From Where We Came

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

Za'atar-Spiced Beet Dip with Goat Cheese and Hazelnuts

  • Yield: 6 servings
  • Prep time: 10 mins
  • Cook time: 1 hr
  • Total time: 1 hr 10 mins

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.

Loosely adapted from: Ottolenghi’s contribution to Food and Wine

Ingredients

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
salt
1/4 cup roasted skinned hazelnuts, chopped
3 tablespoons goat cheese, crumbled
2 scallions, thinly sliced
pita, for serving

Instructions

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

Sam's Hummus

  • Yield: 6 servings
  • Prep time: 10 mins
  • Total time: 10 mins

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.

Ingredients

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

Instructions

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.

Comments

  1. Jacqui

    We called our Filipino grocery store Nunag because that was the name of the guy who owned it. I always came home with a treat, too -- either rice candy or shrimp flavored chips. The foods of my childhood are so important to me, and I cook a few of them on a regular basis around here. I love that Sam gets to share his childhood meals with you now, and that you can share them with us.

  2. Denise | Chez Danisse

    With a Latvian father and Sicilian mother I have many interesting food memories, but I also have the more mundane tuna casserole and hamburger helper memories. I like them all. The beet dip is so pretty and the hummus (I wouldn't mind it Sam's way, with a little extra garlic) looks great too. I don't own a food processor and wonder if something like a potato masher would give me anything I'd like. Maybe our Vitamix...

    1. megang

      Hi, Denise! I think your Vitamix would work perfectly. You just really want to make sure the garlic is pretty pulverized and they're obviously good for that. I'm trying really hard to like a lot of garlic more! Hope you're having a wonderful week, ~m

  3. Shanna

    I don't know what it is about your posts lately, Meg, but every time I read one, I'm almost speechless at the end. This was such a lovely story about you two and your backgrounds and the food you eat together. Heartwarming and intelligent and enough to make my mouth water for hummus. So good.

    1. megang

      You're too kind, Shanna. Thank you, thank you. As always.

  4. Jess

    Thanks for this lovely read, Megan. Sam's food reminds me of home, too, though a different kind of home, one I made for myself across an ocean a decade ago. What a spread you've got there! Wish I could have been at that table.

    1. megang

      Thanks, Jess! I do like (and am intrigued by) the idea of making a version of home for yourself, even if it's far away. As I recall, you've got your fair share of good Middle Eastern groceries there too, yes? Hope you're having a good week. It's been a treat seeing little bits through Instagram. xx, mg

  5. Dana

    This is lovely Megan. I want to be a fly on the wall and sit and listen to your shared memories. Then I want to share in the feast!

  6. Eileen

    Wow--I don't think I've ever even heard of a beet dip like this one before! Super interesting idea. :)

  7. kickpleat

    Gorgeous story and lovely photos as always. Sigh. It's a nice break to come here and feel a little refreshed! At first I thought you were going to make a beet hummous which is something I used to make years ago, but I love the sound of this beet dip. And I agree with Sam about the tahini and garlic, more!!

    1. megang

      Ahh, thanks so much for your nice words, Jeanette! It is very similar to a beet hummus, really. I think maybe the only difference is yogurt instead of tahini? Hope you're enjoying this last bit of August. Really hoping to get up to your neck of the woods one of these days! ~m

  8. emmycooks

    That sounds like a dreamy grocery haul. I think I might have to pay a visit to your local Middle Eastern grocer. And the color of this is stunning! I've had great luck with many of Ottolenghi's recipes.

  9. tracy

    i'm so glad i get to catch up with you & your new life up there through this space. i'm jealous of this spread and that booth!!! how i covet that little breakfast nook of yours.

    it's so nice to see you settled, now come visit meeeeeeeeeeeeee!!

    1. megang

      Tracy! I feel the same way (major checking out that apricot jam this morning). And I don't think I've told you this, but I listen to the podcast while packaging granola each week...kind of makes me feel like you and Joy are just hanging in the corner with me. Hope you're having a good week, ~m

  10. sara

    I've had my eye on that beet dip! I'm encouraged. What a great meal.

  11. Alicia

    Scrumptious combination which I've had numerous times. I love making humous too but use the ratio of one head of garlic: 2 cups of chickpeas. I also love making hummous made with roasted carrots and cumin seeds added to the mix before pureeing the lot. Chunky rather than smooth is better too. Mmmm.

  12. Mary

    Love this!

  13. Elizabeth

    The story, the meal, the photos--all of it is simply lovely. You have such a graceful way of presenting your recipes.

  14. Ashley

    Loved this post. Now tell me, where is this glorious grocery store? I need to do more exploring.

  15. Molly

    Yes, "refreshed" really is the best way to describe how I feel at the end of reading your posts.

    I had bookmarked this recipe from the Food & Wine when it came a few weeks back. Even chatted with a friend about it yesterday afternoon. Clearly, it's time has come to be in my kitchen! Thrilled to have a new hummus recipe to try out. I'm never quite satisfied with my own batches, and this one looks like it will be just right. (Gosh, I sound like Goldilocks.)

  16. momgordon

    What a lovely post that reminds us, yet again, how food brings us together and the value of a busy day ending sitting around the dinner table together. Thank you for not mentioning the Bisquick biscuits that topped many casseroles :)

  17. susan

    Glorious beet recipe.
    What would our boys say were their comfort foods? Crisped tofu and pasta might head the list. Miso soups. Nachos with fresh salsa!
    Crazy hippie parents.

  18. Sara L.

    Yum! I bet that hummus blows store bought out of the water!

    After reading so much about Cafe Besalu from you, I dropped by there during my vacation to Seattle two weeks ago. Everything was so tasty, especially the chocolate croissant and spinach/gruyere quiche! I took the quiche to the botanical garden, since I forgot about their early closing time and hit them just before 3. It was the perfect afternoon! Thanks for mentioning them here!

  19. Staci

    Ahh, just today I was trolling the Internet, trying to find some narratives focused on memories of food that I can assign for class. I have read a few memoirs rooted in food, but I haven't loved them. And then...well, and then I read this post tonight, and I thought, this is it. :) I always your blog, but this semester we'll read some posts, like this one, more carefully. Thank you, always, for being so insightful.

    1. megang

      Ahh, thank you so much Staci! There is a new book out in a few weeks called My Berlin Kitchen by one of my favorite bloggers ... so far, I've read a little of it and it's a great food memoir about identity, belonging, and place. Might be too late for the course, but may be interesting to you personally. Have a great weekend, friend! xx

  20. Aunt V

    Love the recipes. I hope to share a Middle Eastern meal with you and Sam at your Mom's cabin or elsewhere.
    Marjorie and I plan to make the hummus tomorrow.
    What about the cauliflower soup when you were growing up?

    1. megang

      Aunt V- I have absolutely no recollection of this cauliflower soup -- what was it?? Hope you guys enjoyed the hummus this weekend. xx, mg

  21. Sarah

    I drive by Goodies all the time and have always been curious. I'm glad to know it's a good store--I'll definitely drop in. And now I have the recipes to make with what I buy there!

    1. megang

      Sarah-Sam found out about Goodies because it's where the folks shop for ingredients at the little lunch spot he likes. They say it's, hands down, the place to go in Seattle. Good luck! ~m

  22. Kasey

    I love that Sam grew up with this type of food! It's so interesting how different parts of the country have these incredibly rich pockets of ethnic traditions that seem to incorporate themselves into our lives...even if they hardly relate to our own ethnic background. It might sound funny, but I feel that way about Mexican food. It feels like home to me, after years of living in California. My family eats a lot of Georgian food (an ethnic cuisine in Russia) and it has a lot of similar roots to Middle Eastern food. Lots of walnuts, cilantro, beets...I am really going to need to try this soon. Miss you! xo

  23. molly

    Megan,
    I love the stories contained herein.
    I love beets.
    I have the new book on order, and am waiting, waiting. Highly impatiently.
    And I love the swipe of magenta through the neighboring, otherwise-pale spread.
    Happy September to you,
    Molly

    1. megang

      Molly! I was eating dinner with Tara last night and we were talking about you and how much we love reading your blog and the vibrant/alive nature of your photos. Thank you for the sweet comment, as always. T said you had a lovely visit and I'm so glad the weather cooperated -- Seattle has certainly been putting on a good show lately. Hope you're enjoying the start of September. xx, m

  24. gretel

    Megan, I recently discovered your blog and I really enjoy your writing. I appreciate your vulnerability! Vulnerability = courage.

    I just made this hummus. Amazing. I really didn't think hummus could be this good. Plus I thought I knew how to make hummus. Clearly I didn't. I usually buy it but didn't feel like paying $4 for four ounces at Whole Foods yesterday. You are right about the tahini. And I like that there is no olive oil mixed in. I drizzled olive oil on top ad sprinkled paprika. I have beets in the oven now for the beet dip!

    1. megang

      Awesome, Gretel! So glad you enjoyed the hummus. We just made a big batch last weekend. If you can find a Middle Eastern market near you, you can often buy the tahini for much, much cheaper than stores like Whole Foods. And if/when the hummus firms up, I'll stir in a little olive oil to get it to the consistency I like. Good luck with the beet dip. So glad you're enjoying the blog. Happy Sunday, ~m

  25. Deborah

    When you say crumbled goat cheese, are you using feta or soft goat cheese?

    1. megang

      Hi Deborah-
      You could use either although we used a goat cheese. Enjoy!

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