Herbal and verbal, Daniel said. Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth round them up, and when it does up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about. Then the seedheads rattle, the seeds fall out. Then there’s even more language waiting to come up. -Ali Smith (Autumn)
Almost every day around two o’clock, I hear the sound of a little motorized vehicle driving around the neighborhood. Sometimes this sound accompanies the barking of my crazy beagle, but, more often than not, it is followed by the wild laughter and shrieks of the driver and her passenger du jour. I have heard this little girl with the pink jeep, both relatively new additions to our neighborhood, not only scream with genuine fear when the local geese have foolishly run out in front of her speeding car, but also kick some of her more rambunctious passengers out of her vehicle for various slights. As the number of children who now hang out in front of our house, which is just across the road from hers, has steadily increased, I have started to joke with the Greek that it was just our luck to end up living across from the street from the grande dame of the our little circular cul- de-sac. My jokes aside, however, I find that I envy these children their fun and games, as well as their petty afternoon squabbles. There’s nothing quite like being a child and having the long summer stretch out before you with myriad possibilities, or to derive such satisfaction from the endless repetition of the lazy summer days.
My own summer has been as adult as they come, along with the responsibilities that go hand in hand with the title: laundry, house and garden maintenance, bills, cooking and cleaning, work. I don’t know if it’s the season, which does seem to invite a certain lack of urgency, but out of all the things on my list, work, despite its daily presence, somehow never feels quite so pressing in the summer. Most days, I have the impression that, as I run this or that search or make a memo that I’m 99% certain nobody will read, I am merely spinning my wheels, a true sister of the circumspect Penelope. Like hers, my work, a “shroud” of recycled ideas, is bound to be repeated over and over; I am tempted to say the only difference between us is that Penelope is described as taking pleasure in her ruse with the suitors, whereas I find this all to be rather tiresome, but that wouldn’t be quite right. Spinning one’s wheels is more often than not a means of survival, one that isn’t always pretty and that, fortunately for all of us, has a natural endpoint–even if that point continues to hover in the distance.
While I may at this point in the summer be feeling extreme boredom, perhaps even a touch of despair at the futility of it all, on the work front (this really was largely precipitated by an email I received on LinkedIn from a former colleague two weeks ago wishing me a happy third–third! I can’t fathom how this has lasted this long–work anniversary), which can cast a bit of a pall on the Monday to Friday grind, the past month has not been without either its adventures, those both big and small.
One of the best things to happen in the last month, besides the fact that the Greek has actually been home for it and not running experiments here, there and everywhere, is that whatever affliction was holding me back from finishing a stack of books on my nightstand has all but disappeared. Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which I actually ended up loving, despite my initial reservations about its strange premise: done. Sunshine State, one of the rare non-fiction books that I pick up: done. August, a talky and thoughtful novel, as well as one that straddles the ordinary and extraordinary: almost done. It’s a fantastic feeling to be devouring the wor(l)d and crossing things off the list.
If you add to these accomplishments my recent work on the blog and actual attempts to post on a weekly basis on this new and improved site (my first attempt at this was sadly ruined when I spilled a glass of water on my laptop in the middle of last week and went into panic mode, frantically texting photos of screwdrivers to the Greek, so that I could remove the screws on the back of my Mac and perhaps save its life. One successful operation and three days of living tent-shaped in the basement with the dehumidifier, and I am breathing a major sigh of relief), I think it’s safe to say that, whatever this summer has occasionally lacked in terms of work satisfaction, the creative sphere has more than made up the difference. We have even, in between cherry and berry picking and making tons of preserves, syrups and ice creams (more on this soon), managed to spend time in the pottery studio every other Saturday this month, which means our collection of bowls and other various clay objects continues to grow.
And the real gilded lily in this collection of accomplishments is that, in exactly 24 (!) days, we are going to Italy for two weeks. The promise of this trip and all of the planning that I have been doing for it have been my daily bright spot this last week. It is all I can do to restrain myself from throwing clothes in a bag and running to the airport right this very minute. My anticipation aside, I’m almost certain it’s going to be even harder to come home.
As we are meeting my in-laws in Lombardy at the tail-end of our trip for a few days of exploring the famed Italian lakes (will there be a Clooney twins sighting in my future?!), I figured that, in addition to finally finishing the story of our 2015 (😳) road trip in the next few weeks, I should also post the recipe for the Lebanese Potato, Spinach and Chickpea Kibbeh that I promised her when she and my father-in-law were here this past spring for Greek Easter. If you are familiar with Greek Easter, you know that, for Greeks, Easter is the biggest holiday of the year. When trying to explain its significance to me, the Greek has often compared it to Christmas and, while this is true in terms of its stature and religious/cultural significance, Easter actually reminds me more of Thanksgiving. It is a holiday that not only prioritizes good food, but also makes slowly cooked meat the centerpiece of the meal. Whereas Thanksgiving is all about turkey, in the case of Easter, it is all about the lamb on the spit.
And if you didn’t think it was possible in our crazy age of vegetables-everything fever for meat to continue to be the focus of any meal, let me assure you that you are wrong–so wrong that my father-in-law carried various components of the spit in his luggage from Europe. Please also note that airport security apparently didn’t even bat an eyelid, as we did roast the lamb over an open flame in a hole that was dug in my backyard on what was undoubtedly the hottest day in April at a whopping 86 F.
As you can imagine, I left the construction of the spit and the roasting of the lamb to the Greeks; that is their forte and far be it for an American (or a hungry beagle) to get in their way when it comes to the art of making lamb. But beyond the lamb, I did do my part to somewhat Americanize the event, since I was more than certain that, while the meat might be the crowning achievement and symbol of the holiday, people ultimately do like side dishes and vegetables. The Greeks didn’t necessarily agree, though. They maintained that Easter was all about a combination of salad and lamb at the dinner table, and sausage, bite-sized pieces of feta cheese and bread as appetizers while people waited for the lamb and took turns at the spit. My mother-in-law told me that Greek Easter is the one day every year when the men do the cooking, so, really, I should save myself the trouble and enjoy it. Why, she asked, make more work for yourself? However, as this has often been my mission in life, I decided that I would go ahead and make dessert (a orange blossom pavlova with rhubarb compote), as well as a side that combined greens, grains and potatoes, and some Sumac flatbread.
It may be that I am a glutton for punishment and that, yes, at the end of a long, tiring, and very pleasant day, I had made more work for myself, but all of the dishes that I prepared were not only a hit, but a welcome addition to the meal. In particular, the Potato, Spinach and Chickpea Kibbeh really complemented the lamb. I had first tried the recipe back in spring of 2015, shortly after Maureen Abood’s Rose Water & Orange Blossoms came out. While I had eaten kibbeh (but never the raw kind) at Lebanese restaurants in San Francisco, I had never made it, nor had I known that kibbeh could be vegetarian. But as Abood writes in her book, “Kibbeh is a mixture of bulgur wheat with other ingredients…” And, in fact, she argues that the addition of soaked bulgur to the mashed potatoes is what makes it a kibbeh and not just a potato casserole, as the bulgur acts as a binding ingredient. Whatever its classification, this dish, with its layers of buttery mashed potatoes speckled with crunchy bits of bulgur and lemony chickpeas sautéed with spinach and onions, serves as the perfect counterpoint to meat.
I know it’s probably still too early to be talking about Thanksgiving, but, given its various components and general heartiness, this dish is sure to please vegetarians.
Blog business: I got a few emails from readers telling me that, in the move from Blogger to WordPress, some of the links in the “My Recipes” page were corrupted. I am slowly working on fixing them (the breakfast section is done), as well as on updating the formatting of posts that didn’t copy perfectly in the move. I’m trying to do a little every day, but since I am trying to write one post a week and also to prepare posts that will go live while I am traveling, this work is going more slowly than anticipated. Please bear with me as I get everything up and running again.
Potato Chickpea and Spinach Kibbeh with a Garlic, Mint and Chives
Slightly adapted from Maureen Abood’s Rose Water & Orange Blossoms
When I made this on Easter, there was a point at which I was so overwhelmed and frantic–guests were arriving, the Greek was out looking for an umbrella to shield the spit from the sun, and I still had plenty of work to do–that I threw in some of the sumac that was on the counter, used fresh mint instead of dried, which I couldn’t find, and didn’t quite manage to mash my potatoes to silky smoothness. The end result showed that the minor details–even somewhat chunky potatoes–didn’t make much of a difference, nor did the fact that, to make the dish go further, I baked it in a 9×13 baking pan instead of the 8-inch (20-cm) square baking dish that Abood called for. This meant that the potato layers were thinner and the chickpea-spinach-onion layer more spread out, but nobody seemed deprived. The smart thing to do would be to double the recipe for larger events, but, even if you don’t double it, a little bit of this, especially when combined with a side of yogurt sauce, goes a long way.
When I recently made the dish again for a simple dinner of sausage and potato kibbeh, I used only 2.5 pounds of potatoes instead of the recommended three and added dried chives to both the yogurt sauce and to the sautéed onion, spinach, and chickpeas. I find that I like the addition of chives here, as it makes the yogurt sauce taste a bit like a more sophisticated French onion dip. My point: the recipe is deliciously forgiving; have fun and make it yours.
For the yogurt sauce:
1 cup (230 g) whole-milk Greek yogurt or labneh
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon dried or fresh chives
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mint (from about 6-8 stems), plus a few more leaves for decorating the yogurt
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Whisk together the yogurt and lemon juice in a small bowl. Fold in the herbs, salt and garlic. If you want, decorate the top of the yogurt with a few extra mint leaves, then refrigerate the sauce until the kibbeh is ready.
For the bulgur:
1/2 cup (90 g) bulgur (Abood calls for fine, or #1, grade bulgur, but I use the Bob’s Red Mill Red Bulgur, which is apparently a medium, or #2, grind bulgur)
Rinse the bulgur twice in a fine-mesh strainer, then transfer the bulgur to a small bowl or cup. Cover the bulgur with cold water, then soak it for 30-45 minutes, or until softened. Drain the bulgur and then, using either cheesecloth or a nut milk bag, squeeze out any excess water.
For the potatoes:
2.5-3 pounds russet (or mixed) potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon kosher salt + 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
4 tablespoons of salted butter, plus 2 tablespoons butter (1 tablespoon more for greasing the pan and another tablespoon for brushing the kibbeh before it goes in the oven)
a few pinches of freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon chives, fresh or dried (or onion powder)
In a large pot, cover the potatoes with cool water, then add the tablespoon of kosher salt. Cover the pot and bring it to a boil. Once the water is boiling, remove the lid and reduce the heat an active simmer. Cook the potatoes until fork tender, about 15-20 minutes.
Drain the potatoes, then put them back in the pot to steam off any of the residual water. Transfer the potatoes to a medium-sized bowl and add the four tablespoons of salted butter. Mash the potatoes with either a fork or a potato masher (a potato ricer also works nicely here), then add the drained bulgur, the 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt, a few pinches of pepper and the chives or onion powder. Set aside, then preheat the oven to 400 F/200 C.
For the spinach and chickpeas:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 10-ounce (285 g) package chopped frozen spinach, thawed and drained
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
a few pinches of freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons of fresh mint, finely chopped (from 3-4 stems)
1 cup (150 g) cooked or canned chickpeas (if canned, best to rinse them)
juice of 1 lemon
Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and the 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and sauté until soft and translucent but not browned (about 5-7 minutes), so, if need be, lower the heat. Stir in the chopped spinach and add the remaining half teaspoon of salt, as well as the cinnamon, some pepper and the mint. Add the chickpeas and the lemon juice. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Add additional lemon juice if the mixture doesn’t taste as lemony as you would like.
Grease an 8-inch (20-cm) square baking dish with one tablespoon of the butter. Spread half of the potato mixture into the bottom of the baking dish. Then, spoon the spinach mixture over the potato layer, making sure it is spread evenly and that the potato layer is completely covered. Then, for the final layer, you can either make potato patties in your hand and lay them on top of the spinach layer piece by piece or carefully and slowly spread the remaining potatoes (I recommend an offset spatula, the very same one you would use for icing a cake) over the spinach and chickpea layer. Melt the remaining tablespoon/tablespoon and a half of butter and either drizzle it over or brush it on the top of the kibbeh.
Place the kibbeh in the preheated oven and bake until golden brown, for 30-35 minutes. If not browned to your liking when the time is up, place it under the broiler for a minute or two.
Serve with the yogurt sauce and enjoy.