So the one cookbook I find myself picking up more than any other right now is:
Really I could just put all my other cookbooks away and just use this one for the next month. It not only has a lot of good recipes, t mixes them up with tons of little notes about the food and — and! — Middle Eastern folktales. A whole lot of “Tales of Goha,” which remind me of stories about Coyote, actually. Also lots of non-Goha stories. “The Hoca as Tamerlaine’s Tax Collector.” “The Feast of Tantalus.”
When’s the last time you saw a cookbook that wove a hundred little folktales, bits of history, and poems in amongst its recipes?
So that’s seriously cool.
But also, THE NEW BOOK OF MIDDLE EASTERN FOOD is unpretentious, easy to use, inviting — all the things where a specialized ethnic-focused cookbook can sometimes fail. (Though I don’t think every cookbook needs to be accessible to everyone; some just aren’t meant for inexperienced or casual cooks.) Anybody can use this cookbook and enjoy it, which is not to say that it doesn’t have its share of recipes calling for odd ingredients or less familiar techniques. This is perfect for me, since in fact I DO have a package of dried barberries in my pantry just now, so I can make the Sweet Jeweled Rice exactly as presented, if I feel like it. Or the Rice with Chicken and Barberries. (I did make that latter recipe; I still have plenty of barberries to make the former.)
Barberries are quite tart, by the way. It’s a bit like adding bits of lemon to a recipe, only not really, since barberries don’t have a lemon flavor, exactly, being tart in their own way.
Speaking of lemons, a couple of weeks ago I made preserved lemons, too, so now I am in a good position to make a whole set of recipes, like Chicken With Olives and Preserved Lemon, which is a classic. There are lots of version. I haven’t made the one from this book yet, but now I can. It goes more or less like this:
Djaj Mqualli (Chicken with Preserved Lemon and Olives)
1 chicken (I will use boneless chicken thighs, probably)
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, very finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 tsp saffron, crushed
3/4 tsp ground ginger
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon (I’m not likely to use this much)
1 preserved lemon (I will probably use half a preserved lemon)
12 cracked green olives (I have some I need to use up)
Put the chicken in a saucepan with all ingredients except lemon and olives. Half cover with water and simmer for 1 1/2 hours, adding water if necessary, until chicken is very tender and the sauce is thick and unctuous. (That is why I will use chicken thighs, not breast; if you’re going to cook chicken for a long time, dark meat is likely to work better.) Now, Roden evidently puts the lemon rind into the dish in large pieces, but here is what I will do: scoop out the flesh of the lemon quarters and throw it away — you always use only the rind of preserved lemons. Rinse the rind. Dice fine. Add to the sauce. Pit the olives and cut in halves or quarters. Add to sauce. Heat through, serve with rice or couscous or whatever you like. Noodles, even.
Preserved lemons are made by quartering lemons and covering them with a brine of salt and lemon juice, incidentally. So they are very, very salty. I would not add salt to this recipe until I added the diced preserved lemon rind and olives.
Anyway, I have some eggplants in the fridge that I need to use for something, and the last medium hot chilies, so tonight I will be looking through this book for something good to make.