Picking My Fruits And Vegetables

When you grow up in a village, it’s very hard for you to get used to the tasteless fruits and vegetables that you find in the supermarkets in Beirut.

My father and his family have worked in the agriculture field for years, and dad is still very picky when it comes to choosing the fruits & vegetables that he buys.

Souvenirs Souvenirs

My grandparents, both from my mother and father’s side – used to grow a lot of fruits & veggies in their own gardens, so, during all our childhood, we always had the best fresh products!

In addition, people in my region are known for their generosity, so you would rarely leave someone’s house without tons of fresh gifts, just picked form the garden! Today, you can still see that, but much less unfortunately, because people stopped working in agriculture for more profitable jobs.

Vegetables basket picture

Fresh & Colorful

For example, I rarely visit my mother’s uncle without leaving with a whole pack of 30 fresh eggs (that’s his main business), cherries when it’s the season, delicious jams prepared by his wife, keshek, kaak for Easter…

I remember my (maternal) grandma had a huge green plums tree, and we grew up climbing that tree to get the best fruits that were always above our reach as children.

She always grew artichokes, and I still remember how delicious they were! All the relatives coming from Beirut would ask her to prepare some when they used to visit her.

She also had strawberries – strawberries that are organically grown have a complete different taste than the commercial ones. We used to help her pick mint, eggplants, marrows, lettuces, parsley, spring onions… from the garden and despite she had a big one, she also used any empty milk container to plant flowers.

She had a grapes’ arbor outside the house so we always had the best grapes and vine leaves. She was an exceptional woman.

From my paternal grandparents’ side, where memories are way less, I only recall the persimmon tree from which I had the best “kakis” ever (that’s how we call them in my village), and two different cherry trees that were stolen every year before we could enjoy them.

Today, I still ask my father to get me vegetables with him from the village. He shops from the most expensive market there, but everything there is exceptional. Friends sometimes make fun of me when I tell them that even bananas, avocados, oranges and lemons are better there, since they are coastal fruits and should be better therefore in Beirut. But they truly are. Anything I buy from here is spoilt or rotten after 3 to 4 days (except for cabbage and endives, to be fair), while a bunch of mint from the village could last for more than a week!

When buying oranges form here, they become all rotten after 3 days! This is not acceptable! Oranges that I buy from the village last up to 2 weeks! And this applies to everything else, sadly.

Pick of the week

I was in the village yesterday, so I went shopping myself: eggplants, carrots, potatoes, onions, lemons, watercress, rocket leaves, beetroots…

One out of the many things that any foodie can enjoy while shopping in the village is certainly the wide choice of non- commercial herbs that you can occasionally find, depending on the season, and your luck of course.

Yesterday, I found two treasures: green garlic – it’s the season for that, and a new herb that I’ve never heard of, called “fedriyye”. I tried to find it online to be able to translate it, but it’s not mentioned anywhere.

I’ve tried green garlic previously with scrambled eggs and it’s really exceptional. As for the “fedriyye”, I was told it is used in frittatas, so I got some and I’ll be trying it soon! Stay tuned!

Recreating Grandma’s Chicken Soup

chicken soup picture

My version of the soup!

I’ve already told you about my grandma in a previous post, and about that wonderful smell of her house.

While I was preparing my chicken fatteh last weekend, I had the whole chicken stock left since I did not use any for the recipe, and I was wondering what I could possibly do with it. I decided to taste it, and I instantly remembered Grandma’s chicken soup, so I said to myself: why not try to recreate it? The base was already there – even though Grandma used a bit less spices.

The stock was ready, and I stole some chicken drumsticks that were initially meant to be in the fatteh. I remember there were carrots in it, and there was another green veggie, but – sadly – I could not remember what it was. In all cases, I decided to replace it with celery, since I had some in my fridge. Grandma’s soup also had a lot of rice.

To have a real replica of that soup, I had to use the same rice, just like she did. That was short-grain rice, bought in big quantities for the “mouneh”, and stored for long periods of time. So I used some of this same rice that I can still find at “Saliba” – a store in nearby village, specialized in seeds, legumes, nuts and spices. If you’re from my village and reading this blog post, you surely know the place.

The result was quite satisfying. I was happy with my soup. I am not sure if my grandma used to add potatoes or vermicelli, but I decided not to. You can always add anything you like! Now, let’s talk about the recipe details!

Grandma’s Chicken soup recipe – My way

Serves: 4

Ingredients:

  • 3 chicken drumsticks
  • 1 small onion
  • Lemon wedges
  • Vinegar
  • 5 green peppers (Spices)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 dried red chili
  • 3 cloves
  • Black pepper to taste
  • Salt to taste
  • 10 cups water
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 celery stick
  • 1/4 cup short-grain rice

Method:

  1. To prepare the chicken: rub the chicken with the lemon wedges and vinegar. Season with salt and black pepper. Put them in a pot and cover with 4 cups of water. Add 1 bay leaf and 1 cinnamon stick and put on medium heat. Meanwhile, boil 6 cups of water in another pot.
  2. When the water boils, remove the chicken from the first pot and add them to the second one (the water should be boiling!) along with the green peppers, the dried red chili, the peeled onion, the cloves and the remaining bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Season again with salt and black pepper and leave for 30 minutes, or until well cooked. Remove the chicken from the pot and leave to cool.
  3. Strain the stock and return it to the pot. Add the carrots, sliced, and the celery, chopped. After 5 minutes, add the rice and de-boned chicken and keep on low heat until vegetables and rice are tender. Serve hot!

Lebanon: Traditional Villagers’ Winter Foods

ablah under the snow

Beautiful snow

It’s been snowing for a week now in my village. I was stuck in Beirut for the first days, but then I managed to get there with my dad for the weekend.

I love the snow, and to be more accurate, I love to see the snow falling. It’s magical. And I was lucky!

Let me tell you about the snow in my village.

When the snow is occasional, it becomes more desired. And when you’re a child and your school closes on snowy days, you learn to love the snow. Especially when you know that you’ll be allowed to go outside and build your snowman when the sun will shine. Nowadays, in my village, you rarely see kids playing with the snow. It’s a shame. Did they really stop to wait for it? Do they sleep the night before the storm without visiting the window a thousand times? Don’t they pray for snow anymore?

When you’re a teenager, the snow takes a completely different meaning. At this stage, you can enjoy a warm night with your friends, next to the soubya, playing cards and drinking some wine or vodka: some cheap alcohol mainly, because a bottle costs more than your weekly allowance. We didn’t have DVDs in the village, and the satellite TV channels would stop working after the first thunder. But we’ve always managed to have fun.

Village under the snow picture

My village this morning!

And then you probably left the village, looking for more opportunities, a better life, some independence, your own revolution to start. And when there is snow, you rarely get the chance to be in your village. And the storm won’t wait for you for the weekend. And you miss all the falling snow. And it makes you sad. Sometimes, you even cry when you see all the pictures posted on Facebook or instagram. We didn’t have social networks back then. And all our pictures were printed. A picture used to cost money when we grew up.

And you wait for the weekend, and just go to what suddenly re-becomes “your home” and “the village where you belong”, with all the danger on the roads. And most of the times, you’ll only get to see some remaining snow on the mountains, and some dirty snow that lost all its splendor, forgotten on the sides of the road.

And if you’re lucky enough, it will snow on the weekend, like it did this time.

What do villagers eat when it’s cold?

Food-wise, snowy days have their own rituals. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are not to be missed on such cold days. All we do is eating anyways.

Fatty dishes are prepared to help fight the cold. Neighbors still gather together and share meals. When was the last time you just knocked on someone’s door and sat to their table?

What are the must-have meals when there’s a storm in the village?

Eggs, sunny-side up, with awarma:

eggs and awarma picture

Bayd bi awarma

My ultimate comfort food! The fat in the awarma gives the eggs a unique savory taste. Quick & easy to prepare, these eggs can be served either for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Keshek:

Keshek is a cereal usually prepared in the villages, early autumn, following the harvest of the wheat crops. It can be easily stored, making it among the favorite foods of the villagers during wintertime. Preparing keshek is not an easy process, and this is why we see less and less people doing it nowadays.

This cereal is made of bulgur (cracked wheat) fermented with yogurt for many days. During this period, the mixture is thoroughly kneaded with the hands, on a daily basis. Once the fermentation is complete, the keshek is spread on a clean cloth and left to dry, before finally rubbing it between the hands to transform it into a powder. But the result is truly worth the long process!

Keshek is usually eaten in a soup, or in manaquish and fatayer (pies and flat pies). My favorite is, without any doubts, the keshek prepared with awarma (another typical village food: meat preserved in lamb fat), potatoes and garlic. It’s a heavy soup, I know. But it is just delicious. I’ll share the recipe with you sometimes soon. Did I mention that we have it for breakfast?Another way of preparing keshek is with fried kebbeh. Delicious as well!

Manaquish:

Zaatar manoushe picture

The famous zaatar manoushe

Once the village is awake – a bit late when it snows – women start to prepare their mix of zaatar (thyme with sumac, olive oil and sesame) and keshek (keshek powder, olive oil, water, onions and tomatoes). The morning walk is a must, to get to the usually bakery and have our manaquish – flat pies – ready. “Did the dough rise?”, every woman will ask the baker, referring to the cold weather.

Once back home, the tea will be prepared in a big jug on the soubya as well. Manaquish are always served with tomatoes and olives, in addition to mint and cucumbers when available. On the breakfast table, you will always find a plate of Labne, and some pickled eggplants – makdous – as well.

Baked potatoes:

Stouf baked potatoes

Stouf baked potatoes

Baked in the stouf, potatoes are really different. Eat them without peeling them, just add some butter, black pepper and salt and enjoy!

Grilled chestnuts: So you think you’re a fan of chestnuts… but wait, did you ever try them, roasted on a soubya or in a stouf? If you didn’t, then you’ve missed the best part! To prepare them, you just need to cut a cross in the skin of each nut and bake / roast them until the skins open and the insides are tender.

Grilled meat:

Sizzling grilled meat cuts picture

Sizzling grilled meat cuts

We do use our babour a lot! Another tradition to do on a cold day: grilling meat cuts on the babour! This is just delicious! All you need to do is to sprinkle them with some salt and pepper before eating!

Food & Childhood: that wonderful smell of Grandma’s house!

Do you remember the scene from “Ratatouille” movie where food critic Anton Ego tastes the ratatouille of the chef and instantly evokes his childhood home and his mother’s ratatouille?

Bringing those memories back!

Food is always associated to childhood memories. We all remember waking up to the smell of that one dish that only our grandmother would prepare. I remember I used to sleep in my grandma’s living room, just next to the kitchen.  She used to wake up very early, and she was always busy cooking. At 7, the house was already filled with the exquisite smells of “zlebe” (fried dough) or “lezze2iyet” (local appellation of the crepes) that she always prepared for us – my sister and I – for breakfast. I didn’t have “zlebe” for more than 10 years now I guess.

Her fried “fatayer”, her unique Lebanese-style pizza that looked nothing like a pizza but was really excellent, her marble cake prepared in regular oven pans, rectangular or round, her sweet “herro osba”… all these foods never tasted the same again after she passed away. Even the boiled artichokes or corn cobs are not the same when anyone else does them.

And do you know the ring-shaped kaak that we do for Easter and Eid? There were always some “kaak” specially prepared for us, shaped into braids and birds… And these always tasted better than the regular ones!

During winter, she never used her stove or oven. She always cooked on top of and inside the “stouf”, just like a lot of women in villages. You could always see two or three pots where stews and rice were slowly simmering for the whole morning, while the pizza, chicken and potato bake or “kebbeh bel siniyye” were cooking inside the “stouf”. Till this day, whenever I see food cooking on a “Stouf”, I feel I can smell the “chekriyye and rice stew” or the baked fries she used to do.

Do you ever feel that you can tell how much one loves you from the food he prepares to you? I do. And for this, I think no one ever loved us like grandma did.

Traditional baked potatoes picture

Baking onions and potatoes is one good reason to visit the village every week, no?

What is a “stouf”?

But wait a minute, do you have an idea what a “stouf” or “babour” is?

For the ones who might not be familiar with the terms, it’s a rectangular-shaped “soubya” used in the villages during winter to fight the cold. There are 2 kinds of “stoufs”, depending if they’re fed with wood or fuel, and both still exist in Lebanese villages.

Few years ago, my parents decided to get one for their kitchen. So a new era of wine evenings started – knowing that they almost exclusively use the “stouf” for baking potatoes, onions and occasionally garlic. And who doesn’t love baked potatoes? I’ll be adding some interesting ways of serving them soon, so keep tuned!