hair — well, in one of my traveling companion’s hair —

anissa

— we found ourselves in a field surrounded by massive bunches of oregano, offering an aroma as strong as the fields of za’atar in Lebanon: a powerful, astringent scent that bordered on medicinal. Although lots of oregano grows in Sicily, locals tend to use it dried. And here was where the best of it came from.

oregano field

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A Visit to Abu Kassem Za’atar Farm

za'atar pita

One thing you learn quickly if you travel to, or somehow explore otherwise, the various cuisines of the Middle East, is that every country, and seemingly…every single person, has their own idea of what za’atar is. And they’re very (very) attached to it. So much so that a chef in a restaurant in Jerusalem rolled up his sleeve to show me a tattoo of what he told me was hyssop, a name for an herb that’s used in some places to make Za’atar, one of the world’s great seasonings.

fresh za'atar

Za’atar consists of herbs, sesame, and sumac, varying them by proportions depending on culture and country. But I can say that Abu Kassem of Za’atar Zawtar makes the best za’atar I’ve ever tasted, anywhere.

fresh za'atar plant

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Grilled Vegetables with Za’atar Vinaigrette

za'atar vinaigrette

There’s a big difference between lucky and fortunate. Luck is a winning lottery ticket blowing in your window. Fortunate means that you’ve taken the initiative and done something. And because of it, there was a positive outcome. So I would probably say that I was lucky because my mother was a good cook but it’s debatable whether I am lucky, or fortunate, because my partner is a good cook as well.

squash and eggplant

Before dinner a few weeks ago, I’d grilled off some vegetable beforehand and left them in a plat à four (baking dish) on the counter, ready for dinner. Right before we were to eat, I asked him to make a dressing for them, and went about the rest of my business, finishing up the prep for the rest of dinner before realizing what he’d done.

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Labneh

labneh 1

I have always loved Middle Eastern foods. The fresh vegetables, the liberal use of herbs and seasonings, including a touch of spiciness at times, and the casual way of eating that the food encourages. Meze is the term that’s used to define all the “little plates” that get brought out to begin in a meal, served in little bowls often with pools of olive oil in the middle, waiting to be sopped up with soft pita or other flatbreads.

When I wrote about the Lebanese meze I’d had on a trip to the Middle East, I didn’t realize that a number of people were all that interested in what vegetables went into it. (But who can blame them? I wanted to remake it, too.) Like a lot of those foods, people aren’t necessarily following recipes – they’re following their nose, and yup, you got it – they cook by taste.

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Al Bohsali: Middle Eastern Pastries

arab pastries

It’s too bad that so many people are only familiar with Middle Eastern pastries that aren’t so well made. If you sample them far from where they originate, often they’re made with old or stale nuts, they’ve sat around too long in plastic packages, or the cheeses aren’t exactly fresh. While it’s true that some of them can be a bit sticky-sweet for Western tastes, but when they’re made correctly, they’re just as lovely to look at as they are to eat.

semolina pastry

At Al Bohsali in Beirut, all the pastries are made on the premises. As you get ready to sip your coffee, you can gaze at all the lovely pastries resting in a shiny glaze, presented in wide stainless-steel trays on the counter. Then make yourself a little plate to try a few, which I was happy to do.

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Lebanese Meze

labne with olive oil

The Lebanese are real “snackers”, a point brought home by Mazen Hajjar, the owner of 961, Lebanon’s first (and only) craft brewery that told me if I went into someone’s home in Lebanon and they offered a drink – but no bowl of nuts or seeds, “You should go…just get up and leave immediately.”

961 beer in Lebanon

Fortunately I never had to, because true to his word, each and every place in Lebanon where I was offered a drink, a generous bowl of bzoorat – some tasty combination of peanuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, etc. – were offered. And I always seemed to have my hand in a dish of them.

arak White Lady (gin cointreau lemon juice)

So it’s no surprise I went nuts, so to speak, at Al Rifai, considered one of the best nut roasters in Beirut. When I walked in, I was immediately drawn to the glowing glass and stainless-steel bins, radiating with the heat coming off the piles of freshly roasted nuts.

nuts

I picked up a few bags to bring home and it’s fun to choose your own from the dozens of nuts and seeds they offer. Some are plain, other spiced or glazed. And it’s fun to mix ‘em up. Showing true Lebanese hospitality, as I selected each one, the woman at the counter plunked down a little bowl of them for me to snack on while weighing and filling my bags. Good thing they didn’t weigh me on the way out, because I’m pretty sure I ate as much as I bought.

nuts, pistachios, etc

And now, I’m officially just as hooked as the Lebanese are. So it was a good thing Al Rifai has a large kiosk at the airport where I stocked up on even more bzoorat, along with all the locals, who also wanted to be as certain as I that we would have plenty of nuts and seeds while outside of the country. (Either that, or they were also looking for a way to pass their time when their plane got delayed for nine hours, too – oof.)

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