Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Arab Delights with Real Beets

 [photo: Clifford A. Wright]

I'm sure I'm not the only one who discovered at some point in their lives that a real roasted red beet root is a far cry from anything popped from a can.  In fact, as far as I'm concerned they are two separate foods. 

A favorite food of mine is an Arab dish of red beets popular in Lebanon and Palestine called Shamandar bi’l-Laban in Arabic.

Red Beets with Yogurt
When I first encountered this Lebanese preparation, called shamandar bi’l-laban, I was quite taken with the appetizing color.  But upon tasting it I couldn’t believe how good it was--how natural beets, yogurt, and mint seemed even though I’m not sure it would have occurred to me.  This dish can also be made with silq, that is, “white beets” more commonly known as chard.
2 pounds beets, with their leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 large garlic cloves, pounded in a mortar with 1/2 teaspoon salt until mushy
2 heaping tablespoons strained yogurt (called labna or lubny) (see Note below)
1 1/2 cups whole plain yogurt
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves
1. Steam or boil the beet leaves over high heat until wilted, about 10 minutes.  Remove and drain.  Steam the roots until easily pierced by a skewer, about 30 minutes.  Drain and let cool.  Cut the leaves into strips and arrange by spreading them on a serving plate.  Peel the beets and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices.  Arrange the beetroot slices on top of the leaves.  Season with salt and pepper.
2. Stir the garlic paste and labna into the yogurt and beat for 1 minute with a fork.  Spread the yogurt over the beets and garnish the top with the mint.
Makes 6 serving 

Note:  Strained yogurt (labna or lubny) is sold in Middle Eastern markets and better supermarkets such as Whole Foods.  You can make it at home easily enough: place a good quality whole plain yogurt in a cheesecloth-lined strainer and let rest over a deep bowl to drain overnight.  The resulting yogurt in the strainer is called labna.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fava Beans with Mediterranean Jews

Anyone steeped in Mediterranean culinary cultures, especially that of Sephardic Jews in the Eastern
Mediterranean, will note, for example, around the time of Passover, the complete unfamiliarity of this food with the food of Eastern Europe whence most of the Jews in Western Europe and North America hail.  May and June is a time for fresh fava beans and among Sephardic Jews “fava beans are one of the foods the Jews hankered for during their Exodus from Egypt,"Claudia Roden, author of The Book of Jewish Food: an Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, who Roden grew up in Egypt, tells us.

[photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Among Greek Jews a favorite dish this time of year is simply called koukia, fava beans.

Fava Beans with Dill
In the Ladino language spoken by the Jews of Greece in the seventeenth century, fava beans were called avas while today in Greece they are called koukia.  This is a delightful springtime dish that can also be served as a meze at room temperature.
6 tablespoons unsalted butter or extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound double-peeled fava beans (see Note)
5 small spring onions, white and light green parts, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
5 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
Juice of 2 lemons
1. In a skillet, melt the butter over medium heat, then cook, stirring, the fava beans, springs onions, salt, and pepper for 5 minutes.  Add water to cover the beans, about 3/4 cup, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the dill and lemon juice and stir then simmer until soft, about another 10 minutes.  Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.
Makes 4 servings
Note: Double-peeled means the fava beans are taken out of their pods (first peel) and then skinned of their tough light green skin (second peel) that surrounds the bean.