We arrived in New Jersey late one morning last month in a little red rental car. We’d just come from a meandering drive from my mom’s cabin in upstate New York, dotted with many stops in small towns to visit houses from Sam’s childhood. Soon we found ourselves at Sam’s mom’s place in Mt. Holly, before us a feast of stuffed grape leaves and fattoush. This was the food Sam grew up on, and the food he’s made for me a few times to show me as much. He makes tabbouli brimming with parsley and mint (we once had a tabbouli showdown in the middle of the produce aisle at Berkeley Bowl, me deeming him crazy for buying so much parsley, he deeming me crazy for the big bag of bulgar wheat I was clutching). This is his comfort food, the food he’s made when we have dinner parties. The food that reminds him of home. Unlike Sam, I don’t necessarily have one distinct type of food I ate growing up that’s tied to my ethnicity or a distinct place, so all the talk that night of buying pita from The Phoenician Bakery and how long to steam grape leaves was not an experience I share with my parents or sisters.
With a mixed smattering of European heritage and an early 80’s upbringing, dinnertime in our house was almost always homemade, but it was generally pretty basic. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still amazed that my mom worked full-time as a teacher, shuttled us all around town, went grocery shopping and had dinner on the table every night. As an adult trying to do just half of those things right now, that blows me away. But the combination of kid palettes and busy adult schedules brought about many a casserole, different versions of baked chicken, macaroni and cheese, taco salad, “breakfast for dinner”, and puff pastry shells filled with creamy tuna. I’m always fascinated when people I know have vivid, strong, and very personal memories of the kind of food they ate growing up and the role it played in shaping their identity. I don’t really have that. As far as I can tell, Chicken a’ la King, while quite delicious, didn’t originate in Eureka, California. While my dad made latkes for Hanukkah and we had traditional Christmas fare (my dad is Jewish and my mom grew up Presbyterian), I don’t see reminders of the food I ate growing up around town. There aren’t specific markets devoted to sourcing ingredients for recipes my parents or grandparents prepared. The same cannot be said for Sam.
Sam grew up in a few different towns in New Jersey. South River is one he remembers well, and it’s also the home of the Middle Eastern grocery he and his mom would visit. The whole time I’ve known Sam, he’s spoken highly of his mom’s lentils, baba ghanoush, hummus, fatayer with kibbe (savory pastry with lamb) and riz bi dfeen (rice with chickpeas and lamb). There were usually many small dishes that they’d have with good pita, pita they still drive a few towns over for to this day. Here in Seattle, when Sam takes the car to do an errand or meet clients, he’ll sometimes come home, open the door clutching the mail, and wafts of garlic flood in–a dead giveaway that he made a pit-stop at Cedar’s in the University District for ful medames, a traditional dish of mashed fava beans, garlic, parsley and onion. Lunch there reminds him of who he is and where he comes from.
This past Sunday was one of those days when a simple errand turned into a few hours and then an unexpected feast. I guess those are the best days, really. I’d run across a recipe for a beet dish that I wanted to make, but was having trouble finding za’atar, a Mediterranean spice mixture of dried herbs, sesame seeds, sumac, and often salt. Sam perked right up at the mention of it, made a quick phone call and put off his work for the afternoon to head up to Goodies, our local Middle Eastern grocery. He took quite a while and I started getting cell phone photos of different things he was coming across: “dried aubergine skins!” “chickpea flour!” Finally he returned carrying two large bags filled with grape leaves, tahini, parboiled rice, pita, handkerchief bread, pomegranate molasses, dried apricot paste, rosewater, dried fava beans, a few different kinds of fetas, olive oil soap. And za’atar. He proudly held out a few pistachio nougat candies, proclaiming that you always get a treat when you come back from the market. This made me smile. And so: a pretty fantastic beet spread was born. And to make a real lunch of it, Sam made hummus. Now I’ve had Sam’s hummus before, and it’s quite wonderful but he doesn’t measure any of the ingredients so I’ve never been able to duplicate it on my own or write about it here for you. But we spent the afternoon together in the kitchen, me roasting beets, watching over his shoulder, and taking notes as he made hummus. So I can share it today.
But first: beets. I ran across this recipe in Food and Wine and was intrigued by the vibrant color, simple ingredients and the fact that it was contributed by Yotam Ottolenghi. Israeli-born Ottolenghi is a now London-based chef and the force behind the beautiful book Plenty that I know some of you are quite familiar with. He’s pairing up with Sami Tamimi, a friend who also cooks in London, to write a new cookbook called Jerusalem. Tamimi is Palestinian, so while both men grew up a few miles from one another in Jerusalem (Ottolenghi in the Jewish part in the West and Tamimi in the Arab quarter) they lived in very different worlds complete with different languages and schooling. But after meeting as adults in London, they discovered many of their experiences with food were the same. And so the idea for the book was born: “a postcard from and a love letter to their childhood home…it is as much a call to peace as it is a celebration of cuisine,” Food and Wine writer Sara Lyall notes. This is the food that reminds them of who they are and where they come from.
So this past Sunday while making hummus and beet spread and snacking on good olives and salty feta, we talked about some of the memories we have of our family cooking and eating meals together. The good things, the bad things, the everyday things. Really, it says a lot about where we came from. Sam played records all afternoon and we did some first-rate lounging from the place where we call home together now.
A few notes on the recipes: First, unless you have a small brood, you’ll likely have leftovers and these leftovers happily make guest appearances in lunches and dinner throughout the week. Next, don’t let the za’atar spice deter you from making the beet spread. It’s really easy to track down at Middle Eastern grocery stores or many ethnic supermarkets, and if you have trouble you could substitute straight sumac or make your own dried herb combination of thyme, oregano, sage and marjoram. Sam wanted me to pass along a few notes on the hummus: he was a little hesitant to jot down the recipe in this way because it is so much by feel and by instinct. We stopped and tasted the hummus numerous times, making tweaks as we went, and you should, too. Maybe you like a little more lemon. Maybe you like a generous glug of olive oil. You can’t really go too far astray here. The same can be said of the texture: we like our hummus a little chunkier (Sam, on his own, prefers to mash them with his hands instead of a food processor), but if you like yours smoother and a little looser, add more water as you go until it’s right where you like it.
Za’atar-Spiced Beet Dip with Goat Cheese and Hazelnuts
Loosely adapted from: Ottolenghi’s contribution to Food and Wine
I strayed a little from the recipe as written simply because of what we had (or didn’t have) on hand at home. I used a green Anaheim pepper instead of a small red pepper — I love the full flavor of them and the mild spice profile. I also added a bit of lemon to brighten the whole affair. And if you’re using Greek yogurt from one of the single serve containers, it’s likely it’s only 7 ounces. This will work just fine; it’s what I used here. If you don’t have hazelnuts, This would also be great with toasted walnuts or even pine nuts if you have them around instead.
6 medium beets (1 1/2 pounds), trimmed
2 small garlic cloves, minced
1 Anaheim chile pepper seeded and minced
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil + more for roasting
1 tablespoons pure maple syrup
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon za’atar
1/4 cup roasted skinned hazelnuts, chopped
3 tablespoons goat cheese, crumbled
2 scallions, thinly sliced
pita, for serving
Preheat the oven to 375°. Place the beets on top of a large sheet of aluminum foil and fold the edges over to create a pouch (the beets should be completely enclosed in foil). Lay pouch on top of a baking sheet to avoid any dripping onto the bottom of the oven and roast until tender, about 1 hour. Let cool slightly.
Slough away the beet skins with your fingers and discard. Cut beets into wedges and transfer to a food processor. Add the garlic, chile pepper and yogurt and pulse until blended. Add the olive oil, maple syrup, lemon juice and za’atar and puree. Season with salt. Scrape into a serving bowl. Scatter the hazelnuts, goat cheese and scallions on top and serve with pita. Store leftovers in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 4 days.
Sam’s Hummus bi Tahini
Sam recommends using a really creamy tahini, one that you often find at Middle Eastern groceries if you can. And you always want to use more than your gut tells you is right. Tahini is what really makes a good hummus. That and garlic. Normally, Sam would use twice as much garlic in this recipe, so if you like garlic, feel free to add a few additional cloves. He knows that I tend to like a little less garlic, so this is how we prepared it this time around.
3 cups chickpeas, drained and rinsed
3 cloves garlic
1 1/2 cups tahini
1 teaspoon sea salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
juice of one lemon
ground pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons chopped flat parsley, for serving (optional)
pita, for serving
Add the chickpeas and garlic to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until roughly chopped. Add the tahini, salt, half the amount of water and lemon juice and process continuously for about 30 seconds. Add the rest of the water, and process until the consistency is right where you like it. We made ours a little chunkier — you decide where to stop. Taste the hummus and season with a little ground pepper and more salt if you’d like. Transfer to a serving dish. Store leftovers in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to one week.