Friday, January 30, 2009

Cook the Books Club: The Language of Baklava

The Language of Baklava. And Muhammara. And Rosewater. And Lemony, Garlicky Hummus. It's all found in the second book pick from the new foodie book club, Cook the Books. Our current host, Deb of Kahakai Kitchen, picked this marvelous memoir by Diana Abu-Jaber, about her childhood growing up in icy Syracuse, New York in an extended Arab family, headed by her father Bud (Ghassan) and his gaggle of brothers.

I inhaled this book, and plan on rereading it soon, both to consult it for the recipes and to relive some of the poignantly funny scenes that the ever-observant young Diana noted between her lively dad and her various relatives, teachers, and neighbors. You can read my fuller review of this wonderful book ("The Language of Baklava: A Memoir, by Diana Abu-Jaber, NY:Pantheon, 2005) on my book blog, The Book Trout, here.

Each chapter in the book is followed by a wonderful Arab recipe and this inspired me to seek out Claudia Roden's great cookbook "The New Book of Middle Eastern Food" from my local library so I could learn more about this cuisine and try out some new dishes. I lingered over this 500+ page cookbook and decided to make the following feast:

A pot of Mint Tea
Magical Muhummara
Labneh Balls
Stuffed Grape Leaves and Oil-Cured Olives over Lettuce
Sesame-Rosemary Crackers
Steamed Rice
Fava Beans

The Mint Tea was brewed by steeping dried mint from my summer garden, the Fava Beans and Stuffed Grape Leaves came from cans from the "Gourmet" section of the grocery store, but I found a bit of kitchen time to whip up another batch of very tasty Sesame-Rosemary Crackers that I experimented with earlier.

The Magical Muhammara recipe is a real winner and it is straight from the pages of "The Language of Baklava". If you don't have a copy of this wonderful book (and if you are a foodie or bibliomane, you should!), then you can go to the Saveur website to get Abu-Jaber's savory recipe for this spicy, complex-flavored dip made from toasted walnuts, pomegranate juice, roasted red peppers and other delights. I've made it twice now, and my husband has wolfed it down appreciatively. We're planning to bring it to some great cook/friends this weekend during the Superbowl festivities (Go Steelers!) and I have no doubt it will be a hit. It's easy to make (and easy to make gluten-free with GF crumbs) and tastes exotic and decadently good. Magical even.

The Labneh Balls were somewhat of a Crispy Cook experiment. Roden's cookbook notes that labneh, or yogurt cheese, can be rolled into balls and rolled in spices and drizzled with olive oil for a delightful appetizer. I had made yogurt cheese, or labneh, before, which is also easy. You just need time to let plain yogurt, mixed with a little salt, drain at least overnight to remove the moisture and make the yogurt into a creamy, spreadable cheese. Because I have some frisky, dairy-loving cats around, I made my labneh in the refrigerator, with a coffee filter-lined sieve poised over a bowl. This recipe gives more specifics, but I basically just rolled the finished labneh in chopped Italian parsley, toasted sesame seeds and smoked paprika, and then drizzled it with some extra-virgin olive oil. The labneh balls went well with the homemade crackers, too.

We feasted well that evening and plan to keep all these wonderful foods in our Crispy Cook repertoire (although the fava beans tasted a bit, well, dusty. Perhaps fresh favas are more sumptuous). I can recommend "The Language of Baklava" to anyone who enjoys an interesting biography, book about food or humorous writing. Ms. Abu-Jaber has promised to stop by and review all the Cook the Books posts after Deb posts the roundup (after the Feb. 15 deadline) so be sure to check back then to see what we all cooked up.


Maria Verivaki said...

i found the same problem, meaning that i had to cook a feast after i read the book - one dish was not enough.

(i've cooked different dishes from yours!)

Deb in Hawaii said...

Wow! What a spread! Now I feel bad for thinking about doing one dish! It looks beautiful and delicious and very in keeping with the book. Great job!

Amy said...

Oh wow! What a fabulous looking feast!

I've been curious about labneh for a while, but I think I'm too lazy to roll cheese into balls and coat it in something :P They look super good though! I might have to get over my fear and give them a try.

FOODalogue said...

I love mideastern food and these yogurt cheese balls look delicious. I'll be looking forward to more posts from this book.

Arlene Delloro said...

Your feast looks delicious. I had made the hummus, too, though I didn't post it. If I hadn't been trying to restrict my calories, I'd have made a great many more recipes. I've kept the book, though I give most away these days, because I know I'll return to it, both to reread and to try more recipes. Wonderful selections, Rachel.

Alicia Foodycat said...

What a feast!

My problem is that most of the things in the book that I want to cook are sweet (which Paul wouldn't eat) or better cooked on charcoal (and it isn't the weather).

I am so excited that you have Diana Abu-Jaber coming along for a look. I just loved this book!

Maggie said...

You really did the book justice with this meal, everything looks delicious! I loved the book and need to get going on my entry.