Friday, August 10, 2012

Week 31: A Journey to Palestine

For months, I’ve looked forward to my Palestinian culinary journey. My friend Lana grew up in New Orleans, but her family hails from the West Bank region of Palestine. Last year, I was privileged to share an evening with her family and friends during Ramadan. Watching Lana in the kitchen is an incredible site. No lists, no recipes...just a complete understanding of the dishes she learned from her mother. Last week, she and I spent two nights creating authentic Palestinian dishes and breaking fast at sundown. By that, I mean she showed me how to make these dishes while I took dubious notes. My most important role was that of “taster” as I was not fasting, and she was.

Palestinian Cuisine is similar to other Middle-Eastern cuisines, such as Lebanese and Syrian. They even share many dishes like Baba Ghanoush, Falafel, and Hummus. Before we developed the menus for our two-night stint, I researched dishes that are uniquely Palestinian and focused on dishes native to the West Bank. Lana and I discussed these dishes and developed our game plan. Then, she gave me a grocery list off the top of her head for each one. Interestingly, as we cooked these dishes, she would take a moment to explain that we could make a dish this way or that way and ask my opinion. Without fail, my response remained, “whatever your family does.” So, with that, I share with you Lana’s family recipes as she has learned from generations of amazing Palestinian women.

Wednesday Night: Shorbot Adas, Maqluba, and Kunafeh
I began my Wednesday night with a quick stop at Oriental Bakery for Kataifi (shredded phyllo dough) and Nablus Cheese (an Armenian sweet cheese). Lana had told me about this spot, and I just hadn’t gotten by there. Very cool. I’ll definitely go back there for falafel sometime because it looks great.

Shortbot Adas
I began my Wednesday night dinner with a bowl of Shorbot Adas that Lana saved for me from her previous night’s dinner. Adas is a lentil soup common in Middle Eastern cuisine. Whereas most parts of the Middle East incorporate yogurt into the dish, a traditional Palestinian presentation is made with chicken broth and seasoned with onion, garlic, and parsley. Pita bread is served on the side to be dipped in the soup, or it may be torn into pieces and added to the soup. Lemon or lime wedges are also squeezed into the soup to brighten its flavor. I loved this soup. Its flavor immediately reminded me of Greek avgolemono soup, which makes sense because both soups have a thickened chicken broth base (adas thickened with lentils, avgolemono thickened with egg) enhanced with fresh lemon juice. I could make a meal out of this dish alone. fresh
you can see the steam
Last year, when I joined Lana for Ramadan, she introduced me to maqluba. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I sometimes tire of “chicken and rice” dishes, because they generally taste bland to me; however, what I remember most about this dish is just how much flavor is imparted into the rice. Clearly, I am not alone in my sentiment, because when I took the leftovers to work on Thursday, everyone raved about it. Maqluba literally translates to “upside down” referencing the process for preparing and serving the dish.

The following notes detail how to make this dish like Lana:

Begin soaking a mixture of long grain and short grain rice (about 1 ½ cups of each size).

Cut a whole chicken into parts. Slice a few onions.

Boil the chicken in with the onion, season salt, garlic powder, and allspice. (We probably used about 2 quarts of water.

Fry cauliflower florets, eggplant slices, and potato chunks in a neutral oil until they are cooked completely.

Break strands of dried angel hair or vermicelli pasta into small pieces (similar to the length of long grain rice). You need about ½ cup. Cook the dry pasta in a microwave for about two minutes to “brown” it.

Drain the rice after it has soaked for around thirty minutes. Add the broken noodles to the rice. Season the mixture with the same spices used to flavor the chicken: season salt, garlic powder, and allspice. (Lana also adds a packet of Goya Sazon Azafran when she has it on hand for both flavor and color.)

Vegetables Layered
for Maqluba

When the chicken and vegetables finish cooking, begin layering ingredients into a soup pot. Begin by layering in slices of fresh tomato and garlic cloves on the bottom of the pot. Then, add the chicken and onions from the pressure cooker. (Make sure you keep the broth. You will need it for another step in this dish.)  Place the fried vegetables on top of the chicken and push them down in the nooks and crannies to fill in as many holes as possible. Pour the seasoned rice and pasta mixture on top of the vegetables and level it off on top. The last step is to pour the broth used to boil the chicken over the layered dish just until it covers the top layer.

Cook with the lid off until the liquid boils. Then, reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and cook until the rice is done.

While the layered dish is cooking, fry slivered almonds and drain them on a paper towel.

Maqluba before the flip

When the rice is done, invert the pot onto a large platter and top the dish with the fried almonds.

Vegetable Salad

Traditionally, this is served with a simple salad and plain yogurt. For our dinner, we had a salad of tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, lime juice, mint, and black pepper.

Most Palestinian desserts involve variations on nuts, cheeses, phyllo dough, and dates. Lana insisted that we must make kunafeh (also spelled kenafeh, knafeh, kunafa, or kunafah). This dessert originated in Nablus, a city in the northern West Bank region, and dates back to the early fifteenth century. The dish is served for special occasions and at large gatherings. Here’s how to make it:

Thaw the Kataifi and Nablus Cheese if they are frozen. (The ones I picked up at Oriental Bakery were frozen. We set them both on the counter to thaw while we prepared the maqluba and salad, and they were fine by the time we were ready to work with them.)

Shredded Kataifi by hand
Shred the Kataifi into small pieces and spreading it onto a large ovenproof platter.

Melt one stick of butter and mix in about a teaspoon of powdered orange food dye called Kunafa Pastry Coloring. (This can also be purchased at Oriental Bakery. From a flavor perspective, the dye is unnecessary. From a traditional perspective, it is always used. When I asked why, Lana said it is just the way a kunafeh is supposed to be.)

Pour the orange butter over the dough and rub the dough with your hands until the color is evenly distributed. Place the platter in a warm oven (around 300 degrees F) for about two minutes. This step is simply to set the orange dye into the dough.

While the dough is in the oven, break up the Nablus cheese into small pieces. Mix together 1 cup of Nablus cheese, ¼ cup Ricotta cheese, and ¼ cup of shredded mozzarella cheese.

Remove the dough from the oven and let it cool for a few minutes. Turn the oven up to 450 deg F.

Make simple syrup by combining 2 cups of sugar and 2 cups of water in a saucepan. Then, warm them over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Set aside.

Remove about 1/3 of the dough (taking from the top) and set it aside. Then, push the bottom layer into the pan firmly.

Kunafeh before baking

Very carefully cover the layer of dough in the pan with the cheese mixture. The easiest way to do this is to drop little bits all over it, and then spread it out with wet hands (wet hands keep it from sticking to you).  Spread the remaining dough evenly over the cheese mixture.

Place the kunafeh in the pre-heated oven and bake until the edges just start to brown.

When you remove the kunafeh from the oven, drizzle the simple syrup over the top layer and let it rest for a few minutes. This gives the dough time to soak up the syrup.


Invert the pan onto a larger platter. Cut the kunafeh into squares and serve. (Most people garnish it with chopped pistachios, but we forgot to buy pistachios.)

Cheesy Goodness of Kunafeh
fresh from the oven

The result is an interesting dessert that is not too sweet. The best part is the stringy cheese filling. I would highly recommend trying this out. It is actually very simple to make.

Thursday Night: Musakhan and Qatayef
When I read about traditional dishes from the West Bank, I was intrigued by the description of a dish called musakhanthat originated in the northern West Bank region. This dish includes roasted chicken served over a flatbread that has been soaked and crisped in sumac-infused oil with onions. When I asked Lana about it, she told me that it is a delicious dish and that we should definitely make it. She explained that taboon bread is a large flatbread traditionally made in a special clay oven. She said that her mother emulates the process by baking the bread on the bottom of a cast iron skillet, but then she told me that it is completely acceptable to call Oriental Bakery and order large pitas to pick up the next day...which is what we did. One of the most interesting aspects of this dish is that the bread serves as a main component, instead of a side item. Here’s how we made the dish:

Cut a whole chicken into pieces. Season it with salt and pepper. Simply bake it in the oven.

Dice about two pounds of yellow onions.

In a saucepan, mix together the diced onions, ¼ cup of sumac, and freshly ground black pepper. Add about 2 cups of olive oil. Cook the mixture over medium heat until the onions are completely caramelized.

Musakhan Topped with
Onions and Sumac-Infused
Oil before baking
When the onions are caramelized, remove the saucepan from heat. Coat the tops of 3 large pitas (or taboon bread if you have it) with the sumac-infused oil that the onions cooked in. Arrange them on an ovenproof platter and top them with the onions. Bake this until the edges of the bread crisp.

While the bread is in the oven, fry some almonds or pine nuts and drain them on paper towels. Set them aside to be used as a garnish.

When the edges of the bread are crispy, remove it from the oven. Top it with the baked chicken and garnish with the fried nuts. Serve it family-style at the table.

The dish is generally served with a yogurt salad and a vegetable salad. We mixed some plain yogurt, sour cream, diced cucumber, minced garlic, mint and salt to make a yogurt salad. For the vegetable salad, we served the same salad as the previous night.
Musakhan with vegetable
and yogurt salads

The flavor of this dish really surprised me, because I hadn’t expected the sumac to impart such a bright citrusy flavor. My favorite part was an end piece of the bread with the crispy edges and the soft centers soaked with the sumac-infused oil and onions. I could easily make a meal of just the bread and onions.

Qatayef is a dessert commonly served during the month of Ramadan. (Incidentally, it is often referred to as Ramandan Pancakes.) The semolina pancakes can be filled with sweet cheese or nuts. Lana prefers them stuffed with a mixture of cheese and flavored with ground cinnamon. Here’s how to make them:

For the batter, mix the following ingredients until just combined: 3 cups semolina flour, 1 cup all purpose flour, 1 tbsp active dry yeast, 1/3 cup sugar, 1 tsp baking powder and 3 cups water. Let the mixture rest for 35-40 minutes.
While the batter rests, make a batch of simple syrup using 2 cups sugar and water.

When ready to make the pancakes, pour out rounds (about six inches in diameter) onto a warm griddle. When the pancakes are cooked through (they will be bubbly all over), remove them from the griddle and set them aside to cool. Do NOT flip them.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

While the pancakes cool, tear Nablus cheese (the same cheese used to make the Kanufe) into small pieces and mix it with sugar and cinnamon to taste.

To stuff the pancakes, place a small amount of the cheese mixture in the middle of a pancake (the bubbly side) and fold over the pancake to make a turnover.
Pinch the edges around the pancake so that it holds together.

Place the turnovers on a sheet pan, and bake for ten minutes.
When you remove them from the oven, immediately drizzle simple syrup over them. Like breakfast pancakes, they will soak up the syrup quickly.


Lana serves this dish with mint tea, and I must say that the mint tea is an absolute must. Because the pancakes are so sweet from the simple syrup, the mint tea provides a much needed fresh, acidic balance. Together, these stuffed pancakes and a cup of hot mint tea serve as a perfect ending to a meal.

My week of Palestinian cuisine introduced me to some wonderful new dishes. In addition, I felt so privileged to have Lana invite me into her home for personal lessons with her family’s favorite dishes. Now, the real key will be making these dishes on my own, but I think she has given me a great compass for success.

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