Feast in the Middle East | Middle East Cooking Blog
Middle Eastern recipes and cooking video tutorials made healthy, modern, and easy for the home cook. Check for recipes, cooking tips, information about exotic ingredients, family stories, and videos of my cooking journey
Nothing peeves me more than food companies preying upon people dedicated to wellness. Whether it is fitness “professionals” on Instagram selling weight loss tea, commercials pushing canola oil as healthier than butter, or celebrities peddling fake meats and cheeses as part of the vegan movement–they all try to take advantage of peoples’ sincere wish to eat healthier. At the end of the day, these social media influencers and food industries are all after the same bottom line–profits–without any real regard for the health of consumers. My rule of thumb, regardless of what diet you follow, is to stick to one ingredient foods whenever possible. Make sure you can pronounce the ingredients and be able to find them in nature. If these foods can last on the shelf past your grandchildren’s birthday something is seriously wrong. Bonus points if you find foods not wrapped in heavy packaging and plastics. Lately companies like Tyson have been trying to get their hands on the multi billion vegan food industry by investing in the Beyond Burger, and get a load of these ingredients:
Yeah, I said Tyson, you know the company that was fined $263,000 over unsafe working conditions in their poultry plants, not to mention the rampant animal abuse at their factories. So I get a little suspicious when Tyson becomes a key player for the veggie burger market. I love a good veggie burger as much as the next person, which is why I look for veggie burgers that have solid ingredients I recognize, not this variety of cellulose, strange acids, food starches, and GMO maltodextrin. Better yet I make them myself, like in this simple RECIPE.
This Beyond Burger push inspired me to compile a list of 6 categories of foods you will never find in my kitchen. I hope this video below will help you navigate the minefield of processed foods that can cause serious inflammation or worse over time:
6 FOODS I WILL NEVER USE IN MY KITCHEN--EVER! - YouTube
If you have any foods you want to add to this list, leave in the comments below, as we can all learn from each other! =)
Ask any Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanian or any Arab for that matter what their favorite dessert is, and they will most likely say without hesitation “Kanafeh!” Most people in the western world might scratch their heads and say..”huh, what in the heck is kanafeh?” Kanafeh is a legendary dessert with a cult like following–any middle eastern person will line up eagerly if they spot that large orange disk of buttery phyllo goodness atop the sweet and stretchy white cheese beneath:
The topping can consist of either crispy shredded phyllo, otherwise known as “Kataife” or a finer semolina dough, which has a softer and more buttery texture. The kanafeh is then doused with simple syrup and dusted with chopped pistachios. Many Arabs think kanafeh is their little exclusive secret, with at least one person in the family that has mastered the art of perfecting this over 500 year old dessert. The word Kanafeh comes from the Arabic word “Kanaf” which means to “shelter.” Funny, as there is no place I would rather be than sheltered under a massive disk of kanafe if there was a world catastrophe.
While many argue about the origins of kanafeh, Nablus Palestine reigns as the creator of the most popular variation, with the trademark orange dough crowning the renowned Nabulsi cheese. Nabulsi cheese is a sheep’s or goat’s milk cheese gathered from the hills of Nablus, where these grass fed animals roam. The cheese is mildly sweet and has a texture reminiscent of creamy Italian burrata. Another variation of kanafeh uses “qushta,” or clotted cream, which has an almost custard like texture. Nablus bakers were also the first to use the brilliant and distinctive orange dye in the dough. A perfect kanafeh is usually gooey on the inside, and crunchy on the outside. To stake their claim as the kings of kanafeh, 170 Nabulsi bakers broke the record for the largest kanafeh in the world, weighing in at almost 3000 pounds, measuring 246 feet long!
Now, you can imagine my surprise when I saw frozen Kanafeh on the shelves of Trader Joe’s. I thought my eyes were deceiving me, but when I reached out and touched the package I realized yes, this really does exist! Trader Joe’s doesn’t even seem to know what to do with this culinary oddity, placing the kanafeh on the shelf of frozen appetizers, rather than with the desserts. The spelling is uncommon as well: “kunefe.” Immediately I looked at the ingredients, and noticed they used mozzarella and mizithra cheese, which is a sheep’s milk cheese native to Greece. Perhaps the mizithra is a replacement for Nabulsi cheese? There was also no mention of “Palestinian” on the box. This has caused an uproar from Palestinians nationwide, who are decrying this as cultural appropriation.
Now as for the flavor, I give this dessert interpretation a 3 out of 5 stars. Props to Trader Joe’s for using the original Kataifi dough, instead of a cheap substitute like bread crumbs. Another point for the cheese, as the cheese did not turn as rubbery as I thought it would upon baking. However, the cheese was on the salty side. This can be remedied by using farmer cheese, like the Mexican Queso Fresco, instead of the mozzarella. If TJ’s used the Nabulsi sheep’s milk instead of the mizithra it would catapult this dessert to a whole other level of texture and flavor. The sugar syrup was on point, not too thick and not too watery. The little packet of pistachios was a nice addition. If you compare this frozen version to the original Palestinian bakery treat, you would notice right away that the Palestinian version would be more rich, creamy, gooey, and sweet. The end result looks like this photo below:
Would I buy this again? I probably would if I had an intense kanafeh craving, and that is why the folks behind Trader Joe’s are genius. Love them or hate them, they do the deep cultural dive to find niche products that are popular from every corner of the world. To see my actual taste test of the frozen kanafeh, click on the video below, and leave me a comment if you have tried this–what are your impressions?
TASTE TEST AND REVIEW OF TRADER JOE'S KUNEFE! - YouTube
Here is a fun recipe for your Memorial Day weekend! In the Arab world we waste nothing, and I can tell you we have devised a ton of recipes that do miraculous things with stale bread. Fattet Batinjan is one of those dishes. Crispy pita chips add a bold and crunchy texture to this 5 layer dip, which you can add to your entertaining or brunch table. “Fattet” in Arabic means bits of something (like the bread) and Batinjan means eggplant, yes eggplant. Now before I scare away people that don’t like this vegetable, I really think once you try this recipe you will change your mind. From the savory lamb, to the tender eggplant, crunchy pita chips, nutty toasted pine nuts, and herbed yogurt, this dish surprises your tastebuds with harmonious flavors and textures. Little additions like sumac and pomegranate molasses add a rich complexity that enhance the lamb. This recipe can be served as an appetizer or main entree, and you can leave out the lamb and add extra eggplant if you prefer a hearty vegetarian dish. If you haven’t seen the video yet, check it out here:
Hope you are enjoying the sights and sounds of spring, I am loving the reemergence of hummingbirds, and even rabbits that are crossing my path as I go for my morning runs! Just wanted to update you on some exciting news about our recent appearance on a brand new show on NBC called “California Live!” As the name denotes, this show airs on California Stations only, but fortunately I got the link from them to share with you here. We had a blast hanging out with the talented NBC production crew, as they followed us to a local middle eastern market, then to my home to watch us put together a couple of easy dishes meant for entertaining or any night of the week! To see the NBC clip click HERE.
Now, onto the final episode of my food and wine journey to Spain!
I just uploaded part 4 of my trip to the Basque region of Spain, which I really think is overlooked by tourists. From the rustic charm of the Ontanion winery, to the luxury of Marques to Riscal, to the nightlife of Bilbao, I tried to pack as much as I could in under 10 minutes! To check it all out, click on the video below:
THE HIDDEN TREASURES OF SPAIN--ON THE SITE OF THE BACHELORETTE AND BILBAO! PART 4 - YouTube
First of all an announcement! My mother and I will be on a new show on NBC called California Live! It is a mother’s day special, where they followed us around, watched us cook, and interviewed us about our family and food philosophy! This will air on all NBC stations throughout California on May 9th at 11:30 am. For those not from California I will post the link here as soon as I get it. Thank you for hanging out with us on this journey from the beginning! Now, onto my new recipe…..
No Arabic breakfast is complete without the addition of labneh, which has a consistency similar to an airy cream cheese. Smooth, tart, light, and creamy, labneh gets a dose of good fats and robust flavor when drizzled with a fruity olive oil. You can sprinkle this spreadable cheese with za’atar, or sweeten it with honey. You can store labneh by rolling the drained cheese into balls and putting them into a jar of olive oil, or just put the labneh into a glass container and top with olive oil for faster storage. This will last a couple of months in the refrigerator, that is if you have any left!
What makes labneh even better than cream cheese is its hefty dose of probiotics from the yogurt. To serve this as part of a traditional Arab breakfast, serve a plate of labneh balls sprinkled with a little za’atar alongside pita bread, scrambled eggs, and a cucumber tomato salad drizzled with more olive oil. There are two ways you can make labneh. I have provided the traditional method, using whole milk with a yogurt starter or for a modern shortcut, you can use a tub of yogurt with a similar outcome. Either method beats store bought, as some brands contain additional fillers and thickeners that are unnecessary. This cheese makes a lovely sandwich filling in pita bread along with tomatoes, cucumbers, and mint, a great base for an herb dip, or a dessert with honey and fruit.
Check out the method I have outlined in the video below, you really have to see it to understand the multi part technique!
HOW TO MAKE CREAMY LABNEH CHEESE! (YOGURT CHEESE) - YouTube
Labneh Traditional Method Ingredients
(Directions in video above)
½ gallon whole milk
½ cup plain yogurt (full fat preferred, do not use Greek yogurt)
½ tsp salt
1 large very thin cotton cloth or towel
Labneh Shortcut Method Ingredients(Directions in video above)
1 container (32 oz) Full fat or lowfat yogurt (do not use Greek)
Hello FITME family, I just finished the last revision of my cookbook hoo wee! As I get ready for the printing phase, I thought I would share with you a little recipe in the meantime that is foundational to Middle Eastern cuisine. Sometimes you just want a rice that goes with everything, and vermicelli rice is an all around favorite dish throughout the Levant, from Lebanon and Palestine to Syria and Jordan. Basically thin vermicelli noodles are sauteed in olive oil and butter until they are golden brown, which adds a buttery and nutty flavor to the rice.
I used to literally eat gobs of this rice all by itself as a kid (I really miss those carb loading days). I had cousins that mixed cinnamon and sugar with this rice as a dessert, but I loved it plain or with any kind of stew that my mamma used to make. There is a similar variation of this rice that is also popular in Mexico called Fideo. That is what I love about universal dishes like this–people can enjoy this rice from the Middle East to Latin America and not realize they are connected through food! This recipe is vegan, as I used water to cook the rice, but you can also change it up by using any kind of broth. So, if you need an easy side dish for Easter or any night of the week, give this a try! Check out the easy method in the video drop below!
THE RICE THAT GOES WITH EVERYTHING! - YouTube
Arabic Style Vermicelli Rice
2 cups white rice
½ cup vermicelli noodles broken into 1 inch pieces
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt to taste
4 cups plus 2 tbsp water
In a large saucepan, melt the butter with the olive oil, then add the vermicelli noodles. Saute the noodles until browned and crispy, then add the rice and stir for another minute. Add the water and salt to taste and bring to a boil. Then cover and simmer for about 20 minutes.
Hello Friends–hope you are enjoying the signs of springtime! I am excited to announce that this blog was voted as the 4th most popular Middle Eastern food blog in the world! As you can imagine I was ecstatic to hear this news, having been at this for almost a decade now. Thank you so much for your feedback and support all along the way! To newcomers here, I say welcome and I hope you enjoy the recipes, many of which have been passed down to me from many generations before. While I have been posting on the food and wine of Spain of late, this blog mostly focuses on Middle Eastern recipes from the Levant, especially Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan. For more regular postings and ideas, you can also follow me on Instagram HERE and Facebook HERE. I will go back to posting recipes very soon, especially to prepare you for my upcoming cookbook this spring! To see the rankings of the top 15 Middle Eastern blogs, you can click HERE.
In the meantime, as people start planning their summer, I thought it would be fun to share the culture of Spain, as I got to travel with food and wine enthusiasts to a part of Spain little known to most tourists. I wanted to show you a part of Spain that is so much more than just flamenco dancing and sangria. In this latest episode I take you to the heart of Spanish wine country called Rioja in the little town of Haro. While I got a little goofy by partaking in too much wine on an empty stomach, I got a cooking lesson from Sergio, a DJ by night, but an incredible cook by day. You can check it all out in the video below, and I would love your feedback. Do you like the travel series, or prefer all cooking videos instead? Leave your opinion in the comments below!
WHAT HAPPENED WHEN I HAD WINE FOR BREAKFAST IN SPAIN: TRAVEL GUIDE PART III - YouTube
There are going to be a lot of exciting things happening this year, and I can’t wait to share them with you as soon as I get the green light! But for now, I will share with you Part 2 from my adventures in Spain. While you will see a ton of literature on cities like Barcelona, Madrid, and Sevilla, you won’t see much on the picturesque town of Zarautz. I decided to edit this series on Spanish hideaways into very short bite sized (no pun intended) video pieces to fit everyone’s fast paced lifestyle. Zarautz is a coastal town on the outskirts of the Spanish wine country in Rioja. Apparently Queen Isabella II used to vacation in this town, but fortunately this place is accessible to all today, not just the rich and famous. This hidden gem of a town has everything I could ever want–scenic views, nice weather, lovely people, gorgeous wines, and insanely delicious food. They have made pinxos, or tapas, an art form:
As a matter of fact gastronomic societies are a thing here, where people gather and take pride in their fresh farm to table dishes paired with local wines. If you like a low key town with super fresh seafood, surfing, and wine tasting–Zarautz is the city for you.
Check out my latest video below!
IS SPAIN THE BEST PLACE TO EAT IN THE WORLD? - YouTube
You might be wondering, why am I doing a series on Spain when my page is all about the Middle East? Well Spain is one of my favorite countries in the world, and when I got the opportunity to travel with the lovely Leslie Sobrocco, host of Check Please on PBS, I jumped at the chance. I really connected with her when I was on her show a couple of years ago, and she is incredibly knowledgeable about wines and wine making, so I also saw this as an opportunity to learn more about the world of wine.
I also loved that the itinerary involved parts of Spain that not too many people know about, and I wanted to share this side of Spain with my viewers. As far as the world of wine goes, in California, we have Napa Valley, in France, there is the Bordeaux region, but in Spain it is all about Rioja, which is in the heart of Basque country. Before I delve into Rioja specifically, I wanted to share with you the charming town of San Sebastian, the small coastal city that Ernest Hemingway fell in love with when he wrote “The Sun Also Rises.” While many people might associate Spain with flamenco dancers and bull fighters, this region of Spain is most renowned for their food and wine. I felt at home because the ingredients in their Mediterranean diet are so similar to that of the Middle East: fresh fruits and vegetables, lamb, seafood and even fresh bread. Yes the Spaniards are not gluten phobic, and somehow manage to stay slender, most likely because they walk everywhere. However their food preparations are distinctly different, and they treat even their pinxos, or tapas like an art form.
Hope you enjoy part one of this travel series, and let me know what you think in the comments below!
BASQUE COUNTRY- SPANISH TRAVEL SERIES- SAN SEBASTIAN - PART 1 - YouTube
As the winter days still linger around, there is always one dish that comes to mind that I fondly remember from my childhood: Kefta bi Tahini, or kefta meatballs with tahini sauce. This hearty dish is the Palestinian answer to Swedish meatballs. Swap out kefta for the meatballs and tahini sauce instead of cream sauce, and you have a Middle Eastern twist on a European favorite.
The creamy tahini imparts a nice nutty flavor to the meat, and is versatile with any kind of starch. For instance if you are not a fan of potatoes, you can serve the kefta and tahini over rice or even quinoa. Likewise if you are averse to beef, your can use ground turkey instead. You can even turn this into a roasted vegetable casserole, omitting the meat all together, while using the same seasonings for cubed zucchini and or eggplant. This recipe is incredibly easy to prepare if you are strapped for time–just add a nice leafy salad to round out the meal. You can prepare the kefta and tahini sauce a day in advance and assemble for baking the next day. This is comfort food at its finest, leaving you warm and satisfied in the cold winter months.
I have provided the measurements below, and for the directions, you can check out my new video! Of course everything for this recipe will be provided in my upcoming cookbook I would love to know what are your favorite comfort foods below!
Kefta bi Tahini (MidEast Meatballs with Tahini) - YouTube
Kefta Bi Tahini: Kefta with Potatoes and Tahini Sauce 10 Servings
1 pound hamburger (can use ground lamb, beef, or combination of both)
1/3 Bunch parsley
1 clove garlic
½ small onion
Salt to taste
½ tsp lemon pepper
1 tsp allspice
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses (optional)
3 medium sized potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges