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Food memories travel from Town Crier column to cookbook

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Courtesy of Blanche Shaheen
Los Altos resident Blanche Shaheen recently published her “Feast in the Middle East” cookbook, which features recipes including Samak bi Tahini, above.

My “Feast in the Middle East” journey began 10 years ago when I wanted to re-create one of my favorite dishes from childhood, the dramatic Palestinian dish of Maqlouba. This Middle Eastern specialty is a massive rice “cake” flipped upside down to reveal steaming roasted chicken, fragrant rice, fried cauliflower, caramelized onions and roasted chicken inside.

My mother would adorn the top of this savory cake with toasted pine nuts and almonds. To make it for my children, I gave my mother a call, feverishly taking notes as she offered a step-by-step explanation: “Add enough allspice so you can taste it. You can also add some turmeric, but it’s optional. And if you don’t want to fry the cauliflower, try roasting it instead.”

I wondered how I was supposed to make Maqlouba taste the same as my mother’s with so many variations in her directions. There were no cookbooks at the time that documented these heirloom recipes, nor cooking classes that taught this cuisine, drawn from remote villages in the Middle East.

I decided at that moment I was going to record the recipes for a future cookbook, because I didn’t want them to get lost before I could pass them down to my children. Many of these recipes were hundreds of years old, handed down through generations by word of mouth only. Prior to this foray into food, I was a television journalist, so I not only wanted to document these recipes meticulously, I also wanted to include the historical and geographical significance of the dishes.

The recipes had to be perfect every time, so I wouldn’t need to consult my mother or grandparents anymore and achieve culinary independence. I decided I would call the book “Feast in the Middle East” to rhyme with the popular saying “Peace in the Middle East,” as I thought nothing can bring people together more than breaking bread as a group at the dinner table.

Viral videos

As I observed my mother cooking Sunday dinners week after week, I also learned to apply a few shortcuts to her cooking techniques, because while my mother was a perfectionist with a lot of patience, I have to admit I had a fraction of her fortitude. Besides that, I was strapped for time and didn’t have two or more hours to dedicate to meal prep.

To help me remember these recipe techniques and to keep myself accountable, I started a cooking show on YouTube. At that time, YouTube was a novelty but a great way to share new content that had not seen the light of day on network television. While Middle Eastern food was hugely popular nationwide, for whatever reason there wasn’t a Middle Eastern cooking show on any of the networks, so I thought it was a fine time to fill that void. Needless to say, the people who knew me as a journalist thought I was a bit crazy. However, it does take a certain madness to embark on such a mammoth project.

My first video production was quite ambitious, as I shot a five-part series for one recipe, imitating the television format of a 30-minute show. I learned quickly that the YouTube audience did not want to watch such a long show, so I learned to streamline each recipe to an average of 10 minutes or less.

As my videos became more popular, the demand for a cookbook increased. Viewers responded that they were successful at executing my recipes, with many of my videos going viral. My Turmeric Garlic Rice recipe alone has more than a half-million views, with people commenting daily how they have now included this rice in their permanent repertoire of dishes.

Every time I had a successful recipe, I honed my writing skills by writing food columns for publications such as the Town Crier and Arab America Magazine. This further ensured my writing skills remained sharp to create an engaging cookbook, and each article turned into another cookbook page. I also had a living test kitchen at Draeger’s Markets, where I continue to teach cooking classes. All of these experiences collectively helped solidify the success and technique of every recipe.

Cooking up a book

Fast forward 10 years, and my cooking show has ended up being featured in the most unexpected places. Before Virgin America dissolved as an airline, passengers could watch “Feast in the Middle East” as part of its inflight entertainment. My show also was featured on BBC World News, NPR Radio, NBC’s “California Live” program and even The Filipino Channel. These appearances gave me the nudge to finally self-publish my cookbook.

Just as I carved a cooking show right out of my kitchen, I was going to do the same with the cookbook to maintain complete creative control. While self-publishing was terrifying, daunting and expensive, I remembered that this ambition was the reason I started the project in the first place. This global cooking community, now 40,000 subscribers strong on YouTube alone, was counting on me, and giving up was not an option.

Today, the “Feast in the Middle East” cookbook has become a reality, empowering people all over the world to re-create dishes from the Levant and beyond. Now people are experimenting and adding Syrian Red Pepper and Walnut Muhammara Dip, Palestinian Maqlouba, Jordanian Lamb Mensaf or Lebanese Semolina Pudding to their daily menus. Some dishes get an American spin, like my Pumpkin Spice Halva or Baklava Granola.

In the end, there was this unexpected reward: a global virtual cooking community that has bonded over its love of Middle Eastern food.

Blanche Shaheen is a Los Altos resident. To access many of her recipes and purchase her cookbook, visit feastinthemiddleeast.com. To enroll in the cooking class she is scheduled to host today at Draeger’s in Menlo Park, visit draegerscookingschool.com.


Samak bi Tahini (Fish with Tahini Sauce)

While people who eat Middle Eastern food regularly are used to the concept of tahini sauce in their falafel or shawarma sandwiches, many are unfamiliar with the myriad other uses for tahini. My mother used to eat tahini and grape molasses sandwiches as a child, comparable to the ubiquitous peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the U.S. Arab home cooks also use tahini to make the sweet confection called halva, or use the paste as a sauce for lamb and even seafood. Tahini sauce is to the Middle East what peanut sauce is to the Asians, a creamy nut- or seed-based sauce that enhances the flavor of the dishes without using dairy.

Tahini makes a harmonious cream sauce for fish in particular, in a special dish called Samak bi Tahini. While this dish is popular in Lebanon, I also remember eating this specialty many years ago in a Palestinian restaurant during the summer, where the fish was quite fresh and smothered with caramelized onions, toasted pine nuts and a lemony tahini sauce. I am not sure if this restaurant even exists anymore, but it was too delicious to forget, and I had to find a way to re-create it at home.

The three simple spices of sumac, cumin and coriander add tangy and smoky elements to the white fish, and caramelized onions add a sweetness to the tahini paste, which has slightly bitter undertones. While this dish makes an excellent low-carb meal, you can pair it with rice, couscous or roasted potatoes for a hearty touch.

For fish:

  • 2 8-ounce fillets of fish (haddock, rockfish or petrale sole)
  • 1 teaspoon sumac
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • Salt and pepper to taste

For carmelized onions:

  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup olive oil

For garnishes:

  • 1/4 cup pine nuts or sliced almonds, toasted in olive oil
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley or cilantro, chopped
  • 1/4 cup pomegranate seeds (optional)

For tahini sauce:

  • 1/3 cup tahini, diluted with 1/4 cup water if too thick
  • 1 garlic clove, finely minced
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon

Brush fish with olive oil. Sprinkle fish with cumin, coriander, sumac and salt and pepper and leave 30 minutes for flavors to marinate. Saute onions in 1/4 cup olive oil until browned and caramelized, then set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter in skillet. Pan-fry fish until browned on both sides, approximately 3 minutes each side. (Or, put fish in a 13x9 casserole dish and bake 10 minutes at 375 F.)

For tahini sauce, whisk tahini, garlic, water and salt and pepper to taste, if desired. Heat sauce in saucepan if you prefer it warm.

Once fish has finished cooking, top with caramelized onions and toasted nuts. Drizzle with tahini sauce, then garnish with chopped parsley or cilantro, pine nuts and pomegranate seeds. Serve immediately.

Makes 2-4 servings.

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