My friend Paula and I threw a Middle Eastern dinner party on my rooftop last Saturday evening.
It was really all Paula’s idea. You see, her dad once ran a Lebanese market in Worcester, Mass. Paula inherited not only her father’s butcher block kitchen table and meat grinder, but a real love for the foods of her ancestors. I can tell you that enthusiasm is highly infectious, having caught it from her last year while sitting at the table at our cottage rolling grape leaves under her tutelage. So when Paula proposed a joint party – she’d provide the food and I, the venue and sous chef duty – I jumped at the idea.
The menu was perfect for the warm summer evening – Appetizers of fresh feta, olives, baba ganoush and pita served with red Lebanese wine, followed by a dinner of grilled lamb kabobs, rice pilaf, stuffed grapes leaves and green salad.
The lamb for the grape leaves? Paula ground it herself that morning.The mint? Dried on her dining room table just a few weeks ago. And the recipes? Handed down from her father’s generation to her – via the parish cookbook of the St George’s in Worcester. With a few gems culled from May Bsisu’s wonderful cookbook The Arab Table.
We culled the guest list from the ranks of our friends we knew would appreciate the lemony pepper bite of the baba, the saltiness of the feta and the earthy flavors of the lamb, but would also be open to sampling my first attempt at homemade pita bread (a valiant but mistimed effort), and most importantly, open to getting to know one another. We also asked the guests to bring a reading to share that would be appropriate for the gathering.
And so it was that we dozen found ourselves at a picnic table drinking wine under the waxing moon and twinkling lights on one of the most beautiful nights of the year, eating a most delicious meal and afterwards, listening to the words of Kahil Gebran, EB White and Maya Angelou, along with readings about Lebanese and Irish immigrants to America, capped off with the words of a modern young Jew and the intimate details of the days before the music died.
Our only regret was that the late hour at that point limited our chance to discuss the readings we had shared – a lesson we will keep in mind as we plan our next Mediterranean salon.
Oh yes, there will be another. Because we’ve barely sampled the mezze or ventured into the kibbe.
And I’ve got pita to perfect.
Baba Ganoush (Eggplant bi Tahini), Lebanese Style
This recipe is originally from the famed El Morocco Restaurant in Worcester, where Paula’s aunt once worked in the kitchen. This is a much more lemony baba ganoush than you may have tasted before, and is the first baba I’ve ever really loved. The trick is getting the texture just right – too much smoothness and its just a other puree. Not enough and the odd texture of the eggplant dominates the flavors. When Paula told me she makes hers by cutting it over and over again between two knives, I took that as my cue to bring out the wooden bowl and chopper, and the result was a perfectly textured baba. You can use less lemon if you like – start with one and only add more if you think you’d like it that lemony. (I have a feeling lemons may have been smaller when this recipe was first written.) Don’t skimp on the pepper and use a coarsely ground sea salt or large grind kosher salt for flavor. Serve with homemade pita chips.
- 1 large eggplant, skin on, cut in half lengthwise
- 3 tbsp sesame tahini
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 2 tbsp water
- Salt and pepper to taste
Brush the eggplant with a little olive oil and broil, turning it frequently, until the meat softens, about 15 minutes total. (f you want to grill it, that would be even better…)
Scoop out the softened eggplant meat into a large wooden bowl, discarding the skins. Add the tahini, lemon, garlic and chop until the eggplant is blended, but still recognizable as eggplant. (Alternatively you can use a pastry blender or two knives. If you must use a blender or food processor, be very careful not to pulverize it into an unrecognizable puree.) Avoid long stringy pieces – its a relatively fine chop. Add water and salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with parsley, lemon or a scallion. If you want to drizzle a bit of extra virgin olive oil on top, go ahead. No one will complain.